Category Archives: ministry

Dying to Live for Others

Little Sisters

Today I visited a home for the impoverished elderly in DC run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. This trip, like a previous one to their home in Richmond, was the result of a promise I made last year to a spunky Irish nun named Sister Helen Creed, when I visited her order’s Nyumba Ya Wazee (Home for the Elderly) in Nairobi, Kenya.

While the humble facility in Africa can’t compare to the ones in our wealthy nation, the love for the elderly poor in both places is the same. What impressed me most today was watching three sisters caring for a woman who was dying, talking to her, stroking her, encouraging her to eat. The nun who led my tour of the facility explained that someone stays with the dying person around the clock “until they go to God.” I thought, “What secular nursing home would do that?”

When we care for the least privileged in society, we are caring for Jesus. That’s what the Lord explained in Matthew 25:31-46. Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, put it like this: “Be kind, especially with the infirm. Love them well. . . . Oh yes! Be kind. It is a great grace God is giving you. In serving the aged, it is he himself whom you are serving.” The nuns I met in Nairobi, Richmond, and DC not only minister to the poor, they are themselves poor. They’ve chosen a life of voluntarily poverty in order to preach the Gospel, not in words but in deeds. They die to self in order to live for others. If you were to ask me where I’ve seen God lately, I’d answer in the Little Sisters of the Poor and the people they care for.

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Scared to Death

lowering-a-casket-into-grave

I’m scared to death of dying. Not because I’m uncertain of where my soul will go but because I’m concerned about what will happen to my body. Funerals can be impersonal, expensive, and hard on the environment. With the professionalization of the funeral industry in America loved ones and churches have been largely removed from the preparation of the body and its burial.

Funeral homes are staffed by good people but aren’t charities. They’re in the business of making money. The national average for a full-service funeral is $7,000 – $10,000. Cremation lowers the cost to $2,000 – $4,000. For those who have the money and desire, a full-service funeral can show the family’s love and respect for the one who has died. But funerals don’t have to be expensive to be respectful and meaningful.

It seems crass to shop around for a deal on a funeral as if you were buying a car but it’s perfectly acceptable. Some areas of the country have funeral co-ops that will do the bargaining for you.  Members pay a small one-time fee to join a funeral co-op. At the time when the services are needed the co-op negotiates a discount with funeral homes. Typical savings range from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. Another approach has been nonprofit funeral homes, which keep costs down by removing the profit motive. For areas without a co-op or nonprofit there’s the Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org), “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” A quick perusal of their website led me to a helpful article titled, “What to Do When You Can’t Afford a Funeral.”

Another concern about full-service funerals is their impact on the environment. First, there’s the toxic embalming fluid pumped into bodies that poses a threat to the environment. (Embalming became popular in America after the Civil War when it was used to preserve the war dead until they could be shipped home, but it’s rarely practiced in Europe.) Second, each year millions of pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are made into caskets and vaults and put in the ground to shield bodies from their surroundings (ashes to ashes and dust to dust?). The caskets and vaults must be manufactured and transported, adding to the environmental impact. Finally, cemeteries must be mowed, watered, and sprayed with insecticides indefinitely. All of this adds up to a huge impact on the environment, since almost 2.5 million people die each year in the US alone. Natural burials or “green burials” have a low impact on the environment. Typically, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried in “natural cemetery” without a manicured lawn, often in a peaceful, wooded area.

My final concern about the funeral industry is the way it separates the dead from their loved ones and religious communities. When a person dies, the body is whisked away almost immediately and prepared for burial apart from the family by professionals. The entire process, except the religious service itself, is handled by funeral directors and their staffs. For centuries families prepared the bodies and churches buried them without the assistance of a funeral home. Thank you very much.

Home funerals, which were common until the mid-20th century, allow families to care for a loved one’s body without using the services of a funeral home. Home funerals are legal in all but eight states. Burials on private property outside a cemetery are also permissible but check with the county or town clerk and the health department to understand the applicable laws.

Joseph of Arimathea lovingly prepared Jesus’s body for burial and laid it in a tomb (Mark 15:42-46). We can follow his example by caring for our loved ones’ bodies after death. How we do so is a personal decision. My goal here has not been to tell anyone what to do but only to give some options to consider.

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Into Africa

tree of life

Tree of Life, Walt Disney World

The one thing predictable about life is its unpredictability. Since my last post – a while ago, I know – I’ve embarked on an unexpected, and in some ways unwanted, journey. I use the word “journey” literally, not just metaphorically.

I left my church on June 19 for an involuntary, yearlong mobilization and deployment to Djibouti, Africa where I serve as the senior US military chaplain. (If your African geography is as shaky as mine, I’ll give you some help: Djibouti is surrounded by the countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea in the so-called Horn of Africa.) Camp Lemonnier, my new duty station, is a US Navy base with over 4,000 personnel aboard, including all branches of our military, foreign military personnel, and civilians.

I arrived in Djibouti on July 16 and have adjusted to the time difference and extreme climate, for the most part (“extreme” as in extremely hot). Part of my job is traveling to wherever we have even a small number of US troops. I’ve already been on two trips: a brief one to Mogadishu, Somalia (called “the most dangerous city in the world”) and a longer stop at a base in Kenya where I saw scenes that looked straight out of The Lion King: a giant crane soars majestically over an ancient thick-trunked Tree of Life, curious little black-faced monkeys scamper around the camp looking for scraps of food, a small antelope called a dik-dik bounds through the jungle.

But, as exotic as the wildlife is, by far the greater experience has been meeting people from all walks of life: military and civilian, career military and reservists, male and female, young and old, people of all nationalities from all parts of the globe—more diverse than the flora and fauna of Africa.

I’ve often said the greatest joy of ministry is dealing with people, and the greatest challenge of ministry is dealing with people. That’s true here too, though so far the joys far outweigh the challenges.Moger in Somalia

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How I Failed As a Pastor

arrows missing target

The first church I served as pastor was difficult. No, impossible. At least that’s how it seemed at the time. I realize now it was as much my fault as theirs. I was twenty-four when they called me to be the spiritual shepherd of their flock. I learned immediately that just because sheep pick you as their shepherd, that doesn’t mean they will follow you.

The biggest problem was my lack of compassion. There are three rules for ministry. Any pastor who masters them cannot fail. They are as follows: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. This approach works whether or not all the people love the pastor, love the pastor, love the pastor. (The ego-shattering truth is pastors are sometimes as difficult to love as sheep.) Jesus was often moved to compassion when he looked upon his sheep. I was – and still am – too often moved to anger and resentment.

My parishioners in that first church could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought they should be. Then again, I could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought I should be. Whoever said “people rise to the level of your expectations” never tried leading a church. Most people already have their hands so full trying to meet the expectations of their bosses and families, and often failing to do so, that they have no emotional resources left to try to meet their pastor’s expectations or even figure out what they are. As cynical as it may sound, one key to being a successful pastor is low expectations. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. It doesn’t mean I give up on my people or assume that God has. It means I love them enough not to ask them to jump through my hoops.

Another problem was that I believed ministry functioned the way seminary did: work hard and you’ll be rewarded. You’ll make A’s and earn awards. I worked hard in seminary. I made A’s. I earned awards. I went to my first church and failed. Why? Churches aren’t seminaries. Most of the lessons I learned in the seminary classroom didn’t apply directly to pastoral ministry. When I went to my seminary professors for advice about what to do with my failing ministry, the best they could offer was that I should leave my “preacher-killing church” before I gave up on the ministry altogether. I liked the advice because it allowed me to shift all the blame to my congregation. But it didn’t help the congregation or me. An opportunity for growth on both parts was squandered.

Becoming a pastor is like going to the foreign mission field, especially if you grew up in the suburbs and you’re called to a rural parish as I was. A pastor has to become a cross-cultural expert. In order to be effective a new pastor must learn the language and the culture. That takes time. In my first church I never stuck around long enough to learn what made them tick. I was too impatient. When they didn’t follow my lead, I bailed.

Monks take a vow of stability, meaning they promise not to leave the monastery they first join. There’s a story in the Lives of the Desert Fathers about a monk who told his abbot that he was troubled by thoughts of leaving the monastery. The abbot said, “Go and sit down, and entrust your body to your cell, as a man puts a precious possession into a safe, and do not go out of it. Then let your thoughts go where they will. Let your mind think what it likes, so long as it does not drive your body out of the cell.” Pastors would do good to learn a lesson about stability from monks. To put it in non-monastic terms, you have to be more stubborn about staying at your church than the people in your congregation who want you gone.

Twenty plus years after my failed pastorate I find myself serving a congregation that reminds me a lot of that first one. It’s in a small town and most of the older folks grew up on farms. The church was in a full-blown crisis when I arrived as interim pastor. I had just left active duty with the Navy and a plum job teaching at the Naval Academy. I had no intentions of staying. I just needed a place to hang my hat for a while until I found something better. That was two and a half years ago, and I’m still here.

There’s no guarantee things will turn out any better than they did at my first church. True, I’m no longer a naive twenty-something out to save the world. I’ve learned that I can’t save myself much less anyone else. I’m also a little more patient and a little less demanding than I was two decades ago. Still, at some point I may get frustrated and bail. In the meantime I’m going to do my best to take my own advice: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. That’s not always easy but I’ll keep trying, because love covers a multitude of sins.

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Care for the Dying

Munch-Det-Syke-Barn-1896-wikipedia-US-public-domain

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child” (1896)

After two deaths and three funerals in just nine days, I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Watching a loved one die can be a sorrowful experience even for believers who have the presence of the Holy Spirit and the hope of eternal life. But the time before the end can also be an important time for giving and receiving love and forgiveness as well as preparing for death. Here are some tips on how to care for and minister to those who are dying:

  1. Be knowledgeable. To help those who are dying we must understand the meaning of death. Death is the separation of the soul from the body. Death doesn’t mean that the person has stopped breathing or that their heart has stopped beating or even that they are “brain dead.” The soul isn’t “in” the lungs, heart, or brain. It isn’t in any particular part of the body. The only way we can know for sure that the soul has left the body with moral certainty is when the process of corruption has begun. We must treat all who are in the process of dying with Christian love and dignity, even when death seems imminent.
  2. Be patient. While there is no moral imperative to prolong life by unnatural means, we shouldn’t hasten death. God calls people home in His timing. It is difficult to watch people suffer, especially those we love, but as Christians we believe that there can be spiritual benefit in suffering.
  3. Be honest. Don’t try to spare a dying person’s feelings by telling him that he will recover and don’t use euphemisms to discuss death. As Christians we should always tell the truth, even when it hurts. Being honest will help the dying person prepare for death. Dishonesty only feeds denial and prevents the dying person from being able to prepare mentally and spiritually for death.
  4. Be receptive. Ask the dying person what they need. If they can’t talk, try to get moisture to their mouth. Do what you can to meet the dying person’s needs, but be honest if they ask for something you can’t provide.
  5. Be creative. Try to create a comforting and meaningful atmosphere for the dying person. Play or sing Christian songs. Bring sound recordings of the Bible or voices of loved ones. Read aloud. If the person loved baseball or crochet, decorate their room with objects that remind them of their favorite pastimes.
  6. Be realistic. Even if you are the primary caregiver, you can’t be there for the dying person 24/7. You need time to eat, sleep, cry, and recharge. Arrange for respite care. You will be a better caregiver if you take care of yourself.
  7. Be prayerful. Pray for and with the dying person. If possible, pray so they can hear you. Even those who are in a coma may be able to hear your prayers. Pray that the person would die ready to meet God, not just that they would have less pain or go quickly. If you’re not sure whether the person is truly a believer, invite them to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Don’t hesitate to call on a minister to pray for or with someone who is dying.

Death can be unpleasant but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. The Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). It can become precious in our sight too when we have God’s perspective of death.

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Taste and See

vachon_fruit_standI grew up in Florida but I’ve never tasted an orange. At least not a real one. I thought I had until I recently read a portion of John McPhee’s book Oranges. It describes Indian River citrus – grown in the coastal areas of East Florida near Cape Canaveral – and tells why it’s better than fruit grown elsewhere, including the interior of Florida, an area citrus growers call “the Ridge.” McPhee explains that “Indian River oranges have about twenty-five per cent more sugar in them than oranges grown on the Ridge, and they contain more juice as well.” That’s because unlike the sandy soil in most of the Sunshine State, the soil on the coast “holds nutrients and moisture better, and it grows a better tree.” As a child growing up on the Ridge, I saw Indian River Fruit advertised on billboards at the ubiquitous roadside stands and tourist shops along the main north-south highways that claw their way down the peninsula like a rake. I thought it was a bunch of hooey. Just an advertising gimmick used to pick the pockets of unsuspecting Yankees. I figured the citrus grown around my hometown of Ocala was as good as the over-priced Indian River fruit shipped all over the country by the truckload. Now I suspect that I was wrong and have been missing out all these years.

I experienced something similar with avocados. As a boy I never liked them. My cigar-chewing grandpa grew avocados in his backyard and after each family visit we’d be obliged to take home with us a paper grocery bag full of the dark green fruit. They looked like someone stretched alligator skin over a fat pear. I found their flesh hard, slimy, and flavorless. But after I moved to California as an adult and sampled a native avocado – Shazam! – it was love at first bite. Unlike the east coast fruit, the west coast variety is creamy and delicious. It was as if I had never tasted an avocado before.

I had another where-has-this-been-all-my-life experience with Christianity. I grew up in a Christian home, was baptized and confirmed in a Christian church, attended Vacation Bible School every year and Sunday School every week, could sing the hymns, and thought I was a Christian. Then I met Jesus. There was no bright light or voice booming from heaven, but I tasted something I had never tasted before. The Bible says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). I was fourteen when I realized that I had just experienced real Christianity for the first time.

I suspect there are other people who are a lot like I was: good, church-going people who experience a flavorless Christianity that makes little difference in their lives. They think they know Jesus and what it means to be his disciple, but they’ve never met the real Jesus. There’s been no Aha! moment. No new birth. No conversion. Therefore it’s no wonder many have drifted away from church over the years. My first goal during the coming year is to tell them that there’s something better, something sweeter, something that makes it worth giving church another try. My other goal is to eat a real orange from the Indian River.

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Pastor and Commander

Moger USS Arlington

I serve as a chaplain in the US Navy Reserve, and my military duty takes me to Norfolk, Virginia once a month where I am the deputy force chaplain for Naval Surface Forces Atlantic, comprising 78 ships and 25,000 sailors.

USS ArlingtonThis year I have gone to sea twice aboard the USS Arlington, a brand new 684-foot San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock with 385 sailors. In July I sailed out for a week while its crew tested the ship’s defensive armaments: two 30mm guns and two air-defense missile launchers. They passed with flying colors. My purpose, however, was more peaceful. While on board I preached in the ship’s chapel and led a daily Bible study. Every evening I put the sailors to bed by saying the evening prayer over the intercom just before taps at ten. Instead of just a prayer I always give a prayer and a story, usually a clean joke or parable that leads into my prayer for the evening.

In November, I embarked aboard the same warship for three days to conduct a burial at sea for five veterans, including three who served during World War II. Sailors wearing their dress blue “Cracker Jack” uniforms brought urns with the cremains to the ship’s rail and scattered the ashes in the sea, while I said the words of committal. A rifle detail fired off a 21-gun salute, then taps was played as the ship gently rocked on the ocean waves. Finally, a flag was presented in honor of the departed. The families, who were not on board for the ceremony, will each receive a letter of condolence from the ship’s captain, a CD with pictures, a chart marking the location of the burial, and a flag that was flown from the ship’s mast. The ship returned to port just before the Veterans Day weekend. By Sunday I was back in the pulpit of my church. I am proud to serve my country in uniform, especially as a chaplain. Herman Melville wrote that a “chaplain is the minister of peace serving in the host of the God of War.”

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