“Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:23-24.
Yesterday was a difficult day for my family. Yesterday we gathered as a family in the McPherson, Kansas cemetery to say goodbye to Barbara Flory. Barb had been struggling with cancer that had metastasized to a number of key organs. It was something she had been fighting for a while now, but the end came rather suddenly. Within a few days after returning home from an out of state cancer specialist where they learned that there was nothing more that could be done, Barb quickly moved into the active process of dying. While it was something that we knew would come, the timing was jarring, and at moments grief has been over-whelming.
As I sit in my office writing today I have a clear view of several redbud trees across the street. Redbuds are a special tree to me, in part because my parents planted a redbud tree in our back yard the year that I was born. They’re also special to me because their flash of color in the spring always seems to come suddenly against the backdrop of what appears to be dry, lifeless branches. They are always a burst of new life in a seemingly lifeless landscape.
As I hold the emotions of saying goodbye to Barb and as I gaze on the bright flowers of the redbud tree, I also am holding the Easter story in my mind as well. In a few short weeks we will be gathering again on Easter morning to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a celebration, not simply of life, but a celebration of life after the most horrific of events. Jesus was brutally killed using an implement of torture and humiliation. It was a method of execution that was meant not only to kill an individual, but to kill the movement that that individual represented or was leading. The cross is death at its most brutal….and yet, here we are.
Easter morning celebrates, in the most barren of landscapes, the persistent bit of green poking its head up through the dry ground. Easter morning celebrates, on a dry brittle branch, the bud of color peaking its head out once again. Easter morning celebrates, in the face of the finality of death, that Jesus cannot be held by the grave and has come back to life. Easter morning celebrates, in the face of evil that tried to suppress the good news, that the word of Jesus has continued to spread throughout the course of time and across the face of the globe.
I don’t particularly know why suffering and pain exist, but it’s not for a lack of trying to understand. I’ve certainly spent many a year trying to come to grips with why suffering exists in this life. It’s also true that thousands of people before me for thousands of years have struggled with this same question. And yes, there are people who have pontificated at length on why bad things happen to good people. I suppose I could find some fancy words for it all, but it all boils down to some simple things for me. 1) Suffering happens to us all, and when it does, God suffers with us. God knows and cares. 2) There is no way around the suffering. As much as we would all like to avoid suffering in our lives, the only real path forward is through it, not around it. 3) God does not cause or desire suffering, but can always use suffering to bring about something beautiful. It requires a certain openness to it on our part, but the true miracle of the power of God is that God can take the ashes of our suffering and use them to bring new life.
I don’t know why people like Barb get cancer. I don’t know why lives are cut short or destroyed for a whole host of reasons. But as sure as the redbuds sprouting tells me that winter will not last forever, the hope of Easter tells us that whatever we might face, the story is not over. Out of the ashes, out of the pain, out of the challenge, God will bring new life, new joy, and a new hope. For this we celebrate, even in the midst of tears.
Lessons from the sales department.
Our church has the benefit of having a wealth of knowledge and life experience located in the older adults who are a part of our congregation. Whenever I have the opportunity to sit down with any of them for a conversation I’m almost always listening for what bit of wisdom I can glean from their lives. Sometimes it’s a story, sometimes it’s a bit of practical advice and other times it’s a lesson that they learned the hard way. Whatever it is, I almost always walk away having learned something.
The other day I had one of these conversations with our own DG Miller. Many of us might know DG as the jack-of-all-trades handyman that he is. However, for many years DG was also a sales-man at a hardware store. In our conversation I listened intently to his experience about that time in his life and some of the things that he learned about talking with other people and even things that he learned about himself during that time. What I started to realize was that many of these lessons that he learned on the sales floor are actually quite applicable to the practice of welcoming new people into our congregation. In fact, I’ve seen DG use these lessons on Sunday mornings whenever someone new finds their way into our midst.
As I thought more about these lessons I thought I might share them with everyone as they seemed quite helpful.
1) Notice who needs help. In the sales world your ability to actually make a sale depends on being able to spot someone in the store who seems to be looking for something and can’t find it. Noticing the person and the need is a critical first step. In the same way it is critical to be able to simply notice when there is someone new in our midst. Paying attention to who might be there for the first time, especially if they look a bit lost and are trying figure out where to go or what to do. When we come to church on a Sunday morning, yes we might come carrying all of our thoughts, anxieties and responsibilities from that week and it’s easy to simply stay focused on ourselves. Sometimes it takes an intentional effort to look out over the crowd and simply notice who is there. Nevertheless, it is a critical skill for us all to practice.
2) Go over to that person and offer help. Again, in a sales setting this is how you actually make a sale and earn money. You have to figure out what the customer’s need is and then help them find the solution. What many of us may not realize is that for someone who is not familiar with our church, or maybe familiar to any church, walking into a new building and trying to figure out what will happen during the service can be as intimidating and confusing as staring at a wall full of power tools trying to decide which is the right one for your project. Church can be very intimidating, which is why having someone simply sit next to you and help you do things like find the right hymn can be critical for someone having a positive first experience with worship. It’s not really about being patronizing, but it’s about showing that person that they’re cared for, that there is someone who will guide them into the church, and that there is someone who is willing to build a relationship with them.
3) People want to talk about themselves more than they want to hear about you. In sales, you have to ask questions about what the person is doing, what they’re working on and what they want to accomplish if you’re going to be able to help them find the right product for their needs. You have to get them to talk about themselves first before offering what you have. In the same way, most people really want to share about themselves more than they really want to hear about us. Sure, it might be helpful to give new people some basic info about our church, but it’s much more important for us to ask questions about them to give them an opportunity to share. Listening well often communicates more about who we are than a long description of church history and theology.
4) Most people don’t really care about you….so relax. DG recounted to me that in his younger days he was quite shy. What ultimately helped him overcome his shyness was that, while he might have been very self-conscious about his shortcomings, in reality most people didn’t actually notice those same things, and quite frankly didn’t really care about them. There’s a certain anxiety that we all have about going up and talking to someone new. Usually that anxiety is rooted in the question of what this person will think of us. In reality we’re more aware of our own shortcomings than anyone else ever will be. When meeting someone new they’ll see you smile and your handshake, they won’t be worried about the other stuff, so relax. Go say “hi”.
Notice who’s new, help guide them through, listen well, and relax. I can attest that our congregation often does this well. But it’s always good to have a reminder of what it takes to make someone new feel welcome.
Each month for our newsletter Pastor Alan writes a short article on a variety of topics. At times he will also create a video version of the article.