Liquor stores and sanctuaries

There’s no shortage of Christian advice out there on how to deal with the crisis. Some of the best is from NT Wright, one of most compelling Christian scholars today. His essay in Time last week, adapted from his upcoming book, God and the Pandemic, is worth a read.  https://time.com/5837693/should-churches-reopen-thinking-about-exile/.

Wright says that for the last 300 years in the global west, religion has been reduced to a private matter: “what someone does with their solitude.” Given this assumption, it’s not much of a leap to conclude that worship should have no place in public life. Hence, liquor stores are deemed “essential,” while “ancient, prayer-soaked sanctuaries” are off-limits.

If religion is simply a human construction, a system of thought like philosophy, or a guide for better living like Chicken Soup for the Soul, then churches ought to be on an equal footing with liquor stores. Both are human constructions where you go for escape.

But this Sunday, Christians observe Pentecost, the day when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the early believers.

If it really happened, and I believe it did, it means that faith cannot be a private matter. The Holy Spirit is in and through everything. People who tell you to “keep your faith to yourself” are proselytizing for their own religion. 

Religion may be a human construction, but the Christian faith is God’s construction.

Sure, many systems of Christian thought have sprung up over the centuries, but the Christian faith is not primarily a religion. Christianity is following the living God who really is loose in the world.

The living God can be found in liquor stores and sanctuaries. Neither will contain him. Tom Wright knows why:   

Church buildings are not an escape from the world, but a bridgehead into the world. A proper theology of “sacred space” ought to see buildings for public worship as advance signs of the time when God’s glory will fill all creation. Christians should therefore celebrate every way in which the living Lord whom they worship in church buildings is out and about, bringing healing and hope far beyond the visible limits of church property.

Jesus does not need church buildings for his work to go forward. Part of the answer to the question, “Where is God in the pandemic?” must be, “Out there on the front line, suffering and dying to bring healing and hope.”

Dude Perfect

Their videos have been viewed 11 billion times. Their YouTube channel has 51 million subscribers, making it one of the top ten channels on YouTube

Who are they? Sports stars? Hollywood celebrities? Social media influencers?

They’re five former roommates at Texas A&M who hung out together for Christian fellowship.

About ten years ago they put up a basketball hoop in their backyard and started filming each other making trick shots. Within days, their first video had been seen 200,000 times. They had a dream of taking their newfound passion to a wider online audience, but doing so would mean leaving promising jobs and require an enormous leap of faith. Parents and friends helped them write a business plan and create a professional website. They asked friends to help with their goal of creating a video with a million views, and their friends were happy to help, subscribing to their channel and sharing the video with others.

Did I mention they are followers of Jesus Christ?

Even if you’ve never heard of “Dude Perfect” (In their first video, one of them lined up the camera for a shot and said, “Dude, perfect.”) you’ve likely seen clips of them shooting hoops off skyscrapers. I discovered them this week watching TV with my granddaughters. There’s nothing cerebral about their videos, but they are completely clean.

And their passion, creativity, joy, and love for each other are contagious. 

Many Christians bemoan the media age; some still refuse to go online. No doubt, there is a lot of dark content out there.

This week we mark the Ascension, the day when the risen Jesus returned to God in heaven. If the birth of Jesus was God’s greatest act of God reaching out to humanity, the Ascension was humanity’s greatest act of reaching back to God. In Jesus, humanity was joined to God, and Jesus was no longer limited by time and space. Because of the Ascension, Jesus would now be everywhere in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Because of the Ascension, the infinite passion, joy, creativity, and love of God are available to Christians in every aspect of life, and in every time and place.

There are an infinite number of ways to bring glory to God.

Why should five guys making trick shots have all the fun?

Arlington Lady

Back in 1948, Gladys Vandenberg, the wife of the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, noticed funerals taking place in Arlington National Cemetery with no family, and with only a military chaplain present. She organized her friends to start attending the services, and later formed a group from the Officer’s Wives Club known as the Arlington Ladies. In the years that followed, the other services formed similar groups. Today, every servicemember who is laid to rest at Arlington has someone present to represent the “family” of that branch of service. The Arlington Lady writes each family a note of condolence, from herself and on behalf of all the members of the service.

From 1997 to 1999, I commanded the Air Force ceremonial unit in Washington, DC, and for most of the that time, my wife Jana was an Arlington Lady. She didn’t think she could do it at first; she thought the emotional toll would be too great. But she ended up serving one day a month, attending all the Air Force funerals that day, perhaps four or five.

Instead of being something she couldn’t do, it became something she couldn’t miss. Asked to describe the experience, Jana said simply, “It was an honor.”

During the current crisis, funerals have been postponed and loved ones have been laid to rest alone.

There’s something enormously sad and poignant about this.

Jesus weeps at this.

Thank God that Jesus walks with us through this, and that our loved ones rest in his arms.

And because of the resurrection, none of us need ultimately be alone.

How Jesus caught people

I just read the book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith, by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

Everyone should read this, but you should especially read it if you’re a Christian who understands that sharing your faith is an important part of your life.

Butterfield was a tenured professor at Syracuse University and a leader in LGBTQ causes. She came to faith in spite of the condemnation she’d experienced from church people. 

What started her on her journey was a pastor who lived near the university who responded thoughtfully to a column she had written critical of Christians. This led to a friendship that developed over several years.

During that time, the pastor never even invited her to church.

But he did invite her into his home.

And he was interested in her.

Church can seem complex. Doctrine can be puzzling. Denominational controversies are discouraging. Sharing faith can seem daunting. Sadly, too many Christians can be condemning.

This Sunday, I’m preaching on one of my favorite passages, the beautiful story from John 21 of how the risen Jesus did evangelism. He met his friends where they were working. He made a simple suggestion. He didn’t condemn. He gave them something to eat. 

That’s how Jesus caught people.

Seeing for yourself

I have the same name as the most famous “doubter” in the Bible, Thomas.

Does God cross you off his list if you have doubts?

There’s an old hymn, “To God Be the Glory,” with a verse that says redemption comes to anyone who “truly believes.”

Is that right?

Does salvation depend on the intensity of one’s faith?

Long ago, when the risen Jesus first appeared to the disciples in the upper room, Thomas wasn’t there. As excited as the others were, Thomas still wanted to see for himself. A week later, Thomas got his wish, and Jesus said, “Blessed are those who haven’t seen me and believed.”

The truth is, we all would love to see for ourselves.

Jesus wasn’t so much criticizing Thomas for doubting as he was pronouncing a blessing on all of us doubters who will believe without getting to see Jesus in the flesh. 

D.A. Carson has a famous sermon illustration in which he imagines two Hebrew slaves in Egypt the night before the angel of death was to pass over. Both men had put the blood of the lamb over their doors as Moses had ordered. One man doubted, scared to death that he might still lose his firstborn. The other man was supremely confident, saying “Bring it on.”

Carson said, “That night the angel of death swept through the land. Which one lost his son?

“The answer, of course, is neither.

“Death doesn’t pass over them on the ground of the intensity or the clarity of the faith exercised, but on the ground of the blood of the lamb.’

Broiled

Last week, when tornadoes cut a path of destruction across the south, I kept thinking how awful, to have to deal with one crisis on top of another. 

A visible crisis on top of an invisible pandemic.

Later, I came across a story online about the Red River cresting near Grand Forks, North Dakota. It was the eighth worst flood there on record, but it hadn’t made the headlines. I guess there wasn’t enough space to cover all the bad news. 

Everywhere people are hurting in real, but often unseen, ways. They’re losing loved ones, losing jobs, losing dreams, to an invisible pandemic which also takes away some of the best ways to help.

Like hugs. 

Like just sitting and weeping with someone.

Let me offer one thought. When the newly risen Jesus met the disciples in the upper room on the night of the first Easter, they were so hurting they couldn’t see him for who he really was. They thought he was a ghost. Jesus asked for something to eat, and they gave him a piece of broiled fish.

Broiled.

Not baked or fried.

It’s the only time the word “broiled” is used in the whole Bible. Why?

Because it really happened that way. This is an eyewitness account.

Your grief is real, and Jesus wants you to know he is too.

Your grief isn’t invisible to him.

God on the loose

The late Presbyterian Minister and Theologian Shirley Guthrie used to tell about a friend who would call him every Easter. When Guthrie picked up the phone, the friend would shout, “Jesus is on the loose!” and hang up.

Our friends at the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community here in Pittsburgh once used dramas in worship in place of preaching. One drama had Jesus on the loose in the mall at Christmas, surprising hurried shoppers who hadn’t expected to encounter the one for whom Christmas was named.

Easter means that God is on the loose.

The empty tomb isn’t a metaphor, like “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” or “spring follows winter.”

God came first to the people on earth least likely to believe that God could become human, or that a human being could rise from the dead.

After they put Jesus’ body in the tomb, his friends all went away heartbroken. No one was the least bit curious on that first Easter morning: “Hey guys, he kept telling us he would have to die but then rise on the third day. Don’t you think we ought to hang out there just in case?” 

None of them went. They would understand why we might be skeptical today.

Yet something happened that morning. A force was set loose that is still changing the world.

Tombs can’t hold Jesus. Nothing can.

Jesus is on the loose, and he is infusing all of creation with new life, love, joy, and purpose. He wants that for you, too.

Jesus is on the loose! He is on the loose, indeed!

Ride the colt

It was a strange thing that Jesus told the disciples to do: Go to the village up ahead and borrow a colt that had never been ridden. If anyone asks, say “The Lord needs it.”

Sure.

And then there’s the whole triumphal entry thing, which we still love to reenact. That first Palm Sunday, everyone was cheering, but they all had it wrong. A greater, invisible reality was about to change everything.

Maybe Palm Sunday is getting here at just the right time.

Today, we’re doing things we’ve never done to combat a great, invisible reality we can’t see. It’s strange, humbling, and it’s hard.

But there’s an even greater reality at work.

There’s Jesus himself. The king who chooses to ride, not a warhorse, but a little colt. The conquering hero who wins by losing, who saves by dying.

Strange as it might seem, the best thing we can do is ride with him.

Social distance hurts

People everywhere are grieving. That’s the right word, grieving. Even if you haven’t lost someone you love, you’re grieving over other things you’ve lost. It’s OK to feel that way. Your grief is real; it’s legitimate.

One of the things that’s been hurt most is relationships. The distancing that we need to keep us safe physically is taking a toll on us emotionally, spiritually.

The truth is we’ve been suffering from the effects of social distancing for a long time. Robert Putnam published his bestselling book Bowling Alone, on the breakdown of community, in the year 2000. 

We talk about this in our church all the time. Society is more connected in some ways than ever before, yet we feel more isolated than ever.

The way we understand community has been changing. For example, after World War II, millions of folks moved to the suburbs. We started building houses with back decks instead of front porches. 

And the distance between us increased.

Why is this a problem?

Because we were made for each other. In Genesis 1:25, God said, “Let us make man in our image.” Did you notice the plural language? “Us” and “our.” 

We were created in the image of a God who is relational, Father, Son, and Spirit, who existed in community for all time. We were created by this relational God for God and each other.     

At the fall, we were banished from God’s presence and our relationships have been hurting ever since.

And the greatest distance of all was between God and us. 

This is why social distancing hurts so much. We weren’t created for this. In ways too many to count, we need each other.

But there’s good news.

God closed the distance between God and us. He sent his son Jesus Christ all the way from heaven to earth. 

But there’s more.  At the end of his life, he was rejected. Jesus experienced the ultimate distancing, cut off from the God he had known from all eternity. 

But isolation didn’t get the final word. God raised him to life and raised to him heaven where joined humanity to God.

When we believe, God sends his Spirit so that we will never be truly alone again. 

The Father knows

I was in high school when I realized that my common sense went to sleep the moment my head hit the pillow at night. The rest of my brain went on working just fine, leaving the rest of me wide awake. Back then, I was skinny and pale, and I thought my head was too big for my body. I mostly worried about what kids thought of me.

I like to think I don’t worry as much now, but the truth is, I still worry more than I should. (The fear of being too skinny passed a long time ago.)

Jesus told us over and over not to worry. In a famous section of the Sermon on the Mount, beginning at Matthew 6:25, he told us not to worry about what we eat, drink, and wear. Amidst a global pandemic, we want to ask, “OK, Jesus, but how?”

Remember, Jesus’ commands come with the grace to carry them out, and there in verse 32 is the grace: “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

Jesus wasn’t commanding us not to worry because eating, drinking, and clothing weren’t important. He was commanding us not to worry because God knows they are.

Didn’t Jesus himself enjoy a good meal with his friends?

Didn’t his first miracle keep the party going when the wine had run out?

Didn’t the soldiers at his crucifixion gamble for his cloak? It must have been nice.

Jesus is concerned about us. He knows our needs because he had them too. He cares that people are hurt when restaurants, bars, and businesses close, limiting what we can eat, drink, and wear.

Amidst the crisis, grace: Your heavenly Father knows.