Philoxenia

The author of Hebrews wrote the famous line, “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”

The phrase “show hospitality to strangers” is the Greek word “philoxenia.” We’re much more familiar with the word “xenophobic,” a strongly negative word meaning dislike of strangers or foreigners. Philoxenia is an equally strong, positive word, meaning to love and care for strangers the way you would your own family.

In Greek, “philo” (where we get the word philadelphia) means family love; “xenos” means foreigner or stranger; and “phobic” means fear.

Why the Greek lesson?

I just read another article about why young people are abandoning the church, by the tens of millions.

It’s as if the church has become strangers with a couple generations of people in our own country. Young people who grew up in church have mostly lost interest. Of course they see the church as hypocritical or judgmental, but mostly they find the church irrelevant, either to them or to the world around them.

The answer may be philoxenia.

Young people need what the church has; they crave meaning and direction. Distracted parents put screens in kids’ hands before they could walk, and so many are starved for human connections. The churches have people with the wisdom and experience younger people need.

Instead of being Presbyterians, we need to be Philoxenians.

We need to embody the mandate of Hebrews 13:2. It’s not just up to deacons or greeters or the hospitality committee, it’s up to every one of us.

And by the way, young people care deeply about foreigners and refugees. When young people see us caring for what they care about, we address some of the fears and prejudices they have about us.   

Move it

Jana recently took her mother to an occupational therapist to help her address her circulation issues. The therapist said Jana’s mother’s theme song for the new year needs to be “I Like to Move It,” the catchy song from the movie Madagascar. My mother-in-law is like most of us: most of our health problems are due to our lifestyle choices.

We quit moving.

Churches have the same problem for the same reason: most of our health problems come because we quit moving.

Isaiah 42:5 is a beautiful image of the Lord stretching out the heavens and the earth, and then giving breath and spirit to those who walk the earth. God gave us an amazing creation, and the spirit to explore it.

We weren’t created just to sit still.

In 2010, mariner and artist Reid Stowe completed a voyage of 1,152 days. It was the longest anyone had ever spent at sea without being resupplied or setting foot on land. Reid said, “I’ve learned a lot about myself…I’ve learned that we as humans must explore. We must see and discover new things or we degenerate.”

I wonder if “Move It” ought to become the theme of the church.

Fire alarm

What do you do when you hear a fire alarm?

You head for the nearest exit, right? Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, but what do you really do?

Researchers have found that when a fire alarm rings, most people stand around and wait for more clues. In 1985, 56 people died when fire broke out in the stands in a soccer match in England. Video later showed that people continued to watch the game and the fire.

In 1977, fire broke out in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky. Forensic experts confirmed that many of the 177 who died had tried to pay before leaving. They died in a line.

I just finished reading The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, by psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. Grosz says that we experience change as loss, so even when we try to change, we often wind up following old habits. Committing to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation. This is why people won’t take an exit if they don’t know exactly where it will take them, even—or perhaps especially—in an emergency.

God is always opening new doors, but he rarely makes clear what awaits us on the other side. All we can be sure of is that God will be there.

It’s a new year. Don’t wait for the alarm to ring. Let God lead you into his better future.

God with us

I’ve married dozens of times.

Now, I’m still happily married to Jana, my lovely bride of 44 years. What I mean is that I’ve officiated at dozens of weddings.

As a minister, I get to stand at the end of a long church aisle as the bride enters, overflowing with love and excitement and promise. Every bride is stunningly beautiful; as close to perfection as it gets in this life.

I glance to my left, at the groom who’s about to lose it. He’s overflowing too, trembling, tears in his eyes. Most men only get to see this once, but since officiating at weddings is in my job description, I get to see it again and again. It never gets old.

This is the image the Bible gives us for what our ultimate future will be like.

Most people are stuck with an image of heaven as some kind of disembodied existence, where we wear white robes and float on clouds. But the Bible’s image is of a city, as beautiful as any bride, coming down out of heaven to be joined to earth. This means that in our ultimate future, we will somehow be more real than we are now.

And heaven is here, not on some cloud.

How will this be? Revelation 21:4 says that “God has come to dwell with humans.” When Jesus comes again to live with us once and for all, all those parts of us that were damaged in the fall, when the first husband and wife sinned, will be restored. Imagine the beauty and joy and perfection of a bride and groom, but multiplied by ten or a hundred or a thousand or more. That will be us, all of us.

That’s the promise of God with us.

Valid

For ten years, our church has partnered with Youth for Christ, a national para-church ministry, to operate The Cellar, an after-school ministry of presence for high school kids downtown. The Cellar is known among students, school administrators, and civic leaders as a safe place for kids to hang out after school. The Cellar is led by April Gratton, our mission partner from Youth for Christ, and Katie Peffer, our Minister of Youth and Families. Two weeks ago, April and Katie took five students on a weekend retreat to our church’s camp in the Laurel Highlands. It was the first time the students had been to the woods, the first time they’d been to a Christian camp, the first time they’d climbed a rock wall, and the first time they’d heard the story of the Gospel.

April and Katie came back from the weekend overjoyed. The students all said that the story April and Katie had shared with them was “valid.”

If you’re disappointed that all five students did not “give their lives to Jesus Christ,” consider the world these girls were raised in. They’re unchurched kids of unchurched parents. They were brought up in a culture which preaches that the highest good is what makes you feel good right now. And they were taught that all belief systems and life experiences are equally valid.

Which happened to be the opening that April and Katie needed.

April and Katie had built a trusting relationship over a long time, which allowed them to share their own Christ-centered life experiences. If “all life experiences are equally valid,” then that must include the experiences of April and Katie, right?

Everywhere, congregations are aging because young people are dropping out. The majority of children of long-time church attenders are dropping out. The implications for the church are enormous.

The church of the future may look a lot more like the church of the first century. The early church did not grow through programs or mass conversions. It grew through personal relationships. It grew because lives transformed by the Gospel are attractive.

The church of the future may look a lot more like what happens weekday afternoons in our church basement, or what happened between April and Katie and those five high school kids.

Lives transformed by the Gospel are attractive.

And valid.

PS. If you are concerned about young people abandoning the faith, here’s a suggestion. Lead a valid life and build an unconditional relationship with a young person.

Hint. April and Katie need volunteers.

Impact

This week I received a thoughtful email with the subject “Your Impact” from a Sunday visitor. He said, “All of God’s children need witness and assistance, not just those lying on grates or in cardboard boxes under bridges…but I feel encouraged by your messages to devote more time to helping people in need.”

Our visitor was absolutely right. What people most need, whether or not they find Pittsburgh “livable,” is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A man had come to me after church that Sunday with tears in his eyes. He’d been staying in the cold weather shelter downtown and said that someone who he’d befriended had threatened him. He came in the church (his first time here) to feel safe, and fell asleep. He woke up during the service, and as he heard the message, memories of his grandmother taking him to church as a boy started flooding back. He remembered the faith she’d passed on to him, and what church was all about.

What is wrong with the world is not something government is going to solve. It will be the church of Jesus Christ.

Last full measure of devotion

I hope you heard Irish Tenor Ronan Tynan sing “The Last Full Measure of Devotion” at the State Funeral for President George H.W. Bush this week. I will never forget the first time I heard that song.

On Veteran’s Day in 1997, Jana and I were sitting with the Air Force Band in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. On the stage in front of us were President Clinton, who had just laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Joint Chiefs. Behind us were thousands of veterans and their families waving American flags. It was the most patriotic scene you can imagine, especially for us in that moment.

A few days before, our family had returned from two years in Brussels, Belgium so I could take command of the 11th Operations Group in Washington, DC. I was responsible for the Air Force Band, Air Force Honor Guard, and the Air Force chaplains at Arlington.

When Senior Master Sergeant Richard Pearson, backed by the rest of the “Singing Sergeants” and the entire Air Force Band, sang “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” I lost it. Jana and I were sitting in front of the French Horn section, and I remember wondering what they thought of their new boss, blubbering away. Over the next couple years, I got to hear Richard sing that song several times, always with the same effect. Ronan Tynan is great, but for me, Richard’s performance will always be the definitive one.

The song picks up a key phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as it honors those who gave their lives in service to country. It’s a patriotic anthem, not explicitly Christian. But since I’ve become a minister, I hear the song in a new way. It reminds me of Jesus Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant….”

There is nothing more touching or noble than someone who gives their life for another. How can we not be moved by the God who gave us his “last full measure of devotion?”

Presence, not presents

For the first time in years, we aren’t packing shoeboxes.

Jana and I have packed many shoeboxes over the years. One year, we even went to the home of Operation Christmas Child, Samaritan’s Purse, in Boone, NC, to personally pick up supplies. But this year, our missionary friend in Ethiopia expressed concerns. Local churches in countries that receive the shoeboxes can be loaded with unreasonable costs to deliver them. The boxes might not get where they are intended or convey the message we hope. So we started asking questions.

Is it always a good idea to give a child a gift that their parents can’t afford?

Blogger Rachel Pieh Jones wonders if a shoebox filled with yo-yos and candy is really conveying a gospel message: “If Jesus were Santa Claus, okay. But Jesus is not Santa Claus and his message is one of humility, poverty, sacrifice, and the cross. We limit our thinking about giving to a monetary thing, stemming from our consumer values and culture.”

In his book, When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert tells about his own church, which had a ministry of buying Christmas presents for minority families in a poor neighborhood nearby. Members noticed that the men never seemed to be home when the presents were delivered. The church discovered that the men were making themselves scarce when the presents were delivered because they felt humiliated. The church, in providing gifts the men couldn’t afford, was reinforcing their sense of inferiority. What’s more, church members were upset that their generosity didn’t seem to change lives.

Brian Fikkert says that our consumer culture has led us to view poverty from a material point of view. The poor see their problems more in terms of broken relationships. A better solution for people who want to do something for the poor might be to find a way to come alongside parents and allow the parents to provide for their children.

God didn’t come at Christmas to give us stuff. He came to give us himself.

God with us, that’s the gift.

What if we took the time to build a relationship with a materially poor family?

What if we gave presence, not presents?

Practicing thanks

Years ago, when I was in the Air Force stationed in Washington DC, I had a secretary named Pat. To say that Pat had a hard life was an understatement. Pat was a breast cancer survivor. One of her children had been murdered. She lived in a dangerous part of the city, and nearly every week she came to work with a new story about a relative who’d been a victim of a violent crime.

But when you asked Pat how she was doing, she always said, “I’m blessed.”

I’m sure she meant it, but saying, “I’m blessed” also had the effect of reminding herself, and teaching us, that there is a greater power at work in our lives which transcends our circumstances.

For years, there’s been a growing body of research that has tied an attitude of gratitude with improved emotional and physical well-being. When we give thanks, our breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure go down. People who are routinely thankful are more successful and better able to navigate life.

Giving thanks is actually good for us.

I just read the summary of a Harvard study in which subjects took five minutes a day, every day at the same time, for one week, to write down three things that they were thankful for. They didn’t have to be big things, but they did have to be concrete and specific. “I’m thankful my boss gave me a compliment today.” “I thankful my daughter gave me a hug.” “I’m thankful for the delicious takeout meal last night.” Simple things like that.

A month later, the researchers found that those who practiced gratitude—including those who stopped the exercise after one week—were happier and less depressed.

After three months, they still were more joyful and content.

After six months they still were happier, less anxious, and less depressed.

The simple practice of writing down three thanksgivings a day over the course of one week apparently primed the participants’ minds to search for the good in their lives.

Always give thanks.

Keep in practice.

The party

It was the best day of the father’s life; he had to celebrate. Knowing that, his son refused to come to the party. “Everything I have is yours,” the father pleaded, but his son was not moved.

So ends Jesus’ greatest parable about the “Prodigal Son.” But there are actually two sons in the story, and it’s the “prodigal,” the wandering one, who finds his way home. His older brother was the responsible one, the sensible one, the one who stayed home and did his duty. Shockingly, it was the older brother, not the “prodigal,” who, at the end of the story, was outside the feast of salvation looking in.

Jesus was speaking to the religious insiders of his day. They were the serious, the responsible ones. They did their duty; they kept the religious traditions of the people intact. Jesus had aimed this parable at them.

How do you tell religious insiders that they’re lost?

Growing up, I was the eldest of three children. I was the responsible one. I became an Air Force officer, did my duty. But I was in my fifties, in seminary, when the meaning of this story became real to me. I’d always thought the lesson was, “Stay home, do your duty. Don’t be like the irresponsible younger brother.”

I was completely wrong. That’s not the lesson at all.

Do you get it? If not, I don’t condemn you. It took me about 55 years.

If you’ve achieved your goals in life, but found that things don’t satisfy…

If you’ve failed at everything, and found yourself at the bottom…

Whether you’re an elder brother or a younger brother, this is what you most need to know: There is a father who comes to you, who longs to embrace you and meet you just where you are.

Do you get it? The Christian faith will make little sense until you do.

Base your worth on his love for you.

Come in to his party. It’s for you.