Masters of our fate

One of my first pastoral calls as a new minister was on an older gentleman who was in recovery after major surgery. Like many of the Greatest Generation, he ‘had never been sick a day in my life.” He volunteered that he had always lived by the poem Invictus, with its famous words, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

This puzzled me, because in that moment, he was hooked up to all kinds of machines, some pumping liquids into him, and some pumping them out. For the hour or so I was with him, he wasn’t even master of his bed pan.

Reciting Invictus is a way for us to maintain the illusion that we really are the master of our fate. Living in a country with so much freedom and wealth contributes to the illusion for many. If you go through life healthy, from one success to the next, there may be nothing to challenge the illusion.

But for most, there eventually comes a time when you’re flat on your back. The loss of control can seem worse than the crisis itself.

But there’s good news.

The Apostle Paul said that God was pleased to have “all his fullness dwell in Jesus Christ,” so that “in everything, he might have the supremacy.”

When we finally admit that we’re not masters of our fate, that’s when Jesus Christ can step in and do some of his best work.

God never meant for us to be the captain of our soul. That’s why he sent us his Son. 

Enough police?

Harvard Business School professor Clay Christenson tells of having a conversation with a Marxist economist from China as the man was finishing his time as a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard. Christenson asked him what had surprised him about his time studying in the US. Without hesitation, the man said, “I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy. The reason why democracy works is not because the government was designed to oversee what everyone does. Rather, democracy works because most of the people, most of the time, voluntarily choose to obey the law.”

The US was the first nation in history formed on the idea that people could govern themselves. On Independence Day, it’s good to remember how radical an idea that is. What made the founders think that self-government might work? 

Faith.

The founders understood that the Christian faith had created a shared sense of personal and public responsibility among the people of the colonies. They understood they could never pass enough laws to get people to act responsibly. Rather, people had to act on their own out of a shared sense of the greater good.

In his short book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas summarizes the career of preacher George Whitefield, the most important founding father you’ve never heard of. The short, cross-eyed Whitefield was the first truly international celebrity. His commanding sermons made the wealthy and the worker weep. When Whitefield died in 1750, an incredible 80 percent of the people in the colonies had heard him in person. Like no one before, Whitefield proclaimed the Gospel directly to the people, showing how all people, rich and poor alike, were sinners, but sinners beloved by God.

Whitefield had created the shared understanding of public virtue that made democracy possible.

So how does a democracy function without this shared understanding?

As Christenson concludes, “If you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”

Heart Music

Every now and then, a song I haven’t heard in decades comes on the radio. Almost automatically, I find myself singing along with every word. How is this possible, when most of the time, I can’t tell you what I had for dinner the night before?

More than a hundred years ago, my grandfather was an orchestra leader on a showboat on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He fell in love and married the lead singer, who became my grandmother. When my parents, aunts, and uncles got together, they loved nothing more than to sing around the piano. Singing together was how they expressed their love for each other.

Twenty years ago, I attended an Air Force Band concert in San Antonio where the band performed for the Texas Bandmasters Association. Since they were playing for music professionals, teachers and conductors, the band premiered an original work called “Dreamcatcher.” It was well-performed and well-received.

But when the chorus joined the band in “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” the place erupted. Those Texas music professionals had played or heard that song a thousand times, but there they were, on their feet, cheering, laughing, and crying. 

It was their heart music, played like they’d never heard before.

Music has that kind of power.

God gave us music as the means to express the deepest longings of our hearts. And when we experience sacred music, especially sacred music done well, we get the sense that there is a reality beyond this world that we were created for.

Handling Rejection

Jesus gave his followers an expansive mission: Go to every people group, make disciples, and bring them into the church.

In a preview of this worldwide mission, Jesus sent out his disciples to the people of Israel. For the first time, the twelve were called apostles, or “sent ones.” It was the first time they’d be going out without him, so he gave them detailed instructions. He was sure they would encounter rejection, so he told them how to handle that too. When people are receptive to you, bless them, and peace will rest on them. If they’re not receptive, go to someone who is.

And your peace will come back to you.

Sounds strange, doesn’t it? We say things like “Bless you” or “Peace to you,” but when we say those things on his behalf, we’re doing more than being polite.  When we speak the good news of Jesus Christ, we actually convey peace. Peace literally rests on those willing to receive it.

And if our message is rejected, that peace comes right back to us.

What’s even more amazing is that Jesus says this is “your” peace, not just his.

We’ve been imbued with supernatural power.

Jesus was rejected all the time, so there’s no reason to expect we’ll be treated any better. And so, Jesus has let us know it’s OK, move on.

He’s chosen us to bring in his kingdom.

Offhand remark

Back when I was a young staff officer in the Pentagon, there was a saying that, “A general’s offhand remark often turns into a captain’s weekend project.” More than once, I experienced something like that, and I wished the project only lasted for a weekend. 

The Bible has a story that sounds, at first reading, a lot like that. King David was leading the Israelite army in battle, and he made an offhand remark: “Oh that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!” Three of David’s best soldiers overheard. On their own, they fought through enemy lines, got some water from that well, and brought it back to David.

What would David do?

Would he drink the water? That’s what his men intended.

Would he let them drink first? That’s what a good commander would do?

Would he reprimand them for risking their lives, and maybe even the entire operation, for such a foolish stunt?

None of the above. David poured out the water as an offering to God.

I used to think this was a story about David. I would try to imagine what type of commander would inspire such loyalty among his men.

But this isn’t about David. It’s about David’s God. As great a king as David was, David was there to point us to the true and best King, Jesus Christ, who fought through enemy lines, and then poured himself out as an offering for us.

The things you remember

Forty-nine years ago I was at Basic Cadet Training (BCT or “beast”) at the Air Force Academy. One of the most memorable experiences was the Confidence Course, where you and your classmates together scaled walls, walked across high ropes, and surmounted obstacles. The most memorable obstacle was a wooden tower about 35 feet tall with 5 floors. You had to go up the tower as a group and back down again, with no ropes or ladders. Your classmates had to lift you up so you could grab the edge of the floor above. Hanging by your hands, you swung back and forth until someone above grabbed your legs and pulled you onto the platform. You reversed the process going down.

The obstacle is still there. (No nets in my day!)

I’m terrified of heights. I only made it through because my classmates wouldn’t let me fail. I’ve forgotten thousands of hours of academics, but I will never forget the Confidence Course. And that tower.

Perhaps the most visible and vibrant ministry of our church is Ligonier Camp and Conference Center, 105 years old and going strong. It’s one of the great Christian camps anywhere. This is the Sunday where we commission the summer camp staff, and where we’re led in worship by Executive Director Patrick Myers and his amazing team.

Ligonier is an adventure camp which gives kids an experience of the good news of Jesus Christ. 

It’s good to hear bible stories and sing camp songs. It’s something else entirely to leave your comfort zone and go beyond what you thought you could do, all while being mentored and cheered on by Christians who want you to be the best you can be.

Kids are safe at Ligonier; way safer than my “beast” experience of 1970. But they will never forget scaling walls or crossing high ropes.

And many will experience a bit of what it’s like to have Jesus take them where they could never go on their own.

Honor

When I was eighteen and three weeks out of high school, I went to the Air Force Academy. A bedrock of Academy life was the Honor Code: We will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.

The Academy spent many hours teaching us about the Honor Code. We had regular honor discussions. A typical question might be: “Cadet Smith is in a store and starts to steal something, but at that moment, a clerk walks by, and Cadet Smith never commits the crime. Is Cadet Smith honorable?”

“No, he’s not honorable,” someone would say. “He intended to steal.” About half of my classmates would agree. But the other half would say, “Cadet Smith is honorable. He never stole anything.”

We were all eighteen and hadn’t yet learned the finer points of diplomacy. Our discussions soon turned to shouting matches. After a few “discussions,” we realized no one’s mind was going to change, so we would sit in stony silence, polarized, when questions of honor came up.

Looking back, I wish I had understood the Gospel. The Gospel is the only worldview that doesn’t divide between right and wrong, good and bad, us and them. 

Jesus was in the home of a Pharisee, a religious conservative, when an uninvited guest, a woman of ill repute, crashed the party. She wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

Everyone knew her scandalous life, but only she knew Jesus’ forgiveness.

And so she wept.

This was the reason for her extravagant act of love, which included anointing Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume.

The Gospel worldview says that every single one of us is more evil than we know, yet, at the same time, we are more loved by God than we dare hope.

Jesus knows us right down to the bottom of our hearts; every dishonorable thought and deed. And, at the same time, he loves us to the heavens.

And he’s already forgiven us. All we need to do is accept it.

Here’s what I wish I knew back then: Only the Gospel worldview allows us to look at those with whom we disagree, those who seem totally different from us, and say, “There is someone who’s been forgiven much…like me.”

My classmates all went on to serve their country with honor. Today, we love and respect each other. When we get together, we hug each other, and sometimes we weep.

Witnesses

From: Roger ____  xxxxxx@xxxxxxxxxx.com
Sent: Thursday, April 25, 2019 9:27 PM
To: Tom Hall <THall@fpcp.org>
Subject: Some thoughts from the Duquesne Club

Dear Pastor Hall and the people of First Presbyterian Church,

It is one thing to hear a sermon. It is quite another to encounter one without a word spoken.

In Mathew we read the words of Jesus who declares “you are my witnesses.” There is not a lot of optionality in that declaration. The choice to be made is about the quality rather than the reality of our witness.

This week your church lived up to and into its calling as witness. Your open doors provided me with a quiet refuge from the city to think and pray, I saw the safe haven on your steps that you provided for those who live on the margins, your literature unashamedly proclaimed the Gospel of the Risen One. All without speaking a word.

Thank you for serving me this week. I pray that God will grant all and each of you courage, wisdom, mercy, and grace in required portions as you continue to live lives of faithful stewardship.

He is risen indeed.

Roger _____

British Columbia, Canada V5H 4M2

________________________

From: Tom Hall <THall@fpcp.
Sent: Monday, April 29, 2019 8:11 PM
To: Roger
______
Subject:
RE: Some thoughts from the Duquesne Club

Dear Roger – Thank you so much for sending this along. It is very encouraging. Yes, the Risen Jesus is on the loose here. 

It is not easy to keep church doors open, for lots of reasons that you probably know. And when the doors are open, we become vulnerable. The folks who hang out on the front steps provide lots of challenges, and opportunities to be witnesses.

I’m so glad you found us on your travels. Many folks tell us that the church is a “thin place.”

Blessings on your work and travels. He is risen indeed!

Tom

____________________

From: Roger _____
Sent: Monday, April 29, 2019 10:49 PM
To: Tom Hall <THall@fpcp.org>
Subject: RE: Some thoughts from the Duquesne Club

Dear Pastor Tom,

The day after I sent this note I returned to your beautiful sanctuary to pray. To my right snored a man who may not have known exactly where he was, but I suspect he felt warm and safe. As I left, I met a lady who lives on the ragged edge. She spoke words not found in the lectionary. Yet she stopped at the door, bowed her head and made the sign of the cross as she entered. Perhaps in that place she heard the faint echo of a time when she sang of a Jesus who loved her or was led to that place by a faithful person of prayer whose heart is broken for her.

I get the risks of an urban church. My dad was a pastor of such a church. We had our share of drunks in the back row. They took their place with the better dressed but equally needy tax dodgers, adulterers, gossips, and greedy all assembled to hear the shockingly good news of a God who loves them in the midst of their sin.

I was reminded of the scandal of the Gospel through your church last week and will pray for the protection of those who serve in dangerous surroundings. I will pray that those who find refuge will honor it as a holy place, built for sinners, inhabited by a gracious God who calls us all to come and find rest.

Warmly,

Roger

(Last name and email address deleted to respect the sender’s privacy.)

Say “yes”

My first operational assignment in the Air Force was to Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine. Loring wasn’t the coldest (the flight line didn’t close until the wind chill was 40 below), or the snowiest (184 inches our first year), or the most remote (seven hours north of Boston) bomber base. All those factors combined to make Loring a dreaded assignment. And even in the late 1970s, the B-52s we flew seemed antiquated. The result was that many people quit the Air Force rather than accept orders to Loring. That meant those already there had to stay there well beyond the usual three years. 

But one day, after I’d been there less than three years, I found orders on my desk to a new assignment in reconnaissance airplanes in Omaha. It was a dramatic career change. Instead of the routine of nuclear alert, I’d get to fly all over the world.

Everyone wanted to know how I’d managed to get such a premier job. Long before, I’d put “reconnaissance” on an assignment preference sheet but then forgot all about it. I was as surprised as anyone.

Loring had long been on the base closure list, and soon a personnel team from headquarters arrived to give everyone a new assignment. Amazingly, no one wanted to go to reconnaissance. Even after all their complaining, no one wanted to risk a career change. Everyone preferred to stay with what they knew.

I hadn’t been seeking a new assignment; I just said “yes” when given the chance. Saying “yes” to new opportunities became a habit that led to a life of adventure.

I wonder how often we miss the opportunities God gives us because we prefer to stay with what we know.  

Stonecatcher

“If any one of you is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her.”

It’s one of the most famous things Jesus ever said. 

The religious insiders had brought to Jesus a woman they’d “caught in adultery,” a sin that under Jewish law called for the death penalty. The fact that they had somehow been unable to “catch” the adulterous man was proof enough that they were just using her to trap Jesus.

In one sentence, Jesus confirmed the reality of sin, the judgment sin requires, and the mercy we all need.

This week a Pennsylvania lawmaker filmed himself harassing a woman and her teenage daughters who were praying outside a Philadelphia Planned Parenthood clinic, then posted the video online. Somehow, in our polarized culture, some people think it’s acceptable to publicly humiliate those they disagree with.

If you divide the world between “us” and “them,” then anyone who isn’t “us” is only getting what they deserve.

But there’s a worldview that doesn’t divide between “us” and “them.” That worldview is captured in Jesus’ words, “If any one of you is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The Christian faith says no one can stand in the presence of a holy God. We all deserve death. But instead, God has chosen to offer us mercy.

After Jesus made his famous pronouncement, he went back to drawing in the dirt with his finger. One by one, the religious insiders dropped their stones and left until only the woman remained. Incredibly, Jesus had allowed the reality of sin to convict everyone, while sparing everyone public humiliation.

Jesus allowed the humiliation to come down on him.

He caught the stones meant for the woman, the religious insiders, and us.