Timeless

This week, Jana and I celebrated our 47th anniversary by having dinner and staying overnight at the Century Inn in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania. 

The food was wonderful, our room was charming, and the atmosphere was special. We give it five stars.

The Century Inn first opened as Hill’s Tavern in 1794. It’s hosted people like Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

But what impressed me most was the character of the owner and innkeeper Megin Harrington and her family.

You think the pandemic has been hard on the hospitality industry?

In 2015 Megin and her son Gordon barely escaped when an electrical fire destroyed the place. The only thing they were able to save was the Whiskey Rebellion Flag, the only one known to exist. Thank goodness there were no guests at the time. The fire burned for eight hours. Firefighters from 28 companies responded, and some of them were seen crying at the loss, which included priceless furniture, art, and antiques.

If you visit today, you might never know any of this. You’d just think you were in a 200-year-old inn. There are no before and after pictures; nothing describing the herculean two-and-a-half-year struggle to completely rebuild.

Of course, insurance didn’t cover it all. How could it?

And satisfying the requirements of keeping the restored inn on the National Register of Historic Places was a feat in itself.

Megin served us breakfast, and I wanted to know what kept her going in the face of such an overwhelming challenge. She was too modest to share the secret of her character. She wanted future generations to experience something timeless, something that mattered.

Not rebuilding was simply not an option.

The many people who rallied to help her felt the same way.

So many places struggled during the pandemic, and many closed, never to reopen. The Century Inn had to endure all that too.

And so, the place matters more today than ever.

Not just because you can get a great meal, enjoy a great stay, and not because of who visited there a long time ago.

But because of Megin and all those who live and serve there today.

Free to worry

Anthony Klotz, a professor of management at Texas A&M, was widely quoted recently for saying, “The great resignation is coming.”

Klotz has interviewed hundreds of people about why they left their jobs. He says there are many “pent up” resignations that didn’t happen over the last year. Millions of people had “pandemic-related epiphanies” about things like family time, commuting, working remotely, what they’re passionate about, and where to find meaning in life.

Maybe this helps explain why there are “help wanted” signs everywhere.

A friend who works for our denomination’s pension fund says that pastors are retiring in unprecedented numbers, and for the ones who stay, the denomination can’t keep up with the demand for mental health counseling.

Shouldn’t we all be feeling better now for having survived the pandemic?

It seems there is as much stress coming out of the pandemic as there was in it.  

What has shaken us so badly?

Jesus was speaking to people whose faith was wavering. He said, “If you hold to my teaching…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The Greek phrase translated “hold to my teaching” can also be translated, “make your home in my word.” Most of us don’t do that.

We get meaning from what we do and who we know.

We tell ourselves something is true if it works for us. 

And we call that freedom, and in a sense it is.

We’re free to worry about everything.

Psyche rattling

Rising crime across the US made the news again this week.

The pundits on both sides were quick to blame the other.

What you might have missed was a story in the New York Times about a series of murders in Iran. It wasn’t just the details of the crimes that were so shocking, it was who the murderers were: an 81-year-old man and his 76-year-old wife.

The couple was mild-mannered and respected; no one could have imagined they were capable of killing their own adult children by drugging, stabbing, and then dismembering them. Surveillance video shows the man carrying garbage bags to the dumpster while his wife held the door for him.

But the couple was not only unrepentant, they were proud of what they did.

The Times said, “The case has rattled the psyche of the Iranians.”

What does it take for something to rise to the level of “psyche rattling?”

Jesus Christ had that effect on some people. In John 8:12, he told the religious insiders, “I am the light of the world.”

It rattled them.

Light gives life, but it also exposes evil, even in the places you’d never suspect, like in the hearts of religious insiders, or in the hearts of an elderly couple.

Jesus Christ came to deal with what’s wrong with the world deep down, the sin in the hearts of us all.

But he’s got to rattle us all first.

Stone catchers

Bryan Stevenson grew up in a small town in Delaware where his family attended the Prospect AME Church. He experienced segregation. When he was 16, his grandfather was murdered.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985, Bryan moved to the south to help poor blacks, children, and the mentally ill who’d received unjust sentences. He tells his story in the bestselling book, Just Mercy.

Once Bryan was in a courthouse in New Orleans, having won the release of two men falsely convicted as teenagers. They’d served at hard labor for nearly 50 years. Brian noticed an older black woman, who he assumed was a family member of one of the defendants.

She said, “No, no, no, I’m not related to nobody here. I come here to help people.  This is a place full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here.”

“That’s really kind of you,” Bryan said.

“No, it’s what I’m supposed to do, so I do it. My 16-year-old grandson was murdered 15 years ago, and I loved that boy more than life itself.”

Bryan wasn’t expecting that. She saw the look on his face and grabbed his hand.

“I grieved and grieved. I asked the Lord why he let someone take my child like that.  He was killed by some other boys. I sat through their trials and cried every day for two weeks. None of it made any sense. The judge sent those boys away to prison forever. I thought it would make me feel better, but it actually made me feel worse. 

“I sat in the courtroom after they were sentenced and just cried and cried and cried. A lady came over and gave me a hug and let me lean on her. We sat there for two hours. I’ve never forgotten that woman.

“You never fully recover, but you carry on. About a year later I started coming down here. I just started letting anybody lean on me who needed it. All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other like they don’t care. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast on each other.”

Bryan had once come to the aid of a black man wrongly convicted of murder. The man had had an extra-marital affair, so some of the man’s church friends thought that made him guilty. Bryan had reminded the congregation of what Jesus had said to the accusers of a woman caught in adultery. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Bryan said, “Our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion.

“We need to be stone catchers.”

RSVP

When was the last time you sent out an invitation with the letters RSVP? 

Were you frustrated with the response? I bet you were.

Most people know that the letters stand for “Repondez, s’il vous plait,” meaning simply, “Respond please.” But for various reasons, some people never respond. They don’t want to commit. They prefer to keep their options open.

More than once in my Air Force career I worked with protocol officers who organized high-level events for senior decision makers. The percentage of people who “RSVP’d” was no better than for any other event.

But if you’re the type who gets an invitation and never responds, you shouldn’t be surprised if the invitations stop coming.

Jesus was in the temple in Jerusalem, creating a stir as he often did. He’d invited the crowd to follow him, but most people didn’t want to commit. They preferred to keep their options open. In John 7:33, Jesus said, “I am with you for only a short time, and then I am going to the one who sent me. You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.”

It’s one of those things we wish Jesus never said.

The highest-level invitation in history comes with a “Respond by” date.

But we don’t know what the date is.

Father’s Day

Some years ago, I was asked to say the blessing before the meal at our high school reunion. A classmate later thanked me for not calling God, “Father.”

That was during the height of a movement to make the Bible more gender neutral. Some translations changed “brothers” to “brothers and sisters,” for example. “Son” became “child.” Male pronouns were changed to gender neutral ones. Some suggested that instead of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” we should say, “Mother, Daughter, and Womb.”

But Jesus called God “Father.”

He taught us to pray, “Our Father….”

And only God gets to name God.

In John 7, Jesus’ own brothers didn’t understand him. They knew he could do miracles, but they didn’t really understand why. So, they tried to get him to be a public figure like they expected, like the “world” expected.

There’s another push going on the in the “world” right now with respect to pronouns. The “world” says you get to pick your own. This may bring Jesus followers into more conflict with the “world.”

Now, it isn’t always productive for Jesus followers to do battle over the latest cultural trend. I often begin prayers by saying, “Gracious and Loving God….” We need to remember that patriarchal structures still hold people back. Historically, a biblical stance against divorce often trapped women in harmful relationships. Human fathers can fail us, and sadly, they often do.

But at their best, fathers provide for us, protect us, love, and care for us.

The best earthly fathers point to the way to the one, true Heavenly Father.

The Heavenly Father points to how earthly fathers should live.

When we fail to appreciate God as Father, we can miss out on the great blessing of the intimate, loving relationship God wants to have with us.

This Father’s Day we ought to remember that Jesus’ name for God was “Father.”

Right-sized church

Not long ago, Gallup reported that church membership in the US is at 47%, the lowest ever, down over 20 points since the turn of the century. The number was 73% when Gallup first conducted the survey in 1937 and had remained constant until the 1990s.

What’s the right size for a church?

John 6 began with the story of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000, but by the end of the chapter, the crowds had deserted. Only the disciples remained, and Jesus asked them, “Do you want to go away too?” Big crowds would again greet Jesus, but for the moment, it looked like total church membership was somewhere around 12.

But there was no record of Jesus begging anyone to stay.

In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus had just told the crowd that his followers had to “eat his flesh and drink his blood.”

It was if he was daring them to stay. And he said things like this all the time.

There was the issue of the cross, his, and the ones his followers would be challenged to “pick up daily.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 7:21-23) he warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

When he sent out the disciples (Matthew 10:22) he told them that, “All men will hate you because of me.”

Jesus surely hoped that the church would be filled, but with people who understood the cost of being a disciple.

It seems that Jesus had a different understanding of church size than we do.

More real

In CS Lewis’ classic book, The Great Divorce, people in hell are given a chance to take a bus ride to the outskirts of heaven. As the travelers get off the bus, they’re surprised to find that the blades of grass are like iron.

But it wasn’t that the grass was different in heaven, grass was still grass.

It was the people who were different. They discovered that, all along, they’d been wispy, ghost-like, shadows of their true selves. They were given a second chance to cast off whatever sin had held them back in life and continue their journey. In heaven, they would become their truest and best selves.

In the popular imagination, heaven is a place where people float on clouds, a place where people are less real.

But in Lewis’ imagination, heaven is where we become more real.

The pandemic exposed how wispy we are. We became more fearful, more prone to conspiracy theories.

Jesus Christ was born into the world a real person. You could see him, hold him, smell him. You could feel the scratch of his beard on your cheek when he kissed you.

He changed the name of his friend Simon to “Peter,” saying “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

Jesus gave us the church to get real.

We only become people of substance through Jesus Christ.

I am

Jesus had fed the 5000. It was probably more like 15,000 or 20,000 if you counted women and children.

John 6 tells how Jesus came walking to the disciples who were struggling to row across the lake in a storm. Walking, not struggling, against the wind and waves.

When the disciples saw him, they were terrified.

But it was what he said next that really scared them.

“It is I; don’t be afraid.”

It sounds comforting, but I wonder. What Jesus literally said, was, “I am; don’t fear.” In trying to give us smooth sounding English, the translators glossed over the staggering claim Jesus was making about himself.

“I am” was the name God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. “I am” is how the almighty and eternal God chose to identify himself.

“I am” without beginning and without end.

“I am” means that everything that exists or ever will exist has its beginning in God. All life and truth, energy and power, are derived from “I am.”

We live in a time when people say something is true “if it works for you.” We’re encouraged to “find ourselves.” We insist on defining ourselves based things like feelings, gender, occupation, wealth and more.

If Jesus is the Lord over nature, the one whom wind and waves obey, you have to allow him to be Lord of your life. All of it. You can’t pick and choose the parts of his teaching that you’ll follow and ignore the rest. You can’t tame “I am.” He won’t settle for being your helper.

It turns out there was another miracle within the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. John 6 says that when Jesus got into the boat with the disciples, “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.” In an instant, they’d cross the remaining miles of lake.

“I am” is our destination.

God’s healing power

Fifteen months ago, as I prayed about what the Christian response to the pandemic ought to be, my thoughts went to a book by sociologist Rodney Stark: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. From a historical perspective, there was nothing inevitable about the rise of Christianity. As Stark pointed out, paganism had been a vital part of the Greco-Roman world for centuries, and therefore “must have had the capacity to fulfill basic religious impulses.”

But then the plagues struck.

Stark said, “In a sense paganism did indeed ‘topple over dead’ or at least acquire it’s fatal illness during these epidemics.”

Why?

From the beginning of the Jesus movement, Christian values of love and charity had translated into social services and community solidarity.

When disasters struck, Christians were better able to cope.

As the pagans fled the cities, Christians went in.

They provided food and basic provisions for the sick, even for the pagans, even at the cost of their own lives. It turned out that just seeing to the basic needs of people dramatically increased the survival rate. When the crisis subsided, pagans wondered why the Christians had stayed.

Of course they had stayed because they had experienced the selfless love of Jesus Christ and the power of the resurrection.

So if the response of the early church was to go into the city, how does that inform the Christian response in our time?

By 2020, we knew more about how viruses spread, though not nearly as much as we needed to know. The faithful response of 2020 was still to see to basic human needs, but also to limit our exposure in order to limit the spread of the virus.

In 2020, part of the faithful response meant staying away instead of going in.

But what about today, now that vaccines are available?

The faithful response today is not dying, but living. It’s about going into a clinic and getting a shot.

But now it seems that the folks most reluctant to get the shot are evangelical Christians.

Friends, for every objection you have to getting the shot, I can name five more. I agree with you on most of them.

The collective response to the pandemic reflects our nature as fallen human beings. Our government wasn’t ready for the pandemic. Officials have been inconsistent, reluctant to admit mistakes, and sometimes flat wrong. Some said vaccines would take years to develop and might never come. Some probably should be prosecuted.

But it was fallen people like that that the early Christians died to save.

Today, God is working a miracle through his fallen creatures. Through vaccines, God’s healing power is once more going out into the world.

But first it has to go into our arms.