The church at the start line

The Pittsburgh Marathon is Sunday, May 6th. Tens of thousands of runners and visitors from across the country and around the world come downtown. It’s like no other morning all year.

Our church is just blocks from the start line, right in the middle of it all

A lot of churches are completely blocked by the course on Marathon Sunday. Ours isn’t. You can take the “T” to within half a block of the church. If you drive and can make it to Grant Street, you can park in the Mellon Garage, half a block from the church on Sixth Avenue.

God put our church in the perfect place to be a blessing on Marathon Sunday.

When they built our church building over 100 years ago, the idea of closing streets and churches on Sunday to run a race would have been scandalous. It would never have happened. Even in the 1950s, streets were closed for church events, not the other way around.

For the last eight years, I’ve been out on the street in front of the church at 5:45 AM on Marathon Sunday, blessing runners. I pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one, or over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of runners walking down the street to their corrals.

I’ve discovered that people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In those moments before the race, they’re anxious to call on a Higher Power. Many runners are Christians who run for God, and many others run for causes that are important to them. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important to them.

This year, we’ll again be playing motivational Christian music in front of the church, interspersed with our prayers. Later in the morning (10:45) we’ll hold our worship service outside and preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. God’s Word will be loose out on Sixth Avenue.

What a privilege to be the church at the start line.

Over a meal

In 1994, our family moved to Montgomery, Alabama so I could attend a year-long Air Force school. Our first Sunday, we visited a church close to where we would live. After the service, we were greeted by the Cornwell family. They introduced themselves, and then brought other people over and introduced them to us as well. Then they asked us to go to lunch at Ruby Tuesday, Dutch treat.

We didn’t bother to look at other churches.

How did you come to faith? Was there a burning bush? A blinding light? For most of us, it wasn’t anything dramatic. We didn’t know anything supernatural was happening at the time. A friend or relative took an interest in us. We came to faith through people sharing a bit of their lives. And often food was involved.

Food is something we all need. Meals are something we all do. And so it’s not surprising that both Gospel writers Luke and John tell us that the Risen Jesus met his disciples over a meal. Luke says it was in breaking bread that the disciples recognized Jesus. John says it was over a campfire where fish was being served. The Risen Jesus reveals himself in an ordinary meal.

In 1999, after two intervening assignments, we moved back to Montgomery, and to the church and the friends we loved. Again, the Cornwells greeted us and welcomed us home. Later, when I started sensing the call to pastoral ministry, the Cornwells were there to listen to us and be patient with us and help us process what we were feeling.

Who are you inviting to lunch? What opportunities is God giving you to share a bit of your life?

For us, it was just a simple invitation to Ruby Tuesday, Dutch treat. But it turned out to be as supernatural as any burning bush.

What great commission?

The Barna Group, a Christian research company, recently asked churchgoers, “Have you heard of the Great Commission?” 51% said they had never heard the term; 25% said they’d heard the term but couldn’t recall it’s meaning; and 6% weren’t sure. Just 17% knew of the Great Commission and what it meant.

Matthew 28:18-20 is the passage most commonly called the “Great Commission,” where the Risen Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The Gospel writers Mark, Luke, and John also report a similar “commission.” Jesus “commissioned” his followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to go to all people, just as God the Father had sent him. Jesus’ kingdom on earth would be built by disciples who made more disciples.

So why don’t people know the Great Commission?

Well, the term isn’t in the Bible, and it wasn’t a term used by the church until the 16th century. It seems that the term was made popular by a British missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, in the 19th century. So it’s possible to see the words “all nations” and conclude the commission is for overseas missionaries. But the Greek words also mean “all people.” Jesus meant everyone, not just people “over there.”

At the same time, many people say, “Faith is a private matter. Keep it to yourself.” But what they’re really saying is that you need to believe in a different Jesus than the one in the Bible. They’re telling you to shirk the Great Commission and believe in a god they made up.

The one who was commissioned by God to come from heaven to earth, to live the life we should have lived, and to die the death we deserved, didn’t stay dead. He rose again and commissioned us to make more disciples.

That’s pretty great if you ask me.

When Jesus shows up

Through our partnership with a wonderful non-profit called Outreached Arms, over 6,000 meals will be served in our church this year. This represents an investment of over 8,000 volunteer hours. Even more significant are the friendships that are being made, the lives that are being touched, and the Gospel that is being shared. Best of all, when meals are shared in his name, Jesus shows up.

On March 20, I noticed three young ladies, Kelsey, Kiana, and Maddie, about the ages of my own granddaughters, enjoying a meal with our guest Dalas. I learned that Kelsey and Maddie are sisters who attend Saints John and Paul Roman Catholic Church north of Pittsburgh, a strong supporter of Outreached Arms. Their friend Kiana came to Outreached Arms with them to help serve. Kiana asked Dalas, “Tell us a story of what it was like growing up in Beaver Falls.” Dalas thought for a moment and said, “I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I used to go out in the woods and enjoy nature. I sometimes did things I shouldn’t have. But I loved the outdoors, and that is where I first met the Lord.”

Then, for the next several minutes, Dalas told the girls how much Jesus loves them, and how Jesus wants to bless them and will always be there for them. Dalas later told me, “I never told that story before. I think the Spirit must have gotten hold of me.”

Yes, Dallas, yes indeed.

Why doesn’t Easter change us?

A long time ago, a grieving woman went to a garden tomb to pay last respects. Mary had lived a life of torment and despair. Today, we’d probably say she suffered from mental illness; in our day, it seems epidemic. Mary had intended to say farewell to her teacher and friend, the one who had given her hope when everyone had given up on her.

Nothing could have prepared her for what she found. The stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been removed; the body was gone; and just the burial cloths remained. Mary ran to get her friends. They ran back to the tomb and found things just as she had said.

While the men went off to process what they’d seen, Mary just stood there crying. Then someone called her name, “Mary!” and as she turned to look, the whole world turned with her. There was Jesus, her teacher and friend, risen from the dead.

You can’t make this stuff up: the most important meeting in the history of the world was between God and a mental patient.

In some ways Mary was like a lot of us. She’d lived a life of desperation, possessed by something beyond her control. But from that moment on, her life had purpose. She was the first evangelist of the Good News, her name forever synonymous with resurrection hope.

Why aren’t we changed like Mary?

I’ve become convinced that it’s because we don’t put our beliefs into action. We don’t worship, study, pray, serve, or share our faith as we should. In other words, we don’t make ourselves available to God in ways that allow change to take place.

In a world filled with depression, anxiety, bullying, division, and worse, we should all be running to our friends with the Good News.

Jesus can still change you the way he changed Mary. Could this be the year you let him?

The Palm Sunday route

Three times in my life I’ve had the joy of walking the traditional Palm Sunday route in Jerusalem, down the Mount of Olives to the Kidron Valley below. Across the valley is the Temple Mount. The temple is no longer there, of course, destroyed in the first century. But the view is still spectacular. You can’t help but be filled with wonder as you imagine what it was like to be in the crowd on the first Palm Sunday.

That day, Jesus was a master of event planning. He orchestrated every detail for maximum effect. He knew that by accepting the crowd’s adoration he was implicitly accepting the title of conquering king. He knew this would force the hand of the religious leaders. They would have to make him king or kill him.

Like he had done many time before, Jesus sent the disciples ahead of him to the places he planned to go. He told them to procure a little colt which didn’t belong to them, and which had never been ridden, and bring it back to him.

His instructions didn’t make sense, yet the disciples obeyed.

This Sunday, we’ll celebrate and wave palm fronds and reenact the triumphal entry, just like some of us have done since we were kids. Yet this isn’t just child’s play. Jesus has called us to be part of his great drama of redemption and transformation.

Walking the Palm Sunday route with Jesus is still a joy, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Sometimes the instructions don’t make sense. Making him king is still a life or death decision. The crowds who cheer you one day may turn on you the next.

Yet Jesus promised to never leave you or forsake you. He still only sends you where he plans to go.

Calculating the odds

One of my favorite Bible stories is in 1st Samuel 14. The Israelites were surrounded by the dreaded Philistines. The Philistines were technologically advanced, while the Israelites had a total of two swords, one belonging to King Saul and the other to his son Jonathan. Saul was paralyzed with fear, but Jonathan came up with an audacious plan: Jonathan said to the young man bearing his armor, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.”

Perhaps the Lord will act?”

Jonathan’s plan was to expose himself and his armor bearer to the enemy. Then, the two of them would climb a steep hill, hand-over-hand, up to the enemy position. Remember, they only had one sword between them, but even that didn’t matter, because they needed both hands just to climb. Unless God fought for them, it was suicide.

If you were the armor bearer, wouldn’t you rather have better odds than “perhaps?” Nevertheless, he told Jonathan, “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

I don’t know who I admire more, Jonathan, who took the initiative, or the armor bearer who stayed by his side. The odds didn’t matter to them as long as they were fighting for God. The bold plan paid off. The attack threw the entire enemy army into confusion, and Israel was saved.

Most of us say to God, “I’ll follow you if you can prove to me this is going to work.” When the odds seem against us, we’re paralyzed.

Not these guys.

Unless you follow God unconditionally; unless you move forward in faith despite the odds, you’ll never experience the power of God to save you.

Grunts and groans

Watching my wife and her brother care for their dad in the last year of his life made me realize just how much we need God’s love, and how helpless we are to save ourselves. Jana’s dad had owned his own business. There was nothing he couldn’t fix. His faith led him to serve on mission trips around the world. Yet eventually, he could no longer help others or himself.

We live in a culture which celebrates and rewards the ability to get things done. Yet I’m convinced that “getting things done” often separates us from God. One person who realized this was Henri Nouwen, a priest, theologian, and bestselling author who taught at Ivy League schools. He was in demand around the world as a conference speaker.

Nouwen spent the last ten years of his life living in a community for the mentally disabled. He lived in a small room with a single bed, a bookshelf, and few pieces of furniture. The people he lived with didn’t know he was world famous. They couldn’t even read his books. He spent two hours every day helping a young man named Adam who was profoundly disabled, bathing and shaving him and guiding his hand as he tried to eat. Adam could only grunt and groan.

People would ask Nouwen if this was the best use of his time. Couldn’t someone else do these things, and allow Henri to do what world theologians are supposed to do? Nouwen would say, “I am not giving up anything. It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Today, mental illness is in the news nearly every day. At any moment, one in five people experience mental health issues. Over the course of our lives, 45% will experience mental illness. Being a city-center church, many people who are seriously hurting come to us.

My wife loved her dad, even when he could no longer do for her or himself or others. In the same way, we’re called to love those who can’t respond in a way that we’d prefer.

Henri Nouwen came to love Adam. In the process he learned what it must be like for God to love us—spiritually uncoordinated, able to respond only with what must seem to God like grunts and groans.

Worth the wait

First-year cadets at the service academies are expected to know the number of days until graduation for themselves and the three classes ahead of them. They’re expected to recite this information anytime an upperclassman asks.

I’m not sure of the military necessity for this, but future leaders do need to learn attention to detail. They must also learn to never give up, even when something takes a long time and is very hard.

As much as I hate to wait (a lot), I admit that very few of the important things in life came to me overnight, or easily. I am willing to wait if I think what I’m waiting for is worth it.

It took 1443 days for the Air Force to make me into a 2nd lieutenant, and about 7000 more to make me into a colonel. You can go online and buy officer insignia, but without all those days, and all the things that happen in them, the insignia won’t tell the truth of who you are.

It’s the same when it comes waiting on God. Most of us would rather not. But if we let him, God will make us into the persons he created us to be. How long that will take, we will never know.

But we can be sure it will be worth the wait.

Humble visitor

Thirty-three years ago, a young man from China visited the small farm town of Muscatine, Iowa on an agricultural research trip. He stayed with Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak, a farm family whose sons had gone off to college. He slept in the boys’ room, still filled with the memories of childhood. Eleanor said he didn’t complain. “Everything, no matter what, was very acceptable to him. He was humble.”

Four years ago, that same man, no longer young, came back to see his old friends. This time he came with an entourage. The man was Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president, and on his way to being president of the most populous nation on the planet.

Chinese officials explained that Mr. Xi wanted to relive a pleasant experience from his past and reconnect with old friends. Some thought it might be propaganda for the Chinese government at a time when tensions between the US and China were high. But no one in Muscatine cared. The New York Times said, “What was in 1985 just ordinary Iowa niceness came boomeranging back.”

This week in our church, we renew our relationship with PRISM, Pittsburgh Region International Student Ministries. Pittsburgh is host to thousands of international students, many of them the best and brightest from their respective countries. PRISM wants to welcome them all and share with them the love of Jesus Christ. We have the opportunity to be part of it. It’s not only rewarding and fun, but it’s got to be one of the most effective types of mission there is.

What if our international guests went home with more than happy memories of their time in Pittsburgh. What if they went home as ambassadors for Jesus Christ?