Cyberball

In his 2014 book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, psychologist Michael Lieberman reveals new information about how our brains work. He says that our need to connect with others is stronger and more fundamental than our need for food and shelter.

In one study, Lieberman documented just how painful social rejection can be. Researchers created an Internet video game called Cyberball, where three people toss a ball around to each other. Research subjects didn’t know it, but two of the players were actually pre-programmed computer robots. The point of Cyberball is to make the research subject feel rejected. At first, all three players toss the ball to each other in turn. But at a certain point, the robots cut the research subject out of the game, and toss the ball just to each other.

A silly game? Maybe, but researchers measuring brain activity discovered that the brain processes rejection the same way it processes physical pain. Research subjects were genuinely hurt, and kept telling the researchers how upset they were.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that when people speak of rejection, they use metaphors referring to physical pain like, “She broke my heart.”

Perhaps this gives us a glimpse into why Jesus chose to be rejected and betrayed by one of his closest friends. In John 13:27, Jesus said to Judas, his betrayer, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”

The Christian faith is nothing if not realistic about how hard life can be. Nearly all the people in the Bible experienced rejection; none led easy and carefree lives. Many of the psalms are about people crying out against rejection and betrayal.

Perhaps, because the experience was so universal, that’s why Jesus chose suffering and rejection as the means through which he would bring about our redemption.

Jesus chose the ultimate rejection so that we could experience the ultimate in acceptance.

Like me

I was a marginal Christian for most of my life.

I mean there was never a time when I didn’t believe in God. But when asked to serve in the church, I usually said “no.” Too busy, I told myself. Yet when I quit making that excuse, my life started to change. It turned out there was time on my schedule after all. I even began to enjoy serving. I began to get glimpses into the riches of a life of faith.

I guess it’s not surprising that when I began sensing a call to pastoral ministry, a strong part of that call was to minister to busy professionals like I had been.

As a minister, I’ve found that one of the really important things I do is to counsel the folks who come to our church to be married.

Most of them are busy professionals, just like me at their age.

Many are marginal Christians, just like me at their age.

They believe in God, but many say they’re “too busy” to go deeper just like me at their age.

Jesus, talking about his impending death and resurrection, said in John 12:24, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

The whole Christian faith depends on the one who dies to be raised again.

The same is true of our faith. We can climb the ladders professionals climb and think that’s the point of life. And so we need to die a little to our busy selves. Otherwise we can go on for years, doing the things busy people do, and miss the riches of a life of faith.

A wise person once said, “Nobody on their deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time in the office.”

“Lord, give me the words to convey the gospel to busy people. Give them the wisdom to understand. Amen.”

The good china

Years ago, when our boys were in preschool and first grade, my in-laws came from Kentucky to visit us in Nebraska for Thanksgiving dinner. My mother-in-law pitched in to help, setting the table in our formal dining room. At the boy’s places, she used plastic plates instead of the good china. She put towels over the chairs in case the boys spilled something.

Let me just say, I didn’t handle this as well as I should have.

We hardly ever used the dining room. We had 12 place settings of good china that we received for wedding presents. After 42 years, some of the plates have never been out of the box they came in.

What do you save the good china for?

My in-laws’ faith had a strong impact on the lives of everyone in our family. They worked hard and cared for the gifts God gave them. Like us, they had nice dining room furniture and good china that rarely got used.

At my parents’ house when I was growing up, things were a little different. The telephone sat on the dining room table, usually in the mess of bills and other stuff. My brother and sister and I played hide and seek under that table. Forty years later you could still see the scars where we had done our homework without putting a paper underneath. But over the years those scars become more precious to our parents than the furniture itself.

When my parents died and we went to dispose of their things, there wasn’t much we could keep. Their stuff was all used up.

What do we do with the gifts God has given us? During Lent, we always need to keep the costly love of Jesus in mind when we ask ourselves that question.

When we serve the hurting people who come to our church, we ought to use real china.

The stone the builders rejected

Thanks to Netflix, I just watched “Eddie the Eagle,” the 2016 movie about Eddie Edwards, who competed for Great Britain in the Calgary Olympics in 1988. This may be one of the purest feel-good movies ever made.

From the time he was a young boy, Eddie dreamed of being an Olympic athlete. The problem was, he had no athletic ability. But Eddie was undeterred. When he was rejected for the British Downhill Team, Eddie spotted his chance. Great Britain had not sent a ski-jumper to the Olympics in over 50 years. Eddie realized that if he could learn the sport, and meet the minimum qualifications (which were low, since no sane person would risk their life on something so dangerous), the team would have to take him. Through sheer force of will, unbelievable courage, and the support of his parents (who spent all their savings so he could train), Eddie made the team.

He finished last out of 73 ski-jumpers at Calgary, but his improbable story inspired millions around the world.

One British writer said, “Not that everybody loved him. Many people at Calgary were critical of the way a loser was being lauded. What they didn’t appreciate was his sacrifice, his bravery, and his determination to improve. The manner, in short, in which he fulfilled the very ethical purpose of the Olympic Games. Edwards epitomized the moral value of trying even if success is impossible. He was, in fact, the last of the great amateurs; we will never see his like again.”

I think the reason we love stories about underdogs is that we were created by a God who chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. Jesus is the “stone the builders rejected.” It’s when we lift up the least that we may be most like the Savior.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

Remember the nursery rhyme, “Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down?”

There was a time when we enjoyed nursery rhymes, but we eventually grew up. We became serious, mature.

Now we think it’s more important to keep up appearances, so we avoid looking silly.

An article in the NY Times a while back suggests the practice of psychotherapy in the United States has declined significantly. The reasons for this are complex, but researchers focused on one thing: psychotherapy involves the long, hard work of facing our own issues.

But today most people today blame others for their problems.

Psychotherapists used to see patients who were unhappy and wanted to understand themselves. Now they see more patients who come in “because they want someone else to change.” Fewer and fewer people are saying, ‘I want to change myself.'”

Ash Wednesday is about facing up to our own, most basic issues.

Ash Wednesday is the day when believers publicly acknowledge that we’re not perfect; that we don’t have all the answers; that we came from dust and that’s where we’re headed.

Ash Wednesday is the day above all days when it’s safe to acknowledge our vulnerability and our total reliance on God’s grace.

When we as believers fall down together; when we stop worrying about appearances; when we let down our defenses; when we allow others into our lives; when we let them know that we’re not perfect; that we don’t have all the answers, that’s when we’re most available to the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.

Today, we wear his ashes.

One day, we will wear his crown.

 

Winning through losing

This Sunday on the church calendar celebrates an event called The Transfiguration. Jesus took three disciples from his inner circle up a mountain. For a few moments, Jesus was revealed in heavenly splendor, joined by Moses and Elijah. The disciple Peter, evidently not wanting the moment to end, offered to put up shelters for Jesus and the prophets. When a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son,” the disciples fell down, terrified.

It was the ultimate mountaintop experience.

I imagine that if I had been there, I’d have proposed something like Peter did. I tend to like the glory, even if it’s only the reflected kind. I like the feeling of success, even if it’s someone else’s. I don’t want the good feelings to end.

But the Transfiguration reminds us that our ways are not God’s ways at all.

Just a few weeks later, God’s beloved Son was stripped of his glory, his ministry success was shattered, and the good feelings were replaced by fear and terror.

The Transfiguration invites us to come down from the mountain with Jesus on his way to the cross. It’s a way we tremble to take, but one we dare not miss.

That’s because, Jesus is the kind of God who wins by losing and saves by dying.

Who could have imagined that the greatest splendor of all wouldn’t be revealed in a mountaintop experience but in a tomb experience?

Gender roles

The minister was officiating at a wedding where the bride and groom were serious believers. Again and again, he reminded the bride of what the Apostle Paul himself had said again and again, “Wives submit to your husbands.”

Apparently the minister forgot to mention what Paul said to husbands, “Love your wives as Christ loved the church.”

And how did Christ love the church?

By dying for it.

We all tend to pick and choose the verses in the Bible we take more seriously than others. Some verses resonate with our worldview; we love them. Some challenge our worldview; those we tend to ignore. One area where this happens frequently today is in gender roles.

In 1st Corinthians 14:34, Paul says that “women should remain silent in church.” If you’re the minister at the wedding I just mentioned, that verse probably reinforces your worldview. If you think “all people are created equal,” a phrase that is not in the Bible, you worldview causes you to reject that verse.

But we should all ask ourselves, if women were so important to Jesus, and so prominent in the life of the early church, (and they were) why would Paul write something that seemed to contradict what was actually going on? Women were teaching and preaching in the churches Paul organized.

The answer has to be that God is always challenging our worldview, no matter what it is. In this case, Paul was addressing particular cultural practices which interfered with hearing the word preached in church, whether the preacher happened to be a woman or a man.

If you don’t let God challenge your most cherished beliefs, is God really God to you?

Outreached Arms

The meal we serve in our church each Tuesday with our partners from Outreached Arms had been over for a while, and most of the hundred or so guests had left. Johnny was talking to volunteers, and carefully packing and re-packing his backpack, reluctant to leave. Allison, one of the regular volunteers came over to my wife to say that Johnny needed gloves. Sharon, founder of Outreached Arms, found a pair of cotton work gloves. Johnny really needed winter gloves, so Allison volunteered to bring Johnny a new pair the next week.

Johnny had been a regular at these meals, but the following week he was nowhere to be seen. Later we found out why. The night after eating with us, Johnny had been shot multiple times and died on the steps in the Spring Garden neighborhood on the North Side. Surveillance video showed two men walking with Johnny, then running away from the scene

Part of what makes life on the street so hard is the pecking order where the strong lord it over the weak. Johnny was small and thin, an obvious target.

Each week at these meals I see hurting people, many living on the street, sit up a little straighter and smile a little brighter. For an hour or so they get treated with dignity, and get to enjoy a hot meal in a safe place. One pastor visiting this week for the first time told me he was amazed at how many of our guests and volunteers knew each other by name.

This week Allison posted a selfie on her Facebook page that she took with Johnny at the Outreached Arms Christmas Party. “I considered it an honor to have served you,” she wrote.

Thank God for people like Allison.

The more things change…

This week I looked back in our church’s history to the time 200 years ago when Francis Herron was called as pastor. Herron’s dream was to transform the church which would then transform Pittsburgh and the frontier. The fact that streets and landmarks in the city still bear the name Herron suggest that he and his prominent relatives succeeded in many ways.

But there were challenges.

Pittsburgh was a frontier town known for gambling and drinking. Even the church was a hub for those kinds of things. What’s more, the church was bankrupt, the property up for sheriff’s sale to pay back taxes. Herron bought the property himself for $2819, and later sold a portion to the bank for $3000, settling the debt and making a profit for the church.

Herron and another minister took the outlandish step of meeting regularly to pray. They didn’t dare meet at the church, because the elders believed that prayer meetings were only for fanatics. But slowly, the prayer meetings began to grow.

Herron knew nothing about music, but when he gave young people permission to form a choir, one elder insisted, “They shall never have an instrument—no never!”

A century later, the survival of the church was again in doubt as people were leaving downtown for the suburbs. But instead of moving the church to the suburbs, where many parishioners now lived, the new pastor, Maitland Alexander, embarked on a bold plan. He tore down the 50 year old church building, dug up the church cemetery with the bones of Pittsburgh’s heroes, re-interred their remains with honors, and built an even bigger church, which he dreamed would transform Pittsburgh into a city of God.  Alexander insisted that:

  • The church provide more than social services. Everything the church did had to be based on God’s Word.
  • The church must never become a class church. Everyone would be welcome.
  • Everything the church did had to come out of its relationship with Jesus Christ.

First Presbyterian is well into its third century. The city has gone from frontier town, to steel city, to technology magnet. The challenges still demand bold vision and outreach. But the dream hasn’t changed: transform the city for Jesus Christ.

 

Fake news

There’s a term being used a lot today called “fake news,” which refers to a false story with harmful consequences if believed.

Surprisingly, even in Jesus’ day, something like this was going on. Jesus was teaching in the temple, saying things the religious insiders didn’t like. When they sent in troops to arrest Jesus, the troops came back without him. “Nobody ever spoke like him,” they said. “You fell for fake news,” came the reply.

Frustrated by their inability to have Jesus arrested, the religious insiders set a trap. They brought to Jesus a woman they’d caught in adultery. The punishment for such a crime was stoning. What would Jesus do?

“Go ahead, stone her,” was Jesus’ shocking answer. “But the one who is without sin, you throw the first stone.”

The woman was guilty, but Jesus was the one they really wanted to stone. In shifting the anger of the crowd from the woman to himself, Jesus had taken an enormous risk.

After the crowd had left, Jesus told the woman, “No one has condemned you, neither do I. Go and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus saved her without condoning her behavior.

In a polarized world, Jesus continues to defy those who want to use him for their cause.

The religious leaders believed the “fake news” that they had a corner on the truth.

The woman believed the “fake news” that she could sleep with anyone she liked without consequences.

Jesus took both the wrath of the religious elite, and the pain of the broken woman on himself.

Jesus is always something else, something other, something more.