Put off by religious types?

A few weeks ago, our sons helped lead the funeral service for their grandmother (my wife’s mother). Presbyterians call this “A Witness to the Resurrection and a Celebration of Life,” and so our sons made sure that the resurrection was front and center at the service. Like her late husband, Lorraine lived with the assurance that she belonged to God; that this life was not all there is; and that one day she would rise to see her loved ones again.

The loss of a loved one is one of the few occasions when people open up about faith. One person expressed views that ministers often hear: he didn’t believe, he said, because he’d been turned off by the rules and hypocrisy he’d seen in church growing up; the religion he’d experienced seemed too confining; and there were plenty of people on the Internet who shared his views.

Acknowledged.

But what does any of that have to do with the fact that Jesus Christ, who was stone cold dead, came out of the tomb?

Are you telling me that, because you were put off by some church people, that’s going to influence the way you understand the most important event in history?

You let a bad experience of church shape how you understand reality itself?

Far from being confining, the resurrection is the most liberating news you could possibly hear. The resurrection means that we can live with courage and love and hope because we have proof that God is for us, and that God is dealing with the problem beneath all our other problems.

Of course, if Jesus really did come out of the tomb, and I believe he did, it creates a bigger challenge for us than what to do about “religious” people. The risen Jesus calls us to choose him so that he might use us to transform the world today, and so that one day we might rise with him and live with him forever.

What’s influencing that choice for you?  

Question of authority

This week is Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while excited crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” (Save us!).

For the first time, Jesus accepted the crowds’ adoration and their proclaiming him as the king.

But Jesus didn’t head to the palace for a coronation, he headed to the temple to clean house. In the only act of violence he ever committed, he drove out the currency exchangers and the sacrifice sellers.

The religious leaders asked, “Who gave you the authority to do these things?” It was a fair question. The religious leaders’ job was to uphold practices that God had founded a millennium before. The only one with the authority to overturn those things was God.

Which is why Jesus went to the temple (where God resided) and not the palace (where the king resided.)

So, the question this Sunday is one of authority. Who has authority to come into your place and clean house?  Have you let Jesus have that kind of authority over your life? Has he cleaned up lately? Ever?

Jesus cannot be your helper, or your moral example, or a nice teacher. He claimed to be God. If he’s not turning things over and setting things straight, is he really God to you?

End of exile

This Sunday we come to the end of our study of the Old Testament figure Nehemiah. But the ending of Nehemiah is a letdown.

God had brought his exiled people back to Jerusalem. Despite all kinds of opposition, the walls were rebuilt, the city was secure, the sacrificial system was restored, and the people were worshipping again.

After 12 years as governor, Nehemiah stepped aside for a time. When he returned, he found that the people were doing the same kinds of things that had made God angry centuries before. There was legalism, cronyism, materialism, and more. Angry and frustrated, Nehemiah immediately sought to correct the problems.

Had the reforms been for nothing?

Not without self-pity, Nehemiah cried, “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God.”

It’s one thing to take the people out of exile.

It’s something else to take the exile out of the people.

It’s one thing to lead a reformation.

It’s something else to be content with God when the reforms don’t seem to last. 

What we miss, if we don’t know our Bibles well, is that the Book of Nehemiah marks the end of the Old Testament history. Everything that comes after Nehemiah is wisdom literature or prophetic writings. The Bible is basically silent about the history of God’s people for the next 400 years, until the New Testament writers come on the scene. 

Someone told me recently that they had prayed and prayed but God had failed to answer their prayers. Therein lies one of the great questions of life. It seems to me that for every answered prayer, there’s a reform that didn’t fully take, and a frustrated reformer who can only cry out to God.

But for Nehemiah, all was not lost. The people were worshipping, if imperfectly. The Holy City was restored, if still under assault.

Maybe the point is to make us long for the once-and-for-all reformer, Jesus Christ.

Relationships

I just finished six years on the board of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. My term ended with the PDP’s annual meeting, where civic leaders describe the state of downtown. There are many good things going on downtown, but there are also many hurting people. This means there are many, many ways for the church to care for the city and share the faith.

When I started at the church ten years ago, I’d see an occasional article with predictions of a resurgent downtown. At last it’s true. There’s been $8.5 billion in new construction within a half mile of the church over the last ten years. $300 million worth of projects are underway right now. There are condos, apartments, restaurants, and all kinds of new businesses. One signature project, Lumière, with 86 new residences, is half a block away.

The challenge for us is that a resurgent downtown no longer thinks it needs the church. So how do we reach it?

Relationships.

My understanding of this started with my classes and experiences in mission. Missionaries must do at least two things—care for people and share the Gospel. They must get to know the people they hope to reach, learn their language, live and work with them, and make a difference in their community. And after all that, hopefully they’ve built a relationship out of which they can share the Gospel.

Ten years ago, I imagined that the beauty of the church building, the church’s programs, or even my preaching would bring people to faith. But slowly I’ve learned to repent of those ideas.

It’s relationships.

Who’s in

This Sunday after worship, our church is hosting the musical production, “The Prodigal Sons.” I hear the show is great. It’s based on Jesus’ most important parable.

A man had two sons. The younger one demanded his inheritance from his father, and then squandered his father’s wealth in wild living. But then he came to his senses. He returned home and threw himself on his father’s mercy. “I’m not worthy to be called your son,” he cried.

The father who’d never stopped looking for him, welcomed him back as a son.

The older brother was out in the fields doing his duty, as he’d always done. When he saw that his father had welcomed his brother back home, he became angry. The father pleaded with him to come in, but (apparently) to no avail. “You owe me!” the son said.

I’ve said many times, when I finally understood this passage, it changed my life.

I’d always thought that the point was to be like the older brother: Stay home, do your duty. Don’t be like that awful younger one.

But that’s not what the parable is about at all.

It turns out that there are two ways to be our own savior, one by being bad and one by being good. At the end of the story, it was the “good” brother who was on the outside of his father’s house looking in.

Saying “You owe me!” to the father is a sure sign of a deadly spiritual condition. This is why, on the greatest day of his father’s life, when at last he had his son back safe and sound, the older son refused to celebrate.

When the truth of this finally dawned on me, I understood why so many people are put off by church. They look at the church and what they see (fairly or not) is a bunch of unhappy older brothers.

And as often as I’ve preached and taught on this passage, people still tell me, “I don’t see what the elder brother did wrong.”

Let me put it this way. There are two ways to approach God. One is to say, “I’m not worthy,” and the other is to say, “You owe me.”

I’m not God, but it would seem that the ones God welcomes are the ones who say to God, “I’m not worthy and I know I will never we worthy.”

The ones who think they deserve to be in, are out.

The ones who know that they deserve to be out, are in.

Fear

This week, dozens of wealthy parents were charged with fraud after paying millions of dollars to a man named William Singer, who ran a bogus college prep company. Singer bribed admissions officials, test proctors, and coaches to guarantee kids’ acceptance into elite universities. One couple paid $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California on the rowing team, though neither girl had ever taken part in the sport.

Why would parents, who were able to give their kids every advantage, do something so dishonest?

Didn’t they fear getting caught?

My guess is that the parents were afraid of how they might look if their teenager didn’t get into the “right school.”

We’re studying Nehemiah, the Old Testament exile who God called long ago to rebuild Jerusalem. With God’s guidance, Jerusalem was rebuilt. Then, incredibly, the former exiles turned on each other. They cheated one another out of property. They charged one another interest on loans, something God had forbidden.

Nehemiah’s rebuke to the cheaters: “Shouldn’t you walk in fear of our God?”.

“Fear of the Lord,” doesn’t so much mean a fear of getting caught, or even a fear of going to hell. It means healthy reverence. And it’s the kind of fear that usually comes with love and hope.

We shake our heads at wealthy parents who cheat, but what of the exiles in Nehemiah’s day? They’d come back to Jerusalem with nothing except the grace of God. You’d think they’d have each other’s back; instead they cheated each other.   

I wonder what our lives would be like if, instead of trying to take advantage of each other, we worked to cultivate a healthy fear of our God?

Who knows, we might not be afraid of, say, our kids’ score on college entrance exams.

Holy moments

Some of the best moments in the life of a pastor happen at the end of a long aisle. 

Take weddings. I’ve gotten to marry dozens of times. In my job I get to stand at the end of a long center aisle and watch as a bride, in the moment of her life when she is perhaps most radiant and beautiful, makes her way toward her husband. So many people live together today that you might think that marriage is no big deal. But that’s not what it feels like when you’re standing between two trembling people.

Then there’s communion. People line up down the aisle, waiting to tear off a piece of bread and dip it in the juice. It’s a bit awkward, frankly; it’s hard to tear bread neatly. But then, shouldn’t we feel a bit awkward? Are we not entering together into the great mystery of salvation? I get to say the words, “The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, poured out for you.”

And last, there’s Ash Wednesday. The people who line up down the aisle know they need to be there. They know that only through confession and repentance, symbolized by ashes, can they receive the true life Christ offers. I get to enter in to a moment when total strangers make themselves vulnerable before God, as I make the sign of the cross in ash on their forehead.

Radiance and beauty, mystery and salvation, vulnerability and life, at the end of a long center aisle.   

Beloved Dust

One of our most ancient stories pictures God as a gardener, reaching down and scooping up some dust, and forming the first human being with his own hands. God then breathed into the man’s nostrils, and he came to life. The Hebrew word, athaam, means “earth.” It’s no surprise that the first man was called Adam.

There’s a one day a year on the Christian calendar when we remind ourselves that we came from dust, and that’s where we’re headed. We’re all dust, the mightiest and the humblest of us. There’s no denying where we came from, and there’s no escaping where we’re headed. 

But we’re dust that’s been made alive by a loving creator. His own breath is in us, literally and spiritually. The least of us is an incredibly complex creation, and God’s supreme work of art.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we remind ourselves that we’re dust; dust that’s been made alive and that remains utterly dependent on God. We also remember that the God who can do the unimaginable…make dust out of nothing and then make dust come alive…loves us with unimaginably great love.

And so, on Ash Wednesday we remember what the pastor says at a funeral, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But we’re beloved dust.

Partners

When Gianfranco Grande got the email, he was on vacation in Vienna with his wife. “I need to answer this,” he said to her.

Gianfranco is Executive Vice-President of Partners for Sacred Places, a national non-profit which has helped congregations in all 50 states maintain their historic spaces and remain a vital part of the social fabric.

Gianfranco has consulted with thousands of churches. His schedule is packed well into the future. So why did he choose to take time from his European vacation to answer an email from another church?

Because the email came from First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh.

Of course, it’s Gianfranco’s job to know historic churches, so maybe it’s not that surprising that he already knew about us, about the unique beauty of our building and the amazing history of what God has done through this church. Not long after Gianfranco answered my email, he was on an airplane to meet with our session and staff to talk about partnering with us in determining the feasibility of a capital campaign.

Why a capital campaign?

The biggest need is the roof. The Vermont Green Slate, built to last 125 years, is 114 years old. Rusted drain pipes allow water to seep behind stone walls. Layers of dirt block over half the light coming through the magnificent Tiffany windows.

Old buildings have accessibility issues. The only handicapped entrance is in back, a hundred-yard trek from the front steps. Steam pipes are 114 years old. The church’s mission to the city might be dramatically enhanced by a new kitchen and cafeteria space and other improvements. There is no shortage of challenges. And given our location in the heart of a thriving downtown, there is also an abundance of opportunities.

This week, Gianfranco and his colleague Sarah Jones began conducting interviews with congregation members and members of the community. They’ll report to us in a few weeks on the feasibility of raising the funds needed to build for the future.

I have met people all over the country who know the beauty of our building and the impact this church has made. Let’s dream together about how we can preserve and build on this legacy for future generations.

Coach

Did you have a favorite teacher?

Did you have someone who saw something special in you, challenged you, and encouraged you to be your best? You’d do anything for a teacher like that. You wanted to do well, not to get their approval, you already had that; but because they genuinely shared in your delight.

For me, that teacher was Captain David Whitlock, the speech and debate coach at the Air Force Academy when I was a cadet. “Coach” put together one of the top programs nationally, even though all his students attended the Academy for reasons other than debate. Coach took us to tournaments all over the country, usually via antiquated T-29 trainer airplanes. Coach was our mentor and guide, showing us a bit of what life was like outside a military college.  

I’d looked for Coach many times over the years to tell him how much he meant to me, but without luck. Then recently, a friend from the debate team found me online and we started checking in. Soon there was a group of us exchanging emails. We all wanted to know, “Has anyone heard from Coach?”

Coach had had the same impact on all of us.

And then, lo and behold, Coach was found! At 84, he was still teaching speech to undergrads near Dayton. He even sent us a selfie. There was that same smile, surrounded by a new batch of students.

One by one, my old teammates started checking in. They all said what I had wanted to say all those years. I hesitated as I tried to come up with just the right words. Then last Sunday, I came home from church and there was an email from Coach to us all.

And there was this: “Tom Hall, we knew you’d do something very special with your life, but I was a little surprised that you jumped ahead of the rest of us in that waiting line to heaven. Nice move. One distinguished career just wasn’t enough for you, was it?”

I lost it. And even as I write this, it’s hard to see the screen. Before I could say “thank you,” the words of approval had been on my teacher’s lips.

This is how God is with us. God is waiting to tell us what we long to hear. Before the words of thanks are on our lips, he says to us, “There’s something special about you.”