Remember

Twenty years ago, I was part of a defense study trip to Central Europe. In Warsaw, we got to meet a member of Polish Parliament who later became President of Poland. In the 1980s, he’d been a contemporary of Lech Walesa and was part of the Solidarity movement that threw off communism. 

I asked him what was easier—to lead a revolution or to build a new democracy. He stopped and smiled. He said he’d been put in jail many times by the communists and thought he would die in prison. He never imagined that he would one day be leading a new government. 

One of his biggest challenges was meeting the expectations of young people who wanted the lifestyle of the west, but who had no real memory of socialism. He said his teenage daughter asked him, “What was socialism like?” His family had been on vacation in Ukraine, which was then still run by the socialists. His daughter noticed people standing in various lines, so he told her to stand in one of the lines and find out what it was for. When she got to the front of the line, a person put a piece of cheese in her hand. She came back to her dad holding the piece of cheese.

He told her, “Now you know what socialism was like.”

His point was this: If you don’t remember where you came from, how can you possibly know where you’re going? The lack of a shared memory—of the shared sense having overcome together—was causing the younger generation to be impatient.    

On the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, it’s important to remember the event that shaped us a nation. We don’t just remember the terror of that day or the heroism it inspired.

We pause to remember the faithfulness of God. Because it’s the faithfulness of God that gives us hope. 

Over and over in the Bible, God called his people to remember.

In Genesis 9, after the great flood, God put a rainbow in the sky and told Noah that it would be a reminder to God of the everlasting covenant between God and all creation.  God didn’t need to be reminded. The rainbow was a reminder to humanity of God’s mercy and faithfulness. 

In Joshua 3, after the people of Israel had safely crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Joshua commanded that one man from each tribe take a stone from the riverbed and erect a memorial so future generations would remember how God had stopped the flow of water and got them safely across.

Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, gave his disciples the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, telling them that whenever they ate the bread and drank the wine they were to do so in remembrance of him.

When we baptize an infant, we’re to remember the vows of our own baptism, and how God is faithful, even when we’re helpless to help ourselves. 

In this church, we remember that we were once a frontier church. We remember how the men who founded this church first met in 1758 in the smoldering ruins of Fort Duquesne. 

We remember God’s faithfulness to us.

We remember the character of the God we worship. 

The God who weeps with us.

The God who suffers for us.

Going back in

How many times do you keep going back into danger?

How many narrow escapes can one person have?

I wonder if questions like that went through the minds of Jesus’ disciples. A series of controversies with religious leaders had come to a climax when the leaders picked up stones to stone Jesus. Somehow, Jesus slipped away before the stones started flying.

That sort of narrow escape seemed to be happening to Jesus more and more.

What if the next escape attempt became one too many?

Jesus and the disciples retreated to safer territory on the far side of the Jordan.

But soon a cryptic message arrived, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” That was all. No request. Not even, “Please come quickly!”

Of course, the request was from Mary and Martha, on behalf of their sick brother Lazarus. Jesus loved them and they loved him. It was as if Mary and Martha didn’t need to say anything else. If you know Jesus, you know he always does more than we ask or imagine.

But then Jesus waited two days. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived in Bethany, back across the Jordan, where the leaders wanted Jesus dead. Healing Lazarus meant going back into danger.

“This sickness will not end in death,” Jesus told his disciples.

Of course he was right, but not in the way anyone imagined.

Lazarus’ sickness led to his death, but things didn’t end there.

Lazarus went through death into life.

And that’s what happened to Jesus too. Bringing Lazarus back to life set in motion the events that led to the crucifixion.

But then Jesus went through death into life.  

We might question his timing, but Jesus always knows what to do, what we need, and what’s best for us.

When you trust in Jesus Christ, sickness and death become things you go through into life.

Aching hearts

This week, when it seemed the situation in Afghanistan couldn’t get any worse, it did. Our hearts ache and our prayers go up.

I was a Cold War warrior, a member of a bomber crew, part of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. We were prepared to respond with overwhelming force in the event of a nuclear attack. This “balance of power” strategy kept the peace through many administrations for 40 years.

The strategy worked, in part, because the other side wanted to live as much as we did.

I was never in a shooting war, thank goodness.

I never had to do what our Soldiers and Marines are asked to do today: stand guard at checkpoints with a mass of humanity in front of you. You don’t know if the person coming toward you is a pregnant mother or a suicide bomber. If you choose wrong, you and your friends could be killed, you could start an international incident, or you could be put up on charges. 

Where do we find men and women of character willing to do such things?

I frequently pray that our leaders would be worthy of them.

Jesus was no stranger to situations like this. He often faced angry crowds who had picked up stones to stone him.

Where did Jesus get his character?

John 10:34 says that Jesus responded to an angry crowd by quoting scripture, a verse from Psalm 82. He was so steeped in scripture that even obscure (to us) passages came to mind in a crisis.

He was steeped in prayer that connected him to the heart and mind of the Father.

And in all of that he knew the divine plan that one day the crowd would get its way.

Prayer: Lord God Almighty, we pray for the men and women of our Armed Forces, and for the people of Afghanistan. Protect and save them. And we pray for ourselves. Through prayer and scripture, lead us deeper and deeper into your heart, so that when the crisis comes, we might be people of character. Amen.

Surrender

The scenes unfolding in Afghanistan this past week are heartbreaking on so many levels. And it’s just as sad to think that, in our fractured world, we may never understand, much less agree on, what went wrong and how to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

And so we’re all hurting.

Again.

Or should I say, hurting still? Wasn’t 2020 supposed to be over?

But there is a spiritual lesson that each of us should internalize:

It’s hard to surrender.

Giving up control can be a lot harder than taking it.

This week we’re studying John 10, which is right in the middle of the Gospel of John. Hebrew writers often used “ring composition,” so the main point was in the middle, instead of up front or at the end.

And in the middle of the Gospel of John is the central claim of the Christian faith:

Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

“I lay down my life for my sheep.”

“I and the Father are one.”

The central claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ is Lord, and in the greatest, once-and-for-all act of surrender, gave up his life for his fallen creatures. The eternal one who spoke all of creation into being and keeps it all running, surrendered and died.

But then he rose again.

Chaos and surrender didn’t have the last word.

In God’s economy, Jesus “laying down” his life turned out to be the greatest “lifting up” in history.

And so he promised, “I give them eternal life.”

“No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

But surrender doesn’t come easily to us. We like being in control. We’d prefer if he sent us on a great spiritual quest. But he doesn’t do that. We don’t have to be the best and the brightest. We don’t even have to be better than most.

All we have to do is understand that we’re his sheep, loved sheep at that, and that we’re helpless to save ourselves.

And surrender to him.

The Good Shepherd

My favorite stained-glass window in our church shows Jesus cradling a little lamb in his arms.

But if you focus on the figure of Jesus in the window, it’s possible to miss the background: a narrow path through a steep mountain pass. It’s possible to miss the point that rescuing a lost sheep is hard and dangerous work. In Luke 15, Jesus said it meant leaving the rest of the flock in the wilderness, and bringing back the lost one by slinging it over his shoulders. It was too big to be carried in his arms. 

And why do sheep need to be rescued in the first place?

It’s because sheep follow their appetites. They get lost because they think only of themselves and their next meal. A lost sheep becomes helpless, frozen with fear, completely unable to save itself. 

It’s no wonder that one of the most famous things Jesus said about himself is, “I am the Good Shepherd.” By far, the most beloved psalm is Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

In this crazy time, with a pandemic that seems to hang on forever, what if you really believed that Jesus is The Good Shepherd? What if you really believed that God came to rescue you, not just at great risk, but at infinite cost to himself?

What if we all believed it?

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.