Roll down justice

Slavery ended with the Civil War, right? Not exactly. There are 40 million people worldwide in slavery today, more than at any other time in history. Human trafficking is the third largest criminal activity in the world.

But slavery must be a third-word problem, right? Not exactly. Whenever someone is hurting, in poverty, or in an abusive relationship, they are vulnerable to exploitation.

“Kate” was interviewed on local TV earlier this year. Kate spent much of her childhood in abusive households, jumping between family, foster parents, and adoption. Eventually, she decided to run away, but was homeless and alone. She was 15 when she met a man who offered her a place to stay.

The 40-year-old told her, “If you help me I’ll help you.”

Kate started selling drugs on 5th Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. It wasn’t enough. Soon, the man made her do other things she didn’t want to do. She wanted to leave, but she was trapped.

Kate was rescued in an FBI sting operation in a local hotel but was charged with prostitution. The good news is that county officials and advocacy groups are working to see that Kate and others like her are treated as victims instead of criminals.

This Sunday, September 23rd, has been declared “Freedom Sunday” by International Justice Mission (IJM.org). This Sunday, we join thousands of churches around the world in learning about slavery and human trafficking.

A long time ago, God told the Prophet Micah that three things were required of God followers: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

This isn’t passive voice. Justice is something we do.

Could we pray about joining IJM in helping to end this curse, not just in the third world, but right outside our doors?

 

Surprise

Matthew 25 is the climax of Jesus’ final speech. Jesus paints an incredible word picture of the throne room of God. Everyone who ever lived is standing before Jesus for final judgment. It’s an awesome, terrifying thing to imagine.

What standard will Jesus use to make the ultimate judgment?

Did you feed, clothe, care for, or visit hurting people?

The criteria are as down-to-earth as the vision is grand

Jesus says that in the end there will be just two categories. You’re either blessed or cursed, depending on whether you took part in simple ministries of food, shelter, and visitation.

That’s it. That’s Jesus’ basis for dividing up people for eternity.

Surprising? Yes, but not in the way you probably think. Jesus goes on to say that everyone will be surprised on judgment day. The ones who are blessed will be surprised because they know they’re not worthy to stand before a Holy God. They know that nothing they could ever do could make them worthy.

But the ones destined for eternal fire are surprised too. “What do you mean we didn’t serve the hurting people?” they demand to know. Instead of throwing themselves on the mercy of a Holy God, begging for forgiveness, they’re indignant.

Self-righteousness is so deadly because the first thing it kills is your self-awareness.  When you’re self-righteous, no one, not even God, can tell you that you’ve been justifying yourself.

On judgment day, the ones who know they should be out, are in. They ones who think they’re in, are out.

Surprising.

Tuesday

7:05 AM. Arrive at church. 18 people sleeping on the front porch, and I talk to some. Eric and Nicole want to know why I object to their sleeping there. I point out the trash, broken flower pots, urine smell, excrement, and suggest they’re killing the church. It wasn’t them, they say, bad people came at night to do this. I notice David, who’d been removed by police three times one day last week for drunkenness. Drunk now, he told me he was going to rehab. 7:15. Unlock the church, make coffee, set up for men’s bible study. 7:30. Prayer, bible study. Great group, always a highlight. 8:35. Custodian says freezer is only holding 10 degrees. It’s over 30 years old. 8:45. Voicemails. Rent-A-Center needs a reference. Return calls. Emails. Former member who lives in Florida and follows my blog will be visiting soon! Concern from member that names in the bulletin were wrong. Why no Apostles Creed? 9:00. Ops director spots someone smashing flower pots on security camera footage, early Sunday AM. 9:30. Ops director spots the vandal, it’s Eric, mentioned above, who’s still out front! 9:45. I call 911. 9:55. Police arrive and check for warrants. Erik is felon wanted for gun charges. Give police my contact info. 10:35. Half hour late for discussion of book Evicted with ministerium walk-in volunteers at 1st Lutheran Church. 11:40. Walk back to church with a church member who’d read Evicted. 11:55. Pastor Dan and I discuss staff concerns. 1:00 PM. Lunch at Ten Penny with Patrice, head of PGH Marathon, Pastor Dan, his wife Leslie, and Pastor Brian of 1st Lutheran. Prayer. Patrice gives us a $5000 check for the Ministerium walk-in ministry. 2:35. Dan and I encounter Earl, walk-in guest, on Penn Ave, 2:45. Dan and I talk to panhandler on church steps. 3:00. More email. Evening custodian will be late; I’m happy to lock up. Share thoughts on pastoral care issue with our student pastor. 3:45. Pastor Dan and I discuss pastoral care issues. Prayer. 4:30. Time to lock up, but someone is lying awkwardly on front porch, so I check. Mike is his name, says he’s OK, but he’s not. Holding his stomach. 4:40 Dan has set up pop-up meeting with Charles Chapman of Living Ministries. Promises to help us with people sleeping out front. 5:15. Meeting over and we check on Mike. He’s pulling out handfuls of poop from his pants and throwing it. Charles calls Operation Safety Net street team who promises to come, but they don’t. 6:00. I call 911. 6:10. Police arrive and try to rouse Mike, but he keeps falling back and hitting his head. They won’t get close since Mike is covered in poop. 6:20. Paramedics arrive, wrap Mike in sheets to keep from soiling everything. Strap him to stretcher. 6:30. Escort visitor to women’s bible study. 6:30. Check in with folks at Outreached Arms meal. Invite the guy who runs the drink station, a venture capitalist, to church. 6:40. Greet guests and volunteers. Custodian late. Round up buckets, etc. to clean poop. 7:15. Guy named Michael is eating chicken on front steps. Drunk, he doesn’t notice the smell. He looks familiar. Yes, he’d slept there last night. Before alcohol, Mike had been head of security at a mall. How many times, I ask, has he been to rehab? Four. I ask about his family, and he starts to cry. Has a daughter, 18. I tell him to go ten more times if he has to; his kid is worth it. I pray for him. 7:30. Young lady sitting on the steps talking on her phone. I warn her about the mess I’ve been cleaning and notice her accent. She’s from Turkey, a student at Chatham, and a Muslim. I invite her to church. 8:10. Head home. 8:45. Shower, wash clothes. 9:30. Email, personnel team report, texts, put my clothes in the washer. 10:30. Start this blog.

Bible stories your mother never told you

More than once in my Air Force career my boss assigned me to lead an investigation into charges of sexual abuse. It turned out that in each case, a predator used a position of power to hurt someone who was vulnerable. I saw up close the pain inflicted on victims and families.

As the massive scandal of abuse by priests, and its cover up, continues to devastate the Catholic church (no religious tradition is immune), where can you find the resources to even begin to understand what’s going on?

I suggest those resources are in the bible, in the stories your mother never told you.

David and Bathsheba isn’t exactly a bedtime favorite among parents. Neither is the story of David’s son Amnon, who became obsessed with his sister Tamar “to the point of illness” (2 Samuel 13:2).

My mother never told me the story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19).

Is the problem just men in power? Consider Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:7), or Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19:31). The bible stories your mother never told you encompass people in nearly every category imaginable.

So why are these stories in the bible?

Because they’re true, and because the bible is completely realistic about human depravity.

We tend to avoid the truth when it offends us. Not the bible.

We tend to take the protagonists of the bible and turn them into moral examples. We teach kids, “Be strong like David.” But ultimately that’s not the message of the Bible. The message of the bible is, even “the best of us,” even people like David, are capable of the worst kinds of evil. On our own, we’re helpless to save ourselves. We need someone who really was perfect to pay the price for the evil in us and save us from ourselves.

The bible stories your mother never told you are proof that the worst human behavior is no surprise to God.

The bible stories she did tell you—the miracles, the healings, the cross, the empty tomb—are proof that God cares, and is doing something about it.

What all the stories—the ones we love and the ones we overlook—point to is Jesus Christ. Jesus stepped into the world he created and took the worst kind of abuse on himself. And people in power were his chief abusers.

And he defeated them.

A story I love is the one from late in the day on the first Easter, of the risen Jesus showing his bewildered disciples his wounds. The wounds inflicted by his abusers were the proof to his disciples that he was who he claimed to be.

They’re the proof to us that our wounds matter to God, and that Jesus can take the worst things we suffer in this life and weave them into the new reality he’s creating.

Warnings, cautions, notes

People who fly jets sometimes do things with the airplane that the designer never intended, leading to accidents that cause injury or death.

When an accident occurs, it usually leads to a human solution, a change to the operator’s manual, so future crewmembers won’t repeat the mistake.

A “warning” is something that if not followed, could lead to injury or death.

A “caution,” if not followed, could lead to equipment damage.

A “note” is something that’s recommended but not required.

Operator’s manuals are filled with warnings, cautions, and notes arising out of accidents, hence the aircrew saying that the manuals are “written in blood.”

Sometimes an accident also leads to a hardware fix; airplanes retrofitted with a device to help keep crewmembers from making the same mistake.

What’s my point?

Our church is confronting a difficult situation. A few “guests” are using the building in a way that was never intended. Some sleep outside, and a few leave trash, human waste, and the occasional needle. It can be awful, especially for our staff who bear the brunt of the mess.

Does this call for a human solution, a “hardware fix,” or both? There’s a case to be made for all sides.

A proposed hardware fix is to install gates to help keep people off church property after hours.

A human solution might be to engage the folks who cause the problem. Most are mentally ill or addicted; victims of the epidemic sweeping our country.

Some proposed aircraft hardware fixes are too cumbersome or expensive. The fix might prevent the problem, but it would also keep the plane from working as intended. An airplane that doesn’t fly is safe, but what good is it?

In the church, my sense is that a human problem first calls for a human solution. We should work with the street teams who minister to the city’s homeless.

As crewmembers, we need to remember what the Designer has in mind.

 

Paradigm shift

After 18 years of service in the Air Force, I got my dream job to command a flying unit. It was the only flying command for folks in my career field, and I was fortunate to get it.

And then Congress voted to close the base.

Instead of making the squadron the best it could be (my dream) my role was to keep the mission going while the unit got smaller and smaller as people moved on to new assignments. Best I can tell, nobody ever dreamed of doing that.

Now I have another dream job. I’m the pastor of an amazing church in the heart of a transforming city. “Where would you put a church?” I ask. The answer is, right here, where ours has been for 245 years. I am truly blessed.

But there’s a challenge, and it seems to me it’s not unlike the one I had a long time ago.

For most of my time on the planet, it was normal for people to attend church. Attending church would lead people to serve and grow in faith. The church in North America worked on this paradigm for most of the 20th century.

Attendance led to engagement.

Now it’s just the opposite. Now the church has to engage people where they are and give them ways to serve. When people see the church making a difference, maybe they’ll attend, and some will grow in faith.

Engagement leads to attendance.

Churches everywhere are missing this paradigm shift, and when they do, they’re effectively voting to close.

The early church never built buildings and expected people to attend. It went to its neighbors and engaged them. People came to faith after seeing the church make a difference in their lives.

It turned out that my dreams for an Air Force career were too small. I was blessed to have more great jobs I’d never even dreamed about. I think it can be true for the church too, if we engage the folks to whom God is calling us.

Both/and

We have an interesting situation in the church where I pastor.

We serve a meal on Tuesday nights attended by a lot of hurting folks, including the materially poor and homeless.

About the same number of people come to worship in our sanctuary on Sunday.

But few of our Tuesday guests worship with us on Sunday. And only a small number of dedicated members help serve the Tuesday meals.

It’s as if we have a Tuesday congregation and a Sunday congregation. Why is that?

Matthew 9 tells the story of the call of the disciple Matthew. Jesus saw him sitting in a tax collector’s booth and said, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed. That night, Jesus went to Matthew’s house for dinner, and some of Matthew’s tax collector friends were there too. The Pharisees (New Testament scholar Dale Bruner calls them the “Serious”) wanted to know why Jesus ate with “sinners.”

The Serious had a point. They’d inherited a tradition, much of it coming directly from God himself, which said a good Jew needed to avoid sinners. The entire concept of God choosing a people to bless all of humankind depended on the Jews keeping themselves separate from the pagan world. This separateness helped them relate to a holy God.

And did we mention? In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were considered the worst sinners of all, on par with murderers.

So, which is it Jesus? Do your followers hang out with “sinners,” or do they keep themselves separate?

Which is harder, for the Serious to see themselves among the sinners, or the sinners to see themselves among the Serious?

Jesus was able to hang out with the most hurting people, and take their hurts upon himself, without becoming one of them.

Somehow, with Jesus, it was never “either/or” but always “both/and.”

The extra mile

It’s one of the most famous sayings in the Bible. Jesus said, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

In Jesus’ day, there were few things people hated more than the Roman occupation. There were Jewish rebels who wanted to kill any Roman solider they saw. It was especially galling that Roman soldiers could order anyone to carry their gear for a mile. Jesus’ command that his followers should voluntarily go an extra mile would have seemed ridiculous.

We hear the phrase “go the extra mile,” as “push yourself, go above and beyond.” But in Jesus’ day, one of the most humiliating things that could happen to you was to have a hated, pagan, occupying soldier make you carry his stuff. Jesus was saying, “Accept the humiliation. Go with him two miles.”

We don’t think this way at all. When someone humiliates me, I usually start imagining what I’m going to say to put them in their place.

How many times have you seen a situation escalate into real violence because someone had their pride wounded?

How many times have you seen a situation diffused when someone refused to be goaded into a fight?

Don’t you wish our politicians today took Jesus’ sayings to heart?

Jesus never condoned murder or injustice; that’s not what this command is about.

If anyone was ever humiliated; if anyone had a right to be angry about the way he was treated, it was Jesus Christ. Instead, he turned anger and humiliation into grace. That’s what he’s calling us to do.

He didn’t carry the gear for a soldier, he carried a cross for us.

Faster Horses

After reading David McCullough’s 2015 book on the Wright Brothers, I wanted to visit the Wright Cycle Company (if it still existed) where, in 1903, the brothers built the first airplane. So, I went to Dayton to the Aviation Heritage Park. But I was disappointed. The Wrights’ shop, along with their family home, had been moved in 1937 to Greenfield Village, an outdoor museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Greenfield Village was the vision of industrialist Henry Ford, who wanted to showcase American innovation and preserve the nation’s history.

Greenfield Village is an amazing place. It includes the lab where Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law, and the home where Henry J. Heinz started his packaged food business, all carefully moved there under Henry Ford’s direction. The Henry Ford Museum includes the bus Rosa Parks was riding when she refused to give up her seat. There are exhibits on design, transportation, energy, leisure, and creativity. The legacy of Henry Ford himself, who revolutionized automobile mass-production, is center stage. And all this is set within the context of freedom, justice, and the struggle for civil rights.

The museum asks, “What if Rosa Parks had simply moved to the back of the bus?” or “What if the Wrights had given up?”

Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” There’s no proof Ford really said that, and many object, saying it appears to devalue peoples’ opinions. But you can’t help but be struck, as you explore the Ford Museum, how vastly different strands of endeavor came together to form a nation.

But consider this. God is weaving together the strands of all lives everywhere into the infinitely greater future he’s creating. We all have a choice to follow a well-worn path or set off in a new direction. We can choose to keep trying or give up.

God is calling us into his future. Will we join him, or will we settle for faster horses?

Off the map

In his book, Canoeing the Mountains, pastor and seminary leader Tod Bolsinger tells a story from his time as a church head of staff. The church had called him, in part, to reach new families. In Tod’s church, young people had their own worship service and rarely attended “big church.” The downside of this was that young people never really felt they were part of the church, and many quit church when they went to college. So, Tod asked the staff to brainstorm ideas to help young people feel more like part of the family.

“Let’s have Youth Sunday,” someone suggested, and it got the group working. Like they’d done in the past, one of the youth would preach, while others would read scripture, usher, and so on. Everyone liked the idea.

Then the business manager spoke up. Youth Sunday had always been the lowest-attended, lowest-giving Sunday all year. The junior high director agreed. The kids hated it. They felt silly wearing shirts and ties. The older folks hated the music. Everyone ended up feeling awkward and patronized.

Canoeing the Mountains is Tod Bolsinger’s metaphor for where the church finds itself today. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase. When Lewis and Clark reached the headwaters of the Missouri, they expected to find the Northwest Passage and float down the river to the Pacific.

Instead, the Rocky Mountains stood before them.

They had boats and no map.

Kind of like the church today.

Tod describes it as a “moment of deep disorientation.” When we find ourselves in moments like this, “we tend to try to reorient around old ways of doing things.”

We keep canoeing when there is no river.

Tod said that Lewis and Clark set out “defined by a myth,” that the Northwest Passage existed. “Imagine their thoughts as reality set in.”

Lewis and Clark could have given up. The exploration could have waited until a better equipped group was assembled. Instead they pressed on.

Tod’s church never brought back Youth Sunday, but the discussion led to all kinds of experiments that led to new traditions that got everyone involved.

Thank goodness that, even when we’re off the map, God is already there.