Touching

It’s a word we often say when something stirs deep emotions. It means that something affected us in a profound way.

But why say, “touching?”  Why not just say “moving” or “affecting?” How is it that a word that means “having a common border” or “adjacent” came to signify profound feelings?

Well, why did God come into the world in-person as the God-man Jesus Christ? And when he came, why did he go out among the crowds of hurting persons?

He didn’t sit alone on the top of a hill and expect people to come to him.

He didn’t wait until the age of electronic media and make commercials.

He came to touch and be touched. You could hold him and smell him. You could feel the scratch of his beard on your cheek when he kissed you. Why?

It’s got to mean that we were created to touch and be touched. And that means, the more isolated we are from others, the more “out of touch” we become, and the less we become our truest and best selves.

Of course, not all touching is healthy.

And a few take advantage of our need for touch to satisfy some perverse impulse.

Matthew 9 tells of a woman who’d been hemorrhaging for twelve years. She told herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I’ll be healed.”

She was right, and it’s still true for us.

We have to let him touch us, through worship, Christian community, prayer, and more. The more he touches us, the more we become who he created us to be.

Blessing the runners

This Sunday, May 1st, the Pittsburgh Marathon returns for the first time in three years. Tens of thousands of runners, and visitors from across the country and around the world, will be downtown. It’s like no other day all year.

First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral next door are right in the middle of it all.

Roads are shut down all over the city on Marathon Sunday, making it hard to get to many churches. But not our churches. You can take the “T” to the Wood Street Station, or drive in and park in the Mellon Square Garage, each a half a block away.  

God put us in the perfect place to bless the city on Marathon Sunday.

We will be out on Sixth Avenue at 5:45 AM, blessing runners. You should join us.

Many runners are so scared before the big race that they’re shaking. They wonder, “What was I thinking when I signed up for this?” Some are quite literally looking for a higher power.

Some are running to raise money and awareness for a loved one who passed away, or who suffers with a particular condition. Some are running to glorify God. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace means a lot to them.

People I prayed with in years past come up to thank me. They remind me that I had said that when they “hit the wall” around mile 20 they would experience a “following breeze.” They tell me that prayer was answered.

This year, after we bless the runners early in the morning, we’ll hold a combined worship service outside at 10:45, weather permitting. Our friend, The Very Reverend Aidan Smith, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, will preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. What a privilege to be the church in the heart of the city.

What are you running for?

Rachel Feintzeig is the Work and Life columnist for the Wall Street Journal, which means she writes about the “intersection of jobs and everything else.” Last week her column was, “Yes, you can be more than your job title.”

Rachel told of getting the new job at the paper and being asked to write a paragraph to introduce herself. She said writing the first few sentences was easy. She reviewed her past reporting, mentioned her husband and kids, and then…what? What could she say that would distinguish her amid all the daily routines of life? Her days were “a blur of work and kids.” She felt lost.     

She recalled one particularly stressful day when, without thinking, she dug out a pair of gym shorts from her dresser and just ran. She ran a mile in a loop back to her house. She was still stressed, so she ran some more. 

Rachel had never been an athlete, but as she started to run more, she noticed that it made her feel better. She was better able to handle stress, better able to focus and write. 

Now Rachel says that being a runner makes her better at all her other roles in life.

Next Sunday, May 1st, the Pittsburgh Marathon returns for the first time in three years and our church will be in the middle of it all.

For over a decade, we’ve been out on the street at 5:45 AM on Marathon Sunday, blessing runners. We pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one, or over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of people heading to their corrals. Many people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In the moments before the race, many are anxious, seeking a higher power. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important to them.

Sometimes I ask them, “What are you running for?” It turns out that many people run for God, for a loved one, or for a cause that matters to them.

But shouldn’t we all know what we’re running for?

Shouldn’t we all ask ourselves what drives me; what is it in life that I just have to have to know that I’m OK?

As much as running makes us better at everything else, one day, our knees will say, “Enough.” Over the course of our lives, we’ll all eventually have to give up the things we’re running for.

That includes running.

But we are more than our job title. And if we run through this life for the One who gave us our knees and legs, heart and lungs, in the first place, we will “run and not grow weary, we will walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

Glimpses of joy

It was February 13, 1970, and I had just come to pick up Jana for our first date. The moment she let me in the front door, I heard a sound coming up from the basement: “Hee, hee, hee!” 

Jana took me downstairs to meet her dad. He was lying on the floor watching TV, literally rolling on the floor in laughter. 

My first thought was that this family must be out of its mind.    

But that was Lonnie. He laughed like that all the time. He simply loved life. He got joy out of whatever he was doing.

In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul wrote that we are to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Lonnie always rejoiced because he could see God in everything. 

He rejoiced in hunting and fishing. He rejoiced in fixing his old boat. I think he actually rejoiced when it broke; so he could fix it.

He rejoiced in his wife and his family. In good times and bad, he rejoiced.

Where did he get that endless reservoir of joy?

In Colossians 3, Paul wrote, “Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above….”

Fascinating. Paul was writing to Christians who were still living, but he said, “You have been raised.”  It’s already happened.

The main purpose of the Christian faith is not for God to swoop down and take you to heaven when you die. Heaven is not an ethereal place far away where you float in a kind of disembodied existence. 

That’s not resurrection; that’s death.

When the Risen Jesus met his disciples after the resurrection he could still eat, but he could also be anywhere at once. He was somehow more real.

And he didn’t tell them to wait around until they floated off, he sent them out to make the world more beautiful and just, starting now, like he did with my father-in-law Lonnie.

Heaven is here, another dimension of reality that most of us are out of touch with, and Jesus followers live at the intersection of the two. They’ve been raised with Christ to give the world glimpses of the ultimate joy that awaits us when heaven and earth are fully joined at last. Alleluia!

Or as Lonnie would say, “Hee, hee, hee!” 

Let them think you’re crazy

Centuries before, the Prophet Isaiah said that God would one day do a new thing. There would be streams in the desert and roads in the wilderness; even wild animals would worship.

What if that wasn’t a metaphor?

What if it was finally happening—the Creator making a new creation?

It would mean you’d have to forget the past and live in a new way. And the new way might not be easy. People would think you were crazy.

Jesus had just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, a clear signal that the new creation was underway.

For Jesus it meant riding in triumph to a mock trial and the cross, and all the ironies of a conquering king riding on a borrowed, unbroken colt.

But for Lazarus, it meant sudden, unwanted celebrity. No one had seen a dead man come back to life. And since Lazarus was Exhibit A of the new creation, the authorities wanted him dead too.

Coming to grips with the new reality was bewildering.

And of course, it still is. As Jesus comes riding in, we ought to be cheering and waving and throwing our coats in the road, even if we don’t quite grasp what’s going on.

This is no time to be holding back.

Go ahead. Let people think you’re crazy.

Something else to complain about

I’ve complained here before about my first assignment in the Air Force. The climate in Northern Maine was harsh in winter; the black flies were thick in summer; the job meant hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror; and the bombers we flew were as old as we were.

Complaining was a way of life.

Many years later I got a dream job commanding a flying training squadron in Sacramento. The climate was mild, the sun shone every day. If you drove east for 90 minutes you could be skiing in the Sierras. If you drove west for 90 minutes, you could be standing on Fisherman’s Wharf. The job included flying Boeing 737s equipped as navigation trainers up the Pacific coast or across the mountains down to the Grand Canyon.

And everyone still complained.

Our instructors who’d flown fighters before thought it was beneath them to fly in a nav trainer.

The ones who’d flown bombers just hated to fly.

They complained out of habit.

The Book of Numbers tells how God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt. With military precision and attention to detail, God prepared them for the Promised Land. For so many to survive in the desert for so long, they had to be disciplined, organized, and obedient.

God provided for their every need, but they complained so much they talked themselves into believing they’d be better off as slaves again.

That’s the problem with complaining. We think if we just had a better house, a better job; a better spouse, etc., our lives would be OK. But when we get the better thing, we just find something else to complain about. It’s how our fallen hearts work.

Until our hearts are set on God, we’ll always find something to complain about. 

The worst enemy

The late Chuck Colson was President Nixon’s counsel during the Watergate affair. He was an honors graduate of Brown University and George Washington Law School.  He’d been a captain in the Marine Corps. He had his own law firm. 

Early in his career, Colson had been proud of his personal ethics, and would go to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. He was “absolutely certain that no one could corrupt me.” 

But he became famous as the “Hatchet Man” and the “evil genius” of the Nixon Administration. He once bragged, “I would walk over my own grandmother,” to get Nixon re-elected in 1972.

While Colson was facing charges for his role in the Watergate affair, a friend gave him a copy of the book Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, and he became a Christian.  When he announced that he’d been “born again” the political pundits howled.

Colson had relearned the ancient truth that our culture has rejected—the Christian doctrine of sin. The problem is not that some of us are good and some of us are bad.  The problem is that all of us are sinners. It’s just that in some of us, the seeds of evil haven’t yet been watered. 

Colson said, “I had a self-righteousness about me. Self-righteousness is the worst enemy of all because you can’t see your own sins. I ended up going to prison because of that.”

Colson realized that he was exactly like the other prisoners. People he would have never had anything to do with before were now his brothers. 

Colson once visited a prison in Brazil that was run on Christian principles. The recidivism rate was only 4%, compared with 75% in the rest of the country. Colson was wondering how this was possible when his inmate guide took him to the cell once used for torture. The man said the cell block only had a single inmate. As they reached the cell, the inmate asked Colson if he was sure he wanted to go in. 

“Of course,” he said. “I’ve been in isolation cells all over the world.”

So the man swung open the door. The only prisoner was a crucifix which had been carved by the inmates. The prisoner was Jesus hanging on a cross.

“He’s doing time for the rest of us,” the guide said.

The great cardiologist

I visited my cardiologist this week to follow up on the three stents he put in last month. The first thing he asked was, “How do you feel? Do you have more energy?”

I told him I felt the same as before. When he seemed surprised, I reminded him that I’d never had chest pains or shortness of breath. It was family history that led me to insist on getting my heart checked.

But the arteries in my heart had been eighty to ninety percent blocked, he said. I had to notice the difference.

But he had also put me on three new meds. Wouldn’t those cause drowsiness, I asked? He allowed that could be so.

But then he lowered the boom.

“You’re sedentary,” he said. “That’s why you didn’t notice the difference.”

Boom.   

I’d thought of myself as active. I walk around downtown (some). I do yard work, shovel snow. It turned out that I was an example of the topic of this week’s sermon: the universal, unlimited human capacity for self-deception.

First Samuel 15 is part of the great case study of Saul, the first king of ancient Israel. Saul was a decent guy; tall, good-looking. He had no ambitions to be king. In fact, when the Prophet Samuel anointed him, all Saul was interested in was finding his father’s lost donkeys. On the day his kingship was announced, they found him hiding among the baggage.

Saul was one of us.

At first, he deceived himself into thinking he was less than he was.

But it wasn’t long before he deceived himself into thinking he was greater than he was.

And God lowered the boom.

The good news is there is someone who looks right into our hearts, sees us just as we are, and loves us anyway.

The only one who can cure a self-deceived heart is the Great Cardiologist, Jesus Christ.

Cold warrior

Me.

After I graduated from the Air Force Academy, I spent the next two years learning to fly. I learned to navigate and then to defend the plane against enemy air defenses. I learned the systems of the B-52 and how to employ nuclear weapons.

Being a cold warrior meant spending every third week or so on alert, living in an alert facility, ready, when the klaxon sounded, to run to a bomber loaded and cocked at the end of the runway. It was my job to help decode the launch message. If the President ordered, we would take off, fly to the other side of the world, and unleash the greatest destructive power the world had ever seen.

I went on to assignments in reconnaissance, intelligence, and flight test, but the Soviet Union was always the focus. I spent years studying its weapons and tactics, strategy and ideology.

When the Berlin Wall fell, I felt I had helped win the Cold War.

So now, the Russian attack on Ukraine seems like an old nightmare.

But here’s the thing. In the Cold War it was clear who the enemy was. But every one of us faces a deadly threat that we’re mostly unaware of.

All conflict can be traced back to the story of the first murder in Genesis 4.

Cain was angry that the Lord had “not looked with favor” on his offering. 

God said, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door, but you must master it.”

This foundational story of the Judeo-Christian tradition identifies sin as a predator, crouching, unseen, and deadly.

The horrific scenes coming out of Ukraine make clear the consequences when sin comes out of hiding and moves on a massive scale.

But notice that God was on alert for Cain’s simple anger. God’s first question outside the Garden of Eden was, “Why are you angry?”

So, before our anger goes from cold to hot, and the destruction widens, we need to ask that question of ourselves.

Safe place

“The safest place to be is at the center of God’s will.”

We’ve been talking here lately about “Clichés we love,” and that cliché is one of the most popular.

The words are often traced to a book called The Hiding Place, the memoir of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch watchmaker during World War II. Corrie and her sister Betsie hid Jews from the Nazis in their home as part of the underground resistance movement.

One night, as an air battle raged overhead, Corrie couldn’t sleep. She heard Betsie in the kitchen and joined her for tea. Then a nearby explosion rattled the house. When the battle was over, Corrie went back to bed in the dark. She cut her hand on a jagged, ten-inch piece of shrapnel that was on her pillow. Frightened, Corrie ran to show it to Betsie. She started to say, “Betsie, if I hadn’t heard you in the kitchen….”

But Betsie interrupted. She said, “Don’t say it, Corrie! There are no ‘ifs’ in God’s world. And no places are safer than other places. The center of His will is our only safety—Oh Corrie, let us pray that we may always know it.”

Corrie and Betsie knew their Bibles. They knew that the Jews were God’s chosen people. They believed that it was God’s will that they should protect them.

In 1944, the Nazis raided their home, and Corrie, Betsie, and their father were arrested. Only Corrie survived the Nazi prisons.

So what does it mean to be safe in God’s will?

For thirty years, our church has supported church planting efforts in Ukraine.  Members of our church’s mission team visited there in 2018 and got to know the pastors of churches near Kyiv. Our mission team has continued to support them with prayer, instruction, and monetary gifts. As I write this, those pastors are driving people to relative safety from Russian aggression, then turning around and heading back into danger to rescue more.

Like Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, they’re at the center of God’s will.