Impact

This week I received a thoughtful email with the subject “Your Impact” from a Sunday visitor. He said, “All of God’s children need witness and assistance, not just those lying on grates or in cardboard boxes under bridges…but I feel encouraged by your messages to devote more time to helping people in need.”

Our visitor was absolutely right. What people most need, whether or not they find Pittsburgh “livable,” is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A man had come to me after church that Sunday with tears in his eyes. He’d been staying in the cold weather shelter downtown and said that someone who he’d befriended had threatened him. He came in the church (his first time here) to feel safe, and fell asleep. He woke up during the service, and as he heard the message, memories of his grandmother taking him to church as a boy started flooding back. He remembered the faith she’d passed on to him, and what church was all about.

What is wrong with the world is not something government is going to solve. It will be the church of Jesus Christ.

Last full measure of devotion

I hope you heard Irish Tenor Ronan Tynan sing “The Last Full Measure of Devotion” at the State Funeral for President George H.W. Bush this week. I will never forget the first time I heard that song.

On Veteran’s Day in 1997, Jana and I were sitting with the Air Force Band in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. On the stage in front of us were President Clinton, who had just laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Joint Chiefs. Behind us were thousands of veterans and their families waving American flags. It was the most patriotic scene you can imagine, especially for us in that moment.

A few days before, our family had returned from two years in Brussels, Belgium so I could take command of the 11th Operations Group in Washington, DC. I was responsible for the Air Force Band, Air Force Honor Guard, and the Air Force chaplains at Arlington.

When Senior Master Sergeant Richard Pearson, backed by the rest of the “Singing Sergeants” and the entire Air Force Band, sang “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” I lost it. Jana and I were sitting in front of the French Horn section, and I remember wondering what they thought of their new boss, blubbering away. Over the next couple years, I got to hear Richard sing that song several times, always with the same effect. Ronan Tynan is great, but for me, Richard’s performance will always be the definitive one.

The song picks up a key phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as it honors those who gave their lives in service to country. It’s a patriotic anthem, not explicitly Christian. But since I’ve become a minister, I hear the song in a new way. It reminds me of Jesus Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant….”

There is nothing more touching or noble than someone who gives their life for another. How can we not be moved by the God who gave us his “last full measure of devotion?”

Presence, not presents

For the first time in years, we aren’t packing shoeboxes.

Jana and I have packed many shoeboxes over the years. One year, we even went to the home of Operation Christmas Child, Samaritan’s Purse, in Boone, NC, to personally pick up supplies. But this year, our missionary friend in Ethiopia expressed concerns. Local churches in countries that receive the shoeboxes can be loaded with unreasonable costs to deliver them. The boxes might not get where they are intended or convey the message we hope. So we started asking questions.

Is it always a good idea to give a child a gift that their parents can’t afford?

Blogger Rachel Pieh Jones wonders if a shoebox filled with yo-yos and candy is really conveying a gospel message: “If Jesus were Santa Claus, okay. But Jesus is not Santa Claus and his message is one of humility, poverty, sacrifice, and the cross. We limit our thinking about giving to a monetary thing, stemming from our consumer values and culture.”

In his book, When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert tells about his own church, which had a ministry of buying Christmas presents for minority families in a poor neighborhood nearby. Members noticed that the men never seemed to be home when the presents were delivered. The church discovered that the men were making themselves scarce when the presents were delivered because they felt humiliated. The church, in providing gifts the men couldn’t afford, was reinforcing their sense of inferiority. What’s more, church members were upset that their generosity didn’t seem to change lives.

Brian Fikkert says that our consumer culture has led us to view poverty from a material point of view. The poor see their problems more in terms of broken relationships. A better solution for people who want to do something for the poor might be to find a way to come alongside parents and allow the parents to provide for their children.

God didn’t come at Christmas to give us stuff. He came to give us himself.

God with us, that’s the gift.

What if we took the time to build a relationship with a materially poor family?

What if we gave presence, not presents?

Practicing thanks

Years ago, when I was in the Air Force stationed in Washington DC, I had a secretary named Pat. To say that Pat had a hard life was an understatement. Pat was a breast cancer survivor. One of her children had been murdered. She lived in a dangerous part of the city, and nearly every week she came to work with a new story about a relative who’d been a victim of a violent crime.

But when you asked Pat how she was doing, she always said, “I’m blessed.”

I’m sure she meant it, but saying, “I’m blessed” also had the effect of reminding herself, and teaching us, that there is a greater power at work in our lives which transcends our circumstances.

For years, there’s been a growing body of research that has tied an attitude of gratitude with improved emotional and physical well-being. When we give thanks, our breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure go down. People who are routinely thankful are more successful and better able to navigate life.

Giving thanks is actually good for us.

I just read the summary of a Harvard study in which subjects took five minutes a day, every day at the same time, for one week, to write down three things that they were thankful for. They didn’t have to be big things, but they did have to be concrete and specific. “I’m thankful my boss gave me a compliment today.” “I thankful my daughter gave me a hug.” “I’m thankful for the delicious takeout meal last night.” Simple things like that.

A month later, the researchers found that those who practiced gratitude—including those who stopped the exercise after one week—were happier and less depressed.

After three months, they still were more joyful and content.

After six months they still were happier, less anxious, and less depressed.

The simple practice of writing down three thanksgivings a day over the course of one week apparently primed the participants’ minds to search for the good in their lives.

Always give thanks.

Keep in practice.

The party

It was the best day of the father’s life; he had to celebrate. Knowing that, his son refused to come to the party. “Everything I have is yours,” the father pleaded, but his son was not moved.

So ends Jesus’ greatest parable about the “Prodigal Son.” But there are actually two sons in the story, and it’s the “prodigal,” the wandering one, who finds his way home. His older brother was the responsible one, the sensible one, the one who stayed home and did his duty. Shockingly, it was the older brother, not the “prodigal,” who, at the end of the story, was outside the feast of salvation looking in.

Jesus was speaking to the religious insiders of his day. They were the serious, the responsible ones. They did their duty; they kept the religious traditions of the people intact. Jesus had aimed this parable at them.

How do you tell religious insiders that they’re lost?

Growing up, I was the eldest of three children. I was the responsible one. I became an Air Force officer, did my duty. But I was in my fifties, in seminary, when the meaning of this story became real to me. I’d always thought the lesson was, “Stay home, do your duty. Don’t be like the irresponsible younger brother.”

I was completely wrong. That’s not the lesson at all.

Do you get it? If not, I don’t condemn you. It took me about 55 years.

If you’ve achieved your goals in life, but found that things don’t satisfy…

If you’ve failed at everything, and found yourself at the bottom…

Whether you’re an elder brother or a younger brother, this is what you most need to know: There is a father who comes to you, who longs to embrace you and meet you just where you are.

Do you get it? The Christian faith will make little sense until you do.

Base your worth on his love for you.

Come in to his party. It’s for you.

Love enough to live

Mad enough to die?

The Old Testament Prophet Jonah was. At least he said so, twice.

Just how mad do you have to be to want to die? When people get mad, they usually want someone else to die, which explains why cycles of violence and hate can go on for centuries.

Last week, when the city was still reeling from the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue, a Presbyterian minister was seen on camera shouting at the President who had come to pay his respects. “You’re not welcome here!” the minister shouted in the video, which quickly went viral.

And the cycle escalated.

We spent the next morning dealing with Facebook posts and messages which came in to the church from across the country. To the angry people who posted or called, it didn’t matter that the minister didn’t serve at our church. We were Presbyterian, so we must be responsible.

At the presbytery office, the deluge of hate was even worse.

People weren’t mad enough to die, but they were mad enough to wish the worst for that minister.

And the cycle escalated.

Jesus never responded to hate with hate. He wept over the city he knew would crucify him. He prayed for those who carried it out.

Do we believe he died for us, haters that we sometimes are, or not?

Do we believe it, or is it just an abstract idea, like a favorite saying we hang on the wall?

I think a fair test of whether the Gospel has penetrated your heart is whether you can avoid being hateful to people you think deserve it.

Can we love enough to live?

Comfort, comfort

Their people had been killed or exiled, and their place of worship had been desecrated. It even seemed to some that God had abandoned them.

Can you imagine losing your family and friends, your home, your country, and even your faith? It really happened to the Jewish people in 586 BCE when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.

The Book of Lamentations is a record of their hopelessness. “This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears.” Lamentations 1:16. “People have heard my groaning, but there is no one to comfort me. Lamentations 1:21.

It was into that utter despair that Isaiah spoke words of hope: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” Isaiah 40:1.

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are full of dire warnings about God’s judgment. So, when Isaiah started talking about comfort, people took notice. “Comfort, comfort my people…” is a plural imperative. God commanded the voices of all the heavenly host to speak comfort to his people.

Many voices clamor to be heard in the wake of a tragedy, like the awful shooting here recently at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and not all of them are comforting. But God himself has spoken into the chaos and hopelessness, and now all of history points to the time when the glory of God will be revealed.

That’s why in Isaiah 40:6 the prophet says, “Cry out.” In other words, “Lift your voice! Don’t be afraid!”

The God of the universe gave himself over to the chaos of this world in the person of Jesus Christ. The forces of evil threw everything they had at him, but they were powerless to stop him.

Despite all the horror and evil, God gets the final say.

“Comfort, comfort my people.”

God’s got this

Last summer, Jana and I spent time with Eugene and Jan Peterson at their home in Flathead Lake, Montana. Eugene had graciously agreed to mentor me if I was fortunate enough to win a Lilly Grant for my sabbatical.

I’d come prepared with questions from the readings he’d assigned me, but mostly we talked about people and churches we all knew. Eugene had written much of The Message while living in Pittsburgh, and Jan had attended the same church we’d belonged to in Alabama. It was like catching up with old friends.

Eugene Peterson never set out to be a pastor. Indeed, in his memoir, The Pastor, he wrote in detail about how little he thought of pastors, mostly due to the type of pastors who’d come through his hometown when he was growing up. He later came to lament how pastors served more as corporate CEOs than shepherds of a flock. Eugene became a “pastor’s pastor” without ever intending to. His passing this week has many of us pastors reflecting on what he meant to us.

To me, his great gift was being able to see and point to Jesus in all things. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is the title of one of Eugene’s books on spiritual theology, taken from the line of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Everything, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant, is infused with the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus is at work in everything, everywhere, all the time, it means that we can quit running around like crazy, like pastors often do (and are usually expected to do). After all, if Jesus is in this, our role is pretty small by comparison.

My lesson from the sabbatical was “God’s got this.”

I can’t tell you how helpful this was later in the year as Jana’s dad entered his final illness. My father-in-law was a simple man of faith; he wouldn’t have understood books on spiritual theology. But like Eugene, he could see Christ in everything and, like Eugene, he delighted in everything.

It’s nice to know that “God’s got this.” He’s got Eugene, he’s got my father-in-law, he’s got me, he’s got Jana, he’s got our kids, he’s got you, and he’s got this church.

Fish story

Some bible stories are hard for modern people to wrap our minds around. For example, the bible says Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and then three days later he was spit out on dry land.

But the fish has nothing to do with our problem with the Jonah story.

If God really is God; if God created the universe out of nothing; maneuvering one fish to swallow a runaway prophet is no big deal.

Our real problem with the Jonah story is that we don’t think it applies to us. Our real problem is that we fail to see ourselves as Jonah.

When we read Jonah, it’s easy to see his problem. He’s self-righteous. He can’t find any good reason for what God is calling him to do, so he must be right, and God must be wrong. He can’t see that God might actually know better than he does what’s best for him.

Self-righteousness is the reason we don’t think the Jonah story applies to us. Self-righteousness is what keeps us from seeing ourselves as God sees us. Self-righteousness is why we won’t listen to our spouse, our friends, or our pastors. We think we know better than them too, so we take offense. We run the other way.

But if God is offended by our self-righteousness, he has a funny way of showing it.  In Jonah’s case, God sent a ship with a pagan crew, a storm, and a fish to get Jonah to see God’s better way.

I wonder if God could be using the storms that come into our lives in the same way.

Instead of imagining what it might be like to be swallowed by a fish, perhaps we could imagine why God would have to go to such great lengths to get our attention.

 

Othering

In case you missed it, there was a national debate about a nomination to the Supreme Court recently. The level of vitriol of each side for the other was astounding. The situation was not made better by multiple cable channels devoted, not to reporting news, but to showing clips of the outrageous things the other side said.

“Othering” is what you do when you put people who are different from you into categories so you can marginalize them.

Just in time, Tim Keller released his new book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy. It’s just as good as Keller’s The Prodigal God. I pray that everyone would read it. Keller introduced me to the term “othering.”

Jonah was one of the religious insiders of his day. He knew more about God than anyone. Yet when God called him to preach to pagans, “others” who he hated, Jonah ran away. Jonah got on board a ship crewed by, guess who? more pagans, still others he didn’t like. Yet in every detail, the pagans in the story were better than Jonah. When a big storm came up, they tried to figure out the cause (they knew someone had sinned). They did everything they could to save the ship and all on board, including Jonah. They prayed fervently. Jonah did nothing.

Keller says we “other” because we haven’t allowed the Gospel of Jesus Christ to penetrate all the way into our heart. We may believe, but our beliefs haven’t changed us. If we still get our self-worth from something other than Jesus’ love and grace for us, then when our beliefs or status are threatened by someone, we marginalize them. We “other” them.

God sent Jonah on a mission, not just to save unbelieving pagans, but to save Jonah from his own self-righteousness.

Jesus identifies with the other, even when the other is us.