Wee little man

There’s a children’s Sunday school song that many in my generation learned growing up. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” It’s one of those tunes that sticks in your head. You may not remember what you had for breakfast, but if you sang that song 60 years ago, you might start singing it now, just because I brought it up.

The problem with songs like that is that they can leave us with memories that aren’t quite right. This is not a sweet little story about Jesus sticking up for someone who was picked on because he was short.

Jesus was passing through Jericho, about to begin the long climb up to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. In just over a week, Jesus would be dead, yet he stopped, not to accept the adulation of the crowd, but to spend the night in the home of Zacchaeus.

Instead of mingling with the crowd, Zacchaeus had stationed himself high in a sycamore fig tree on the road out of town. He didn’t do this because he was short and wanted to see, as the children’s song would have us believe.

He did it because he was hated.

Tax collectors were universally hated because they collaborated with the Roman occupiers. Tax collectors got rich by extorting as much as they could and keeping the difference for themselves.  Zacchaeus was the chief among tax collectors. If he had mingled in the crowd, he likely would have wound up dead, and no one would have missed him.

Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must stay in your house today.”

Jesus took the hatred of the crowd upon himself.

It was a hint of the unexpected, lavish, self-giving love that would be on display on Good Friday of the week ahead.

Cut off

The health services company, Cigna, just released the results of a national survey of 20,000 adults on the impact of loneliness:

  • Nearly half of Americans report feeling alone or left out.
  • Over 40 percent feel their relationships are not meaningful.
  • 20 percent rarely or never feel close to people.
  • Only about half have meaningful personal interactions (quality time) with others on a daily basis.
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and may be in worse health than older generations.
  • And by the way, social media use is not a predictor of loneliness.

The bottom line: most American adults are lonely. And do I need to mention the devastating effects of all this loneliness?

Ezekiel 37 is the passage where God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel worked at a time when the people of Israel were in exile. The exiles described themselves as “cut off” from their people, their homes, and their faith. It’s amazing how many times the phrase “cut off” appears in the Bible. In a desert culture where connectedness was critical to survival, to be cut off from the community was a severe punishment. To be cut off from God was the worst thing of all.

Could it be that what people experience today is a problem of biblical proportions?  They’re exiles, cut off from others and from God.

But there’s good news. There’s a place where four generations come together every week. It’s a place specifically designed to provide the connectedness that we were made and long for.

Come on church. We were made for this.



Assessment of authenticity

I’ve watched the short video maybe 20 times. I’ll show it to our new church officers again this year. The speaker is Dr. Rodger Nishioka, one the top Presbyterian teachers in the country. Rodger is speaking about the “21st Century Reformation.” The theory is that every 500 years or so, God holds a “rummage sale,” throwing out things in the church that are outdated and making room for the new. He says a reformation is a terrifying thing to undergo, but in the end, the church emerges stronger and more faithful. Every time I watch I discover something challenging, new, or encouraging that I hadn’t noticed before.

Rodger points out that most young adults today who grew up in the church no longer attend.

He was speaking about Christian mission to a group of those young adults, and one of them challenged him. She said, “The problem with ‘you people’ (the church establishment) is that you seem to have no effect on the place in which God has planted you.”

For young adults, the impact of a church on its neighborhood is an assessment of its authenticity.

The young woman said she watched people come and go from the church across the street from her condo complex. If the church disappeared, the reaction would be, “Cool, more parking. Wouldn’t it be nice if they made a difference here?”

I don’t doubt that Jesus’ call to Christian mission is global. But the average age of our congregation is a generation older than our neighborhood. Are we making the impact here that we should? Do the unchurched (or formerly churched) young adults in our neighborhood assess us to be “authentic?”

What about the young adults who grew up here who no longer attend? Would they miss us if we disappeared?

You can watch “21st Century Reformation” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-mo4rtZdKk.

The church at the start line

The Pittsburgh Marathon is Sunday, May 6th. Tens of thousands of runners and visitors from across the country and around the world come downtown. It’s like no other morning all year.

Our church is just blocks from the start line, right in the middle of it all

A lot of churches are completely blocked by the course on Marathon Sunday. Ours isn’t. You can take the “T” to within half a block of the church. If you drive and can make it to Grant Street, you can park in the Mellon Garage, half a block from the church on Sixth Avenue.

God put our church in the perfect place to be a blessing on Marathon Sunday.

When they built our church building over 100 years ago, the idea of closing streets and churches on Sunday to run a race would have been scandalous. It would never have happened. Even in the 1950s, streets were closed for church events, not the other way around.

For the last eight years, I’ve been out on the street in front of the church at 5:45 AM on Marathon Sunday, blessing runners. I pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one, or over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of runners walking down the street to their corrals.

I’ve discovered that people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In those moments before the race, they’re anxious to call on a Higher Power. Many runners are Christians who run for God, and many others run for causes that are important to them. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important to them.

This year, we’ll again be playing motivational Christian music in front of the church, interspersed with our prayers. Later in the morning (10:45) we’ll hold our worship service outside and preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. God’s Word will be loose out on Sixth Avenue.

What a privilege to be the church at the start line.

Over a meal

In 1994, our family moved to Montgomery, Alabama so I could attend a year-long Air Force school. Our first Sunday, we visited a church close to where we would live. After the service, we were greeted by the Cornwell family. They introduced themselves, and then brought other people over and introduced them to us as well. Then they asked us to go to lunch at Ruby Tuesday, Dutch treat.

We didn’t bother to look at other churches.

How did you come to faith? Was there a burning bush? A blinding light? For most of us, it wasn’t anything dramatic. We didn’t know anything supernatural was happening at the time. A friend or relative took an interest in us. We came to faith through people sharing a bit of their lives. And often food was involved.

Food is something we all need. Meals are something we all do. And so it’s not surprising that both Gospel writers Luke and John tell us that the Risen Jesus met his disciples over a meal. Luke says it was in breaking bread that the disciples recognized Jesus. John says it was over a campfire where fish was being served. The Risen Jesus reveals himself in an ordinary meal.

In 1999, after two intervening assignments, we moved back to Montgomery, and to the church and the friends we loved. Again, the Cornwells greeted us and welcomed us home. Later, when I started sensing the call to pastoral ministry, the Cornwells were there to listen to us and be patient with us and help us process what we were feeling.

Who are you inviting to lunch? What opportunities is God giving you to share a bit of your life?

For us, it was just a simple invitation to Ruby Tuesday, Dutch treat. But it turned out to be as supernatural as any burning bush.

What great commission?

The Barna Group, a Christian research company, recently asked churchgoers, “Have you heard of the Great Commission?” 51% said they had never heard the term; 25% said they’d heard the term but couldn’t recall it’s meaning; and 6% weren’t sure. Just 17% knew of the Great Commission and what it meant.

Matthew 28:18-20 is the passage most commonly called the “Great Commission,” where the Risen Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The Gospel writers Mark, Luke, and John also report a similar “commission.” Jesus “commissioned” his followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to go to all people, just as God the Father had sent him. Jesus’ kingdom on earth would be built by disciples who made more disciples.

So why don’t people know the Great Commission?

Well, the term isn’t in the Bible, and it wasn’t a term used by the church until the 16th century. It seems that the term was made popular by a British missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, in the 19th century. So it’s possible to see the words “all nations” and conclude the commission is for overseas missionaries. But the Greek words also mean “all people.” Jesus meant everyone, not just people “over there.”

At the same time, many people say, “Faith is a private matter. Keep it to yourself.” But what they’re really saying is that you need to believe in a different Jesus than the one in the Bible. They’re telling you to shirk the Great Commission and believe in a god they made up.

The one who was commissioned by God to come from heaven to earth, to live the life we should have lived, and to die the death we deserved, didn’t stay dead. He rose again and commissioned us to make more disciples.

That’s pretty great if you ask me.

When Jesus shows up

Through our partnership with a wonderful non-profit called Outreached Arms, over 6,000 meals will be served in our church this year. This represents an investment of over 8,000 volunteer hours. Even more significant are the friendships that are being made, the lives that are being touched, and the Gospel that is being shared. Best of all, when meals are shared in his name, Jesus shows up.

On March 20, I noticed three young ladies, Kelsey, Kiana, and Maddie, about the ages of my own granddaughters, enjoying a meal with our guest Dalas. I learned that Kelsey and Maddie are sisters who attend Saints John and Paul Roman Catholic Church north of Pittsburgh, a strong supporter of Outreached Arms. Their friend Kiana came to Outreached Arms with them to help serve. Kiana asked Dalas, “Tell us a story of what it was like growing up in Beaver Falls.” Dalas thought for a moment and said, “I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I used to go out in the woods and enjoy nature. I sometimes did things I shouldn’t have. But I loved the outdoors, and that is where I first met the Lord.”

Then, for the next several minutes, Dalas told the girls how much Jesus loves them, and how Jesus wants to bless them and will always be there for them. Dalas later told me, “I never told that story before. I think the Spirit must have gotten hold of me.”

Yes, Dallas, yes indeed.

Why doesn’t Easter change us?

A long time ago, a grieving woman went to a garden tomb to pay last respects. Mary had lived a life of torment and despair. Today, we’d probably say she suffered from mental illness; in our day, it seems epidemic. Mary had intended to say farewell to her teacher and friend, the one who had given her hope when everyone had given up on her.

Nothing could have prepared her for what she found. The stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been removed; the body was gone; and just the burial cloths remained. Mary ran to get her friends. They ran back to the tomb and found things just as she had said.

While the men went off to process what they’d seen, Mary just stood there crying. Then someone called her name, “Mary!” and as she turned to look, the whole world turned with her. There was Jesus, her teacher and friend, risen from the dead.

You can’t make this stuff up: the most important meeting in the history of the world was between God and a mental patient.

In some ways Mary was like a lot of us. She’d lived a life of desperation, possessed by something beyond her control. But from that moment on, her life had purpose. She was the first evangelist of the Good News, her name forever synonymous with resurrection hope.

Why aren’t we changed like Mary?

I’ve become convinced that it’s because we don’t put our beliefs into action. We don’t worship, study, pray, serve, or share our faith as we should. In other words, we don’t make ourselves available to God in ways that allow change to take place.

In a world filled with depression, anxiety, bullying, division, and worse, we should all be running to our friends with the Good News.

Jesus can still change you the way he changed Mary. Could this be the year you let him?

The Palm Sunday route

Three times in my life I’ve had the joy of walking the traditional Palm Sunday route in Jerusalem, down the Mount of Olives to the Kidron Valley below. Across the valley is the Temple Mount. The temple is no longer there, of course, destroyed in the first century. But the view is still spectacular. You can’t help but be filled with wonder as you imagine what it was like to be in the crowd on the first Palm Sunday.

That day, Jesus was a master of event planning. He orchestrated every detail for maximum effect. He knew that by accepting the crowd’s adoration he was implicitly accepting the title of conquering king. He knew this would force the hand of the religious leaders. They would have to make him king or kill him.

Like he had done many time before, Jesus sent the disciples ahead of him to the places he planned to go. He told them to procure a little colt which didn’t belong to them, and which had never been ridden, and bring it back to him.

His instructions didn’t make sense, yet the disciples obeyed.

This Sunday, we’ll celebrate and wave palm fronds and reenact the triumphal entry, just like some of us have done since we were kids. Yet this isn’t just child’s play. Jesus has called us to be part of his great drama of redemption and transformation.

Walking the Palm Sunday route with Jesus is still a joy, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Sometimes the instructions don’t make sense. Making him king is still a life or death decision. The crowds who cheer you one day may turn on you the next.

Yet Jesus promised to never leave you or forsake you. He still only sends you where he plans to go.

Calculating the odds

One of my favorite Bible stories is in 1st Samuel 14. The Israelites were surrounded by the dreaded Philistines. The Philistines were technologically advanced, while the Israelites had a total of two swords, one belonging to King Saul and the other to his son Jonathan. Saul was paralyzed with fear, but Jonathan came up with an audacious plan: Jonathan said to the young man bearing his armor, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.”

Perhaps the Lord will act?”

Jonathan’s plan was to expose himself and his armor bearer to the enemy. Then, the two of them would climb a steep hill, hand-over-hand, up to the enemy position. Remember, they only had one sword between them, but even that didn’t matter, because they needed both hands just to climb. Unless God fought for them, it was suicide.

If you were the armor bearer, wouldn’t you rather have better odds than “perhaps?” Nevertheless, he told Jonathan, “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

I don’t know who I admire more, Jonathan, who took the initiative, or the armor bearer who stayed by his side. The odds didn’t matter to them as long as they were fighting for God. The bold plan paid off. The attack threw the entire enemy army into confusion, and Israel was saved.

Most of us say to God, “I’ll follow you if you can prove to me this is going to work.” When the odds seem against us, we’re paralyzed.

Not these guys.

Unless you follow God unconditionally; unless you move forward in faith despite the odds, you’ll never experience the power of God to save you.