Whistling past the graveyard

George was a member of our church for 77 years. Anytime the subject of church came up, no matter where he was or who he was with, George would say “First Church is my church.” At a time when most people are afraid to speak about their faith, George proclaimed it proudly, joyfully.

George passed away last week. I will miss him and his bragging about our church very much.

At his memorial service, his family asked me to include a reading by English pastor Henry Scott Holland called “Death is nothing at all.” Holland’s words have comforted many people for over 100 years.

The thing is, if death is really “nothing at all,” why does it hurt so much to lose someone we love? For many people, telling themselves that death is nothing is whistling past the graveyard.

But the Christian hope is infinitely more than ignoring reality, putting on a happy face, or insisting that everything will turn out fine in the end. Christian hope is not like betting on the lottery, on the one-in-a-million chance that we might win.

Christian hope is grounded in the reality of a God who is utterly reliable. It is based on the fact that God stepped into the world in the person of the God-man, Jesus Christ,  who experienced poverty, suffering, loss, abandonment, and death.

Jesus hated death so much than he came from heaven to earth to defeat it. Henry Scott Holland knew that death is not nothing. But he also knew that because of Jesus, death is on the way out. Because of Jesus, we will see our loved ones again.

I’m looking forward to hearing George brag about our church.

A little crazy

I heard today about a minister who knocked on the door of every single person in his congregation this fall and told them who they ought to vote for. The pastor’s efforts evidently fell short because the candidate lost. Undeterred, this pastor took to the streets to protest and has promised to keep it up until justice is done.

Now, it seems to me that pastors ought to avoid politics. Our primary job is to point to Jesus, and so this fall I tried to help our folks see Jesus at work in the political process, not tell them who to vote for.

And yet, this election has made a lot of people more than a little crazy. I don’t recall a time like this, ever. How do we process it?

Consider this. We love to stand up for the hurting and the marginalized. We love to stand up for minorities of all kinds because it’s SO OBVIOUS that injustice is being done to them. Of course.

But we also like to think that we’re good people. We believe in human progress. We think that life is supposed to make sense. We think we’re in control of our lives. And so when injustice strikes US–good, reasonable, thoughtful people–we can go a little crazy.

But who said life is supposed to make sense? It doesn’t. Remember what happened in the Garden of Eden? We’re fallen creatures. Since then, lots of things have happened that make no sense.

But Advent reminds us that sense is making a comeback. Jesus is coming. Swords are going to be beaten into farming tools.  WE may be helpless to set things right, but God isn’t.

Believe it. It might keep you from going crazy.

King on a cross

Last Sunday on the church calendar was called “Christ the King” Sunday. It’s the day the church celebrates that Jesus Christ is the sovereign Lord of the Universe. With many people shaken by the election, “Christ the King” arrived just in time.

Yet we find King Jesus, not on a throne, but on a cross, dying, between two thieves. At a time when so many people are hurting, perhaps we should remember the last words Jesus spoke to another human being before his death. Jesus told the second thief, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The thief was moments away from dying; he had nothing good in his record, and yet Jesus assured him: “Today, you will be with me.”

What does this mean?

It means that the blessings and forgiveness of Jesus Christ are available to you, right now, in this moment. We have a hard time taking hold of them because this kind of forgiveness is so hard to comprehend.

We have a hard time forgiving people who hurt us. We carry grudges. We make deposits into our bank account of hurts. We make sure the balance never gets to zero.

And we have an even harder time believing that God forgives those we don’t like.

This is why your life is such a mess. It’s why you worry; why you’re so self-conscious; and why you look down on others.

You’re not forgiving. You’re not asking for his forgiveness.

It’s the most important concept in the world.

It’s the heart of the Christian faith.

If it wasn’t, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords would not have spoken about it on the cross with his dying breath.

They tortured and mocked him and he forgives. The only perfect person who ever lived, took the punishment that we deserved, so that God will treat us, forever and ever, the way he deserved.


The miracle of generosity

Forty-six years ago this week, a plane crash took the lives of the Marshall University football team. It was the greatest disaster in sports history. It left scars on a city, Huntington, West Virginia, that can be seen and felt to this day.

The crash and its aftermath were remembered in the 2006 movie, We Are Marshall.

After the crash, students convinced the administration not to cancel the football program. The school president didn’t know where to begin to start rebuilding, so he decided to hire a coach, but everyone turned him down.

Then one day he got a call from Jack Lengyel, played in the movie by Matthew McConaughey. President Dedmon went to see him, but it wasn’t much of a job interview, since no one else wanted the job. President Dedmon kept wondering what kind of person would take a job like this?

When he couldn’t stand it anymore, he asked Jack why he wanted the job.

The two men were sitting together on Jack’s front porch, watching Jack’s wife play with their three children in the front yard.

Jack said, “When I heard about what happened, the only thing I could think about was how much it would hurt if I was to lose the four of them [his family]. I just thought, maybe I can help.”

It wasn’t easy. Jack had to deal with all kinds of doubts and fears. But the point was this: The rebirth of the football team, and a city, began with the self-giving gift of one man.

In 2 Corinthians 9:12, Paul said, “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people, but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.”

When you give away your time and resources, you not only meet the needs of people who are hurting, you’re increasing their faith. Paul says they will praise God because of you.

We only have new life because of the self-giving gift of one man, Jesus Christ.


Rise of the nones

One of the widely reported changes in America today is the increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated, the so-called “rise of the nones.” The percentage of people not affiliated with any church was 5% in 1972. Today it’s 25%.

Thoughtful church leaders point out that the “nones” are not all the same. Some are atheists—they don’t believe God exists; some are agnostic—they don’t know what to believe; and some are apathetic—they don’t believe God matters to their lives. Because their reasons for being a “none” are different, reaching them with the gospel requires different approaches.

Many people are two generations removed from participating in church. The church can’t wait for them to “come back,” because they were never in church to begin with.

Part of the answer lies in Jesus’ great parable about a wealthy man with two sons. Both sons were after the father’s wealth. One’s approach was to be very bad, the other’s approach was to be very good, but neither son loved the father. But the love of the father was so great that he ran to both sons, taking all the pain and humiliation of their brokenness upon himself. Even though both sons were a long way off, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, the father never stopped seeking to bring them home.

At the most basic level, this is what the church is called to do today. We’re to seek the lost, beginning in our own neighborhood. We must to do it lovingly and unconditionally, just like the father in the parable. And like the father in the parable, we need to listen first.

I believe this is our greatest calling today.

Giving to Caesar?

One of my Facebook friends was just lamenting that people she knew were unfriending folks who supported one political candidate or the other. She said, “You’d think that Christ followers would be able to remain friends on Facebook, no matter how they voted.”

As divisive and upsetting as this presidential election has been, it’s actually tame compared to the political climate of Jesus’ day. Palestine was an occupied Roman colony, and the Jews were deeply divided and passionate over what to do about it. Some thought it best to cooperate with the Romans. Religious conservatives thought it best to cooperate only on civil matters, but maintain Jewish religious purity. Others advocated rebellion.

Jesus didn’t fit into any category, so he was a threat to each group.

The collaborators and the conservatives—usually natural enemies—put a plan in place to discredit Jesus. They asked Jesus if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. The answer was sure to set one group or another against him.

Jesus asked for one of the coins used to pay the tax. It’s called a “denarius,” or “tribute penny” similar to the one pictured above. The coins are inscribed in Latin, which translate “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” Many Jews wouldn’t touch the coins. They considered them blasphemous because the inscription claimed that Caesar was a god.

Jesus’s answer, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is the most famous pronouncement on the relationship between civil and religious authority in history.

The first part acknowledges that governments (even imperfect ones) do things to benefit their citizens: roads, bridges, water, police, and so on. The second part acknowledges there are things governments can’t do. Jesus would have us give to government and to God their due.

The coin may bear Caesar’s image, but every person bears God’s image.