Winning through losing

This Sunday on the church calendar celebrates an event called The Transfiguration. Jesus took three disciples from his inner circle up a mountain. For a few moments, Jesus was revealed in heavenly splendor, joined by Moses and Elijah. The disciple Peter, evidently not wanting the moment to end, offered to put up shelters for Jesus and the prophets. When a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son,” the disciples fell down, terrified.

It was the ultimate mountaintop experience.

I imagine that if I had been there, I’d have proposed something like Peter did. I tend to like the glory, even if it’s only the reflected kind. I like the feeling of success, even if it’s someone else’s. I don’t want the good feelings to end.

But the Transfiguration reminds us that our ways are not God’s ways at all.

Just a few weeks later, God’s beloved Son was stripped of his glory, his ministry success was shattered, and the good feelings were replaced by fear and terror.

The Transfiguration invites us to come down from the mountain with Jesus on his way to the cross. It’s a way we tremble to take, but one we dare not miss.

That’s because, Jesus is the kind of God who wins by losing and saves by dying.

Who could have imagined that the greatest splendor of all wouldn’t be revealed in a mountaintop experience but in a tomb experience?

Gender roles

The minister was officiating at a wedding where the bride and groom were serious believers. Again and again, he reminded the bride of what the Apostle Paul himself had said again and again, “Wives submit to your husbands.”

Apparently the minister forgot to mention what Paul said to husbands, “Love your wives as Christ loved the church.”

And how did Christ love the church?

By dying for it.

We all tend to pick and choose the verses in the Bible we take more seriously than others. Some verses resonate with our worldview; we love them. Some challenge our worldview; those we tend to ignore. One area where this happens frequently today is in gender roles.

In 1st Corinthians 14:34, Paul says that “women should remain silent in church.” If you’re the minister at the wedding I just mentioned, that verse probably reinforces your worldview. If you think “all people are created equal,” a phrase that is not in the Bible, you worldview causes you to reject that verse.

But we should all ask ourselves, if women were so important to Jesus, and so prominent in the life of the early church, (and they were) why would Paul write something that seemed to contradict what was actually going on? Women were teaching and preaching in the churches Paul organized.

The answer has to be that God is always challenging our worldview, no matter what it is. In this case, Paul was addressing particular cultural practices which interfered with hearing the word preached in church, whether the preacher happened to be a woman or a man.

If you don’t let God challenge your most cherished beliefs, is God really God to you?

Outreached Arms

The meal we serve in our church each Tuesday with our partners from Outreached Arms had been over for a while, and most of the hundred or so guests had left. Johnny was talking to volunteers, and carefully packing and re-packing his backpack, reluctant to leave. Allison, one of the regular volunteers came over to my wife to say that Johnny needed gloves. Sharon, founder of Outreached Arms, found a pair of cotton work gloves. Johnny really needed winter gloves, so Allison volunteered to bring Johnny a new pair the next week.

Johnny had been a regular at these meals, but the following week he was nowhere to be seen. Later we found out why. The night after eating with us, Johnny had been shot multiple times and died on the steps in the Spring Garden neighborhood on the North Side. Surveillance video showed two men walking with Johnny, then running away from the scene

Part of what makes life on the street so hard is the pecking order where the strong lord it over the weak. Johnny was small and thin, an obvious target.

Each week at these meals I see hurting people, many living on the street, sit up a little straighter and smile a little brighter. For an hour or so they get treated with dignity, and get to enjoy a hot meal in a safe place. One pastor visiting this week for the first time told me he was amazed at how many of our guests and volunteers knew each other by name.

This week Allison posted a selfie on her Facebook page that she took with Johnny at the Outreached Arms Christmas Party. “I considered it an honor to have served you,” she wrote.

Thank God for people like Allison.

The more things change…

This week I looked back in our church’s history to the time 200 years ago when Francis Herron was called as pastor. Herron’s dream was to transform the church which would then transform Pittsburgh and the frontier. The fact that streets and landmarks in the city still bear the name Herron suggest that he and his prominent relatives succeeded in many ways.

But there were challenges.

Pittsburgh was a frontier town known for gambling and drinking. Even the church was a hub for those kinds of things. What’s more, the church was bankrupt, the property up for sheriff’s sale to pay back taxes. Herron bought the property himself for $2819, and later sold a portion to the bank for $3000, settling the debt and making a profit for the church.

Herron and another minister took the outlandish step of meeting regularly to pray. They didn’t dare meet at the church, because the elders believed that prayer meetings were only for fanatics. But slowly, the prayer meetings began to grow.

Herron knew nothing about music, but when he gave young people permission to form a choir, one elder insisted, “They shall never have an instrument—no never!”

A century later, the survival of the church was again in doubt as people were leaving downtown for the suburbs. But instead of moving the church to the suburbs, where many parishioners now lived, the new pastor, Maitland Alexander, embarked on a bold plan. He tore down the 50 year old church building, dug up the church cemetery with the bones of Pittsburgh’s heroes, re-interred their remains with honors, and built an even bigger church, which he dreamed would transform Pittsburgh into a city of God.  Alexander insisted that:

  • The church provide more than social services. Everything the church did had to be based on God’s Word.
  • The church must never become a class church. Everyone would be welcome.
  • Everything the church did had to come out of its relationship with Jesus Christ.

First Presbyterian is well into its third century. The city has gone from frontier town, to steel city, to technology magnet. The challenges still demand bold vision and outreach. But the dream hasn’t changed: transform the city for Jesus Christ.