What we live for

Five years ago, we started a wedding ministry for folks who aren’t church members. Our church is a bride’s dream, with a long center aisle, Tiffany windows, massive pipe organ, and close to many reception venues.

But being the perfect wedding venue isn’t easy.

When I first talk to couples, I ask if they want to take their vows with integrity. Do they think they should spend as much time preparing for marriage as they do picking a out a cake? Of course they say yes, and I’m pretty sure most mean it. Then I ask if they’re involved in church. Usually the answer is no. They figure they ought to be in church, but they’re crazy busy; the world tells them church is optional, and they don’t need a church to be “spiritual.”

Taking Christian marriage vows with integrity, without the support of a church, isn’t easy. So we spend a lot of time exploring the basics of the Christian faith.

When the big day comes, the church fills with people who are a lot like the bride and groom. They’re also crazy busy, and they too have been told that spirituality is a do-it-yourself proposition.

So I figure the wedding homily is one of the few chances these folks will have to hear the gospel. The world tells them marriage is all about you, so find a spouse who makes you happy. But they know in their hearts it’s a lie; it loads a spouse with burdens they were not meant to bear. I try to show them that Christian marriage is about gospel reenactment; mutual sacrifice, where the bride and groom take on the roles of Jesus Christ for each other.

People are starving to hear this.

After the wedding last Saturday, a young lady met me at the reception and told me how wonderful the service was. She said she’d never heard anything like it. Later, as my wife and I were leaving, she approached me again. She said she wanted to teach her child about faith, but didn’t know where to begin. We stood and talked for nearly an hour. She asked great questions. Her friend who was a member of an Orthodox church, joined us. She said she rarely went to church; it was too hard to get her kids to go.

At one point, the first young woman apologized, saying she was wasting my time with dumb questions. Her friend told her not to worry. “This is what he lives for,” she said.

Oh my, her friend was right.

The weeks and months creating this ministry, building it over five years, and the 25 or so hours’ investment in each wedding were all worth it.

I pray those two young ladies will continue seeking, and if they come to worship here, we’ll welcome them in a way that will make them want to go deeper in their faith.

This is what Christian mission looks like today. It’s meeting people where they are. Having conversations. Being real.

Sure it’s a big investment in others, but not to worry. It’s worth living for.

Cyberball

In his 2014 book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, psychologist Michael Lieberman reveals new information about how our brains work. He says that our need to connect with others is stronger and more fundamental than our need for food and shelter.

In one study, Lieberman documented just how painful social rejection can be. Researchers created an Internet video game called Cyberball, where three people toss a ball around to each other. Research subjects didn’t know it, but two of the players were actually pre-programmed computer robots. The point of Cyberball is to make the research subject feel rejected. At first, all three players toss the ball to each other in turn. But at a certain point, the robots cut the research subject out of the game, and toss the ball just to each other.

A silly game? Maybe, but researchers measuring brain activity discovered that the brain processes rejection the same way it processes physical pain. Research subjects were genuinely hurt, and kept telling the researchers how upset they were.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that when people speak of rejection, they use metaphors referring to physical pain like, “She broke my heart.”

Perhaps this gives us a glimpse into why Jesus chose to be rejected and betrayed by one of his closest friends. In John 13:27, Jesus said to Judas, his betrayer, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”

The Christian faith is nothing if not realistic about how hard life can be. Nearly all the people in the Bible experienced rejection; none led easy and carefree lives. Many of the psalms are about people crying out against rejection and betrayal.

Perhaps, because the experience was so universal, that’s why Jesus chose suffering and rejection as the means through which he would bring about our redemption.

Jesus chose the ultimate rejection so that we could experience the ultimate in acceptance.

Like me

I was a marginal Christian for most of my life.

I mean there was never a time when I didn’t believe in God. But when asked to serve in the church, I usually said “no.” Too busy, I told myself. Yet when I quit making that excuse, my life started to change. It turned out there was time on my schedule after all. I even began to enjoy serving. I began to get glimpses into the riches of a life of faith.

I guess it’s not surprising that when I began sensing a call to pastoral ministry, a strong part of that call was to minister to busy professionals like I had been.

As a minister, I’ve found that one of the really important things I do is to counsel the folks who come to our church to be married.

Most of them are busy professionals, just like me at their age.

Many are marginal Christians, just like me at their age.

They believe in God, but many say they’re “too busy” to go deeper just like me at their age.

Jesus, talking about his impending death and resurrection, said in John 12:24, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

The whole Christian faith depends on the one who dies to be raised again.

The same is true of our faith. We can climb the ladders professionals climb and think that’s the point of life. And so we need to die a little to our busy selves. Otherwise we can go on for years, doing the things busy people do, and miss the riches of a life of faith.

A wise person once said, “Nobody on their deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time in the office.”

“Lord, give me the words to convey the gospel to busy people. Give them the wisdom to understand. Amen.”

The good china

Years ago, when our boys were in preschool and first grade, my in-laws came from Kentucky to visit us in Nebraska for Thanksgiving dinner. My mother-in-law pitched in to help, setting the table in our formal dining room. At the boy’s places, she used plastic plates instead of the good china. She put towels over the chairs in case the boys spilled something.

Let me just say, I didn’t handle this as well as I should have.

We hardly ever used the dining room. We had 12 place settings of good china that we received for wedding presents. After 42 years, some of the plates have never been out of the box they came in.

What do you save the good china for?

My in-laws’ faith had a strong impact on the lives of everyone in our family. They worked hard and cared for the gifts God gave them. Like us, they had nice dining room furniture and good china that rarely got used.

At my parents’ house when I was growing up, things were a little different. The telephone sat on the dining room table, usually in the mess of bills and other stuff. My brother and sister and I played hide and seek under that table. Forty years later you could still see the scars where we had done our homework without putting a paper underneath. But over the years those scars become more precious to our parents than the furniture itself.

When my parents died and we went to dispose of their things, there wasn’t much we could keep. Their stuff was all used up.

What do we do with the gifts God has given us? During Lent, we always need to keep the costly love of Jesus in mind when we ask ourselves that question.

When we serve the hurting people who come to our church, we ought to use real china.

The stone the builders rejected

Thanks to Netflix, I just watched “Eddie the Eagle,” the 2016 movie about Eddie Edwards, who competed for Great Britain in the Calgary Olympics in 1988. This may be one of the purest feel-good movies ever made.

From the time he was a young boy, Eddie dreamed of being an Olympic athlete. The problem was, he had no athletic ability. But Eddie was undeterred. When he was rejected for the British Downhill Team, Eddie spotted his chance. Great Britain had not sent a ski-jumper to the Olympics in over 50 years. Eddie realized that if he could learn the sport, and meet the minimum qualifications (which were low, since no sane person would risk their life on something so dangerous), the team would have to take him. Through sheer force of will, unbelievable courage, and the support of his parents (who spent all their savings so he could train), Eddie made the team.

He finished last out of 73 ski-jumpers at Calgary, but his improbable story inspired millions around the world.

One British writer said, “Not that everybody loved him. Many people at Calgary were critical of the way a loser was being lauded. What they didn’t appreciate was his sacrifice, his bravery, and his determination to improve. The manner, in short, in which he fulfilled the very ethical purpose of the Olympic Games. Edwards epitomized the moral value of trying even if success is impossible. He was, in fact, the last of the great amateurs; we will never see his like again.”

I think the reason we love stories about underdogs is that we were created by a God who chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. Jesus is the “stone the builders rejected.” It’s when we lift up the least that we may be most like the Savior.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

Remember the nursery rhyme, “Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down?”

There was a time when we enjoyed nursery rhymes, but we eventually grew up. We became serious, mature.

Now we think it’s more important to keep up appearances, so we avoid looking silly.

An article in the NY Times a while back suggests the practice of psychotherapy in the United States has declined significantly. The reasons for this are complex, but researchers focused on one thing: psychotherapy involves the long, hard work of facing our own issues.

But today most people today blame others for their problems.

Psychotherapists used to see patients who were unhappy and wanted to understand themselves. Now they see more patients who come in “because they want someone else to change.” Fewer and fewer people are saying, ‘I want to change myself.'”

Ash Wednesday is about facing up to our own, most basic issues.

Ash Wednesday is the day when believers publicly acknowledge that we’re not perfect; that we don’t have all the answers; that we came from dust and that’s where we’re headed.

Ash Wednesday is the day above all days when it’s safe to acknowledge our vulnerability and our total reliance on God’s grace.

When we as believers fall down together; when we stop worrying about appearances; when we let down our defenses; when we allow others into our lives; when we let them know that we’re not perfect; that we don’t have all the answers, that’s when we’re most available to the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.

Today, we wear his ashes.

One day, we will wear his crown.