Tender twigs

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.”  Mark 13:28

Seventeen years ago, our son Patrick went off to The Citadel, the military college in Charleston, SC. Freshmen start with Hell Week. Like basic training, it’s tough; they cut off your hair and yell at you. But Patrick quit before the week was over and came home.

Jana and I were crushed.

But then Patrick learned there are worse things than being a freshman at The Citadel. Like feeling sorry for yourself. Like not having a reason to get up in the morning.  The next summer Patrick decided to try again. But this time, the upperclassman would know that he’d quit. Things would be even harder.

When the day came to go back to The Citadel, Patrick was so scared that he was sick. As we drove along, we passed a Huddle House restaurant in a small town. It had a sign which read, “Be still and know that I am God.” None of us said anything, but Patrick had seen it. He later told us that right then, he was at peace. During Hell Week and beyond, when he was scared or lonely, he remembered that verse, and he made it through.

Hope came for our son when he was most vulnerable.

That’s Jesus’ point in Mark 13:28. In the spring when the twigs of a tree are tender, that’s when leaves emerge. But that’s also when the tree is most vulnerable to a killing freeze.

We spend our lives trying to show that we’re successful, confident, and in-charge. The problem with that is, who can tell you that you need a savior? Jesus says that hope comes to us, not when we’re pulled together, but when we’re vulnerable.

And so, hope comes to us at Christmas through a tiny baby, the most vulnerable thing in God’s creation

No app for that

I usually make myself a mug of coffee before I head to work, but one day last week I went to Starbucks instead. There were few people ahead of me, so I figured I’d have my order in no time. I was wrong. The baristas were crazy busy making coffee for people who weren’t there. They’d yell something like, “Polly, mobile order,” as they put Polly’s coffee on the bar. Pretty soon, Polly arrived to get her order. She was in and out in 10 seconds. This happened again and again. Meanwhile, I was the only customer actually in the store.

I mentioned this at our staff meeting that morning. Everyone laughed at me. Silly Tom. Don’t you know to order ahead using the mobile app? My wife said the same thing happened to her at Panera Bread. All the mobile lunch orders were filled ahead of hers.

But wait. I thought the whole point of places like Starbucks and Panera Bread were to create a kind of community. Now it’s just the opposite. Now you don’t have to interact with anybody.

We’re studying Acts 16 this week, where Luke tells of three conversion stories in quick succession. There’s Lydia, a wealthy business woman; a demon-possessed slave girl; and a Roman jailor. They were as different as three human beings could be. But they were all changed by the Gospel. Three people who never would have had anything to do with each other, became part of the same church.

It seems to me that an increasingly impersonal culture has given the church an opening. We were created for each other, and we all know it, even if we don’t act like it. The church is the one place where people of different generations, races, cultures, and incomes meet on a regular basis. That ought to be attractive in and of itself.

And we get to tell people about the one who makes us one in him.

There’ll never be an app that can do that.

God’s love for the city

Nine years ago, First Pres was considering calling me as its senior pastor. If there was one thing more improbable than me being a pastor, it was me being the pastor of a city-center church. It was something I’d never done nor considered.

But then I listened to a sermon based on Jonah 4:11, where God said to Jonah, “Shall I not be concerned about that great city?” In the sermon, Tim Keller poured out a vision of God’s love for cities, which are concentrations of God’s most beautiful creations: people. Could this be the message God was calling me to help proclaim?

In the 1980’s, Keller was part of a group of Presbyterians (PCA) that planted an evangelical church in Manhattan. Everyone told them they were crazy: New Yorkers were too hip; too unchurched; too sophisticated. But they spent a lot of time getting to know New Yorkers. They built relationships instead of a church building. They relied on orthodox Christian beliefs and practices. The centerpiece of their worship was a 35-minute, Christ-centered sermon.

Today, Redeemer Presbyterian Church has thousands in worship in services across New York. They’ve helped plant hundreds of churches in cities around the world. Suburban churches, including several in our area, are getting in on the movement.

Those churches want to be where we are.

Hundreds of thousands of God’s most beautiful creations live, work, or visit within a short walk of our church every day. Some are thriving, some are hurting, but like all of us, they need a relationship with the creator.

God has us right where we’re supposed to be. He wants us to share his love with the city.


No Jesus, no light

We’re just a week away from Light Up Night (November 17th) in downtown Pittsburgh. Maybe it has to do with the unseasonably warm fall weather, but everyone says that the holidays have surprised them this year.

But lights are going up all over town. Everyone loves the lights. But do you know why we put them up? They’re a reminder that Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, has come. The good news for the church is that we get to explain this.

No Jesus, no lights.

The recent terrible shootings in Nevada and Texas, and the terror attack in New York, have left people crying out, “Do something!” Yet few folks really believe that the human solutions proposed will really make much difference against the darkness. In their heart of hearts, they know the problem is something deeper.

Christmas lights are reminders that God is doing something about what’s really wrong.

Christmas says that God came into a world of darkness. The darkness was so threatened by Jesus that the king ordered the murder of all the baby boys in the region where Jesus was born. Jesus’ family had to flee into exile to escape the slaughter. God in Jesus Christ was subject to the worst the darkness had to offer.

So, we must stand up against the forces of darkness that lead to murder and chaos. This isn’t the same as trusting in human solutions alone. We stand with the one about whom John, the Gospel writer, said, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.”

Hospital or museum?

Is the church a “hospital for sinners?” A “museum of saints?”

Is the church a place of safety and solitude, or is it an outpost from which to launch missions into sometimes hostile territory?

Every day, I have conversations with members and guests about what we’re doing as a church. Each person is shaped by strong views of what they think the church is or ought to be.

The Apostle Peter, the one on whom Jesus said he would build the church, had a bunch of powerful metaphors to describe it.

There is “living stones.” The church is a group of people, built together like stones in a wall, where the Spirit of God resides.

Peter said the church is “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation.” At the same time, he said church members are “aliens and strangers in the world.”

Together those metaphors, and there are lots more of them in the Bible, paint a wonderful, complex, and engaging picture of the church. There’s a lot there to both support and challenge our personal views. Clearly, Peter says the church is set apart in order to be a light to the culture. But, just by being the church, we’ll be treated as aliens and strangers.

The great thing about being a church in the center of the city is that we’re called to live into the fullness of Peter’s metaphors, in all their wonderful complexity.