God with us

I’ve married dozens of times.

Now, I’m still happily married to Jana, my lovely bride of 44 years. What I mean is that I’ve officiated at dozens of weddings.

As a minister, I get to stand at the end of a long church aisle as the bride enters, overflowing with love and excitement and promise. Every bride is stunningly beautiful; as close to perfection as it gets in this life.

I glance to my left, at the groom who’s about to lose it. He’s overflowing too, trembling, tears in his eyes. Most men only get to see this once, but since officiating at weddings is in my job description, I get to see it again and again. It never gets old.

This is the image the Bible gives us for what our ultimate future will be like.

Most people are stuck with an image of heaven as some kind of disembodied existence, where we wear white robes and float on clouds. But the Bible’s image is of a city, as beautiful as any bride, coming down out of heaven to be joined to earth. This means that in our ultimate future, we will somehow be more real than we are now.

And heaven is here, not on some cloud.

How will this be? Revelation 21:4 says that “God has come to dwell with humans.” When Jesus comes again to live with us once and for all, all those parts of us that were damaged in the fall, when the first husband and wife sinned, will be restored. Imagine the beauty and joy and perfection of a bride and groom, but multiplied by ten or a hundred or a thousand or more. That will be us, all of us.

That’s the promise of God with us.

Valid

For ten years, our church has partnered with Youth for Christ, a national para-church ministry, to operate The Cellar, an after-school ministry of presence for high school kids downtown. The Cellar is known among students, school administrators, and civic leaders as a safe place for kids to hang out after school. The Cellar is led by April Gratton, our mission partner from Youth for Christ, and Katie Peffer, our Minister of Youth and Families. Two weeks ago, April and Katie took five students on a weekend retreat to our church’s camp in the Laurel Highlands. It was the first time the students had been to the woods, the first time they’d been to a Christian camp, the first time they’d climbed a rock wall, and the first time they’d heard the story of the Gospel.

April and Katie came back from the weekend overjoyed. The students all said that the story April and Katie had shared with them was “valid.”

If you’re disappointed that all five students did not “give their lives to Jesus Christ,” consider the world these girls were raised in. They’re unchurched kids of unchurched parents. They were brought up in a culture which preaches that the highest good is what makes you feel good right now. And they were taught that all belief systems and life experiences are equally valid.

Which happened to be the opening that April and Katie needed.

April and Katie had built a trusting relationship over a long time, which allowed them to share their own Christ-centered life experiences. If “all life experiences are equally valid,” then that must include the experiences of April and Katie, right?

Everywhere, congregations are aging because young people are dropping out. The majority of children of long-time church attenders are dropping out. The implications for the church are enormous.

The church of the future may look a lot more like the church of the first century. The early church did not grow through programs or mass conversions. It grew through personal relationships. It grew because lives transformed by the Gospel are attractive.

The church of the future may look a lot more like what happens weekday afternoons in our church basement, or what happened between April and Katie and those five high school kids.

Lives transformed by the Gospel are attractive.

And valid.

PS. If you are concerned about young people abandoning the faith, here’s a suggestion. Lead a valid life and build an unconditional relationship with a young person.

Hint. April and Katie need volunteers.

Impact

This week I received a thoughtful email with the subject “Your Impact” from a Sunday visitor. He said, “All of God’s children need witness and assistance, not just those lying on grates or in cardboard boxes under bridges…but I feel encouraged by your messages to devote more time to helping people in need.”

Our visitor was absolutely right. What people most need, whether or not they find Pittsburgh “livable,” is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A man had come to me after church that Sunday with tears in his eyes. He’d been staying in the cold weather shelter downtown and said that someone who he’d befriended had threatened him. He came in the church (his first time here) to feel safe, and fell asleep. He woke up during the service, and as he heard the message, memories of his grandmother taking him to church as a boy started flooding back. He remembered the faith she’d passed on to him, and what church was all about.

What is wrong with the world is not something government is going to solve. It will be the church of Jesus Christ.

Last full measure of devotion

I hope you heard Irish Tenor Ronan Tynan sing “The Last Full Measure of Devotion” at the State Funeral for President George H.W. Bush this week. I will never forget the first time I heard that song.

On Veteran’s Day in 1997, Jana and I were sitting with the Air Force Band in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. On the stage in front of us were President Clinton, who had just laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Joint Chiefs. Behind us were thousands of veterans and their families waving American flags. It was the most patriotic scene you can imagine, especially for us in that moment.

A few days before, our family had returned from two years in Brussels, Belgium so I could take command of the 11th Operations Group in Washington, DC. I was responsible for the Air Force Band, Air Force Honor Guard, and the Air Force chaplains at Arlington.

When Senior Master Sergeant Richard Pearson, backed by the rest of the “Singing Sergeants” and the entire Air Force Band, sang “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” I lost it. Jana and I were sitting in front of the French Horn section, and I remember wondering what they thought of their new boss, blubbering away. Over the next couple years, I got to hear Richard sing that song several times, always with the same effect. Ronan Tynan is great, but for me, Richard’s performance will always be the definitive one.

The song picks up a key phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as it honors those who gave their lives in service to country. It’s a patriotic anthem, not explicitly Christian. But since I’ve become a minister, I hear the song in a new way. It reminds me of Jesus Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant….”

There is nothing more touching or noble than someone who gives their life for another. How can we not be moved by the God who gave us his “last full measure of devotion?”