I just finished six years on the board of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. My term ended with the PDP’s annual meeting, where civic leaders describe the state of downtown. There are many good things going on downtown, but there are also many hurting people. This means there are many, many ways for the church to care for the city and share the faith.

When I started at the church ten years ago, I’d see an occasional article with predictions of a resurgent downtown. At last it’s true. There’s been $8.5 billion in new construction within a half mile of the church over the last ten years. $300 million worth of projects are underway right now. There are condos, apartments, restaurants, and all kinds of new businesses. One signature project, Lumière, with 86 new residences, is half a block away.

The challenge for us is that a resurgent downtown no longer thinks it needs the church. So how do we reach it?


My understanding of this started with my classes and experiences in mission. Missionaries must do at least two things—care for people and share the Gospel. They must get to know the people they hope to reach, learn their language, live and work with them, and make a difference in their community. And after all that, hopefully they’ve built a relationship out of which they can share the Gospel.

Ten years ago, I imagined that the beauty of the church building, the church’s programs, or even my preaching would bring people to faith. But slowly I’ve learned to repent of those ideas.

It’s relationships.

Who’s in

This Sunday after worship, our church is hosting the musical production, “The Prodigal Sons.” I hear the show is great. It’s based on Jesus’ most important parable.

A man had two sons. The younger one demanded his inheritance from his father, and then squandered his father’s wealth in wild living. But then he came to his senses. He returned home and threw himself on his father’s mercy. “I’m not worthy to be called your son,” he cried.

The father who’d never stopped looking for him, welcomed him back as a son.

The older brother was out in the fields doing his duty, as he’d always done. When he saw that his father had welcomed his brother back home, he became angry. The father pleaded with him to come in, but (apparently) to no avail. “You owe me!” the son said.

I’ve said many times, when I finally understood this passage, it changed my life.

I’d always thought that the point was to be like the older brother: Stay home, do your duty. Don’t be like that awful younger one.

But that’s not what the parable is about at all.

It turns out that there are two ways to be our own savior, one by being bad and one by being good. At the end of the story, it was the “good” brother who was on the outside of his father’s house looking in.

Saying “You owe me!” to the father is a sure sign of a deadly spiritual condition. This is why, on the greatest day of his father’s life, when at last he had his son back safe and sound, the older son refused to celebrate.

When the truth of this finally dawned on me, I understood why so many people are put off by church. They look at the church and what they see (fairly or not) is a bunch of unhappy older brothers.

And as often as I’ve preached and taught on this passage, people still tell me, “I don’t see what the elder brother did wrong.”

Let me put it this way. There are two ways to approach God. One is to say, “I’m not worthy,” and the other is to say, “You owe me.”

I’m not God, but it would seem that the ones God welcomes are the ones who say to God, “I’m not worthy and I know I will never we worthy.”

The ones who think they deserve to be in, are out.

The ones who know that they deserve to be out, are in.


This week, dozens of wealthy parents were charged with fraud after paying millions of dollars to a man named William Singer, who ran a bogus college prep company. Singer bribed admissions officials, test proctors, and coaches to guarantee kids’ acceptance into elite universities. One couple paid $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California on the rowing team, though neither girl had ever taken part in the sport.

Why would parents, who were able to give their kids every advantage, do something so dishonest?

Didn’t they fear getting caught?

My guess is that the parents were afraid of how they might look if their teenager didn’t get into the “right school.”

We’re studying Nehemiah, the Old Testament exile who God called long ago to rebuild Jerusalem. With God’s guidance, Jerusalem was rebuilt. Then, incredibly, the former exiles turned on each other. They cheated one another out of property. They charged one another interest on loans, something God had forbidden.

Nehemiah’s rebuke to the cheaters: “Shouldn’t you walk in fear of our God?”.

“Fear of the Lord,” doesn’t so much mean a fear of getting caught, or even a fear of going to hell. It means healthy reverence. And it’s the kind of fear that usually comes with love and hope.

We shake our heads at wealthy parents who cheat, but what of the exiles in Nehemiah’s day? They’d come back to Jerusalem with nothing except the grace of God. You’d think they’d have each other’s back; instead they cheated each other.   

I wonder what our lives would be like if, instead of trying to take advantage of each other, we worked to cultivate a healthy fear of our God?

Who knows, we might not be afraid of, say, our kids’ score on college entrance exams.

Holy moments

Some of the best moments in the life of a pastor happen at the end of a long aisle. 

Take weddings. I’ve gotten to marry dozens of times. In my job I get to stand at the end of a long center aisle and watch as a bride, in the moment of her life when she is perhaps most radiant and beautiful, makes her way toward her husband. So many people live together today that you might think that marriage is no big deal. But that’s not what it feels like when you’re standing between two trembling people.

Then there’s communion. People line up down the aisle, waiting to tear off a piece of bread and dip it in the juice. It’s a bit awkward, frankly; it’s hard to tear bread neatly. But then, shouldn’t we feel a bit awkward? Are we not entering together into the great mystery of salvation? I get to say the words, “The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, poured out for you.”

And last, there’s Ash Wednesday. The people who line up down the aisle know they need to be there. They know that only through confession and repentance, symbolized by ashes, can they receive the true life Christ offers. I get to enter in to a moment when total strangers make themselves vulnerable before God, as I make the sign of the cross in ash on their forehead.

Radiance and beauty, mystery and salvation, vulnerability and life, at the end of a long center aisle.   

Beloved Dust

One of our most ancient stories pictures God as a gardener, reaching down and scooping up some dust, and forming the first human being with his own hands. God then breathed into the man’s nostrils, and he came to life. The Hebrew word, athaam, means “earth.” It’s no surprise that the first man was called Adam.

There’s a one day a year on the Christian calendar when we remind ourselves that we came from dust, and that’s where we’re headed. We’re all dust, the mightiest and the humblest of us. There’s no denying where we came from, and there’s no escaping where we’re headed. 

But we’re dust that’s been made alive by a loving creator. His own breath is in us, literally and spiritually. The least of us is an incredibly complex creation, and God’s supreme work of art.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we remind ourselves that we’re dust; dust that’s been made alive and that remains utterly dependent on God. We also remember that the God who can do the unimaginable…make dust out of nothing and then make dust come alive…loves us with unimaginably great love.

And so, on Ash Wednesday we remember what the pastor says at a funeral, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But we’re beloved dust.