Just do something?

Presbyterian pastor and author Rodger Nishioka told of stopping at a grocery store to buy milk after flying in one night from a speaking engagement. It was late, Rodger was tired, there was only one cashier, and the woman in line ahead of him was short of cash. She was sorting through her groceries trying to decide what she could afford. 

“How much does she need?” Rodger asked the cashier, as he made up the difference.

As the woman started to leave, she turned to Rodger and said, “You didn’t even ask me my name.”   

Bless Rodger for telling this story on himself.

Was he helping the woman, or was he solving a problem so he could get home to bed?

What if the answer has cosmic consequences?

The preaching text this week is Jesus’ parable of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus from Luke 16. In all of Jesus’ parables, he’s the only character with a name.

It means “the one God helps.”

In the parable, the rich man lived in luxury while the poor man had nothing. Lazarus longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, but the man gave him nothing. Then the rich man died and went to hell and was in agony. Looking up to heaven, he saw Lazarus resting in comfort next to Abraham. He pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers that hell was real. Abraham said that people have had all the warning they were going to get. They wouldn’t believe “even if someone rises from the dead.”

So, what’s the lesson? Help the poor or you’re going to hell?

I don’t think so.

A better question might be, why help the poor?

Why do justice? Why fight racism?

In the midst of multiple crises today, it’s easy to feel helpless. In our desire to “just do something” it’s tempting to latch on to any cause, any movement, that might feel right.

But what do we accomplish when we abandon Christ and his ways?

Nothing that matters.

When we serve, we have a choice to serve in his name, with his heart and his ways, or not.

There is someone who rose from the dead. He’s bringing in a new kingdom; setting things right, and painfully few seem to believe it.

Feeling helpless?

The pandemic has taken away many of the things we relied on for purpose and meaning, and rioting has shaken our faith in our institutions.

We want to do something, but what?

Acts 17 tells the story of the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus in Athens, where the elites of the first century Roman world met to debate philosophy, religion, and politics. The elites listened as Paul explained who the God of the Bible was and how God was the force behind much of what they believed.

So far, so good.

But then Paul told them they needed to repent; God was sending someone to judge the world; the proof was the resurrection. 

End of discussion. Paul and his talk were cancelled. The philosophers thought Paul was crazy.

I wonder if Paul left feeling helpless.

But God wasn’t done. 

Paul wasn’t totally helpless after all; a few people who heard him believed.

Less than 300 years later, the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in recognition of the fact that Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Roman world.

The Gospel changed the world from the margins, not from the places where the elites hung out. Members of the new Jesus Movement had begun sharing their faith with relatives and friends, who shared it with their relatives and friends. People began to see there was something different about them.

Today, Christianity is the dominant religion in the world, and it’s still growing. Growing, not through force or programs, but through the quality of the members of the movement and the relationships they form.   

Friends, we’re not helpless. 

Share your faith. Point to the resurrection. Do it winsomely, fearlessly, and relate it to your audience, as Paul did.

It’s when we feel helpless, and step out in faith anyway, that God does some of his best work.

Seeing stars

This week, my son Patrick and I drove up to Cherry Springs State Park in north central Pennsylvania. The park is mostly a big open field, but people go there from all over the world because it’s one of the few accessible places left that’s almost totally free of light pollution. It’s one of the best places in the world to see stars.

So, at age 68, I saw the Milky Way with my own eyes for the first time.

Even if it had been cloudy and we couldn’t see a thing, it was great to get away with my son. It was nice to do something “normal,” like a road trip, for a change.

In Genesis 15, God was talking with Abram, later Abraham, old and childless Abraham, the one God had chosen to father a new nation. He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:5-6).

We know a bit more than Abraham about the stars, but not that much more. We know what stars are; we know that the nearest one is over four light years away. But we don’t really know how many stars are in our own galaxy (100 to 400 billion), or how many galaxies there are (100 million to 2 trillion).

The God that engineered all that has told us that he’s mindful of us, loves us.   

This week the stars reminded me that God kept his promise to Abraham.

We can trust him too.

God doesn’t cancel people

Coming amid a global pandemic, the injustice and unrest of the last few weeks have led many of us to experience deep feelings of hopelessness and loss. The solutions of the secular culture…the calls for “tolerance,” the calls to “just get along,” the calls “to listen to each other,” to repent of “privilege,” or to “cancel” the offenders, all seem to fall flat.

Haven’t we heard all this before?  

Acts 10 is the story of the conversion of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius was kind to the poor and prayed to the God of the Bible. 

But something was missing in Cornelius’ faith.

Cornelius had a vision to send for the Apostle Peter. Meanwhile, Peter was having visions too. When Cornelius and Peter finally met, the meaning behind their respective visions became clear. The one true God of the universe had come near in the person of Jesus Christ. This Jesus was reconciling all things—all things—to himself. He’s the judge of the living and the dead, and everyone who believes in him will have new life.

The reconciling work of the one true God, accomplished once and for all in Jesus Christ, brought the most unlikely people together. It could not have happened any other way.

Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross weren’t just a metaphor for tolerance.

The empty tomb wasn’t just a metaphor for hope.

God had to put to death our prejudices on the cross.

And the worst thing that could ever happen—God dying a horrible death—somehow became the best thing.

God doesn’t “cancel” people, just the sin that divides us.


What’s your favorite 2020 meme so far?

Here’s a typical one: A picture of a beautiful bride in her wedding dress with the caption, “My plans.” Next is a picture of a zombie apocalypse, with the caption “2020.”

One meme said, “2020 is going to be the synonym for “crazy” for the rest of time.

Remember the good old days when there was just an impeachment going on?

We don’t have the resources to process a year like this, do we?

But maybe we do. What if we learned to lament?

Mark Vroegop is a pastor in Indianapolis. Years ago, he and his wife had a child who was stillborn. Even though as a pastor he’d often walked with people through grief, he and his wife weren’t prepared for this.

Mark had always known that a third of the psalms were laments. But in his grief, he began to read the psalms in a new way. In the psalms of lament, and in the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, he discovered a movement. The psalmist turned to God, complained to God, asked God to act, and trusted God for the answer. Mark realized that in the psalms of lament God had provided a way for believers to move from grief to hope. There was no promise of an easy fix, but there were reminders of God’s faithfulness in the hardest of times.

Mark realized that his church, like so many others, hadn’t taught people how to lament. It had skipped over the psalms of lament in favor of the psalms of triumph. He wrote a very helpful book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament.

This week Mark released a new book to help Jesus followers begin to deal with our current crisis. It’s called Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation. The Gospel Coalition has made a free PDF copy of this book available at https://tgc-documents.s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/Weep%20With%20Me/Weep_With_Me_EPDF.pdf

So many of us have been searching for something to do to make sense of this crazy year, to reach out to our friends who are hurting, and to make positive changes in the world.

What if God has already given us a path forward?

What if we started by learning to lament?