Systemic nobility

It’s been worse than this, you know.

The divisions among us have been worse. A lot, lot worse.

This week, Jana and I spent a day touring the battlefield at Gettysburg. It’s something everyone should do.

It puts today’s “fighting” in perspective.

Every American should walk up Little Round Top and reflect on the heroism of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the volunteers of the 20th Maine Regiment.

On July 2, 1863, Chamberlain was ordered to defend the position “at all hazards.” If the Confederate Army overran them, the left flank of the Union line would collapse, the battle would be lost, and the American experiment would be over.

Wave after wave of infantry from the 15th Alabama Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Oates, attacked, leaving both sides exhausted and out of ammunition. Chamberlain ordered “bayonets,” and his men charged down the hill. The stunned Confederates retreated. The 20th Maine had prevailed.

On Little Round Top we lingered to take in the sweeping view of the battlefield. By sheer chance, we met historian Steven Gunlock, dressed in the uniform of a Union general. Gunlock has devoted his life to keeping the memory of the soldiers alive. For two hours we listened, often wiping tears, as Gunlock told one moving story of heroism and sacrifice after another. Gunlock showed us a rifle and cannon used in the battle and explained the terrible damage they did to the human body. In three days at Gettysburg, there were 50,000 casualties. He said nearly every soldier who fought at Gettysburg was a volunteer. What would move a young man to leave home to face such horror?

The battle for Little Round Top was made famous by the book The Killer Angels and later by the movie Gettysburg. But as Gunlock pointed out, there were thousands of other moments of heroism and sacrifice during those three days in July 1863. Over and over, the fate of the nation hung in the balance.

Today, some question the founding of America. They say the date wasn’t really 1776, but rather 1619, the year slaves were brought to North America. They say that racism is systemic.

Racism is a sin. We are all fallen. But we are also image bearers of God.

Thanks to what God has done in Jesus Christ, sin doesn’t get the last word.

Four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. He said that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

On the way home from Gettysburg, Jana and I stopped at the Flight 93 National Memorial. It tells the story of September 11, 2001, and of the sacrifice of the 40 passengers and crew of Flight 93. Everyone should also go there.

Heroism and nobility are systemic too.

Set your face

One of the challenges of talking to people about generosity is that no one thinks they’re stingy. They think other people are stingy, but not them. One of the reasons is that there is so much wealth all around us, almost no one ever feels like they’ve arrived.

Some folks think that generosity is only about money, which they give in place of their time.

Some folks think that because they volunteer, they don’t need to give financially.

Some are generous with their time and money, but guard their hearts. They don’t invest emotionally in anyone.

Luke says that the time had come for Jesus to be taken up to heaven, and so he set out “resolutely” for Jerusalem. Most translations say Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Have you ever “set your face” to do something?

It’s going to be excruciatingly hard, but you know you’ve got to do it, so you’re not in the mood for small talk. This was that kind of moment for Jesus, except that what Jesus had to do was die on the cross for all of humankind.

Luke says that immediately people started coming up to Jesus to say they wanted to follow him. To one after the other, Jesus responded in seemingly strange ways.

“Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

“Let the dead bury their own dead.”

“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Translation: Following me will require all of you. It will mean giving up your comfortable life, your family, and your accomplishments.

It’s hard to live generously in all of life, but that’s what Jesus was calling those potential followers to do.

The only way to do it is to appreciate what Jesus had “set his face” to do.

Hidden in plain sight

A friend of ours tells the story of taking violin lessons as a child. Her grandfather had purchased a violin second hand during the depression so her mother could take lessons. Both our friend and her mother had carried that violin back and forth to school for years.  

Our friend’s mother died. Years later, our friend remembered the violin and went looking for it. She found it under a bed, hidden away with other things. She tried to get it appraised by Antiques Road Show, but they recommended she take it to someone else. Eventually, she found a dealer who knew what it was. He told her he could only offer her $100,000. It was all he could pull together, but that wouldn’t be fair to her.

But it had been an honor for him just to play it.

No, it wasn’t a long-lost Stradivarius. It was a Guarneri. 

Giuseppe Guarneri was an 18th century contemporary of Antonio Stradivari. Only about 150 of Guarneri’s violins are known to exist, far fewer than the number of Stradivari’s.

Our friend said she had considered the violin a family heirloom, but she had no idea that the instrument under the bed was worth millions.

If you came across a Guarneri in a flea market, you’d stop at nothing to buy it, wouldn’t you?

This is what Jesus offers us. He told a parable of a farmer who discovered a treasure hidden in a field. “In his joy, he went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

In his joy.

There is nothing in the Bible about Jesus’ appearance. We don’t know what he looked like, how tall he was, or anything else. He just blended in. But we do know that when people discovered who he was, they left everything to follow him.

Not out of obligation or compulsion.


Weep with those who weep

Every now and then during my time in the Air Force, I would come home to find Jana upset. Sometimes it was because the boys had been fighting, sometimes it was because of bad news from back home. As often as not, there was something I had done or failed to do. Once in a while, Jana was upset because of the way someone on base had treated her. Then I was ready to swing into action. I was a colonel, and I could fix this.

But Jana rarely wanted anything fixed.

She just wanted me to listen.

Hopefully, I’ve gotten better at that, though I’m still not as good as I could be. But I have learned to cringe when I hear well-meaning people offer advice to hurting people on how to fix their problems.

At the heart of his great letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul gives a list of practical advice on living out the Gospel in the world. In Romans 12:15, Paul says “Weep with those who weep.” The Greek word can also be translated “mourn,” but the usual sense of the word is to bawl, to wail, to cry loudly. Sometimes, rather than trying to fix a situation, or appeal to facts (“See, it’s not so bad”) it’s best to just enter into the hurt of others.

In his book Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation, Pastor Mark Vroegop says that lament gives people the language to talk to God and one another about the pain and sorrow that hinder racial reconciliation. “When Christians from majority and minority cultures learn to grieve together, they reaffirm their common bond as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Paul never said, “Fix those who need fixing.” Just “Weep with those who weep.”

Seeing Jesus

A few years ago, my older son had a small plaque made. Unbeknownst to me, one Sunday before the worship service he went up into the high pulpit of our church and fixed the plaque on the bottom of the lectern. When I sit down in the pulpit, the words are at eye level:

“Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

The words are from John 12:20. They were spoken by some Greeks who had come to the Jewish festival of the Passover to worship.

When the disciples relayed the message to Jesus, he said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” By “hour” Jesus meant the time of his death.

Why would a visit by some religious seekers, outsiders, move Jesus to announce his death?

Because Jesus knew the religious insiders wanted to kill him.

The outsiders could see there was something special about Jesus. The insiders saw him as a threat.

The high pulpit in our church is one of the most beautiful pulpits anywhere. Our church is an architectural gem. But to outsiders, it can all look intimidating. It can look like it was built by and for religious insiders from generations ago. 

“Sir, we want to see Jesus” then is a reminder of the scandalous nature of the cross and the entire Christian faith.

When you think you deserve to be in, you’re out.

When you’re out, and you know you could never deserve to be in, you’re in.

Christians, most of all preachers, need to remember that Jesus put us here so that outsiders might see Jesus through us.