Approval treadmill

I heard a term this week I’d never heard before, “hedonic treadmill.” It’s the idea that everyone has a baseline level of happiness. Our happiness might rise or fall depending on life experiences, but eventually it moves back to what it was before the experiences. It’s also called “hedonic adaptation.” Psychologists use this concept as a way of explaining why we can have great experiences and be emotionally high for a few days, and then go back to being our same old selves. 

I always smile and shake my head when I hear a high-sounding term that experts use to explain what we all know to be true.

We all come down from the highs.

Mountaintop experiences don’t last.

Luke 10 tells the story of Jesus sending out seventy-two people to the places he was about to go. He commissioned them to heal and cast out demons and spread the news that the Kingdom of God was near. They came back rejoicing at what they thought was their ministry success.  

But instead of being excited for them, Jesus said, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

It must have been terrifying for those first people to go out in Jesus’ name. And it must have been equally exhilarating to have the power of God flow through them. But Jesus told them, “Rejoice not.”

When we believe, we have a status that never changes with how our job is going, what our bank balance is doing, or how many “likes” our posts are getting.

When we believe, our names are written in God’s book. Done. Nothing will ever change that fact.

We can get off the approval treadmill.

We’ve been examined and approved by the King of Kings.


People ask, “How are things at the church?” I say, “Good! God’s not done with this old place.”

People from all over the world come here and they marvel.

That’s always fascinated me. They’ve seen the great cathedrals of Europe, and they marvel at this place. I’ve come to understand that they’re having an experience of the Holy Spirit. They confirm my belief that God is not done with First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh.

Of course, I know better than most where the hurts are—who’s having an operation, who’s waiting for test results. There’s a mentally ill man who stops by every day. Like so many who live on the street, his problems proved too much for his family long ago.

There’s a lot of hurt on the streets of downtown these days, but since we’ve been here for 250 years, we keep things in perspective.

Our ancestors had to cross an ocean in wooden ships, then cross a wilderness just to get here.

The first Thanksgiving service was held in a burned out fort.

In the early years, you could literally get scalped if you went outside.

Two hundred years ago, the minister had to buy back the church property at a sheriff’s sale where it was being auctioned off to pay creditors. 

The week this building was dedicated in 1905, police raided seven speakeasys downtown.


And as glorious as our building still is, it has many not-so-glorious needs.

But in 2021 we were one of only 15 churches nationwide to receive a grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places, recognizing our historic significance, architectural beauty, and impact in the community.

Partners for Sacred Places said we have a $2.3 million impact in the neighborhood, which is two and a half times our budget.

Our friends at Outreached Arms have served tens of thousands of meals here over the last eight years, most of them with folks sitting down, and on real plates with real silverware.

We still support missions around the world, like the Bread of Life Church in Ukraine, and Refuge for Women and Garden Home Ministries who help women escape human trafficking here.

There are four water wells in Uganda marked “First Presbyterian Church.”

When Billy Graham spoke at the 200th anniversary here 50 years ago, he said this was, “One of the two or three great churches in America.”

If that’s true it’s only because, by God’s grace, for 250 years folks here have kept things in perspective.

It’s not us that makes a church great.

It’s God, who’s still not done with us.

The sound of every instrument

200 years ago, the revival sweeping the country had seemingly passed over First Presbyterian Church. The church narrowly averted losing its property for failing to pay money owed to workers and creditors.

In the church, there were controversies over prayer and mission.

And then there was the controversy over music.

Young people asked to form a choir.

The minister, Francis Herron, knew nothing about music and was tone deaf, but he supported the idea. 

But some elders hated the choir idea. “They shall never have an instrument,” one exclaimed. “No never.”

But the elder was as musically deaf as Herron. When his own nephew started accompanying the choir on the bass viol, the elder didn’t even notice.

But then one Sunday, the nephew played a voluntary, and the elder got up to “Smash that fiddle.”

“Sit down,” he was told. “It’s been playing here a month and hasn’t hurt us.”

Today, First Church has one of the grandest instruments in the city.

The organ, built by Casavant Freres of Canada in 1988, has 4,400 pipes. And for the last nine years, it’s been played by one of the finest organists in the city, Ryan Croyle.

Psalm 150 calls on “everything that has breath” to praise the Lord, and to use every instrument. Its why organs were created. They were once the greatest machines anyone had ever seen, and they could make the sound of nearly every instrument.

What kind of rare breed of person would dare to take on the challenge of playing one?

Learning to play the organ takes years and years of solitary practice.

Learning to play with subtlety and panache…to not just hit the notes, but to touch the hearts of worshippers…takes a rare blend of empathy, grace, skill, and confidence.  

Ryan’s playing touches hearts.

This Sunday we say “Godspeed” to Ryan as he begins a new chapter in his life with his beautiful, growing family and his growing architectural practice. Ryan has blessed us with his musicianship and character, and we’ll miss him.

We look forward to seeing what God will do through him in the years ahead!


The Bible can seem like a big, thick, intimidating book. But when you consider that it’s the story of God creating and then redeeming everything, the Bible is astonishingly brief.

The same is true of the resurrection story. Luke gives us twelve verses. What’s more Luke doesn’t say what it means. If you want to know that, you have to read Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts.

Why doesn’t Luke tell us what it means here? 

Because it means everything.

There’s no person, no thought, no fact, no action, nothing in creation that isn’t affected by it.

The late author Shusaku Endo was unique—a Japanese Catholic. He’s perhaps best known for his 1966 book, Silence, which became a movie by Martin Scorsese.

Endo was born into a culture which makes it very hard to become a Christian, but he was converted at the age of 11 under the influence of his mother and his aunt. In his 1979 book, The Life of Jesus, Endo said the disciples were ordinary men who didn’t have particularly strong convictions. “How did they manage to wake up, regain their faith, and then realize for the first time the true merit of Jesus?” 

Endo wrote, “That leads to another problem. There were all these new Christian communities established by disciples who previously had been such cowards. The fact remains that all these communities were one in accepting the resurrection of Jesus and in proclaiming Jesus Christ as Savior.

“If you don’t believe in the resurrection, you will be forced to believe that something else hit the disciples as every bit as amazing, maybe different, but of equal force in its electrifying intensity. 

“If you try to explain the changed lives of the early Christians, you will find yourself making leaps of faith as great as if you believed the resurrection to begin with.”

The early Christians did not change the entire world based on a metaphor they made up. They did it because they had a personal experience of the Risen Lord and wanted everyone, everywhere to have what they had.

The power that raised Jesus from the dead is loose in the world.

That means everything for how we live our lives.