Playing tricks

When I was a kid, I wanted to be accepted by other kids. Don’t we all? But I remember in the
sixth grade getting invited to a party at a neighbor girl’s house. I was suspicious because the girl
didn’t like me, but since we were neighbors, my mom insisted that I go. It turned out the girl had
just invited me so she and her friends could play a trick on me.
Thinking back now on my young neighbor, I imagine playing that trick on me came out of her
own need to be accepted.
Years ago, there was a TV series called Cheers about a bar in Boston. The theme song went like
this:
Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.
A Rolling Stone magazine poll in 2011 named that the best TV theme song of all time.
To be accepted means to be recognized; received; approved.
None of the things we do to be accepted help much, and some of it isn’t good for us at all. Some
young men join gangs. Some young women starve themselves, thinking they need to be thin to be
accepted. The $4.4 trillion wellness industry makes promises bordering on the religious. It seems a
lot of grownups are willing to let themselves be tricked.
God knew all this about us, but he loved us so much that he sent his Son to us.
The only perfect person made the only perfect sacrifice so that imperfect people could be
accepted.
The cosmic question is, why do we keep pursuing what the creator wants to give us for free?

Comfortable misery

Cortney Warren is a clinical psychologist who teaches in the UNLV School of Medicine. Her book is The Lies We Tell Ourselves.

Warren was an undergrad when she got interested in the topic of self-deception, and immediately she saw it “everywhere in everyone.” 

She said, “We lie to ourselves about the smallest details, like how much we ate today and why we didn’t list our actual height and weight on our driver’s license.” 

We lie about the “big things” too, like the reasons we choose a career path or who we choose to marry. Looking back on her own romantic life, Warren found that her fear of being left behind led her to make all kinds of poor choices when it came to men.

But she says there’s hope. “When we admit who we really are, we have the opportunity to change.” 

In church we call that “confession.”

Confession and accountability are key reasons we need church.

If you say you are “spiritual” and don’t need church, guess who’s lying? 

And of course when you lie to yourself you can’t just stop with little things. 

When the Allies liberated the concentration camps in Germany after World War II, people living near the camps said they didn’t know about the horrors happening inside.

But they knew.

Today, one of the worst things you can call someone is a “Nazi.”  But calling someone a “Nazi” is one of the worst mistakes you can make because you’re assuming that you would never look the other way in the face of evil.

Which is exactly what western leaders did in 1994 during the Rwandan Civil War, when upwards of 800,000 Tutsis were hacked to death by Hutus.

We all prefer to live a lie than believe the truth.

We tell ourselves that something is true if it “works for you.”

The Heidelberg Catechism calls this our “misery.”

So we need an outside source of truth…

We need to confess, again and again…

We need to remind ourselves of the wonder of the cross…

Lest we get comfortable in our misery.

Dream, alive and well

Ryan Cenk was a regular volunteer at the Tuesday night meals here at First Church, hosted by our friends at Outreached Arms. Ryan had battled brain cancer from infancy. The disease made it hard for him to see and walk. He looked younger than he really was.

But he had the advantage of having a great heart.

And he was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Ryan became an Eagle Scout, an advocate for the physically challenged, and a volunteer for many causes that mattered to him.

Before Ryan passed away in 2017 at the age of 22, he shared his dream of a night where the less fortunate were treated to a special meal.   

Ryan’s friends continue to make his dream a reality, and the dream continues to grow. This week was the fifth annual “Ryan’s Night to Remember” and it was the best yet. After appetizers and mocktails in the cafeteria, 115 guests sat down to a three-course meal in the chapel.

One volunteer said, “It’s something special to keep people thinking positive. It helps remind them that they still matter.” 

One guest said it “reminds us that someone loves us.”

Atria’s restaurant group again catered the food, with Atria’s owner Nancy McDonnell present to provide encouragement. Others donated desserts, flowers, linens, and more. Dozens of volunteers donated their time to serve, move tables, and wash dishes.

And they all said they were blessed by the privilege of serving. 

Ryan’s dad, Bill, has served here on Tuesday nights for over eight years, cheerfully carrying on his son’s legacy. When I told him I could see that Ryan got his character from his dad, Bill said, “No. I got my character from him.”  

Isn’t that how God’s Kingdom works?

Ryan Cenk

Why we drive

Cars have always meant freedom to me.

Back in my day at the Air Force Academy, underclassman couldn’t own cars. But a great incentive for sticking it out was the promise of getting a new car your senior year.

Out of 800 seniors, 300 had Corvettes.

Banks would loan cadets $4000, enough for a fully loaded Camaro. Corvettes were $5100.

My Uncle Don was a Chevy dealer, and I spent a whole day with him over Christmas break my junior year picking out a Camaro. But before I left, Uncle Don asked, if I could get a Corvette, what would it be like? That was easy; Corvettes back then had few options. But I had no hope of getting one because I didn’t have $1100.

A few days later, as Christmas break was ending, Dad asked, “You’d really like that Corvette, wouldn’t you?” Yes, of course, I said. Dad said that he would make up the price difference.

As a father myself I can imagine his joy in making my dream come true.

Jana and I drove our Corvette cross country on our honeymoon. It was our daily driver for years. During the three years we lived in Northern Maine we had no garage, and it sometimes got buried in snow.

We’re having that car restored for our sons now. We know it’s just a car, but it reminds me of Dad and Uncle Don. It’s as close to a family heirloom as we’ve got.

In his book Why We Drive, Matthew Crawford, a motorcycle mechanic with a PhD in political philosophy, makes the case that moving through our world is part of what makes us human. He laments how cars have become boring, cushier, and insulated from the feel of the road. He details how advances in safety led to “safetyism.” He says tech companies are betting that we’ll be OK with becoming passive occupants of self-driving cars. They’re betting we’ll be willing to give up freedom for the illusion of safety.

The author of Hebrews writes of how Jesus Christ shared our humanity “so that he might break the power of death…and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Isn’t freedom from death the greatest freedom of all?

Imagine our Heavenly Father’s joy in setting us free.

Christmas in August

This Sunday in worship we’re celebrating Christmas in August.

We’re going to sing some great Christmas carols.

As a bonus we’re even celebrating a Baptism.

I pray it’s a glorious service.

But we’ll be focusing on a piece of the Christmas story we usually skip over each December in our hurry to get to the manger: the first Christmas began in terror.

 God doesn’t want us to live in fear, but over and over, when God revealed even a little bit of himself, someone had to say, “Fear not!” So perhaps it’s worth asking, if God doesn’t want us to be afraid, why does he sometimes scare the snot out of people?

One of the most dramatic descriptions of fear in the New Testament is in Luke 2, when the angel appeared to some shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, “and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

The shepherds were “terrified.”

The old King James Bible famously says they were “sore afraid.”

What were they so afraid of?

The short answer is the “glory of God,” which showed them that God was God, not them.

When God reveals a bit of his glory, it’s not to scare you; it’s to bring you into the light. The more you fear him, the less you’ll fear everything else. 

beauty

This summer, Jana and I took a long driving vacation out west. We love to experience the beauty of the wide-open spaces. We hadn’t planned to visit Mount St. Helens, but our friends thought we should see it. We were glad we did.

Mount St. Helens is an active volcano in the State of Washington. Its last major eruption was in 1980. The top of the mountain one mile wide and about 1300 feet deep blew off. The blast killed 57 people, damaged 230 square miles of land, and destroyed 158 miles of road.

The mountains of the west are stunningly beautiful, but there’s something about Mount St. Helens that brings you up short. The beauty, combined with knowing the power suddenly unleashed there, demands you stop and reflect.

In Psalm 27, King David said there was one thing he longed for that would put all the dangers and hurts of life in perspective: “To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.”

Jana and I took an hour or so to gaze at Mount St. Helens to remind ourselves…

What kind of artist imagined this?

What kind of power did this?

What kind of healing power brought the life back?

Are you gazing on the beauty of the Lord?

torn to pieces

When you draw up a contract to buy a house, you put down “earnest money” as proof to the seller that you’re serious. The money goes into an escrow account, and if you back out of the deal without good reason, you lose it.

In the ancient world, you had to do a bit more to prove that you were serious.

In one of the foundational stories of the Bible, God promised Abram, later called Abraham, he would build a great nation out of Abram’s descendants. But after many years, Abram was still childless. Abram wanted proof that God was still serious.

God told Abram to bring a heifer, a goat, and a ram, as well as a dove and a pigeon.

Abram obeyed. And then, without being asked, he cut the animals in two and arranged the halves opposite each other.

As strange as all that sounds to us, it made sense to Abram. Everyone knew that Abram was preparing a contract ratification ceremony. When a great king made a contract with a lesser king, the lesser king would sacrifice animals and then pass between the pieces. He was saying that if I fail to keep the contract, you can tear me to pieces like these animals.

But God didn’t command Abram to pass between the pieces. A smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.

God, the greatest king of all, had passed through. Why?

Why God and not Abraham? It took centuries before we learned the answer.

God indeed made Israel into a great nation, but Abraham’s descendants disobeyed God. They failed to live up to their end of the contract. But instead of tearing them to pieces as they deserved, God sent his Son.

We backed out of the deal, but he paid the price.

He was torn to pieces so we could remain whole. 

blood

The Chosen is a video series on the life of Jesus that you can watch on streaming services. It’s the best cinematic portrayal of Jesus I’ve ever seen. Some pastors I respect warn that shows about Jesus can’t help but introduce ideas that are unbiblical. Writers add material from their own imaginations to keep the story moving.

OK, but why do I find myself weeping in every episode?

Like season 2, episode 3, based on Matthew 4:24:

“News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.”

The Chosen imagines what that might have been like. It pictures Jesus ministering to people all day long, the line never shorter than 50 people, Jesus never taking a break.

Meanwhile, it imagines the disciples relaxing around a fire, leaving occasionally to take their turn at crowd control. They get to know each other. They wonder why Jesus picked them. They remember that they used to think the Messiah would be a warrior. The healings are nice, but when will the revolution begin? Would the crowds still come if the healings stopped?

And they complain, too. Didn’t they walk for four hours just to get here? What’s next on the schedule? Jesus didn’t say.

As it gets later tempers grow shorter and they’re about to come to blows. That’s when Jesus appears, staggering by them to his tent, too exhausted to eat. His mother follows, taking off his sandals and washing his feet.

And wiping the peoples’ blood off his hands and face.   

Unbiblical?

Did you ever imagine what it would be like to minster to people as Jesus did? At the end of a day like that, you’d be covered with more than peoples’ blood.

Most Christians remember that “Jesus died for my sins.” But do we remember, can we imagine, the way he lived for us, stepping into our deepest hurts and our deepest messes?

Before his blood covered us, our blood covered him.

Immeasurable worth

Rachel Denhollander is the former gymnast and lawyer whose faith gave her the courage to expose the abuses of Olympic Team doctor Larry Nassar. She told her story in the 2019 book, What Is a Girl Worth?  Rachel has also written children’s books, one for girls and one for boys. She wants children to understand that they are of infinite worth because they are made in the image of God.

In this time of mental health crisis, we ought to get Rachel’s books and read them again and again.

Even if we don’t have kids.

Here’s an excerpt from How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?

How much, how much are you worth precious girl?

How much is a little girl worth?

More than the sun and the moon and the sky.

More than the shimmering sea.

All the beautiful treasures of earth… (God says)

You are worth more than all that to me.

You’re beautiful, worthy, and you should be loved…

Because of all that you are.

Different from anything else in the world.

You are precious beyond all the stars.

You bear God’s image—mind, body, and soul.

Lovingly made to be perfect and whole…

…Your value is found not in what you can do

Or the things you accomplish and win.

It is found in how you were made precious girl…

Created and cherished by Him.

Your worth cannot fade; it will not go away.

It is not changed a bit by what happens today.

No one and nothing can make you worth less.

Just what is your value? You don’t have to guess.

No one has power to change what God’s done,

And he says you’re worth everything, even his Son.

Worth all the pain, worth great sacrifice,

Worth leaving heaven, worth giving his life.

How much, how much are you worth precious girl?

How much is a little girl worth?

Worth so much more than all my words could say.

No one and nothing can take that away.

Our Father

My father was well known for his laugh, which often came out as a great roar. Interestingly, he made pretty much the same sound when he sneezed.

He could also roar when he was frustrated or mad.

Sometimes, when lying in bed at night, I would hear a muffled roar coming up from downstairs. I would hold my breath, listening for the next sound to find out what kind of roar it was.

My father often worked late and I would be in bed when he got home. Then it was possible that the roar from downstairs was his reaction to a report my mother had given him about the trouble I’d gotten into that day.

But no matter what kind of roar it was, my brother, sister, and I always knew our father loved us.

Of course my father wasn’t perfect. He could be moody, and we learned to avoid going into his room when he paid the bills. He never had a new car, choosing instead to take us on big family vacations. And oh my, he made sure our Christmases were special.

One of the truly amazing things believers take for granted is that we get to call God, “Father.”

“Father” was how Jesus taught his followers to address God.

Psalm 108 says that our Heavenly Father is totally compassionate, totally forgiving to his children. He never treats his children as their sins deserve. He knows how fragile we are, but in our Heavenly Father’s arms we will live forever.

Think about that. God is the creator of a trillion galaxies, and he says to those who fear him, “Call me Dad.”