No cure for being human

That’s the title of the short book I just read by Kate Bowler, PhD, a Canadian author and Professor of Christian History at Duke Divinity School. Bowler’s area of study is the “prosperity gospel,” the American idea that God rewards you with health and wealth if you have the right kind of faith.

Bowler was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at age 35.

The irony of a believer, seminary professor, and national expert on the prosperity gospel getting a terminal diagnosis was not lost on her.

If you struggle with a serious diagnosis, for yourself or a loved one; if you think “everything happens for a reason;” or if you wonder what to say to someone who’s hurting, you should read this book.

Bowler doesn’t give a list of answers.

Rather, she chronicles the things that friends, acquaintances, doctors, technicians, and even strangers said to her while she was trying to come to grips with her own finitude. But Bowler is a person of faith. She doesn’t struggle as a person who’s devoid of hope.

A long time ago, Jesus was faced with his own finitude. It was hours until his arrest. In less than a day he’d be dead. Jesus knows how hard life can be. In dark moments, it’s helpful if we can remember that he didn’t give us platitudes.

In giving his life he gave us a future.

Kate Bowler told of going to an Easter sunrise service led by her pastor friend Richard who had his own terminal diagnosis. Seeing Kate sitting on a folding chair on the lawn, he looked at her and grinned. Kate said, “I broke all decorum and waved.”

As Richard opened his mouth to preach, he paused for a breath, and glanced back toward the sun coming up through the trees. “His mouth twisted in a look of wry astonishment, as if surprised to see the sunrise once again.”

In person

A few years ago we refinanced our mortgage. A few months later, we got a notice from the county that our property taxes hadn’t been paid. Now the mortgage company is supposed to pay the tax out of an escrow account we pay into every month. This had been working fine for the previous four years, but since we had refinanced, I figured things just got out of sync.

So I called the 800 number for the mortgage company. Do you think I got a person?

No. I got a voicemail menu, but none of the choices matched the problem I had. I kept pressings buttons until I got a person. He said I needed the “mortgage service line,” and gave me that 800 number in case I got disconnected when he transferred me. 

When I was disconnected, I called the mortgage service number. Do you think I got a person? Not at first. But when I finally did, she said she could see the problem, but she couldn’t help me. I needed to talk to the tax department and she would connect me.

You know where this is headed.

When I got to the tax person, she said yes, the tax wasn’t paid, but it wasn’t their fault. The problem was the company which handled the closing when we refinanced the note. So she gave me their number.

You know I could go on.

We’re still in the house. 

There are many organizations downtown that offer help to hurting people, but nearly every one of them sends you to voicemail first. If you’re homeless, living on the edge, it can be endlessly frustrating and discouraging.

Sometimes, when hurting people come to the church, all they want is to connect to a real person.

Jesus knew he was about to be betrayed, so he was telling the disciples what they most needed to hear: “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.  From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14)

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus said, “Don’t you know me, Philip? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.”

Don’t you see, Philip? I’m offering you a personal relationship with the living God! 

I’m not a helper along the way in life, I am the way.

I’m not a source of truth; I am the truth.  

I’m not a guide to better living, I am life.

It seems to me that the great hidden tragedy of the pandemic is the untold suffering of people denied human contact in the interest of keeping them safe.

Jesus could have saved himself a lot of trouble by beaming faith into our brains.

He could have waited a couple millennia and made robocalls.

Instead he came in person.

One people

Wasn’t the pandemic supposed to be over?

Wasn’t the election supposed to heal the divisions between us?

How’s that working out?

We’re still deeply hurting as a nation, as people.

I’m convinced that the message we proclaim here—and try to live—contains the best hope for our hurting world.

Since 1933, Christians around the world have set aside the first Sunday in October as World Communion Sunday. Back then, Nazism was on the rise in Europe. The US and much of the world were in the grip of a Great Depression.

It was worse then than it is now.

And so church leaders said to the world that, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are all one. Christians from every culture eat the bread and drink the cup to remember and affirm Jesus Christ as Head of the Church.

We come to the table to take this great reality into the center of our being.

In our lesson this week, the Jews had gathered to celebrate the Passover as they still do today. At the Passover meal, the host speaks from a text called the Haggadah. The host takes a piece of unleavened bread, and says, in part, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover.”

But when Jesus gathered with his disciples, he reframed the Passover meal for his followers for all time. instead of saying the usual words, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples. He said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus was saying, “This is the bread of my affliction.”

The Exodus would no longer be the defining moment in the history of Israel. Jesus was saying “My death and resurrection—this is the defining moment—not just for Israel, but for all people in all times and places. My death and resurrection, symbolized by the cross, that’s what sets you free.”

Jesus is saying, “You don’t need to remember the Angel of Death.” “Remember my death.”

We want to see Jesus

Sometimes, when people find out that I’m a minister, they feel the need to explain to me why they don’t go to church anymore and what they believe (or don’t believe).

I had one of those conversations the other day. There are too many religions making too many claims, the fellow said. How could you possibly sort them all out? Growing up he’d been an altar boy, but now that he had kids of his own, he wasn’t going to make them go to church.

It was variation on the popular idea that all religions are basically the same. 

Jesus didn’t believe that. 

Neither did the religious leaders who wanted him dead.

It was the time of the great Festival of the Passover. Jesus had made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding a little colt. The religious leaders’ plot to arrest Jesus was in motion.

It was then that some Greeks who’d come to worship at the festival went to the disciples and asked to see Jesus.

This was the Gospel writer John at his ironic best: The religious insiders wanted to kill Jesus. The religious outsiders wanted to worship him.

We don’t know if the Greeks got their meeting with Jesus or not, because instead of answering, Jesus started saying mysterious-sounding things, like, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” 

Jesus died when he was lifted up on the cross.

No other religion claims that.

It’s the beauty of that which draws all people to him.

Remember

Twenty years ago, I was part of a defense study trip to Central Europe. In Warsaw, we got to meet a member of Polish Parliament who later became President of Poland. In the 1980s, he’d been a contemporary of Lech Walesa and was part of the Solidarity movement that threw off communism. 

I asked him what was easier—to lead a revolution or to build a new democracy. He stopped and smiled. He said he’d been put in jail many times by the communists and thought he would die in prison. He never imagined that he would one day be leading a new government. 

One of his biggest challenges was meeting the expectations of young people who wanted the lifestyle of the west, but who had no real memory of socialism. He said his teenage daughter asked him, “What was socialism like?” His family had been on vacation in Ukraine, which was then still run by the socialists. His daughter noticed people standing in various lines, so he told her to stand in one of the lines and find out what it was for. When she got to the front of the line, a person put a piece of cheese in her hand. She came back to her dad holding the piece of cheese.

He told her, “Now you know what socialism was like.”

His point was this: If you don’t remember where you came from, how can you possibly know where you’re going? The lack of a shared memory—of the shared sense having overcome together—was causing the younger generation to be impatient.    

On the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, it’s important to remember the event that shaped us a nation. We don’t just remember the terror of that day or the heroism it inspired.

We pause to remember the faithfulness of God. Because it’s the faithfulness of God that gives us hope. 

Over and over in the Bible, God called his people to remember.

In Genesis 9, after the great flood, God put a rainbow in the sky and told Noah that it would be a reminder to God of the everlasting covenant between God and all creation.  God didn’t need to be reminded. The rainbow was a reminder to humanity of God’s mercy and faithfulness. 

In Joshua 3, after the people of Israel had safely crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Joshua commanded that one man from each tribe take a stone from the riverbed and erect a memorial so future generations would remember how God had stopped the flow of water and got them safely across.

Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, gave his disciples the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, telling them that whenever they ate the bread and drank the wine they were to do so in remembrance of him.

When we baptize an infant, we’re to remember the vows of our own baptism, and how God is faithful, even when we’re helpless to help ourselves. 

In this church, we remember that we were once a frontier church. We remember how the men who founded this church first met in 1758 in the smoldering ruins of Fort Duquesne. 

We remember God’s faithfulness to us.

We remember the character of the God we worship. 

The God who weeps with us.

The God who suffers for us.

Going back in

How many times do you keep going back into danger?

How many narrow escapes can one person have?

I wonder if questions like that went through the minds of Jesus’ disciples. A series of controversies with religious leaders had come to a climax when the leaders picked up stones to stone Jesus. Somehow, Jesus slipped away before the stones started flying.

That sort of narrow escape seemed to be happening to Jesus more and more.

What if the next escape attempt became one too many?

Jesus and the disciples retreated to safer territory on the far side of the Jordan.

But soon a cryptic message arrived, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” That was all. No request. Not even, “Please come quickly!”

Of course, the request was from Mary and Martha, on behalf of their sick brother Lazarus. Jesus loved them and they loved him. It was as if Mary and Martha didn’t need to say anything else. If you know Jesus, you know he always does more than we ask or imagine.

But then Jesus waited two days. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived in Bethany, back across the Jordan, where the leaders wanted Jesus dead. Healing Lazarus meant going back into danger.

“This sickness will not end in death,” Jesus told his disciples.

Of course he was right, but not in the way anyone imagined.

Lazarus’ sickness led to his death, but things didn’t end there.

Lazarus went through death into life.

And that’s what happened to Jesus too. Bringing Lazarus back to life set in motion the events that led to the crucifixion.

But then Jesus went through death into life.  

We might question his timing, but Jesus always knows what to do, what we need, and what’s best for us.

When you trust in Jesus Christ, sickness and death become things you go through into life.

Aching hearts

This week, when it seemed the situation in Afghanistan couldn’t get any worse, it did. Our hearts ache and our prayers go up.

I was a Cold War warrior, a member of a bomber crew, part of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. We were prepared to respond with overwhelming force in the event of a nuclear attack. This “balance of power” strategy kept the peace through many administrations for 40 years.

The strategy worked, in part, because the other side wanted to live as much as we did.

I was never in a shooting war, thank goodness.

I never had to do what our Soldiers and Marines are asked to do today: stand guard at checkpoints with a mass of humanity in front of you. You don’t know if the person coming toward you is a pregnant mother or a suicide bomber. If you choose wrong, you and your friends could be killed, you could start an international incident, or you could be put up on charges. 

Where do we find men and women of character willing to do such things?

I frequently pray that our leaders would be worthy of them.

Jesus was no stranger to situations like this. He often faced angry crowds who had picked up stones to stone him.

Where did Jesus get his character?

John 10:34 says that Jesus responded to an angry crowd by quoting scripture, a verse from Psalm 82. He was so steeped in scripture that even obscure (to us) passages came to mind in a crisis.

He was steeped in prayer that connected him to the heart and mind of the Father.

And in all of that he knew the divine plan that one day the crowd would get its way.

Prayer: Lord God Almighty, we pray for the men and women of our Armed Forces, and for the people of Afghanistan. Protect and save them. And we pray for ourselves. Through prayer and scripture, lead us deeper and deeper into your heart, so that when the crisis comes, we might be people of character. Amen.

Surrender

The scenes unfolding in Afghanistan this past week are heartbreaking on so many levels. And it’s just as sad to think that, in our fractured world, we may never understand, much less agree on, what went wrong and how to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

And so we’re all hurting.

Again.

Or should I say, hurting still? Wasn’t 2020 supposed to be over?

But there is a spiritual lesson that each of us should internalize:

It’s hard to surrender.

Giving up control can be a lot harder than taking it.

This week we’re studying John 10, which is right in the middle of the Gospel of John. Hebrew writers often used “ring composition,” so the main point was in the middle, instead of up front or at the end.

And in the middle of the Gospel of John is the central claim of the Christian faith:

Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

“I lay down my life for my sheep.”

“I and the Father are one.”

The central claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ is Lord, and in the greatest, once-and-for-all act of surrender, gave up his life for his fallen creatures. The eternal one who spoke all of creation into being and keeps it all running, surrendered and died.

But then he rose again.

Chaos and surrender didn’t have the last word.

In God’s economy, Jesus “laying down” his life turned out to be the greatest “lifting up” in history.

And so he promised, “I give them eternal life.”

“No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

But surrender doesn’t come easily to us. We like being in control. We’d prefer if he sent us on a great spiritual quest. But he doesn’t do that. We don’t have to be the best and the brightest. We don’t even have to be better than most.

All we have to do is understand that we’re his sheep, loved sheep at that, and that we’re helpless to save ourselves.

And surrender to him.

The Good Shepherd

My favorite stained-glass window in our church shows Jesus cradling a little lamb in his arms.

But if you focus on the figure of Jesus in the window, it’s possible to miss the background: a narrow path through a steep mountain pass. It’s possible to miss the point that rescuing a lost sheep is hard and dangerous work. In Luke 15, Jesus said it meant leaving the rest of the flock in the wilderness, and bringing back the lost one by slinging it over his shoulders. It was too big to be carried in his arms. 

And why do sheep need to be rescued in the first place?

It’s because sheep follow their appetites. They get lost because they think only of themselves and their next meal. A lost sheep becomes helpless, frozen with fear, completely unable to save itself. 

It’s no wonder that one of the most famous things Jesus said about himself is, “I am the Good Shepherd.” By far, the most beloved psalm is Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

In this crazy time, with a pandemic that seems to hang on forever, what if you really believed that Jesus is The Good Shepherd? What if you really believed that God came to rescue you, not just at great risk, but at infinite cost to himself?

What if we all believed it?

Timeless

This week, Jana and I celebrated our 47th anniversary by having dinner and staying overnight at the Century Inn in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania. 

The food was wonderful, our room was charming, and the atmosphere was special. We give it five stars.

The Century Inn first opened as Hill’s Tavern in 1794. It’s hosted people like Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

But what impressed me most was the character of the owner and innkeeper Megin Harrington and her family.

You think the pandemic has been hard on the hospitality industry?

In 2015 Megin and her son Gordon barely escaped when an electrical fire destroyed the place. The only thing they were able to save was the Whiskey Rebellion Flag, the only one known to exist. Thank goodness there were no guests at the time. The fire burned for eight hours. Firefighters from 28 companies responded, and some of them were seen crying at the loss, which included priceless furniture, art, and antiques.

If you visit today, you might never know any of this. You’d just think you were in a 200-year-old inn. There are no before and after pictures; nothing describing the herculean two-and-a-half-year struggle to completely rebuild.

Of course, insurance didn’t cover it all. How could it?

And satisfying the requirements of keeping the restored inn on the National Register of Historic Places was a feat in itself.

Megin served us breakfast, and I wanted to know what kept her going in the face of such an overwhelming challenge. She was too modest to share the secret of her character. She wanted future generations to experience something timeless, something that mattered.

Not rebuilding was simply not an option.

The many people who rallied to help her felt the same way.

So many places struggled during the pandemic, and many closed, never to reopen. The Century Inn had to endure all that too.

And so, the place matters more today than ever.

Not just because you can get a great meal, enjoy a great stay, and not because of who visited there a long time ago.

But because of Megin and all those who live and serve there today.