Plural imperative

Psalm 96 begins this way:

Sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
    proclaim his salvation day after day.

Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous deeds among all peoples.

Notice the verbs. They’re all plural, in the imperative mood.

God has commanded all of us to worship.

And there can be nothing stale about worship.

We’re to sing something “new,” meaning that we’re to sing in a way that reflects our deep conviction that God’s mercies are new every day.

We’re to do this “among the nations,” meaning that people everywhere will notice the vibrancy of our worship and want to know more about God.

And again, since it’s all plural, it means that God intends for us to do this together.


It can’t be that God needs our praise. God has been a community of mutual adoration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity.

No, God created us for worship. God created us in his own image, and he is, in divine essence, a worshipping community. It’s in worshipping together that we become our best and truest selves. 

This Sunday, we welcome our new Minister of Music, Sean Baran, with joyful music and by reflecting on some of the reasons why we worship.

Come to worship. Resolve to not miss worship again.

God uses each of our voices and all of our prayers to make each and every one of us into the persons he created us to be.


My Greek professor used to say that we all believe some Bible verses and not others. He told the class that because we were going to be pastors, we should at least know why we believed some verses and not others.

For example, no one has ever greeted me with a “holy kiss.” Many times In his letters, the Apostle Paul commanded we do that. Evidently no one believes those verses.

Matthew 12:32 is one of those verses we don’t want to believe: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

We can say anything against Jesus and be forgiven; we can accept that.

What we can’t accept is that there might be something that’s unforgiveable. 

When Jesus said this, he was responding to the religious leaders of his day. They saw Jesus casting out demons, and said he was able to do that because he was beholden to the prince of demons.

In other words, they admitted that Jesus was casting out demons, but it wasn’t because he was filled with the Holy Spirit. They said he was demon possessed too.

It turns out that Jesus wasn’t talking about a particular sin that was unforgiveable.

He was talking about the condition of their hearts. 

They were so sure of themselves that they couldn’t see God working right before their eyes.

The problem with being self-righteous is that you don’t know it.

CS Lewis put it this way in Mere Christianity:

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others, but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or to even enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on and on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell.  In each of us there is something growing, which will *be* Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”

P.S. My Greek professor was speaking tongue in cheek. You have to accept all the Bible, the parts you like and the parts you don’t.

What are you apologizing for?

This week the Today Show did a story on what they said was a “growing movement for people to stop saying “sorry” so often.”  I don’t know how anyone determines that such a “movement” exists. The Today Show had only one source, author and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren.

Warren said that she has “a fraught relationship with the words, ‘I’m sorry.’” She says “I’m sorry” habitually, compulsively, even when she doesn’t mean to, like when she apologizes to a coffee table for bumping into it. When she’s late for a meeting, of course, she apologizes instinctively, but she says “sorry” so often that her friends tell her to stop. To which she says, “I’m sorry.”

Warren says she also teaches her children to say, “I forgive you.”

She suggests that the potential problems with apologizing too much are that our apologies may not really be sincere, and that we might be in danger of letting others take advantage of us by not being assertive enough. 

Where do we draw the line between “proper self-regard and healthy, humble diffidence?”

As a Christian, Warren knows that she’s a sinner in need of repentance.

The Prophet Elijah was one of the greatest prophets, but his whole career was one of depending on God and the people the world had rejected.

More than once, God left Elijah to depend on birds for food.

How’s that for self-regard?

But then, what if we really believed the Gospel? What if we really believed that all we had to do was repent, and we would be forgiven and restored to a right relationship with the Creator. 

How’s that for self-regard? What greater affirmation could there be in life?

Believing that we’re a forgiven sinner lets us go out with both confidence and humility at the same time.

So Warren says she’s not quite willing to let go of saying, “I’m sorry.”  “At the end of the day, I’d rather err that way than not say “sorry” enough. And if that is wrong, which it may be, I’m very sorry.”

A place for you

Back in 1999 we moved to Montgomery, Alabama for what would be my last Air Force assignment. It was something like my 17th Air Force move.

For both of our sons, it meant attending their tenth school. Sean was a sophomore and went to the academic magnet school downtown. Patrick was a senior and went to St. James, a private college prep school.

At Patrick’s graduation, the valedictorian told how the “St. James family” had helped her during the most difficult time in her life. And what was that? It was when her family had moved across town when she was in kindergarten.

Some kids have it rough, I guess.

Jana and I grew up anchored in our hometown of Ashland, Kentucky. Our families never moved. We’re still friends with folks we went to kindergarten with.

But later, when Sean finished seminary and they asked him to list his hometown in the graduation program, he didn’t know what to say. He’d been born in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, but our home at the time was in Northern Virginia. Sean ended up listing Ashland, Kentucky, though he’d only visited there.

We are creatures of place.

But we always feel a bit out of place.

The Bible says the reason is that, at the Fall, the first humans were cast out of their first and truest home. Good luck finding a better explanation for why we long for home, but can never seem to find it. There isn’t one. 

But in one of the most beloved passages in Scripture, Jesus assures us that he’s prepared a place for us, a really nice place, and he’s come to take us there.

He says we’re not lost. We know the way home.

When we’re at home in him, we won’t think of moving again.

Running again

This Sunday, May 7th is the annual Pittsburgh Marathon. Many churches across the city cancel services because they find it’s just too hard to get around on Marathon Sunday. But for over a decade, folks from our church have been out on the street before 6:00 AM, blessing the runners. The starting line is just a block away, and thousands of runners pass by on Sixth Avenue. If tens of thousands of runners and family members from all over the country can find their way here, so can we.

We pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one or over the loudspeakers to runners in their corrals. Many people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In the moments before the race, they’re anxious, seeking a higher power. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important to them.

Every year we see friends we prayed for in past years. Some tell how I had prayed that God would send them a following breeze, and just when they thought they couldn’t take another step, God had answered that prayer.

Many are thrilled just to find our bathrooms open.

Nadine from Ohio thanks us by bringing us cookies.

I try to ask, “What are you running for?” It turns out that many people run for God, for a loved one, or for a cause that matters to them.

But shouldn’t we all know what we’re running for?

Shouldn’t we all ask ourselves what drives me; what is it in life that I just have to have to know that I’m OK?

As good a thing as running is, one day, our knees will say, “Enough.” Over the course of our lives, we’ll all eventually have to give up the things we’re running for.

That includes running.

And so, if we run through life for the One who gave us our knees and legs, heart and lungs, in the first place, we will “run and not grow weary, we will walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

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.


Rooting out anger

Another awful shooting.

And another round of partisan pronouncements from politicians and the press.

Is it possible for someone, anyone, to reflect on what’s really going on?

One politician I heard this week came closer than most. The problem was anger, he said.

Yes. But how do we root out anger?        

This Sunday we remember how Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the adoration of the crowd on what we now call Palm Sunday. But by the end of the week, the adoration had turned to anger. The crowd became angry enough to kill Jesus, and that’s what it did.

If there had been social media back then, Jesus wouldn’t have lasted the week.

Jesus made pretty much everyone angry.

He threatened the establishment and the revolutionaries.

Jesus was overthrowing every power structure that was not of him. He’s still at it.  

Jesus came to root out anger…along with hate and envy and bitterness and sadness and all the rest.

He did it by rooting out the ultimate problem, sin.

And he didn’t do it in a way anyone ever imagined.

He took all the sin and anger of the world into his being.

He let the crowd kill him, so all the sin and anger would die with him.

It really happened.

God put us here to let the world know.