Abode of the…vicious?

“During the past 10 or 15 years, a growing condition and a growing problem have confronted this church. From being a church situated in the center of the resident portion of the city, it became a church situated in the business portion of the city. Its environment, instead of being the abodes of wealth and social influence, has become the abodes of the poor, and in many instances, of the vicious.”

Any guesses where those words came from?

They were said in our church on Palm Sunday, April 16, 1905, by then 38-year-old Maitland Alexander, as First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh dedicated its grand new building. In his sermon, Alexander described the unique legacy of a city’s first church, and how its history informed its mission.

Alexander was realistic about the challenges, too. He said there were, “Thousands of unshepherded children and thousands of nominal Christians, whose real religious vitality is at a low ebb.” It would be, “The aim of this church to get these under its influence and help.”

He had the audacity to expect members to come back to a downtown that had grown dirty, choked with soot from steel mills, trains, and steamboats, driving residents to the suburbs.

In the same Monday, April 17, 1905 issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette that covered the dedication (all the Monday papers included Alexander’s sermon verbatim), there was a story of how police had raided eight “speakeasys” downtown.

We sometimes forget that the drug that devastated cities a hundred years ago was alcohol. 

The word that Alexander used to describe the church’s neighborhood was “vicious.”

Surprisingly, Alexander said little about his preaching text, 1 Kings 8:54-56, Solomon’s words at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem.

Maybe Alexander didn’t need to add anything.

Sometimes God’s word needs no exposition.  

“Blessed be the LORD…,” Solomon said, “There hath not failed one word of all his good promise, which he promised by the hand of Moses his servant.”

The neighborhood will change.

Sometimes it might seem “vicious.”

But God’s word never fails.

Prone to wander

One of the misconceptions I had when I became a minister was thinking that my most important job was to bring people into the church and get them to join. I think churches that consider themselves “evangelical” make a similar mistake when they urge people to say the “sinner’s prayer.”

As if bringing people in the door and getting them saved is all there is to a life of faith.

Now it is important to join the church. Jesus called the church his “bride” (Ephesians 5:22-23). It’s his gift to humankind. Its purpose is to put hell out of business (Matthew 16:18).

And without confessing your sin, the blessings of salvation can’t flow into your life.

But joining the church and confessing your sin are just the beginning of a life of faith.

This week we’re going to sing one of the most beloved traditional hymns, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The hymn was written by Robert Robinson in 1758.

Robinson was born in England in 1735. He father died when Robinson was eight. When Robinson was 14, his mother sent him to London to learn to be a barber.

Robinson fell in with the wrong crowd and became part of a gang. One day the gang decided to crash a meeting where the great evangelist George Whitefield was preaching. It seems they went to “scoff at the poor, deluded Methodists.”

Instead of scoffing, Robinson was converted. He became a minister and went on to write books and hymns, of which the most famous was, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

The second verse of the hymn includes the phrase, “Here I raise my Ebenezer…” a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12, where Samuel raised up a “stone of help” as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to Israel. We need “Ebenezers” to remind ourselves that God is faithful, even when we’re not.

And we need Ebenezers because, as Robinson wrote in the third verse, we’re “prone to wander.”

Robinson knew his own heart. It turned out that even he was “prone to wander.”

The story goes that sometime later in life, Robinson was riding in a stagecoach where a woman passenger was studying a hymnbook. The two struck up a conversation. The woman asked Robinson what he thought of the hymn she was humming. Through tears, Robinson replied, “Madam, I am the poor, unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”

We may be saved once and for all, but our hearts are “prone to wander.”

We need “stones of help.” We need the church.

We need something to point us, again and again and again, to the ultimate “stone of help,” Jesus Christ.

Stones don’t stack themselves

Have you noticed that it’s almost impossible to be amazed?

Today, anything people can imagine can be digitized. Ducks, geckos, and emus sell insurance.

You have to be purposeful if you want to be amazed. You have to stop and wonder. For example, a single-cell organism is more complex that any machine humans have ever imagined, but we dismiss them as “simple.”

Lots of times when God did something amazing in the life of his people, he told them to stack up stones to commemorate the occasion.

Simple, right?

Yet, stacking stones is inconvenient.

You wouldn’t stack them up for fun, the way you might make a snowman.

So if you lived in Old Testament times, and you came across standing stones, you’d be left to stop and wonder: what do these stones mean?

When God brought his people into the Promised Land, they had to cross the Jordan River at flood stage. God stopped the water, just like he’d done forty years before at the Red Sea.

So God told Joshua to take twelve stones, one per tribe, and stack them up.

God had given his people freedom from slavery, and now he was the one bringing them home. He wanted future generations to remember that.

Stones don’t usually stack themselves.

When you see them stacked up, one on top of the other, like in a great old church building like ours, you need to stop and wonder.

What do these stones mean?

What great things has God done here?

Stone for a pillow

For the first 50 years or so of my life I never imagined being a minister. I always belonged to a church, and Jana made sure we attended most of the time. But when asked to serve, I usually said that I was too busy. In looking back, I probably disappointed more than a few pastors who might have hoped that that I would get more involved.

Now I tell people that if I can be a minister, you can too.

If God wants you to do something, God will eventually get God’s way.

Take Jacob, for example.

God had called Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, to be the founder of a new nation. God chose Abraham’s son, Isaac, to carry on the legacy. Both of those men had powerful experiences of God’s call on their lives.

But when Jacob and his older twin, Esau, were born to Isaac, they didn’t have a great experience of God. If Jacob and his brother heard their father tell stories of God, the stories didn’t sink in. Just as bad, Isaac’s family was dysfunctional. He favored Esau while his wife favored Jacob.

Jacob grew up to be a conniving mess.

God’s plan to build a great nation seemed hopeless.

Genesis 28 picks up the story with Jacob on the run from his brother who wanted him dead. He must have left in such a hurry that he had no provisions, for when he stopped for the night, he had to use a stone for a pillow.

When all seemed lost for Jacob, that’s when God showed up in a big way. God gave him a vision of a stairway stretching all the way between heaven and earth. On the stairway were angels going up and down, spreading out across the earth. Above it all was God, looking down on Jacob and everything else.

God’s angels were everywhere.

God had been with Jacob all along.

Are you so low that you’re using a stone for a pillow?

Think God can’t use you?

God used a conniving mess named Jacob to transform the world.

What’s important

As I write this, the prayers of millions are focused on a young football player, Damar Hamlin, who collapsed on the field last Monday night. By all accounts, Damar is a Jesus follower and a man of character. He’s also an elite athlete. Last Monday, millions watched in shock and sadness, and for a moment at least, were left to contemplate what’s important in life.

This Sunday, as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we again contemplate what’s important in life.

When couples bring their child to be baptized, I remind them there will be moments when they will be terrified for their child’s health: A little one struggles to breathe in the middle of the night; her fever spikes, prompting a panicked rush to the ER.

In those moments of terror, we remember our Baptism.

We remember that we are not our own. Our children are not our own. We belong to an eternal God who first gave himself to us. 

John the Baptist had said that Jesus would come to baptize people with fire. Instead, Jesus showed up asking to be baptized by John. There was no fire and John was horrified. He said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 

New Testament scholar Dale Bruner said this was the first miracle of Jesus: the miracle of his humility. The miracle that God was willing to go down with the whole human race into the waters of repentance and baptism. 

Jesus began his life as a baby in the manger, but he began his ministry in a river with sinners.

His life ended with prayers for us on a cross between sinners. 

His entire ministry was down at our level; identifying with us; one with us in our humanity.

We’re his.

In life and in death, we’re his.

That’s what’s important in life.

Wonder

My wife has a sign that she puts up every year with the Christmas decorations. It says, “May you never be too grown up to search the skies on Christmas Eve.”

What happens to wonder as we grow up?

Christian author Drew Dyck wrote a book called Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God so Stop Trying. The point is to help people recapture the wonder of God. 

Drew told the story of friends who adopted two children from a country in Africa. They were loving parents and excited to have this new addition to their three biological children, but the transition wasn’t easy. The kids had lived on the streets and then in an orphanage.  

The deprivation they’d experienced kept manifesting itself.

Once they finished playing with a toy, they might break it to make sure no one else could play with it.

At mealtimes, they would gorge themselves. If they saw the milk or cereal running low, they’d get nervous. “Is there plenty, Mommy?” they would ask. Despite their parents’ assurances, they would drink milk until they were sick. The parents would take them to the store and point out row after row of milk. They’d say, “See, there is so much milk, we will never run out.”

Drew says we’re like those children.

“We’re raised on the streets too. No, not like those kids, but out in the world, where people jockey for position; where the strong take advantage of the weak. 

We learn to look out for number one.

The wonder gets beaten out of us.

But then a miracle happens. God adopts us. We become part of his family. We find ourselves loved. 

We’re introduced to a whole new way of living, where the last are first and the meek are blessed.

But old habits die hard. So, we drink all the milk.

We wonder if God really will provide. Not just possessions, but meaning and love.

Drew says, “I’m convinced that there’s really one big question at the heart of life and that our answer to that question will ripple throughout our time on earth and into eternity.

The question is simply this: “Are you going to believe that God loves you?”

Christmas is proof that he does.

Mindful

The “Cosmic Cliffs” of the Carina Nebula, one of the first images recently released from the James Webb Space Telescope. The Carina Nebula is a cloud of gas and dust 7,600 light-years from earth. In this infrared image, the “cliffs” are actually formations of dust carved by ultraviolet radiation from young stars. The tallest “peaks” in this image are 7 light-years high.

If anyone is looking for a last-minute Christmas gift idea, Costco is selling the HoMedics Drift Sandscape. For $300 (marked down from $400) you can watch a metal ball make patterns in a bowl of sand. HoMedics says the Drift is “mindfulness made easy. Whether you’re feeling overwhelmed and overworked or looking for a way to slow down and be more present, Drift makes it easy to find your inner peace.”

I came across the Drift display this week at Costco. It is cool, but I wonder how long it would take for “mindfulness” to get boring.

It might be cheaper just to put pictures from the new Webb Space Telescope on our screens. As one stupendous image dissolves into the next, we could remind ourselves that the one who spoke galaxies and nebulae into being made us too.

King David wrote in Psalm 8, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” 

We are not specks of cosmic dust.

We fill God’s mind.

Nebulae don’t fill God’s mind. We do. 

God is so mindful of us that he sent his one and only son, Jesus Christ, to live and die for us. 

We don’t need another $300 gadget. We need to fill our minds with God. 

Making an entrance

The Air Force just announced its new bomber, the B-21, to great fanfare.

It took me back to one of my favorite Air Force memories.

It was July 1986 when I was part of a four-person crew that flew a brand-new bomber, the B-1B, in its first appearance in a civilian air show in Dayton. The headline the next day on the front page of the Dayton Daily News read, “B-1B steals show in first appearance at Dayton airport.” Another article called our entrance, at 600 mph, “show stopping.” Most of the “countless thousands” of people there that day had never seen a plane like the B-1B. For a day, the four of us were celebrities.

Think of the way a football team makes an entrance.

Think celebrity introductions.

Then think of the way God came to us.

The Prophet Isaiah said that the Messiah would come, but it would be like a shoot coming out of dead stump.

Unexpected.

Vulnerable.

The most subtle way imaginable.

Yet somehow, contained within that tiny shoot would be:

“The Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

“The Spirit of counsel and of power,

“The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD…”

It was fun, all those years ago, to be a celebrity for a day.

But when God sent his Son into the world, he would have none of that.

And yet, within that shoot was the power to “fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord.”

Philoxenia

“Hospitality” is in the news these days. We’re hearing a lot of advice on how to throw a perfect party on a budget. If saving money is important this year, I even saw a story about how to disinvite people.   

Really?

The author of Hebrews wrote, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

The Greek word here is philoxenia. It’s a combination of the words philo (family love) and xenos (foreigner or stranger).

A little Christian community, likely made up of former Jews, was being asked to treat strangers like family. 

And we are too. But how?

Well, what is the Christian faith all about?

At its heart, it says we’re all strangers. Our first parents were kicked out of the garden. In a very real way, we’re all trying to find our true home, but with no way to get there.

This is the time of year when we remember, and give thanks, that Jesus came to us as a stranger.

Will we welcome him as a guest?

He’s our only way home.

Is self-esteem overrated?

I recently completed the yearly wellness self-assessment required by the Presbyterian health plan. It doesn’t just ask whether you exercise, take your meds, or eat right. It asks you to rate yourself on statements like:

  • I have a number of good qualities.
  • I feel useless at times.
  • I take a positive attitude toward myself.
  • I sometimes think I am no good at all.

The assessment asks dozens of these questions in different ways, I suppose to make sure you’re telling the truth. The assumption is that having a positive self-image is key to well-being.

We all think it is. But is it?

Back in 2002, psychotherapist Lauren Slater reported on numerous academic studies. The results were inescapable: self-esteem is overrated.

In a widely published article, “The Trouble with Self-Esteem,” Slater wrote, “People with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem, and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country’s biggest, most expensive social problems.”

A researcher from the London School of Economics wrote, “There is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful. It’s not at all a cause of poor academic performance; people with low self-esteem seem to do just as well in life as people with high self-esteem. In fact, they may do better because they try harder.”

So why does the wellness assessment for Presbyterian pastors focus on self-esteem? Shouldn’t it be asking if we really believe that we’re all sinners saved by grace?

The Apostle Paul was writing to the church in Corinth, and to us, when he said, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him.”

Self-esteem really is a feeble notion. You have to feed it every minute of every day. Yet a pin prick can deflate it.

So instead of feeding our self-esteem, we should continually give thanks for God’s limitless, unmerited grace.

Self-esteem is such a feeble notion when compared to God’s esteem for us.