Can you be anything you want?

When I was a kid growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my Dad told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, and I believed him. He wanted me to be a doctor, or a CPA, or an Army officer. I became an Air Force officer. Close. Dad’s generation had won the greatest war in human history and times were good. What could possibly be wrong with dreaming that you could be anything you chose?

Well, Dad would never have imagined that his boy might dream of growing up to be a girl.

Now, I never dreamed that, but a lot of folks like my late father might be surprised by the conversations parents and kids are having today. But here’s the thing. While the greatest generation won the great war, it went on to lose the culture war back home. Society started replacing the concept of the transcendent with the concept of self. As churches started shrinking, some replaced the biblical narrative of Creation—Fall—Restoration with “God just wants to bless you and make you happy.” Still other churches replaced cultural engagement with finger wagging.

So, why should we be surprised that a new generation thinks it’s OK to switch genders, or even define “gender” for oneself? Aren’t they just taking us at our word, like I did with my Dad, that they can be anything?

But this is about more than choice.

A small number of people experience a mismatch between gender given at birth and how they understand themselves, and that leads to anxiety and distress. Some churches have treated these folks with disdain; others with unquestioning affirmation. Neither approach is right. The good news is that the historic Christian faith has lots of resources to help.

We are all made in God’s image; “fearfully and wonderfully made,” the psalmist said. Every single one of us is someone for whom Christ died. But we’re fallen, and that means the image of God in each of us needs to be restored.

Jesus didn’t come into the world, become one of us, and die a painful death just so we could be anything we want to be. He did it so he could restore his image in us; so that we could become the persons he created us to be.

God’s idea of what we can become is infinitely greater than any category we were born into, or any new category we create for ourselves. Every person you will ever see is someone loved by God; someone you could spend eternity with.

We really don’t have the power to become anything we choose.

But as the church, we do have the power to give the world a glimpse of the unconditional love of Christ.

Bullied

Monica Lewinsky is a producer and spokesperson who was on the Today Show this week to promote a public service announcement about bullying. Lewinsky might be the most famous victim of bullying ever. She said that while she was producing the video, she met a woman who had a young relative who had been bullied. When the girl missed school, someone texted her, saying “When we saw you weren’t at school today, we thought you were dead, and were happy.”

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. A majority of students surveyed say they’ve been bullied, but victims often suffer in private, too ashamed to tell parents and teachers how they feel.

People bully because they feel powerless themselves or because someone has bullied them. Bullies are often jealous of the person they’re bullying; they lack empathy, are looking for attention, or a have a need to be in control. They often come from dysfunctional families. They have trouble regulating their emotions. A victim goes on to victimize others, and so the cycle goes on.

The most famous bully in the Bible may be the Philistine champion Goliath. Day after day, Goliath came out from the ranks of the Philistine army and taunted the Israelites, while the king and the whole Israelite army quaked in fear. Only one person wasn’t intimidated—a young shepherd boy named David.

If you google “bullying,” you’ll find all kinds of resources to help fight the problem. But the best resource is the Gospel, which affirms our ultimate worth in the eyes of the creator. The Gospel says that God loved us so much that he sent his son to stand up for us, so that nothing could ultimately separate us from his love.

On our own, we’re not strong enough to stand up to the bullies in our lives.

But there is one who was. And he still stands up for us.

Encouraged

I’ve been a city-center minister for going on eleven years now. I’ve said many times this was not something I ever imagined. I had lots of assignments in my life, and I approached each one as a personal mission. Get things done, meet the challenge.

Fix it, move on.

But city-center ministry doesn’t lend itself to that, and it took years to appreciate it. Sometimes, the mission is to walk with hurting people over time.

For about eight years I’ve served on the Clean and Safe Committee, a function of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership (PDP). The Clean and Safe Committee brings together business owners, city agencies, police, non-profits, churches, and residents. In the last year, Pittsburgh, like nearly every other city, has experienced an increase in homelessness, drug use, aggressive behavior, and more. As the PDP, residents, and the media focused on the problems, the city responded with more police and stepped up enforcement of laws against drug dealing and aggressive behavior.

Things have gotten better lately.

But even more encouraging is that the church’s message of walking with hurting people across time has been getting through. More people seem willing to volunteer and serve. More people seem to understand that those suffering from addiction or mental illness are human beings who are precious to God. More understand the need to walk with hurting people over time.    

When writing to a hurting church in Corinth, whose members were tempted to give in to the pressures of the world, the Apostle Paul encouraged them by saying, “God is faithful.”

Because Christ was faithful to walk with us, we can be faithful to walk with others.

Mega-forgiveness

“If you see your friend going wrong, correct him,” Jesus said. “If he responds, forgive him. Even if it’s personal against you and repeated seven times through the day, and seven times he says, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ forgive him.”

The Bible uses the number “seven” the way we use the word “mega.” It means “a whole lot, more than you can count.” In the example of the friend who wronged you, Jesus means someone who’s done something terrible and personal, who’s “mega-hurt” you.

Forgive him.

The apostles were “mega-bewildered” by the impossible requirement. “Give us more faith,” was all they could say.

Jesus responded that they didn’t need more faith. Faith isn’t quantifiable in any way we understand. Faith the size of a mustard seed comes with power enough to rearrange the landscape.

Jesus explained further with an even more enigmatic example. Suppose you were a master who had a servant who worked all day in the field. At dinner time, would you say, “take a break, eat with me?” Would you, the master, thank the servant for doing what he was told?

The answers, obvious to Jesus’ hearers was, “Of course not.”

The reason the answers aren’t obvious to us—we want to be seen as being kind to the servant and have him eat with us—is that we don’t understand the culture of Jesus’ day. People who had enormous debts they were unable to repay often sold themselves to a master for a time, rather than being thrown into prison.

The servant here was working off what he owed in a way that he had agreed.

The servant cannot then become the master and give the orders. But Jesus is saying that’s exactly what we do when we don’t forgive.

We know the ultimate master who came to us; who became our servant; who forgave us at infinite cost to himself. That’s mega-forgiveness.

And he requires it of us, too.

Thanks-living

Years ago, the story goes, an admiral was speaking to a Navy Officer’s Wives Club. Before he began, he asked the wives to line up in order of rank. They dutifully complied without a word being said. He then lectured them that they didn’t have rank, their spouses did.

The wives smiled politely, but they knew better.

When we enter into a new situation, we instinctively size up where we fit in. Yet when Jesus left heaven to enter into his creation, he always took the bottom position. And at his last meal before his betrayal, he knelt to wash his disciples’ feet.

And he told us to do the same.

We’ve been studying Ann Voskamp’s book, 1000 Gifts, about her personal journey from anxiety to joy. Her journey meant practicing giving thanks in all situations, even when it was hard.

The practice transformed her. It didn’t change her situation; it changed her.

And the transformation was ongoing. There was always another, deeper layer to a life of thanksgiving.

Naming blessings, and giving thanks for them, led her to live the blessings.

Voskamp says, “At the last, this is what will determine a fulfilling, meaningful life, a life…every one of us longs to live: gratitude for the blessings that expresses itself by becoming the blessing.”

It’s not just the Navy. Every day, someone or something reminds us where we stand in some pecking order.

But when we get down on our knees to serve Christ by serving others, when we empty ourselves of us, that’s when Christ fills us with Him.

And with Him comes joy.

Bridges

Pittsburgh is the City of Bridges. You can’t go anywhere in Pittsburgh without crossing them. Unlike that other famous city of bridges, Venice, which is crisscrossed with canals, Pittsburgh is crisscrossed with rivers and hills, and bridges are needed to cross between the hills, and over the streams that run down from them. 

When you cross a bridge, you trust that the bridge will hold. Countless times every day, that trust is affirmed.

Ann Voskamp, in her book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson in saying, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”

When some great challenge looms up ahead, and we’re consumed with fear and anxiety, Voskamp suggests that we say a prayer of thanks.

Thank the Bridgebuilder every time you cross a bridge to remind you of the countless times His bridges have held.

A Night to Remember

The Gospel writer John says that Jesus began and ended his earthly ministry with meals. From water turned to wine at a wedding feast, to fish grilled over a fire by the lake, and all in between, Jesus revealed himself over meals.

And so maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that when we sit down to a meal in his name, Jesus still reveals himself. It happened here this week when 150 guests sat down to a four-course meal served to them on fine china, on tables covered with white tablecloths and decorated with candles and fresh flowers.

This was a first for many, who often go to bed hungry, if they have a bed at all.

The meal was the dream of the late Ryan Cenk, who passed away two years ago at age 22. Ryan was a regular volunteer at the Tuesday night meals hosted by our friends at Outreached Arms. Ryan had battled brain cancer beginning when he was 10 months old. The disease affected his growth and had made it hard for him to see and walk. But he had the advantage of being great in Spirit. He became an Eagle Scout, an advocate for the physically challenged, and a volunteer for many causes that mattered to him.

Ryan’s dad, Bill, had kept the dream of “Ryan’s Night to Remember” alive. Atria’s Restaurant group catered the entire gourmet affair at no cost. A whole team of Atria’s cooks and servers donated their time. Another crew of volunteers, including First Church elders and deacons, worked tirelessly too. For four hours, the Williams’ family kept the dishwasher going. 

So it was indeed a night to remember; to remember a brave young man who revealed Jesus to the world through his life; to remember how Jesus revealed himself over a meal in a grand old church; and even to remember how Jesus revealed himself through a family sweating together around a dishwasher.

Spitting Seeds

One of my wife’s favorite memories is of the evening she spent eating watermelon and spitting seeds off our front porch with our two boys. That was 28 years ago, when the boys were 7 and 9.

Our lives in the Air Force were nomadic, moving to the next assignment every couple years as I moved up the career ladder. When you move that often, you’re always in a hurry. You only have so much time to make your mark before you move again. We did our best to “make the most” of each new assignment and turned each move into a travel adventure.

So why would eating watermelon make the list of life memories?

Because every now and then you slow down long enough to take in the miracles in a moment.

There are the miracles of things like light and air and gravity. There’s the way the light reflects off things and enters the eye, which signals the brain, which makes sense of it all. The miracle of taste.

Seed spitting presupposes photosynthesis, the miracle of botanical growth, to say nothing of the miracles of farming, food distribution, and supermarkets.

And who can fathom the miracle of a mother’s love, and two rambunctious boys who began as tiny eggs in their mother’s womb?

And how is it they love each other?

Why does something so “simple” give so much joy?

What, after all, is more miraculous than these things that we call “ordinary?” OK, some things may be more spectacular—a lightning strike, a mountain vista—but more miraculous?

When asked by Moses to state his name for the record, God answered, “I am.” Not, “I will be.”

“I am.”

God is in every moment.

Ann Voskamp, in her book 1000 Gifts, asks, “In Christ, don’t we have everlasting existence?” 

Shouldn’t we live like we actually believe it?

If we’re immortal, and we are, what are we rushing for? 

Giving thanks

Twenty years ago, I realized it was about time that I quit making excuses for not being involved in church. I told myself that if anyone asked me to volunteer, I would say “yes.” (Notice that I didn’t start out by actually volunteering for anything.) I told our family we were going to give thanks at every meal, and we would no longer skip church.

Not exactly a great commitment.

But then one thing led to another. I said “yes” to teaching adult bible study; “yes” to being a deacon; and “yes” to being a guest preacher. Then Jana became a certified Christian Educator. Both our sons became serious about their faith; today one is a minister and the other is in seminary. I’ve been a minister now for over ten years.

Giving thanks was life changing.

Most of us had parents who taught us to say, “thank you” when someone did something nice for us. But the Christian faith teaches us to give thanks in all things.

Jesus gave thanks at his Last Supper, knowing he was about to be betrayed. But was only through Jesus’ betrayal and death that the world received the ultimate blessing of resurrection life.

Most polite people know to give thanks after some blessing comes into their life.

But for a follower of Jesus Christ, giving thanks precedes the blessing.

Giving thanks gives us an awareness of the blessings all around us. This Sunday, I’m starting a sermon series on gratitude inspired by Ann Voskamp’s powerful little book, One Thousand Gifts. Starting on September 8th, I’ll be doing a five-week study of the book during the Sunday school hour. Voskamp, a farmer’s wife in Canada, worked through personal tragedies to be able to see God’s blessings in all parts of life. I invite you to join me.

Idol worship

“God created man in his image,” the saying goes, “and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”

I’m not sure who said it; I’ve seen it attributed to Mark Twain, Voltaire, and others. But whoever said it, it rings true. It seems the one, true God isn’t enough for us, so we create more.

Or we elevate ourselves to the position.

This week I saw on the news that a newly elected councilwoman in Missouri had taken the oath of office on a Dr. Seuss book. And she read this: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

Look, I like the book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go. We gave it to our kids. I quoted it when I was a colonel in the Air Force speaking to new graduates of Air Force Honor Guard training. It’s fun, and speaks to the opportunities that many people are blessed with in a free country.

But swearing by it?

Can we really steer ourselves any way we choose?

And if we could, would we go in the right direction?

And what happens when we can’t? What happens if we fail? Get lost?

The freedom to steer ourselves is a great thing, but swearing by it takes a great thing and turns it into an ultimate thing.

That’s what an idol is, by the way; a great thing that we make into an ultimate thing.

And when we are the idol, when our god looks mostly like us, we’re in for a letdown. Could we just let God be God?

So with apologies to Dr. Suess…

With God in your heart, you’ll make a great start.

With God’s Spirit to guide you, you’ll know Christ is inside you.

And up hills and down, through thick and through thin,

No matter what happens, God will make you like Him.