Paid in full

In 1810, the situation in the church seemed hopeless. The revival sweeping the country seemed to have passed over First Presbyterian Church.

The lack of spiritual vitality led some members to break away and form a Second Church. A new church building was under construction, but workers and creditors weren’t getting paid. A lottery, with a first prize of $800 was held to pay off the debts. When the lottery failed to raise enough money, a second one was held. It failed as well, and “No correct account of the amount of tickets sold was ever rendered.”  

Members were withholding their pledged pew rents and the trustees threatened to sue them.

The congregation’s debt was $3900.

Early in the morning of March 22, 1810, a house fire broke out on Wood Street. First Church’s minister, Robert Steele, caught a cold carrying water from the river. The cold turned into pneumonia, and Steele died on March 31, 1810. The congregation directed it’s few financial resources to Steele’s widow and five children.

It took months before the church could bring itself to begin thinking about calling a new minister.

Then in the fall, a thirty-seven-year-old minister named Francis Herron came to town to visit his sister. He was invited to preach at First Church, and invited back the following week.

A meeting was held, and a call extended.

Herron found the church morally, spiritually, and financially bankrupt.

But the sheriff of Allegheny County had put the church building and property up for sale to pay its debts. With the concurrence of the trustees, Herron attended the sale and bought the whole property back in his own name for $2819.

Herron then sold a small portion of the property to the Pittsburgh Bank for $3000.

The debt was paid, and the profit went to the church.

The church had been born again.

The Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth, “You were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 7:23). He was talking, of course, about how Jesus Christ redeemed us from spiritual bankruptcy, even death itself, with his own blood. 

Do you see what you’re worth to him?

Do you see him paying your debt in full?

Do you see that you were bought at a price?

Running on envy

I guess it makes sense that a Corvette owner, who went with his wife on a 7825-mile driving vacation last summer, would like songs of the open road. Running on Empty is a 1977 song by American singer/songwriter Jackson Browne. It’s the kind of song you can turn up loud when you’re out on the road.

But it also has a melancholy feel:

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels…

Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields…

It seems that Browne is saying that after years of chasing something, somewhere down the road, he’s still no closer to finding what life is all about.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells the parable of a landowner who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. Starting early in the morning, he hires workers five different times, so that by the end of the day, some workers had labored all day, while others had worked only for an hour.

And he paid them all the same.

The problem came when he paid the last ones first. When the ones hired first saw this, they became angry. We’d be mad too, right?

But why? The first workers had agreed in advance to work for the pay the landowner had offered.

I think the answer is that we’re all running on envy.

We’re all chasing some idea of happiness; it’s out there, if only we could find it.

We’re all looking around and seeing people with more than us, so we never feel like we’ve arrived. 

Running on Empty continues:

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels…

I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels…

Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through…

Looking into their eyes, I see them running too…

We’re all running for something we can’t quite find.

But in Jesus’ great parable, we need to see that the landowner, who represents God, was chasing something too. He was working all day…

Running after us.

Maybe we should slow down and let him catch up.

Lost and found

No one wants to admit they’re lost.

Maybe that’s why Jesus had to tell three stories in a row about things that were lost and found.

First there was the parable of the lost sheep. Sheep follow their stomachs from one tuft of grass to the next. If no one is watching them, they will wander off until they’re hopelessly lost. Then they panic and bleat to the point of exhaustion. In Luke 15, Jesus said the only way for the shepherd to bring the lost sheep home was to hoist it over his shoulders. It could only be saved at great cost to the shepherd.

Then Jesus told a parable about a lost coin. The woman who’d lost the coin had to search carefully to find it.

Jesus said that finding the sheep and the coin were cause for a community celebration, much like the way angels celebrate when a sinner repents.


How does Jesus connect a lost sheep and a lost coin to repentance?

Well, neither sheep nor coins can find themselves.

Jesus then told a third parable, where something infinitely more valuable had been lost: a son. The son had schemed to get a share of his father’s estate, then followed his appetites until his fortune was lost. So, he started scheming again—he would confess, say that he was sorry, and offer to work off the debt.

But the son was just as hopelessly lost as the sheep and the coin.

His father wasn’t interested in any of that.

No amount of bleating was going to make any difference.

All his father wanted was his son back.

Do you see how radical Jesus’ idea of repentance is?

When Jesus comes searching for us, all we can do is allow ourselves to be found.

Migrating gazelles

Ann Voskamp had a recurring nightmare: She’d been diagnosed with cancer, but no one cared. 

Ann’s little sister had died when Ann was only four, and the tragedy had defined her family’s life. Her mother was in and out of psychiatric wards. Ann battled anxiety, and an inner voice told her she was a failure. 

But one day she got a card from her father-in-law who really had lost his wife of 50 years…to cancer.

Ann’s nightmare.

He wrote, “Thinking on the beginning of this year, who does God call to come home?  Is it me, Lord? May I be ready.”

So, Ann wanted to know, how I do I live in this life so I’m ready for the next?

How does one fully live this life?

In a beauty parlor one day she saw a woman reading a book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. She wondered, if I die of cancer, I’ll never get to see gazelles migrating in the Serengeti. I’ll never get to climb Machu Pichu, or whatever. 

I’m just a homeschooling mother of six, washing towels, cleaning toilets.

She asked, “Are there places that must be known, accomplishments that must be had, before one is really ready?”

“Are there physical places that simply must be seen before I stop breathing within time, before I inhale eternity?”

“Why? To say that I’ve had reason to bow low? To say that I’ve seen beauty? To say that I’ve been arrested by wonder?”

“Isn’t the wonder here?

And she remembered that 12 hours before he was crucified, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it.

In meditating on the Greek word “gave thanks,” eucharesteo, she realized that the root word charis meant “grace,” and a derivative of charis was cara, which means “joy.”

What she needed wasn’t more sights to dazzle the eye, it was more holy joy. 

She began to realize that the depths of joy depended on the depths of her thanks.

The way to prepare for the next life is to be grateful in this one.

Ann Voskamp is the author of One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

Living sacrifice

“Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”

                                                                  Romans 12:1, The Message

In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart played a man named George Bailey who had great plans for his life. He told his fiancée, “Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m going to leave this little town far behind, and I’m going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum.  Then I’m coming back here, and I’ll go to college and see what they know, and then I’m going to build things. I’m going to build airfields. I’m going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m going to build bridges a mile long.”

It turned out that George was completely wrong. God had other plans for him. He ended up doing every day for his whole life what he did the day before.

At the end of the movie, an angel showed him the difference he had made to everyone in his life.

By the way, Presbyterians don’t believe that when a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. 

We do believe, as the Apostle Paul said in Romans 12:1-2, when we offer ourselves as a “living sacrifice…”

When we live our lives in wonder and gratitude for the one who gave himself totally for us…

When we dedicate every moment, waking and sleeping, to him…

We don’t lose our life, we gain it. 

Fish out of water

I have a good friend who left the Air Force as a young officer because he had a string of bad bosses. He said he was tired of “working for the man,” so he got out and became his own boss, a financial advisor. Nothing wrong with that, but he wasn’t flying jets, the thing he really loved.

And of course, when you have your own business, everyone is your boss. 

My friend eventually went to fly for the airlines, and he’s been happy ever since. But it meant giving up the “freedom” of being his own boss.

When you take a fish out of water, is the fish more or less free? It’s less free, of course; it flips around in a panic. A fish can only be what it was meant to be in the water.

In a sense, this is the message of the entire Christian faith. It’s only when we are in a relationship with God that we are truly free to be ourselves.

This is what the Apostle Paul was trying to get across in his letter to the Galatians.

When we accept on faith what Jesus Christ did on the cross, we’re restored to a relationship with God, and God begins to restore the image of God in us. 

Like putting my friend back in the cockpit where he belonged.

Like putting us flipping fish back in the water. 

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
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
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.