Agents of change

Francois Clemmons was born in Birmingham and was raised in the 50s and 60s in Youngstown, Ohio. He grew up singing in the church choir and got music degrees from Oberlin and Carnegie Mellon. 

In 1968, Fred Rodgers invited him to play the part of Officer Clemmons, the friendly neighborhood police officer, on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS. But Francois had been raised in a ghetto where they didn’t have a high opinion of the police. Francois knew that Fred was taking a risk in casting a black actor as a police officer. Fred convinced him to take the part, making him the first African American to have a recurring role on children’s TV.

The most memorable scene between Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons was broadcast in 1969. Mr. Rogers was resting his bare feet in a kid’s swimming pool on a hot day. He invited Officer Clemmons to rest his feet in the water with him.

Francois later said, “The icon Fred Rogers was not only showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I got out of that tub, he helped me dry my feet.”

Fred ended every program by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” But that day, Fred looked right at Francois when he said it. 

He asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?” Fred said, “I’ve been talking to you all along.” 

This Sunday, Patrick Myers, the Executive Director of Ligonier Camp and Conference Center, the amazing Christian adventure camp our church owns, will be preaching from Luke 10 on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The camp’s theme this summer is “Agents of Change.”

Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. He never pastored a church, but his understanding of what it means to be a neighbor came out of his relationship with Jesus Christ.

We need the one who came from heaven to earth, to not only risk his life, but to give his life, freely, gladly.

When we grasp the radical, self-giving love of the Great Samaritan Jesus Christ, we can begin to be agents of change. 

Not makeshift

One of the Bible passages traditionally read on Pentecost Sunday is the story of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9, how the earliest recorded attempt at urban development went wrong. Commentator Derek Kidner said, “The building materials are makeshift, and the builders are weaker still.” Even as they built a monument to themselves, they felt the need to huddle together.

If God had not come down to confuse the language and scatter the people of Babel, they would have eventually scattered anyway. The Tower of Babel hadn’t been “built to code.” It was built without God, which is half-built at best, and it wasn’t going to last.

Millennia later, after Jesus had returned to God in heaven, God sent the Holy Spirit to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-21). The people in the crowd heard the apostles speaking to them in their own native language.

The Holy Spirit had reversed the confusion of Babel. The Spirit was telling them who built them and why.

In the same way, the Spirit reminds us that we are not makeshift; we were not half built.

We were meant to rise to become living monuments to the Builder. 

How could he? How could they?

Like the rest of us, I’ve been reeling from the news of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. For a moment last Tuesday, I thought that something so awful might bring people back to church.

And then I remembered what I was still reeling from last Monday: The news of sexual abuse by leaders at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a massive cover up, over 20 years. It was a lot like what happened in the Catholic Church.

Just what church are people supposed to go back to?

If even its leaders abuse the most vulnerable, then the church deserves to lose people’s trust. This is why Jesus aimed his harshest criticisms at the religious leaders of his day. One of his most famous confrontations occurred in John 8, where the leaders were willing to exploit a vulnerable woman just to discredit him. 

People, even leaders, are capable of the worst kind of evil.

God’s own son was put to death by the worst kind of evil, which is, strangely enough, why people need to come back to church.

After Jesus fed the 5000, massive crowds followed him. But then he started to say things like, “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” It was so hard, the crowds all left, including some disciples.

Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?”

Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

People do need to come back to church. As broken as we are, there is still truth here.

And Jesus’ words of eternal life.

Visible wounds

This Sunday, as we celebrate Jesus’ Ascension, we get to sing one of my favorite hymns, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” The third verse goes:

Crown him the Lord of love, behold his hands and side, rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified; no angels in the sky can fully bear that sight, but downward bend their burning eyes at mysteries so bright.

The risen, flesh and blood Jesus was taken to heaven with his wounds still visible in his hands, feet, and side.

And his wounds are still visible in heaven. 

It’s an incredible claim. I get emotional every time I think about it.

When Jesus was raised from the dead his wounds were the proof that it was really him and not somebody else. 

Now Jesus is in the heavenly dimension. He’s glorified, and humanity is glorified with him. 

Meaning us and our wounds. 

Jesus takes all the things we suffer in this life, the hurts, the scars, visible and invisible, and transforms them from hurt into glory. 

I don’t know why there is so much hurt and suffering in the world. Most of it is due to human sin, rejection of God. But in becoming one of us, suffering with us and for us, it has to mean Jesus cares. It has to mean our wounds matter to God.

That’s why he was taken up for us, wounds and all. 

Do you know any retired hockey players? Have you seen them up close? I’m pretty sure they wear their scars and their false teeth as a badge of honor.

The scars say “I did this. I had a full life. I really lived the life of a hockey player.”

If a hockey player’s wounds are a badge of honor, what do you think God can do with our wounds? 

The wounds we suffer in this life become a source of glory in the next. 

The things we’re tempted to cover up in this life become a source of beauty in the next. 

Believers don’t suffer in vain.

Jesus glorifies our wounds, and because of the Ascension, one day our joy will be infinitely greater for the wounds we suffer here.   

Touching

It’s a word we often say when something stirs deep emotions. It means that something affected us in a profound way.

But why say, “touching?”  Why not just say “moving” or “affecting?” How is it that a word that means “having a common border” or “adjacent” came to signify profound feelings?

Well, why did God come into the world in-person as the God-man Jesus Christ? And when he came, why did he go out among the crowds of hurting persons?

He didn’t sit alone on the top of a hill and expect people to come to him.

He didn’t wait until the age of electronic media and make commercials.

He came to touch and be touched. You could hold him and smell him. You could feel the scratch of his beard on your cheek when he kissed you. Why?

It’s got to mean that we were created to touch and be touched. And that means, the more isolated we are from others, the more “out of touch” we become, and the less we become our truest and best selves.

Of course, not all touching is healthy.

And a few take advantage of our need for touch to satisfy some perverse impulse.

Matthew 9 tells of a woman who’d been hemorrhaging for twelve years. She told herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I’ll be healed.”

She was right, and it’s still true for us.

We have to let him touch us, through worship, Christian community, prayer, and more. The more he touches us, the more we become who he created us to be.

Blessing the runners

This Sunday, May 1st, the Pittsburgh Marathon returns for the first time in three years. Tens of thousands of runners, and visitors from across the country and around the world, will be downtown. It’s like no other day all year.

First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral next door are right in the middle of it all.

Roads are shut down all over the city on Marathon Sunday, making it hard to get to many churches. But not our churches. You can take the “T” to the Wood Street Station, or drive in and park in the Mellon Square Garage, each a half a block away.  

God put us in the perfect place to bless the city on Marathon Sunday.

We will be out on Sixth Avenue at 5:45 AM, blessing runners. You should join us.

Many runners are so scared before the big race that they’re shaking. They wonder, “What was I thinking when I signed up for this?” Some are quite literally looking for a higher power.

Some are running to raise money and awareness for a loved one who passed away, or who suffers with a particular condition. Some are running to glorify God. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace means a lot to them.

People I prayed with in years past come up to thank me. They remind me that I had said that when they “hit the wall” around mile 20 they would experience a “following breeze.” They tell me that prayer was answered.

This year, after we bless the runners early in the morning, we’ll hold a combined worship service outside at 10:45, weather permitting. Our friend, The Very Reverend Aidan Smith, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, will preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. What a privilege to be the church in the heart of the city.

What are you running for?

Rachel Feintzeig is the Work and Life columnist for the Wall Street Journal, which means she writes about the “intersection of jobs and everything else.” Last week her column was, “Yes, you can be more than your job title.”

Rachel told of getting the new job at the paper and being asked to write a paragraph to introduce herself. She said writing the first few sentences was easy. She reviewed her past reporting, mentioned her husband and kids, and then…what? What could she say that would distinguish her amid all the daily routines of life? Her days were “a blur of work and kids.” She felt lost.     

She recalled one particularly stressful day when, without thinking, she dug out a pair of gym shorts from her dresser and just ran. She ran a mile in a loop back to her house. She was still stressed, so she ran some more. 

Rachel had never been an athlete, but as she started to run more, she noticed that it made her feel better. She was better able to handle stress, better able to focus and write. 

Now Rachel says that being a runner makes her better at all her other roles in life.

Next Sunday, May 1st, the Pittsburgh Marathon returns for the first time in three years and our church will be in the middle of it all.

For over a decade, we’ve been out on the street at 5:45 AM on Marathon Sunday, blessing runners. We pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one, or over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of people heading to their corrals. Many people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In the moments before the race, many are anxious, seeking a higher power. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important to them.

Sometimes I ask them, “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 much as running makes us better at everything else, 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.

But we are more than our job title. And if we run through this 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)

Glimpses of joy

It was February 13, 1970, and I had just come to pick up Jana for our first date. The moment she let me in the front door, I heard a sound coming up from the basement: “Hee, hee, hee!” 

Jana took me downstairs to meet her dad. He was lying on the floor watching TV, literally rolling on the floor in laughter. 

My first thought was that this family must be out of its mind.    

But that was Lonnie. He laughed like that all the time. He simply loved life. He got joy out of whatever he was doing.

In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul wrote that we are to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Lonnie always rejoiced because he could see God in everything. 

He rejoiced in hunting and fishing. He rejoiced in fixing his old boat. I think he actually rejoiced when it broke; so he could fix it.

He rejoiced in his wife and his family. In good times and bad, he rejoiced.

Where did he get that endless reservoir of joy?

In Colossians 3, Paul wrote, “Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above….”

Fascinating. Paul was writing to Christians who were still living, but he said, “You have been raised.”  It’s already happened.

The main purpose of the Christian faith is not for God to swoop down and take you to heaven when you die. Heaven is not an ethereal place far away where you float in a kind of disembodied existence. 

That’s not resurrection; that’s death.

When the Risen Jesus met his disciples after the resurrection he could still eat, but he could also be anywhere at once. He was somehow more real.

And he didn’t tell them to wait around until they floated off, he sent them out to make the world more beautiful and just, starting now, like he did with my father-in-law Lonnie.

Heaven is here, another dimension of reality that most of us are out of touch with, and Jesus followers live at the intersection of the two. They’ve been raised with Christ to give the world glimpses of the ultimate joy that awaits us when heaven and earth are fully joined at last. Alleluia!

Or as Lonnie would say, “Hee, hee, hee!” 

Let them think you’re crazy

Centuries before, the Prophet Isaiah said that God would one day do a new thing. There would be streams in the desert and roads in the wilderness; even wild animals would worship.

What if that wasn’t a metaphor?

What if it was finally happening—the Creator making a new creation?

It would mean you’d have to forget the past and live in a new way. And the new way might not be easy. People would think you were crazy.

Jesus had just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, a clear signal that the new creation was underway.

For Jesus it meant riding in triumph to a mock trial and the cross, and all the ironies of a conquering king riding on a borrowed, unbroken colt.

But for Lazarus, it meant sudden, unwanted celebrity. No one had seen a dead man come back to life. And since Lazarus was Exhibit A of the new creation, the authorities wanted him dead too.

Coming to grips with the new reality was bewildering.

And of course, it still is. As Jesus comes riding in, we ought to be cheering and waving and throwing our coats in the road, even if we don’t quite grasp what’s going on.

This is no time to be holding back.

Go ahead. Let people think you’re crazy.

Something else to complain about

I’ve complained here before about my first assignment in the Air Force. The climate in Northern Maine was harsh in winter; the black flies were thick in summer; the job meant hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror; and the bombers we flew were as old as we were.

Complaining was a way of life.

Many years later I got a dream job commanding a flying training squadron in Sacramento. The climate was mild, the sun shone every day. If you drove east for 90 minutes you could be skiing in the Sierras. If you drove west for 90 minutes, you could be standing on Fisherman’s Wharf. The job included flying Boeing 737s equipped as navigation trainers up the Pacific coast or across the mountains down to the Grand Canyon.

And everyone still complained.

Our instructors who’d flown fighters before thought it was beneath them to fly in a nav trainer.

The ones who’d flown bombers just hated to fly.

They complained out of habit.

The Book of Numbers tells how God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt. With military precision and attention to detail, God prepared them for the Promised Land. For so many to survive in the desert for so long, they had to be disciplined, organized, and obedient.

God provided for their every need, but they complained so much they talked themselves into believing they’d be better off as slaves again.

That’s the problem with complaining. We think if we just had a better house, a better job; a better spouse, etc., our lives would be OK. But when we get the better thing, we just find something else to complain about. It’s how our fallen hearts work.

Until our hearts are set on God, we’ll always find something to complain about.