Fish story

Some bible stories are hard for modern people to wrap our minds around. For example, the bible says Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and then three days later he was spit out on dry land.

But the fish has nothing to do with our problem with the Jonah story.

If God really is God; if God created the universe out of nothing; maneuvering one fish to swallow a runaway prophet is no big deal.

Our real problem with the Jonah story is that we don’t think it applies to us. Our real problem is that we fail to see ourselves as Jonah.

When we read Jonah, it’s easy to see his problem. He’s self-righteous. He can’t find any good reason for what God is calling him to do, so he must be right, and God must be wrong. He can’t see that God might actually know better than he does what’s best for him.

Self-righteousness is the reason we don’t think the Jonah story applies to us. Self-righteousness is what keeps us from seeing ourselves as God sees us. Self-righteousness is why we won’t listen to our spouse, our friends, or our pastors. We think we know better than them too, so we take offense. We run the other way.

But if God is offended by our self-righteousness, he has a funny way of showing it.  In Jonah’s case, God sent a ship with a pagan crew, a storm, and a fish to get Jonah to see God’s better way.

I wonder if God could be using the storms that come into our lives in the same way.

Instead of imagining what it might be like to be swallowed by a fish, perhaps we could imagine why God would have to go to such great lengths to get our attention.

 

Othering

In case you missed it, there was a national debate about a nomination to the Supreme Court recently. The level of vitriol of each side for the other was astounding. The situation was not made better by multiple cable channels devoted, not to reporting news, but to showing clips of the outrageous things the other side said.

“Othering” is what you do when you put people who are different from you into categories so you can marginalize them.

Just in time, Tim Keller released his new book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy. It’s just as good as Keller’s The Prodigal God. I pray that everyone would read it. Keller introduced me to the term “othering.”

Jonah was one of the religious insiders of his day. He knew more about God than anyone. Yet when God called him to preach to pagans, “others” who he hated, Jonah ran away. Jonah got on board a ship crewed by, guess who? more pagans, still others he didn’t like. Yet in every detail, the pagans in the story were better than Jonah. When a big storm came up, they tried to figure out the cause (they knew someone had sinned). They did everything they could to save the ship and all on board, including Jonah. They prayed fervently. Jonah did nothing.

Keller says we “other” because we haven’t allowed the Gospel of Jesus Christ to penetrate all the way into our heart. We may believe, but our beliefs haven’t changed us. If we still get our self-worth from something other than Jesus’ love and grace for us, then when our beliefs or status are threatened by someone, we marginalize them. We “other” them.

God sent Jonah on a mission, not just to save unbelieving pagans, but to save Jonah from his own self-righteousness.

Jesus identifies with the other, even when the other is us.

Justice network

A long time ago I had the privilege of commanding the Air Force ceremonial unit in Washington, DC, meaning I was responsible for the Air Force Band and Honor Guard. I met with every newly-assigned person and told them I was there for them. If they had a problem, I asked them to first go to their chain of command, but if that failed, “my door was always open.”

In the 90’s the military still faced challenges in integrating women into certain career fields, and the Honor Guard was one of those. Being a ceremonial guardsman was physically demanding work. There was a minimum height requirement. Many Honor Guard members had come from the security forces and had played football in high school. Young women recruited for this duty not only had to meet the physical demands but had to overcome the cultural barriers of an elite fraternity.

One day “Ann” appeared at my door. She was an airman, a one-striper, recruited by the Honor Guard out of basic training. She’d given up the career field that she had signed up for when she enlisted to become a ceremonial guardsman. She’d been well suited for her original career field, but had not been able to meet the physical challenges of the Honor Guard.

Ann could go back to her original career choice, right? Well, no. The chain of command had concluded that Ann had an attitude problem and had left her to the tender mercies of the assignment system.

This was one of those moments when I really enjoyed being a bird colonel. I helped get her an even better assignment than the one she’d enlisted for. Then I had a talk with her chain of command.

Jesus was at a party where he noticed the guests jockeying for the position of honor. In that culture, as in ours today, knowing the right person made a huge difference in whether you made it in the world or not. If you were a nobody–poor, outcast, unattractive–you were in trouble. Like today, the poor are poor partly because they have no access to the social networks the rest of us take for granted.

Jesus expected people to open up their social and business networks to the poor and outsiders. To him, it was a matter of doing justice.

I’m pretty sure God loves it when people make things right for folks like Ann.  I know I did.

Who’s your neighbor?

Francis preferred card-playing to church-going. And she liked to smoke. At Francis’ funeral, her minister asked, “What can you say about Francis?” The congregation of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church laughed. Francis never fit anyone’s image of an older, proper black church lady. What was there to say?

Francis rented the small, government-subsidized house next to my father-in-law Lonnie’s refrigeration business. Lonnie never missed church and never smoked. Growing up in in the Nazarene Church in Eastern Kentucky, he’d been taught that cards and cigarettes were the work of the devil.

When Francis lost at cards, which was often, she’d ask Lonnie, “Mr. Slone, can I borrow $20? I’ll pay you back.” Lonnie always gave her the money. Francis always paid it back, but less than a day later she would ask for it again.

Francis was rough, she gambled and smoked, but she could also cook. She often brought over homecooked dishes. It was her way of being a good neighbor.

Francis’ heavy smoking took its toll, and she was frequently hospitalized. During one hospital stay, Lonnie found her house full of roaches. He fumigated the place, cleaned and vacuumed, and took her bedding home to wash.

When Francis could no longer take care of herself, Lonnie made sure she was cared for in a nice nursing home.

One thing you could say about Francis: she was the neighbor of Lonnie Slone.

Roll down justice

Slavery ended with the Civil War, right? Not exactly. There are 40 million people worldwide in slavery today, more than at any other time in history. Human trafficking is the third largest criminal activity in the world.

But slavery must be a third-word problem, right? Not exactly. Whenever someone is hurting, in poverty, or in an abusive relationship, they are vulnerable to exploitation.

“Kate” was interviewed on local TV earlier this year. Kate spent much of her childhood in abusive households, jumping between family, foster parents, and adoption. Eventually, she decided to run away, but was homeless and alone. She was 15 when she met a man who offered her a place to stay.

The 40-year-old told her, “If you help me I’ll help you.”

Kate started selling drugs on 5th Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. It wasn’t enough. Soon, the man made her do other things she didn’t want to do. She wanted to leave, but she was trapped.

Kate was rescued in an FBI sting operation in a local hotel but was charged with prostitution. The good news is that county officials and advocacy groups are working to see that Kate and others like her are treated as victims instead of criminals.

This Sunday, September 23rd, has been declared “Freedom Sunday” by International Justice Mission (IJM.org). This Sunday, we join thousands of churches around the world in learning about slavery and human trafficking.

A long time ago, God told the Prophet Micah that three things were required of God followers: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

This isn’t passive voice. Justice is something we do.

Could we pray about joining IJM in helping to end this curse, not just in the third world, but right outside our doors?

 

Surprise

Matthew 25 is the climax of Jesus’ final speech. Jesus paints an incredible word picture of the throne room of God. Everyone who ever lived is standing before Jesus for final judgment. It’s an awesome, terrifying thing to imagine.

What standard will Jesus use to make the ultimate judgment?

Did you feed, clothe, care for, or visit hurting people?

The criteria are as down-to-earth as the vision is grand

Jesus says that in the end there will be just two categories. You’re either blessed or cursed, depending on whether you took part in simple ministries of food, shelter, and visitation.

That’s it. That’s Jesus’ basis for dividing up people for eternity.

Surprising? Yes, but not in the way you probably think. Jesus goes on to say that everyone will be surprised on judgment day. The ones who are blessed will be surprised because they know they’re not worthy to stand before a Holy God. They know that nothing they could ever do could make them worthy.

But the ones destined for eternal fire are surprised too. “What do you mean we didn’t serve the hurting people?” they demand to know. Instead of throwing themselves on the mercy of a Holy God, begging for forgiveness, they’re indignant.

Self-righteousness is so deadly because the first thing it kills is your self-awareness.  When you’re self-righteous, no one, not even God, can tell you that you’ve been justifying yourself.

On judgment day, the ones who know they should be out, are in. They ones who think they’re in, are out.

Surprising.

Tuesday

7:05 AM. Arrive at church. 18 people sleeping on the front porch, and I talk to some. Eric and Nicole want to know why I object to their sleeping there. I point out the trash, broken flower pots, urine smell, excrement, and suggest they’re killing the church. It wasn’t them, they say, bad people came at night to do this. I notice David, who’d been removed by police three times one day last week for drunkenness. Drunk now, he told me he was going to rehab. 7:15. Unlock the church, make coffee, set up for men’s bible study. 7:30. Prayer, bible study. Great group, always a highlight. 8:35. Custodian says freezer is only holding 10 degrees. It’s over 30 years old. 8:45. Voicemails. Rent-A-Center needs a reference. Return calls. Emails. Former member who lives in Florida and follows my blog will be visiting soon! Concern from member that names in the bulletin were wrong. Why no Apostles Creed? 9:00. Ops director spots someone smashing flower pots on security camera footage, early Sunday AM. 9:30. Ops director spots the vandal, it’s Eric, mentioned above, who’s still out front! 9:45. I call 911. 9:55. Police arrive and check for warrants. Erik is felon wanted for gun charges. Give police my contact info. 10:35. Half hour late for discussion of book Evicted with ministerium walk-in volunteers at 1st Lutheran Church. 11:40. Walk back to church with a church member who’d read Evicted. 11:55. Pastor Dan and I discuss staff concerns. 1:00 PM. Lunch at Ten Penny with Patrice, head of PGH Marathon, Pastor Dan, his wife Leslie, and Pastor Brian of 1st Lutheran. Prayer. Patrice gives us a $5000 check for the Ministerium walk-in ministry. 2:35. Dan and I encounter Earl, walk-in guest, on Penn Ave, 2:45. Dan and I talk to panhandler on church steps. 3:00. More email. Evening custodian will be late; I’m happy to lock up. Share thoughts on pastoral care issue with our student pastor. 3:45. Pastor Dan and I discuss pastoral care issues. Prayer. 4:30. Time to lock up, but someone is lying awkwardly on front porch, so I check. Mike is his name, says he’s OK, but he’s not. Holding his stomach. 4:40 Dan has set up pop-up meeting with Charles Chapman of Living Ministries. Promises to help us with people sleeping out front. 5:15. Meeting over and we check on Mike. He’s pulling out handfuls of poop from his pants and throwing it. Charles calls Operation Safety Net street team who promises to come, but they don’t. 6:00. I call 911. 6:10. Police arrive and try to rouse Mike, but he keeps falling back and hitting his head. They won’t get close since Mike is covered in poop. 6:20. Paramedics arrive, wrap Mike in sheets to keep from soiling everything. Strap him to stretcher. 6:30. Escort visitor to women’s bible study. 6:30. Check in with folks at Outreached Arms meal. Invite the guy who runs the drink station, a venture capitalist, to church. 6:40. Greet guests and volunteers. Custodian late. Round up buckets, etc. to clean poop. 7:15. Guy named Michael is eating chicken on front steps. Drunk, he doesn’t notice the smell. He looks familiar. Yes, he’d slept there last night. Before alcohol, Mike had been head of security at a mall. How many times, I ask, has he been to rehab? Four. I ask about his family, and he starts to cry. Has a daughter, 18. I tell him to go ten more times if he has to; his kid is worth it. I pray for him. 7:30. Young lady sitting on the steps talking on her phone. I warn her about the mess I’ve been cleaning and notice her accent. She’s from Turkey, a student at Chatham, and a Muslim. I invite her to church. 8:10. Head home. 8:45. Shower, wash clothes. 9:30. Email, personnel team report, texts, put my clothes in the washer. 10:30. Start this blog.

Bible stories your mother never told you

More than once in my Air Force career my boss assigned me to lead an investigation into charges of sexual abuse. It turned out that in each case, a predator used a position of power to hurt someone who was vulnerable. I saw up close the pain inflicted on victims and families.

As the massive scandal of abuse by priests, and its cover up, continues to devastate the Catholic church (no religious tradition is immune), where can you find the resources to even begin to understand what’s going on?

I suggest those resources are in the bible, in the stories your mother never told you.

David and Bathsheba isn’t exactly a bedtime favorite among parents. Neither is the story of David’s son Amnon, who became obsessed with his sister Tamar “to the point of illness” (2 Samuel 13:2).

My mother never told me the story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19).

Is the problem just men in power? Consider Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:7), or Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19:31). The bible stories your mother never told you encompass people in nearly every category imaginable.

So why are these stories in the bible?

Because they’re true, and because the bible is completely realistic about human depravity.

We tend to avoid the truth when it offends us. Not the bible.

We tend to take the protagonists of the bible and turn them into moral examples. We teach kids, “Be strong like David.” But ultimately that’s not the message of the Bible. The message of the bible is, even “the best of us,” even people like David, are capable of the worst kinds of evil. On our own, we’re helpless to save ourselves. We need someone who really was perfect to pay the price for the evil in us and save us from ourselves.

The bible stories your mother never told you are proof that the worst human behavior is no surprise to God.

The bible stories she did tell you—the miracles, the healings, the cross, the empty tomb—are proof that God cares, and is doing something about it.

What all the stories—the ones we love and the ones we overlook—point to is Jesus Christ. Jesus stepped into the world he created and took the worst kind of abuse on himself. And people in power were his chief abusers.

And he defeated them.

A story I love is the one from late in the day on the first Easter, of the risen Jesus showing his bewildered disciples his wounds. The wounds inflicted by his abusers were the proof to his disciples that he was who he claimed to be.

They’re the proof to us that our wounds matter to God, and that Jesus can take the worst things we suffer in this life and weave them into the new reality he’s creating.

Warnings, cautions, notes

People who fly jets sometimes do things with the airplane that the designer never intended, leading to accidents that cause injury or death.

When an accident occurs, it usually leads to a human solution, a change to the operator’s manual, so future crewmembers won’t repeat the mistake.

A “warning” is something that if not followed, could lead to injury or death.

A “caution,” if not followed, could lead to equipment damage.

A “note” is something that’s recommended but not required.

Operator’s manuals are filled with warnings, cautions, and notes arising out of accidents, hence the aircrew saying that the manuals are “written in blood.”

Sometimes an accident also leads to a hardware fix; airplanes retrofitted with a device to help keep crewmembers from making the same mistake.

What’s my point?

Our church is confronting a difficult situation. A few “guests” are using the building in a way that was never intended. Some sleep outside, and a few leave trash, human waste, and the occasional needle. It can be awful, especially for our staff who bear the brunt of the mess.

Does this call for a human solution, a “hardware fix,” or both? There’s a case to be made for all sides.

A proposed hardware fix is to install gates to help keep people off church property after hours.

A human solution might be to engage the folks who cause the problem. Most are mentally ill or addicted; victims of the epidemic sweeping our country.

Some proposed aircraft hardware fixes are too cumbersome or expensive. The fix might prevent the problem, but it would also keep the plane from working as intended. An airplane that doesn’t fly is safe, but what good is it?

In the church, my sense is that a human problem first calls for a human solution. We should work with the street teams who minister to the city’s homeless.

As crewmembers, we need to remember what the Designer has in mind.

 

Paradigm shift

After 18 years of service in the Air Force, I got my dream job to command a flying unit. It was the only flying command for folks in my career field, and I was fortunate to get it.

And then Congress voted to close the base.

Instead of making the squadron the best it could be (my dream) my role was to keep the mission going while the unit got smaller and smaller as people moved on to new assignments. Best I can tell, nobody ever dreamed of doing that.

Now I have another dream job. I’m the pastor of an amazing church in the heart of a transforming city. “Where would you put a church?” I ask. The answer is, right here, where ours has been for 245 years. I am truly blessed.

But there’s a challenge, and it seems to me it’s not unlike the one I had a long time ago.

For most of my time on the planet, it was normal for people to attend church. Attending church would lead people to serve and grow in faith. The church in North America worked on this paradigm for most of the 20th century.

Attendance led to engagement.

Now it’s just the opposite. Now the church has to engage people where they are and give them ways to serve. When people see the church making a difference, maybe they’ll attend, and some will grow in faith.

Engagement leads to attendance.

Churches everywhere are missing this paradigm shift, and when they do, they’re effectively voting to close.

The early church never built buildings and expected people to attend. It went to its neighbors and engaged them. People came to faith after seeing the church make a difference in their lives.

It turned out that my dreams for an Air Force career were too small. I was blessed to have more great jobs I’d never even dreamed about. I think it can be true for the church too, if we engage the folks to whom God is calling us.