Elegy

My dad would have turned 100 this week.

Dad passed away in 1981, but I can still remember the way he felt when he hugged me when I came home. When I had to leave, I will never forget the way he stood and watched until I had driven out of sight. Dad told me every day that he loved me. He was constantly after me to do my best. When I got my first job cutting the neighbors’ grass, he insisted that I do more than was expected. Even now, when I see someone cutting grass and allowing the clippings to blow in the street, I think of him. He would not have approved.

I’m reading a book called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, who was born about 100 miles south of where I grew up in Ashland, Kentucky. Vance simply tells the story of his family, but it’s full of insights about poverty and brokenness. Its lessons reach way beyond the poor whites of Appalachia.

In the week ahead, our church will take part in National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day with a walk and vigil downtown. We’ll remember those who passed away without a home, and without loving, supportive relationships. We’ll also remind ourselves of our own blessings.

We like to think that we’re our own persons; that we control our own destinies; that we can be anything we want. It’s true, but it’s also true that our family, our friends, the places we grow up, and even our ancestors, influence us far more than we know. Homelessness can often be traced to the kinds of broken relationships that Vance describes in Hillbilly Elegy.

Dad was far from perfect. He could be moody and lose his temper. He never had a new car, and we lived in the same converted duplex until I left home. But he worked hard his whole life and was always there for us.

I’m older now than Dad was when he died, but he’s still the most influential person in my life.

The children in the story

John Huffman, the minister 40 years ago at the church I now serve, told about hosting a staff Christmas luncheon in his home. They had a “white elephant” gift exchange, and were all laughing and having a good time until it all came to a stop.

One person picked a gift bag, reached in, and pulled out a little baby Jesus in a manger. They were all stunned. Who would put the baby Jesus in a white elephant gift exchange?  But then they noticed that it looked like the baby Jesus in the nativity set on their living room table. John’s wife, Anne, checked, and sure enough, the baby Jesus figurine was missing. Somehow it had fallen off the table and into a gift bag. They all had a good laugh and put the baby Jesus back where it belonged.

John said, “The more I thought about it, this little incident was quite telling.  So often Jesus is relegated to a kind of “white elephant” status at Christmas. Not central to the celebration at all.

The Christmas story we love the most is from Luke. Luke gives us shepherds, angels, and the baby Jesus in the manger. We love Luke.

And then there’s John.

No angels, no shepherds, and no baby.

John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Greek word for “word” is logos. It’s where we get the word logic.

In other faiths the logic is, follow the rules, and if you’re good enough, you might please God. But John says that Jesus is the logic of God. Instead of rules, you get a person who wants to have a relationship with you.

John says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

The infinite became finite. The inaccessible became accessible. The immortal became mortal. You could touch him; hold him; you could feel his breath on your cheek.

That’s the logic of God.

And John says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

We’re the children in this story.

Tender twigs

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.”  Mark 13:28

Seventeen years ago, our son Patrick went off to The Citadel, the military college in Charleston, SC. Freshmen start with Hell Week. Like basic training, it’s tough; they cut off your hair and yell at you. But Patrick quit before the week was over and came home.

Jana and I were crushed.

But then Patrick learned there are worse things than being a freshman at The Citadel. Like feeling sorry for yourself. Like not having a reason to get up in the morning.  The next summer Patrick decided to try again. But this time, the upperclassman would know that he’d quit. Things would be even harder.

When the day came to go back to The Citadel, Patrick was so scared that he was sick. As we drove along, we passed a Huddle House restaurant in a small town. It had a sign which read, “Be still and know that I am God.” None of us said anything, but Patrick had seen it. He later told us that right then, he was at peace. During Hell Week and beyond, when he was scared or lonely, he remembered that verse, and he made it through.

Hope came for our son when he was most vulnerable.

That’s Jesus’ point in Mark 13:28. In the spring when the twigs of a tree are tender, that’s when leaves emerge. But that’s also when the tree is most vulnerable to a killing freeze.

We spend our lives trying to show that we’re successful, confident, and in-charge. The problem with that is, who can tell you that you need a savior? Jesus says that hope comes to us, not when we’re pulled together, but when we’re vulnerable.

And so, hope comes to us at Christmas through a tiny baby, the most vulnerable thing in God’s creation

No app for that

I usually make myself a mug of coffee before I head to work, but one day last week I went to Starbucks instead. There were few people ahead of me, so I figured I’d have my order in no time. I was wrong. The baristas were crazy busy making coffee for people who weren’t there. They’d yell something like, “Polly, mobile order,” as they put Polly’s coffee on the bar. Pretty soon, Polly arrived to get her order. She was in and out in 10 seconds. This happened again and again. Meanwhile, I was the only customer actually in the store.

I mentioned this at our staff meeting that morning. Everyone laughed at me. Silly Tom. Don’t you know to order ahead using the mobile app? My wife said the same thing happened to her at Panera Bread. All the mobile lunch orders were filled ahead of hers.

But wait. I thought the whole point of places like Starbucks and Panera Bread were to create a kind of community. Now it’s just the opposite. Now you don’t have to interact with anybody.

We’re studying Acts 16 this week, where Luke tells of three conversion stories in quick succession. There’s Lydia, a wealthy business woman; a demon-possessed slave girl; and a Roman jailor. They were as different as three human beings could be. But they were all changed by the Gospel. Three people who never would have had anything to do with each other, became part of the same church.

It seems to me that an increasingly impersonal culture has given the church an opening. We were created for each other, and we all know it, even if we don’t act like it. The church is the one place where people of different generations, races, cultures, and incomes meet on a regular basis. That ought to be attractive in and of itself.

And we get to tell people about the one who makes us one in him.

There’ll never be an app that can do that.

God’s love for the city

Nine years ago, First Pres was considering calling me as its senior pastor. If there was one thing more improbable than me being a pastor, it was me being the pastor of a city-center church. It was something I’d never done nor considered.

But then I listened to a sermon based on Jonah 4:11, where God said to Jonah, “Shall I not be concerned about that great city?” In the sermon, Tim Keller poured out a vision of God’s love for cities, which are concentrations of God’s most beautiful creations: people. Could this be the message God was calling me to help proclaim?

In the 1980’s, Keller was part of a group of Presbyterians (PCA) that planted an evangelical church in Manhattan. Everyone told them they were crazy: New Yorkers were too hip; too unchurched; too sophisticated. But they spent a lot of time getting to know New Yorkers. They built relationships instead of a church building. They relied on orthodox Christian beliefs and practices. The centerpiece of their worship was a 35-minute, Christ-centered sermon.

Today, Redeemer Presbyterian Church has thousands in worship in services across New York. They’ve helped plant hundreds of churches in cities around the world. Suburban churches, including several in our area, are getting in on the movement.

Those churches want to be where we are.

Hundreds of thousands of God’s most beautiful creations live, work, or visit within a short walk of our church every day. Some are thriving, some are hurting, but like all of us, they need a relationship with the creator.

God has us right where we’re supposed to be. He wants us to share his love with the city.

 

No Jesus, no light

We’re just a week away from Light Up Night (November 17th) in downtown Pittsburgh. Maybe it has to do with the unseasonably warm fall weather, but everyone says that the holidays have surprised them this year.

But lights are going up all over town. Everyone loves the lights. But do you know why we put them up? They’re a reminder that Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, has come. The good news for the church is that we get to explain this.

No Jesus, no lights.

The recent terrible shootings in Nevada and Texas, and the terror attack in New York, have left people crying out, “Do something!” Yet few folks really believe that the human solutions proposed will really make much difference against the darkness. In their heart of hearts, they know the problem is something deeper.

Christmas lights are reminders that God is doing something about what’s really wrong.

Christmas says that God came into a world of darkness. The darkness was so threatened by Jesus that the king ordered the murder of all the baby boys in the region where Jesus was born. Jesus’ family had to flee into exile to escape the slaughter. God in Jesus Christ was subject to the worst the darkness had to offer.

So, we must stand up against the forces of darkness that lead to murder and chaos. This isn’t the same as trusting in human solutions alone. We stand with the one about whom John, the Gospel writer, said, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.”

Hospital or museum?

Is the church a “hospital for sinners?” A “museum of saints?”

Is the church a place of safety and solitude, or is it an outpost from which to launch missions into sometimes hostile territory?

Every day, I have conversations with members and guests about what we’re doing as a church. Each person is shaped by strong views of what they think the church is or ought to be.

The Apostle Peter, the one on whom Jesus said he would build the church, had a bunch of powerful metaphors to describe it.

There is “living stones.” The church is a group of people, built together like stones in a wall, where the Spirit of God resides.

Peter said the church is “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation.” At the same time, he said church members are “aliens and strangers in the world.”

Together those metaphors, and there are lots more of them in the Bible, paint a wonderful, complex, and engaging picture of the church. There’s a lot there to both support and challenge our personal views. Clearly, Peter says the church is set apart in order to be a light to the culture. But, just by being the church, we’ll be treated as aliens and strangers.

The great thing about being a church in the center of the city is that we’re called to live into the fullness of Peter’s metaphors, in all their wonderful complexity.

 

Indulgence

This week we observe “Reformation Sunday.” Church tradition says that 500 years ago this week, a priest named Martin Luther nailed “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther objected to the Roman Catholic practice of selling “indulgences,” essentially a way of buying one’s way out of the consequences of sin. Luther argued it was wrong to make people pay for what God grants for free. Humans can do nothing to earn salvation; rather salvation is a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

But here’s why we still need reformation:

Deep down, we find the idea of indulgences attractive. Indulgences were degrading and came down hardest on the poor, but at least they gave human beings the sense of being in charge. If we can buy our way out of hell, no matter the cost, it means we’re in charge of our salvation.

Modern North Americans have a different indulgence problem.

Most of us have been indulged our whole lives. From the time we were old enough to hold a spoon, our preferences have been consulted. Life is all about us. We have the illusion that we’re in control of our lives. What need do we have of God, the church, or the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ?

 

Soft on the outside

This week I’m preaching on Ephesians 6, where the Apostle Paul writes about putting on the “armor of God.” The armor includes things like the “belt of truth” and the “breastplate of righteousness,” and so on. If you Google “armor of God,” you get thousands of images with different ideas of what this armor looks like.

But I wonder if turning a metaphor like “armor of God” into religious clip art misses the point?

The armor of God is really our status as children of God, created, chosen, blessed, adopted, and redeemed by God. This status is who we are, not something we put on and take off when we’re under attack. And we are under attack. The Christian faith is realistic about the spiritual warfare going on all around us.

Eugene Peterson says that G.K.Chesterson once wrote that Christians, in relation to the world around us, are either crustaceans or vertebrates. Crustaceans have their skeletons on the outside; vertebrates have their skeletons on the inside. Crustaceans are solid on the outside, soft on the inside. Vertebrates are soft and vulnerable on the outside, solid on the inside. Peterson says, “It’s not difficult to recognize the higher form of life, Christian crustacean or Christian vertebrate. The armor of God is the embodiment, the internalization of the life of the Trinity—truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, word of God—Christ in us.”

The meaning of “armor of God” can best be understood in the church. That’s where we pray and worship and just hang out with other vertebrates like us, who are soft and vulnerable on the outside and solid on the inside.

The quotidian mysteries

Ever since I was little, I dreamed of growing up to do great things. My folks encouraged me to do my best in everything. In every job, every military assignment, I dreamed of making things the best they’d ever been. I really couldn’t imagine how to do things any other way. The bible encourages us in this. Ephesians 6:6 says “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.”

Doing your best is the Christian thing to do, is it not?

I was blessed to be able to take a sabbatical this summer. This meant having the time to reflect on what it truly means to rest. One kind of rest, probably the most important kind, is learning to rest in God.

In preparing for the sabbatical, I read a bunch of books by Presbyterian pastor and author, Eugene Peterson. One of Peterson’s great gifts is his ability to point to the way God works everywhere, in every moment, in everyone and everything. The greatest force in every situation, is not us, but God. This means that seemingly menial, quotidian (routine, daily) work, like doing laundry or taking out the trash, has the same significance before God as, say, curing cancer or building a skyscraper.

Because God is in everything, absolutely everything.

If Peterson is right, and of course he is, it means we can do our best in everything, but it need not kill us, because God is the greatest force in every situation, not us. We have permission to fail, because we know it wasn’t all up to us. And of course, it means that when we do the quotidian things that make up most of life, we can rest in the knowledge that we’re working arm in arm with the God of the Universe.

*The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work,” is the title of a short book by Kathleen Norris.