Social distance hurts

People everywhere are grieving. That’s the right word, grieving. Even if you haven’t lost someone you love, you’re grieving over other things you’ve lost. It’s OK to feel that way. Your grief is real; it’s legitimate.

One of the things that’s been hurt most is relationships. The distancing that we need to keep us safe physically is taking a toll on us emotionally, spiritually.

The truth is we’ve been suffering from the effects of social distancing for a long time. Robert Putnam published his bestselling book Bowling Alone, on the breakdown of community, in the year 2000. 

We talk about this in our church all the time. Society is more connected in some ways than ever before, yet we feel more isolated than ever.

The way we understand community has been changing. For example, after World War II, millions of folks moved to the suburbs. We started building houses with back decks instead of front porches. 

And the distance between us increased.

Why is this a problem?

Because we were made for each other. In Genesis 1:25, God said, “Let us make man in our image.” Did you notice the plural language? “Us” and “our.” 

We were created in the image of a God who is relational, Father, Son, and Spirit, who existed in community for all time. We were created by this relational God for God and each other.     

At the fall, we were banished from God’s presence and our relationships have been hurting ever since.

And the greatest distance of all was between God and us. 

This is why social distancing hurts so much. We weren’t created for this. In ways too many to count, we need each other.

But there’s good news.

God closed the distance between God and us. He sent his son Jesus Christ all the way from heaven to earth. 

But there’s more.  At the end of his life, he was rejected. Jesus experienced the ultimate distancing, cut off from the God he had known from all eternity. 

But isolation didn’t get the final word. God raised him to life and raised to him heaven where joined humanity to God.

When we believe, God sends his Spirit so that we will never be truly alone again. 

The Father knows

I was in high school when I realized that my common sense went to sleep the moment my head hit the pillow at night. The rest of my brain went on working just fine, leaving the rest of me wide awake. Back then, I was skinny and pale, and I thought my head was too big for my body. I mostly worried about what kids thought of me.

I like to think I don’t worry as much now, but the truth is, I still worry more than I should. (The fear of being too skinny passed a long time ago.)

Jesus told us over and over not to worry. In a famous section of the Sermon on the Mount, beginning at Matthew 6:25, he told us not to worry about what we eat, drink, and wear. Amidst a global pandemic, we want to ask, “OK, Jesus, but how?”

Remember, Jesus’ commands come with the grace to carry them out, and there in verse 32 is the grace: “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

Jesus wasn’t commanding us not to worry because eating, drinking, and clothing weren’t important. He was commanding us not to worry because God knows they are.

Didn’t Jesus himself enjoy a good meal with his friends?

Didn’t his first miracle keep the party going when the wine had run out?

Didn’t the soldiers at his crucifixion gamble for his cloak? It must have been nice.

Jesus is concerned about us. He knows our needs because he had them too. He cares that people are hurt when restaurants, bars, and businesses close, limiting what we can eat, drink, and wear.

Amidst the crisis, grace: Your heavenly Father knows.

Not to be taken lightly

I’ve never forgotten the advice of the instructor on my first day of flying training at the Air Force Academy. “What’s the first thing you do in an aircraft emergency?” he asked.

“Wind your watch.”

In other words, “Take stock of the situation. Don’t panic.”

(Yes, those were the days when watches were powered by springs which required winding.)

And the second thing?

“Fly the aircraft.”

Don’t get so distracted trying to fix what’s wrong that you forget the basics.

Today we’re in the early stages of a global health crisis brought on by COVID-19. As Americans, we expect to be safe and comfortable. We expect to overcome problems and move on. This crisis may be very different.

What does it mean to be a faithful church in a time like this? Some thoughts:

Ours is an incarnational faith. God came to earth as a human being, subject to all the hazards of the first century world, like famine, wars, and disease. He hung out with the sick, the possessed, and people who wanted to kill him. Jesus knows what we’re going through.

Jesus commanded us not to worry, five times in the Sermon on the Mount alone. Dutch writer Corrie ten Boom said, “Worry doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrows, it empties today of its strength.”

We must care for the hurting. Jesus said it over and over in Matthew 25; we’ll be judged on whether we cared for those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and more. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook when caring is hard. One of the reasons the early church grew was its willingness to care for the sick, including non-believers, regardless of the danger.

Going where God leads takes courage. Read 1 Corinthians 11:23 and the verses that follow. The Apostle Paul said that he was “exposed to death again and again.” Paul was shipwrecked and beaten, hungry, naked, and sleep deprived. For much of church history, and in many places today, being a Christian was not “safe.”

It’s wise to be careful. Proverbs 22:3 says, “A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.” (NLT). We need to see science and medicine as the gifts they are, and we need to find and act on the best possible information. I recommend this podcast with Dr Michael Osterholm, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3URhJx0NSw. You can also Google “Michael Osterholm.”

Remember our hope. On Ash Wednesday we were reminded of our mortality. But we should also remember that when Mary Magdalene met the Risen Jesus on the first Easter morning, she mistook him for the gardener. It was the right mistake to make. Jesus was sowing seeds where there had been only death. We have no idea when the end will come for us, but when we believe, we can know without any doubt that God’s got us, and we belong to him forever.

Pray! Pray for those with the illness, health care workers, leaders, and anyone impacted by this disease and its effects. Pray for the church as we seek to be faithful in this challenging time.

Note: We will continue to evaluate the situation and respond as needed. We will make changes to the way we conduct worship to limit potential exposure. We are continuing to clean surfaces throughout the church. We’re also evaluating the way Tuesday night meals are served. Please check the church email or call the church if you have questions. Of course, if you are experiencing symptoms, please seek medical help, avoid contact with others, and let us know so we can care for you.

Loving enemies

Mandisa Hundley used to sing in the church where she grew up in Citrus Heights, California. After high school she studied jazz at American River College before transferring to Fisk University in Tennessee. There she earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance. She worked as a backup singer for Christian and country artists, but her big break came in the fifth season of American Idol

Mandisa sang for the judges, who cleared her through to the Hollywood round. But after she left the room, judge Simon Cowell made a sarcastic remark about her weight: “Do we have a bigger stage this year?”

On the next show, Mandisa came out to see whether the judges would pass her through to the next level. She looked at Simon and said, “Simon, a lot people want me to say a lot of things to you. But this is what I want to say…yes, you hurt me, and I cried, and it was painful. It really was, but I want you to know that I’ve forgiven you, and that you don’t need someone to apologize in order to forgive somebody. And I figure that if Jesus could die so that all of my wrongs could be forgiven, I can certainly extend that same grace to you. I just wanted you to know that.”

Could you be that gracious?

Simon apologized, hugged her, and told her she’d been selected to advance.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” But he never told his followers to be door mats or lay down in the face of injustice.

How did Mandisa do it? How was she able to be so gracious to someone who had humiliated her on national TV, even as thousands on social media were urging her to retaliate?

The only way to forgive an enemy, without letting them walk all over you, is to know that you were once God’s enemy.

And to begin to grasp what it cost Jesus to forgive you.

Honor

Late in 1997 I got a dream job commanding the Air Force ceremonial unit in Washington, DC. For most of my career I’d served in classified assignments, with no public acclaim. But now I’d be leading the unit with the Air Force Band, Honor Guard, and Chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery, with thousands of public performances, many on national TV. Only the Thunderbirds, the aerial demonstration team, had more public visibility.

Earlier that year, a video had made national news which showed graduates of a Marine training course having their insignia, which had sharp metal prongs, being pounded into their chests. It was a secret hazing ritual among elite units called “blood pinning.” The video was hard to watch; mothers didn’t send their sons to the Marines so this sort of thing would be done to them.

At my first staff meeting, I asked the commanders who worked for me if our units did this sort of thing. “Oh no sir! We would never do that.” So, I was told.

I think it was about a month later when a large color picture appeared in The Washington Post of one of our ceremonial guardsmen in dress uniform, along with the story of how he had been hazed.   

I learned that the Honor Guard hazing ritual was called a “beat down.” Experienced ceremonial guardsman would take turns slugging newbies after their first official ceremony. The guys were tough. Most of them actually liked the ritual and looked forward to it. But that didn’t make it right.

If this was such a great thing, why did it need to be secret?

Why did a unit, whose sole purpose was to guard honor, think it was OK to lie?

Jesus Christ said it plainly: “Let your ‘yes” be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’”

The 8th commandment prohibited “false witness,” but an Old Testament system of jurisprudence had arisen which involved swearing oaths. The more important the issue, the more important the thing you would swear by. But Jesus said no. Integrity isn’t situational.

When you just tell the truth, you never have to worry about keeping your stories straight.

Looking, staring

This week I looked up a 1976 interview that then presidential candidate Jimmy Carter gave to Playboy magazine. Carter had continued to teach Sunday school in his hometown Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, and there were lots of questions about how Carter’s faith would inform his presidency. The questions were tough, wide-ranging, and professional. Over 43 years later, the interview seems so civil compared to today’s politics that it borders on quaint.

But then Carter said this: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

And that was pretty much what everyone remembered from that interview. President Carter was widely mocked for being a prude.

This week we’re studying Matthew 5:29, the verse President Carter was referring to from the Sermon on the Mount. If you take it seriously, you’re still going to be mocked. Frankly, sometimes Christians are prudish, especially when they make known what they’re against, but can’t articulate what they’re for.

In the creation story, God lovingly created the first man and then breathed life into him. Genesis chapter two is filled with images of God’s infinite creativity, including God parading the animals before the man for the purpose of naming each one.

But the parade had another purpose, to see if one of the animals might be a “helper suitable” for the man. None were. So God put the man to sleep, pulled out a rib, and created the woman.

“Helper suitable?” Is that all?

The same Hebrew word for “help” is used of God himself. This “helper’ had a bit of God in her.

And “suitable?” A better translation would be “mirror image” or “likeness.”

The woman completed creation. Neither the man nor the woman was complete without the other, and together they reflected God’s image back to each other and to God.

We were created to marvel with the man as he got his first look at the woman: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

But then came the fall, and looking became staring, and marvel turned to lust.

Jesus is not being a prude when he warns us not to stare.

He’s not asking too much when he instead expects us to marvel.

Reprocessed anger

We’ve been talking here about God’s kingdom. God’s plan is to bring everything under his sovereign rule, but God has been doing it slowly, over centuries, so everyone will have the chance to come in.

One of the Bible’s enduring images of the kingdom is of a feast, where everyone will sit down to eat with God at the end of history. In Luke 14, Jesus builds on this image with the parable of a master who held a great banquet. Invitations had gone out and been accepted. When the big day arrived, guests were invited to take their places, but one by one they began to make excuses. The excuses were calculated to insult the host and keep the banquet from taking place.

What would the master do?

Instead of retaliating for this public humiliation, the master sent his servant out to bring in the poor, the blind and the lame. The master commanded this be done until his house was full.

Middle Eastern scholar, the late Ken Bailey, said the master “reprocessed his anger into grace.”

I just checked several news websites, and there were at least a dozen reports of insults along with the inevitable angry responses. Anger is the air we breathe.

The thing is, genuine injustice is a legitimate cause for anger; the master in Jesus’ parable had every right to retaliate. Instead he opted for costly grace. He used the anger generated by the insult to reach the folks who never could have imagined being invited to the feast. 

Jesus has sent out the invitations and the kingdom feast will soon begin.

Could it be that we are so used to anger, and being angry, that we don’t know how to respond when we experience his costly grace? 

Sadder

The loss of basketball great Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others this week brought millions of folks up short, including me.

Tragedies like this often take me back to November 1981 when actress Natalie Wood died in a boating accident. The tribute in The Washington Post began: “What is sadder than a beautiful woman dying young?” 

I’m not sure why those words stuck with me. The death of someone so talented and young (Natalie Wood was 43) is sad indeed. And yet, sad things happen every day.

What makes one thing sadder than another? Does our sadness depend on the fame, looks, character, age, or even the impact of the one who was lost?

I remember President Reagan comforting the nation as the remains of service members killed in a terrorist attack were brought home. No one knew the names of those young men except for their families, but they gave their lives for people they would never know. That was sad. 

Nothing had prepared me for how sad I felt then my Dad passed away, just a few weeks before Natalie Wood. Does our sadness depend on how much someone loved us? The death of some people, like a parent, leaves a hole in our lives that is not easily filled.

Is sadness related to a sense of unfulfilled promise, like the loss of Kobe’s Bryant’s daughter and the others on that helicopter?

Sadness is personal. We all experience loss differently, and every loss reminds us that we will all pass from this life to the next.

Yet in our sadness today, there’s hope. I just read that Kobe Bryant took his Catholic faith seriously. It helped him and his family get through a tough time and led him to fund programs for youth and the down and out.

There was one death that mysteriously takes all other deaths up into itself. It was the saddest death of all, but it would have been infinitely worse if it had never happened. 

Only in Jesus Christ can sadness become joy that will grow every day for eternity.

City on a hill

I’ve written about this before, the 40-minute video that I’ve watched over and over. I show it to new church officers every year. The speaker is Dr. Rodger Nishioka, a nationally known Presbyterian pastor and teacher. Rodger is speaking about the “21st Century Reformation.” The theory is that about every 500 years, God holds a “rummage sale,” throwing out things in the church that are outdated and making room for the new. He says a reformation is going on now, and it’s terrifying to lifelong Christians. But in the end, the church emerges stronger and more faithful. Every time I watch I discover something challenging, new, or encouraging that I hadn’t noticed before.

One major trend is that young adults are leaving the church by the millions. Even young adults who were baptized and grew up Presbyterian aren’t in any church anymore. 

He tells of being with a group of young adults in Arlington, Texas, and asked them about mission. A young woman said, “The problem with ‘you people’ (church people) is that you seem to have no effect on the place in which God has planted you.”  Rodger said, “For her, an assessment of authenticity was what effect do you have on the neighborhood in which God has planted you.”

The young woman said, “We’ve got this church across the street from my condo complex. If the church disappeared, we’d open up our blinds and say ‘Cool, more parking.’ Nobody in our neighborhood would say, ‘Oh no, what happened to that church? How will we be a neighborhood without that church?’ They have no impact on us whatsoever. They drive in on Sundays and do their stuff and then they drive back out. Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually made a difference in the neighborhood?”

Jesus called us to be a “city on a hill.”

By “city,” Jesus meant the church, and by “hill,” he meant neighborhood. Jesus gave us the church to be a light to the neighborhood. Before mission can be global, it first must be local.

Every church must ask itself, “Do the young adults around us judge us to be authentic? Are we making the impact on the neighborhood we should?

Would we be missed if we disappeared?

Google “Rodger Nishioka – 21st Century Reformation.”

Peace

Last week Jana and I attended a forum on free speech at the Heinz History Center. The event was hosted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and included a panel discussion led by the paper’s executive editor. Panelists included the rabbi from the Tree of Life Synagogue, a local imam, a Duquesne University law professor, a Rand Corporation scholar, a Post-Gazette editorial writer, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General. A packed house of 600 guests experienced a powerful, wide-ranging discussion. What are the limits of free speech in the Internet age? When does hate speech become criminal? When does censure become censorship?

As we’d approached the history center that night, we met folks handing out flyers. My first thought was that they were greeters for the event. I recognized one of the Post-Gazette writers who’d done a critical piece on me and the church five years ago. I suggested he come by the church to see what was going on today. Maybe he could see that he’d been wrong about us.

I glanced at his flyer. He wasn’t there to greet. He was picketing.

Newspapers, like churches, have been in decline for decades now. Great institutions with vital missions, gone. And the human toll has been great. Jobs lost; families disrupted.

I could feel for this writer. The flyer said he hadn’t had a new contract or a raise in years. But what to do? Hundreds of print organizations have closed, downsized, or gone to on-line only. The Post-Gazette has been trying to transform to meet these new realities. 

I was struck by the irony of a reporter picketing a free speech event, one hosted by his own paper, no less.

And I realized that the writer was doing to his employer what he had done to me and the church in his critical piece years before. Instead of seeking a new way ahead, he was tearing down. Couldn’t he see how the world has changed?

Change is personal, so change makers get attacked personally.

The flyer said he was fighting for the “heart and soul” of a great paper. Really?

When we become too certain that our goals and our ways are right, we move toward conflict rather than peace. We stop listening to others, and to God.