The Palm Sunday route

Three times in my life I’ve had the joy of walking the traditional Palm Sunday route in Jerusalem, down the Mount of Olives to the Kidron Valley below. Across the valley is the Temple Mount. The temple is no longer there, of course, destroyed in the first century. But the view is still spectacular. You can’t help but be filled with wonder as you imagine what it was like to be in the crowd on the first Palm Sunday.

That day, Jesus was a master of event planning. He orchestrated every detail for maximum effect. He knew that by accepting the crowd’s adoration he was implicitly accepting the title of conquering king. He knew this would force the hand of the religious leaders. They would have to make him king or kill him.

Like he had done many time before, Jesus sent the disciples ahead of him to the places he planned to go. He told them to procure a little colt which didn’t belong to them, and which had never been ridden, and bring it back to him.

His instructions didn’t make sense, yet the disciples obeyed.

This Sunday, we’ll celebrate and wave palm fronds and reenact the triumphal entry, just like some of us have done since we were kids. Yet this isn’t just child’s play. Jesus has called us to be part of his great drama of redemption and transformation.

Walking the Palm Sunday route with Jesus is still a joy, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Sometimes the instructions don’t make sense. Making him king is still a life or death decision. The crowds who cheer you one day may turn on you the next.

Yet Jesus promised to never leave you or forsake you. He still only sends you where he plans to go.

Calculating the odds

One of my favorite Bible stories is in 1st Samuel 14. The Israelites were surrounded by the dreaded Philistines. The Philistines were technologically advanced, while the Israelites had a total of two swords, one belonging to King Saul and the other to his son Jonathan. Saul was paralyzed with fear, but Jonathan came up with an audacious plan: Jonathan said to the young man bearing his armor, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.”

Perhaps the Lord will act?”

Jonathan’s plan was to expose himself and his armor bearer to the enemy. Then, the two of them would climb a steep hill, hand-over-hand, up to the enemy position. Remember, they only had one sword between them, but even that didn’t matter, because they needed both hands just to climb. Unless God fought for them, it was suicide.

If you were the armor bearer, wouldn’t you rather have better odds than “perhaps?” Nevertheless, he told Jonathan, “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

I don’t know who I admire more, Jonathan, who took the initiative, or the armor bearer who stayed by his side. The odds didn’t matter to them as long as they were fighting for God. The bold plan paid off. The attack threw the entire enemy army into confusion, and Israel was saved.

Most of us say to God, “I’ll follow you if you can prove to me this is going to work.” When the odds seem against us, we’re paralyzed.

Not these guys.

Unless you follow God unconditionally; unless you move forward in faith despite the odds, you’ll never experience the power of God to save you.

Grunts and groans

Watching my wife and her brother care for their dad in the last year of his life made me realize just how much we need God’s love, and how helpless we are to save ourselves. Jana’s dad had owned his own business. There was nothing he couldn’t fix. His faith led him to serve on mission trips around the world. Yet eventually, he could no longer help others or himself.

We live in a culture which celebrates and rewards the ability to get things done. Yet I’m convinced that “getting things done” often separates us from God. One person who realized this was Henri Nouwen, a priest, theologian, and bestselling author who taught at Ivy League schools. He was in demand around the world as a conference speaker.

Nouwen spent the last ten years of his life living in a community for the mentally disabled. He lived in a small room with a single bed, a bookshelf, and few pieces of furniture. The people he lived with didn’t know he was world famous. They couldn’t even read his books. He spent two hours every day helping a young man named Adam who was profoundly disabled, bathing and shaving him and guiding his hand as he tried to eat. Adam could only grunt and groan.

People would ask Nouwen if this was the best use of his time. Couldn’t someone else do these things, and allow Henri to do what world theologians are supposed to do? Nouwen would say, “I am not giving up anything. It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Today, mental illness is in the news nearly every day. At any moment, one in five people experience mental health issues. Over the course of our lives, 45% will experience mental illness. Being a city-center church, many people who are seriously hurting come to us.

My wife loved her dad, even when he could no longer do for her or himself or others. In the same way, we’re called to love those who can’t respond in a way that we’d prefer.

Henri Nouwen came to love Adam. In the process he learned what it must be like for God to love us—spiritually uncoordinated, able to respond only with what must seem to God like grunts and groans.

Worth the wait

First-year cadets at the service academies are expected to know the number of days until graduation for themselves and the three classes ahead of them. They’re expected to recite this information anytime an upperclassman asks.

I’m not sure of the military necessity for this, but future leaders do need to learn attention to detail. They must also learn to never give up, even when something takes a long time and is very hard.

As much as I hate to wait (a lot), I admit that very few of the important things in life came to me overnight, or easily. I am willing to wait if I think what I’m waiting for is worth it.

It took 1443 days for the Air Force to make me into a 2nd lieutenant, and about 7000 more to make me into a colonel. You can go online and buy officer insignia, but without all those days, and all the things that happen in them, the insignia won’t tell the truth of who you are.

It’s the same when it comes waiting on God. Most of us would rather not. But if we let him, God will make us into the persons he created us to be. How long that will take, we will never know.

But we can be sure it will be worth the wait.

Humble visitor

Thirty-three years ago, a young man from China visited the small farm town of Muscatine, Iowa on an agricultural research trip. He stayed with Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak, a farm family whose sons had gone off to college. He slept in the boys’ room, still filled with the memories of childhood. Eleanor said he didn’t complain. “Everything, no matter what, was very acceptable to him. He was humble.”

Four years ago, that same man, no longer young, came back to see his old friends. This time he came with an entourage. The man was Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president, and on his way to being president of the most populous nation on the planet.

Chinese officials explained that Mr. Xi wanted to relive a pleasant experience from his past and reconnect with old friends. Some thought it might be propaganda for the Chinese government at a time when tensions between the US and China were high. But no one in Muscatine cared. The New York Times said, “What was in 1985 just ordinary Iowa niceness came boomeranging back.”

This week in our church, we renew our relationship with PRISM, Pittsburgh Region International Student Ministries. Pittsburgh is host to thousands of international students, many of them the best and brightest from their respective countries. PRISM wants to welcome them all and share with them the love of Jesus Christ. We have the opportunity to be part of it. It’s not only rewarding and fun, but it’s got to be one of the most effective types of mission there is.

What if our international guests went home with more than happy memories of their time in Pittsburgh. What if they went home as ambassadors for Jesus Christ?

There is a God. I’m not him.

The movie Rudy is about a young man who does everything in his power to be accepted into Notre Dame. He tries for years but is turned down time after time. Desperate, Rudy goes to church to see his mentor, Father Cavanaugh.

Father Cavanaugh says, “You did a helluva job, kid, chasing down your dream.” Rudy replies, “I don’t care what kind of a job I did. If it doesn’t produce results, it doesn’t mean anything. Father Cavanaugh replies, “I think you’ll discover that it will.”

Rudy said, “Maybe I haven’t prayed enough.”

The priest replied, “I’m sure that’s not the problem. Praying is something we do in our time. The answers come in God’s time.”

“Have I done everything I possibly can?” Rudy pleads. “Can you help me?”

Father Cavanaugh replies, “In 35 years of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two incontrovertible facts. There is a God, and I’m not him.”

For Lent I’m preaching through the short Old Testament prophecy of Habakkuk. Habakkuk is often overlooked, and I think I know why. We expect God to answer our prayers in our time and in a way that makes sense to us. Habakkuk saw violence and injustice all around. The “system” was broken from the top down.

Habakkuk discovered that answers come in God’s time.

If we could have a conversation with God, like Habakkuk did, we would ask the same questions he asks.

The first part of Habakkuk’s prophecy asks us, “If God never answers in our time, or in way that never makes sense to us, is it possible for us to be OK? Is it possible to be OK just knowing that God is God?”

Repent? Who, me?

A school district took away jump ropes. Kids could still jump rope, but without the rope. It seems that jumping rope was hard for some kids. Failing might damage their self-esteem.

For two decades, psychotherapy has been in decline, despite research that it really works to promote patients’ mental health. The reasons for the decline are complex, such as the increased use of medications, but here’s the thing: psychotherapy involves long, hard work facing our own issues. Most people blame others for their problems. Psychotherapists used to see patients who were unhappy and wanted to understand themselves. Now, more patients want someone else to change. Fewer people say, “I want to change myself.”

It would seem that Ash Wednesday and repentance are out of touch with the times. That’s too bad, because repentance allows you to face the evil that you’ve done without the guilt crushing you.

The classic case study in repentance is the parable of the prodigal son. A young son took his share of his father’s wealth, left home, and squandered his wealth in wild living. When his life had fallen totally apart, he resolved to go home and work his way back into his father’s good graces. That was the first part of repentance—turning from his old way of life and heading home.

While the son was still a long way off, his father ran to him and kissed him. Instead of giving him the punishment he deserved, he welcomed him back as his son. When the son experienced the radical love of his father, he fully repented. In that moment he had access to all the father’s love and riches.

Repentance is like a key which unlocks our own hearts and allows the love of the father to flow into us. True repentance isn’t about feeling guilty for what we’ve done; just the opposite. True repentance is about joy.

The father, who represents God in the parable, didn’t give his son what he deserved.  He transferred the son’s guilt and humiliation to himself. Real repentance is turning away from an old way of life and accepting God’s love.

Supernatural experience

This week is Transfiguration Sunday. Pastor Dan will be reflecting on an unusual event where Jesus led his inner circle of disciples up a mountain. There his glory was revealed in a supernatural way.

What constitutes a “supernatural” experience, anyway?

In my last assignment in the Air Force, I chaired the Leadership and Ethics Department at the Air War College, a school for senior military officers. One evening, Jana and I were hosting a dinner party for our department. Our guest was Otto Kroeger, a nationally-known expert on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The MBTI is a popular personality assessment tool. For 15 years, Otto had lectured at the War College helping senior leaders better understand themselves, their families, and each other.

Otto told me that I should become a pastor when I retired from the Air Force. I was shocked. It was the first time anyone had suggested that. I’d always assumed that pastors had to have some kind of “supernatural,” “burning bush,” experience.

In my case, Otto knew my personality “type.” I’d spent a week at his school learning about the MBTI. A lot of ministers have a similar type.


Two years later, I started seminary.

Most pastors I know haven’t had a “supernatural” experience that led them to ministry, though some have. God leads some through a yearning they can’t ignore. For others, one career door closes and another opens.

The truth is, all of life is “supernatural.” God upholds everything, everywhere, every minute. God is at work in you and me right now.

But we don’t spend enough time in the scriptures, in prayer, or in church.

We’re not attuned to the “supernatural.”

Soul satisfying joy

One of the women who testified at the sentencing hearing of Larry Nassar, the US Women’s Gymnastics team doctor who abused dozens of young women, was former gymnast Rachel Denhollander. She was the first to bring the abuses to light, and her courage inspired others to come forward.

But in the midst of sharing her horrific story, Rachel shared her faith: Because God exists, there is right and wrong. Because God is just, we can recognize evil and stand against it.

Then Rachel said this to Nassar: “I have experienced the soul satisfying joy of a marriage built on sacrificial love and safety and tenderness and care. I have experienced true intimacy in its deepest joys, and it is beautiful and sacred and glorious. And that is a joy you have cut yourself off from, and I pity you for it.”

Amid the darkness of abuse and fear and pain, there is still light. There is a God of love, who is love, who made us for love; to love each other and to love him. And not just love. God created us to experience deep, soul-satisfying joy, tenderness, and care. And yes, even glory and ecstasy.

In the creation story, God put the man to sleep, pulled out a rib, and fashioned the woman. The woman was created from the man, but the man wasn’t complete until the woman was complete.

Do you see? God designed us to experience his love, joy, tenderness, care, ecstasy, and even his glory, through each other.

Love isn’t all you need

It’s been just over 50 years since the Beatles released their hit song, “All You Need is Love.” Countless movies, shows, and songs share the same theme: there’s someone out there who’s “just right” for you. All you need to do is find that person, fall head-over-heels in love, and you’ll live happily ever after.

Writers and filmmakers understand the power that this idea has over us. We’ve all bought into the idea that there is someone out there who’s just right for me, and if I have him or her, my problems will be over, and I’ll have everything.

The movies work because we’ve bought into the myth.

This theme also runs through Genesis 29. Jacob was on the run from his brother in a foreign land. God’s whole plan to redeem the world through his chosen people seemed to be in jeopardy. Jacob throws himself on the mercy of his Uncle Laban, who has no way of paying him. But, Laban does have two daughters. The younger one, Rachel, is beautiful. The older one, Leah, no one wants.

Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years if Rachel can be his wife. It was an outrageous price for a bride. But Jacob was so infatuated with Rachel that he would have done anything to get what he wanted.

Underneath Jacob’s infatuation is the brokenness of all his relationships. His father didn’t love him; his brother looked down on him; and his mother had helped him deceive his father. Now he had no one. So, when he saw Rachel, the “woman of his dreams,” he figured all his problems were solved.

But beneath all this brokenness was a broken relationship with God.

There was no Hollywood ending to this story, but God was at work, and God redeemed the mess Jacob had made of his life.

If you are feeling unloved, remember. Jesus saw the beauty in you. Jesus chose you. He said, if I have her, if I have him, I’ll have everything.