When helping hurts

I’m leading a study of the book When Helping Hurts. It’s a powerful read. It challenges us to reconsider the effectiveness of just giving money and things to the poor, or just telling them to “get a job.”

Authors Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett say the problem started with the fall. At the fall, our relationship with God was damaged, but so was our relationship with the rest of creation, with others, and with ourselves—our self-image. They say that helping the poor is ultimately about restoring relationships between God, creation, others, and ourselves. Everyone has gifts they were meant to use to bless others and help themselves.

Fikkert and Corbett tell of a church which operated a monthly food pantry. Guests were required to listen to a devotional, led by someone they didn’t know, before they could get their food. But then the church changed its approach. Instead of talking at their guests, they broke into small groups which were a mix of church members and guests. The small groups used an approach called “Appreciative Inquiry,” to discover the gifts and abilities of their guests. Instead of trying the “fix” their guests, they built relationships. Church members soon discovered their own poverty of spirit, and how much they needed the guests to help overcome it. Community started to grow. Members started picking up guests and bringing them to church, and began working with them on things like budgeting and finding jobs.

Best of all, they began enjoying one another as friends.

One lady said, “I no longer feel like I’m just a number in the crowd. Now I have a face.” Another asked, “Even if I don’t need groceries, can I still come?”

Guests starting regularly serving as volunteers and were delighted to do so. They said what set this food pantry apart was that they were treated with respect. They said it was as if the church actually enjoyed them.

Just sex?

A famous Hollywood producer is exposed for inappropriate behavior, leading to an avalanche of accusers coming forward.

A local police chief is caught soliciting an underage girl in a sting operation.

A high school teacher is jailed after violating the terms of her parole after being convicted for having a relationship with an underage student.

The wife of a prominent official falsely accuses her husband’s chief of staff of inappropriate advances, sending him to prison.

These stories sound like the news from the last few months. Every story is about sexual desire gone wrong. Every situation involves a person in a position of power using that position to attempt to satisfy an unhealthy desire. But the last one is actually the ancient story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph from Genesis 39.

What’s going on?

The idea that a Bible story, thousands of years old, could be so relevant to what’s happening today ought to give us a clue. As great as it is that victims are now finding the courage to come forward, the real problem will take more than a momentary catharsis to overcome.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to try to address the deeper issues in our preaching. The answers don’t lend themselves to a blog entry, but I think the issue is something like this: We buy into the lie that “sex is just sex;” an appetite like any other to be satisfied. It’s not. Sex is actually a gift from God that leads a husband and wife into an intimate relationship, one that points to the relationship between human beings and God.

When we make sex an end in itself, it’s not a great leap to justify doing awful things to get what we want.

The whole story

In the book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey tells about a Jesuit missionary who went to China in the sixteenth century. He took samples of religious art to illustrate the story of Jesus. He discovered that the Chinese loved the pictures of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but were horrified by pictures of the crucifixion. They insisted on worshiping the Virgin Mary rather than the crucified Jesus.

Yancey says we do pretty much the same thing. Go through any stack of Christmas cards, and even the Christian-themed cards have been purged of any reminder of how the story that began in Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.

When Jesus was eight days old, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised. They met a man named Simeon who told them wonderful things about what Jesus was to become. Then he told Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many…. The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Over and over throughout his ministry, Jesus said the same things.

Imagine for a moment that you’re Mary. You followed your Son’s life and ministry with the interest that only a mother has. You saw how he revealed people’s hearts. You saw how the light came on as people believed, and then you saw the rejection and the trial.

And then you saw him hanging on the cross.

I wonder. As Mary stood helplessly in front of her son on the cross, did she think back to that day in the temple 33 years before? Did she think, “I always wondered what Simeon meant. This has got to be it. This is a sword through my soul. A sword through my body would be preferable to this.”

And so, Simeon’s warning has to be part of the Christmas story. We can’t just settle for the baby Jesus.

Jesus stepped into our world, knowing that he would divide people.

He knew that when he revealed their hearts, most would reject him, yet he willingly went to the cross for them.

He was pierced so that we could be healed.


Lauren’s toffee

Last week, a plain Tupperware container appeared in the office. The container’s appearance belied the unexpected delight to be found inside: an incredible combination of toffee, chocolate, and almonds. Melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. Everyone was raving about it. But who had shared such an incredible delight?

This was Lauren’s chocolate almond toffee.

Lauren politely accepted our thanks, but let everyone know that the batch was a failure. Something about the chocolate layer wasn’t right.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

It caused me to think about famous things that people use every day. Penicillin, pacemakers, and Post-It notes all started out as someone’s mistake. This wasn’t what those things were supposed to be.

And that made me think about the way God came at Christmas. God incarnate wrapped in swaddling clothes? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Had God made a mistake? What good could come out of this?

Lauren says she has no plans to quit her job and go into the toffee business, but if she did, I would buy stock in that company. Love and delight go into everything she does, even her “mistakes.”

Receiving God’s gift of the incarnation is a bit like trying Lauren’s toffee. You just need to set aside expectations, and let the love and delight sink in.


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.”