First, repent

I’ve been pastor of this amazing church for ten years, a milestone that seems to call for reflection. What have I learned? What surprised me? What could I have done better?

Ten years ago, I thought that I might have something to offer in the way of experience that would be helpful to the church. Now it seems to me that my role is insignificant, at least compared to what God is doing here and has been doing here all along.

Both the joys and the challenges are greater than I imagined.

The church has transformed me far more than I’ve transformed the church.

The thing that surprised me the most? How hard it was to name a problem. You would think that you could identify a problem, fix it, and then move on. That doesn’t seem to apply in church. When I pointed out what I thought was a problem, people got hurt or mad. As our church secretary frequently said, “You expected this to be logical?”

I’m starting a sermon series on Nehemiah this week. Nehemiah was a long way from home; an exile in a foreign country; when he got word how bad things were back in Jerusalem. Instead of getting angry or depressed, Nehemiah prayed…and prayed.

And Nehemiah repented. Not just for his own sins, but for the sins of his ancestors and for the sins of the entire Jewish people.

I had no idea just how many jobs pastors do, especially city-center pastors. Now I think the job is to first repent, cast ourselves on the only One who can really fix things, and then work as hard as we can.


Back in my Air Force days I was once assigned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, in Brussels, Belgium, where I chaired a committee of senior officers from 15 nations. The committee met twice a year, once in Brussels and once in another capital. My job was to get the nations to share information and work together so our troops would be protected if we had to go to war.

People told me that international duty would be frustrating, that it would be hard to get nations to cooperate. But I found headquarters duty back home, like in the Pentagon, far worse. Back home there were more politics, and more people promoting themselves and their personal agendas.

The members of my committee were required to represent the country that sent them. The other nations not only expected it, they depended on it. How else would they know what each country would do in a crisis?

No one enjoyed having to take a stand that was unpopular with the other countries in the alliance, but often that was part of the job.

You had to do the will of the one who sent you.

In his last great prayer in John 17, Jesus said to God the Father, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” Jesus was talking about his disciples, but he was also talking about us. If you are a Christian, you are sent to represent Jesus Christ to the world. You’re sent by him. God’s mission, Jesus’ mission, is your mission. Sometimes (most of the time) you’ll be taking a stand that’s unpopular.

It’s easy to see that we live in a world in crisis. 

More than ever, our job is to represent the one who sent us.

Hillbillies and the crazy rich

The 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians is about a young Chinese-American professor in New York named Rachel, and her boyfriend Nick, who invites her home to meet his family. Nick is Chinese and his family lives in Singapore. What Rachel doesn’t know is that Nick’s family is unimaginably rich, making Nick the most eligible bachelor in all of Asia. The usual romantic comedy complications ensue, as nearly everyone in Asia tries to separate the couple. Every young woman is after Nick for his money. Nick’s mother says that Rachel, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant single mother in New York, is too common, too American, and therefore not worthy to become part of the family. 

I’m usually not the romantic comedy type, but I loved this movie. I kept wondering how Rachel and Nick could hang together, could be so unaffected, when wealth had made everyone around them crazy. Everyone, except Rachel and Nick, was operating out of a script for their lives, a script that had been determined before they were born by money and family circumstances.

It actually reminded me of J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy. How was it that Vance was able to break out of his family’s circumstances, the poverty and hopelessness which trap so many in Appalachia? For Vance, it was the costly love of his grandmother.

In Crazy Rich Asians, it was the costly love of Rachel’s mother who taught her to be resourceful and independent.

The truth is, crazy wealth and crushing poverty have a lot in common. Each comes with a set of circumstances that conspire to tell us who we are and what we can become. Both rich and poor can suffer hopelessness.

But what if there was someone who offered to rewrite the script of your life? 

Jesus Christ knows what he created us to be. The better we know him, the more resistant we become to being overwhelmed by wealth or crushed by poverty. 

His costly love teaches us who we really are.

What’s your life worth?

Gene Hambleton was a 53-year-old Air Force navigator when his EB-66 aircraft, call sign Bat 21, was hit by a surface-to-air missile over Vietnam on April 2, 1972. Five of the six crewmembers were killed. Hambleton ejected, but landed in an area occupied by 30,000 enemy troops.

The military, which has a tradition of never leaving a comrade behind, mounted a rescue. But rescue forces ran into the most intense enemy barrage anyone had ever seen. Over the next few days, 11 aircrew members died, two were taken prisoner, and multiple aircraft were lost or damaged. Finally, on the 12th day, Navy Seal Tommy Norris and a South Vietnamese commando named Nguyen Van Kiet, rescued Hambleton by infiltrating on the ground through enemy territory. Norris was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

It had been the largest operation to rescue a single servicemember in history.

After the war, Hambleton spoke to hundreds of groups about his experience. Books were written. A movie about the operation, Bat-21, much of it fictionalized, was released in 1988. I just finished a new book called Saving Bravo: The Greatest Rescue Mission in Navy Seal History. I couldn’t put it down.

In his speeches, Hambleton talked about the men who gave their lives to save him. But years later, as their remains started being repatriated, Hambleton couldn’t bring himself to attend their funerals. The question that kept haunting him was, “Am I worth eleven lives?”

In the middle of the greatest enemy offensive of the war, the US military essentially put the war on hold to rescue one man.

If someone died to save you, you’d owe that person everything, wouldn’t you? There would be nothing you wouldn’t do for their family for as long as you lived, right? As I read Saving Bravo, I kept thinking about the Gospel, God’s great rescue mission.

Do you ever think about what it cost Jesus to save you?

Are you worth his life?

He thought so.


The author of Hebrews wrote the famous line, “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”

The phrase “show hospitality to strangers” is the Greek word “philoxenia.” We’re much more familiar with the word “xenophobic,” a strongly negative word meaning dislike of strangers or foreigners. Philoxenia is an equally strong, positive word, meaning to love and care for strangers the way you would your own family.

In Greek, “philo” (where we get the word philadelphia) means family love; “xenos” means foreigner or stranger; and “phobic” means fear.

Why the Greek lesson?

I just read another article about why young people are abandoning the church, by the tens of millions.

It’s as if the church has become strangers with a couple generations of people in our own country. Young people who grew up in church have mostly lost interest. Of course they see the church as hypocritical or judgmental, but mostly they find the church irrelevant, either to them or to the world around them.

The answer may be philoxenia.

Young people need what the church has; they crave meaning and direction. Distracted parents put screens in kids’ hands before they could walk, and so many are starved for human connections. The churches have people with the wisdom and experience younger people need.

Instead of being Presbyterians, we need to be Philoxenians.

We need to embody the mandate of Hebrews 13:2. It’s not just up to deacons or greeters or the hospitality committee, it’s up to every one of us.

And by the way, young people care deeply about foreigners and refugees. When young people see us caring for what they care about, we address some of the fears and prejudices they have about us.   

Move it

Jana recently took her mother to an occupational therapist to help her address her circulation issues. The therapist said Jana’s mother’s theme song for the new year needs to be “I Like to Move It,” the catchy song from the movie Madagascar. My mother-in-law is like most of us: most of our health problems are due to our lifestyle choices.

We quit moving.

Churches have the same problem for the same reason: most of our health problems come because we quit moving.

Isaiah 42:5 is a beautiful image of the Lord stretching out the heavens and the earth, and then giving breath and spirit to those who walk the earth. God gave us an amazing creation, and the spirit to explore it.

We weren’t created just to sit still.

In 2010, mariner and artist Reid Stowe completed a voyage of 1,152 days. It was the longest anyone had ever spent at sea without being resupplied or setting foot on land. Reid said, “I’ve learned a lot about myself…I’ve learned that we as humans must explore. We must see and discover new things or we degenerate.”

I wonder if “Move It” ought to become the theme of the church.

Fire alarm

What do you do when you hear a fire alarm?

You head for the nearest exit, right? Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, but what do you really do?

Researchers have found that when a fire alarm rings, most people stand around and wait for more clues. In 1985, 56 people died when fire broke out in the stands in a soccer match in England. Video later showed that people continued to watch the game and the fire.

In 1977, fire broke out in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky. Forensic experts confirmed that many of the 177 who died had tried to pay before leaving. They died in a line.

I just finished reading The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, by psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. Grosz says that we experience change as loss, so even when we try to change, we often wind up following old habits. Committing to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation. This is why people won’t take an exit if they don’t know exactly where it will take them, even—or perhaps especially—in an emergency.

God is always opening new doors, but he rarely makes clear what awaits us on the other side. All we can be sure of is that God will be there.

It’s a new year. Don’t wait for the alarm to ring. Let God lead you into his better future.

God with us

I’ve married dozens of times.

Now, I’m still happily married to Jana, my lovely bride of 44 years. What I mean is that I’ve officiated at dozens of weddings.

As a minister, I get to stand at the end of a long church aisle as the bride enters, overflowing with love and excitement and promise. Every bride is stunningly beautiful; as close to perfection as it gets in this life.

I glance to my left, at the groom who’s about to lose it. He’s overflowing too, trembling, tears in his eyes. Most men only get to see this once, but since officiating at weddings is in my job description, I get to see it again and again. It never gets old.

This is the image the Bible gives us for what our ultimate future will be like.

Most people are stuck with an image of heaven as some kind of disembodied existence, where we wear white robes and float on clouds. But the Bible’s image is of a city, as beautiful as any bride, coming down out of heaven to be joined to earth. This means that in our ultimate future, we will somehow be more real than we are now.

And heaven is here, not on some cloud.

How will this be? Revelation 21:4 says that “God has come to dwell with humans.” When Jesus comes again to live with us once and for all, all those parts of us that were damaged in the fall, when the first husband and wife sinned, will be restored. Imagine the beauty and joy and perfection of a bride and groom, but multiplied by ten or a hundred or a thousand or more. That will be us, all of us.

That’s the promise of God with us.


For ten years, our church has partnered with Youth for Christ, a national para-church ministry, to operate The Cellar, an after-school ministry of presence for high school kids downtown. The Cellar is known among students, school administrators, and civic leaders as a safe place for kids to hang out after school. The Cellar is led by April Gratton, our mission partner from Youth for Christ, and Katie Peffer, our Minister of Youth and Families. Two weeks ago, April and Katie took five students on a weekend retreat to our church’s camp in the Laurel Highlands. It was the first time the students had been to the woods, the first time they’d been to a Christian camp, the first time they’d climbed a rock wall, and the first time they’d heard the story of the Gospel.

April and Katie came back from the weekend overjoyed. The students all said that the story April and Katie had shared with them was “valid.”

If you’re disappointed that all five students did not “give their lives to Jesus Christ,” consider the world these girls were raised in. They’re unchurched kids of unchurched parents. They were brought up in a culture which preaches that the highest good is what makes you feel good right now. And they were taught that all belief systems and life experiences are equally valid.

Which happened to be the opening that April and Katie needed.

April and Katie had built a trusting relationship over a long time, which allowed them to share their own Christ-centered life experiences. If “all life experiences are equally valid,” then that must include the experiences of April and Katie, right?

Everywhere, congregations are aging because young people are dropping out. The majority of children of long-time church attenders are dropping out. The implications for the church are enormous.

The church of the future may look a lot more like the church of the first century. The early church did not grow through programs or mass conversions. It grew through personal relationships. It grew because lives transformed by the Gospel are attractive.

The church of the future may look a lot more like what happens weekday afternoons in our church basement, or what happened between April and Katie and those five high school kids.

Lives transformed by the Gospel are attractive.

And valid.

PS. If you are concerned about young people abandoning the faith, here’s a suggestion. Lead a valid life and build an unconditional relationship with a young person.

Hint. April and Katie need volunteers.


This week I received a thoughtful email with the subject “Your Impact” from a Sunday visitor. He said, “All of God’s children need witness and assistance, not just those lying on grates or in cardboard boxes under bridges…but I feel encouraged by your messages to devote more time to helping people in need.”

Our visitor was absolutely right. What people most need, whether or not they find Pittsburgh “livable,” is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A man had come to me after church that Sunday with tears in his eyes. He’d been staying in the cold weather shelter downtown and said that someone who he’d befriended had threatened him. He came in the church (his first time here) to feel safe, and fell asleep. He woke up during the service, and as he heard the message, memories of his grandmother taking him to church as a boy started flooding back. He remembered the faith she’d passed on to him, and what church was all about.

What is wrong with the world is not something government is going to solve. It will be the church of Jesus Christ.