Giving thanks

Twenty years ago, I realized it was about time that I quit making excuses for not being involved in church. I told myself that if anyone asked me to volunteer, I would say “yes.” (Notice that I didn’t start out by actually volunteering for anything.) I told our family we were going to give thanks at every meal, and we would no longer skip church.

Not exactly a great commitment.

But then one thing led to another. I said “yes” to teaching adult bible study; “yes” to being a deacon; and “yes” to being a guest preacher. Then Jana became a certified Christian Educator. Both our sons became serious about their faith; today one is a minister and the other is in seminary. I’ve been a minister now for over ten years.

Giving thanks was life changing.

Most of us had parents who taught us to say, “thank you” when someone did something nice for us. But the Christian faith teaches us to give thanks in all things.

Jesus gave thanks at his Last Supper, knowing he was about to be betrayed. But was only through Jesus’ betrayal and death that the world received the ultimate blessing of resurrection life.

Most polite people know to give thanks after some blessing comes into their life.

But for a follower of Jesus Christ, giving thanks precedes the blessing.

Giving thanks gives us an awareness of the blessings all around us. This Sunday, I’m starting a sermon series on gratitude inspired by Ann Voskamp’s powerful little book, One Thousand Gifts. Starting on September 8th, I’ll be doing a five-week study of the book during the Sunday school hour. Voskamp, a farmer’s wife in Canada, worked through personal tragedies to be able to see God’s blessings in all parts of life. I invite you to join me.

Idol worship

“God created man in his image,” the saying goes, “and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”

I’m not sure who said it; I’ve seen it attributed to Mark Twain, Voltaire, and others. But whoever said it, it rings true. It seems the one, true God isn’t enough for us, so we create more.

Or we elevate ourselves to the position.

This week I saw on the news that a newly elected councilwoman in Missouri had taken the oath of office on a Dr. Seuss book. And she read this: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

Look, I like the book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go. We gave it to our kids. I quoted it when I was a colonel in the Air Force speaking to new graduates of Air Force Honor Guard training. It’s fun, and speaks to the opportunities that many people are blessed with in a free country.

But swearing by it?

Can we really steer ourselves any way we choose?

And if we could, would we go in the right direction?

And what happens when we can’t? What happens if we fail? Get lost?

The freedom to steer ourselves is a great thing, but swearing by it takes a great thing and turns it into an ultimate thing.

That’s what an idol is, by the way; a great thing that we make into an ultimate thing.

And when we are the idol, when our god looks mostly like us, we’re in for a letdown. Could we just let God be God?

So with apologies to Dr. Suess…

With God in your heart, you’ll make a great start.

With God’s Spirit to guide you, you’ll know Christ is inside you.

And up hills and down, through thick and through thin,

No matter what happens, God will make you like Him. 

Meeting us in the madness

Pittsburgh was on edge last week, the result of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, when a man walked up to a woman, stabbed and killed her while she sat at a bus stop. That bus stop is about 150 feet from my study.

In that very moment, a police officer had been checking on the woman, who seemed to be asleep.

The assailant had to reach around the officer to hurt her.

He then stabbed another passer-by before the officer could stop him, without a fight.

The woman who died was known to the downtown churches who had been ministering to her.

She was totally unknown to her assailant.

Mass shootings always set off the debate about gun control. We process our helplessness by raging against politicians we don’t like. We imagine that we can create policies that will stop the madness.

But what policy, what law, could have stopped the madness out on the street here last week?

Late in his career as an evangelist, the Apostle Paul found that God’s Spirit had so filled his work that handkerchiefs and sweat rags that Paul had touched had healing properties. A travelling band of exorcists took note of this power and tried to invoke it. “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches,” they would say.

The thought of travelling exorcists invoking the name of Jesus for profit is bizarre. What kind of dark humor is this? Why does the Bible give us this image at the climax of Paul’s ministry? I’m not sure, but I do know I feel helpless sometimes. I call out to Jesus, and the call seems so weak, so imperfect, I almost sympathize with the exorcists.

That’s why Jesus had to come, to step into the madness, to do what only he could do.

Come, Lord Jesus. Give us courage as we serve on these streets in your name.

Taking losses home

The Pirates are in a slump. Last night Manager Clint Hurdle was asked if he “took the losses home with him.” Hurdle said no, or at least, not nearly as much as he used to. He said he had a wife and kids at home who needed him to be present for them. When he got to the ballpark in the morning, it was “game on,” but he always remembered his family at home.

Clint Hurdle is a committed Christian who credits faith with not only turning his life around, but saving it from alcoholism. Like many of us, Hurdle works in a profession that can be all consuming. If you don’t drive yourself to distraction (or worse), others will. The commentators on the sports talk show this morning were questioning Hurdle’s commitment to winning.

But the Christian faith has a lot to teach us about this. Jesus was a guest in the home of his friends Martha and Mary. Mary was doing what disciples do; she sat at Jesus’ feet to learn. This irritated Martha, who demanded that Jesus tell Mary to help in the kitchen.

Now, disciples do need to sit at Jesus feet. And it is important to show hospitality to a guest. Jesus talked about serving others all the time. One of the last things he did was host his own disciples for a meal.

Martha’s problem was not in the overwork, but in expecting Jesus to ratify her agenda for how her life was supposed to go. We can get so distracted by what we’re doing, we think the busyness is the point. Martha didn’t know it, but Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to die. She would never get to be with the Lord in such a personal way again.

So how do we know what to do in the moment?

There’s no rule to tell you how to handle every situation, but the more you assume the posture of a disciple, at the feet of the master, the more likely you are to get it right.

Come and see

I’ve been at our church’s camp this week, and some of the counselors have been sharing the ways they’ve been blessed by campers, and how they have been a blessing in return.

One counselor told me how he had his kids each make a paper heart that said, “I love you,” and then give them to someone else. One young camper refused to take part. He’d made a heart, but had written the words “I don’t love” on it. The counselor knew the back story behind the hurt, and was determined to show the child the love of Jesus Christ. But how?

Just then, a girl came up and gave her paper heart to the boy. He held it up proudly. He kept it with him the rest of the week; put it under his pillow when he slept. It turned out to be the just the opening the counselor was praying for.

The Gospel of John says that Jesus recruited his disciples in a seemingly random, serendipitous way. “Come and see,” he told some men who happened to be walking behind him.

I wonder why we make things in the church so hard. We worry what we’ll say to non-Christians, when what is most needed is a heart for love. We think in terms of programs, when paper hearts will do. Could church be as simple as, say, hanging out with a hurting child?

Come and see.

Masters of our fate

One of my first pastoral calls as a new minister was on an older gentleman who was in recovery after major surgery. Like many of the Greatest Generation, he ‘had never been sick a day in my life.” He volunteered that he had always lived by the poem Invictus, with its famous words, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

This puzzled me, because in that moment, he was hooked up to all kinds of machines, some pumping liquids into him, and some pumping them out. For the hour or so I was with him, he wasn’t even master of his bed pan.

Reciting Invictus is a way for us to maintain the illusion that we really are the master of our fate. Living in a country with so much freedom and wealth contributes to the illusion for many. If you go through life healthy, from one success to the next, there may be nothing to challenge the illusion.

But for most, there eventually comes a time when you’re flat on your back. The loss of control can seem worse than the crisis itself.

But there’s good news.

The Apostle Paul said that God was pleased to have “all his fullness dwell in Jesus Christ,” so that “in everything, he might have the supremacy.”

When we finally admit that we’re not masters of our fate, that’s when Jesus Christ can step in and do some of his best work.

God never meant for us to be the captain of our soul. That’s why he sent us his Son. 

Enough police?

Harvard Business School professor Clay Christenson tells of having a conversation with a Marxist economist from China as the man was finishing his time as a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard. Christenson asked him what had surprised him about his time studying in the US. Without hesitation, the man said, “I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy. The reason why democracy works is not because the government was designed to oversee what everyone does. Rather, democracy works because most of the people, most of the time, voluntarily choose to obey the law.”

The US was the first nation in history formed on the idea that people could govern themselves. On Independence Day, it’s good to remember how radical an idea that is. What made the founders think that self-government might work? 

Faith.

The founders understood that the Christian faith had created a shared sense of personal and public responsibility among the people of the colonies. They understood they could never pass enough laws to get people to act responsibly. Rather, people had to act on their own out of a shared sense of the greater good.

In his short book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas summarizes the career of preacher George Whitefield, the most important founding father you’ve never heard of. The short, cross-eyed Whitefield was the first truly international celebrity. His commanding sermons made the wealthy and the worker weep. When Whitefield died in 1750, an incredible 80 percent of the people in the colonies had heard him in person. Like no one before, Whitefield proclaimed the Gospel directly to the people, showing how all people, rich and poor alike, were sinners, but sinners beloved by God.

Whitefield had created the shared understanding of public virtue that made democracy possible.

So how does a democracy function without this shared understanding?

As Christenson concludes, “If you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”

Heart Music

Every now and then, a song I haven’t heard in decades comes on the radio. Almost automatically, I find myself singing along with every word. How is this possible, when most of the time, I can’t tell you what I had for dinner the night before?

More than a hundred years ago, my grandfather was an orchestra leader on a showboat on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He fell in love and married the lead singer, who became my grandmother. When my parents, aunts, and uncles got together, they loved nothing more than to sing around the piano. Singing together was how they expressed their love for each other.

Twenty years ago, I attended an Air Force Band concert in San Antonio where the band performed for the Texas Bandmasters Association. Since they were playing for music professionals, teachers and conductors, the band premiered an original work called “Dreamcatcher.” It was well-performed and well-received.

But when the chorus joined the band in “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” the place erupted. Those Texas music professionals had played or heard that song a thousand times, but there they were, on their feet, cheering, laughing, and crying. 

It was their heart music, played like they’d never heard before.

Music has that kind of power.

God gave us music as the means to express the deepest longings of our hearts. And when we experience sacred music, especially sacred music done well, we get the sense that there is a reality beyond this world that we were created for.

Handling Rejection

Jesus gave his followers an expansive mission: Go to every people group, make disciples, and bring them into the church.

In a preview of this worldwide mission, Jesus sent out his disciples to the people of Israel. For the first time, the twelve were called apostles, or “sent ones.” It was the first time they’d be going out without him, so he gave them detailed instructions. He was sure they would encounter rejection, so he told them how to handle that too. When people are receptive to you, bless them, and peace will rest on them. If they’re not receptive, go to someone who is.

And your peace will come back to you.

Sounds strange, doesn’t it? We say things like “Bless you” or “Peace to you,” but when we say those things on his behalf, we’re doing more than being polite.  When we speak the good news of Jesus Christ, we actually convey peace. Peace literally rests on those willing to receive it.

And if our message is rejected, that peace comes right back to us.

What’s even more amazing is that Jesus says this is “your” peace, not just his.

We’ve been imbued with supernatural power.

Jesus was rejected all the time, so there’s no reason to expect we’ll be treated any better. And so, Jesus has let us know it’s OK, move on.

He’s chosen us to bring in his kingdom.

Offhand remark

Back when I was a young staff officer in the Pentagon, there was a saying that, “A general’s offhand remark often turns into a captain’s weekend project.” More than once, I experienced something like that, and I wished the project only lasted for a weekend. 

The Bible has a story that sounds, at first reading, a lot like that. King David was leading the Israelite army in battle, and he made an offhand remark: “Oh that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!” Three of David’s best soldiers overheard. On their own, they fought through enemy lines, got some water from that well, and brought it back to David.

What would David do?

Would he drink the water? That’s what his men intended.

Would he let them drink first? That’s what a good commander would do?

Would he reprimand them for risking their lives, and maybe even the entire operation, for such a foolish stunt?

None of the above. David poured out the water as an offering to God.

I used to think this was a story about David. I would try to imagine what type of commander would inspire such loyalty among his men.

But this isn’t about David. It’s about David’s God. As great a king as David was, David was there to point us to the true and best King, Jesus Christ, who fought through enemy lines, and then poured himself out as an offering for us.