Sunday, December 2, 2018

Keep Christmas Real

Last month our church  youth group took part in “Alive Pittsburgh,” an outreach to homeless people held on the North Side.  Hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of guests spent the day together, meeting each other and enjoying the festivities.  The event included clothing give-aways, competitions and prizes, vision and hearing testing, haircuts, music, and food.  Our group was assigned to the prayer team, which meant that we got to spend time talking with the guests, getting to know them, hearing their stories, and offering to pray with them.

Of the dozens of people that my partner and I got to know, one couple touched me more deeply than the others.  I would guess that they are in their mid to late twenties, and if I had met them anywhere else I wouldn’t have had a clue that they are homeless.  They are living in a tent in a homeless camp in the city.  When I asked if there was something they’d like to pray about, they told me that they are expecting a baby.  We prayed for the baby and mother’s health, a safe delivery, and that they would find a place to live before the baby was born.  I couldn’t tell underneath her heavy winter coat how far along the woman was in her pregnancy, but the odds are that the baby will arrive long before the return of warm sunny weather.

As I reflected later upon my encounter with this couple, soon to become a family, I realized that the Christmas story isn’t so warm and fuzzy after all.  Mary and Joseph were much like the couple I got to know: worried about finding a safe and warm place for their child to come into the world.  The reality of Christ’s birth was much harsher than what is portrayed in the nativity scenes we’ll enjoy this month, complete with stables, friendly animals, adoring angels and worshiping shepherds. 

When we sanitize the Christmas story and convert it into heartwarming tale, we miss the entire point.  Jesus did not come to mingle with the satisfied, with those who will give and receive frivolous and extravagant gifts, with those who will gain ten pounds in December because of all the good cooking.  Jesus came to share life with parents giving birth in the cold, with families driven from their homes out of desperation or violence, with those whom everyone else ignores or reviles.

And when Jesus comes into our hearts, he turns them toward the “least of these,” as he called the suffering and abused people of the world in one of his parables (Matthew 25:31-46).  As we are transformed more and more into the image of our Lord, we are drawn more closely to those whose lives he came to share: those whom the world would rather throw away than acknowledge.

As we seek the coming of Christ during this Advent, may we care more about homeless parents than Christmas carols, more about refugees than tinsel and lights, more about the mistreated than a new pair of fuzzy slippers.

"The Nativity," by Gari Melchers
in my opinion, the most realistic depiction of Christ's birth:
an exhausted mother and a worried father

[PS: If you want to make a difference for the homeless in Pittsburgh, such as the couple I met, I encourage you to connect with LIVING Ministry.]

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Proposal to Reduce Hateful Speech

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, “Hateful words spawn hateful deeds and violence….  The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill on Saturday proved that we cannot afford this kind of talk anymore.  It is too dangerous, it has real-world consequences, and it literally kills people.”

I see a great deal of hateful speech on Facebook and other platforms for communication, much of it motivated by politics.  I suggest the following strategy for us all to confront and challenge hate.

From my time in Ghana, I’ve come to appreciate how Christians and Muslims work and live together with mutual respect and care.  In the days after 9-11, some Islamic extremists tried to incite hatred against Christians in Ghana.  The Christians did not have to respond or react to it all, because the Muslim leaders immediately and strongly condemned the hatred that these extremists displayed.  May we follow their example in our political disputes.

It’s natural for us to condemn hateful speech coming from the other side of the political divide.  Doing so, however, only fans the flames of anger and division.  Instead, let’s police the extremist language coming from our own political tribe.  Conservatives, call out the hateful rhetoric of the alt-right and other right-wing extremists.  Progressives and liberals, oppose dangerous words coming from the far left.

It’s much easier to notice and point out the excesses of people with whom you disagree.  It’s much more productive, and advances the cause of peace and justice, to correct those who share your overall perspective.

This is one way in which we can honor those who died on Saturday, by doing our part to improve how we debate and disagree with each other.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Christian or Church-ian?

Peanut butter and jelly.  Salt and pepper.  Bread and butter.  Milk and cookies.  Macaroni and cheese.  Pancakes and maple syrup.  Spaghetti and meatballs.  My goal is not to make you hungry, but to think about things that naturally go together.  Some less delicious combinations include lock and key, socks and shoes, needle and thread, nuts and bolts.  I’m sure you can come up with many more examples!

However, we’ve lost the connection between two other things that go together as naturally as pencil and paper: church and faith.  From the very beginning of Christianity, it was impossible to imagine one without the other.  Those who put faith in Christ were part of the church.  And those who were in the church put their faith in Christ.

On the one hand, the experts tell us that increasing numbers of people claim to be able to live out their Christian calling individually.  They want no part of the complicated, demanding, and sometimes frustrating issues that come working together with other people.  These believers are quick to point out the many obvious flaws with “organized religion” and claim that they don’t need other people to follow Jesus.  While we do have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, that relationship constantly draws us into relationships with others who call him Lord.  By my count, Scripture offers about thirty “one another” commands: what we are to do together, and how we are to treat each other.  Without any exception in the Bible that I can find, when God calls someone he calls them to share life with others.

On the other hand, however, are the people whom I’ll call “Church-ians.”  They care deeply about their congregation and their fellow members.  These are the faithful who attend church regularly, give sacrificially, and show up at all the special functions.  They want the building to be good repair, the pews and Sunday School classes to be full, and the church accounts to run in the black.  As commendable as such values may be, they are merely empty husks if they are not motivated and empowered by a love for the Lord. 

Just as the Bible encourages to live out our faith in community, it also condemns empty deeds of religiosity.  Isaiah railed against those who come near to the Lord with their lips, while their hearts are far from him (29:13).  Jeremiah mocked those who celebrated in the temple of the Lord while their lives were utterly divorced from his teaching (7:1-11).  Jesus himself offered a tongue-lashing against those who maintained and promoted religious institutions and practices but utterly missed the mark when it came to love and devotion (Matthew 23:13-39 and Luke 11:37-52).

If you count yourself as “spiritual but not religious,” I challenge you to investigate how the Bible teaches us to live out our faith together.  And if you are devoted to the health and well-being of the church, I challenge you to consider what motivates that devotion.  Either way, you will discover a joy of living that’s better than hugs and kisses, healthier than soap and water, and more inspiring than the sun and moon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Biblical Authority?

Most Christian groups claim the Bible as our ultimate authority for understanding God and his will for our lives.  But we don’t always act that way.  I’m not speaking about the fact that studying the Bible is more like a good idea than actual practice for many of us.  That’s true, unfortunately, and for decades pundits have bemoaned the decline of Biblical literacy in our churches.  There is another, subtler issue at work in the way we study the Bible, when we actually take the time to crack it open and read it.
Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer compared the way we read the Bible, or any other book, to how we play a game.  You have to play a game by its rules, or you just won’t get the point of the game.  For example, you can’t tackle someone during a basketball game, and roll a six in Monopoly and move five spaces.  In the same way, when you read the Bible you need to enter its world, so to speak, to get at its meaning.
That’s harder to do than it sounds.  We often come to the Bible with our own ideas, values, and priorities, to find out how it answers our questions.  But if the Bible truly is an authority for us, we ought to go one step further and allow the Bible to teach us what really matters.  The questions and issues that we think are so important may not really matter for the way that the Bible describes life and faith.
For example, many people wonder if we will recognize our loved ones in heaven.  We miss them terribly and hope to be reunited with them.  The Bible, however, is frustratingly vague about this issue.  Apparently that’s not a big deal in heaven, no matter how important it seems to us here on earth.
Many churches consider homosexuality to be a foundational issue upon which Christians must take a stand.  Congregations have left denominations over this issue, and many churches include it on the “What We Believe” page of their website.  However, this topic is barely footnote in Scripture, only mentioned a handful of times.  If the Bible truly is our guide, why would we get bent out of shape over something that it treats so trivially?  And why do we blithely ignore other concerns that the Bible discusses often and in great detail, such as economic justice for the poor and observing the Sabbath?
Such fascination with arcane trivia in the Bible jumps into overdrive when it comes to questions about Christ’s return.  “End-times” topics such as the mark of the beast, the rapture, and millennialism arise from brief, and my opinion often misunderstood, allusions in Scripture.  They are certainly not the central themes in the Bible’s description of our future hope.
I’ve even heard people say that the key to understanding all of Scripture can be found in an obscure verse in Genesis that describes how the “sons of God” had children with the “daughters of humans” and gave birth to the Nephilim.  God did not give us Scripture as a puzzle or mystery to solve.  His desire is for us to submit ourselves to the Bible’s own priorities and values, and reflect on how we can live them out in our lives and in our world.

Monday, August 20, 2018

How Was Your Day?

“How was your day?” That’s the question my wife and I often ask each other in the evening as our days wind to a close.  I’ve noticed that my answer to that question each day focuses on how many tasks I accomplished, or on the quality of the work that I’ve done.  On a good day I may tell her about a meaningful hospital visit, and on a day that didn’t go quite as well I may describe how I’ve fallen behind on the things I want to get done that week.  In other words, I evaluate the quality of my days according to how much and how well I worked.  And because my life is composed of the days that I live, this means that I consider how good of a life I am living based on how productive I am.

The grace of Jesus Christ sets us free from “works righteousness:” the belief that in order to be set right with God we must obey his law perfectly.  As we read in Ephesians, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (2:8-9).  The redeeming work of Christ, through his death on the cross and his resurrection from the tomb, has opened the way for us to enjoy the fullness of a loving and blessed relationship with God.  We do not need to prove ourselves to God, and we do not need to earn our salvation.  We need simply to put our trust in Jesus, and God sees us as righteous and holy.

This is the core of our Christian faith.  And yet, I find myself slipping into a sort of works-righteousness that is based not upon how well I follow the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law, but upon how well I am able to make progress on my to-do list.  A “good day” means that I’ve scratched some things off the list, and a “bad day” means that I’ve fallen behind and wasted opportunities to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself.  On the theoretical, spiritual level I wholeheartedly believe that my worth comes from the loving favor of Jesus Christ.  But on the day-to-day practical level, I live as though my value as a person depends upon what I’ve done.

Certainly, God wants us to be productive and hard-working, just as he wants us to follow his commands and obey his will.  But he considers us to be “precious and honored” in his sight (Isaiah 43:4), and to be his beloved children (1 John 3:1) because of what Christ has done on our behalf, and not upon anything we have done or ever could do for ourselves.  His love for us does not depend upon what we do, or upon how much we do.

If you’re like me, it’s time for us to redefine what makes for a “good day.”  Instead of evaluating our lives by what we have accomplished, we can consider instead how much of God’s love we have experienced.  On a “bad day,” our struggles and preoccupations may cloud his glory from our sight.  But on a “good day,” we recognize his goodness in every whisper, in every shadow, and every stirring of our hearts. On a good day, we realize how deeply our Father loves us, and we know the presence of the Spirit within us.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Ready for a Change

The church has changed dramatically over the past decade or so.  These changes have happened not only at Old Union, but in churches within our community, across the Presbyterian Church, and throughout our nation.  The church is no longer the respected institution it used to be, and participation in a church is no longer a common expectation and regular part of people’s lives.  Even the definition of a “regular attender” has changed from someone who might miss one or two Sundays a year, to someone who is in church three out of four Sundays a month.  Here at Old Union we’ve seen worship attendance decline, and the average age of worshipers increase.  In other words, we are just like most churches in our nation.

Old Union is moving into uncharted territory, as we seek to be faithful to the mission God has given us in a changing society.  We could wring our hands in despair, or we could try to swim against the stream to bring back the “good old days.”  I’d like to suggest instead that we work together to pay attention to what God is doing, what he continues to call us to do, and how we can respond in faith.  The challenge is to adapt: continue to be who we are as we enter a strange new world.

From the reading and research I’ve done on this issue, I’ve realized that Old Union has all the pieces in place for us to do this well.  The experts say that for churches to adapt to new situations, they need several things.
1. TRUST: We are church that recognizes its leadership to be faithful, competent, and capable.
2. STRONG RELATIONSHIPS: We connect our lives with each other in harmony and compassion.  And we easily include new people into our church family.
3. SENSE OF PURPOSE AND VISION: Our theme verse, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, gives us a clear understanding that our mission as a church is to “encourage one another and build each other up.”  I hear people repeat this phrase often (and just at the conclusion of worship!) as we talk about the work and life of our church.
4. ACTIONS THAT MATCH MISSION: We do not merely say that our purpose is encouragement and up-building; we live out these goals individually and as a congregation.
5. PRAYER: The life of our church, and the lives of its members, are bathed daily with healthy doses of prayer for God’s guidance, mercy, and strength.

No one, other than God, can tell us what the future will hold, because our present situation is completely unlike any that we can remember from the past.  The way forward for Old Union is not to try what worked a decade or five ago, or to attempt quick fixes or to tinker with how we do the things we continue to do.  God is calling us into a future that we know nothing about, by remaining true to what makes Old Union what it is, as we trade the comfortable and customary for the difficult and unfamiliar.

Do we have the courage to seek and to follow where God is leading us?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Too-Big Mortgage That Got Paid in Half the Time

The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” (Judges 7:2)

By the time you read this message, Old Union Church will have paid off the mortgage for our new building.  At a meeting on May 13, the session voted to cash in the building fund investments.  This money, together with the money in the building fund checking account and the expected profits from the garage sale and car cruise, are enough to pay off the final $26,000.  Generous donors and eager helpers at our fund-raising events enabled us to reach attain this goal far ahead of schedule.

Some background information may help you appreciate this accomplishment.  At a congregational meeting on June 2008, we voted to take on a $300,000 loan to build our fellowship hall.  The total cost of the project was $750,000, and we had raised $450,000.  It was not an easy decision to take on this loan, and many of us worried that it was more than our church could handle.  Construction began in October 2008, at the worst possible financially time for more than a generation.  The financial crisis that began the Great Recession took away a third of the money we had saved for the project.  In December we had to increase the loan by 50%, from $300,000 to $450,000, in order to complete what we had already started.  What had begun as a daunting challenge now seemed insurmountable.  And yet here we are, less than ten years into a twenty-year mortgage, making our final payment.

It would be easy to congratulate ourselves on what we have been able to achieve.  But if we do, we would fail to see God’s mighty action.  As I wrote in this column after we had to increase our loan, “If we could complete this building project on our own, where would the faith be?  But if we are brought to our knees and realize that the project will indeed succeed only with God’s blessing, then we are well on our way to living out our faith.”

When God called Gideon to battle the Midianites who had invaded the land, he mustered an army of 32,000.  But God told him that these were too many soldiers, and he whittled Gideon’s army down to only 300 men.  He did so in order that Gideon and his countrymen would realize that the victory came not from themselves, but from the Lord.  In the same way, when God called us to build, he whittled away our resources so that we would realize success could only come from his hand and not our own.  And now we see how God has provided for us beyond what we thought possible.

Paying off the church mortgage is only the most recent example of the astonishing things that God does in our congregation and through its people.  It is only the latest reminder that God is at work in his church.  As we make plans for the future of our church, and as we face challenges and opportunities in our personal lives, remember the lesson of The Too-Big Mortgage That Got Paid in Half the Time.