Mid-Week Meditation: Thoughts on the inherent goodness of human beings.

This week we celebrated Vacation Bible School here at John McMillan Presbyterian Church. One hundred fifty-seven children spent the week learning that God knows us, God hears us, God strengthens us, God loves us and God sends us. I had a class of nine 5th and 6th graders, the oldest group. These were kids who were at the end of childhood and beginning their adolescence.

It was our goal to give them a bit of mission training by taking them on outings and giving them tasks that taught them how to live the Jesus way. We went to a local stream for a creek walk and clean up. While picking up garbage, we talked about difficult journeys that God calls us to, much like the creek walk that was rock filled and slippery. It was a good lesson.

The next day we weeded and turned over soil in the church garden that grows vegetables for a local food bank. The day after that, we packed and delivered food for Meals-on Wheels. And finally we took used furniture and baby supplies to Duquesne Presbyterian Church’s mission store that distributes these items to local families in need – of which there are many. These activities taught the kids what it means to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the less fortunate, and so care for Jesus as well. Great lessons all.

But the one lesson that seemed to come out of nowhere was this one.

While we were in the creek, I asked the kids if they thought water was bad or good. They all said that water was good. It provides water to drink and bathe in. It also offers habitats for living things that enter the food cycle and help feed all other living things. Good stuff!

But water can be bad, too. There can be too much of it in one place, like the flooding in West Virginia last week. Twenty-three people dead. Entire communities devastated. Lives changed forever. Not so good.

So I asked the kids what that meant about water being bad of good. They talked for a while and decided that water was always good, but sometimes water did bad things. I then asked if there was any other type of thing God created that could be looked at that way. They talked a bit more and then said – people!

Which is very biblical!

In Genesis 1 we read this:

26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth,* and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
27 So God created humankind* in his image,
in the image of God he created them;*
male and female he created them.
28God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. 31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

God made humankind and said humankind was very good. And why shouldn’t humankind be very good, humankind is made in the image of God!

So the kids talked a bit more. They agreed that all human beings – all of them – are good. They are good because God says so and because they bear God’s image. Unfortunately, human beings often do things that are bad. But that does not make anyone inherently bad, it just means they are doing bad things. Like flood water. We can judge conduct, and require people to bear responsibility for it. We allow people to reap what they sow. But that does not change the fact that people are good. God created us that way.

What I learned that day was that our first impression of anyone we see is: That is a good person! A bearer of the image of God.

A great week. Thanks, kids!

A Double Standard? Thoughts on grace, mercy and community.

Galatians 6: 1-10

6My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads.

6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.

7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

A few weeks ago a toddler crawled through a security fence at the Cincinnati Zoo and fell into the gorilla exhibit.

One of the gorillas saw the boy, grabbed him and started to throw him around like a rag doll.

The only way the zoo folks could get the boy away from the gorilla was to shoot the gorilla.

So they did.

Fortunately, the boy was not seriously injured.

But what happened next was pretty typical.

Social media and op-ed folks attacked the mother of the boy, a Ms. Gregg.

This from the New York Times:

Ms. Gregg had faced intense public scrutiny, as well as unrelenting invective on social media, over what some saw as her failure to block the boy from the pen. After breaching a 3-foot fence, the boy fell about 15 feet into a shallow moat and was then dragged around by Harambe, a western lowland gorilla weighing more than 420 pounds.

Zoo workers, fearing for the child’s safety, shot and killed the animal.

By early Monday, a petition demanding that Ms. Gregg be investigated for evidence of child neglect had nearly half a million signatures from people who called her attention to the boy “unacceptable” and “grossly negligent.”

The outcry was so intense, the Prosecuting Attorney in Hamilton County, Ohio considered bringing criminal charges against her.

It turns out that she had her four kids with her and turned to deal with one of them when the three-year-old ran over to the Gorilla fence and found a way through.

The prosecutor remarked that anyone who did not believe a three-year-old could do such a thing even when in the presence of a good and attentive parent never had a three-year-old.

Absent putting the boy on a leash, this woman never had a chance.

No charges were filed.

So for those of us who have, or have had, three year olds, we should have said something like:

There but for the grace of God go I.

Because we have all lost track of our kids from time to time.

And while we frantically look for our child, do we want to be judged, like this woman in Cincinnati was judged, or do we want help?

Do we want to be condemned, scolded and shunned?

Or do we want care and comfort?

That is what Paul is talking about in our scripture reading this morning.

He is saying that we need to respond to the perceived wrongs of our world, the perceived mistakes made, the perceived transgressions committed the way we would want people to respond to when the wrongs, mistakes and transgressions are ours.

Kind of the Golden Rule of criticism.

Before we criticize, we should say Peter Marshals prayer:

Lord when we are wrong, make us willing to change. When we are right, make us easy to live with.

And then say:

There but for the grace of God go I.

But to really understand Paul today, we need to remember that he is talking to a community.

A community that is in conflict over theology.

A community that is being harmed by the transgression of one or more of its members.

What Paul is doing is telling the community how to respond to that transgression.

And he gets it straight from Jesus.

Matthew 18: 12-20

12What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Jesus is saying three things.

First, every member of the community is so important that the entire community is at risk if we do not restore the one who has gone astray.

We are called to go and bring them back.

Second, Jesus gives us a procedure to follow when we think someone is offending the community.

Talk to them face to face in private.

If that does not work, bring a couple other members to hear the matter.

If that does not work, take them to the church.

If that does not work, treat them like tax collectors and sinners.

In other words, love them, eat with them and invite them into the community.

Third, Jesus says that the way we judge these folks will be “bound in heaven”.

Which means what we do will set a precedent.

We will be judged by our own same standard.

And remember, when this process starts, it’s possible the tables will be turned.

We will find out we are the transgressor, rather than the one we have accused.

Do we want to be shunned, scolded or denounced?

Or do we want to be restored to the community?

This is what Paul is telling the Galatian community.

Paul is talking about the members of the Galatian community who have been promoting the necessity of following the law.

They have damaged the community.

And let’s be clear, Paul believes these folks are wrong!

How should the faithful Galatians respond?

Gently tell them of their error and then help them heal and become whole.

And to remember:

All must test their own work …

What if I am wrong?

How do I want God to judge me?

With wrath?

Or with grace and mercy?

It is what Paul is telling us.

He is saying that when we see someone make a mistake, we should seek to be gentle and grace filled as we restore them.

That person, or those people, are like the lost sheep.

They are worthy of our pursuit.

When we do that, we are bearing each other’s burdens – helping each other to live in a peaceful community.

But Paul also reminds us that we are all subject to failure from time to time and so we need to set the precedent that is grace filled and merciful.

However we respond, Paul reminds us that we will reap what we sow.

If we sow seeds of humiliation and denunciation, that is what the community, and we as individuals, will reap.

A community that screams at each other over each real or perceived transgression is really no community at all.

A mob of accused and accusers.

That is what is going on in Galatia.

Paul says stop it.

Paul says that is not what Jesus teaches.

We are to seek restoration of those who have caused harm to the community.

And it is important to understand what Paul means by “restore”.

The Greek word is used as a medical term for the setting of a broken bone.

A broken bone damages the entire body’s ability to function.

The fracture needs to knit so the parts are reunited.

In other words, when we see someone fractures the community, our goal should be healing and wholeness of the community first.

In the New Testament, it is used to mean the mending of a net.

A hole in the net renders the net useless.

When we see a tear in the net of the community, we need to sew it back together.

So the community can become useful again.

And both mean concern for the wellbeing of the transgressing person.

Inviting them back into the community.

Just as Jesus did.

And let me not what Paul is not saying.

Paul is not saying such a person must agree to march in lockstep with the views of everyone else.

Jesus did not say that either.

No such community exists.

What Paul and Jesus are talking about is unity, even in diversity.

What he is saying is that the community cares for every member.

As he puts it:

10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

We can never agree on all things, but we can work for the good of all.

Caring for and about each other, even when we disagree.

Which happens a lot in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This past week, the PCUSA General Assembly met in Portland, Or.

I have checked in from time to time to see what the commissioners have been up to.

Some of the things they have decided – well – I’m not all that happy about.

Some I am quite pleased about.

No doubt all of us here will have those same feelings.

What we agree with we will call a blessing.

What we disagree with, we will call a transgression.

We might believe that the community of the PCUSA has been harmed.

And we will be tempted to scream!


Maybe leave.

Fracturing the community.

Tearing the net of our relationship.

And Paul says that is not the Jesus way!

He says that we need treat each other gently.

Restore the relationship, if not the theology.

Remembering that we might be the ones who are wrong, today or in the future.

And when we are wrong we want to be treated with grace and dignity.

Because if we just scream at each other, or denounce each other, or humiliate each other, the community will reap division.

Rather than the good of all.

It’s kind of like when you get a call from your child who informs you that there has been a car accident.

What is he first question you ask?

“Are you all right?”


“Is anyone hurt?”

And finally:

“What can we do to make sure of a peaceful resolution?”

So when I get a call from someone after GA complaining of some denominational transgression, I might respond this way:

Are you alright?

Will this decision have any impact on you personally?

If so, what can we do to care for you that recognizes that others disagree?

Is anyone else hurt?

What can we do to care for them that recognizes that others disagree?

How can we go forward remaining united in diversity?

Jesus and Paul teach that we should be grace filled and merciful.

Because that is how God treats us.

When we do that we help each other with the burden of our imperfection.

Our inability to always be right.

Maybe our inability to ever be wright

Krista Tippett puts it this way.

[T]o walk through the world … armed and ready to judge, and thinking you know everything. That’s a heavy burden to bear. Knowing everything.

Paul is saying that being right is should not the burden we want to carry.

The burden we are to carry is the unity of the community and the individuals in it.

And when we do that, Paul says we will reap the Kingdom of God.

A Warning Label? Thoughts on being a Spirit led community.

Galatians 5: 1; 13-25

51For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

This week I went to get a typhoid vaccine recommended for those going to Chiapas, Mexico, where 15 of us will be going July 9-16.

I was happy to see that I could take it orally as my arms already hurt from the Hepatitis A and B shots I got earlier in the day.

But when I got the vaccine, I also got three pages of written material.

Part of the materials were the warnings.

Contra indications.

Side effects.

Adverse Reactions.

And most importantly, what I could do that would make the vaccine ineffective.

It reminded me of those TV ads that describe some new drug for some medical problem identified by its initials.

“This medication will eliminate the symptoms of ABC!”

Then thee’s a long list of terrible possible side effects that are in fact worse than the symptoms you seek to eliminate.

Plus, all the things that if you do them, the drug won’t work.

That appears to be what Paul is saying in his letter to the Galatians.

Paul is telling the Galatians that they have a disease.


He has a cure.


Seems simple enough.

But then he puts forth this list of things that are “of the flesh”.

He seems to say that if we do them, Jesus will be ineffective.


And the list has things in it that are almost impossible not to do!


But doesn’t Paul say we saved by faith in Jesus?

But doesn’t Paul say we forgiven these things?

You bet.

Paul would say yes to both.

So why this list?

A couple of things we need to understand.

First, Paul is talking not to a single person, but the entire Galatian community of disciples.

So his words apply not to individuals but to the community at large.

The entire body.

Paul also uses words that bring to the Galatian mind in things we would never think of.

Military terms.

And that makes understanding his message even more difficult.

But what Paul is telling the Galatians is the heart of the Gospel.

So we need hear it as the Galatians would have.

So first a quick overview.

Paul says that Jesus has freed us.

Well, freed from what?

The yoke of slavery.

What is that?

The Jewish Law.

Paul says we are freed from that yoke of slavery to the law when we trust Jesus to keep his promise to grant us grace and forgive our rebelliousness.

And we are to stand firm!

Against what?

The folks who say that we have to follow the Jewish Law in addition to faith in Jesus.

We are free all that and don’t want to go back.

And so we stand firm against those who say otherwise.

Now we need to know what Paul means by freedom.

It does not mean the kind of freedom described by Greek philosopher Epicurus:

He is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to compulsion, nor hindrance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered, whose desires attain their end, whose aversions to not fall into what they would avoid.

That is not what Paul means by freedom.

That is what Paul would call self-indulgence.


A lifestyle that reeks of narcissism.

What is narcissism?

This according to Psychology Today.

[Narcissism] involves arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration-all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships. People who are narcissistic are frequently described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g., fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment. … Narcissism involves cockiness, manipulativeness, selfishness, power motives, and vanity …

Such people are so self-absorbed that the very thought of a God who is above them is anathema.

They think they are god.

And it is impossible for them to love anyone other than themselves.

Because no one else deserves their love.

If someone (even God) suggests they might be wrong, they attack.

More from Psychology Today.

When criticized, narcissists show themselves woefully incapable of retaining any emotional poise, or receptivity. And it really doesn’t much matter whether the nature of that criticism is constructive or destructive. They just don’t seem to be able to take criticism, period. At the same time, these disturbed individuals demonstrate an abnormally developed capacity to criticize others.

In other words, they make their own rules and care nothing for others.

And such a lifestyle escalates.

It pits people against each other in increasingly hostile ways.

That is what Paul means by biting and devouring and consuming each other.

This is what was going on generally in Galatia.

They were eating each other.

That is where the flesh leads us.

It leads away from the Kingdom of God.

Because there is no room for it in the Kingdom.

That is what Paul means by that phrase:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious … I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

The Spirit, on the other hand, calls us to a different kind of freedom.

Freedom from the flesh so we become slaves to each other.

To love one another as we love ourselves.

What Paul calls the single Commandment.

That will lead to the Kingdom.

So that seems like an easy choice, right?

But not so fast says Paul.

These two forces in the community are at war.

Not an angel and devil on your shoulders encouraging you to act one way or another.

These are two forces that seek to affect the community as a whole.

His statement that we should not let our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence actually refers to letting our freedom create a staging area for “the flesh” to muster its power to destroy the community.

To create confusion and chaos.

To choke the life out of it.

To destroy it.

So what are these fleshy things Paul is talking about?

Paul give us a list.

I am not going to parse and define each, but suffice it to say that are the characteristics of those traits that destroy community.

And that are destroying the Galatian church.

They are just plain selfish.


Things that demonstrate no love for God or each other.

And the list is not exhaustive.

As an aside, let me be clear.

Paul is not talking about individual failures that we all experience.

Grace covers these.

Paul is clear on that.

It is when these things become a lifestyle of the community to such an extent that they become a community culture of conflict, competition, anxiety, apathy and fear.

A beachhead for narcissism.

And there is no room in the Kingdom for this type of thing.

Yet, we do fall into these things.

Here is an example.

Last week I went to hear Rachel Held Evans speak at a program called “About Being Church”.

She is a Christian writer who comments on how millennials look at the church.

She described how she sometimes falls into the trap of responding aggressively to folks who disagree with her or attack her on line.

She says her husband can tell when she does this by the way she types.

She says when she is just writing her stuff, she keyboards like she plays the piano.

But when she is responding to her opponents, she hits the keys in such an aggressive way that her husband will say to her, “Honey, are you all right?”

He knows the answer.

She is biting and devouring.

To keep doing so might cause her supporters to join in.

But she recognizes it and stops.

She repents.

She receives God’s grace.

And can write again … until next time.

We are all like that.

But the narcissists would never recognize that they are destroying community.

That is what they want.

And they want their supporters to join in the destruction.

But the Spirit leads the community to be servants of each other in so tight a bond that there is no room for the flesh to gain any foothold.

We can become that blessed community where we are compelled to care for and about each other.

Regardless of what we think about each other.

A community that lives the Jesus way.

And leaves the narcissism at the door.

But Rachel Held Evans said, it’s hard.

It is.

We fail from time to time.

So we need to practice.

Practice paying attention to the Spirit.

Practice caring for those in our community, whether we like them or not.

Instead of attacking people for who they are or what they believe, ask what we can do to meet their needs.

And maybe they will do the same.

And that is when the good fruits of the Spirit emerge.

[L]ove, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And when these things emerge, we enter the Kingdom.

That is the challenge Paul puts forth.

Only the Spirit can guide our community to these things.

And that is why Paul so urgently encourages us to be led by the Spirit.

It is the Spirit who will lead us to freedom.

Freedom from a world where narcissism reigns.

Freedom from a world that generates hostility, anxiety, loneliness and fear.

Freedom from a need to judge and criticize others who do not agree with us, do not look like us and do not believe what we believe.

Freedom from the self-centeredness that Paul calls the works of the flesh.

But it is not only freedom from those things.

It is the freedom to be the community God wants us to be.

Caring for each other and inviting others in.

Freedom to be part of his Kingdom.

And it is a journey.

So what might that look like?

Pastor Carol Holts-Martin tells her story.

She was overseas in school for a year.

She was lonely.

She was homesick.

She was critical of the local culture.

She gathered with her like-minded friends for venting time.

There was no love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This was getting her nowhere and she decided to break ties with her enslavement to her discontent with those around her.

In part she did this by going to a church near her workplace.

There she felt welcome and accepted.

On her third visit, she was invited to dinner by a family in the congregation.

They were caring for her and caring about her.

And this is how she described the effect on her:

The effect of that loving, laughing, singing congregation’s connection to Jesus Christ would come to permeate every aspect of my life. It was a wonderful thing to stumble into the hands of the living God.

That is what being led by the Spirit is like.

Individually and communally.

The Spirit will lead a person, or an entire community, to a better way.

The Jesus way.

Loving God and loving each other.

The Kingdom of God.

That is what we should strive for as at JMPC.

To be Spirit led.

To surrender to the Spirit.

And stumble into the hands of the living God.


Jenna Kroboth and Matt Fricker on New Orleans mission

We started the day with a devotional by Victoria our Teameffort team leader.  We had 2 jobs, hammer in fence framing and getting out the grass so they can place mulch over it.  As we dug the grass up with shovels we found ourselves standing in a mud puddle.  We had to stop working for a while because of a giant rainstorm.  We worked after that for awhile and we started seeing the fence take shape.  On the way home we saw a homeless woman and gave her a blessing bag.

Jenna Kroboth


The rains came and they came hard.  It seemed like it would be impossible for the rain to actually come down any harder.  It seemed as if the the rain drops were the size of actual fists.  As all of the groups huddled in the church tired from morning work they told us we would be going home from work early today.  (Warning I’m going to get very braggy about the JMPC youth).  Our youth decided that they wanted to stay and keep working.  After some pleading they agreed to let us stay if we would put everything away and close up.  After awhile the rain let up and we got to work.  We stood in some light rain hammering and shoveling as every other group ran to their vehicles and went back to take shower and relax.  For the next 2 1/2 hours the students worked hard and didn’t complain, they actually sang songs and danced as they worked.  I cannot tell you how proud I was of our group.  I loved seeing the sense of accomplishment as the students sat in the car knowing that because of this extra effort we will finish our project today.  I will always remember the how appreciative the pastor of this church was of the students when he showed up at 5 and this group from Pittsburgh was out there working hard.  I want you to know that our students came here to work and love people, and they are working overtime to do those 2 things!

Matt Fricker

The Joker Laughs: More thoughts on Orlando

Orlando: The Joker laughs as we enter into the chaos of accusation and retaliation.

The tragedy in Orlando has compelled me to put into writing my observations on the responses and reactions of those who look for someone to blame and punish for this terrible event.

Whose fault is it?  How can we retaliate?  There is plenty of finger pointing and denunciation to go around.  If this poor angry, hate-filled, and perhaps mentally ill mass murderer had any thought of the conflict his terrible act would cause, I think he would have considered it a bonus.  Or maybe it was part of his plan.

It reminds me of the second Batman movie.  The Dark Knight.  The villain is the Joker, played brilliantly by Heath Ledger.  What does the Joker get out of his villainy?  This is what he says:

Introduce a little anarchy.

Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.

I’m an agent of chaos.

…  You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke.

Dropped at the first sign of trouble.

They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.

I’ll show you.

When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.

See, I’m not a monster.

I’m just ahead of the curve.

He just enjoys the show.  And I look at this mass murderer as Joker-like.  I have this image of him laughing at our rage.  He has created chaos, and now watches us eat each other.  He proves that we fear each other more than anything else.  We look at each other as potential threats.

So what does all this mean?  It means, to me, that statements that “we need to get rid of all the guns” and “we need to get rid of all the Muslims” create the kind of internal conflict and chaos that plays into the hands of the radical terrorists and anarchists—wherever they come from.

The mass murderer, a man full of anger and hate for whatever reason, buys a couple of guns, enters a LGBT bar and opens fire. A bar dedicated to and specifically for the LGBT community.  He could have picked another club to attack, but he picked a bar that he knew was full of LGBT people.  People he hates.  For who they are. (A bar that reports say he frequented.) This mass murderer apparently believed that LGBT people are somehow inherently inferior and not deserving of the same rights and protections as other Americans, or other people generally.  So the choice of targets was not random. Looking at this as an act of terror against Americans by an Islamic extremist is thus only partially right.  This was an act of terror by a homophobic man against American members of the LGBT community.  He is not the first.  Viewing what happened as only an act of terror by an Islamic extremist is erasing the inherent homophobia of his actions.

Horrible.  Certain to create anger and hate.  Certain to get the political juices flowing.  A desire to take retaliation … against anyone and everyone who might have some responsibility.  Against Muslims.  Against gun rights advocates.  Against the anti-gay movement.  Whoever you choose.  And they then return the favor by retaliating back.  And it never ends.

Why do we give this mass murderer that power over us?

It reminds me a bit of the movie The Kingdom.  A bombing takes place at an American base in Saudi Arabia.  An FBI agent is killed.  Another agent learns of his death and begins sobbing.  One of her co-workers consoles her by whispering something in her ear.  The agents ultimately find the bomb maker and shoot him.  Before he dies, the bomb maker whispers something in the ear of his 15-year-old grandson who has witnessed the shooting.  As the movie winds down these scenes take place in overlapping frames.

US Agent: Fleury. Tell me what you whispered to Janet, in the briefing, to get her to stop crying about Fran, you know, before all this, before we even got airborne. What’d you say to her? You remember?

[Scene shifts to bomb maker’s apartment]

Daughter of bomb maker to 15-year-old grandson: Tell me, what did your grandfather whisper in your ear before he died?

[Scene shifts to US team]

Fleury: I told her we were gonna kill ’em all.

[Scene shifts to bomb maker’s apartment]

15-Year-Old Grandson: Don’t fear them, my child. We are going to kill them all.

Escalation.  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  Until there is no body—or nobody—left.  Assured mutual destruction.  Globally and personally.

Jesus says—stop it!

There might be a better way.  The Jesus way, or if you’re not a Christian, the Gandhi way or the MLK way or the way of the Buddha.  This is what Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. … You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Violence is stopped when retaliation is stopped.  It takes two to fight.  If we don’t fight, there is no fight.

I want to make a quick point about what Jesus is not talking about.  He is not talking about a government’s obligation to keep order and protect its citizens.  Where there is a wrong, there must be justice.  When Jesus initially refers to an eye for an eye and tooth for tooth, he is referring to the Levitical law that gave the government the power to maintain order and protect the people.  There was a penalty for a particular act that, once administered, ended the dispute.  And because everyone knew what the penalty was, there was no need for revenge or violence.  This is the way matters were settled in ancient Israel and the way peace was maintained.  Kind of like our courts today.  Once the result is in, whether you like it or not, the dispute is over.  Time to move on and live in peace.

In this case we can seek to change the homophobia that is pervasive in our country and the part of our culture that supports it.  We need to demand safety for minorities, and enact sensible laws to make it more difficult for an angry man to shoot up a bar full of people who were members of a group that he didn’t like.  But we can do none of these things as long as we are screaming at each other.

What else is Jesus not talking about?  Jesus is not talking about passivism.  We are not called to be doormats.  We are permitted to defend ourselves so that we are not harmed by the actions of others.  We are just supposed to act in a way protects, but does not escalate.  Kind of like the “just war.”  Augustine, an early Christian Bishop, put it this way.  Our response to an affront must be:

  • It must be permissible under the law.
  • It must be warranted.
  • It must right the wrong and no more.
  • The last resort. It must be the only choice.

What is interesting about the just war determination is that it always requires thoughtful discernment.  It cannot be knee-jerk.  It is not retaliation and vengeance-oriented.  It does not call for an immediate invasion of our children whose lives are forfeit just so we can demonstrate we are not to be messed with.

Our response is to be justice-oriented.  And when we take a moment to think about these things, we de-escalate.  We stop – take a breath – and think.

Jesus tells us we are obligated to short circuit the escalation of the conflict by simply refusing to respond in kind.  We short circuit the escalation by refusing to respond to real or perceived evil with evil.

But that is where we are right now, I think.  We are responding to evil with evil, even though we do not really know what the evil is.  So we set up straw men.  Muslims and gun rights advocates are two in particular.

The mass murderer was a Muslim.  So what?  Did he believe what Islam stood for or did he project what he wanted Islam to be on it?  Sure, he “pledged” allegiance to ISIS, but it seems likely that they never heard of him.  He was a hater looking for justification for his hate.  He was looking for a cause that allowed him to kill.  There have been plenty of people claiming to be Christians who have done such things.  But making that claim does not make one a Christian.  And for all of us who think Islam blesses such things, I would ask for the source of your belief.  I, for one, have never read the Koran.  Nor have I ever sat down with an Islamic scholar to discuss the issue.  And just because some purported Islamic preacher claims that Islam stands for such a thing does not make it Muslim doctrine.  It is little different than saying David Koresh’s reported pedophilia was standard and accepted Christian doctrine simply because he held himself out as a Christian leader.

The mass murderer had guns, bought legally.  If he wanted to commit this terrible act, he could have done it a different way.  He could have set a fire.  He could have built a bomb.  Should we have gun control?  I think so, and I agree with President Obama when he spoke to the issue of gun rights on PBS [http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/watch-live-president-obamas-town-hall-in-elkhart-indiana/].  This just makes sense to me, though I know many disagree.  But remember, this mass murderer was not a representative of the NRA or any other group that supports gun rights.  He was just a hate filled guy.

We must not demonize Muslims or the folks who support gun rights just because this guy was a Muslim who had guns.

This mass murderer had mental health issues according to reports.  He was a spouse abuser according to reports.  He was a steroid user according to reports.  He was angry and violent, proclaiming animosity toward blacks, Jews, gays and women.  He also told people he was a dangerous man and was in contact with terrorists.  From the sound of it, this mass murderer was a man struggling with issues of self-image, anger, isolation and mental health.  He acted on all these things, in a terrible way, Sunday morning.

But it’s hard to not just retaliate!  That is the way of things in our broken world.  It always has been.  Cain killed Abel because God rejected Cain’s offering and accepted Abel’s.  Cain was hurt and so lashed out in anger against his competitor.  And we have continued to do the same.  Strike down the competition, physically, economically or verbally, and there will be peace.  How is that working?  Jesus says—stop it!  Stop the cycle of conflict.  Seek peace.

Here is what I mean.  Remember the illustration from the movie The Kingdom?  Here is a real life alternative.  This is from the website for Terror Free Tomorrow [www.terrorfreetomorow.org].

According to a poll conducted in January 2006 by the Terror Free Tomorrow organization, humanitarian aid is a very effective way to improve how Muslim countries view the United States of America.  In May of 2003, research indicated that only 15 percent of people in Indonesia—the world’s most populous Muslim nation—had a favorable view of the U.S.  However, the country was later devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami, which struck in December of 2004.  In the year that followed, humanitarian aid poured into the affected areas from the U.S. and other Western nations.  As a result, a January 2006 poll showed that Indonesian people with a favorable view of the U.S. had nearly tripled, jumping to 44 percent.  In addition, information from the well-respected Indonesian Survey Institute showed that “support for terrorism has dropped to its lowest level since 9/11.”  Finally, it was reported that Indonesians with a “very unfavorable” view of the U.S. had fallen to just 13 percent—down from 48 percent prior to the tsunami.

Such polling results are many.  It seems offering aid and assistance changes people’s perceptions and opinions far more than bullets and bombs.

Isn’t that the goal?  I think so.  That is what we are called to do.  Perhaps we cannot love, or even like, those not of our tribe, but we can act like it by caring about and for them.  If that is our response, we will have a bit more peace.

But we can do none of it while we are screaming at each other.


Abby Cowser and John DePoutiloff on mission in New Orleans

Hi everyone! It was day 2 on the worksite. As far as physical progress goes, today we accomplished cementing one half of the fence poles to the ground. After digging about 16 2-foot deep holes for the frame of the fence, we had to fill the holes with concrete and mix with water in order to solidify them in the ground. We feel pretty confident we will be able to make a lot of progress tomorrow, starting with finishing the cementing process.

As far as emotional progress goes, we can all see the great impact that the people of New Orleans and the other youth groups have on ourselves. As Romans 8:28 says “and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This is evident in all of us as we have to work together to accomplish anything. As with anything, there are of course obstacles. Our biggest obstacle today was the fact that the holes we dug yesterday filled with water over the night and we had to adjust some of them to accommodate the shape of the posts. The holes for the corner posts are the most important as they provide stability and the square shape for the fence. Myself and 2 others worked diligently today on a corner post since the hole dug yesterday was a little off! As we were ripping the mud out of the ground, I began to think about this blog and how I could relate this struggle to all of you. Maybe this is a stretch, but I thought about how we would have to continually dig, measure the depth, and begin digging until it was perfect. I related this to Romans 8 and the fact that sometimes in life you have to fail over and over in order to succeed. We encountered this as we worked throughout our day. The fact that God was calling us to this site in order to learn this lesson really resonated with me. I was astounded by how powerful learning the lesson of patience can be.

Another thing I have learned in only a short amount of time in New Orleans is how fortunate we are in the place we live. As we enter the Lower 9th ward, I am struck by the evident graffiti, homeless on the street, boarded windows, and poverty of the town. I am reminded of my own home on a safe street without evidence of a hurricane remaining. I am thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity to take a step out of my comfort zone to appreciate what I’ve been given back in Pittsburgh. It is easy to forget how blessed we are on a day to day basis, but after this week in New Orleans I am going to be sure to keep a gracious heart as I head back home next week. Keep us in your prayers!

-Abby Cowser

As we started off the day at the worksite we begun to pray as a group before finishing to dig the holes for the fence posts. After we finished be began to start the tedious process of leveling the posts and surrounding them with concrete. As we started this process it started to pour rain and as another camper had said it was like BOOM, CRACK. When the day at the worksite started coming to a close I was able to better introduce myself to the pastor Jack and learn his story. It was amazing to see how God had helped us work in order to benefit the community.

John DePoutiloff

New Orleans

After a long hot night in New Orleans, we woke up energized and ready to serve God and spread his message. After a quick breakfast we joined two other youth groups and headed to our work site. While driving through the town of New Orleans, it was obvious that many homes still needed help. Every building was either very updated and colorful, or was worn out with evident water damage. The sight of so many homes still in need of help is overwhelming. I really didn’t know what to expect. All that I knew was that we would be working at a church to build a fence for a playground.

We pulled into an uncut parking lot and stared at the back of what looked like a tiny house. I was confused because I expected it to look more like a church, and this one floor building looked like it could barely hold our youth group let alone an entire congregation. Once we got out of the cars and approached the building, we were welcomed by three men. I was intimidated at first, but quickly felt comfortable after the warm welcome by a man named Jack. Jack’s humor and infectious smile made conversation easy. He welcomed us inside and asked if we would sit in the sanctuary. I assumed that the first room with poor lighting and folded chairs was all that there was to the building, but somehow, we walked through the room and was amazed with a beautiful sanctuary with flowers all around. We sat in the pews, and waited for Jack to speak. He spoke about the history of the church; how a janitor felt inspired to make a church out of nothing and how it developed into the community refuge that it is today. This pastor inspired and ordained 200 pastors including Jack until he passed away. Jack eventually took over the church and continued to expand. When hurricane Katrina hit, the church suffered. All of the furniture was pushed to the back of the church and renovations needed to be made. The church slowly began to grow, but the proper help was not given to make the church new again. Jack’s passion and appreciation for the work that we were doing was overwhelming and made the day that much more powerful.

Our assignment was to build a fence for a new playground. Not too many of us knew what we were doing, but we were eager to help. After our weed Wacker broke, we needed to cut grass to old fashioned way with manual tools. Once we cut the grass, we measured and dug holes for the fence posts. Shortly into our project, the rain came. We all needed to come inside the church and wait for the next step. This ended up being very beneficial because this gave us the opportunity to get to know Jack and the other people on our mission trip through ice breaker games until the rain stopped. Once the rain stopped, we were back to work. It was a long day, but we all feel very proud with all that we accomplished, and we can’t wait to see all that we get done tomorrow!

Delaney Scott


Today on our mission trip, we went to a church that had been damaged by Katrina and helped them rebuild. Our church dug holes to set up a 30-foot by 30-foot fence for a children’s playground. While we were doing that, another church was doing demolition of parts of the church that were out of date. Another church was sorting wood to build a deck on the church. We got very muddy and had lots of fun doing our work.

We also cut grass using a scythe. It rained a few times making massive puddles that made digging difficult. Our measurements were off a couple times and Jon did lots of dumb things. But, in the end we dug most of the holes for the fence. We are now ready to set poles tomorrow.


William Martin-FarmerNew Orleans 1New Orleans 2

New Orleans Blog

Greetings from New Orleans!

We have arrived safely and are full of energy for a great week ahead!  As I have had plenty of time to reflect during the 16 hours of driving down that the past two days have entailed, I have been considering why I go on mission trips in the first place.  Why am I here right now and what compelled me to sign up to spend a week in New Orleans?  I have come to the conclusion that I think that it is a combination of motivations for myself and for others.  I am here to share the Gospel.  I am here to serve a community.  I am here to make a difference.  Yet, I also think that I sign up for mission trips with the hopes of getting something deeper out of it.  I go on mission trips because I find that God uses them to transform me.  I go on them to gain perspective.  And overall, I think that I go on them for something different.  I want to see the world from a different point of view.  I want to break up the normal rhythms of my life and do different activities.  I want to meet different communities and make relationships with people other than just those I am around all of the time.

And so far, this goal of getting something different has most definitely been achieved, even just on the ride down here.  First, we spent Saturday night staying at a church in Nashville.  While in Nashville, we met up with Matt’s friend, also named Matt, who is pioneering a new ministry called Break the Roof (https://breaktheroof.org).  Matt’s goal with Break the Roof is to be a voice for people with disabilities.  Matt informed us about his experiences with muscular dystrophy, and how our actions and attitudes towards people with disabilities can have a huge impact.  He also shared how videos, books, and other forms of media can actually be spreading false and discouraging attitudes about disabilities.  Things that we may view as inspirational or positive can meanwhile be quite offensive.  Matt definitely impacted us by sharing about his ministry and changed our perspectives about disabilities and how we all  often play a role in prejudice, even though we might not be aware of it.  Again, this gave me a different attitude and was a meaningful experience.

Our out-of-the-ordinary activities continued this morning as we worshipped at Cross Point Church.  We experienced praising God together with the extremely welcoming congregation at Cross Point and heard the pastor’s message about how God wants to experience life with us.  We experienced a different worship service, hundreds of miles away from JMPC, yet with the exact same intentions of glorifying our Creator.

Then we arrived here in New Orleans this evening and gathered together with the other groups that we will be spending the week with.  We are here with people from Colorado, California, and Florida!  We spent the evening playing a few games together, being welcomed by the staff here at Team Effort, and worshipping God at a chapel service.  With lots of excitement about our week of mission work ahead, we are now in yet a different community, with new people, new places to explore, and new opportunities to grow in our faith.

Thus, I believe that God is always calling us forward into new adventures.  I think that my desire for new and different experiences is rooted in God’s calling for all of us to go out into the world and spread His word.  Whether back in Pittsburgh, here in New Orleans, or wherever else in the world I may end up, I hope to be continually driven to search for whatever mission God is calling me to next.  So today I am reminded…

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers this week as we work to make a difference in New Orleans and spread God’s love to whomever we meet.  I sincerely hope and believe that God has a transformative week ahead for both us and the communities that we encounter.

-Emily Cowser



Not Enough Miracles: Thoughts on Orlando.

Luke 4: 16-30

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I have grown tired of preaching on the violence we human beings visit on each other.

In my lifetime we have become familiar with such events.

Columbine, CO.

Paducah, KY.

Edinboro, PA.

Aurora, CO.

Virginia Tech.

Fort Hood, Texas.

Sandy Hook Elementary School.

And now Orlando, Florida.

And that is just in this country.

What about the 77 kids murdered in Norway a couple years ago?

22 kids in China killed by some guy with a knife some time back.

And those are the mass killings.

What about the drive-bys we hear about every week?

Kids killing kids.

Right here in Pittsburgh.

Orlando is nothing new.

Human beings have been slaughtering each other since time began.

Since Cain killed Abel.

Though Orlando is the latest in soul tearing violence we perpetrate against each other.

I am also weary with the question, “Why did God do this?”

Such a question is nearly perverse in its arrogance.

Such a question is simply a way to shift blame away from us.

God did not do this.

God had nothing to do with it.

A man filled with hate did this.

Then there is this equally perverse question, also blame shifting.

Responsibility denying.

Why didn’t God prevent this?

Didn’t Jesus come to fix this?


But not in some supernatural way.

God sent Jesus, as he had sent the prophets, to teach us how to live in peaceful community.

God wants us to follow these examples.

He wants us to take care of each other.

Not kill each other.

He wants us to feed the hungry.

Give water to the thirsty.

Clothe the naked.

Visit the prisoners.

Care for the sick.

But he will not force us.

He will not make us do these things.

And he does not “permit” us to do terrible things.

We choose what we do.

Good and terrible.

God gave us dominion here.

As the cartoon character Pogo has so prophetically said:

“We have met the enemy… and he is us”

So we have to do what we can to prevent such things in the future.

But that is a topic for another day.

Today Orlando.

When someone goes into a crowded room with an automatic weapon and opens fire, it takes a miracle for anyone to survive.

There were some miracles today.

But not enough miracles.

Which brings us to today’s scripture.

Jesus announced that he came to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He was here to rebuild lives.

He was healing the sick and feeding the hungry all over Capernaum.

And his Nazareth audience wanted to know when they were going to get their rebuilds.

And Jesus gave them a bit of bad news.

Not all of them would get a rebuild from him.

Jesus was not going to heal all the sick, lift up all the poor, free all the prisoners.

He would choose some and not others.

Just like the folks who did not qualify for a rebuild in South Carolina.

And he points out that God has always acted this way.

Elijah saved only a particular widow.

Elisha cured only a particular leper.

God chose to work miracles to make a point.

Why God chose the time, place and person is known only to God.

Jesus would be no different.

Jesus used his miracles to make a point at a particular time to a particular group of people.

Why he chose the particular time and place and person is known only to him.

So it comes down to this.

Not everyone gets a miracle.

But that does not really answer the questions.

If God is good and powerful, why does God let these things happen?

Simply put, God does not.

God is not the cause of catastrophes.

Catastrophes were not part of God’s plan for creation.

In God’s plan all creation was “good”.

Humanity was good as well.

But God also gave humanity a choice.

The choice was a simple one.

Love God or go your own way.

If you love God and do what he says, you will experience perfect harmony.

If you go your own way, you will live hard lives and then die.

Humanity chose to go its own way.

And the harmony of creation broke!

Order became chaos.

Life was hard and then we died.

Catastrophes happened and people’s lives were destroyed.

Not because they deserved it, but because creation had become a dangerous place.

Lives were destroyed in natural disasters.

Others at the hands of other humans.

Others from disease.

Others by accident.

Kind of random.

Just like God said.

But then God used those catastrophes for good.

They became opportunities for people to love each other by lending a hand at times of need.

Jesus taught us about that.

In the Gospel of John, Chapter 9, we find this story:

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. … 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”… . Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Here was a man who was the victim of a catastrophe.


The disciples, like good humans, wanted to assign blame.

Whose fault was this?

Jesus says no one’s.

This man did not deserve this tragedy.

But … his blindness gave Jesus the opportunity to show him compassion and empathy by giving him his sight.

And Jesus directs his disciples to go and do likewise.

Not give sight to the blind, but to show compassion to those whose lives have been  broken in a broken world.

And if there were no broken lives, there would be no opportunity for compassion and empathy and assistance.

So this man born blind was used by God for good.

These victims in Orlando can be used likewise.

They become those who give us an opportunity to do as Jesus did.

Help individuals when they need it.

Rebuilding lives.

There it is.

Undeserved random misfortune is a means for God’s love to be demonstrated.

If we are to be like Jesus, we must be compassionate on those in need, from any misfortune, whether catastrophic or individual, regardless of fault.

When we do this, God’s love erupts out of nowhere.

And everyone is touched.

What this tells us is that while we cannot prevent the evils of the world from doing us harm, we can respond in a way that demonstrates love and compassion.

I like the way Mr. Rogers put it.

When he saw terrible and frightening events, he looked for the helpers.

That is what we are called to do now.

Be the helpers.

Care about and care for each other in this time when many are in pain.

Share our own pain.

And know that Jesus knows that kind of pain and will help us bear it.


A Free Pass? Thoughts on Grace

Galatians 2: 15-21

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

One of the hardest things to do when arguing a case to a jury is to, as they say, speak to them on their level.

Don’t use technical legal terms or jargon.

They don’t understand.

They tune out.

You lose.

But it’s not just lawyers.

It applies to preachers, too.

So I have to be doubly sensitive to using technical terms – for I am both.

And so was Paul.

He was an expert in the Jewish law.

And he was a preacher.

His sensitivity to the use of technical jargon was – well – pretty much nonexistent.

And that is kind of what we have here.

Paul is having a “conversation” of sorts with people who speak his theological language.

We are just listening in.

And scratching our heads.

Saying …”What?”

So we need to start with a few definitions.

The first word we need to understand is “sin”.

A sin is the failure to follow the Jewish law, which was given to the Jews by God to be followed!

The next word we need to understand is “justification”.

Pastor Heidi Husted Armstrong has a really good description of justification.

Justification is what a computer’s word processing program does to the margins – straightening up the words so that they are in right relationship to the page. This is what God does for sinners who are out of line. Messy human lives get straightened out, put in right relationship with God …

So to continue Armstrong’s metaphor, Paul is talking about the divine “justification tab”.

When your life is messy and crooked and does not follow the rules, what does that “justification tab” look like.

It is Paul’s absolute belief that only Jesus Christ can put us in a right relationship with God.

To be very clear, this is the pinnacle of our faith.

But Paul is talking to Galatians with a different view.

They believed that you become justified by following the law.

If you live a life obeying the Jewish law, you will be in a right relationship with God.

In other words, you can be good enough … on your own.

Paul couldn’t disagree more.

We cannot be good enough.

One cannot be justified through the law, because no one can be completely obedient to it.

He is so vehement that he says that twice in the first two sentences.

And I believe he is right.

To believe that we can be good enough is to expect too much of humanity.

Here is what I mean.

There is an excellent radio show and podcast called “On Being”.

The host is Krista Tippett.

This is how she describes the show:

On Being opens up the … questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?

Recently she had Jonathan Haidt on the show.

He teaches ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

He looks at humanity as an increasingly positive movement forward from our ancient selves to what we have today.

He says this:

 [H]ow do we get civilization? What were hunter-gatherers like, and how did we get here?

And my view is we’re this little, tribal species that was basically just sort of beating each other up, and competing with each other in all these ways, and somehow or other, we’ve risen so vastly far above our design specifications. I look around at us and I say, go humanity. We are fantastic.

Then he says this:

Yeah, there’s ISIS, there’s a lot of bad stuff, but you people who think that things are bad, you are expecting way too much.

The implication is that however good we actually are or think we can become; there will always be bad stuff.

Paul would call that “sin”.

If we think we can eliminate sin, we are expecting too much of ourselves.

We cannot get there on our own.

We need help.

Divine help.

Paul says Jesus is that divine help.

So Paul says that justification, getting in a right relationship with God, comes by way of faith in Jesus.

So now we need to understand what Paul means by “faith”.

I think the best way to think of faith is as form of trust.

Trust that Jesus will keep the promises he made.

And what Jesus promises us is grace.

Another word we need to define.

Grace is the undeserved forgiveness of God for our inability to live the way he wants us to live.

If we trust Jesus to be gracious, he will be, regardless of our inevitable sinfulness.

And he will lead us into that right relationship with God.

Which we can’t manage on our own.

Here is an example of what I think that means.

I believe I have described here my absolute terror of high places.

One manifestation of that occurs when I am climbing stairs that are open such that I can down between the steps.

Many years ago Karen and I went to London and wanted to climb to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It’s really high.

Lots of steps.

All open.

With a disturbingly low rail.

I really wanted to go up there.

The view was said to be “heavenly”.

But I couldn’t.

I literally froze on the steps.

Then Karen told me to hold onto the back of her belt and close my eyes.

She would get me there.

So I did.

And she did.

I could not eliminate my fear of heights so I could not get to the top on my own.

So Karen took me there.

That is what grace is like.

In other words, we cannot be good enough to enter into the presence of God, but God can take us there.

But the Galatians, are not done.

They ask that question people have been asking since Paul started writing letters.

If faith alone is enough, why are we not free to live any way we want?

We can ignore God’s law.

We can ignore ethical law.

We can ignore moral law.

We can ignore cultural law.

We can be agents of chaos and conflict.

We can “sin” with impunity.

And so long as we proclaim faith in Jesus, we are in a right relationship with God.

Kind of like a free pass.

And Paul replies strongly.

“Absolutely not!”

Paul says that when he came to faith in Jesus, his old self died and Jesus now lives in him.

More definitions.

Paul says he is crucified with Christ, and it is no longer Paul who lives, but Christ who lives in Paul.

What does that mean?

It means that when Paul accepted his faith in Jesus, his old “sinfulness” sort of drained out and he was refilled with Jesus.

As an aside, we would say that Paul was refiled by the Holy Spirit.

Regardless, Paul is filled with the triune God.

If that is true, Paul would inevitably live like it.

He would be drawn to that particular way of living I call, the Jesus way.

The same is true for us.

If we have faith in Jesus, our old selves are dead.

Jesus lives in us.

And we should feel drawn to live like Jesus.

That is what Paul means by justification by faith.

Today we celebrate that part of Paul’s message.

The draining of our old selves the way Jesus’ life was drained away on the cross.

And then the refilling of ourselves with the new life Jesus offers us.

That is what The Lord’s Supper is all about.

It is a ceremony that reminds us that justification by faith is not a free pass.

It is a costly one.

Paid by Jesus on the cross.

And when we come to the table we drain away our old selves and fill ourselves up with Jesus.

That is Jesus’ promise.

Trust him.

Be justified.

And live the Jesus way.