“The Lord appeared to Abram by the oaks at Mamre…”
Genesis 18: 1
“Tell me about your church,” the professor suggested. “What’s the best thing about your church?”
“Oh,” said one lady, “this is a friendly church.”
I was serving as the church’s pastor. It was a student appointment, and the professor had come to learn from members of the church about the environment in which I worked.
“That’s nice,” the professor responded. “Tell me about that.”
Various members picked up the refrain. We’re friendly, they said. No matter how the professor asked, no matter how persistently he pursued the theme, he couldn’t get anyone to explain. He got only one specific answer: We greet people who come here.
As the weeks passed, though, I noticed things.
When a special coffee hour followed the service one Sunday, an usher locked the door to keep street people out.
When a neighborhood group asked to meet at the church, the senior pastor said they were welcome. Two trustees refused to open the building, and the pastor had to race to the church.
Visitors always sat alone.
When scouts asked to use the church, I said yes. The basement sat empty 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Matters came to a head one day when the chairman demanded that I drive 25 miles to see the mess the scouts had left. We entered the basement. Every chair was in place. Every table clean. The floor was swept. There, beside a pillar, lay a little American flag. The scouts had taped it to the pillar, and the tape had let go. I resolved the situation by working in my woodshop for 15 minutes, making a base to hold the flag.
When a neighborhood man came – a tough-looking, large, dirty individual – no one talked to him. When he begged for food, they complained that he was taking advantage.
I want to make something clear: These were good folks, mostly older, mostly blue-collar, mostly retired. They had worked hard all their lives, had raised families. They came to church regularly and were honest. I liked them, and I soon came to love them, even the curmudgeonly trustees. I discovered that they responded and learned when confronted lovingly. Many of their responses rose out of fear. The neighborhood was tough and getting tougher by the minute. No doubt, the rough man was involved in a number of break-ins nearby. During one of my sessions with him, he pulled a knife and described in graphic detail what he would do to anyone who crossed him.
Let it be known, too, that this was the first church I served where bullet holes had pierced the stained-glass windows. I noticed the holes shortly after arriving there and asked about them.
“People drive by and shoot at the church,” I was told.
I spent weeks tracking down a stained-glass artist who could replace the broken panes, and I paid for the work from my own pocket.
That church is dead now, blown away in the winds of change. Its members moved on to a nearby Methodist church, and the Baptists took over.
I served six churches in the central city. Two are closed, and I mourn their loss. I cried one day when I entered one of the now-closed buildings and saw the altar and pews gone, the colorful paraments gone. But there was a lesson.
Hospitality is not a disposable asset. No matter how hard it is.
Abram sits by his tent in the heat of the day. One can almost imagine a Middle Eastern summer, haze shimmering, heat pounding down. He sees three strangers. Our of the three is God, but Abraham doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know who they are. Now watch the verbs. Pay attention. They define hospitality.
Abraham hurries to the strangers. He meets them. He bows down before them. He begs a favor of them. What is the favor? Allow me, he says in so many words, to be your servant. Don’t pass me by. Stay with me. Let me wait on you. Let me bring water so that your feet may be bathed. Let me bring food that you might be strengthened. Then, and only then, let you depart.
Watch the verbs! He hurries to the tent. He orders his wife to prepare bread quickly. He runs to his herd and chooses the best calf. He gives it to a servant. He brings curds and milk and sets the food before them. While they eat, he stands near, attentive to their needs.
That’s what the professor was asking. He wanted to hear what it meant to be friendly.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. Are you friendly?
“My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.”
Psalm 91: 2
My professor led a brief devotion before he concluded his visit to my inner-city church.
He asked members of the board to speak about moments when God was particularly close. A number of people spoke about illness, family disturbance, or times of worship, but Ed, the chairman of the trustees, remained silent.
He was the last person to remain when the meeting closed. The church, he felt, was his responsibility. He wanted to make sure the lights were off, the doors closed and locked, the thermostat properly set. But it was also obvious he wanted to tell me something that had been on his mind during the devotion.
I was in the Marines in the Pacific during World War II, he said, and I was sent out one day on a patrol. I became separated somehow in the jungle from my buddies, and so I began to work my way back to the American lines. I soon found myself hiding in the brush, surrounded by Japanese on every side. I was so close that I could hear them talking, could smell the food they cooked, and I had no choice but to hunker down and hope they wouldn’t find me.
He hid like that all night long. I laid there, afraid and fearful, he said, and I prayed. How I prayed.
He reached into his wallet and pulled out a worn, faded old card that contained the opening verses from Psalm 91. You know the ones. The ones that tell us God is our refuge. My mom gave me this before I went overseas. I’ve carried it now for more than 50 years, Ed said, and my Lord has always been near. He has always protected me. He told me he had waited until nearly dawn that day, and then had quietly crawled through the Japanese lines and back to the American position.
God watched over me then, Ed said, and I know he watches over me now.
I realized, as Ed talked, that none of us is just one thing. We’re more complicated than that.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. When has God been closest?
“And he wept so loudly that the… household of Pharaoh heard it.”
Exodus 45: 2
When I was in seventh grade, I fell in love with and memorized a poem. Now, more than 60 years later, I can still recite parts of it:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
What caused a 12-year-old to need words written by a man dying of cancer? Why did he need to know the human spirit can survive anything? Why would he memorize William Henley’s message?
If I could, would I erase all the bad days of my life? Would you?
Would I erase the terrible mornings when I breathed in the sour stench of my father’s alcohol-laden snoring in the next bedroom? Would I rather never remember the day a friend saw my father driving late one night with a woman not my mother? Would I cross off the day he left, never to return, with a tax notice posted on our home and no food in the refrigerator?
Or perhaps I would eliminate the night I ran in terror, seeking respite from rockets in a Vietnam bunker. Father Karl Rahner, a German priest during World War II, once described real prayer. Real prayer, he said, was like a night in a rubbled-over bunker, bombs overhead, death standing near.
Maybe I would surrender a year and a half of hell as I dealt with a daughter caught up in a web of bad friendships, poor decisions, angry crimes. Night after night, I worried. Day after day, I tried to glue her life together like a shattered teapot, knowing I couldn’t fix the cracks and chips.
Having erased, what would be left?
If I take away my father, I take away the crucible that shaped and molded me and blessed me with many skills. If I take away the bad moments with my daughter, I would lose the most loving ones and would no longer know the joy of seeing her whole, a college graduate, a loving mother, a strong woman.
You have perhaps heard of Joseph. As a young boy, his brothers sold him into slavery. He lived through that and prevailed, coming to rule the land as a chief functionary of Pharaoh. Pain, anger, and darkness fill this story. Joseph is thrown in a pit. He is sent to prison. He suffers. Then, late in the story, his brothers appear again, not recognizing him, seeking food.
In the story Joseph cries three times. He cries in Genesis 42 when his brothers first appear and seek food. He weeps again in chapter 43 when he meets for the first time his youngest brother, Benjamin. Finally, in chapter 45, he cries a third time, so loudly all of Pharaoh’s household hears.
These chapters form a sustained meditation on our tears.
Terrible things happen. We do terrible things to each other and before God. Pain and suffering and bad human decisions are so much a part of us that we can’t imagine life without them. We hate the bad moments. We hurt. But these things become who we are. Joseph’s first tears are painful. He remembers nothing but loss and suffering. His second tears contain more. The pain remains, but now he is overcome with love. He wants to hold his brother. Finally, as he becomes aware that those who harmed him have also suffered, that they too are filled with regret, that they too have changed, his tears are filled with the work of forgiveness. These tears form the backdrop to reconciliation, forgiveness, love, and a bright future.
God reshapes our tears into love, and Joseph recognizes that God has worked ceaselessly in the darkness to bring all into the light.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How was God present in darkness?
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket…”
Matthew 5: 15
I was in Chicago some time ago and traveled out to Evanston to see my seminary again. While there, I ran into Joel, a young man who had graduated with me. He was still there, studying for a doctorate so he could someday teach other seminarians.
Joel was the most brilliant student in my class. He took all the most difficult courses, and he always got As.
When you go through seminary, you are learning how to be a minister. They make you go out and minister. Joel, who really wanted to teach rather than be a minister, was assigned to work in a nursing home not far from the campus. While there, he worked with Alzheimer’s patients, people who couldn’t remember their own children or spouses, who had no sense of time, who had little mental capacity left.
He spoke in one of my classes about his work.
“They wanted me to do a Bible study for the Alzheimer’s patients,” he said. “I could draw up a six-part lesson plan for the Gospel of John that would make any professor happy, but I had to figure out how to teach the Bible to people who could no longer read, who wouldn’t remember a thing I taught.”
His brilliance didn’t matter. Greek and Hebrew were useless. It would serve no purpose to expound on the theological ramifications of the parables or the history of the Hebrew people.
He knew that whatever he taught would vanish the moment class ended.
”I had to find a way,” he said, “to be with them with the Word of God in a way they could understand and which mattered only for that moment.”
Joel had lessons on the baptism of Jesus, and he brought a bowl of water to the class so the students could feel the water and talk about water. He brought pictures of his little brother and sister and talked about children, and the Alzheimer’s patients, who could not remember yesterday, remembered their own childhoods or their own children when they were young.
The patients began to interact for these few moments each day with the young man who could speak and read Greek or Hebrew. They shared memories from long ago, often with a smile or a laugh.
Joel was moved to tears as he described the people who participated in this little class, the first he had ever taught. His students could remember a moment 30 years earlier but not one five minutes past.
A professor who heard Joel was stunned.
Here was a Joel she had never seen or known, a Joel who surrendered his brilliance, gave up his identity, and struggled just to be with people he barely knew. It was clear that his work had moved him to his core, had brought out a compassion as deep as the ocean, and had brought him out of his deep introspection and shyness.
Here was Joel confronting the pain of the world, striving to love.
Once a lamp is lit, it must shine. No one would, or even could, put it under a basket. A lamp that has been lit has but one purpose, to bring light.
This is how Jesus would have us be. He would have us be the light of the world.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How will you light the world today?