By John A. Huffman Jr.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
"For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:2-3).
Rick Richardson, professor and writer, tells about a pastor named Dan, who realized he was getting stale. So with the approval of his pastoral team, he took a part-time job at a Starbucks coffee shop.
To his surprise, "All 21 people he worked with believed in God. Not one was an atheist ... They were all very positive toward God and spirituality."
Richardson goes on to report:
A second surprise was that all were interested in spiritual things, but not in Christians, Christianity, or the church. No one wanted to hear Dan's proofs for God or invitations to come to church or ideas about salvation. Almost everyone thought they knew what Christianity was about and had decided they didn't want it. They were post Christian. At some point along the way, each of them had experienced a breach in trust related to Christianity. Maybe a Christian friend had been hypocritical or pushy. Maybe when they were young they had attended church and found it boring and irrelevant. Maybe they had watched TV preachers and been turned off. Or maybe they had experienced a tragedy—death or sexual abuse or some other trauma—and felt that God had been distant and uncaring.
Richardson said, "Dan wasn't starting at ground zero, but rather at minus-three or four. ... The biggest thing Dan learned is that people in this generation have a prior question of trust that must be addressed before we can have meaningful spiritual conversations with them."
Pastor Dan had discovered the outside understanding of how the church was viewed by some people.
That may be your perception today on Easter Sunday. You come Christmas Eve and Easter, tipping your hat to the notion of God. You believe in Him—you're not an atheist. You're very positive toward God in spirituality. But, somehow, a disconnect has happened. It may be a bad experience with Christians, Christianity or the church. Or perhaps you've just found it boring and irrelevant.
Forty-something years ago, I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. I took my first pastorate as an associate on the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma. My job included visiting the hospitals three days a week.
I'll never forget that afternoon as I signed into the psychiatric wing, a lock-and-key ward, to see a patient by the name of Harry. Harry was in for alcoholic detoxification. He was most gracious to me. I had prayer with him and, on subsequent visits, got to know him quite well. He told me that he had been a member of the First Presbyterian Church for some 40 years. He had come to Tulsa as a young man to start his insurance business. He figured that joining a prominent service club and a prominent, large church would be good for business. His business did prosper. The next thing he knew, he was elected a deacon because the deacons handled the money, and they knew he'd be good at that.
Finally, I got up the courage to ask Harry if he knew Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and Lord. In a non-hostile, somewhat avuncular way, Harry said to me, "To be honest with you John, I just go through the motions at First Presbyterian Church. It's good for Louise and the family. But where I find spiritual reality, although it doesn't look like it here in this detox ward, is at AA. For me, spiritual reality is trusting in my Higher Power to get through one day at a time."
I responded, "Harry, do you know what the name of your Higher Power is?"
He answered, "Yes, Higher Power!"
I said, "Harry, the real name of your Higher Power is Jesus Christ. Every one of those 12 Steps was taken straight out of the Bible. A friend of mine, the late Dr. Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal rector, helped Bill W. put those steps in place. The term ‘Higher Power' is simply to help people who do not believe in God or are of different faiths to get a handle on their addictions. But the true name of your Higher Power is Jesus Christ."
Well, Harry was finally released from the hospital. We had bonded in a close friendship. In fact, I've discovered some of my closest friends through the years are people honest enough to admit that they have addictions. They want authentic, honest communication. That's what attracts me to them. I would sometimes stop by Harry's house for root beer floats on Monday afternoons on my way home from my
And a few weeks into our friendship, Harry, a man who had found the church to be irrelevant, came to personal faith in Jesus Christ, declaring Him to be his Higher Power. Harry, several years later, died of cancer. He put in his will that he wanted me to come back, with the permission of the senior pastor of that church, to do his funeral and, at that funeral, tell everyone how Harry Parrish came to know that the name of his Higher Power was Jesus Christ.
Our friend, Pastor Dan, stumbled into a kind of outside view of the church. My friend Harry Parrish initiated me into a kind of inside view of the church. In all these years of my ministry, I've tried to keep in healthy balance some kind of understanding and appreciation for people, including the unchurched and the Christmas/Easter crowd, who aren't hostile to what we're doing but just don't find it that relevant to their daily existence. And I also try to be sensitive to those who are members and perhaps come quite regularly because it's good for their families, and the friendships are helpful, but they've never yet given their lives personally to Jesus Christ.
The Starbucks employees and Harry had one thing in common. Neither found spiritual reality in the church. But both could have found that reality and found it in spades. I personally want to apologize wherein how we come across as followers of Jesus seems so irrelevant to the practical needs of people living in 2009.
Let me share from my heart the relevancy of the gospel, the good news of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Let's state this in the form of some basic facts about you and me. Check me out and let me know if you disagree with these basic facts.
Fact #1 is that everyone needs LOVE.
In a psychological, therapeutic use of language, we would call this "unconditional positive regard." To have unconditional positive regard for someone does not mean that you approve of everything they do. That would be a relativistic approach to life, quite alien to biblical Christianity.
However, the basis of historic Christianity is God's love for all people. That's why one of the first Bible verses a new follower of Jesus learns is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
That's what Easter is all about. Let that fact settle in. God loves you. God loves you very, very much. His love is unconditional. In fact, the Bible says, "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
Do you hear, do you know, do you feel the reality of this love?
Fact #2 is that everyone needs FORGIVENESS.
None of us is perfect. The Bible declares that "all of us have sinned." It states that there is "none righteous, no not one."
Now, to be very honest, this does not mean that all of us are all bad. Many of us are quite good people. In fact, you're probably a pretty terrific person. But I doubt that even you would claim that you're perfect.
My friend Harry was one of the nicest guys I ever met, except when it came to his alcohol addiction. His wife, Louise, loved him dearly. But he would lie through his teeth to her, denying that he was "back on the bottle," when she saw evidences that he was. They would have ceremonies, when they would clear the house of all alcoholic beverages. He would resolve to never again have a drink. At the same time, he would tell me how he had built a storage place in the box springs of their king-size bed and how he even had a shelf and strap that could hold a fifth of whiskey under the hood of his car.
Harry knew he needed help. That's why he had gone to AA. That's why he declared his dependence upon his "Higher Power." What Harry discovered was that he needed "a Savior who is Christ the Lord." That was the name of his Higher Power.
We all, like Harry, have a dark side, don't we? It differs from person to person. At times, we are painfully aware of what it is. At other times, we are oblivious to our imperfections; but they are there, aren't they?
That's what Easter is all about. It's about total forgiveness. The Bible says, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24). And it says, "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (1 John 1:9-10).
You see, this is what Easter is all about. There is total forgiveness for your sins, your imperfections, your shortcomings. Not only does God love you, He wants to forgive you. There is nothing you've ever done that is unforgivable, except to say "no" to His love and forgiveness.
Fact #3 is that everyone needs TRANSFORMATION.
That's what the work of the Holy Spirit is all about. Once you repent of sin, admitting you're a sinner, receiving God's love, putting your personal trust in Him, He wants to come into your life and make you into a new person. The apostle Paul describes it in these words, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Jim Birchfield gave a powerful illustration of this transformation. He told about Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in East Los Angeles. Father Boyle has put together a team of physicians trained in laser technology of tattoo removal. The team is part of a program that takes the tattoos of ex-gang members and wipes the slate clean. For many, it is as crucial a service as it is merciful.
To a former gang member, the gang tattoo fosters the attitude that the gang's claim on that person's life is permanent. It is a mark of ownership as much as identity. The process of tattoo removal is extremely painful. Patients describe the laser procedure as feeling like hot grease on their skin. Yet the waiting list grows of those who will put up with whatever pain it takes to be transformed, to receive a new identity. Malachi describes God in His work in our lives as the "refiner's fire" that purifies us, transforms us in an ongoing process of sanctification.
Fact #4 is that everyone needs daily STRENGTH.
Everyone needs the strength to live one day at a time. This is not just a 12-Step concept. This is what is called the life of faith.
Someone I've come to respect tremendously through the years is a woman by the name of Joni Eareckson Tada. Back in 1967, Joni was a happy 17-year-old high school girl. On a seemingly ordinary summer day, she dove into water more shallow than she realized in the Chesapeake Bay and struck her head on a rock, breaking her neck and injuring her spinal cord. In that brief instant, life was irrevocably altered for this teenager. It was the last day she would ever move her hands or legs.
Today, at 59, quadriplegic Joni has been in a wheelchair for almost four decades. Instead of this story being about a terrible tragedy, it is one of victory over adversity, one about a woman who, with God's help, refused to let this catastrophe ruin her life. Instead, she's become an inspiration to millions of people through her speaking, books, artwork done with pencil in mouth, and her tremendous ministry to disabled persons both here and throughout the world.
Joni joins those millions of men and women who, for the last two thousand years, have received strength through their trust in the risen Jesus Christ, who live one day at a time with adversity. I need that strength. You need that strength. And it's available to you and me as we open our lives to the crucified and risen Christ.
Fact #5 is that everyone needs COMMUNITY.
Starbucks is a community of sorts. Some of us rush in, buy our latté and head out to work. Others, who have the time, linger and get to know, perhaps on a Saturday or Sunday morning, those who frequent the establishment at the same time.
One of my personal losses was the closing of the Dietrich's coffee establishment on Seventeenth Street. I was introduced to it by my daughter, Suzanne, when she was in high school. I went there to finish reading her favorite book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, one morning after spending time with her in the wee hours that morning during one of the last days of her life. Since then, early Saturday mornings in her honor and that of our other daughters, Carla and Janet, I became quite a regular. It became a place of community to me, as a miscellaneous assortment of human beings gathered in a regular ritual, gradually getting to know each other's names. Some of you I would see there. And, occasionally, Anne and I would walk our dogs over to sip coffee and have pleasantries with others who also had their dogs there.
In a way, isn't this what bars are all about? People who are lonely are drawn to drink with others in community. Remember the TV sitcom "Cheers"? What was the motto of the bar? It read, "The one place where everybody knows your name." People need people. Community is so important.
In reality, and in a much deeper way, that's what the church is all about. The Bible says that the Lord "puts the solitary in families." You don't get to pick your nuclear family. You have no say about who your mother, father, brother, sister, grandparents or children are. Thank God for those
families, but they're not enough. You and I are privileged to be part of God's forever family, "the family of God," the church, that local chapter of "Sinners Anonymous," where we come together from all walks of life, all ages, nationalities, languages, economic philosophies, bound together in our common faith in the crucified and risen Christ. We experience this in local churches and also know that family wherever we travel in the world, for there we will find brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Last night, our family watched the movie Pursuit of Happiness with Will Smith. It was the sad story of a father whose bad luck and unwise business decisions had broken up his marriage and, ultimately, left him and his son homeless. At a critical point, the only help he was able to receive for housing was from a San Francisco church, which, in the name of Jesus Christ, helped those in need.
Local churches aren't perfect because they're made up of imperfect people. But thanks be to God for the church of Jesus Christ. When it functions as Jesus established it to function, it is a safe place where we can bear one another's burdens, encourage each other and find that,
together, we can do and be what we couldn't possibly do and be individually.
Fact #6 is that everyone needs a MISSION.
All golfers know about The Masters in Augusta, Georgia. Years ago, Frank Chirkinian, the head of CBS Sports, discovered that The Masters and Easter Sunday happened on the same day. Upset at this conflict, he demanded of his colleagues, "Who sets the date of Easter? Didn't they realize that they scheduled it on The Masters weekend? Let's get to that person and have him change it."
Now, I love golf, and I've played my share of it in my lifetime. I've been privileged to play Augusta National some five times, but frankly, ultimately, I find it boring. When I retire, the one thing I don't want to do is play golf every day.
When I hand the baton on to the person who will be my successor, I plan to continue on in ministry of some sort. I want always to be engaged in mission. I want a job bigger than me and my entertainment.
Here at St. Andrew's, we have a mission statement, which reads: "St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church is endeavoring to be the family of God together in joyful, Christ-centered worship and is committed t Leading men, women, and children to a personal saving faith in Jesus Christ;
building ourselves in the faith; and serving others here and throughout the world."
What is your mission in life?
I have been fascinated and challenged by men and women of history who could have luxuriated in self-centered temporal success—however you would define that—who had a vision beyond themselves to be servants of the crucified and risen Christ, carrying out His mission.
One of these is William Wilberforce, born in 1759 and died in 1833, a British politician, philanthropist and abolitionist, who led the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade. Perhaps you've seen the movie about his life titled Amazing Grace.
Wilberforce came from a prosperous merchant family, which saw little in the way of slave trading. He enjoyed the privilege of his class, pursuing a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle as a student at St. John's College, Cambridge. Having little interest in the family business, he entered public life, elected to Parliament at the young age of 21. He was a close friend of the future Prime Minister, William Pitt. Noted for his eloquence and charm, attributes no doubt enhanced by his considerable wealth, he did not involve himself at first with any great cause.
Then, in his mid-20, he had a conversion experience, coming to a personal faith in Jesus Christ. This transformed his life. From then on, he approached politics from a position of biblical Christian morality, not hesitant to speak to the social issues of his day. Influenced by some colleagues in the faith, referred to as the Clapham sect, he became aware of the diabolical slave trade, which was quite invisible to most Britishers. It was a triangle form of shipping. You see, the merchant ships would carry products such as textiles, guns and munitions from England to the West Coast of Africa. They would barter them for human lives, filling the holds of the ships with slaves, then they sailed under deplorable conditions to the West Indies in the Caribbean. The slaves would be sold and bartered for tobacco, sugar, rum and other commodities that would be carried back to England in the same ships.
When Wilberforce met a young slave and saw the actual brand of his bondage that had been burned on his chest and heard other reports of how human beings had been ripped from their families and transported in circumstances where many died or were sold into slave markets, he could not allow this to go unaddressed. In the process, he met John Newton, now an Anglican pastor, once a slave ship captain. Newton described conditions of those slave ships and how he himself had had his life transformed by the crucified and resurrected Christ.
Newton told how it was only because of God's amazing grace that he was able to become a new person, a forgiven person with meaning and purpose for his life. That led him to write that hymn we know so well. Newton knew exactly what he meant when he described what had happened in these words: "Amazing grace! how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see."
For 20 years, Wilberforce and his friends worked to have the slave trade abolished. And finally, the Slave Trade Act became law on March 25, 1807. It took another 25 years of work in addition to that, until finally on his deathbed in July 1833, he rejoiced to hear the news that the bill for the abolition of slavery had finally passed its third reading in the House of Commons. He died on July 29, and one month later Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom, some 30 years prior to that happening here in the United States with the events of the Civil War and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
William Wilberforce is just one man who worked with other men and women with a sense of mission to put into practice a mandate of biblical teaching and the life-transforming message of Jesus Christ.
I could tell story after story of men and women through history right up to the present day for whom Christian faith is not a yawner, irrelevant to where life is lived.
A friend, Gary Haugen, is a modern-day Wilberforce. Part of our Easter offering goes to help him and his colleagues in the International Justice Mission, to use legal means to set free women and children who have been kidnapped and held in the bondage of sexual slavery and forced labor. According to a National Geographic magazine article published in September 2003, "there are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade." Many of us have been on mission trips with World Vision to third-world countries, where we're helping in the name of Jesus Christ to bring fresh water, nutrition, health care, ministering to those struggling with AIDS, and the widows, widowers and orphans left in its wake.
This morning, I challenge you, in a way in which perhaps you've never been challenged before, to take a look at the claims of the crucified and risen Christ, the One who says, "I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly." I challenge you to accept that life as yours and to be engaged in the mission of sharing that life with others wherever God chooses to deploy you right now, this week and on into the years to come.
This morning, I am extending two personal invitations.
Invitation one is to you if you have never received Jesus Christ as Savior. The writer of Hebrews asks, "how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:3). If you are on the outside looking in, I invite you to repent of sin and accept into your life the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. In the silence of this Easter morning worship service, I invite you to become a born-again follower of Jesus Christ. Don't postpone this decision. Do it now!
Invitation two is to you if you are a bit bored with your life, or the church, and you need a fresh touch of God and a new sense of mission. God has dreams of what He could do through you if you are willing. If God is speaking to you today, do respond. Accept God's claim on your life to be in a mission of service to others in the name of Jesus Christ. He has chosen to transform the world through people like you and me!
What do Starbucks, Harry, Joni, Wilberforce, the church and you all have in common? Everyone needs love, forgiveness, transformation, strength, community and a mission worthy of this life and the life to come. This is eternal life, God-quality life in this life on Earth and the life to come in Heaven!