The Identified Patient

When there’s a breakdown in some families, you can sometimes find that everyone is clear that if ONE person changed, everything would be fine.  “If she just got her act together… if it wasn’t for her… if she just wasn’t here…”  What’s clearest, to anyone looking in from the outside, is that the problems, breakdowns or frustrations all stem from the presence and nature of one person.

Ever been “the identified patient?”  It’s a lousy position in which to be.  Any move you make, any breath you take, any cake you bake is evaluated from the position of the problem you are to the rest of the household.  Sort of the way a mountain creates its own weather, the identified patient creates atmospheric issues of life in a community.  It doesn’t really have to do much more than be there, just being present creates turbulence, crowdedness, disquiet.

Consider how the identified patient might feel in that setting.  They don’t have to try.  They just have to be there and they’re wrong.  If they say something, they’re wrong.  If they do something, they’re wrong.  But they don’t have to do or say anything… we just all know they’re wrong and will only, always, ever be wrong.  They’re in the way, roadblocks, hampering movement forward and so the best thing is just to ignore them or get rid of them, if possible.

But then someone comes along who wonders if anyone has ever climbed the mountain… and gives it a shot.  It’s treacherous, the air gets thin, sometimes it feels like they’re dying, but then, as they get to the top, suddenly a vista opens up, the world is clear.  They can see forever.  They’re glad they made the trip.

That’s what happens sometimes when the identified patient is not attended as a “patient” but as part of life, as a person.  It’s a hike, no question, and sometimes its more of a climb than a hike.  Mountains get driven up by a lot of ancient trauma from below.  But when someone takes the time and makes the effort, they can learn the mountain and can reach a spot where they see clearly and they also love the mountain.

There’s a story Jesus tells of the guy who is a problem.  Jesus tells those who follow him to go one-on-one to sort out the problem the guy has or is.  He goes on, if that doesn’t work then bring another with you and if not then, bring in some authority for help and if not then, get the community to come together to clear things up.  If that doesn’t work then “treat them like a tax collector or sinner.”  This has been used as a road-map on kicking someone out of the church… but that’s not how Jesus treated tax collectors and sinners.  He didn’t kick them out.  He chose to get to know them, to climb the mountain.

Just when you figure someone is nothing more than a pain in the butt, so we should just dismiss them… Jesus comes along and says, “Nah, …get your gear!  We got a hill to climb!”  Who does this guy think he is?



There’s Always Only One Side to Every Story

Have you ever noticed that there’s only one side to every story?  I know the old adage says it differently… something about “two sides.”  But, it’s been my experience that there’s always only one.  I used to think it was mine.

I used to know when I was in an argument or when there was a misunderstanding between me and someone else that there was only one side to the story and I had it.  I was right.  They were wrong.  They just weren’t seeing clearly or their logic was off or they were just being dull or they were looking for a good excuse to be angry at me or they were jerks or choosing to be stupid or numbskulls.  I like that word… “numb-skulls.”  It’s such a tangible expression.  It’s like “no-brain.”

I remember watching an interview where an actor referred to a director as having “the brain of a pea.”  He didn’t say he had a brain “the size of a pea” (which is how I’ve always heard it).  He said he had the brain of a pea.  I liked that, too.  It is so graphic.  I spent a little while looking forward to the moment when I could copy that, use it to refer to someone who ticked me off.

That was when I used to think that there was only one side and that it was mine.

Now, I’m convinced that there’s always only one side to every story… and it’s always God’s.

When I was at the place in my life where I was open to collecting clever insulting names to use on people I came upon “Raca.”  It’s the old word for “empty-head,” a different way of saying “no-brain.”  The trouble, for me, was it was used by Jesus and it was in the middle of his saying that people who refer to others this sort of way were just as guilty of murder as the person who just fired the gun.  Paying attention to Jesus means you have to give up clever insults.  That can feel like a drag for a while because they’re so tasty.  They have such a chewy, saltiness that it makes you want to hang onto them for a while… and there’s Jesus telling you to spit it out.  Like some Mom who discovered you picked up something from the ground and in her disgust, she’s still telling you to spit it into her hand.  Jesus is acting like that.  She wants it out of you.

I had friends, next-door neighbors, when I was little, who decided to try out the taste of tar from the new coating that had just been put down on the road outside our houses.  Their mom not only made them spit it out, but she used a little Lestoil to get it off their teeth.  Talk about washing your mouth out with soap!  My Mom made a big deal of telling me NEVER to do that or she might need to use Lestoil on me.

That’s a word from God.  If you do something like that, if you put words like this in your mouth, we’re going to have to do some heavy-duty cleansing.

Jesus has this way of taking something that seems like a cool idea at the time and showing us how it impacts us really.  Which can feel like buzz-kill until you think about it with him… and then you’re getting to the one side of the story.

The one side belongs to God because God’s the only one who sees the whole story.  He knows what’s going on in everyone’s head and heart.  He knows what we have seen and what we haven’t seen, what we’ve mixed up or ignored.  He knows… and we don’t.  There’s always one side to every story and it belongs to God.  That’s why he calls us to reconciliation.  He’s telling us that we need to join him in getting back together with people, so we both admit to the story he’s revealing to us.



NYNY, Islam, Justice League and Thanks

Listening to TLC’s version of Sleighride, sitting in a Starbucks because it is the only coffee place open within a couple of blocks and fresh out of a late night showing of “Justice League” in the Regal on 42nd Street in NYC.  Realizing that this isn’t the regular placement of a Senior Pastor of pretty much any First Presbyterian Church. Seems characteristic, however, to what works for me and the nature of this occasional blog.  We came north to the city to have Thanksgiving with family.  New York, NY is a marvel that should be credited as such, as should the new superhero movie from DC and that Sleighride had its reins released by the ladies.JLA

Wrapped up Thanksgiving by dropping into the theater we were passing to see what they had done with these favorite characters in their new story.  Sent on my wife and sister-in-law because they had no interest in staying up that late… or seeing costumed myth come to life.  All told it was a really fine way to finish the day.

The movie is about the gathering of reps of various populations of earth to fight a common enemy. It is SO much better than the earliest reviews suggested.  And, it put me in mind of holding a Thanksgiving Eve service with our local Muslim community on Wednesday night. Clergy and church members from different churches came to the Islamic Community Center to celebrate together. That kind of connection – reps from various populations of earth gathering to fight a common enemy – between myth and reality is something more people should talk over.  There’s a marvel within that.

As I am the President of the Downtown Ministerium this year, I was asked to consider including the Islamic community in our Thanksgiving Eve service.  So, I reached out to the leaders in our area and brought a version of worship that might be used. It included language I knew I could say authentically and that I hoped would not offend and, in fact, would include these neighbors.  Turned out, it fit for them as well.  So, we went forward with the proposed battle plan.  The common enemy is hate, but hate’s comrades are prejudice, neglect, misinformation… a crowd.  As I watched Batman in the movie working his way into the lives of people who didn’t see why they should associate immediately, I felt for him.  The tone of the conversation was recognizable.

The thing about this gathering was that we had to acknowledge the truth of personal understanding, faith, history and differences.  The value of differences is crucial because I’m not going to water down the Gospel of Jesus anymore than the followers of Islam are going to stop praying at the correct hours.  Batman has a goal but he has to learn each of the people before he can gather them in.  He must step into risk as well in order to find the resources he needs for the entire team.

           It all works because the people are willing to come together and to act as themselves, not by giving up their identities but by combining their efforts.  So, on Wednesday night we all gathered alongside each other and admitted we all needed to say thanks. It was not earth shaking but it had the strength of light in the darkness… which is a marvel indeed.  We simply said, as neighbors, that we won’t fight, deride or even challenge.  No one claimed to be right or that others were wrong.  Instead, we admitted our shared humanity and that we can only accomplish life with help and that requires an expression of gratitude.  And then we ate pie together.  It’s amazing how strong light can be.
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Matthew 6:36


No Alternative to Right

As a Pastor, I know that Jesus can seem confusing.  When we read the words, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it,” we can scratch our heads.  I know that there are different ways to understand these words.

But one way of receiving these words is that God’s kingdom has been under attack and that violent people lay claim to it (and the Greek there is almost always a descriptive of maliciousness).  We can recognize truth in that idea.  Even if we broaden it out to say, “What is right and good has always been used violently and those who do that abuse the worth of it,” we can recognize that removing the religious element doesn’t change the inherent truth of the words.  People who have no place within the truth, will try to use it for their own gains.  They will claim that it is speaking about themselves and their cause.

The claim doesn’t make it true.

There is no right or good within the alt-right movement.  There is no life.  It doesn’t speak to the worth of America or the history of America.  It is only about themselves gaining power.  It takes a bit of truth – there is value in honoring heritage – and violently twists that to gain power.  That is the skillful work of liars, taking a bit of truth and creating a world of one’s own design by manipulating it to one’s desire.

The point of the power they seek is to overthrow the value of human beings, particular human beings… our black, Jewish, Asian, or differently-oriented human beings.  The point of the power is control and dominance and prestige.  It is to make others serve a vision of the future where their whim or edict will manage life, all lives.

If we do not step into this moment, if we waffle over whether we too believe in the honoring of heritage and not recognize the lie it is being used to support, we lose what is right and good.  We lose truth.  We cannot allow that.  We cannot expose our children to this subtlety because it will confuse them and they will become susceptible to the damage this lie brings to hearts and minds.  We must be forthright and plain.

The alt-right is not honoring heritage and not claiming a historical value.  It is maligning the value of other human beings for their own gain.  They are saying they have more value than any other.  They use blame and intolerance as tools to break down truth, to guide those who have been worn-out by tough times into serving them.  They take the lonely, the frustrated, the impoverished, the aimless and give them a direction built on a half-truth, a subtle dismissing of the value of anyone but themselves.

The tools against this lie seem impossibly weak in comparison to the violence it fosters.  The tools are friendship, conversation and love.  These don’t seem to move fast enough to counter the seeming wave of hatred.  But they are the tools to use and they must be used ferociously.  We must invite our neighbors over for dinner and talk with them.  We must build friendships with the other-oriented, the differently skin-colored, the races we do not know.  And we must seek the best for these other lives, in any way we can do that.

It may mean that we receive damage to our property by those who hate, it may be that we find ourselves maligned, we may be mistreated, we may even receive death threats for loving our neighbors.  That does happen to people who take truth seriously and who stand within the value of those who are different from themselves.  It does happen.  I recognize that and am willing to live in that because, really, Jesus isn’t confusing at all.



We live in a time of voice-controlled technology, which, most likely, will only get more so.  Imagine getting into your car and telling it to take you to an address and it asking if you want 158 on south Maple or north Maple.  It’s coming.

We sometimes forget the true power of the voice.  There are numerous ways to follow that thought but I’m heading toward faithfulness.  God, we are told, created through speaking.  “Let there be light.” LIGHT! And we can sometimes misplace the truth that our voices lean in that direction.  What we tell ourselves, about ourselves, what we say to others, about themselves, has power.  It creates.

This is the significance of the blessing in the Bible and explains why, once it is given, it’s done.  When Esau learns that Jacob received the pronounced blessing of Isaac, the words spoken over him even though he was disguised, he asks, “Is there nothing left for me?”  And there isn’t.  Isaac explains that he said it all.  When people used to say, “I give you my word”, it meant something.  One’s word was a created thing, more than a promise.  The blessing said over Jacob became literal, handing him the full inheritance.

In Romans 12, where we’re told to “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse”, we’re being told to create the world through our words.  We’re being told to join the work of God in the lost regions of another’s soul.  People who seek to do damage to others are, for the most part, damaging their own souls.  They are deadening a part that should be functioning, that should be telling them that what they’re doing should never be done to any human being.  The restoration and healing that needs to take place there must start with blessing, with the creative saying that brings life into existence.

So, we need to not only bless those who persecute us but also bless those who love us.  We need to pronounce blessing to our children and to others’ children.  We need to bless friends and neighbors.  We need to say more than truth, but to speak life, the life that should be, into the souls of those we cherish.

The deepest blessing we can bring to another comes from the place of our own healing.  Out of the damage that sought to deaden our souls, to separate us from life, God, other people, out of the healing and hope we have received comes words that carry new life.  When we bless from our own healing, we restore and heal because the ones who need that most are living in the damage and darkness of their own deadening.  This is why the word of the Lord is living and active and effective and more than just the Bible.  It is the life that comes through the Bible, from the creating word of the one who restores and heals, truly.



After we are restored, reintroduced to our place in the family, we need to get healed.  All sorts of images are conjured up here of cancer disappearing, to visible disorders like leprosy, to being able to walk or talk or see again.  But the essence of healing that we find in the Bible is offered to all people and it is, quite simply, freedom.  It is the ability to move and act freely.  This may include physical healing, where the trap of restriction and even captivity of illness prevails, or it may be being set free from the constraints of the demands of life, family and society.

Healing is brought to people who are healthy and well, physically, but are mentally restrained.  Healing is brought to people who are spiritually oppressed.  Healing is brought to people who are trapped financially.  Usually, when healing takes place, the person is brought to a new understanding, similar to being restored, but with practical consequences.

They can finally move… either again or for the first time.

It is an amazing experience to find someone who is healed physically.  I have been a part of a handful of these moments.  Just last week a man came to church to tell me that it was after my prayer over him in the hospital that he began to feel well again, pulled back from the expectation that he had only a short time of life.  Another man, some time back told me that as I laid my hand on his shoulder and prayed, that a “warmth moved from (his) shoulder down to his hip” where a disease was requiring an operation.  He told me that as he came away from the prayer time he knew he was healed.  An examination, just prior to the planned surgery, revealed that this was true.

I experienced nothing within these profound moments.  I didn’t feel anything different than when I’ve prayed at any other time.  And that makes me reconsider Jesus’ words to the people who found healing with him, “Your faith has made you well.”

Faith isn’t a measure, an amount, of faith (which Jesus makes clear with his “mustard seed” parable (Matthew 17).  It’s a relationship… which tells us that it is interwoven with restoration.  When someone comes into the relationship that God always intended and, then, discovers the way life actually moves in living ways they find healing, freedom, the ability to move.  They choose to help when others shy or back off.  They walk into new understanding and their minds clear up with direction and purpose.  They find hope and relax and rest from anxiety.  Healing takes place in all sorts of arenas of our lives and the peace that comes upon us moves us to take hold of things we could never imagine were possible.

When we talk about healing we sometimes forget that this takes place in relationships, within our minds, in our spirits and can also be in our bodies.  But, once healing takes place, we find freedom and freedom is the reason Jesus came.  We sometimes forget that as well.  Salvation isn’t seen in becoming good.  It’s seen in freedom.  Once we are free in Jesus, we are free indeed.



Before anything else can happen, we need to be restored.  Restoration is different than fixing something.  Anyone who spends the time restoring something, who brings the talent, creativity, love and deep strength that is required, knows that the work must be exact.  We can fix with duct tape… what can’t be fixed with duct tape… well, except ducts duct tape 2where it flaps off after the glue warms as hot air moves through the ducts. (What is up with that?) We may even be able to create with duct tape, but we can’t restore with duct tape.  Restoration requires master craftsmanship.  It requires steadiness to a vision of both what was and what will be.

And this is a curiosity about restoration.  The thing restored is both becoming what it was and also becoming something new.  When restoration is finished the old is actually lost because the new becomes a living experience.  That is the reason we restore.  We don’t restore so that something can now be put in the attic.  We restore so that there will be new participation in life.

That’s the work of God in humanity.

God’s work is restoration.  God doesn’t come to fix.  God comes to restore.  And by restoring God leads us into newness, new participation in living.

God didn’t come to make us good or better, but to restore us.

This is revealed in two particular stories (sort of three) in the stories of Jesus.  It is the story of the paralytic who is brought for healing.  This story is found in the Gospels of Mark and Luke and they are gently different.  In Mark’s version, Jesus, when looking at the friends who brought the paralytic and dug a hole in the roof to get him to Jesus, turns to the man and says, “My son…”  In Luke’s version, Jesus says, “Friend…”  The other story is the one of the woman with the bleeding disease who is healed when she touched Jesus’ clothes.  In that, when Jesus speaks to the woman he says, “Daughter…”

Friend, son, daughter… words of restoration.  Jesus restores these people into relationship.

When Christians step out into the world, we sometimes feel like we need to fix it.  So we approach it with our holy duct tape.  We use the language we’ve created that should fix whatever’s wrong.  “Sinner,” “need to be redeemed,” “accept Jesus,” “savior,” “lord”… And, for some reason this doesn’t work with most people.  Maybe that’s because we’re talking about relationships and the only thing our holy duct tape doesn’t work on is relationships.

Reconciliation… the ministry the Bible says we were called by God to do… means restoring an old friendship.  Restoration requires talent, creativity, deep strength that comes from character and love… and the work must be exact, so that it moves into new participation in life.

At First Pres this Sunday, June 11, downtown Lancaster, we’re going to have healing prayer as we call ourselves into being Authentic Church.  We’ve been doing this for 275 years this year.  We’re not doing something we haven’t done or been before.  We’re just reminding ourselves that the work of restoration is something to celebrate and through it we live into new participation in our future.