The War to End All Wars

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the World War 1 Museum in Kansas City. It began as a memorial, with a 217-foot tower that was dedicated only 8 years after the war ended.

The Liberty Memorial Tower offers a great view of KC, but even more importantly, it stands as a reminder of the enduring effects, 100 years later, of WW1. The stunning visual that the tower offers is matched by the breath-taking statistics associated with “The Great War.” Millions were killed, and millions more injured. For example, the Battle of Somme, which lasted from June-November 1916, resulted in massive casualties: 419,000 British, 194,000 French, and 650,000 German.

Or how about this: by 1917, there were more soldiers who were POWs than there had been soldiers, period, before the war began.

All of these men were in need of care. Folks like Marie Curie stepped up to help. She devised a mobile x-ray ambulance which she took out to the battlefields. She also took along her seventeen-year-old daughter to work with her.

And so many who served, who sacrificed, and who saved lives were a part of a goal of seeing the end of war as we know it. As the writer H.G. Wells put it: the Allies are fighting to gain “a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing forever. It is the last war!”

Despite H.G. Wells’s optimism, that day has yet to come. Instead, “the war to end all wars” came at the beginning of a century that, by one estimate, resulted in 187 million deaths as a result of war.

If you ever get the chance to visit the WW1 Museum, make sure you walk around to the “backside” — where there is a sculpture that must not be missed. Spanning 148 feet, it depicts the progression of humanity from war to peace. It has four panels. All four quotes are scripture, or scripture-based, including this one: “What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”

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The right side of the sculpture, pointing to the Day when Peace rules

Embedded in the memorial, and in the memory of the war, is the hope and longing for war to come to an end. And rightfully, it points to scripture for this hope. For when we reach for words to express our basic human longing, these words are found most clearly in the Bible; in a book that tells us about a Prince of Peace, and a day when Peace will win, and will reign forever.

We need places like The National WW1 Museum and Memorial. It reminds us of the devastation of war, the brokenness of humanity, and the courage and compassion that arises in times of need. It reminds us that war, sadly, comes easily — while peace, sadly, comes hard.

But come it does. In acts of justice and mercy and humility. And the Christian hope is that justice, mercy, and humility will one day overcome injustice, cruelty, and death. That’s why Jesus came, and that’s why he’s coming again.

Get Real

Years ago, we did a series at church we called Get Real. The purpose was to look at some real stuff Jesus challenges us with, based on the book of Matthew. One Sunday during that series, we talked about real forgiveness. One of our groups got into some real difficult stuff — wrestling with how forgiveness fits when a person has been really hurt.

I have a friend who was in that group, and as she prepared for her ninth-grade small group that night, she was concerned what she would do if the teenage girls brought up similar stuff. If they talk about really big stuff, how would she handle it? But things didn’t go as she expected. Instead, the real stuff the girls were dealing with included this concern: How am I to forgive the girl who poked me with an ink pen, and the teacher didn’t see it, but only saw me telling her to stop?

Truth is: what strikes you as really real may not phase me much; what really grabs me may be something you bounce back from easily. But in either case, it’s really true that to live is to deal with real stuff.

This morning I read a curious passage that has made me think about what’s real. It’s the story of King David doing a census of his people, and the trouble that ensues. I read the version that’s found in 1 Chronicles 21, but the story is also told in 2 Samuel 24. It’s a story that gets real — real fast.

First off, David makes a real choice. He chooses to order a census, even though a key advisor says, “NO! Don’t do this!” Now, we’re not sure why counting the people was wrong, but it may have something to do with David’s pride, or his purpose. Maybe counting the people is prelude to taxing them.

In either case, David chooses to do wrong. And so, right out of the gate this story deals with real choices and real guilt. Even though the two versions of the story point to two different sources for the prompting that leads to David’s decision, there is no doubt that David makes a choice. He ultimately can’t lay the blame for his decision at the feet of Satan or God or outside forces. He chose. It is clear that David has sinned and is now dealing with real guilt. As David himself says in 1 Chronicles 21.8, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing” (NRSV).

Which leads me to think how important it is for David, and for us, to take real responsibility. What we need, and what our world needs, is for people to step up and say:  I chose. I’m responsible. I’ll face the consquences. Which is exactly what David does in this story.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t other factors that come into play when we make decisions. Of course there are environmental factors involved. Of course our nature and nurture play a role in who we are and what we choose. But at the end of the day, I am affected by my circumstances; I am not determined by them.

The story also makes clear that there are real consequences for our real choices. David has to face the reality that the choice he has made affects him and his leadership; it also affects the people he leads. This is a vital truth. In fact: why are we ever surprised when our real choices have a real affect?

Yesterday, my son was riding with me to the church office, where I would be working and he would be connecting with our student group. As we turned off our street, I asked him if he had his stuff for a basketball game he had later that day. Oh, no, I don’t, he said.

I immediately got frustrated, as I turned the car around. Except, I was just a little too far past the store entrance where I was attempting my turn. And a car was coming. So I ran up onto and down off of the curb. I got upset. And it had consequences. My son saw my lack of self-control and my anger. My car felt it, and who knows what impact it had.

The point: real choices have real consequences. And while I have real questions about 1 Chronicles 21, and where David’s prompting came from, and how God responded, and the extent of the judgment — the simple truth is undeniable: what I choose, changes things.

But this is where the tide turns. For another lesson of 1 Chronicles 21 is that, even in the midst of my choices, there is real mercy. In verse 13, as David wrestles with the consequences of his sin, he says, “I am in great distress; let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercy is very great” (NRSV, emphasis added). And we see that mercy unfold, as God relents from the full extent of punishment.

Now, again, I read this chapter and I definitely have real questions. But bigger than my questions is my confidence: God is merciful. And that mercy is hinted at in David’s act of sacrifice, where he pays a man named Ornan for his land and for the resources necessary to make a sacrifice to God. In verse 24, David says to Ornan, “I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

I’ve heard that phrase — I will not offer sacrifices that cost me nothing — used to describe David, and how we ought to do likewise. And that’s a valid point. But something else strikes me about this phrase. It’s this: we have a God who does not offer sacrifices that cost Him nothing. 1 Chronicles 21.24 is a glimpse forward, I believe, to the day when God will make a sacrifice that costs him everything — to the time when, in a complete act of mercy, God offers Himself for all the choices we have made and the consequences we then face.

So, even though I cannot explain the severity of the consequences in 1 Chronicles 21, I cling to the severity of God’s mercy expressed so fully and so powerfully when God Himself becomes the sacrifice.

Which leads me to one more real thing I find in this chapter: real hopeAfter David’s sacrifice, and after the punishment comes to an end, the field of Ornan becomes a sacred place — so sacred that at the beginning of 1 Chronicles 22, David says, This is the place where God’s house will be built. The Bible tells us that the construction will be carried out by Solomon, but the writer of Chronicles makes it clear that the real beginning of the project starts here.

And that temple will be built as a place of worship, forgiveness, celebration, and community. It will begin as such for the Jewish people, but it will also be a glimpse forward — when God will not be contained in one building, or in one people, or in one place. For 1 Chronicles 21 is the beginning of God’s redemptive work, where through the grace of Jesus, real forgiveness and real hope are offered to all people. Real love and real life reach every corner of creation. Where the “realest” revelation of God is seen in His presence among us in Jesus the Son, and His ongoing presence among us through His Spirit. And that’s real truth, that really changes things. Forever.

What My Visit to the Dentist Taught Me About Church

I went to the dentist last week for my twice-a-year checkup. For some people, those 2 times a year are to be avoided. But not for me. I don’t mind going to my dentist. Really.

One reason: I’m a dedicated flosser — something only my hygienist truly appreciates. But I also don’t mind going to the dentist because, as I was reminded this past week, there’s a lot I can learn. About church. About faith. About life.

For example, on Thursday when I was scheduled to go to the dentist, about 10:30 that morning I happened to look at the calendar on my phone. It reminded me I had an appointment at 9am. Oops! I promptly called, and they graciously rescheduled me for later that day.

So, even though it was on my phone, and they had sent me a postcard, and they regularly call to remind me, I still forgot. So, lesson 1: communication is important, but even with it we still forget stuff. So, keep communicating, but let’s make sure we show each other grace.

Julie and Bea are the two hygienists who work on my teeth. Bea has gotten good at remembering my name, that I serve at a church — even remembering where I serve. She recalls all this even though she must have hundreds of patients, most of whom she only sees twice a year.

Which makes me wonder: how many folks treat Church like the dentist? Show up when you’re supposed to, go when you have to (because that tooth isn’t getting any better on its own), and generally only do as little as possible. I can understand that attitude about the dentist, but not about Church. We need to worship, to share life together, and to go through good and bad as a family. And besides, in the Church, we never pull teeth (though we do sometimes step on toes).

At times, when Julie was cleaning my teeth, it hurt. There’s one tooth in particular that is really sensitive, and I’m really not a fan of Julie messing with it. But I’m reminded that pain has a purpose. It shows me, and those taking care of me, where some attention is needed. It reveals what isn’t healthy. Without pain, I wouldn’t know what’s wrong.

I was talking with a friend today. He’s been having a rough year health-wise. It’s forced him to adjust his schedule and his life. As we talked, I realized: pain has helped him change his life. I wouldn’t wish pancreatitis on him, or anyone. But that bout with pain has led him to re-evaluate and reassess what he’s doing and why.

Simply put, it’s just a daily and dental reality: pain teaches us, and changes us, in ways that the pain-free life never can.

Also: going for my semi-annual checkup (and the pain involved) is a much better experience because I know Julie & Bea, and they know me. We talk about family. We talk about sermons. (Weird, I know.) We even talk about the challenges we face. It’s not that we’re just filling roles: you clean, I’ll sit and occasionally spit. It’s that we have gotten to know each other. And that’s from only seeing them 1 or 2 times a year; imagine what it would be like if I interacted with them weekly. It’s really true: dentists, like church and life, are better when it’s not something you go to, but about relationships you have.

Even so, it’s hard to talk with your mouth full. I love how my hygienist will ask me a question while she’s picking at my teeth, the suction thing is in my mouth, and all I can say is, I’b fide. How bou chu? Still, I’m learning to never stop laughing, even when your mouth (or life) is full.

One of the dentists in the office is 78. They said he’s not going to retire. While I’m sure at some point he’ll have to hang up the drill, that’s a good reminder for all of us: we don’t retire from faith, or from our purpose.

Speaking of my dentist, the truth is: I only see her (or him) for maybe a minute. And that’s during a long visit. (Two visits ago, I did a running count in my head while she was in the room with me: it was about 37 seconds). 98% of the help I get is from the hygienists and the frontline people. I think that’s a helpful reminder about how Church functions: Most of the encouragement and support you’re going to get isn’t from the people with the titles, from the ones in charge. Your faith will grow most through relationships with the folks you spend time with, and who are able to spend time with you.

My dental visit reminds me that it’s good to have a regular checkup. Even with faithful brushing and flossing, plaque and other gunk begin to build up on my teeth. Even with faithful worship, Bible reading, prayer, and sharing with others, spiritual plaque and gunk begin to build up in my life. I regularly need others to take a close look at my life, and help me clear away that stuff that I simply cannot see on my own. The truth is: we simply will not be able to see all of our spiritual blind spots — that’s why they’re called blind spots.

Finally, I was told once by Bea that every mouth has a story. Since she’s a hygienist, she spends a lot of time on people’s mouths. But each mouth isn’t just a pile of teeth; it’s a part of a person. And though she works on all kinds of mouths, each one belongs to a person with a life full of dreams and disappointments, hopes and hangups, gunk and grace. Bea isn’t just cleaning teeth; she’s sharing life, if but for a moment, with a unique creation of God. And each person who sits in her chair shares something in common with every other person who sits in that chair: a need for a check-up, offered with a smile, and a healthy dose of grace.

Learning from Children (and Street Musicians)

It’s a 10-year-old story, but it’s as current as today’s news. For it’s a story about the human condition — about our busy-ness, our need to always be somewhere, and how sometimes, in the process of rushing from one thing to the next, we miss the grace of the moment that is right in front of us.

At 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, 2007, at a Washington DC metro station, a guy pulled out his violin and began playing. For 43 minutes, he performed 6 classical pieces as over 1,000 people streamed by. Hardly any of them stopped to listen. No surprise there; DC commuters experience street musicians all the time.

Except, this was no ordinary street musician. This was renowned violinist Joshua Bell, playing his $3.5 million Stradivarius.

There was a lottery ticket dispenser near where Bell was playing, with as many as 5 or 6 at a time waiting to buy tickets. Not once in Bell’s 43 minutes of playing did anyone in the lottery ticket line so much as turn around to look toward Bell.

The Washington Post, which got Bell to perform, reached out to 40 of the commuters, and asked them if anything unusual happened on the way to work that day. Only one of them immediately mentioned Bell. To the other 39, it was just another commute, just another day of getting to work and doing the next thing.

But there was one group of people who always wanted to stop. Without exception, every time a child walked by, he or she tried to get the grown-up they were with to stop and watch. But every single time, the adult scooted the child along.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children (Mark 10.14). In the next verse, he goes even further, and says: only those who become like children will enter the kingdom.

I’ve frequently thought about what this passage means: What is Jesus telling us to become? Certainly, children are vulnerable in a way that many adults are not; they are dependent on the care and provision of others. This would have been even more evident in Jesus’ day, as children were not revered and valued as they are today. And so, to be a child is, by definition, to need others to help you along the way. And so, clearly, one element of Jesus’ call for us to be like children is to assume a position of vulnerability, need, dependence, and trust.

But the story of Joshua Bell shows another element. As someone has pointed out, children have a different view of time than adults. We grown-ups spend much of our time thinking about time. What time is it? How much more time do I have to be doing this particular thing? What time is my next thing? How can I better manage my time? And then there’s the phrase nobody wants to be accused of: Stop wasting time.

I understand that for some Africans, there is a phrase they say to Westerners who come for a visit. You have watches. We have time.

Maybe that’s another lesson children teach us. Kids, especially younger ones, don’t wear watches. They don’t worry that they’re gonna be late. They are more open to what opportunities are available right now. I mean: Why rush to the next moment when THIS moment has a guy playing his heart out on the violin?

If the invitation of Jesus is good news (and it is), then it can’t be just more of the same. It can’t be just more stuff to do; more obligations to attend to. It can’t just be a longer to-do list. It must be something more.

Something more that our children help us see. That God’s got the next day covered. And the next thing. That when we rush madly through life, we often miss life. That’s it okay to stop — to stop and receive; to stop and enjoy this moment, this gift of life, this gift of grace.

So, what are you missing by always rushing? What are you not receiving because you’re so busy going and doing? Where is it time to stop and hear the gentle whisper of God; the very music of creation? Maybe it’s where you least expect it — like on a subway stop in the form of a street musician who just might be a glimpse of grace and wonder that it takes the eyes of a child to see.