A Scary Prayer

On Sunday, August 13, the people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights commissioned Lauren Mack for a year of mission service teaching in Malawi, Central Africa.  Our scriptures for the day were Psalm 62:5-8 and Ephesians 3:14-21.  

To hear the message as preached in worship, please click on the link below:

As I begin the message, I am curious as to what we are actually doing here this morning. We are “commissioning” Lauren. We are sending her off. Why? What for? What are our hopes for Lauren Alaina Mack as she leaves Pennsylvania and heads to the Central African nation of Malawi, where she will spend a year teaching at the St. Andrews’ Mission Secondary School?

In each pew, you’ll find a pencil and some paper. Take a few moments now and just jot down your hopes for Lauren, and, if you know her, Brooke Merry in the next 12 months. What are your prayers for them? What do you hope will happen in their lives?

Now, think about the kinds of things you wrote down.   What do you hope for?

I want you to hold onto those cards for a moment as we continue.

As I thought about this service, and this message, and the scriptures at hand, I thought about my prayers for these two beautiful young people. Almost instinctively, I am praying that God would keep them SAFE. I’m praying that they’ll have a good time in Malawi. I’m praying that they’ll do a good job at the St. Andrew’s Missionary Secondary School, and that the kids will know more about English, and life skills, and Jesus when Lauren and Brooke get through with them…I pray that they will make a difference in Africa, and that Africa will make a difference in them.

And, you say to yourself, “Self, those are pretty good prayers. I see why he’s getting paid so much to be the pastor here…”

Paul had known the Ephesians for awhile, but not as long as I’ve known Lauren. He was praying for them as they tried to be faithful to their calling in a place that was plagued with difficulties. What does Paul pray for?

He prays in verse 16 that Jesus will strengthen the Ephesians in their inner beings SO THAT those hearts would be fit places in which Christ could dwell. He prays in verse 17 – 19 that the Ephesians, who already know something about love, will continue to be shaped and molded by that love so that…so that what? So that they will be able to grasp and to know the love of God – so that in that knowing they might be filled with the very fullness of God.

That Paul, he’s a sneaky one. You’ve got to keep your eye on him – I’m telling you.

Let’s look at my prayers. My prayers tend to be outcome-based. I want the people that I pray for to be well taken care of. I want them to have good jobs, happy marriages, and to be successful. Even when I say that I want them to make a difference, I’m saying that I want them to be able to get to the end and say, “There! I’ve done it! What next?”

But Paul? This guy is a dangerous pray-er. A far more dangerous pray-er than I ever will be. Paul’s prayer is that at the end of the day, the Ephesians will end up knowing something – being filled with something, namely, the fullness of God himself. Why is that so bad? Because whereas my prayers end up at the finish line, Paul’s prayers end up at the starting line. He prays that when it’s all said and done, the people he loves will be ready for something; that they’ll be equipped for something; that they’ll be poised and filled and eager.

Let me tell you a little something about the church of Central Africa: Presbyterian – the partners to whom we are sending Lauren. It was founded by a group of young Scottish missionaries who had become enthralled by the stories they heard from the Rev. David Livingstone. After Livingstone’s death in Central Africa, Henry Henderson became the leader of the first mission to Malawi in 1876. He, along with the other leaders of that trip, John Bowie and Robert Cleland, were dead within fifteen years.

You may already know this, but the earliest missionaries from Scotland to Malawi didn’t pack their things in suitcases. They packed their things in coffins. Why? Why would they do that? Well, for starters they were just being realistic. It was dangerous. Most of them died over there, and so packing your clothes in a coffin was simply an efficient way to get everything from point A to point B.

But there’s more to it than that, I think. I think that another reason why they took their coffins along was that they were pretty sure that Malawi was their last stop. They were called to go to Malawi, and they went, thinking that Malawi was where things would end up for them. Again, if that’s the case, then taking along a coffin is simply the prudent thing to do.

But Lauren, you won’t be packing your gear in a coffin (although if you log onto casketxpress.com you can get a good deal!). You’ll be more likely to have Samsonite or American Tourister. Why? Because you have budgeted for a return ticket already. We have every reason to expect that you’ll be showing up at the airport a year from now and that you’ll be back in this room at that point. Many of us will plan to meet you here, in fact.

So this trip of yours is really just a temporary situation. It’ll be over before you know it. The blink of an eye. Twelve months – that’s nothing – heck, I used to go that long without shaving.

And that’s why my prayers are deficient. Because if I am praying for you to have accomplished something, to have been kept safe, to have arrived somewhere…then I’m only praying a twelve-month prayer. Hardly seems worth the breath, does it?

But what if each one of us, every day, prayed like Paul? What if we prayed that when we all get together here and celebrate the Lord’s day when Lauren returns, we’d be ready for something bigger? That we’d be so infused with the love of God, so captivated by the presence of God, so filled with the fullness of God that it would make us about ready to burst out of our skins? What if we prayed that come August, you’ll have finished your mission work in Malawi for the year, but that each of us will be different and each of us will be equipped and receptive for God’s next call on our lives?

Ah, not so fast, Carver. How can you just throw away a sentence like, “a year is nothing…” I bet that it that was your kid buying that airline ticket you’d be singing a different song. How in the world are we supposed to be able to let go of those wonderful, practical prayers that we’ve come to expect from Pastor Dave and risk the dangerous prayers of Paul? How can we be free to be ready to live like that? How can we think of ourselves as NOT marching towards a magical finish line when everything will be “back to normal”?

I think the answer to that lies in the first scripture reading that you heard this morning. Did you hear what David read for us? “He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge.”

Do you see? If it’s up to us; if I’m out there trying to protect myself, to prepare myself, to figure out where in the world I’m supposed to be, then there’s no way that I’ll ever be able to let down my guard enough to listen to the wise counsel that comes from God. But if I really believe that it all depends on God; if I really believe that there’s nothing that is going to hit me that I can’t survive with God’s help; that there’s no problem too big for God to get me through, that God has my back…then I can spend all of my energy on getting ready for being the person that God has for me to be, and I’ll trust that God will get me where he needs me when he needs me.

Lauren, I have to tell you this: it’s going to be a shock when you come back from Malawi than next August. You’ll leave a community in which you will find church after church packed with joyful people who have a hunger for God that compels them to show up for worship as early as 5:45 a.m. just so they get a seat…and you’ll return to a culture where bored looking people show up in church twice a year in an attempt to win some brownie points with God, with their mothers, or who knows what other reason… You’ll leave a nation where children carry their pencil – their one pencil – back and forth to school every day as if it were gold, and come back to a flurry of “back to school” sales that will make your head spin. You may have heard me mention that I was so overwhelmed by the cultural shock of affluence and choice when I returned from my first trip to Malawi that I could not go grocery shopping. The day I got back, I ran up to Shop & Save to grab a few things, but when I got to the toilet paper aisle I was overcome with grief or sadness or something… I stood there trying to figure out which was the best deal for toilet tissue, and how I could save money, and my mind was filled with images of the people I’d left behind in Malawi – people who had real difficult choices to make, and here I was trying to figure out it if was better to get Charmin or Cottonelle… And so I left a full cart of groceries in the paper products aisle at Shop N Save because I just couldn’t cope with it. Nope, I don’t envy you coming back when you come back.

And it would really stink if you went to Malawi for twelve months and then you came back in August and MY prayers were answered. Man, would THAT make for a miserable Autumn. Why? Because you’d be spending all your time thinking about all the ways that Crafton Heights isn’t Ntaja; you’ll be missing the vibrancy of that worship; heck, you’ll even miss nsima and chicken…if you got to August and thought that you were done.

But what do you think would happen to you, and to us, if in the next twelve months PAUL’S prayers were answered? THEN we’d be looking forward to an incredible 2019. Why? Because your time away will have prepared you for whatever is next for you HERE. Because your time away will prepare your friends and relatives to see you in a new light and to invite you to new challenges and new opportunities and new horizons…because instead of being finished with mission, you’ll be even better prepared for it.

So, Lauren, Glenn, Cheri…whose prayers are we going to lean on? The relative safety of Pastor Dave’s “keep an eye on ‘em, OK God?” Or the outrageous risk of Paul’s “Make us all ready, God, for the work that you have for each of us”?

So here’s what I want you to do…I want you to take that card on which you have written your prayers for Lauren and Brooke. And I want you to turn it over and write out “Ephesians 3:14-21” on it. And I want you to pray that prayer for Lauren. And for Brooke. And for me. And for you.

Thank God for bold prayers and for those who are led into them. Thank God for the call that comes to the church. Thank God for the ability to respond – in this neighborhood, in Malawi, and in every place in between. Amen.

To learn more about Lauren’s trip in Malawi, or to follow her adventures, please check in with her blog. Lauren’s fellow traveler, Brooke, can be found here!

2017 Youth Mission Update #4

Our week of service, learning, fellowship, and fun in the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is nearly complete, and we finished strong!

Evan starts the demolition of the steps.

Thursday was, like most other days this week, a rainy day.  Yet this team of young people worked through the showers to dissemble a rickety set of steps on Miss Charlene’s home and install a safe, sturdy, spacious entryway for her and her family to use.  Everyone did something – in fact, I can’t recall seeing more people at work on an area that was approximately 5′ x 5′ in my life!

We got to be expert diggers and rock removers on this trip!

Katie using a “Saws-All” for the first time

While we were hard at work outside, Miss Charlene was hard at work inside, and at lunch she treated us to an amazing meal of what she called “Cherokee Tacos” – the “shell” was a delicious fry bread, and the fillings consisted of lettuce, tomato, cheese, beef, beans, cucumbers… wow! It was delicious.

At the end of our work day we were further surprised to be called onto the porch by Miss Charlene’s children.  Isaiah, a high school student, presented Tim and myself with some woodcarvings on which he had been working.  Catherine, his younger sister, gave the two of us hand-made baskets.  And every single participant on the trip received a handmade necklace made from glass and corn beads.  This is an especially meaningful gift given what we have learned about the corn beads.  In the 1830’s, the Cherokee were rounded up from the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains and herded like cattle to the “Indian Territory” of North Carolina. This is called either “the Removal” or “The Trail of Tears”.  The legend says that as they walked, their grief was so profound that as they wept, plants sprung up from their tears.  The seeds of this plant look like tears and their color is that of grief.  Cherokee today wear these “corn beads” in memory of the grief and horror of that time.

Delicious!

 

Isaiah shares his carvings

Catherine and her basket

The steps – finished as far as we could with the materials available.

The porch and roof we were able to construct.

Friday is often what we call the “fun day” on a mission trip.  We try to take some time to learn more about the places we visit and the people who are there.  This year was no exception.  In fact, I’ve been on many trips to and through the Great Smoky Mountains, and I have never heard much mention at all of the Cherokee story.  This year, that changed in a beautiful way.  We started the day at the Ocunaluftee Indian Village, a “living museum” where re-enactors  shared the Cherokee way of life before and since the Removal.  We saw demonstrations of pottery making, weaponry, stonework, and more.  Our group particularly enjoyed the traditional dances, and a few of us even took part in the same.  In fact, the reason that there are no photos here is that your author was among those “whooping it up”!  The group was unanimous in that the time spent at the village was amongst the best things we could do.

At the Village

Levi gave us a demonstration of how a “blow gun” works – accurate at up to 50 feet!

At the dancing ceremony

Following a quick lunch, we stepped it up a little bit in the adventure department and tried our luck tubing the Ocunaluftee River.  Normally, this is a “lazy river” experience, and for much of the time, that’s what we had.  However, with all the rains this area has had recently, the waters were higher and faster than normal, and so a few of the rapids were bumpy and some of us emerged with some new aches, pains, and scars.  I think that at the end of the day, however, most everyone was glad that they’d tried it – whether the took the leap from the rope swing or not.

We ended our evening, and our week, with a devotion on “Wild Love” and the charge that we’ve been given to keep looking for love in the places to which we are sent.  We heard from our graduating senior, Katie, and we prayed over her.  Some of us might have cried…  And it was good.

So now it’s all over but the packing and the long drive home… I’m so impressed with the ways that this group of young people has handled themselves in situations that were challenging to say the least.  I can’t wait to see what God has in store for them in the years to come!

Youth mission update # 3

Well, we had another fantastic day working in the great Smoky Mountains.  The  weather was once again very favorable, and our team responded with energy and imagination. We find that having limited access to tools and ladders poses a challenge to involving everyone  all the time, but the young people are  very understanding, and everyone is taking turns to make sure that each person is contributing to and participating in the work at hand.

We were amazed that on Wednesday we were able to essentially complete the large porch structure, including the roof.   One of the things that I love about these trips is that it pushes all of us – including the leaders – out of our comfort zones. We were able to innovate and adapt with what we had on hand in order to get the job done.

Our evening on Wednesday had a decidedly different rhythm, and we were grateful for that. First, we enjoyed an amazingly bountiful potluck dinner at the  Cherokee  United Methodist Church.  There was no program – just an opportunity for us to sit and visit with another work group  ( from Ohio!)  as well as members of this congregation.

Following the meal, we went to an outdoor ampitheater, where we enjoyed a live production entitled  “Unto These Hills”.  For about 2 1/2 hours, we watched local actors engage in some traditional Cherokee dancing, followed by a presentation of the history of the inhabitants of this area.   We continued to soak in aspects of Cherokee history and culture of which many of us have been ignorant. The drama included some Cherokee mythology about the nature and purpose of the creation, but was mostly centered in on how the Cherokee people  developed a peaceful agricultural community in these mountains. It narrated the history of relationship between Native Americans and the Europeans and included a glimpse at some of the ways that the various groups of native Americans related to one another. Of course, no telling of the Cherokee story  would be complete without reference to the removal in the late 1830s and the “Trail of Tears”  in which so many died. It was a somber moment for our group to participate in this.

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Rachelle using the saws-all!

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The old guy is flexing in ways he’s not used to!

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Can you imagine this in 2 days?!?!

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Waiting for the drama to start

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The cast of “Unto These Hills”

Youth Mission Update #2

We are having a great time in Cherokee NC, and I wish I could tell you just HOW wonderfully this team is coming together.  We are technologically limited, and I forgot my “real” camera, so the updates will be sparse.  However, here are a few images of our work on Tuesday – the kids put in a looooong day and then came back and had a great conversation about how God seems to use the “little” and “foolish” things in the world to make big differences.

You’ll see the deck beginning to take shape and the progress that the young people are making.  You will not see the huge rocks that people pulled out of the ground, the amazing smiles when our hosts shared the sweetest watermelon I’ve ever tasted, or the relief and laughter we shared when the day was finished and it was time to sing.

The weather poses a challenge to our plans, but it appears as though today is another workable day!

You’ve gotta start somewhere… with some deep holes!

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Setting the stage!

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Measure twice….

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Danielle ratchets things up!

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Maddy putting in some pilot holes. 

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Grace at work in so many ways on this trip!

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Cherokee Youth Mission Update #1

The New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia is a favorite stop on our way out of Pittsburgh.

The Youth Group from the church/Open Door is spending the week at the Qualla Boundary with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. We are staying at the Cherokee United Methodist Church, and we came in order to encounter aspects of the culture, our faith, ourselves, and our world in order to learn something about being more fully God’s people in this world. To get here, we left Crafton Heights immediately after church on Sunday and drove approximately ten hours south.

These smiles kept us going all day long! 521 miles!

The PLAN was to spend this day laying the groundwork for the construction of a deck and porch for a family in need. However, for the first time in memory, we’ve had a day that is simply a “rain out”. Buckets and buckets of water poured across the Great Smoky Mountains, and we were forced to adapt our plan. We spent the morning wandering through the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which contained a number of informative displays concerning the history and culture of the people who lived here when the Europeans showed up in North America. We learned about pottery, games (like stickball and lacrosse), and handicrafts; we saw something impressive about the empowerment that the Cherokee traditionally accorded to the women in their midst; and we were saddened to read of “the removal”, or the “Trail of Tears”. In fact, the church in which we’re staying is the oldest Native American congregation in the Eastern USA, and it boasted about 440 members in the year prior to the “removal”. Three years later, the church had only 40 members.

I was haunted by this quote in the museum…

We spent the afternoon, in Paige’s words, “pretending it’s a retreat: let’s get to know each other!” You might have enjoyed working a puzzle or playing Apples to Apples; I know I got a kick out of Tim doing his best Jimmy Stewart impression to a group of adolescents who have absolutely no idea who Mr. Stewart is.  When the weather gave us a little bit of a break we took a quick trip to measure out our job site and a brief hike to the beautiful Mingo Falls.

A little “Apples to Apples” on a rainy Monday!

Mingo Falls

 

The Group at the Falls

If the success of the trip is measured in how much wood gets cut or how deep the holes we dig are, well, today was a washout. But if we’re here to encounter and be encountered, well, then – today was a success.   And hey – no splinters!

All In The Family

On August 6, we commissioned our Youth Mission Team for a week of service at the Cherokee Mission in partnership with the Cherokee United Methodist Church in the Qualla Boundary in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  Our texts for the day included Luke 8:19-21 and Ephesians 2, selected verses.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the link below:

 

In an hour and a half or so, a group of young people will climb into the vans and drive 521 miles south to the little town of Cherokee, North Carolina, where we’ll engage in our mission service and learning trip for this year. For some folks, this is “old hat” – heck, a few of these travelers have been halfway around the world with me at one point or another. But for at least four of us, this is the first Mission Trip with the Crafton Heights church. I would suspect that for most of the group, this is the first visit to a Native American Community. I would suspect that there are some nervous questions popping up in some young minds:

  • What will we be doing?
  • What are these people like?
  • Am I going to have to talk to people I don’t know?
  • Am I going to have to talk to people I DO know?
  • What will there be to eat?

With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to share a bit about a time when my mind was filled with questions like that. In January of 2013, I was privileged to take part in a trip to the newest country in the world – South Sudan. Three of us from the USA and three from Malawi were going there to talk about the possibility of our churches becoming partners in ministry and mission. Not only had I never been to South Sudan before, I never knew anyone who had. When I arrived, we went to our guest house and I was told that the next morning I’d be preaching at a local church that would worship using Arabic as well as the language of the Nuer people.

Some of you might be surprised to hear this, but I get really, really nervous when I have to preach to people I don’t know. I wonder what I could possibly say that would make any sense to them. I don’t know their lives, their problems, their dreams… and, in this case, I didn’t know their language. Well, my friend Madut agreed to translate for me, and I told them a story. Listen:

My grandfather lived in a tiny town in Western New York. He had two sisters. Aunt Marian and her husband, Uncle Wilson, lived in a small house in town with their children. Would you believe me if I told you that they had 21 children? Two of them died in infancy, but nineteen survived. 21 people in one small house! Can you imagine? I sure could not. The were all older than me, of course, and while I met a few of them when I was a boy, I didn’t know them at all.

Jesus’ True Family, Anne C Brink, contemporary. Used by permission of the artist. http://www.annecbrink.com/index.html

When Aunt Marian died, I was living in another town an hour away. I went into the small town, where her 19 living children, 49 grandchildren, and 65 great grandchildren had gathered. In fact, the obituary listed all of her descendants, and then in the place where the community is usually invited to “calling hours”, it said, “blood relatives only”. The Funeral Home was not big enough for her family and her friends. I got to town and I ate breakfast in the local diner, and I mentioned that I was a relative of Aunt Marian’s, in town for the funeral. At another table, a man got a look of surprise on his face and said, “You’re in her family? Really? Me too!” As I wandered through that little town all day, every time I turned around, I found myself bumping into relatives that I never knew I had.

Of course, that’s been my experience in the Church as well. Every place I travel, I meet sisters and brothers I never knew I had. I show up in town, and find my way to a restaurant or a church, and every single day I run into people who look different than I do, who sing different songs or work in different places or have different ideas… We are not the same, of course – but we are family! Wonderful!

The Apostle Paul lived for a while in the little town of Ephesus. While he was there, he started a church. Things didn’t always go well for that church, and in fact by the time he got around to writing them several years after he’d moved away, they were bickering and feuding amongst themselves. He had to remind them that they were all one family because of what Jesus Christ has done. They hadn’t come from the same place, of course; they didn’t speak the same languages or know the same stories – but everybody at the church in Ephesus was being built into the same family as the people in Rome, or Jerusalem, or anywhere else that God was working in the world.

My grandfather had another sister: my great-Aunt Mae. She and her husband, Uncle Glenn lived on a big farm outside the small town. They never had any children. My earliest memories of Aunt Mae were that she was always mean and grouchy. When my parents dragged me into her presence as a child, she never seemed particularly happy to see me. However, once I was grown, if I came through town town and did not visit her, then she let me know that she was really unhappy about that. She just seemed so angry so much the time, and I felt like there was nothing I could do that would make her happy..

Fortunately for me, my Aunt Mae lived to be an old woman, and as I matured, I came to see things a little differently. The more I got to know her, the more I understood that she wasn’t really mad at me or any of the other people around her. If she was angry, she was mad at the world, frustrated with God, or disappointed in herself… because she never had any children. Here her sister had 21 kids, for crying out loud, all crammed into that tiny house – and she had none. I cannot imagine the pain of that for her.

This learning leads me to my second point: just as I did not understand the pain that my Aunt Mae may have had, there are many, many people in my family whose pain is simply unimaginable to me. We’re going to travel to Cherokee, North Carolina. What do those folks worry about? What are they afraid of? What makes them really, really happy? If we’re being honest, we have to say that most of us have no idea about the places that they hurt, or how, or why. So we’ll drive down there and hang out with them for a while.

Sometimes, the best I can do is to stand close to someone in my family who is aching or who is rejoicing and ask our Father to bring the thing that is needed, because there is nothing I can do but to show up and care.

So here is what happened next: as my Aunt Mae got close to the end of her life, she made me promise that I would preach her funeral. By that time I had learned that I never said “no” to Aunt Mae! When she died, every one of Aunt Marian’s surviving children showed up at the church. I can still picture them, all in the back left section of the church. At one point, I invited the congregation to share a word of testimony about the ways that Mae’s life had affected them.

One by one, Aunt Marian’s children stood up and said things like this: “I never had my own pair of new shoes until the summer I went to live with Aunt Mae.” Or, “The first time I ever owned a new suit or a new dress, it was when Aunt Mae took me shopping.” This is what that sad, disappointed, childless, and yes, grouchy old lady did: every year, she went to her sister-in-law’s home and took three or four children to live with her on the farm and help her and uncle Glenn with the work of the farm: the cows, the eggs, the crops. And she cared for them. And she loved them. And they loved her. It was my deep and abiding privilege to be able to hear them tell stories about the way that our Aunt Mae showed them love.

So this, my friends, is the stunning conclusion to my first sermon to be translated into the language of the Nuer people – a people who have lived a life that I could not imagine- a life of persecution, of displacement, of exile and return: It seems to me that what my family has taught me is that at the end of the day, we are measured by how we treat each other.

When Jesus talked about his family, he didn’t mention whether they knew his favorite songs or agreed with him on all the important issues of the day. He said, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” When we come face to face with the Lord, it doesn’t seem as though there will be a test on doctrine, or church history, or political correctness. I think he’ll ask us, “Do you love me? Do you know I love you? And Have you followed me in my love for the rest of the family?”

Whether you are going on a mission trip to a new place with people you don’t know or not, know this, beloved:

Your family is bigger than you can ever imagine it being. We are limited by time and space and experience, but we can and will transcend those limits, sooner or later. You don’t know everyone in your family, and you won’t immediately recognize them. That beautiful blonde girl? That gay couple? That refugee who has crept through mud and muck? That kid who smells bad, or the guy who doesn’t look like you? Who are you to say that they’re not family? Just because you don’t recognize them? And when you do recognize them, you might not like them that much. That’s ok.

The different members of your family have been hurt in ways that you can’t see, and they have experienced pain that you don’t know about, and they hope for things of which you cannot conceive. Their experience may lead them to treat you in ways that rub you the wrong way. That’s ok. It is their hurt, their pain, their hope. You can’t take it away from them, or get them past it. And Jesus does not expect you to do any of that.

What Jesus does seem to expect, however, is that you treat them with love. To do your best to remind them of the fact that we are in the same family, and to share kindness and grace as best you can. When you are out and about with your family, remember to ask them to put up with you when you are falling short, and to extend to them that same courtesy when you can tell that it’s not their best day.

A long time ago, we had a program here at the church called “Kids Klub.” As scores of young people came in and out of this building for crafts and music and recreation, we had only one rule: “I am a child of God – please treat me that way.”[1]

Whether you’re heading to North Carolina this afternoon, Malawi later this month, or just going to stop by Giant Eagle on the way home, it’s good advice. Remember who you are. And remember who you’ll be meeting. Treat each other like you know that. Thanks be to God for people who remember that we are, in fact, children of God. Amen.

[1] I learned this rule from Dale Milligan and the Logos program. For more information as to how that program currently operates, check out https://www.genonministries.org/pages/logos-all-about-logos

Utility Failure

In the course of nine months in 2016-2017, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights had an adventure in listening to the stories of David and trying to draw wisdom or encouragement from them in our own lives.  On July 23, we heard the last of these messages, which considered the death of the King and led us to exploring some thoughts as to how we encounter death in our own worlds.  Texts for the day included I Kings 1 and II Timothy 4.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the audio player below

I was among the 24,401 who were counted at the major league baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night. After the Pirates tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, the Brewers brought in former Pirate Jared Hughes to pitch the tenth. As Josh Harrison danced off of second base, Hughes stopped several times and bluffed a throw. Twenty thousand umpires screamed that it was a balk, and Hughes should be penalized. As Pirate broadcaster Bob Walk pointed out, “Not a single one of those fans thought that move was a balk when Hughes was wearing a Pirate jersey.”

He’s right, of course. What you see, and hear, and experience – all of it comes through a filter, does it not? Where we sit and what we’ve experienced affects the ways that we hear the stories of scripture and our lives. I was reminded of that this week as I consider the many lenses through which I’ve encountered the story of Abishag the Shunammite, the bulk of which you’ve just heard.

David’s Promise to Bathsheba, Frederick Goodall (1822-1904)

When I was a young man, I heard this part of the story and I thought, “Wait, what? David got old and they looked for who? And told her to do what? Seriously? That happened?” It seemed to me, at that point in my life, that this was a prime example of the old Mel Brooks line, “It’s good to be the king!” When I read these verses, I did so with a good bit of snickering and a little bit of the old “wink-wink nudge-nudge know what I mean?” I was a leerer and an ogler.

King David and Abishag, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Then, thanks be to God, I grew and matured. Some might say I got old. For whatever reason, it seemed to me, I came to see the story through Abishag’s eyes. Immediately this then became a text of terror. This woman – really, only a teenaged girl – is taken from her home about 50 miles north of Jerusalem and thrust into the King’s bedroom. Can you imagine the fear she must have felt, to say nothing of the powerlessness and perhaps even disgust? “What, what? I have to do that? With whom?” When I see the story through her eyes, I am haunted by the words of Frederick Buechner, who writes, “This sad story makes it clear that in peace as in war there’s no tragic folly you can’t talk a nation’s youth into simply by calling it patriotic duty.”[1]

Last summer, when I came up with the plan to preach through the stories of King David, I was pretty sure that I wanted to end the sermons with the one you heard last week. David names Solomon as his successor and the one who would build the temple to YHWH and then rides off into the sunset in a blaze of glorious faithfulness amidst the accolades of his people. Yay!

Oh, I remembered the story of Abishag and David’s final days, all right, I just had no intention of touching this particular part of the bible with a ten-cubit pole – not in public worship, thank you very much. I’m not going to go there.

And yet in recent weeks, it kept coming to mind. If we are preaching about the life of David, I thought, why not preach about his death, too? Why not finish the story?

And you can’t talk about the death of David without talking about Abishag the Shunammite. So here we are…

As the reading for today begins, David is an old man, by biblical standards. He is failing in all kinds of ways, and soon, he’ll be dead. Evidently, for loads of people, David is a bothersome problem. And what do we do with problems? We manage them, right? We handle them.

A few of you are old enough to remember the old Batman television show. Do you remember when the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder were really up against something, they’d reach down to their waists and pluck something from the old “Utility Belt” – it might be a batarang, or a grappling hook, or even a piece of kryptonite… but somehow Batman could always be counted on to find just the right tool to manipulate the situation so that the problem would be solved.

Bathsheba Makes an Appeal to David (detail), Arent de Gelder (1645 – 1727)

As David lay dying he is increasingly problematic. The various people who surrounded him would define the problem differently.

For the palace staff, the insiders who were his servants and advisors, these were tough days indeed. Their jobs, income, security, and in some cases, their lives depended on David being a) alive and b) king. So they reach into their utility belts and grab whatever tools they can: bring on the blankets. When they don’t work, then find another tool to apply to the situation. Abishag? Sure, why not? Throw her in there and see what she can do…

Not only are neither of these approaches successful, what we really are forced to witness here is a dehumanization of both Abishag and David. They’re not really people any more – they are simply tools utilized in the hopes that a problem can be solved.

For his son Adonijah, David’s death is a different problem. Adonijah wants to be king so badly that he can taste it, and he’s not going to let a little thing such as knowing that his dad had already declared Solomon as, the next ruler affect his chances. Adonijah was nothing if not determined, and so he just pretended that his father was already dead. He threw a party and declared himself to be king.

Meanwhile, back in the palace, the Prophet Nathan and David’s wife Bathsheba are hatching a plan to ensure that Solomon, not Adonijah, will be the next ruler. These folks have bet everything on Solomon, and now it looks as if their plan is in danger of failing. So what do they do? They cook up a plot wherein they “bump into each other” in David’s presence, and casually remind him that he better keep his promises (and fulfill his obligations) before he dies.

I want to stop here for a moment and consider where these people are at this point in the story.

Adonijah is just south of town in the community of Siloam, where he’s gathered most of his remaining brothers, members of the clergy, and key officials in the army. He’s mapping out a parade route and planning his inauguration…

Nathan, the prophet who has walked with David though thick and thin in the previous decades, and Bathsheba, his wife and the mother of Solomon are both holed up in a coffee shop somewhere scheming as to how to get the old geezer to carry through on his promises…

And David – well, to quote Monty Python, “He’s not dead yet…” But in some lonely corner of the royal residence, the one who is called “the man after God’s own heart”, or “the lamp of all Israel”, or “the glory of the nation” is dying, and he’s all alone…

But wait – no! He’s not alone. Abishag is there.

Why? Didn’t she fail? She had one job, and it didn’t get done! Why is she still hanging around?

In I Kings 1:15 we read that when Bathsheba and Nathan got around to meeting up in the King’s bedroom, Abishag is there “attending” to David.

Who is Abishag that she should be the one doing this? Where are his children? Where is his wife? What about his friends?

The reality is, so far as we can see, that at this point each of these people is focused on themselves and trying to secure some benefit to themselves out of David’s living or dying. And because of that, at the hour of his death, the only person who is present to the greatest king that Israel ever knew is a teenaged girl who is probably scared out of her mind.

She’s not fixing any problems. She’s not solving any crises. She is just watching and waiting with an old man as the hour of his death draws near. There is no indication that there is anything in either his living or dying for her. She is simply, generously, kindly there for David.

And if this was the way that King David died, it would be sad for that reason alone. The real tragedy, though, is that this happens again and again and again.

So much of the time, death is so darned inconvenient. I needed you to do _____ for me, and you were dead. If she dies, how will I ever______? Who will make sure that ______ happens now?

Too often we view ourselves and each other through a utilitarian lens. You exist only in relationship to what you can or cannot do to help me. For Adonijah, Bathsheba, Joab, Shimei, Nathan, and the rest of the gang, David had ceased to be of any value. He was no longer in a position, frankly, to do anything for them. With his usefulness gone, it would be easier for all of them if he just died already. David was at this point in his life a utility failure. He was, at best, an inconvenience.

As we have done in recent weeks, let’s take a moment and compare the life of David with that of Paul. Our reading from Timothy finds him similarly nearing the end of his life. The things that defined him – vigorous travel, eloquent speeches to crowds in places like Athens, Jerusalem, or Antioch – they are all in the past. Now Paul is an old man, cold and lonely.

In this intimate letter to his dear friend, he claims that he wants his books and a favorite sweater, but the aging apostle is being more than a little disingenuous here. What he really wants is his friends. Some of those who were with him have run away; others are busily engaged. He’s got his old friend, Dr. Luke with him. And he says to Timothy, “Please, get Mark. And you. Come. Come before winter.”

Paul doesn’t want to die alone.  I don’t think anyone wants to die alone.

I don’t know about any of you, but I sure have learned a lot about David in the past nine months. More importantly, because of David, I believe that I have some deeper insight into my own life. And now, I find that as we conclude this series of sermons about David, I wonder what there is for me to learn about the ending of my own story, or the stories of the people that we love.

I understand that for many, if not most, of the people in our lives, the relationship is somewhat utility-based. We hear of a death and we say, “Oh, he was my barber…that was my neighbor…She was the one who taught the dance classes to my children…” One of the implications is that we’ll have to find another barber, meet some new neighbors, and engage a replacement dance teacher. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are, in some ways, inextricably linked to the kinds of things that we do. When we die, there are some people that will miss the things that we do more than they will miss us.

But some folks are more than that in our lives – much, much more. Some people are measured for who they are, not for what they do.

This morning, I’d like to ask you to close your eyes – just for a few seconds, mind you. I’m not talking about a nap, I just want you to think about some of the people in your life whom you simply like or even love. People that you want to be with because being with them is good in and of itself, and not for any tangible benefit you might receive. Just close your eyes and think for a few moments.

Do you have in mind some people that you enjoy simply being with? People that you value because they are themselves, and not because they give you rides when you need them or do such a great job with the laundry…

Here’s some good news: a lot of the people that you’re thinking about are not dead. Most of them are not, so far as we know, close to death. So take time to celebrate those people today, and in the days to come. Enjoy them, and let them know that you do!

Sooner or later, however, one of those people – or you yourself – will be dying. This is the time to get ready for that.

Twelve years ago today I stood in this spot and preached a funeral for a young victim of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease). This young woman and I spent a lot of time together in the months prior to her death, and I shall always be grateful for the lessons that she taught be about living and dying.

One of the most horrid aspects of ALS is the constant diminishment and erosion of one’s body. Sooner or later, you – and you are still very much your you – can’t do a blessed thing. The patient lies in an unresponsive body waiting for someone to come and blow her nose or comb his hair. And wonders, “What is the point? I mean, who am I if I am not useful to anyone for anything?”

And on the day that my young friend died, I spent hours trying to remind her of that which I tried to tell many of you on the day that you were born: you are a child of God. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are not what you do, what you save, what you give, who you sleep with, or the places you go. Simply by virtue of being made in the image of God, you are worthy of love and friendship.

When those we love develop an awareness of the fact that they may be dying, may we have the grace to do what Paul asked Timothy to do, and to give to others what Abishag gave to David: may we have the grace to simply be with this person who matters.

And when we develop an awareness of our own impending mortality, may we be blessed with those who remember us – and who help us to remember ourselves.

And finally, as the church of Jesus Christ, the body of Christ present on earth, may we take it as our sacred honor and ministry to bring this reminder to whose whom no one loves.

More than 450 years ago, as much of Europe was rising from the ashes of the Black Death, the plague, incessant war, and famine, a group of believers met together in the town of Heidelberg to write a statement of faith that would help their children embrace the truths they held. The Heidelberg Catechism begins with the simple question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”, and the reply is beautiful: “That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

As we conclude our exploration of the life of David, may we see here in his death, with the help of Abishag the Shunammite, the truth that this beautiful and reckless man of God embraced day after day after day: that we, too, belong to God body and soul, in life and death, because of the work that he, and not we, have done. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979, p. 3)