The Dress Code: Compassion

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On September 15 we considered the need for compassion.  Scriptures were Colossians 3:12-17 as well as Zechariah 7:8-14.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

A few years back, I was invited to a luncheon at a place called The Pittsburgh Athletic Association.  The invitation looked pretty fancy, and the speaker was one I’d been eager to hear. As I prepared, I was struck by a thought: what does one wear to lunch at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association?  I know, I know – you’ve seen me around this neighborhood for decades and most days it doesn’t appear as though I give much thought to what I’m supposed to be wearing, but hey – it happens every now and then.  I’d never been inside the place, and I didn’t know anyone who had.  It came to this: do I dress according to the fanciness of the invitation, or in line with the fact that it’s an “athletic club”?  I couldn’t bring myself to wear basketball shorts and a t-shirt, so I settled on khakis and a polo.

I had an inkling that I’d made a mistake when I arrived and the guy who held the door for me was wearing a suit and tie.  My suspicions were confirmed when, after asking for directions to the room where the luncheon was to be held, the host said, “Certainly, sir. But before we go to the dining room, would sir like a jacket and tie?”  Before I could think about it, I said, “No thanks, I’m good.”  The host was persistent.  “Sir”, he intoned, “The Association has a dress code.  It would appear as though sir was not aware of that. In order to enter the dining room, one must be suitably attired.  Therefore, would sir like to borrow a jacket and tie?”

Well, I did.  And here’s the deal: I don’t remember who spoke that day.  I don’t remember what was said.  I don’t remember who I sat with or what I ate.  But I remember feeling ashamed and embarrassed because I didn’t choose to wear the right thing.

Maybe that’s never happened to you.  I hope it hasn’t.  But I would imagine that each of us, at some point, have wondered, “Am I doing this right? Does this look OK on me?”

Frieze of the Prophets, mural on the East Wall of Boston Public Library, John Singer c. 1893

On December 7, 518 BC[1]a delegation of visitors arrived in Jerusalem. Sharezer and Regem-melech, along with their entourage, represented a group of faithful Jews who were returning to Israel following decades of exile in Babylon.  They had a specific religious question, and they wanted a prophetic answer.  You see, ever since the fall of the Temple some seventy years or so previous, the people of faith had been observing four days of lamentation and fasting each year. There was a fast to remember the siege of Jerusalem, another to mark the day that the city’s walls were destroyed, an observance of the destruction of the temple, and a final fast commemorating the murder of the governor.

But now, since the temple is being rebuilt, the visitors want someone to tell them: are we still expected to mourn the loss of the old temple?  What, exactly, are we supposed to do now?  It is a fair question.

The prophet Zechariah happens to be around on that day, and when he hears this request for a word from the Lord, he provides one – only, as it often happens in church, the question he answers is not really the question that was asked. The query brought by Sharezer and the boys is pretty narrow and specific, and the answer provided by the prophet is broad and far-reaching.  Instead of giving a simple “yes or no” answer (which is, by the way, insanely popular in religious circles), the prophet seizes upon the question of the returning exiles to launch into a class on ethics – and his answer lasts at least a chapter and a half.

Zechariah, in his response, encourages the people to give up on their robotic and nearly-meaningless ritual observances and instead live with an awareness of the fact that we live for and serve with a God who is always coming. We are not called to gather together for hallowed remembrances of something that God used to do, or some time when God showed up in our lives – we are called to live in hope that the God who came is the God who shows up and is always unveiling and revealing the Divine Self.  Because we are creatures of time and space, our worship – and everything else – is rooted in the present.  But we look forward in hope to the reality which continues to unfold.

And then Zechariah describes the kind of people who live in that kind of hope: in the present day, in the neighborhood and country where they live, they are to administer justice, to constantly display compassion and mercy, and to refuse to contribute toward the oppression of those who are marginalized, such as orphans, widows, foreigners, or the poor.  The call of God is not to remember that once upon a time God acted, but that every day, God calls us to transform the world around us with the power that we have.  Our faith drives us toward embracing a lifestyle, and not merely a specific list of dos and don’ts.  It is a masterful sermon, and I’d encourage you to read all of Zechariah 7 and 8.

Hundreds of years later, the small Christian community in the town of Colossae is faced by an insidious threat.  This group, formed by the teaching and power of those who had first followed Jesus, had been infiltrated by some teaching that could cause the congregation to abandon its calling and integrity.  The threat was both philosophical or theological as well as practical.

The theoretical danger was that apparently someone had come into the church teaching that while Jesus was by all accounts an incredible guy, he was more a symbolof what God was trying to do and not really an expressionof the depth of God’s self.  In fact, Christ was a sign that pointed to God, but, let’s be honest, just one of many signs.  In fact, similar insight into the Divine reality could be gained from the worship of stars, or spirits, or angels, or some other aspect of creation.  There was something amazing about Jesus, but it was not necessarily singular.

Apostle Paul, Anonymous, Italian 18th c.

The Apostle Paul’s response to that line of thought is unequivocal.  He reminds the Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, and the One through whom creation itself was accomplished.  In Christ, the old apostle wrote, we live and move and have our being. He is not an option on a religious menu – he is the one who holds all things together.

Now the practical danger to Christian community was felt in this way: if people came to accept that the power and presence of God was to be found through a personal revelation from the stars or angels, then each individual person should follow a process to prepare for her or his own true, authentic heavenly vision.  That led to a plethora of religious coaches teaching people to somehow mortify their bodies, to fast, to practice abstinence or celibacy or some sort of asceticism and self-denial because only in ignoring your worldly surroundings could the true, authentic God be found.

Paul addresses this by echoing not only Zechariah, but Isaiah and Deuteronomy in affirming that true worship of God is not primarily an escape to some other-worldly bliss but rather a full and rich engagement with those with whom we are connected. If you were to read through the entire letter to the Colossians, you might sense that chapters 1 and 2 are a grand theological grounding of who Jesus is, and they are followed by chapters 3 and 4 that contain a “so what”, or an ethical guideline for daily life.

In particular, Colossians 3:12 (the key text in our reading for today) contains specific guidelines for those who would follow Jesus.  Paul calls his friends “chosen by God, holy and dearly loved.” In this verse, he provides them with a “dress code” for the Christian community.  What should we wear when we come together, and when we encounter the world in our day-to-day lives?  Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Just as a jacket and tie are the marks that defined the proper male diner at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, so these characteristics are the marks of the Christian in the world.  And in the weeks to come, we’ll be looking at these qualities.

Today, I’d like to focus in on the practice of compassion.  In the original Greek, Paul tells his friends to put on splagxna oiktirmou. Literally, this means, “bowels of mercies”.  In Greek thought, the core of one’s being was centered in the bowels, or as we might say today, the “guts”.  If an ancient heard you described as “good-hearted”, he might be mystified, or think that you were really excited about your last EKG.  But if you were a person with strong bowels – well, she’d be impressed, she would…

Some of that language carries over into our use of the words having to do with “viscera”.  If someone has a “visceral” understanding of a concept, then we say that she really “gets” it, and she knows it in her innermost self.  If a person is “eviscerated”, then we understand that either figuratively or literally, the most important part of him – the guts – has been removed.

Paul, in writing to a congregation that appears to have been told that the best way to holiness is by focusing on your best self and looking for an other-worldly escape, says that the most important thing that we can wear as followers of Jesus is compassion.

I would suggest that a good definition of compassion is an ability and a willingness to fully enter into the experience of another, and in particular, the pain or suffering of another.  Our English word “compassion” comes from a pair of Latin roots: com, which means “with”, and pati,which means “to suffer”.  Compassion = “suffer with”.

A couple of the older translations of this verse use the word “pity” instead of “compassion”, but I think that is insufficient because when one “pities” someone one can maintain an emotional distance and stand over, or around, but not with someone else.  “Compassion” says, “Wow, this must be incredibly difficult right now.  I’m sorry that you’re in this place, and I want you to know that you’re not alone.”  “Pity” says, often, “Oh, you poor thing!” or even worse, “sucks to be you.”

Earlier this year I was the recipient of some amazing compassion.  I presented myself for my annual physical and must have looked a wreck because Dr. Hall sat and listened to me for forty minutes before he ever got around to touching me.  There was a set of situations and symptoms that gave me some real anxiety and that blessed man just sat there and encouraged me before he made the slightest suggestion of what I needed to do to “fix” anything.

You’ve seen compassion like that in action, and I want to encourage us to model it more and more as we continue through 2019 here at Crafton Heights church. Specifically, I want to challenge us to continue to grow in our ability to become a congregation of people who are willing to listen to each other.  Give each other the gift of your best time and your best attention – or be honest enough to admit that you can’t do that right now.  Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answers to. If you are going to say, “Hey! How are you doing?”, be ready to act like someone who cares what the answer to that question is.  If you don’t have time or energy to fully enter into someone’s day, simply say “Hello” or “I hope you are well today”.

Taking that a step further, let me challenge us to be known as a congregation that will stand with and for each other.  Can you seek to give yourself to someone else in such a way as to allow yourself to see the world from their perspective?

For instance, one of the best days of my 2019 Sabbatical (and there were a lot of them) was Monday, August 19.  It was a banner day at “Camp Grampy”, and Lucia and I spent time together doing puzzles, swimming, reading, and fishing.  As we prepared for our camp out on the boat, I took her photo.  She asked why I was doing that, and I said, “Because I always want to remember how you look today.”  A few moments later she asked for my phone and said, “Grampy, I’m going to take your picture.  Please send it to mama’s phone because I always want to remember how you look today.”

Here’s the photo she took.

 

Do you see?  That’s her perspective.  Often, that’s how the world looks to a five-year old.  A heart of compassion teaches us to seek to get an understanding of another’s perspective even if we do not share that perspective.  Perhaps you’ve never been widowed, or hungry, or abused, or addicted, or abandoned – but can you listen to someone else’s story intently enough to be able to sense at least a part of what that must feel like?

So often we skip that part of compassion.  We see someone in a tough situation and we want to proscribe, prescribe, or describe.  We want to tell them what their problem is and how they should fix it.  Maybe there is a place for that – but it is not the first thing we do.  Remember that when Job had the worst of all days, his friends came and simply sat with him for seven days before they even opened their mouths.  Once they started talking, everything went downhill in a hurry.

Putting on an outfit woven from the fibers of compassion means striving to see others the way that Christ sees them, and then seeking to treat them the way that Christ would treat them.  That’s the first part of our “dress code” for being in the community here at Crafton Heights.

And I have to tell you something that you already know.  The reason that I wore a polo shirt and khakis to the Pittsburgh Athletic Association is because that’s a heck of a lot easier for me to put on than a suit and tie.  Come Saturday, I’ll be officiating at an elaborate wedding.  I’m here to tell you that the folks standing up in front of that wedding will not be wearing the clothes that are the easiest to put on – but they will do so because that’s the expectation of the group on that particular day.  It is the dress code.

In the same way, having a heart of compassion is not always the first or easiest thing for us to put on, especially in times of conflict or anxiety. But it is right, and it is what our heavenly Host expects of and hopes for us.  And it is what we all need.  Thanks be to God for those who have lived compassionately amongst us!  Amen.

 

[1] Dating based on work of Elizabeth Achtemeier’s commentary on Zechariah in the Interpretation: Nahum-MalachiCommentary Series (John Knox, 1986), p. 134

 

Does This Happen Often?

On September 8, 2019 I had the deep joy of being reunited with many of the people from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights following a three-month Sabbatical.  As we gathered to explore the mystery of our connection and the intensity of the storms in which we live, we read from Matthew 8:23-27 and Ephesians 2:19-22.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

My wife and I were out for a quiet evening.  As we waited for our meal to be served, a woman approached the table and when I recognized her, I stood and we embraced.  She began talking, but after a moment she was overwhelmed by the grief in which she walked, and she wept.  We spoke for a few moments, and then she excused herself and our evening continued. A day or two later, we were in the grocery store and I encountered another person and we had a similar exchange. When we got home, Sharon said to me, “Does this happen often?”  I was engrossed in something and I replied, “What? Have the deer been in the garden again?” My bride said, “No – I mean, how often are you out in some public place and someone comes up to you and just starts crying?  That seems odd to me.”

Well, as a matter of fact, it does happen often.

As I return from my time of Sabbatical, let me tell you a few stories. In case you haven’t been around the church very long, I’ll tell you that about 18 months ago I found myself being challenged by the intensity of life in this place.  There were some horrific deaths, significant transitions, as well as some incredibly wonderful occurrences.  The elders and I began to plan for a season in which I might be away for an extended period of time for rest, rejuvenation, and reflection.  We realized that such a time would also result in a potentially painful separation with and disconnection from the day to day life here in the Heights, but we went ahead with the goals of bringing long term healing and strengthening to our shared ministry here.

So after more than a year of planning, I left at the end of May.  And if you’ve read my blog or seen me on Facebook, you know that a lot of wonderful things happened.  If you want me to come over and tell you about amazing adventures through our National Parks, a pilgrimage to Africa, or the world’s best granddaughters, I’ll do that.

But other things happened, too.  You didn’t read about them on the internet.  Not long ago I was with my grandchildren at a public event for families in rural Ohio. I was the only out-of-town guest there; I was also the oldest person present.

I sat on a porch with my toddling granddaughter and one of the other adults came by and placed a young man – maybe about eleven years old – in the seat next to me and instructed him to wait there – he’d be right back.  The boy was flushed, and it appeared he’d been crying. I assumed he’d fallen and needed a band-aid or an ice pack.

As I fixated on my granddaughter, the boy said, “You sure have a nice family.” I nodded in grateful agreement. He continued: “And it’s so big. You have so many grandchildren.” And it occurred to me that he thought that I was the patriarch of this vast clan that had gathered.  I explained that we were all present for an event, and he looked surprised and said, “Oh, well, I don’t know anything about that. I just came here.  I think I just ran away from home.”

I asked him if he’d like to tell me more, and he went on: “I live down the road. It’s just me and my mom, and now my step-dad.  I was outside playing, and I heard them fighting, and my step-dad told my mom that she had to get rid of me.  If she didn’t get rid of me, he said, then he would leave and take all our stuff… I got really scared, because I don’t want my mom to get rid of me.  So I ran as fast as I could up the hill and when I got to the fence I heard all of the laughing and playing from your family – I mean, from these people – and I thought this would be a safe place to catch my breath.”

Let me simply say that was not a conversation I expected to have.  A week earlier, I had been in long line with my older granddaughter at a water obstacle course on the lake.  One of the young adolescents in line ahead of us engaged my granddaughter in conversation, and asked where we were from.  After my reply, I asked her the same question. She mentioned the name of a town about 30 minutes away, and then said, “Well, I’m only living there for another week or so. Then I will be living in…” and she named a town about 90 minutes away.  I said, “Wow, you’re moving before school! That must be exciting!”

The young woman said, “Well, actually, my family is not moving.  Things at home are not really good right now, and, well, you know how dads can be.  My dad… it’s really rough.  Because of him, my mom thinks it’s a good idea for me to go live with my aunt and uncle for a year or two.”

A week before that, I’d been leading trauma healing workshops for children who had fled their homes in South Sudan and were holing up in Ethiopia trying to figure out what was next.  A week before that I had preached in a United Nations camp for displaced persons in South Sudan.

Perhaps you are now seeing what I discovered: that there may have been a design flaw in the Sabbatical Plan.  You see, if I had hoped to remove myself from exposure to pain and tragedy and suffering, then the plan was bound to fail.  Oh, there were a few days when Sharon and I were driving through Montana in our own little RV universe listening to a mix tape – but by and large, we continued to find ourselves in the midst of the storms of life.

Why?

Because that’s where we live.  That’s who we are.  The world is a stormy place, filled with great pain and deep violence.  I know – there is deep beauty and great grace, but there is no place that is removed from the storm.  That’s just where we are.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632

The disciples had been traveling with Jesus – it was the beginning of a great “Kingdom of Heaven” tour.  They’d had some amazing teaching – in fact, Jesus had preached “The Sermon on the Mount.” There had been great healings: a person with leprosy, then the Centurion’s servant, then Peter’s Mother-In-Law.  I mean, things were really looking good.  They decide to cap it all off with a boat ride, and that’s when everything went south in a hurry.  The storm erupts, and these people panic.

In spite of all the power they’d seen and experienced, these first followers of Jesus were convinced that they were going to die.  They look around for their leader, and they discover him fast asleep – while the storm rages on.  They yell at him; “SAVE US! LOOK AT US LORD! WE ARE GOING TO DIE!”  And there’s no record that they actually said this, but it’s clear that the implication was, “We are going to die, and you are there sleeping like a baby.  Do you even care?”

Listen, if I learned one thing in the past three months, it is this: I am more certain than ever that I have never met a person who hasn’t, at one time or another, given voice to that cry: “I’m dying here.  I’m dying.  Do you notice that?  Do you even care?”  If the Sabbatical taught me anything, it’s that people cannot outrun or hide from the storms and the pain of this world.  And the disciples came to know that.

But the disciples also got to know this: that their friend Jesus, in an act that amazed and frightened them, quieted the storm.

And that’s why we’re here, right?  We know we live in a world battered by storms and we’ve come here in the hopes that the One who calmed that storm two thousand years ago will take the time to be attentive to our marriages, our sick children, our mean streets, and our violent world.  We want to believe and we want to hope that Jesus cares about the fact that live in and know far too well fear, pain, loss, and regret.

And because we hope that, we have to pay attention to what Jesus says to his first followers.  He looks at them and he says, “You of little faith…”  It’s one word in the Greek: oligopistoi.  It is not, at first glance, a compliment.

And I want to say, “Now hold on a minute there, Lord.  These are the 12 we’re talking about here.  These are the people who have left everything to follow you. And these are the ones that you are calling oligopistoi?

The Gospels use that word five times.[1]Every single time Jesus says this word in the Bible, he’s talking to his disciples.

Now hear me, Church: Jesus never looks at an outsider, a “sinner”, a leper, a wounded person, an addict, and says dismissively, “look at you, you little faith.  Oligopistoi.”  Never.

The Tempest – Peace, Be Still, Jorge Cocco Santangelo, 2015 Used by permission. See more at https://jorgecocco.com

To the contrary, every single time Jesus utters that word he is looking at the group of people who have, arguably, the MOST faith of anyone else around. That word is reserved in the Gospels for the twelve, which we should take to mean the church.  Us.  It is only used in conversation with those who have demonstrated something of a desire to be in relationship with the Holy but who long for more.  There is something, but it is small and weak and needs to grow.

Oligopistoi.  That is why we are here.  We want to become, like the twelve in the boat or like our sisters and brothers in Ephesus, a community of those who are becoming a dwelling place for the Holy One.

So here’s what we know to be true:

  • We cannot escape the storm
  • There is one who can and does calm storms
  • Until the storm subsides, our only option is to ride it out together.

And this is also true: God equips us to live in a stormy place by giving us a congregation.  In this particular place, at this particular time, we are called to be with and for each other.  In the reading from Matthew, the disciples were in the boat when the storm hit.  Why were they there?  Because they were following Jesus, and that’s where he was.

In Ephesians, Paul tells his friends to stop arguing with each other, to stop aggravating each other, to stop distrusting or marginalizing or wounding each other because, he says, they are being built up into a place where the fulness of God dwells and the power of God is released.  Paul tells this odd assembly in Ephesus that they are becoming an instrument of hope and healing for the pain of the world.

This is also the truth, my friends: while we cannot escape life’s storms, we are given the gift of congregations in which we can grow in our little faith and become stronger as we seek to follow Jesus more closely.

I know this full well: sometimes congregations can stink.  Sometimes, it is really, really hard to be in congregations because, well, because they are made up of people like us.  We hurt each other.  We disappoint ourselves.  We make mistakes.  We blow up. We crash and burn.  We act like, well, oligopistoi.  We are, in our own eyes and often in each other’s, “little faiths”.

And yet the Divine strategy does not appear to have changed. Congregations and the communities that form them are the means by which the Holy is revealed and the healing is unleashed.  This place – these people – by the grace of God, we are brought together in order that we might become, in the words of my young friend from Ohio, a “safe place to catch your breath for a while.”

Here you are, minding your own business, trying to get through your own stuff, and all of a sudden you are thrust into a place of pain and sorrow and weeping.

Does this happen often?  Yes. You know that it does.  And because we know that to be true, let us pledge to join together in the hopes of riding out the storms until we, and those we love, and those whom no one loves, can see and appreciate the complete healing and peace that comes from the One who has promised not to leave us alone in the midst of the chaos.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 18:8, and Luke 12:28.

A Summer Reading List

As regular readers of this blog know, I am at the tail end of a three-month Sabbatical from my ongoing ministry at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights in Pittsburgh, PA.  In several previous posts, I mentioned that I would provide some sort of a listing of the books that have held my interest this summer.  My hope is that you might see something here that strikes your fancy – and if you look at my list and see something missing, I’d love to have some suggestions from you!

Novels

Anything by Fredrik Backman I could find.  This guy is amazing.  Seriously, if you haven’t read any of his stuff, you should.  He’s really, really good.

  • The Deal of a Lifetime: This brief novella explores the relationship between a father and his son.  It raises questions of ultimate worth and value, sacrifice and love.  Very thought-provoking.
  • And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer: Another novella, this one painting an amazingly heart-rending image of the relationship between a boy and his grandfather (who is struggling with dementia).  The characters really come to life, and the struggle to maintain connection, love, and a sense of self draws the reader in.  I’m not crying, you’re crying…
  • Beartown: This is a novel about a town’s hockey team the way that The Old Man and the Sea is a story of a man on a fishing trip.  Beartown is a tiny town deep in the forest, and the last few decades have not been particularly kind to this community.  One of the things that has held the people here together over the years, though, is hockey.  So when Kevin, Benji, Amat, Bobo, and the rest of the young men’s team begin to make a run for the championship, the town goes crazy.  And yet something horrible happens – and the town has to think through important questions of friendship and belonging and justice and healing.  Decisions are made, and their effects are felt… And Backman captures the struggle beautifully.
  • Us Against You is the sequel to Beartown.  Here, we see the aftermath of the conflict and struggle that has been so gripping (for both the town and the characters in the book as well as the reader!).  Some of the plot lines for this may have been drawn straight from today’s headlines – it is a gripping witness to the power of love and friendship as well as the ways that our communities come to define us.

The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr.  This is one of my all-time favorite novels – an allegory to which I return again and again.  Chauntecleer is a rooster who rules over his land with wisdom and justice, and he finds that his territory has been invaded by lawlessness and desolation known as Wyrm.  It is at once a heart-breaking and heart-warming tale of redemption and hope.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher.  This is a laugh-out loud, snarky novel that is comprised exclusively of letters written by one Jason Fitger, a weary and wearisome professor of creative writing and literature at an undistinguished midwestern university.  In his letters, we come to know his failed love life, his unwise choices, and his passions.  This is a poignant and funny book that won’t take you long to get through.

Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  Clay Johnson is in a “beggars can’t be choosers” position when he is downsized from his tech job – and so he finds himself working the overnight hours at a most unusual book store in California.  Most of the very few “customers” don’t actually BUY anything – instead, they borrow large volumes from a special section of the store.  Clay is intrigued, and so he recruits some of his friends to help him explore and eventually discover the secrets of the store and its owner.  This is part detective story, part adventure or fantasy novel, and part ‘rom-com’.

The Bourne Deception by Eric Van Lustbader.  Because, well, Jason Bourne.

Brother Odd by Dean Koontz.  During my sojourn in Ethiopia, when I was without my own stack of books, I found this one that captivated me.  Odd Thomas is a young man with a strange gift/curse, and during his stay at St. Bartholomew’s Abbey he finds himself in a position to use this gift to help those around him avert tragedy.  It is a good story and like all good stories helps me to wonder about the ways that I see the world (or fail to).

Rushing Waters and Blue by Danielle Steel.  Each of these quick reads is a piece of brain-candy from an author who churns out books seemingly faster than I can churn out sermons.  The former is about a group of people whose lives become intertwined when the “storm of the century” floods New York City and forces them to consider what is really important about the things they own and the lives they live.  The latter is the tale of a female doctor who repeatedly thrusts herself into war zones and horrifying situations with a group such as Doctors Without Borders in an attempt to escape her “real” life.  That is all brought into question when a young homeless boy shows up in her life and calls her to think about who she really wants to be.

Theology and Spirituality

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans.  Evans is a remarkable author and a significant influence on me in recent years.  She writes with sincerity, humility, and approachability about the difficulties we encounter when we try to read the Bible literally – but about the joy and wonder that these same stories can bring us when we are able to see the mystery of God’s redemptive work in the world.  I’d buy anything she’s written!

 

 

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God by Eugene Peterson.  This is a collection of 49 of Peterson’s sermons that demonstrate how this pastor caught the imagination of his congregation in Maryland by telling them the heart of the message of Scripture.  There are seven sections demonstrating how Peterson preached in the company of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos – working his way through the entire Bible, yet pointing to One Story.  I don’t usually like books of sermons, but this one was, well, on fire.

A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community by John Pavlovitz.  I’ve read this guy’s blog a lot, and he always makes me think.  This book is no different – it offers his very cogent reflections on how, frankly, the organized church is so apt to act in ways that would probably mystify Jesus.  He calls his readers to explore notions of radical hospitality, authenticity, genuine diversity, and a dream of community.  This man tells the truth.

Everyone Belongs to God: Discovering the Hidden Christ by Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt.  This work is a collection of letters written by a 19th century (and early 20th century) pastor to his son-in-law, who was a missionary in China.  Writing before the “War to End All Wars” and the cosmic events of the last century, this man offers some incredibly sage advice to his son-in-law on being more concerned with following Jesus than in propping up an institution or corporation (such as the church or the German Culture, each of which he had been commissioned to represent in China).  Blumhardt’s thought is free, it is godly, and it is inviting as we consider just how wide and deep the Gospel really is.

Spiritual Economics: The Principles and Process of True Prosperity by Eric Butterworth.  This was sent to me by a dear friend from High School, a man whose leadership abilities and passion for learning I really respect.  I was suspecting that this would wind up to be a “prosperity Gospel” book, but it wasn’t. Butterworth builds on the principles espoused in the Unity Church and New Thought Movements with which he was deeply associated.  If I were to categorize this volume in a single genre, it might more likely be “self-help”, because Butterworth really attempts to coach the reader through seeing “abundant life” in their everyday existence.

Miscellaneous

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough.  I have long been an admirer of our nation’s 26th President, and to be honest, I thought I was going to be reading a biography of that guy.  But subtitles matter, and I quickly realized that this was a biography of the boy who would become that president.  This lengthy and well-documented work (David McCullough, anyone?) covers only the seventeen years from 1869 when little “Teedie” is ten years old to 1886 where the future president returns from his time in North Dakota as a genuine “cowboy” – ready to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, move through his grief, and take hold of that which was to come.  I was drawn into many aspects of his story, not the least of which is McCullough’s long exploration of Roosevelt’s severe asthma and its possible causes and the affects that this disease had on him and those around him. It is a well-written social history, a compelling story, and a richly-researched peek into the life of this world-changing man.

The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth  by Christopher L. Heuertz.  This is a verrrrrry deep work – I have to read and re-read these chapters slowly – that explores an ancient conception of personalities and the ways that we are “wired”. He does so in the clear and consistent posture of one who wants to follow Jesus.  I’m working through this book with a group of pastors and of all the ones on the list this summer, this is the one that feels the most like work to me.  But I’m learning… so there’s that!

From Brokenness To Community by Jean Vanier.  This is the only book I had with me for five days while my luggage was misplaced in Ethiopia.  It is a book that has had a deep, deep impact on my life over the years.  Vanier lectured to students at Harvard about the improbability of him – a seasoned Navy Veteran, a doctor and student of Philosophy, and an intellectual’s intellectual – being called to care for and learn from those who have been deeply wounded in this life.  Vanier left his posts in academia and the military to go and live with, serve, and learn from a community of people who were profoundly disabled.  Most could not move or speak, and yet Vanier found there a path to discipleship that was truly surprising to him and to anyone who thinks that Jesus always wants us to be on top and first and “successful.”

I hope that taking a peek at my list might help you to think about what you’re reading that has gotten you interested, or passionate, or wondering…  Happy Reading

On Saying Who You Are…

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds. For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio.  While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…

Lucia got a new lunchbox from her great-grandmother – to help her get ready for school!

My time of rest, study, and reflection at Seneca Lake was transformed for about six days with an infusion of time with people I love dearly.  In addition to a few close friends from Pittsburgh, the time was fundamentally shaped by the ability to share this place with, at various times, my wife Sharon, my daughter Ariel, and my granddaughters Lucia and Violet. Ariel and the girls arrived on Wednesday, and we had some wonderful experiences, including pie and pearsauce making, swimming, reading, and lots of bubbles.  Ariel left as Sharon arrived on Friday evening, and we had a couple of fantastic grandparenting days with the girls.  Sharon was constrained to leave on Sunday morning, and that evening Ariel returned to pick up Violet – leaving Lucia and me to a couple of days of Camp Grampy.

In the midst of all this, the cabins around mine were inhabited by other families on different missions.  Lucia watched one child, an 8 year old girl, wistfully, and wondered if she’d like to play together.  Her nervousness prevented her from making a move for a day or so until, with Sharon’s encouragement, she went over and broke the ice. The child was happy to come to Cabin #4 and roast some marshmallows and make some popcorn.  As all of this was unfolding, of course, Sharon and I were doing the kinds of things that grown-ups do in these situations: we were trying to get Lucia to make an accounting for herself.  “Tell her who you are, sweetheart”, we said. Of course, what we meant was “tell her your name, and maybe how old you are…”

It’s pie time!

How many times have you been told, or instructed someone else, to “say who you are”? Wouldn’t life be a series of existential crises if we really had to do that all the time? I mean, really say  who we are?

“Um, hi…. I’m an extroverted grandfather with this particular set of insecurities; I have these hopes, these skills, and an overinflated sense of my abilities as a bowler and baserunner… I like to cook and read and tell stories, but I’m afraid that sometimes I like telling them more than you like listening to them… My favorite color is red, and I really like to watch movies and talk about them with people, but I’m reluctant to invite you to do that because I’m afraid you’ll think that’s odd…”

You see what I mean?  If we really had to tell people who we are – what particular bundle of emotions, insecurities, strengths, confidences, and behaviors make us into ourselves – well, it would just be exhausting.

And yet that is one of the prime tasks of a Sabbatical, I think.  I’m supposed to step away from all the things I normally do  and spend some time thinking about who it is that I’m supposed to be.

The girls loved having the chance to sing along (and help play)!

In an odd, and yet beautiful way, this became clear to me during a conversation I had with Lucia while the two of us were out on the boat the other day.  She asked what day it was, and I mentioned that it was Sunday.  She thought about that for a moment, and then she said, “But you didn’t go to church, Grampy. You always go to church – even when it’s not Sunday.”

I said that yes, typically that was true, but that this summer I was spending my time in a different way.  She continued, “So you are taking a break from working at the church, Grampy?  Are you sad about that?”

I replied that there were a lot of things that I missed about being connected with so many of the people who are so important to me, but it was important to the church and to me that we have a little break.

After a brief interlude, she wandered into my lap and said, “Well, I’m glad that you are taking a break from your church job so that you can keep on doing the job that you don’t get a break from.”  I asked her what that was, and she said with a big smile (and perhaps, a little condescension in her voice, although I might be making that part up), “Taking care of ME! You can’t always go to church, and MorMor can’t always go to her work, but we can always take care of each other, Grampy.”

The kid is not wrong…  Like many of us, I suspect I spend a little too much energy conflating what I do  with who I am.  The weekly Sabbath is an opportunity for us to do this with some regularity, of course (“Remember the Sabbath… and remember that you are fundamentally a person who has been freed from bondage” [my very loose paraphrase of the 4thcommandment]).  We are invited to stop our striving and our doing and our working and to remember that there is One who is and does and makes and heals and reconciles in a way that is not dependent on our ability to accomplish those things.  A pastoral Sabbatical is a longer, much rarer (my last one was in 2010) invitation to allocate time in a different way so as to more fully embrace the times and the people with whom I’m presented with the energy I’ve been given.

It was great watching the kids get more comfortable in the water!

MorMor’s love for puzzles is taking root in this generation.

I am deeply grateful for this rare privilege I have had this past week to spend such intense time exploring life in the company of my daughter and granddaughters.  Stretching out and reading stories, making pie, building fires, wishing we could catch some fish, telling silly jokes, and just, well, being ourselves in front of each other.

I’m hoping that you have someone with whom you are free to be you today, without having to explain too much of anything. In addition, I hope that you are able to find some time to think about who you are supposed to be  as well as all the stuff you have to do.

One of the great opportunities of “Camp Grampy” was our plan to spend a night sleeping on my boat “Visitation”. Here we are setting off.

No toilet on the boat? Think again! Lucia getting her “bucket potty” ready for the night.

We did a lot of fishing, but precious little catching.

Lucia asked for the camera so that she could have a picture to remember what I look like when we fish together. Now you can know this, too!

It turned out that there were TOO MANY MOSQUITOS for us to sleep on the boat, but that didn’t stop us from getting breakfast at the Boat Restaurant! I asked Lucia if she wanted to eat at the restaurant, and she said, “Grampy, do you think that they will have biscuits and gravy?” That’s my girl!

She took a lot of “nature photos” – here, capturing a dandelion so that she can share it with her teacher.

The nighttime view from Cabin #4. I could do worse, my friends. I could do worse!

An Appreciation for A Faithful Guide

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds. For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio.  While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…

I took a rather circuitous route to the Pastoral Vocation.  As mentioned in the previous post, I spent many years specializing in “youth” ministry – it took me more than eight years to complete my Master’s Degree and satisfy my denomination’s requirements for ordination – a place I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go.

And yet in September, 1990, it happened.  Not only had I jumped through all the hoops, dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s – lo and behold, there was a congregation that wanted me to serve as (Associate) Pastor!  One of the first things I did as a pastor was to dip into my book allowance and buy a slim volume entitled Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity  by Eugene Peterson.  I’m sure that it was the best ten bucks the church ever spent on me.  I recall sitting in my study, reading portions of it out loud to anyone who happened to have had the poor timing to be walking past or telephoning me at the moment.  My takeaway from that book was that while the church really did want me (or someone like me) to take care of the business of being the religious institution that counted for respectability in the neighborhood, nobody in the congregation would really ever give a rat’s patootie about the three things that constitute the core of the Pastoral Vocation: prayer, studying scripture, and offering spiritual direction.

Peterson proved prophetic in many ways: I’ve often received memos for failing to account for some particular budget anomaly, and I’ve been reamed out more than once for choosing the wrong music, and I’ve been challenged on many occastions for being too political (or not political enough) from the pulpit.  Sessions and Presbyteries and Assemblies care about results, about data, and about growth.  Eugene pointed out to me early on that nobody was going to bug me about the most important stuff – the stuff that kept me alive, and that really mattered to people when they were calling from the ER or wondering what had happened to their marriage or how they might survive the loss of yet another child.

I grew to see Eugene Peterson as a guide in ministry, and I devoured his writing. And then about a dozen years ago: a great gift.  I was facing a challenge in ministry for which, to my knowledge, neither he nor anyone else I trusted had written a book.  And so I wrote a letter (on paper, through the snail mail!) to Eugene, then living in (semi) retirement in Montana. I asked if he might mentor me through this particular challenge, and after a few weeks I received an invitation from Eugene to call him at his home (on his land line!).  We met several times in person and more frequently via telephone for the next eight months or so, and I was greatly blessed to be the recipient of his wisdom, his energy, his insight, and, most especially, his care.  That time made me a better pastor and a better person.

In my previous post, I wrote about the joys of learning from someone younger than me. When I’d finished Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired, I went in the other direction and picked up the last book that Eugene published prior to his death. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God  is a collection of 49 sermons (yes, there are seven units that contain seven messages each) that Eugene originally preached to the congregation of Christ Our King parish Bel Air, Maryland.  What a joy it has been to hear these words in his deep and gravelly voice – words that bring me into consideration of The Word; words that ask important questions and point to great beauty and poke holes in easy answers.

For instance, in a sermon on Psalm 23 he writes, “Our lives are lived in the company of both the Shepherd and the shadow…Life in the desert for both Shepherd and sheep is no soft, sun-drenched idyll on a south sea island.  It is menaced by the dark shadows of the beast-infested valley. The threats to life are all around, but the presence of the Shepherd guides and leads, dispersing the threats.” (pp. 101-102)

In his introduction to the sermons on prophecy, he writes, “Everyone more or less believes in God or gods.  But most of us do our best to keep God on the margins of our lives, or, failing that, we refashion God to suit our convenience.  Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call.  And prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be… The unrelenting reality is that prophets don’t fit into our way of life. For a people who are accustomed to fitting God into our lives or, as we like to say, ‘making room for God,’ the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss.  The God of whom the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, wehave to fit into God.” (pp. 115-116)

In reflecting on his growth in wisdom, he said, “Not everything I did or said took place behind the pulpit or in the sanctuary.  Not everything I was learning about grace and holiness was coming out of the Bible.  I was also being tutored by a woman recovering from a heart attack, by a family struggling in poverty, by young people finding words to express their newfound faith honestly and unpretentiously, or, in the words of our text, by hearing wisdom crying aloud in the street (Proverbs 1:20).” (p. 185)

In this, his final volume, I hear Eugene reminding me of truth I first encountered three decades ago: that the Christian life is all about congruence – it’s not about some extraordinary event or immersion or experience that we get once in a while, but then it’s business as usual; rather, faithful Christian living is done Monday – Sunday in workplaces and schools and hospitals and homes.  Our calling as believers is to look for ways to participate in what God is doing in each of those places; my calling as a Pastor is to point to how that might happen and invite your consideration of that as it does its quiet work in your own heart.

It’s only a hummingbird, and not a kingfisher – but she was a welcome companion all morning!

I’ve been reading his work and drafting this appreciation seated at a picnic table overlooking a lake in Eastern Ohio.  As I’ve been doing so, a number of hummingbirds have been flitting in and out, buzzing me, chasing each other, and sipping on the nectar in the feeder. This is not a gift I deserve nor one for which I could have planned, but at this season in my life and ministry, I am grateful for such reminders of grace and beauty and perseverance and delicacy and energy.  My prayer for you today is that you have the presence of faithful mentors and guides who help you to see what really matters in the world and in your own life. Thanks be to God!

I realized that I’d omitted a photo of my bride from previous posts at the lake. She is here on the weekends and source of great comfort and joy!

I’d Rather Explore Than Explain

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds.  For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio.  While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…

I know that you don’t hear this often enough, but there are a lot of perks to getting old(er).  I know, I know, our society tells us that age is the enemy and we have to pretend to be 29 forever.

No thanks.

Here’s one of my favorite things about getting older: there are more and more younger people from whom I can learn!  When I started in ministry, I wanted to do youth ministry.  I wanted to serve in this way, I thought, because I had so much to offer these kids.  I knew more than they did about so much: life, the universe, and everything.  They should be glad  to have me in the room.  And, truth be told, I was pretty good at it.  I mean, I did  know some stuff.  And I taught a lot of kids.

But the longer I’ve been doing this, the more things have become mutual.  When I first started, I talked a lot. Seriously – I don’t know how some of those folks ever put up with me.  In my mind’s eye, I’m insufferable.  But now, I find myself listening more and more.  So often, it’s young people who challenge me to be better than I am, who invite me to grow, who push me out of my comfort zone.

One such voice for which I’m supremely grateful is a young woman named Rachel Held Evans.  She caught my attention almost ten years ago when, in response to the devastation wrought by a tsunami in East Asia, she published a poem on her blog called “Natori” (the name of a town in Japan that was devastated by that horror).  Here is that poem, along with the photo that inspired it:

Natori

Some people have pastors who explain these things
but I don’t
know why she sits alone amidst the bodies that the water left behind—
bodies of houses, bodies of cars, bodies of boats, bodies of people—
knees bent,
arms clasped beneath bare thighs,
held together by the stiff embrace of a sob,
or why the earth shook,
or why the water came,
or why she has taken off her boots,
or why she sits alone amidst the bodies that the water left behind;
I only know that I don’t
want a pastor who explains these things.

I read it, and I thought, “YES!  Exactly!  God forbid that I become a pastor who tries to explain things.”  I wanted to use that poem in a sermon, and so I emailed her for permission.  She responded with grace and an open heart, and we exchanged a number of emails about what it meant to explore and preach in places of pain and confusion.  I began to devour her writing: her memoir Evolving in Monkeytown  (later retitled Faith Unraveled.) was a book I gave to a number of young people who wanted to believe, but they weren’t sure that their faith would end up looking like that of their parents.  A number of us at Crafton Heights were glad to have had the opportunity to read through Searching for Sunday  together as we talked and prayed about what makes church, well, church.

Rachel Held Evans died tragically in May at the age of 37, apparently as a result of a series of infections that led to swelling on the brain.  When she died, I posted Natori on my Facebook page because after thirty years of doing funerals for people younger than I am, I still don’t know how to do it well, or why those things happen. And I’m done trying to explain much of anything.

One of the volumes to which I’ve been looking forward this Sabbatical is one that she authored last year, entitled Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.  Listen: if you’re looking for a seminary text filled with source criticism and ancient languages, this book isn’t for you.  I mean, she doesn’t even use the word “hermeneutic”, so far as I can recall. But if you wonder how in the world a collection of documents pulled together by a group of committees over a three thousand year time frame can be authoritative and helpful for life in the 21stcentury, this is a great read.

She takes on some of the most confusing and challenging aspects of the Bible, including the patriarchal, violent, gruesome, and just plain confusing texts and she helps the reader to see the Bible for what it is (a living, breathing work that can equip us for faithful living in God’s world) while freeing folks to go beyond seeing it as a static rulebook bearing the marks of a world that no longer exists.  Her scholarship is first-rate, and she weaves in thought from all manner of authorities in such a way as to allow readers to imagine that we’re in the same room with a group of these folks and overhearing their discussions about the topic at hand.

For instance, in the section on miracles (entitled “Fish Stories”), she writes,

So perhaps a better question than asking ‘Do I believe in miracles?’ is ‘Am I acting like I do?’.  Am I including the people who are typically excluded? Am I feeding the hungry and caring for the sick? Am I holding the hands of the homeless and offering help to addicts?  Am I working to break down religious and political barriers that ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities and people with disabilities? Am I behaving as if life is more than a meaningless, chaotic mess, that there is some order in the storm?

In this work, as in every other experience I’ve had of her, she is genuine and transparent and honest – even with, or perhaps especially with, her doubts and questions.

We need more of that in the church today.

Confession: like Rachel Held Evans, I am often bewildered or infuriated by the Bible.  I am angry at the church.  I don’t understand what God is up to.  But the Story!  Ah, the Story!!!  It has  me, and I cannot let it go.  Or, perhaps more accurately, it won’t let me go.  There are days when I want to throw my hands in the air and say, “Seriously? THIS is the best you can do today? What the hell?” (I know, that’s not what most folks want their pastor’s prayers to sound like, but some days, that’s the best I can do).  And yet I keep on praying.  Because, to echo this young woman who has taught me a lot, “I am a Christian because the story of Jesus is still the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.”  And the reality is, I’m not looking for someone who will explain away all the difficult things in the Bible or in my life.  But I will always, always welcome someone who is interested in exploring difficult places with me.  Thank you, Rachel, for that.

I would heartily encourage you to learn more about this bright light that shone too briefly, and to read this book.  You can get a free preview, download a study guide, and learn more about this work by clicking here.

Oh – and for those of you are are convinced that I’m here at the lake, eating fresh fish every day… I think it would be fair to say that I don’t have Seneca Lake quite figured out yet.  Which is OK, because I have more time for reading!

Does the camera really add ten pounds?

Important Correction to “Finding and Losing Words”

A note to those of you who subscribe to these posts by email:
Something happened in that I hit “publish” in the last post before I was able to complete it.
Because I’m more of a “word” guy and less of a “tech guy”, I don’t know how to remove that post and send you a completed on.

To that end, you can view the new and improved version by clicking here.

I am honored by the grace you show me in your willingness to read my words.  I do not take that for granted.

Humbly,
Dave