Texas Mission 2017 #5

The fancy dashboard screen indicates the outside temperature to be 111°. Yikes.

The fancy dashboard screen indicates the outside temperature to be 111°. Yikes.

The last “work” day of our 2017 Mission to Mission trip was powerful in many, many regards.  For a variety of reasons beyond our control, the time spent at the home in Donna, TX was limited to half a day.  In some ways, that was probably a pretty wise decision, given the heat we experienced this afternoon.  As with most things in our lives, we didn’t finish the job entirely, but we had to stop anyway. We’ll trust that just as the Lord raised up hands to begin work of which we knew nothing two weeks ago, we’ll trust that there will be hands sent to complete the tasks we were obliged to leave undone today.  At any rate, it was wonderful to see this project to this point and to celebrate with the homeowners as they continued to dream of moving into their own new space.

Joe is sealing up the bathroom tile.

Joe is sealing up the bathroom tile.

Gabe installing some light fixtures

Gabe installing some light fixtures

Here, the team observes a moment of silence for the broken pipe, only recently buried...

Here, the team observes a moment of silence for the broken pipe, only recently buried… I think Lauren may be reading some sort of liturgy from her phone.

Bob engages in a little resurrection theology with the soon-to-be-mended pipe.

Bob engages in a little resurrection theology with the soon-to-be-mended pipe.

You know, painting, sawing, and Tina handing trim through the window...

You know, painting, sawing, and Tina handing trim through the window…

What? A Long-billed Curlew stopped by the vacant lot next door? Who knew?

What? A Long-billed Curlew stopped by the vacant lot next door? Who knew?

With Adriana and Raymond - we are glad to have been able to participate in this stage of their journey.

With Adriana and Raymond – we are glad to have been able to participate in this stage of their journey.

pizzahutOnce again, we found ourselves the recipients of lunchtime hospitality.  This time, it was not a meal cooked and delivered to the site, but rather the treat of personal pan pizza in air-conditioned comfort.  Our liaisons at First Presbyterian Church of Mission TX, Kathy  and “Tejano Bob”, took us to Pizza Hut in an effort to break up the day.  It worked.  Folks were in a food coma ten minutes later…

The interior of my van upon leaving Pizza Hut...

The interior of my van upon leaving Pizza Hut…

Several of us took advantage of the extra hours in the afternoon to visit the Refugee Center located at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen.  Here we were privileged to see how this congregation has rallied people of faith and good will across the Rio Grande Valley to provide a hospitable welcome to those fleeing persecution and danger in Central America.  Persons who are seeking refugee status in the USA are received by the Border Patrol and vetted at a detention center nearby.  Those who are cleared for entry and continuing the process are then brought to this center, where they are given a hot meal, a clean set of clothes, a shower, and a place to sleep for the night before going to the bus station the next day to travel to the city in which their sponsors will receive them.  It was our honor to be on hand when two young mothers and their children came in and were received so graciously by the volunteers of the parish.

The exterior of a tent used to house some of the refugees received at Sacred Heart

The exterior of a tent used to house some of the refugees received at Sacred Heart

thurs3

Dinner provided us with the incredible opportunity to share in a lengthy reunion with the Paz family, with whom we were glad to work two years ago.  We stopped by to say “hello” yesterday, and then got a message inviting us to dinner today – and what a feast we shared.  There was enough chicken and sausage to feed an army, along with some amazing beans and a homemade cake.  It was good to get caught up on the who’s doing what in school and to see how the house is continuing to provide a blessing to our friends and those with whom they come into contact.  We don’t often get a glimpse of the kingdom, but tonight we did.  And we were glad for it.

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The table is spread!!!

Joe, Tim, Vicky, and Lauren

Joe, Tim, Vicky, and Lauren

With Julio, Ricardo, Juani, and Kimberly

With Julio, Ricardo, Juani, and Kimberly.  Alert readers will notice that Ricardo is holding a recently-imported bottle of Nali brand hot sauce from Malawi.  That’ll get the old salsa up and running!

Sometimes, being friends with someone means taking a turn on the trampoline with them. Better Lindsay than me, I'd say...

Sometimes, being friends with someone means taking a turn on the trampoline with them. Better Lindsay than me, I’d say…

Tomorrow is a travel day – we’ll take the drive up to Houston and then on Saturday return to Pittsburgh.  It’s been a great trip for all kinds of reasons, and I hope and pray that the fruit will show in years to come.

Texas Mission 2017 #4

By the time we get to the third day of a mission trip, we’re really  about as much “on a roll” as we’re going to get.  Generally, folks have some idea what we’re doing and how to do it… Conversations have been deep and warm, and similarly, if I got on your nerves a little bit on Monday, by Wednesday afternoon I’m literally killing you.  If you like BBQ, you’re in heaven; if it’s not your favorite, you’re ready to change channels; the time together is charging up all of the extroverts and the introverts are simply craving some “me time”…

Today was a great day.  In terms of the work, we have almost finished the exterior painting and knocked out a lot of the interior.  When we left today, the toilet flushed (ending our thrice-daily invasion of the local “El Tigre” Exxon station), the tile was just about into the bathtub, and the doors had all been hung and several were even framed.

In terms of the “chemistry of the company”, well, it’s just wonderful.  We’ve enjoyed Joe K’s amazing cooking skills and laughed at some of Pastor Dave’s hilarious jokes.  Encouragement has been shared, stories told, and our Bible study has been deep and rich.

At the end of the day, we visited the home of a family we were privileged to serve two years ago.  I’ve been friends with Juani and her son Julio on Facebook since then, and it’s a tremendous joy to see that the house to which we contributed has really become a home that sustains a family.  We had a delightful visit, and at the end of the day Juani invited us to return tomorrow for dinner.  Needless to say, we are very, very excited!

Here are a few images to help you get a glimpse into our week…

Joe doing the detail work of cutting in the edges of the closet.

Joe doing the detail work of cutting in the edges of the closet.

Gabe, Kati, and Lauren looking a little too pleased with themselves at the ceramic saw.

Gabe, Kati, and Lauren looking a little too pleased with themselves at the ceramic saw.

Joe K. and Bob (we found him!) installing the water lines.  One of the advantages of this climate is that frozen pipes are just a bad memory...

Joe K. and Bob (we found him!) installing the water lines. One of the advantages of this climate is that frozen pipes are just a bad memory…

Lindsay putting the paint on the door frames prior to their installation.

Lindsay putting the paint on the door frames prior to their installation.

And now Tina trims them to fit!

And now Tina trims them to fit!

Jon is a man who is simply out standing in his field.

Jon is a man who is simply out standing in his field.

Dave applying the trim - a deep purple to accent the slate gray/blue siding.

Dave applying the trim – a deep purple to accent the slate gray/blue siding.

Enjoying a reunion with the Paz family, with whom these six individuals served in 2015.

Enjoying a reunion with the Paz family, with whom these six individuals served in 2015.

There is some debate as to whether it was Napoleon or Frederick the Great who said, "An army marches on its stomach.  There is no dispute as to how Joe has equipped us for the challenges of our days...

There is some debate as to whether it was Napoleon or Frederick the Great who said, “An army marches on its stomach. There is no dispute as to how Joe has equipped us for the challenges of our days…

A little game of Apples to Apples helps us to socialize...

A little game of Apples to Apples helps us to socialize…

...and meanwhile, back at "Introvert's Corner", a few of the fellows recuperate from an intense day together.

…and meanwhile, back at “Introvert’s Corner”, a few of the fellows recuperate from an intense day together.

Texas Mission 2017 #3

Each year the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights sends a team of adults to engage in service and partnership in mission with sister churches in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  This year, our congregation has “tithed” itself: our average attendance is 120 on a Sunday morning, and we’ve got a dozen adults from our congregation (and our friend Jack from a neighboring worship community).  Tuesday marked the second day of work, and we saw a couple of annual trends come to pass.

For starters, I got lost driving the van to the work site.  It’s about 25 miles away, across a grid of Texas flatland replete with matching HEB stores, Texas Tire shops, Whataburger shops, and an incredible number of billboards… I had driven there once, in a convoy, in the rain… so it’s not surprising that I got lost – and, in fact, I generally do on the Tuesday of these trips.

Later in the day, Joe K. and I were talking and I said, “Yeah, I had a bit of a meltdown and got really frustrated; one of the team could see this happening and took me outside and prayed with me for a moment until I got my mind right…”  Joe said, “OK, well, that generally happens once a trip.  Nice to get it out of the way.”  And we talked about the fact that these trips have a rhythm to them…

The rhythm today was mostly good.  Most of the day, most of our team had meaningful work to do and pleasant company in which to share it.  We primed and painted like nobody’s business; we tiled and hung doors and caulked and plumbed; we met the homeowners and rejoiced at their delight in the progress on the house; we were served an amazing lunch by our friends Grant and Donna from the First Presbyterian Church of Mission; we had a delicious dinner prepared by Chef Joe and finished with another study on the theme of “A Different Kind of Hero” as we read through another portion of the Gospel of John…  Yes, it was a good day.  Here are a few photos to help convey a portion of the truth we shared.

The home was pretty far along when we arrived; here's the front being primed...

The home was pretty far along when we arrived; here’s the front being primed…

...and here's what the back looked like...

…and here’s what the back looked like…

Several rooms inside got a finish coat.

Several rooms inside got a finish coat.

Katie worked on tiling the bathroom...

Kati worked on tiling the bathroom…

And Gabe looks like he lost his rubber ducky...

And Gabe looks like he lost his rubber ducky…

Joe works on connecting the septic line.

Joe works on connecting the septic line.

Grant and Donna served up some soon-to-be-world-famous chicken tacos. It was amazing...

Grant and Donna served up some soon-to-be-world-famous chicken tacos. It was amazing…

The only disappointment in the day was the time that the house fell on top of Bob. At least, I'm pretty sure that's Bob...

The only disappointment in the day was the time that the house fell on top of Bob. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s Bob…

We were able to get a finish coat on the siding on two sides (half) of the home.

We were able to get a finish coat on the siding on two sides (half) of the home.

We didn’t get everything done that we’d have hoped; but we spent good time together; we laughed and we prayed and we just enjoyed our time with each other…  We didn’t finish anything, really.  But we worked.  And we were worked on.  It was a good, good day.

Texas Mission 2017 #2

Yesterday I was pleased to narrate some of the highlights of our first day in the Rio Grande Valley – a day filled with worship, fellowship, food, and anticipation.  Today, Monday, we were privileged to begin to explore and experience a little of the work to which we’ve been invited this week.  We are working with a network of churches and non-profits in the Valley to assist folks in to safe and adequate housing. This year, as in several previous years, we are tasked with helping the family close the gap between the work that a previous group or groups has done and finally entering the home themselves.

That means a bit of detective work… It’s not unlike turning on an episode of a program with which you’re familiar, but you haven’t seen lately.  And you’re in the middle of the episode… and you know most, but not all of the characters, and you’ve got to make some educated guesses as to who belongs where and why.  In the same way, we come into a home in which someone has made decisions about wiring, plumbing, and carpentry – all decisions, I’m sure, that made perfect sense to those folks at the time… but then they had to leave before they could finish.  And we show up, and we’re not exactly sure which wire leads to which outlet, or why the insulation isn’t in that room, and who knows anything about the way that these door jambs are set?  We know something about how to do all of these things, and we can help… but first we have to figure out where things were left.

Today we had the good fortune of beginning that adventure with a rarity – a cool, rainy day.  On the one hand, that meant a lot of muck and mud.  On the other hand, it made digging ditches for the water and septic lines a whole lot more pleasant than it might have been had it been 95° and sunny (the forecast for later this week!).  So we got a slow start – but a positive one – on the home with which we’re working. And it was good.  And, by God’s grace, so will tomorrow be.

We were delighted to have received a dinner invitation from Jose and Secylia and their family.  We were their guests at an amazing little Mexican restaurant in Edinburg, TX.  The food was delicious and authentic and the company and fellowship were even better.  We’re all the better for having shared that time.  This is an example of a friendship that has developed through the years… We have enjoyed time together now and then, and these folks sought to deepen the partnership through hospitality and generosity.  We are glad to be making and sharing more memories…

I’ll close with a few images of the day…

The water line is laid...

The water line is laid…

... as is the septic line...

… as is the septic line…

The heavy rains overnight turned the mud driveway into a quagmire. One good thing about having 13 people on the trip is that we weren't stuck long!

The heavy rains overnight turned the mud driveway into a quagmire. One good thing about having 13 people on the trip is that we weren’t stuck long!

Lindsay and Kati are fitting in a piece of drywall that was inexplicably missing...

Lindsay and Kati are fitting in a piece of drywall that was inexplicably missing…

...while Tina and Jack work to discover the mysteries of the door jambs...

…while Tina and Jack work to discover the mysteries of the door jambs…

The team works together to raise the decking onto a termite-resistant surface.

The team works together to raise the decking onto a termite-resistant surface.

Look - it's a bird! One I've never seen before: A White Tailed Kite!

Look – it’s a bird! One I’ve never seen before: A White Tailed Kite!

...who revealed herself to be a black widow spider. We left her be!

…who revealed herself to be a black widow spider. We left her be!

 

An investigation of a small cobweb near a cactus revealed this little lady...

An investigation of a small cobweb near a cactus revealed this little lady…

 

 

Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Texas Mission 2017 #1

In 2009, I had the privilege of joining my friend Stacey and my daughter Ariel on a brief visit to Reynosa Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas.  During that time, we developed an idea in which a group of adults from Crafton Heights could return and engage in a cross-cultural mission experience in partnership with the churches in South Texas and North Mexico.  In 2010, the Church sent a team of 8 adults, and ever since then we’ve been able to enjoy growing relationships with two churches on the Texas side of the border: The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and Solomon’s Porch Faith Community in McAllen.  These two churches have hosted us, fed us, and walked with us as we consider the ways in which God invites us to grow in our understanding of what it means to be one body in Christ.

Each year, we leave Pittsburgh, ostensibly to join together with service agencies such as Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery or Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in order to provide adequate housing for those affected by tragedy.  And we do.  In the days to come, you’ll see photos of us doing something.

But truth be told, I’m here for the food.

Ok, not literally.  But I’m not here only to hold a hammer or a paintbrush.  If that was the only goal, we’d have some cool fundraisers and send a check so that the folks here could hire real painters or drywall hangers.  But we have the fundraisers and send ourselves, because we believe that what happens inside us is as important as anything we might accomplish in the way of home rehab.  And for me, a lot of times that happens around the dinner table as we share stories, remember hardship, and revel in laughter.

Tina learns about Texas hospitality first-hand!

Tina learns about Texas hospitality first-hand!

We arrived in Houston Texas on Saturday morning and drove about six hours south to Mission, Texas.  When we got here, our friends from FPC mission were waiting with beef brisket and smoked turkey and all manner of delicious food.  We shared that meal with our team of 13 and an equal number of Texans.  Sunday morning we had the privilege of worshiping twice: once in English and once in a bilingual service.

In addition to having the largest group ever to travel to Texas, we were greeted by a sizable contingent from First Pres, who prepared and shared a fantastic meal with us.

In addition to having the largest group ever to travel to Texas, we were greeted by a sizable contingent from First Pres, who prepared and shared a fantastic meal with us.

David lays down the blessings at Solomon's Porch (Pastor Danny translating into Spanish).

David lays down the blessings at Solomon’s Porch (Pastor Danny translating into Spanish).

The service at Solomon’s Porch was incredibly personal for our team because David and Joe brought the sermon as they preached about the impact of our recent trip to Malawi (see this post and the ones following for more about that trip!). Our hosts were so moved by the experience that they presented the preachers with a special gift…

Joe talks about the fulness of the body of Christ.

Joe talks about the fulness of the body of Christ.

Evidently, the fee for the preaching that these guys have was communicated from Malawi. Dave & Joe receive their chicken from Solomon's Porch!

Evidently, the fee for the preaching that these guys have was communicated from Malawi. Dave & Joe receive their chicken from Solomon’s Porch!

Hmmmm... Seems like food is what brings us together. Another church, another amazing plate of BBQ!

Hmmmm… Seems like food is what brings us together. Another church, another amazing plate of BBQ!

After worship, the members of Solomon’s Porch presented us with a meal consisting of… wait for it… beef brisket and smoked turkey and all manner of delicious food.  More than that, they gave us the gift of themselves in conversation and partnership.

The morning service in the new worship space being built by Solomon's Porch

The morning service in the new worship space being built by Solomon’s Porch

The CHUP team in the entry to Solomon's Porch

The CHUP team in the entry to Solomon’s Porch

Following the meal, our team visited La Lomita Chapel on the banks of the Rio Grande and marveled at the history of this area.  We were further blessed to wander around in 85° sunshine at the Bentson-Rio Grande State Park.  Some of us caught a glimpse of a bobcat, and all of us enjoyed the wind and the sunshine.

La Lomita (the small hill) was first built in 1865 It was an important site for the Calvary of Christ, the Oblate missionaries who rode up and down the Rio Grande Valley visiting widely separated Catholic churches, baptizing newborns, performing marriage ceremonies and blessing the dead.

La Lomita (the small hill) was first built in 1865 It was an important site for the Calvary of Christ, the Oblate missionaries who rode up and down the Rio Grande Valley visiting widely separated Catholic churches, baptizing newborns, performing marriage ceremonies and blessing the dead.

Inside the tiny chapel at La Lomita Mission.

Inside the tiny chapel at La Lomita Mission.

That's the Rio Grande behind us. It's a river.

That’s the Rio Grande behind us. It’s a river.

We didn't see too many birds in the park today, but this black-crested titmouse stopped by to say "hello".

We didn’t see too many birds in the park today, but this black-crested titmouse stopped by to say “hello”.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We ended our first full day in Mission by listening to a concert by a local Barbershop chorus.  We are constantly grateful for the ways that joy finds its way into our experiences here… and hope that these stories and photos will prompt you to think about your own journey this day.

We were surprised and delighted to be invited to a concert by "The Men of A-Chord", a Barbershop Chorus. The venue is the First Presbyterian Church, where we are staying.

We were surprised and delighted to be invited to a concert by “The Men of A-Chord”, a Barbershop Chorus. The venue is the First Presbyterian Church, where we are staying.

The Sting of Death

or much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 12, we sat with him as he lamented the deaths of Saul and Jonathan singing “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1 (included below).   Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in II Corinthians 4:7-12

 

When we left off last week, Achish and his Philistine army were preparing to attack the Israelites and King Saul, while David and his men had been sent home to their place in Philistia, Ziklag. You might remember that David and his militia discover that the place had been ransacked and all of their relatives kidnapped, and David cried out for help from God. I Samuel ends with an account of David’s pursuit of the Amalekite raiders and the story of how families were reunited and David’s reputation was continuing to increase.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

There is, however, a dramatic development recorded at both the end of I Samuel and the beginning of II Samuel: we learn the outcome of the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites. A young man shows up in Ziklag carrying the crown and the royal bracelet: proof that King Saul of Israel is dead. This messenger is eager to demonstrate his loyalty to David, and even goes so far as to say that when he first encountered Saul, the king had been gravely wounded, but was still alive; at the king’s request, the young man ended Saul’s life.

When he first hears the news, David is overcome with grief and emotion. He weeps and fasts, as do the other members in his community.

The next day, he calls the messenger and asks for the story to be repeated. After the young man runs through it, David has him executed.

This is the same David who chose not to kill Saul when he had the chance, even though for years Saul had been trying to kill him… the same David who chose not to kill Nabal, even when Nabal had treated him with contempt. David has shown restraint… until someone dares to raise a hand to the Lord’s anointed. Now he orders the execution of this man who celebrates the death of the one who God had called.

And then, David sings. The song that he writes and performs is called “The Song of the Bow”, and it is a public statement of grief on the occasion of the deaths of Saul and his son, Jonathan. Not only does David compose and sing this tune, he also commands that the entire nation learn it. Listen to “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1:17-27:

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.

How the mighty have fallen!

“Tell it not in Gath,

proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,

"The Song of the Bow", Marc Chagall (1967).

“The Song of the Bow”, Marc Chagall (1967).

lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,

lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

“Mountains of Gilboa,

may you have neither dew nor rain,

may no showers fall on your terraced fields.

For there the shield of the mighty was despised,

the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

“From the blood of the slain,

from the flesh of the mighty,

the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,

the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.

Saul and Jonathan—

in life they were loved and admired,

and in death they were not parted.

They were swifter than eagles,

they were stronger than lions.

“Daughters of Israel,

weep for Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet and finery,

who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!

Jonathan lies slain on your heights.

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;

you were very dear to me.

Your love for me was wonderful,

more wonderful than that of women.

“How the mighty have fallen!

The weapons of war have perished!”

This is a remarkable example of a public lamentation over the intrusiveness of death in our lives. This morning, I’d like us to take a long look at what David is doing in composing and teaching this song to the people of God.

He names what has been lost. Four times in those eleven verses he mentions Saul by name; three times he mentions Jonathan. David, whose very name means “beloved of God”, cries out at the loss of the one he names “beloved”. He laments not just the death of his friend and his surrogate father, but the loss of any number of possible futures. This is a tremendous outpouring of grief not just from an individual, but from and on behalf of a nation.

Have you ever known this kind of grief? I, who probably spend more time with dead and dying people than most of you, have been surprised by it several times. Most dramatically, I remember a trip I was pleased to take through the nation of Egypt. We saw a lot of old things – and, by implication, a lot of death. Tombs and pyramids and catacombs…all kinds of death.

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

But one day we visited the military museum and cemetery at El Alamein. This battle was the culmination of a series of conflicts that were fought across Northern Africa for the second half of 1942.  It was a decisive event for the Allies as it denied Hitler and Mussolini access to the Suez Canal. The thing that took my breath away was row upon row of headstones – each with a name and an age.  Boys who came from Auckland, New Zealand, or Pretoria, South Africa, or Cardiff in Wales or Calcutta, India, or Ontario, Canada…and died at 21 or 23 or 32 in the deserts of North Africa.  There were so many graves… J. V. Griffiths, J. W. McNeely, A. F. Martin, J. Alastair Seabrook, and too many “soldiers known but to God.”

I wept on that day. I wept for these young men, and their families, and the sweethearts or children they may have left… and I wept because we are still building war cemeteries. And here is the truth: I was embarrassed by my tears. In fact, I made the rest of my group wait out in the parking lot because I didn’t want to get in the vehicle while I was crying.

That’s what we do, we Americans. Especially we male Americans. We deny the reality of death. We hold it in. We hide it from ourselves and each other. We refuse to make our grief public, and we don’t know how to enter into someone else’s sadness. Even those of us who claim faith, who talk of eternity and the promise we’ve been given… we don’t know what to say and so we flee death.

death800x800There’s an ancient fable from Iraq that teaches us about the inevitability of death and our fear of it. It seems as though a certain man asked his most trusted servant to go to the market in Bagdad and buy only the finest of food and wine to share with his friends. The servant set out for this task, but returned home in a matter of moments, looking very alarmed and frightened.

“Master, just now in the market I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Please – let me take your horse so I can get away from here. I’ll go to hide at my cousin’s home in Samarra and Death won’t find me there.”

The master thought that was a fine plan, and so sent the servant off on his horse. Later, he went into Bagdad himself, and saw Death at the market. Angrily, he went over and said, “Why did you make such a threatening gesture to my servant?”

Death said, “I didn’t threaten him at all – I was merely surprised to see him here in Bagdad. After all, I have an appointment to meet him in Samarra tonight.”

Grieving Man - Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Grieving Man – Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Don’t we know how that servant felt? Aren’t so many of us unwilling to consider any kind of death, whether it’s our own or someone else’s or some other form of loss or decay?

We avoid pain at all costs, don’t we? There’s an ache, a strain, a sadness, a sting… and we want to take a pill, have a drink, get a shot – anything in order to numb ourselves and avoid the suffering of the moment.

So much of the time, we can’t even acknowledge the impact of the loss, the horror, or the grief that shows up in our lives. Think of all the times we are tempted to gloss over or make light of significant pain and real loss, simply because we don’t know what to say or how to acknowledge the intrusiveness of death or suffering.

A friend’s divorce is finalized… and we say, “OK, wow! Glad that’s over… now, tiger, it’s time to get back out there and make yourself happy!”

That young woman down the street suffers through the death of her child through miscarriage or infant death… and we say, “Hey, that’s too bad… but at least you’re young, and you’ll have another…I have two friends who’ve been given ‘rainbow’ babies…”

The soldier comes back from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he has seen and done the unspeakable (often in our name)… and we pat him on the back, give him a free meal at Applebee’s on Veteran’s Day, and fly really big flags at the Super Bowl…

Your mother, sister, husband, or son dies, and four days after the funeral, people look at you and say, “Hey, how’s it going, huh? Things coming back to normal, I bet?”

No. No, it’s not normal. None of these things is normal, and none of them are easily dismissed. Please, for the love of God, don’t pretend that this kind of loss or death is insignificant.

Here is the truth, beloved: our pretending that we’re going to live forever and that death can’t touch us and that there’s no loss that is deeply interruptive… well, that kind of charade is simply killing us.

isolationThe United States of America is by many measures the most highly developed, materially-blessed, economically advanced places in the world. And yet every year, 3.5% of American adults are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 9% of Americans will suffer from that at some point in their lives.

In the rest of the world, those numbers are between .5% and 1%.[1]

How can this be? Why are we experiencing this kind of anxiety disorder at a rate that is seven to ten times higher than the rest of the world? Are we dying more? Do we face more trauma than do people in other countries?

That’s hard to imagine. By and large, I would suggest that we do not suffer the ways that many in the rest of the world do. So what’s happening?

Could it be that we are victims of our own propensity to deny the reality of pain and death? When grief finds its way into our lives, we shove it deep inside. We hide it. We make it our own – our private possession, deeply personal. We hang onto it, but we are unable to share it, and so it becomes in some ways like Gollum’s ring – it twists and contorts us, and us alone, driving us further from community, further from reality. The ultimate result is that 40 million Americans now meet the clinical criteria for addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs, and a staggering 80 million more are termed “risky substance abusers”.[2] More than 30% of adults in the United States suffer from some form of depression – the second-highest rate in the world.[3]

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

And in contrast to all of this come the words of II Samuel and II Corinthians. Each of our texts for today speak of the importance of naming the reality of the fragility of our lives, of claiming grief as a public reality, of identifying the intrusiveness of loss in our lives, and of trusting God to see us through even when our own vision is failing us.

I know that worshiping together and seeking to act in a way that emphasizes the community we share are not cures for depression or addiction or PTSD.

But I would suggest that learning how to lament – how to come together and name the grief that affects us all at one time or another – is one way of seeking to prevent those afflictions in our lives and communities. We speak to the frustrations and rejections and devastations that we have experienced, and together we neither gloss over the losses we’ve suffered nor allow them to become the things that define us. You are not “the kid whose father died” or “the lady that lost her son” or “the man whose wife left him,” but those things did happen and surely cost you something. They are there, but they are not all that is there. There is more to it than that.

We are, all of us, mortal. And we all, each of us, have an appointment with death (mortis).[4] We dare not deny the power or sting of death – but God forbid that we insist that’s all there is. The gesture of lamentation in community – of sharing grief and loss – helps us to see the bigger picture that God is writing through history, and how our own stories are wrapped up in the bigger drama of God’s working in the world. Each of our losses and all of our pain is in many ways ours alone, but it is ours to share in the presence and gift of community – a community that reminds us of hope and life and healing. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder

[2] http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/policy-dose/2015/06/01/america-is-neglecting-its-addiction-problem

[3] http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/statistics-infographic

[4] Thanks to Eugene Peterson (Leap Over A Wall, HarperCollins 1997) for this bit of insight!

Life Among the Philistines

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 5, we heard the story of his sojourn amongst the Philistines as found in I Samuel 27-30.  Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in Philippians 4:10-13.

 

When I was in high school, I looked up to a man who constantly belittled my friends who were not from the church. If I were to miss a church event in order to, say, attend a concert, he would invariably say something like, “So, the children of Israel are out consorting with the Philistines again, eh?”

For a long time, I thought he was just hopelessly behind the times. “Philistines? I never heard of those guys. No, I’m going to hear Blood, Sweat, and Tears.”

biblical_israel_and_philistiaPhilistia is the ancient name for a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Judean foothills. Today, we know that geography better by the Hebrew name, pelesheth, or Palestine. In modern usage, to call someone a Philistine is to imply that he is crude or unrefined and perhaps somewhat oafish – like the giant Goliath, perhaps. The Philistines that we meet in scripture are a group of people who descended from emigrants from one of the Mediterranean islands. They are known primarily for three things: 1) they are called “sea people” and are renowned as sailors; 2) they mastered the use of iron well before the nations around them, and the Israelites were forced to depend on Philistines for help sharpening their tools and weapons; and 3) they produced and consumed an amazing amount of beer. Although we sometimes hear the word as a disparagement, the reality is that in many ways, the Philistines were technically advanced in comparison to the Hebrews and the other cultures around them.

They were, however, the sworn enemies of Israel. In fact, for all of David’s life, the Philistines had been making things miserable for the Jews as they conducted raid after raid into Hebrew territory. In David’s time, any Israelite in his or her right mind sought to avoid the Philistines like the plague.

But there came a time, as you just heard, when David actually sought out the Philistines. Sick to death of the unjust persecution he was receiving from the hand of King Saul, David sneaks across the border into Philistia and applies for refugee status. He and his band of about 600 soldiers, along with their families, approach king Achish with a deal: “Look, your majesty,” David says, “we’ve been providing protection for folks in this area for a long time. We can help you out, too. You hate Saul; Saul hates me; why can’t we be friends? Can this be a win-win situation?”

Achish says “yes” and in fact gives David his own town, Ziklag, to use as a home base. For the next year and a half, David functions as a sort of double agent. He keeps assuring Achish that he is attacking Saul’s troops and positions within Israel, but in reality, he and his men are destroying communities that belong to the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. They are enriching themselves, raising their esteem among the Israelites in the border areas, and managing to avoid the armies of King Saul.

Now, listen to me: there is nothing savory or redemptive about this period of David’s life. He and his men are essentially free-lance mercenary soldiers on seek and destroy missions. David is acting as what scholar Walter Brueggemann describes as a “con man of the first order”. He is ruthless and cunning and calculating and cruel.

And it may be that David would say that he had no choice; if he hadn’t been being pursued by the maniacal king of Israel, he’d have been able to stay home and tend sheep. By all appearances, every single choice open to David at this juncture of the story is a bad choice. And so he lives on the edge for a while…

menofdavid…Until things went south in a hurry. David has made such an impression on Achish that the Philistine King announces to David that he and his men will be needed to take part in a surprise attack on King Saul and the Israeli army. David is in a jam, because he’s depending on Achish’s good will to preserve his life and property in Ziklag, but he’s sworn an oath not to lift a hand against King Saul. The apparent solution comes from an unexpected source: the other Philistine generals refuse to fight if David’s in the mix. They say that David is too faithful to Saul and to the Israelites; he can’t be trusted to work towards their defeat. David and his men return to Ziklag, thinking that they’ve dodged another bullet, but discover that something horrible has happened. Listen:

David and his men reached Ziklag on the third day. Now the Amalekites had raided the Negev and Ziklag. They had attacked Ziklag and burned it, and had taken captive the women and everyone else in it, both young and old. They killed none of them, but carried them off as they went on their way.

When David and his men reached Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. David’s two wives had been captured—Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.

Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelek, “Bring me the ephod.” Abiathar brought it to him, and David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?”

“Pursue them,” he answered. “You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.”

David and the six hundred men with him came to the Besor Valley, where some stayed behind. Two hundred of them were too exhausted to cross the valley, but David and the other four hundred continued the pursuit.

The Capture of Ziklag

The Capture of Ziklag

Things go from bad to worse for David in a hurry. He’s being hunted like a dog in his own country, so he crosses into enemy territory. He spends months earning the trust of his Philistine boss, knowing that at any time he could be discovered as a fraud and killed. He comes home from the day he almost had to choose between attacking his own countrymen or revealing the lie he’s been living for the past year, and when he makes it home, he discovers that everyone he loves has been kidnapped and his home is destroyed. If that’s not bad enough, his own men are finally angry enough at him that they’d like to knock his block off and some of them are talking about stoning David to death.

Have you ever had days like that?

Not only is nothing going right, but everything is going wrong. There are no good choices, and even the bad ones seem to be really, really bad. You’ve been trying your best, but everything you touch seems to turn to ash immediately. More than anything, you just want to go and pound on something or someone, but you have to be careful where to go because there is a growing line of people who are apparently eager to pound on you. Your only choices seem to be crash or burn. You don’t eve have the strength to cry any more.

I know you’ve had days like that; some of you have had weeks, months, or even years like that.

What do you do?

You may have noticed that our scripture readings for today skipped a few chapters of I Samuel. I did that because we’re primarily following David, but it might be helpful to note that I Samuel 28 records a day when King Saul was feeling that way. He was so down that in clear violation of Jewish law, he went to talk to a witch about his problems. The fact that the ruling king of Israel felt the need to do this reveals his isolation, fear, frustration, and spiritual bankruptcy at what’s going on in his life and his kingdom. To make matters worse, the witch informs him that not only is he going to die, but the dreaded Philistines are going to defeat the Israelite army. At the end of that episode, the once-proud, formerly gifted, powerful King Saul is left cringing and crying in the arms of this sorceress. In other words, Saul is simply unable to do anything that will reverse his fortune.

As he views the devastation of Ziklag, considers the abduction of his family, and comes face-to-face with his failure to live with integrity, David must feel the same way. Nothing has gone right.

And yet, somehow, David makes a different choice than did Saul. The best words in this part of the story come from David’s lips as he cries out, “Bring me the ephod!”

Do you remember back in chapters 21 and 22, when David went to get some help from the priests at the temple in Nob, and Saul was so irritated at the men of God for helping David that he wiped out 85 priests in a single day? There was only one man from a priestly family who escaped that day – a young man named Abiathar who fled to David for protection and came to serve as his spiritual mentor and advisor. And he brought along the ephod – the prayer tool used by the priests.

In his time of deep anguish, confusion, anger, and pain, David now says something that he hasn’t said in months: “Bring me the ephod!”

Whereas Saul, on the darkest of days, turned to a witch and sought answers in the powers of sorcery and evil, David sought the wisdom and strength of God even when he had no right to think it would accomplish anything.

Could David have turned to prayer sooner? Should he have? Where had Abiathar been for the past sixteen months? Was part of the problem that David was too in love with his perception of himself as a swashbuckling renegade? Was he so fascinated with his identity as a double-agent, or overconfident in his ability to strong-arm or sweet-talk his way through any problem?

Probably.

Could David have done things differently in the days leading up to this, the worst of them?

Of course he could have. But on all of those days, he didn’t call on God.

Today, he does.

When he is pressed between the armies of Saul on one side and Achish on the other while looking at the devastation of the Amalekites all around him, David sought to keep himself together by calling on the name of the Lord.

What will you do in the midst of your toughest trial? When you are squeezed flatter than a dime, beaten up, worn down, and pushed around… what will you do?

You can join with David and cry for the ephod. You can look to God for guidance and presence.

And I suspect that some of you now may be remembering that there was a New Testament verse read this morning, and you might think that this is where Pastor Dave pulls the golden cord and Philippians 4:13 comes raining down on our heads.

Having a tough day? Has your best friend’s dad tried to kill you, your boss threaten you, and your neighbors come in and kidnap your family while destroying your house? Just remember, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me…”

Have you heard that verse before? Have you ever thought, “What a load of hooey?”

I’m here to tell you that the way many Christians interpret it, it is a load of hooey.

Celebrity megapastor Joel Osteen, for instance, wrote this in his online devotional:

When was the last time you declared “I can” out loud? It’s not something people think to do every day. In fact, most people tend to magnify their limitations. They focus on their shortcomings. But scripture makes it plain: all things are possible to those who believe. That’s right! It is possible to see your dreams fulfilled. It is possible to overcome that obstacle. It is possible to climb to new heights. It is possible to embrace your destiny. You may not know how it will all take place. You may not have a plan, but all you have to know is that if God said you can…you can![1]

Star athletes show up for games with this verse emblazoned on their bodies or uniforms…as if chanting this phrase will stop the interception or get me the game ball… as if that’s the most important thing…

Do you think that’s what Paul’s getting at here? Do you think that it didn’t occur to David to just “name it and claim it” and grasp the victory and go home as king?

Paul didn’t write this note to the church in Philippi in order to motivate them to go out and beat the world; no, he wrote these words about finding contentment and hope in any situation so that they could have the courage to continue to walk through the tough places while the world was beating on them.

I’m not here to tell you that you are any different than David or Paul; you will face tough times, you will encounter difficult decisions, and some days the only choices you have will be horrible ones.   You will sense pain, or isolation, or frustration. That is not optional – it is the existence that we have been given in this, our life among the Philistines.

But which direction will that pain, isolation, or frustration send you? How will you respond to it?

Thank God for the ephod. Thank God for the encouragement and hope we can find when surrounded by even the most hideous of circumstances. Thank God that the story is not finished yet. Thank God that God has not left us, and promises not to leave us where we are now. Amen.

[1] “Today’s Word With Joel Osteen”, 1/21/2013 http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/2980275/posts