Count the Cost

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 16 we heard some of the first words that Jesus spoke to his disciples after accepting Peter’s acclamation of his messiah-ship.  If Jesus is the savior, then what is our response? Our gospel reading was from Mark 8:34-9:1.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below:

What Do People Think About Me?, Vasely Polenov (c. 1900)

Last week we picked up in our exploration of Mark’s Gospel by noting that the middle of Chapter 8 is essentially the opening episode in “Season II” of the Jesus story.  We noted that Jesus has taken the group to the farthest reaches of Jewish territory, in the community of Caesarea Philippi along the Lebanese border.  In this remote location, Peter almost hits one out of the park when he acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then loses his footing when he denies Jesus the opportunity to define what “Messiah” and “Savior” mean.

In this way, Peter is actually echoing something that had happened in the last episode of “season I”.  You’ll remember that on their way to Caesarea Philippi the band stopped in a place called Bethsaida.  As they went through, Jesus encountered a blind man and we heard a remarkable story of a two-stage healing.  Jesus touched him, and he could see – but not perfectly.  He reported that human beings looked like trees to him.  It took another touch of the Savior’s hands to bring complete clarity to the man.

I’d like to suggest that last week’s reading in which Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then turns around and needs to be set straight almost right away is an echo of that healing.  Peter could see, but it was imperfect.  Like the sightless man in Bethsaida, he needed the “second touch”.

In our reading for today, Jesus continues to elaborate for Peter and the rest of the group what it will mean to live a life of faithful discipleship. As he first instructed Peter to “Get behind me!” in v. 33, he now uses the same exact word in telling those around him that discipleship is all about following. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  “Follow me” is the same word in Greek as “get behind me.” The life of discipleship is all about perspective – and the Lord is saying that if we define ourselves as his “followers” it can only make sense if we are willing to, well, followhim.

I’d like to suggest that Jesus chose this remote place in Northern Israel to bring forward what might be the hardest part of his teaching on discipleship. He’s starting, not with the crowds that might have adored him in his home town, nor with the masses who were happy to accept a free lunch, but with those hardy folk who had engaged in a long and circuitous route to this town somewhere past the middle of nowhere.

“If you want to get serious,” Jesus said, “You have to talk about discipleship.”  And, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,

The first Christ-suffering which everyone must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world.  It is the death of the old self which is the result of one’s encounter with Christ.  As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death… When Christ calls to us, he bids us come and die.  It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at Christ’s call.[1]

In the first teaching on discipleship after accepting the acclamation of Peter and designating himself “the Son of Man”, Jesus points out that discipleship by its very definition means giving up our ability or perceived need to set the direction, to be in charge, or to “call the shots”.  The beginning of a walk in faith, then, is to yield to God in all things.

We are called let go of our fear.  We are called to seek God’s best in the reality of each new day.  And we are called to a denial of self.

I want to point out here that when Jesus talks about denying oneself, he does not say “deny some things to yourself” (the English majors amongst us will realize that is making the self an indirect object).  If we were to read it that way, we might be tempted to think that there is some real chance that God might be impressed by my ability to “just say no” to sweet treats or fancy cars or front-row seats at the game.

No, he says, “deny yourself.”  The “self” is the direct object.  There are only two objects here – the self and the Christ.  In order to follow the one, I must deny, or leave, or turn away from the other.   Following Jesus means a willingness to relinquish life on my own terms and to stop pursuing my own ends.

I’d like to take advantage of this moment to point out that none of this ought to be a surprise to anyone who has sought to be a disciple of Jesus here in Crafton Heights.  On the day that you were born – some of you, anyway – I read from Psalm 139 and reminded you that you were not an accident of nature nor are you the result of some careful human design.  In that scripture we heard – again – that you were made.  You were made fearfully and wonderfully in the Divine image.  You were given an identity by your Creator.

A central task of the Christian life is discovering what it means to be faithful to God in the context of the image that has been given; I am called to discern, understand, and seek out what it means to be the me who is at this place and this time, and that can be hard work.  But I never, ever have to inventan identity.  I live a life of faith in which I seek to discover how to be the self that God made me to be.

And now, you might be thinking, “All right, Dave, this is interesting – or at least, it’s not deathly boring… But what does it look like in real life? Give us an example.”

I’m glad you asked!  Let me tell you a little bit about a hero named Epaphroditus.  Do you know that I have at least two books on my shelves which claim to be some version of Who’s Who in the Bible– and yet neither one of them mentions this young man who was commended by Paul in Philippians 2.  Listen:

But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me. (Philippians 2:25-30)

I wonder – is there anyone here who has heard of this man before?  I’m here to tell you he is an amazing example of the self-denying, Christ-serving disciple of which Jesus spoke in Mark 8.  Paul has been imprisoned for some time, and the church in Philippi has become concerned for his welfare.  It’s not practical or possible for the entire congregation to go and check on the old Apostle, so Epaphroditus volunteers to go.  He finds Paul in a tough spot, and immediately dives in to try to make life better for Paul.  He does, but in the process he loses his own health and in fact nearly dies.  Through prayer and the care of others, the young man’s health is restored and now Paul is sending him back to the church in Philippi, full of news and encouragement.  And please note that when Paul sends him back he does so with a lot of powerful words: Epaphroditus is an apostle, a fellow worker, a soldier for the Lord.  He proves this, says Paul, because he was willing to serve Jesus even at risk to himself. In fact, Paul chooses to use a word here that is used only this once in the entire Bible: he says that Epaphroditus “risked his life” or “exposed his life” for the sake of the gospel: the word is paraballo.  Can you see how in this little story from his own files, Paul gives us a great description of one who lived into the narrative of Mark 8? That Epaphroditus was more concerned about following Jesus in the service of others than he was about saving his own neck?

That might be interesting enough, but then in the fifth century we find a couple of very curious references to an order of disciples who were called the Parabolani. From what we can tell, this group began as a community of Christ-followers who saw their special mission as being to care for the sick – even at risk to themselves.  The Parabolaniwere so eager to reach out to those on the margins that they walked freely amongst those with deadly and communicative diseases offering the same hope and love and care as Epaphroditus gave to Paul.  Isn’t that awesome?

Yes.  Almost. But something happened.

The longer this small society pursued this mission, the more difficult it became. As they became more well-known, they were revered and honored.  They were admired.  Soon, someone would see one or two of them walking down the street wearing the little emblem of the Parabolaniand a crowd would gather.  “Hey, guys – seriously – thanks for all you do.  We don’t know what we’d do without you.  The world is better because you’re here…”

Along the way, in addition to being respected and admired, some fear crept in.  It may have been well-placed; I mean, if I think you’ve been out treating people with tuberculosis or hepatitis I am not sure that I want you making my tuna salad sandwich…  So eventually the bands of Parabolani created a bit of a stir wherever they showed up.

Maybe you can guess where this is leading.  It didn’t take all that much time for the group that had been established on the basis of selfless and anonymous service to those who were in horrible places to become transformed into a “goon squad” of enforcers sent out by the religious establishment.  The last mention of the Parabolani indicates that the local Bishop had them show up at a council meeting in order to ensure that everything went the way that the Bishop wanted…

Isn’t that the way of things?  We come to Christ, and we seek healing and life and we find hope and we are filled with joy that we didn’t think we could know.  We dive into the life of discipleship – sometimes by means of denying ourselves.  We yield privileges.  We give up what we want for the good of the group and the joy of our neighbor.

And sometimes, when we do this, people notice.  And they mention it.  And the first few times, I protest: “Ah, don’t mention it,” I say.  “It’s nothing.”

But inside, it feels pretty good to be noticed.  In fact, I like it.  I like it so much that I keep on doing those things that show me as kind and compassionate and caring… and I do them in places where you can see me, and where you can affirm me for it.  That kind of affirmation can be like a drug to me, and I crave it.  I start to abuse it.  And before you know it, I’ve left Christ behind me.

You’ve seen it.  The person who started an incredible charity for the homeless is revealed to be living in a mansion that costs millions of dollars.  The youth worker who started out wanting nothing more than to help kids discover the love of Jesus winds up “falling in love” with some fourteen year-old and using that child to fill some perceived need in his life… The so-called “suffering servant” at the church who doesn’t mind doing all of the lowly jobs as long as he gets noticed doing them, credited for taking care of them, and thanked for being so humble and selfless.

Does any of that sound familiar to you?  Because it seems to me like a lot of that is my story over and over again.  This is, for me, the hardest part of discipleship – wanting to want the right things for the right reasons.  Wanting to stay in line behind Jesus, rather than getting out where you can see how good, how noble, how “Christ-like” I am.  For crying out loud, Dave, let them see Jesus – not you!

The path of discipleship may begin with something specific.  Maybe you remember one day when you “asked Jesus to come into your heart”.  Maybe you woke up in a fog, not remembering where you’d been the night before, and you said, “That’s enough.  Starting now, things are going to be different.”

In that way, following Jesus is a lot like any other relationship: it began with a simple act, a specific conversation, a seemingly “chance” meeting. All of our relationships are like that – friendships and marriages and parenting – they all begin with something that is observable.  And yet each of them requires the daily, if not hourly, embrace of a set of behaviors and ideals and commitments.  The life of discipleship requires that we constantly and consistently turn our eyes to the man who went to the cross.

Sitting amidst the symbols of power and wealth in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus looks us in the eyes and says, plainly, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

That does not mean that we quietly walk towards oblivion because we are not important.  Rather, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “…the cross is a sign of what happens when one takes God’s account of reality more seriously than Caesar’s. The cross stands as God’s (and our) eternal no to the powers of death, as well as God’s eternal yes to humanity, God’s remarkable determination not to leave us to our own devices.”[2]

In my discipleship, I am invited and called to live for Jesus in hope and in victory every day, not because of how good, noble, or holy I am or think that I am; but because he knows me, he formed me, he shaped me, and he invited me to follow him into goodness, nobility, and holiness. As a disciple, I’ve just got to remember my place.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1]The Cost of Discipleship, MacMillan paperback 1963, p. 99 (edited for gender inclusivity).

[2]Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony(Abingdon, 1989), p. 47.

Check the Listings

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 9 we opened “Season II” of this exploration with the passage that many writers see as the hinge to the entire Gospel.  Our main reading was from Mark 8:27-33.  In addition, we heard from Hebrews 12:1-2.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below:

Do you know how it feels when you’ve become acquainted with a television show or a movie franchise and then at the beginning of a new season or installment there’s a pretty radical change?  You think you know where the story is heading, and then all of a sudden there’s a new character? Or maybe a show that seemed to be really funny last year now seems to be steeped with political or social commentary.  Perhaps there’s a plot twist as a beloved character dies, or is revealed to be a “bad guy”, or you find out that the last four episodes were really only a dream…  You’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the way things are laid out, and then BAM! You’re in a different place.

Last season, in the hit series Preaching Through the Gospel of Mark with Pastor Dave, we witnessed the birth of the Jesus movement from two distinct viewpoints. We, the readers, knew where the narrator was going all along. We knew that because it’s all there in chapter 1, verse 1: “This is the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.” That’s the introduction that the audience is given.

However, the characters in the story do not know everything that we know. To many of them, the Jesus story is constantly unfolding.  The central character seems to be evolving.  Is he a miracle worker? A wonderful teacher? A revolutionary sent to overthrow Roman oppression?

Throughout season one, which covered the first half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ star seemed to be rising.  There are more crowds.  The miracles are spectacular.  His command of the room is just superb.  Almost all of last year, we noticed that Jesus was YUGE!

But near the end of last season, there were glimmers of a different narrative developing.  We saw conflict with the religious and political establishment; Jesus seemed to be intensifying his commitment to include foreigners, women, and others who had been marginalized in his culture; and perhaps most notably, we saw the narrative shifting from the center of Jewish life and moving further and further afield.  Much of the beginning of Mark takes place in the region of the Galilee – an area that was a hotbed of Jewish nationalism, even if it was considered “the boondocks” by the learned elite inside the beltway of Jerusalem.

But now, season two of the Gospel opens in, of all places, Caesarea Philippi.  This place was further away from the capital than Galilee!  In fact it’s almost on the border of Lebanon.  It had long been the site of pagan worship, and had only recently been rebuilt and dedicated to (and named after) the reigning Emperor of Rome! In this setting, the disciples would have been surrounded by symbols of human power, wealth, and accomplishment.  To say it’s an unlikely setting is an understatement.

And yet Jesus takes advantage of the remote location to ask the disciples if they’ve checked the polls lately. “How are we doing?”, he asks.  “Who do the people say that I am?”

The Charge to Peter (detail), James Tissot (between 1886-1896)

The response is divided.  Some are convinced that he is John the Baptist, the fearless prophet who’d been killed by Herod, come back to life. Others believe that he may have been a resurrected prophet, but not John: Elijah, the courageous spokesman who stood up to Jezebel and Ahab.  And there are a few who are willing to concede that he’s someone pretty special, but they’re not sure exactly who.  The good news, the disciples report, is that everyone thinks that Jesus is a pretty remarkable guy.  Yet in spite of this, it would appear as though, for the most part, people have given up on the idea that Jesus was a conquering, militant Messiah who had come to expel the Romans and restore to Israel its former glory.

At this point, we get to one of the most important verses in all of Mark, and a fantastic opener to season II: Jesus looks at his friends and says, “OK, great. Who do yousay that I am?”

And Peter, God bless him, doesn’t miss a beat when he pronounces boldly, “You are the Messiah.  You are the Christ of God.”

Now, you might not remember this, but for the entire first half of the Gospel, every time Jesus did something amazing, it led to questions. He drives out an evil spirit (1:27) and everybody stands around asking, “What kind of teaching is this?”  He calms the sea and the storm (4:41), and his best friends wonder, “Who isthis guy?”  He shows up and preaches a real barnburner in his home town (6:2) and people stare at each other and say, “Where does he come up with this stuff?”

Now, on the furthest edge of Jewish territory, surrounded by symbols of paganism and power, Peter pronounces matter-of-factly, that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter says, “Oh, yeah, we get it, Jesus. We gotyou!”  He exchanges a knowing glance with Jesus and there are, presumably, fist bumps and high-fives all around.  Peter returns to his seat and then Jesus launches into the next round of teaching.

And look at how that begins: “He then began to teach them…”  Jesus beginsto teach them.  They have said, correctly, that he is the Messiah.  Now he’s got to teach them what a Messiah is.  Season 1 is over.  We came out to Caesarea Philippi for something new, so listen up, team…

What does he teach them?  That “the Son of Man” must suffer many things…  In the Gospel of Mark, the only title that Jesus chooses for himself is “the Son of Man.”  In fact, you could argue that not only is it the only title that he chooses, but that he’s the only one to say it in the second Gospel. In choosing to refer to himself as “the Son of Man” so quickly after Peter acclaims him the Messiah or Christ, Jesus is reserving the right of self-definition.  That is to say that he is unwilling to act into anyone else’s view of what it means to be the Messiah.  Just after Peter gives the right answer, Jesus sits the folks down and says, “All righty, now let me tell you how this savior thing is going to work.  I need to stress that it’s not pretty.  It’s going to be rough.  The path to Messiah-ship is through suffering and death…”

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, James Tissot (between 1886-1896)

Well, quick as a wink Peter jumps up with an “over my dead body” kind of speech. “No, no, no Jesus – you’ve got it all wrong…”  The word that Mark uses is that Peter “rebukes” Jesus.

Uh-oh.

“Rebuke” is Jesus’ word.  It’s what Jesus does to evil spirits and angry winds.

Disciples do not “rebuke” the Son of Man.  In fact, as Jesus shows us one verse later, it’s the other way around. He insists that the path to faithful living is one of sacrifice and obedience to God.

Here in the relative isolation of Caesarea Philippi, the Son of Man lays out the ground rules for season II: disciples are not to “handle” the Son of Man; they are not to “protect”, “advise”, or “interpret” Jesus. Disciples are to follow.  Jesus goes so far as to call his friend and beloved disciple “Satan” because of his refusal to allow Jesus to be the Son of Man. “You get behindme, Peter”, says Jesus.  In the next verse, which we didn’t read, he uses the exact same words when he says that all are invited to “come after” him – to “get behind” him. We follow.  That’s what disciples do.

We don’t watch a lot of live television in our home, but we enjoy using using a DVR to skip the commercials.  Whenever we finish an episode and the announcer says, “Stay tuned for a preview of next week’s program…”, my wife insists that we watch the recording until the end.  She doesn’t want to miss the teaser about what’s coming next.

So here’s your preview: most of season II of the Gospel of Mark involves following Jesus on a journey to Jerusalem and exploring, in that context, what he means when he calls himself “the Son of Man.”

But before we leave today’s scripture, we’ve got to wrestle with the same critical question that he put before Peter.

Who do you say that Jesus is? And what does that mean to you?

I would suspect that there are some in the room who hold Jesus in the highest respect and admiration.  Jesus is a really, really good guy.  He’s someone to whom we can point our children at various times and hope that they’ll choose to follow his example – in this way, we think, he’s not unlike Thomas Jefferson, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mr. Rogers.

And there are those who rely on Jesus to be their go-to backup when it comes to political arguments.  I mean, you can go ahead and post your partisan stuff all you want, but when I trot out my Jesuswhen we talk about immigration or abortion or refugees or sexuality… well, that’s just a cosmic mic drop right there.  I may flounder when I try to debate the issues, but if God said it, then, BOOM. And isn’t it amazing, and wonderful, how frequently God agrees with my political opinions? I guess you could say that Jesus has my back.  Which could mean that Jesus is behind me… which could mean I have something backwards…

Of course there are some of us who rely on Jesus as a wonder-working hero who is on call when it’s time for me to find a parking place in a hurry, or get a new car, or fix what’s broken in my marriage.  Like a good wingman, he’s always around, ready to jump in whenever I need a bit of a hand.

But this passage indicates that Jesus, apparently, is not interested in offering advice, or providing muscle, or even saving my bacon.

Instead, he seems to be concerned with whether or not I am willing to follow him where he leads.  Jesus invites us to walk behind him into an uncertain future.

He will not tolerate being manipulated, advised, or controlled.  He expects to be followed.

When I think about the question, “Who do you say that I am”, I have to say, “You are my lord.  You are the one who sets the agenda and establishes the priorities. I am a follower. I am a disciple.  I am a servant.”

And here’s the thing – and we’ll get into this more next week, I’m sure: when we follow, where are our eyes? On the leader, right? We do not choose the other pilgrims.  We can only decide how we will treat them as they come alongside of us in service to the one we follow.

So if you came to church looking for a motivational speaker, or some theological fireworks, or a chance to have all your problems solved… I’m sorry.  I don’t have much to offer you.

But if you came looking to invest yourself in a lifetime of service and adventure and learning and wonder and growth – a journey that will cost everything you have and more – then I can only say that I hope you’ll come along and join me as I follow to the best of my ability.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

It’s a Dog’s Life

This weekend I was asked to officiate the wedding of an amazing young couple.  I’ve known the bride for her entire life, and have really enjoyed spending the last year helping the two of them prepare for this big day.  It was the first time I’ve ever participated in a ceremony with someone whose role was to be “the dog handler”.  Rick and Megan’s faithful companion, Reese, preceded the bride down the aisle.  With their permission, I am sharing the sermon from the wedding.  The primary text for the ceremony was I Corinthians 13.  I hope that the format of this message does not impede its truth.

So for a couple of months I’ve wrestled with the task of trying to pull together a wedding sermon for Rick and Megan. If you’ve been to a wedding here before, you know that I often try to find a concept or an image to hang onto, or an example that will make the message real and more memorable. I have to admit that I was stumped so badly that one afternoon last week I sneaked over and had a few words with their dog, Reese.

“You’ve got to help, girl.  There’s a big problem!”

“What is it, Pastor Dave?  Is Timmy stuck in a well?”

“What? No! What is it with dogs and Timmy being stuck in a well?  No, this is serious. I need some help coming up with an idea for a wedding sermon for Megan and Rick.  I figured that you know their relationship better than anyone.  Can you help?”

At once Reese warmed to the invitation.  She smiled, and pulled out her reading glasses and lit her theologian’s pipe.  “Now, Dave, tell me: what’s the text from which you’re working.”

I started to say that the couple had chosen to sit with I Corinthians chapter 13, but was interrupted when Reese let out a growl and snapped off her glasses.  “Oh, for crying out loud,” she said.  “Paul? You’re listening to the Apostle Paul?”

I was flabbergasted.  “Um, Reese – is there a problem?”

She glared at me and said, “Philippians 3: ‘Beware the dogs. Beware the evil doers…’  Seriously, Dave, our kind has fought for centuries against that kind of species-ism, and this guy keeps putting it out there…  Words matter, Pastor Dave.  You should know that.”

I replied, “Yeah, I get that, but I didn’t pick this reading. They did.  And look, Reese, I’m not gonna lie.  I’m stuck here.  And Rick and Megan, well, they really look up to – um, they really love you a lot.”

That seemed to calm her down, and she got quiet for a moment. “Dave, you’ve known Megan longer than I have, and we both love Rick.  Come on – this isn’t rocket science.”

She continued, “I Corinthians 13 is about how we are called to treat each other in relationship.  Ever since these two have started sniffing each other, I’ve tried my best to show them, in my own example, what love requires.  Every day, I’ve tried to hammer some point of this home for them so that they could see it and maybe imitate it.”

I stared at the wise dog blankly.  “What are you talking about, Reese?”

She sighed, and said, “OK, Pastor Dave, I’ll break this down for you since your human minds move so slowly.  No wonder it takes you seven years to do what we can get done in one! Sheesh.”

“Every day, when Megan gets home, what am I doing, Dave?”

“Um, well, to tell you the truth, I have never thought about that.”

“Of course you haven’t. No human ever has.  But ask Megan: no matter what I might have been doing during the day, the minute I hear her car pull up I’m wagging, I’m jumping, I’m slobbering… Do you know why I do these things?  Because I love her.  Sure, I was taking a nap, dreaming about that basset hound over on Virginia Ave., but when she shows up – or Rick, for that matter – I put what I’m doing aside for a couple of moments and I pay attention to her.  And do you know what?”

“Tell me, Reese.”

“It’s working.  You should see it – they are paying attention to each other!  I’ve seen them put down those stupid little screens and talk to each other.  Sometimes they even slobber all over each other.”

“And even a guy as dense as the Apostle Paul would say that when you pay attention to someone, you notice things.  So when one of them shows up and seems to be upset, or sad, or needs – I don’t know – a little extra cuddle or something – I can do that. And if I can do that, surely they can do that for each other, right?”

I nodded pastorally.  “You’re making a lot of sense, Reese.  Especially for a talking dog.”

She wagged her tail and continued, “Here’s something else that I’ve noticed, Dave.  It ties in with Paul’s advice to keep on growing and keep moving in life and in faith. Sometimes when they come home, one or the other of them will say something about being tired and just wanting to rest.  They sit on the couch and they turn on the television, and then it’s like they’re just gone, you know?  They tune out, and it’s like they are not there anymore.    When that happens, it’s up to me to remind them that there’s a big world out there.  I mean, there are paths to hike, friends to meet, fire hydrants to smell… we can’t stay inside our homes or ourselves all the time…  I hate to say this, but if you ask Megan, she’ll tell you that sometimes she gets a little irritated by the fact that I’m always pulling on my leash when we’re out.  I think we all need someone to push (or pull) us along from time to time so we don’t get stuck.”

“Ah, I see.  Are you saying that a good relationship keeps you moving and growing into maturity? That all of us, sometimes, need each other to help us get into healthier patterns of life?”

“Yes!” she barked, and then she even licked my cheek. I tried not to notice.

“And there’s something else I should say, in case Rick mentions anything.”

I nodded, encouraging my canine friend to go on.

“Listen, when he takes me out and we run into a bunch of other dogs, well, sometimes… it’s just… Look – he’s likely to say that I don’t get along well with other dogs.  I think he’s got the wrong idea.  What I’m trying to say is that at this point in my life, I don’t needa lot of other dogs. I’ve got those two.  It seems to me that love and marriage is about identifying someone special who is a gift from God in your own life, and paying special attention to and cultivating that relationship.  Of opening up to that one in ways that you are not open to anyone else. I’m just showing him what it means for me to be faithful, that’s all.”

At this point the dog looked at the clock and said, “Listen, Dave, you’d better get out of here.  Megan’s liable to be home any moment, and I’ve got a couple of things to get done before I start fussing over her again.”

I thanked Reese, and as I made my way to the door, she said, “Dave – are you going to be using the traditional language for the declarations of intent and the vows and so on?”

“I think so,” I said. “I can’t see any reason not to.”

“Perfect!” she smiled.  “You’ll be using a word that describes what I’ve been trying to give them ever since we got together.  You’ll be asking them if they intend to pledge their troth to each other.”

“I will indeed,” I said.

She continued, “Most folks there will have no idea what that word ‘troth’ means.”

“Tell me about it,” I sighed.

“Troth is what I’ve been giving these two: unconditional love and acceptance, loyalty, faithfulness, and honesty.  Troth is about promising to give the best of yourself to someone else, and to grow the parts of you that aren’t the best.  Troth is what Paul wrote about to those folks in Corinth, and it’s what I’ve been trying to show Rick and Megan for years. Now, you and the folks at church can help confirm them in their vow to pledge and keep troth with each other forever. It’s what they want, it’s good for the world, and it is all rooted in the love of God for his people.”

I headed for the door and put on my hat.  With my hand on the knob, I turned, and there she was, waiting expectantly.  I felt like I should say something more than “thanks for the talk,” but I wasn’t sure what it was…

She gave a single bark, and said, “Go ahead Dave, you can say it. It’s all right.”

“Say what?” I replied, reaching in my mind for the right words.

“Who’s a good girl, Dave?”

“You are, Reese.  You are.”

Now, Megan and Rick, you can choose to believe that little story or not.  At the end of this eventful day, I’m not sure how much of it you’ll remember anyway. So let me just conclude my message with this thought: you know that people can treat each other poorly – sometimes so poorly that we use the expression, “I wouldn’t treat a dog the way that she treats him…”  Let me ask you, in the name of Christ, to reverse that.  Let me ask you to treat each other the way that your dog treats you. To make a daily, spiritual practice of honoring each other, accepting and loving each other unconditionally; be steadfast and loyal; keep troth.  If you do that, you will fulfill the will of Christ in your lives, enrich your marriage, and work toward the intentions of God in our world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

2018 Youth Mission #5

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective. This is the final update from this year’s trip.

For as long as I can remember, if someone asks me “What is the purpose of Youth Group?”, one of my top three answers has been “making memories”.  When I say that, I don’t mean to imply that spiritual growth is not essential or that passing on the faith is unimportant.  To the contrary, I am deeply convinced that the Christian Faith is, in the words of the late Dale Milligan, “better ‘caught’ than ‘taught’.”  We help form the spiritual lives of the children we love by enculturation – by helping them not only to know the story, but to see how they can fit into the story.  And so each mission trip provides us with an amazing chance to create both individual and shared memories of sacred space, time, and stories.

One of the ways that we did this on Friday was to spend a few hours in the morning tending to some last-minute details on our work site and then taking advantage of our proximity to Niagara Falls by visiting one of the great wonders of the world together.  We drove through the heart of Buffalo (remembering several mission trips to that fair city in previous years) and then sailed on the “Maid of the Mist”, hiked up the steps, pondered our own insignificance as well as the amazing power and majesty of God (no surprise that Marla opted to read Psalm 29 in our devotion), and laughed an awful lot.  In the process, I trust, we added to our storehouse of shared experiences and celebrated the connections that place us in each other’s memories.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not convinced that too many of the young people at whose sleeping forms I’m now staring while I pen these lines will process this in this way – but I am sure that they will at some point.

The reason I’m sure of that is because of what happened after we got back from the Falls.  We enjoyed some wonderful tacos, and then sat together for our final debriefing time.  It is a tradition for us to invite the seniors to address the group at the end of each mission trip.  There are often a lot of tears, and Friday night was no exception.  It was wonderful and humbling to hear Tommy, McKenna, and Lindsay  talk about the ways in which connection with this group has been formative and life-giving over the years.  Each of them chose to speak of Youth Group as a place of safety and joy in a world that is often thin in both of those places; each pointed to stories of previous trips or experiences as evidence of God’s willingness to meet them in this context.  I was filled with pride and joy as I watched them share with their younger sisters and brothers – and as the younger ones soaked in the affirmation, challenge, and gratitude that was shared.

Each morning I wake up at the old-man-ish hour of six and write this.  This year, since we’re all in one room for our sleeping, eating, and recreation, I am watching them sleep each day.  It’s not creepy.  I look at the young person who was paralyzed with fright earlier this week, but worked through it; at a girl who found the bravery and the courage to step outside her comfort zone in service or speaking; at someone who is here for the first time but has, I hope, developed some bonds that will last during a difficult future; at several young people who go to great lengths to be a part of the youth group experience each week; at the one who has been told every day that she/he is insignificant and doesn’t matter; at the one who is always measured by what she/he achieves or does, but finds in Youth Group a chance just to be and be loved anyway…  I am filled with gratitude for my brother Tim Salinetro, who has come on more trips like this with me than I can even count, and I marvel at the ways that he opens path of joy for young people… I celebrate the gifts of Marla Barrett, who thinks, “why wouldn’t I spend a week with these kids two months before I get married” and does so with great humor and deep passion… I’m glad for Josie Miller and her willingness to dive into this craziness as she offers herself with joy and encouragement each day.

I say, not as often as I should, that it’s a good life, and we ought to be grateful.  Today, I am deeply grateful, and also hopeful.  Thanks for your prayers and support on behalf of these young people!

Maddy and Lindsay taping the drywall while sharing a smile…

Marla sealing the joints

Evan helping to supervise the clean-up at the church

Our team on the finished wheelchair ramp

One view from “The Maid of the Mist”

… and another…

We were told that “niagara” is derived from a native word meaning “the water thunders”. I believe it!

This is an inadequate photo of a sacred circle – a place of trust, confidence, joy, hope, gratitude – and now, for some – memory.

2018 Youth Mission #4

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

Have you ever planned a large meal and set out to cook four or five different things, hoping and planning for them to all be done around the same time, but then you discovered that your oven wasn’t large enough, or the fruit wasn’t quite ripe so you had to make another trip to the market, or whatever…and the end result was that the veggies were ready at 3 and the main dish was still in the oven at 7?

Welcome to the Youth Mission Trip, Thursday edition.

Yikes.  We started the day with a plan to divide and conquer – we’d finish up the railing, and then we’d hang a little drywall and even start to tape and mud it.  We’d do some cleaning and be ready to face our last day with a ton of energy and time.

uh-huh.

Some of the group went outside and worked hard to complete the deck construction.  The railings, steps, and a few other support pieces were installed and finished, and wow does it look good AND functional.

Some of the group stayed inside and discovered a few things:

  • rehabbing an old building is always harder and longer than starting from scratch
  • there is no such thing as a 90° angle in this building
  • Dave is not as good at electrical work as he might lead himself to believe
  • 4 x 8 sheets of drywall are really heavy when you’re trying to hold them over your head
  • You can step out of your comfort zone and live to tell the tale
  • even hard jobs are way better when you are working with people who demonstrate grace and encouragement

The end result was that some of our team finished up in the early afternoon, and they were able to get in some pool time or some nap time.  A few of us, however, were working until 6:30.  It was wonderful to see how the young people encouraged each other, and those who stayed were gracious in their sending off of those who swam, while those who swam were encouraging, realizing that you can only fit so many people into one bathroom at one time anyway…

I was really proud of all of our kids today.

We enjoyed a delicious meal of barbequed chicken and corn on the cob (thanks Josie!) and then Tim led us in a discussion about having the power to make choices for ourselves concerning the ways that we speak toward and treat each other.  It was particularly moving because he rooted that in a story of when he was on a Mission Trip and some key adults helped to shape his thinking.  Our day ended with a screening of the recently released Lake of Betrayal (trailer below), a documentary about the impact of the Kinzua Dam project on the Seneca people.

Here are a few images of our day.  Thanks for the prayers!

Tommy hangs the ceiling board

Lindsay and Maddy make sure we put the screws in the right place!

Marla trims the next piece

Wait, the black wire goes where?

This photo was taken at around 5:30 pm. Look at that smile!

This is what it looks like when the final piece is in place!

Setting the steps in place

Rachele and Karlena make the cut

Evan adds some finishing touches to a great project

Karlena and Josie making sure the railing is safe.

2018 Youth Mission #3

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

When I first started leading these trips with kids, we called them “Work Camps”.  We did that, well, because we thought that the most important thing we would do would be to “work”.  And so we bundled up the vans and we headed off to someplace exotic like Slippery Rock, PA or Tennessee or Maryland and we told the kids that they had a duty to work.  We scrubbed, we painted, we dug, we drywalled.  And, every now and then along the way, we studied the Bible, sang some songs, and worked on relationships within our group.

Gradually, though, we came to see that maybe it wasn’t in everyone’s best interest to simply have a bunch of strangers show up in a place, work, and then leave – still as strangers.  We didn’t want to train ourselves to be “helpers” who took time out of our busy schedules to go and be nice to some poor soul who was down on his/her luck and lend a hand because we were so stinking nice.  We have been growing in our ability to see ourselves as partners, who have something to offer in terms of time and energy and relationship, and who are in a position to receive something in terms of knowledge or energy or skills or relationship.  And so we call them “Mission Trips”, because we assume that God is already at work in Slippery Rock, Tennessee, Maryland, or wherever… and it’s our job to get in on what God is already doing and offer who we are.

Wednesday would have been a spectacular “fail” had we been operating under the old “Work Camp” model.  We didn’t do a blessed thing (full truth: Lindsay and McKenna helped Tim and me to install TWO furring strips for drywall….) but it was a phenomenal day.  We took the morning easy, and then we traveled to the other part of the Seneca Reservation – the Allegany territory – and visited the brand-new-not-even-open-to-the-public-yet Tribal Museum and Cultural Center.  We had a private tour with a team of guides and really learned quite a lot of the Seneca story, and are deeply grateful to the folks within the tribe who helped us gain access to this experience.

We took some time off to wander through an Antique Mall in Salamanca, and then headed home to a phenomenal dinner cooked for us by members of the Wright Memorial church. Afterwards, we had an extensive and informational presentation on some of the Seneca experience by Mr. Rick Jemison, who serves as one of 16 Tribal Councilors for the Seneca Nation of Indians.  He brought along a number of items that helped us to grasp some of what these folks have been through, and he and some of the other elders who were here shared very moving personal testimony as to how they have been affected and shaped by both the adversity and the opportunities that life on the reservation has brought to them.  Some of us listened to a wonderful tribute to the Seneca as sung by the late Johnny Cash, entitled “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow.” You can hear that by clicking on the link below…

We ended our day with our typical debriefing session – singing, laughing, looking at photos… and we talked a little about the story of Daniel, who along with his countrymen was kidnapped and removed from his home.  Although Nebuchadnezzar tried to give these young people new identities (new name, new language, new food, etc.), Daniel refused to wear the labels that someone else had put on him.  He maintained that God alone had the right to name and shape and form him.  We talked about the fact that most of us have people who would be more than happy to tell us who we are and what we are about; that people will judge us for our worst mistake or try to tear us apart if we let them – but that each of us can choose to wear the identity that God is offering us as his beloved children.

Here are a few photos… and as always, thanks for the prayers.  Astute observers will note that there is one more participant on the trip: our friend Karlena, who was unable to join us when we departed on Sunday, met us in Salamanca, and we’re the better for it!

Wake up, sunshine! Another day in paradise…

At the Museum and Cultural Center

Listening to a story of the creation from the Seneca perspective – one that emphasizes community and the responsibility of all to participate.

Lacrosse is a game that originated with the Native Americans, and there is an entire display on the nature of that experience.

There were several cases full of items depicting Native Americans in unflattering and untrue ways. We talked about how it must feel to have other people attempt to describe you in words that aren’t true…

Doug is carving our turkey…

Eileen making the fry bread using corn flour, which is traditional here.

Pastor Mary Lee whipping up some mashed potatoes

Rick shows us a wampum belt depicting the treaty between the Seneca and the Whites.

Rick sharing with our group

Some of the items Rick brought to show us.

2018 Youth Mission #2

The young people from the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are engaged in our annual pilgrimage in mission and service.  This year, we are spending time with some friends in Western New York, particularly in the communities that comprise the territories belonging to the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Our second day looked a lot like the first, at least to start: we got really dirty pulling down old drywall, digging in the mud, and doing what we can to help the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church become a little bit more structurally hospitable.  We continued to work on the wheelchair ramp as well as a few projects indoors.

Because this church building, like most, doesn’t have shower facilities, we had to go down the street to the Cattaraugus Community Center, a fantastic resource for the residents of this community.  In there we saw great recreational rooms (like an indoor lacrosse field, basketball, weight room, and more) and, most importantly – showers.  Some of us showered more quickly than others, which led to a certain amount of waiting around, which led to…well, photos below.

When we arrived on Sunday, one of the neighbors invited us to a “revival” that his church was conducting on the other portion of the reservation – in the town of Salamanca (about an hour away).  We assumed, naively, that it would be an opportunity to immerse ourselves more deeply in the Seneca community, customs, and religious outlook.  We were wrong. We arrived at the Central Street Baptist Church and we had an amazing cultural experience – just not the one we’d expected.

We’d been told to arrive at 6 for a community meal.  Being led by folks like me, we got there hungry at 5:58.  The church was locked up tighter than a drum.  As we wandered around, a car stopped, and it turned out that it was the Pastor of the church.  He was asking if we were lost.  No, I said, we were here for the revival.  He said, “Really? Are you sure?”  It turns out that it was not supposed to start until 7 and there was no meal.  So, off to Little Caesar’s for a quick bite of pizza, and then back to the church.  There was a yellow striped tent set up out back and a few dozen hardy souls gathered underneath it as we listened to the fiery (and, the kids would have me tell you, LOUD) message offered up by “Preacher Don”, a wiry Southern Baptist evangelist from Virginia (or maybe West Virginia).  I’m not kidding you, except for the fact that the music was done from an iPad via bluetooth – it was like a trip back 125 years.

I’m proud of the ways that our team not only dealt with the challenges and disappointment of seeing their proposed trip into Native American spirituality be transformed into an entirely different experience, but at the ways that they were able to thoughtfully reflect on which aspects of Preacher Don’s message resonated with their experience and which were foreign to them.  We gathered after the day for our time of de-brief and it was so encouraging to hear them be intentional and thoughtful about the things we’d said, heard, and done throughout the day.  Thanks for your prayers!

Here are a few images of our time thus far…

Greeting some of the members of Wright Memorial Church

McKenna gets dirty for the cause… ‘Cause there ain’t no way Pastor Dave was fitting under there to put that board on!!!!

The team gets a lesson in using a jigsaw

Lindsay trimming it up…

…and Christian…

Danielle tackles the jigsaw

Alyssa and Marla framing in the closet (note the manicure!)

Josie sizes things up

Tom discovers that working in churches can be, well, dirty business…

The ramp is coming together

One of us found waiting for the others to finish showering to be, well, a little bit boring…

Dinner time!

The Central St. Baptist Church, with the tent out back

Hearing a poem by a congregation member

Preacher Don lays it on us