The Melody of Life (a message about the church that fulfills its purposes)

How is the church of Jesus Christ like a pile of dead trees?  That’s the question that came to my mind as I confronted Ephesians 2:1-10.  This message, the third in a series on Paul’s letter to Ephesians, invites us to consider how receptive we are to what God longs to do within us – and to remember that the Church is God’s from start to finish. I preached this sermon in Crafton Heights on March 27, 2011.


This is a true story.

A Maple Seedling

A spruce seedling

One day, maybe sixty or seventy years ago, a hardrock maple, also known as a sugar maple, took root in a forest that I presume to be hundreds of miles from here.  Maybe ten years later, a spruce seed fell to earth somewhere in the northern hemisphere.  I do not know whether this seed was planted intentionally or was the result of a planting program, but somewhere, a spruce tree began to grow.

When I was born, these trees were already alive.

Have you been in a forest?  What is the tendency of trees in the forest?  What do they do?  They grow up.  They mature.  They develop.  And, I can assure you, that is what these trees did.

Perhaps thirty years ago, each of these trees came crashing to earth.  When they hit the ground, they were changed instantly, were they not?  Last Sunday evening, the youth group took a walk through the woods at Settler’s Cabin Park.  We saw a lot of trees.  And these trees were doing one of two things.  The trees that were alive were growing.  They were preparing to send forth shoots; some of them had little buds already forming – they were pregnant with life.  But we also saw a great number of trees that had stopped growing.  What were they doing?  They were rotting.

You know that as long as a tree is connected to the soil, and anchored by its roots, and nourished by the sap that runs within it, that tree will grow and thrive.  But this spruce tree and this hardrock maple tree were no longer connected, anchored, or nourished.  They were dead.

What could have happened to these trees?  Well, they could have rotted.  Spruce wood, for instance, cannot be expected to maintain its integrity for more than twelve-eighteen months if left outdoors.

Or, I suppose, someone could have chopped them into firewood.

But that’s not what happened to these trees.  Someone collected these trees.  They were selected.  Someone looked at these two particular trees and said, “Yes, that will do perfectly.  It’s just what I have in mind.”

These trees were shipped to Hamamatsu, Japan, where they were cut into lumber.  The lumber was put into a kiln and underwent a process whereby the wood was declared to be “superdry”.  The wood was trimmed and shaped.

The hardrock maple was cut into lengths and laminated together and eventually crafted into a device known as a pinblock.

Some of the spruce was sliced and spliced together into a large sheet – nearly six feet around – and became a soundboard.  Other pieces of spruce were carved into small rectangles and covered with a special plastic that gave them the look and feel of ivory.

The end result of this process is that sometime in the first half of 1986, the Yamaha Corporation factory in Hamamatsa, Japan, produced the G2R SE Grand Piano that you see before you.

Here is a seemingly obvious question: what’s a piano for?  I mean, just as the spruce, maple, and other wood that comprises this instrument could have been used for other purposes, aren’t there different ways that you could use pianos?

For instance, when I was a kid, we had a piano in my living room.  It functioned mostly as a platform for photographs.  The bench was an excellent place for hiding things that I didn’t want my mother to find – she never looked in there.

I know some folks who have pianos because they want to impress their neighbors.  “Oooooh, look, Harvey!  They’ve got a piano.  That’s class, I tell you…”

I’ve been known to use a piano – not this piano, of course – as scaffolding for painting the living room or changing a light bulb.

And you say, “No, you maroon!  None of those are reasons to have a piano.  A piano exists to create music. This piano, in this room, is here to enhance our worship, to glorify God, and to point our hearts in his direction.

Think about this – there were many, many possible outcomes for the spruce and maple seeds that were planted around the end of the Second World War, but somehow, that wood ended up in this piano.  And while there are several hundred thousand Yamaha pianos in the USA, this one was destined for our sanctuary, where it leads God’s people in praise and worship.

I suppose that you could come in here and do a chemical analysis of that piano and determine the exact nature of its composition: you could tell us how much of what particular kinds of wood are used, and how much glue, or how many screws, or the quantity of lead or plastic.  You could say that the black thing there to my right is essentially a pile of dead trees.  But because those trees lived, and the lumber was saved and dried, and skilled craftsmen joined multiple pieces of wood from many trees together, artists like Jim Homme can use this piano to help us grow in our relationship with God and with each other.

That is, I think, the story of the church as Paul tells it in Ephesians 2.  As you may remember, we’re looking through this little letter to the church in Ephesus because it’s a letter to a church that, so far as we know, is healthy. We want to look through their mailbox because we dare to hope that something we read there will help us to grow as God’s people in this place and at this time.

And even though it’s a letter to a church, so far we haven’t read much about the church.  Chapter one is all about the power of God working in and through Jesus Christ.  Paul points consistently to the magnificent workings of God’s spirit as the precursor to anything that he says about the church.  But finally, as we begin chapter two, we hear a word about the church.

And, I have to say, it’s not a particularly pleasant word.  Paul doesn’t mince words at all: “you were dead” (v. 1), “we were children of wrath” (v. 3), and “we were dead” (v. 5).  This is not polite conversation here – this is Paul, naming the truth.

In some ways, he reminds me of a certain woman I used to visit.  I had sensed some unhappiness in her marriage, but as she got older and became homebound, I would go and sit with her and her husband.  And she would start off by telling me how nice it was to see me, and how glad she was that some people cared about her.  Once she got going, though, it got even worse.  She commented over and over about how lucky the world was to have people like me who were workers, because this man that she married was, and I quote, “the laziest man God ever put on this earth.”  She was relentless – and it was uncomfortable to listen to.  Unfortunately, her husband never really gave me any reason to stick up for him.  I can’t say whether he was actually the laziest man God ever put on this earth, but I think he’s probably in my top five, anyway.

Paul reflects on the state of humanity – sometimes he says “you” and sometimes he says “we”, but the point is clear – on its own, our race does not have much to commend it.  We are dead.  No less than those spruce and maple trees I mentioned a few moments ago, we have been cut off from our roots and the sap is drying up within us.

You know that in church we call this idea “sin” – the knowledge that we are not the people that we are supposed to be; we are not those creatures that God intended.  If you need me to talk you into the fact that you have made mistakes, that you have left God’s purposes for your life, that you have walked away from the best and embraced the things that want to destroy you, well, let me know.  But I suspect that you know exactly what I’m talking about here – that our lives are not right – that we, just like these trees, have been cut off.

Do you remember the story of Genesis?  How God created humanity to live in the Garden, and how we were fashioned to experience the joy of God’s presence?

But what happened in Genesis?  We walked away, didn’t we?  We left God’s best for us.  Like puppets who cut their own strings, or trees that uprooted themselves, the humans that God created for joy and life opted for something else – something less – than our full humanity.

Yet the entire Bible is the story of how even when we walk away from God, he continues to create in and through us.  God comes to us in Jesus Christ and shows us grace – the love and kindness that we do not deserve, the favor that we do not earn.  God sees us in our fallenness and our scatteredness and chooses – for his own purposes – to make us into something amazingly beautiful.

Paul, in his first words about the church to the church, emphasizes the fundamental truth that it is God who acts first, and we who respond. God creates, and we reflect.

You can trust me on this one – sooner or later, Paul is going to get to the things that he expects the church to do or to be in this world, but before he does that, he lays out the reality that anything we do as a community, anything I do as a person, is not because we are so great, or I am so talented, or you are so handsome – but because God has built us that way.  God has raised us to this place at this time to do those things that will reflect his intentions in the world.

To put it another way, I can say with supreme confidence that I spend more time in this room than any other human being.  And let me tell you something about that piano over there.  Sure, I know you appreciate it when you waltz in here on Sunday mornings, but do you know something?  It almost never sounds good.  Most days, the only thing it’s good for is collecting dust.  It almost never does anything to draw me to a better place, or to lift my spirits, or to encourage me.

But every now and then, someone who knows what he or she is doing sits at that pile of wood and touches the keys.  The hammers strike the wires that are stretched tautly across the pin block.  The tones from those strings echo across the sounding board…and, well, then it’s a different story, isn’t it?

That piano is a magnificent instrument.  When there’s a musician there.  It is nothing without the touch of an artist.

The church, in many ways, is a similar collection of parts.  You could say that this room is nothing but a pile of lives that are thrown together haphazardly.  A mongrel group of strangers who wandered into the same geography at the same time.

Or you could say, with Paul, that we are fashioned.  That we are crafted.  That we are destined.  That we have a place in the world and a task to do.

And when we do church – when we sing praise, or feed the hungry, or comfort the frightened, or visit the sick, or forgive those who sin, or clothe the naked, or counsel the confused…well, I think it’s about as pleasing to God as when the notes of an A Major 7 chord reverberate through that case and echo off that beautiful piece of spruce.

When we do church well, the melody of life is unmistakable.

When we do church, it’s God’s work, not ours – but we are here.  May we say, on days like that, “Thanks be to God.”  And may we seek to be present so that our neighbors and friends – those whom God passionately loves – may say as they hear the melody of life that God draws forth from us, “Thanks be to God.”

Just as this piano was crafted and tuned and placed and now waits for the touch of a skilled and talented hand, may we be ready for God to use us.  That’s why we are here.  That’s why there is church – as Paul says, “We are what he has made, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

We don’t do any of the things that we do because we think that God will like us better.  We do what we do because that’s what we’re for.  We live in harmony with the way we were made, and the song that echoes through us belongs to God and blesses the world.  So far as I can see, there’s only one reason to have a piano or to come to church: so that we participate in the melody that God has, and be changed by it.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Whaddya Know? (a message about learning what is already TRUE)

This is the message I preached at Crafton Heights on Sunday, March 20.  It is the second in a series of sermons on the letter to the Ephesians.  The scripture texts were John 14:15-21 and Ephesians 1:15-23.


“Whaddya know?”  It’s a casual greeting, right? You see someone walking down the street, and you have a choice, don’t you?  You could say “Hello, sir.”  You could say “’Sup?”  You could ignore the other.  Or you could say, “Hey, whaddya know?”

And typically, if the question is “Whaddya know?”, what’s the answer?  “Not much, you?”

Isn’t that one of the most inane forms of greeting you’ve ever heard?  An empty question that is begging you to lie to me?  When I ask that question, I don’t really want to know what you know.  I mean, imagine if I took you seriously.  Go ahead, ask me: “Whaddya know, Dave?”

Well, I know that pi is 3.14159265.  I know that our culture changed indelibly on September 11, 2001.  I know that not much brings me joy like catching a steelhead.  I know that E=MC2. I know that Lauren, David, and Carly are up at Camp Crestfield having a blast this morning…shall I go on?  I know quite a bit…

“No, Dave, of course not….” When we say “Whaddya know?” it’s simply another way to say “hello”.  We don’t really want to know what you know.

But this morning, I actually do want to know what you know – at least some of it.  Raise your hand if you know…

–                Frank W. Buckles, the nation’s last World War I veteran, passed away on February 27, 2011

–                Major League Baseball player Henry Aaron hit 755 home runs

–                The best-selling book of all time: the Holy Bible.  The second best-selling book: Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong.

–                The most delicious dessert known to man is fresh raspberry pie

–                James K. Polk was the most remarkable President in our nation’s history.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, you say.  I can buy those first three.  But those last two – the ones about pie and the presidency – I’m not sure that I agree.  Those are not in the same category as the others.  Those may be your opinions, but I don’t think that they are right.

Can you “know” an opinion?  No.  You can “hold” an opinion, you can “believe”, or you can, as the name suggests, even “opine”, but you cannot “know” something that’s not a fact, can you?

Do you know what leprechauns do? Do you know who the mother of Zeus was? Do you know how angels get their wings?

You can’t really “know” those things, either, can you?  I mean, you can know the stories, you can know what people believe about those things, you can know what “they say”, but can you, in fact, “know” something that is not true?  You can believe a lie, you can buy into a story, you can repeat a legend, but the only thing that you can “know” is truth, right?

Whaddya know?  Geez, Dave, thanks for ruining that little bit of American slang for us.  Seriously, Whaddya know? Truth.  Facts.

“Whaddya know?” is a question of epistemology.  According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, epistemology means “the study of knowledge and justified belief.”  That is to say, epistemology is concerned with the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge.  It wants to know what makes belief reasonable and justified.  Epistemology tells us that we can only know something that is true – that we cannot, in fact, know a lie, a myth, or a legend.

OK, Dave, I get it.  Where are you going with this.  It’s Lent.  We’re supposed to be studying Ephesians, for crying out loud

Right.  We are.  Do you remember last week, when we began reading this letter from Paul to the church in Ephesus?  I mentioned that it is, so far as we can tell, the only letter to a church in the New Testament that was not written to correct some problem of belief or practice.  It’s a letter to an apparently healthy church that seeks to explore the nature of the church and the Christian life.  Do you remember what I said about verses 3 – 14 of chapter 1?  It’s the longest sentence in the entire Bible, right?  You can know that – it’s true.  And that amazingly wonderfully long sentence says that the church is God’s idea.  It is God’s activity.  God gets all the great verbs in that sentence.  We can only respond to what God has done, or to what God has begun.  Paul, wanting us to understand who we are as the church, begins with the notion that it is not our club, our corporation, or our institution.  The Church is Christ’s body on earth.  The only thing that we can do with that is to live into it, to grow into what Christ has for us.

The reading for today underscores that truth.  After that incredible sentence about what God is doing, Paul launches into a prayer for the Ephesians.  He begins with a matter of belief, not epistemology, when he says, “I have heard of your faith in Christ and your love for the church.”  He doesn’t say he knows it, he said he believes it.  And then we get to the prayer – a prayer for wisdom and revelation that comes from God.

Why does Paul want the church to have this wisdom and revelation?  Verse 17: so that we might know God.  Paul is not trying to convince us to believe in God.  He is not concerned that we know about God.  We are not studying God or seeking to be aware of God.  His prayer is that we might simply – and wonderfully, and fully – know God.

Why does Paul want us to know God?  Verse 18 – so that with our eyes open we will know the hope to which he calls us, the riches that he promises to the church, the power that is at work in God’s people – all things that are, according to verse 19, the “workings of God’s great power.”

And what does God’s great power do?  Paul launches on a wonderful litany about God’s power in verses 20 – 23:  God’s power raised Christ from the dead.  It seated Christ on the right hand of God the Father.  It put all things under the feet of Christ, and it made Christ the head of all things for the church.

So, if I’m reading this correctly, it would appear as though Paul is saying that to know God is to know the truth (because, remember, you can’t know a lie).  To know God is to know resurrection.  To know God, therefore, is to know the only antidote for the death that surrounds us each and every day.

Paul’s message to the church in Ephesus – and, I believe, to the church of all ages – is that the church is built on growing into and learning that which is already true.  Paul lays out the facts, and prays that we would know them.  As you and I seek to become the church that God would have us be, the good news of this is that we do not have to make any of it true.  It is already true. Last week we talked about the fact that the church has a “destiny” (verse 11).  That means that God doesn’t wonder who we are or who we are supposed to be.  There is a place for us.  There is an identity.  We can learn it, yes.  We can discover it.  We need to grow into it.  But the incredibly great news is that we do not need to invent it, or manufacture it, or create it.

Paul’s prayer is for knowledge – that we might be able to see what is already true.  I hope that is a Sunday morning springtime blessing for you, church – it’s not up to you.  Paul, the Bible, and your pastor – no one is expecting you to manufacture a blessed thing today.  Just look at what is true, and learn it.  Grow into it.  Become that truth.

But what does that mean to us practically?  What are the implications of this?  Well, if what Paul says is true, then it means that God’s power is at work in my life.  If what Paul says is true, then it means that God, working in and through Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Lord of Creation, is doing something in and through me.  It means that Jesus is the head and I am the body, right?

Well, I am part of the body.  It means the same thing about you, too, doesn’t it?  And if Christ is at work in your life; if Jesus is doing something in and through you; if Jesus is the head and you and I are the body…then the practical implication is that I love you.

Think about that.

I do not need to love you because you are lovable.  I love you because God is at work in you.

I love you, not because I agree with you.  I love you, not because you are gay or straight, or a Republican or a Democrat, or American or Japanese.  I am called to love you – to act for your welfare, to treat you well, to seek your good – because the power of God is at work in you.

In Eugene Peterson’s exploration of the letter to the Ephesians, he describes how as he served a church in Maryland for more than two decades, he came to learn this truth.  Listen to the way he describes his ministry in that congregation:

I realized that this was my place and work in the church, to be a witness to the truth that dazzles gradually.  I would be a witness to the Holy Spirit’s formation of congregation out of this mixed bag of humanity that is my congregation – broken, hobbled, crippled, sexually abused and spiritually abused, emotionally unstable, passive and passive-aggressive, neurotic men and women.  Men at fifty who have failed a dozen times and know that they will never amount to anything.  Women who have been ignored and scorned and abused in a marriage in which they have been faithful.  People living with children and spouses deep in addictions.  Lepers and blind and deaf and dumb sinners.  Also fresh converts, excited to be in on this new life.  Spirited young people, energetic and eager to be guided into a life of love and compassion, mission and evangelism.  A few seasoned saints who know how to pray and listen and endure.  And a considerable number of people who just show up.  I wonder why they bother.  There they are.  The hot, the cold, and the lukewarm.  Christians, half-Christians, almost Christians.  New-agers, angry ex-Catholics, sweet new converts.  I didn’t choose them.  I don’t get to choose them.

Any congregation is adequate for taking a long, loving look at these people.  It doesn’t seem at all obvious at first, but when we keep at it, persist in this long, loving look, we realize that we are, in fact, looking at the church, this Holy Spirit-created community that forms Christ in this place…[1]

The truth is that you and I do not get to choose each other.  God has already chosen us.  I have often said in my preaching that the job of the preacher is to ask you to do something great.  To challenge you.  The monumental task that this morning’s scripture brings to us is this: that we are to learn what is already true – that we are to learn to see each other the way that God sees us.  Paul says that the church is full of “saints”.  The church is full of people in whom the power of resurrection is already at work.

To be honest, that’s not my opinion on some days.  But fortunately for all of us, this doesn’t depend on my opinion.  It’s God’s work, God’s activity, God’s business.  And God says that we belong to each other, and that Christ is the head.  Therefore, I want to learn how God is at work in your life.  And the way that I do that is by loving you.

And somehow, in our treating each other this way, in our loving each other and our recognition that we belong to the same body – and therefore that we belong to each other – we will understand what it means to belong to God.  And as we come to know that, we will be available to be filled with God’s power so that we might be raised to new life in Christ in order that we will be used by God as the Body of Christ in the world and, more importantly, in this place.

So, church, whaddya know?  The hope of Jesus Christ – at work in me and in you.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up In Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010) p. 27-28.


Why Church? (A message about the fact that the church is God’s, not mine)

This is the message that I preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on Sunday, March 13, 2011 – the first Sunday of Lent.  While on Sabbatical in 2010, I was both blessed and challenged by Eugene Peterson’s treatment of the Letter to the Ephesians in Practice Resurrection: A Conversation about Growing Up in Christ.  Peterson has really shaped my thought about pastoral ministry for a number of years, and this book really stretched me.  I sensed then that at some time in the future the good people of Crafton Heights would be well-served to study Ephesians. That study begins with this message, and Lord willing will continue through June.  If, as you read this message, you think that I’ve plagiarized Eugene, you’re probably right – he just makes sense to me, and I’ve internalized a lot of his thought.  It’s possible that his ideas come through in my words.  It’s also possible that my ideas resonate with his – I don’t know.  I’m simply grateful for the chance to think through these amazingly wonderful and huge ideas in a community like that of CHUP.  I hope that you might find a blessing in here, too.

I want you to imagine yourself as a middle class citizen of a large and prosperous city.  The year is about 50 AD, and your home is in the midst of the market district of the second-largest city in the known world.  The population of your city is almost half a million people – far bigger than the city of Pittsburgh today.  This metropolitan hub sits at the center of an important trade route between Rome and the rest of the world to the East.  You live in the capital of the Province of Asia, an important city called Ephesus – a city that, in 50 AD, was already nearly a thousand years old – but had a seemingly bright future ahead of it.

The city of Ephesus was situated near the coast of modern Turkey, and it’s hard to overstate how important it was to the region.  It was the center of that part of the world: in fact, the mileposts that were set in the center of Ephesus were the ones by which the Romans measured the rest of Asia. (see Ephesus, Selçuk, Turkey – Google Maps)

The Library of Celsus in Ephesians, completed 135 AD

In addition to the government and military installations, Ephesus was a center of culture.  One of the chief attractions of your home town was the famed Library of Celsus, which was built not long after the time I’m asking you to imagine today.  It housed more than 12,000 scrolls and was the second-largest library in the world.

The Great Theater in Ephesus, where I was privileged to serve communion in 2008.

Just a block away from the library was the public arena, which could accommodate more than 25,000 spectators for everything from gladiatorial contests to the most recent drama and stage productions.

A depiction of the great Temple of Artemis in Ephesus

As impressive as all of these structures were, however, none of them was the place to which you’d take visitors when they first arrived in your home.  No, that honor was reserved for the amazing Temple of Artemis, a monumental structure that was located not far from the city’s center.  This amazing building was known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Perhaps you have seen photographs of the Parthenon in ancient Athens.  The Temple of Artemis (also known by her Roman name, Diana) was four times the size of the Parthenon.

Here I am standing on the grounds of the Temple of Artemis in 2008. If you're observant, you'll see the wood stork nesting on the top of the pillar. Some delicious irony, perhaps, considering her role as the goddess of fertility...

When I visited there in 2008, there was only one of the original 120 columns standing – but this photo can give you a sense of the immensity of the place.  The temple was truly the center of religious life throughout the province.  Pilgrims came from all over the world to offer sacrifices at this shrine, to worship, to buy souvenirs, and to gape in wonder at the splendor of this structure.

An idol of Artemis. Note the multiple breasts; in addition, her lower body is adorned with milk cows.

In Greece, Artemis was thought of primarily as the goddess of the hunt and of nature; in Ephesus she was thought more as the goddess of fertility.  To that end, the depictions of her often show her upper body covered with eggs or multiple breasts – symbols of the fact that she alone could give life and sustenance to humanity.

In short, I need you to picture your home town as being a vibrant center of commerce, trade, and the arts; as an important political city; and as the spiritual home for people who would come from hundreds of miles away in order to worship there.  Ephesus was, in the first century, much like we view London, or Rome, or Cairo today – an ancient city with a glorious past, a vibrant present, and a bright future.  Can you get that picture in your mind right now?

Good.  Because somewhere in the midst of this vast sprawl of humanity on that day in the middle of the first century twelve people – TWELVE! – have come together as a congregation of the church of Jesus Christ.  There in the shadow of that immense temple to Artemis, among the throngs of Romans and Asians and Jews and Greeks, a group of a dozen or so people heard and believed the Good News of Jesus Christ from teachers like Apollos, Aquila, and Priscilla.

The Apostle Paul visited Ephesus a few times, and preached here for nearly three years.  He was imprisoned here, in fact, and wrote a few of his letters from the local jail.  He left in a hurry after some of the locals took exception to the ways that his preaching of Jesus seemed to be hurting the sales of the statuettes of Artemis and started a riot, demanding his execution.

Some years later, a letter from Paul surfaced.  It was addressed to “the saints who are in Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus”.  You heard the beginning of that letter a few moments ago.

Eugene Peterson points out that there are fifteen named churches in the New Testament.  Of those, thirteen have letters that are addressed to them that appear in the Bible.  The letter to the Ephesians is the only letter that is not provoked by inappropriate behavior in the community or false teaching.[1] Think about that – all the letters you’ve seen in the New Testament – Corinthians or Galatians or Thessalonians – each of them was written to a church in reaction to something that was going on in that community at the time.  Each of those letters was written, at least in part, to correct some problem or to chastise some misbehavior.

Yet Ephesians contains no such language.  The letter gives us a chance to consider what was apparently a healthy congregation.  As we read through it, we have an opportunity consider the implications of living out Christ’s message in the abstract, without having to walk through a layer of corrective or admonishment.  It seems to me that in the book of Ephesians, we have a detailed glimpse into how to live into the implications of Luke 12:32.  Surely our group of a dozen or so believers in this ancient metropolis would have thrilled to hear the words of Jesus: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

For the next couple of months we’ll be spending time in this letter.  I want us to listen for the ways that the church is described: I want you to hear how God speaks to and equips the church; together, I’d like for us to sense how the God who spoke to a small and seemingly insignificant group of believers in the midst of an impressive empire might guide our congregation at this juncture in history.

Let’s look at the beginning of this letter.  Verses one and two are not particularly exceptional – they simply fulfill the task of laying out who is writing the letter and what that person’s credentials are as well as who will be receiving the letter.

But verses three – fourteen are another matter altogether.  I want you to take a look at this.  I understand that’s a lot of words to put on one slide, especially when they are in a language you don’t understand, but I’m cramming them all on there because I want you to understand that as Paul begins to write this letter to the church in Ephesus, he starts the main body of this letter with one sentence.  That’s right – in the Greek language that Paul used to write the letter to the Ephesians, this entire thought is a single sentence.  He’s laying the groundwork for his exploration about the church and his commentary on the life of that particular church, and he chooses to begin with what is actually the longest single sentence in the entire Bible.  You heard it a few moments ago, and can re-read it at your leisure.  I simply want to ask you to notice now not only the length of the sentence, but the theme of it.  As Paul starts this letter that I’m suggesting is about the church, he puts before us a monstrosity of a sentence that is all about God.

And you think to yourself, “Self, that’s not so unusual.  After all, I like to think that God and the Church go together, at least some of the time…”  It’s no big deal, right?  God, church – it’s all good.

Try a little experiment this week.  Talk to some of your friends about their thoughts of church, or their experiences with church.  Ask them what they would say about church.  I’m betting that nine out of ten of us, given the chance to start an exploration about the church, would begin with sentences that talk about our programs, our pastors, our child care, our mission trips, or our music.  Do you see what I mean?  For most of us, church is about what we do, it’s about who we are.  Church is, at least in the wealthy, safe, powerful USA, usually about us.

But what about the church in Ephesus?  A couple of dozen poor people who are marginalized by the commerce of the community and the vastness of the cult of Diana or Artemis?  A handful of saints living in the shadow the idol worship, threatened with persecution, meeting in secret…do you think that they had the option to think of the idea of “church” as a nice building, a winsome preacher, or a great youth program?

No.  Ephesians begins with an incontrovertible statement that the church, first and foremost, is about God.  The church has its roots in what God is doing in Jesus Christ, and it belongs to God.

How do I know this?  Well, in that tremendous sentence that begins the letter, look at the number of times “in Christ” or “through Christ” appears.  There are ten instances where Paul uses that kind of language to remind his hearers that Church is not an idea that they came up with and it’s surely not a program that they’ve got to run.  Church is God’s idea, rooted in His Son, and designed to accomplish his goals.  To put it another way, the Church is not a human institution, the Church is Jesus.  Those desperate few people wondering how in the world they fit into Ephesus, those confused Thessalonians and stubborn Galatians and you and me – we are not managers of a program or officers of a corporation – we are those who have been brought into the great and amazing thing that God is doing in and through Jesus Christ.

Let’s look a little more closely at the sentence that Paul uses to begin this epistle, because his language confirms the way that God is active in the world we inhabit every day.  Do you remember when you took English composition, and your teacher talked to you about the various parts of a sentence?  She told you that every sentence was made up of a subject, a verb, and often some nouns and adjectives thrown in there.  We’ve talked about how Christ is clearly the subject of this sentence.  What’s a verb?  An action word, right?  The verb is the most important part of the sentence, because it defines for us something about the subject.  Let’s look at the verbs that are used in this sentence.  What does God do in Ephesians 1:3-14?

God blesses.  That is to say, God gives.  And more than that, what God gives is good.  It’s impossible to have a “bad” blessing.  What God gives is good.  God gives the church.  The church is good.

God chooses.  Think about that for a moment.  God didn’t wake up today and see you walk in the room and say, “Oh, well, isn’t that just fine and dandy.  Look who remembered to set his clock ahead!  What am I going to do with this knucklehead?”  No.  Remember Psalm 139?  God knew you before the earth was created.  God chose to create humanity and gave us an identity.  You are not an afterthought; you have a vital role to play in the thing that God intends to do in the world!

God destines.  For you old-school Presbyterians, that sounds like one of the words we like to argue about: “predestination”.  If we’re not careful, we can get into a long and I’m afraid unprofitable debate about whether this is saying that God controls every single action we take in life.  The word itself, though, comes from the Greek word that means “boundary”. In Psalm 16, the writer exclaims “LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. 
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.”  A boundary tells us where we belong; it gives us a place to start; it reminds us that we did not invent reality.  God, in calling us the church, tells us that we are not alone in the universe, subject to the whims of fate or bad luck; no, instead, we have a destiny.  We have been destined.  God, in his blessing and choosing self, gives us an idea where we belong.

God bestows.  What an interesting verb!  Bestow is more formal than “give”; it’s more generous than “supply” or “dole out.”  In fact, Paul is so eager for us to see that God is a liberal giver that the next verb backs up bestows. God lavishes.  What does God lavish?  Grace.  Theologians will tell you that “grace” is “unmerited favor”.  Grace is something that you don’t have to deserve.  Grace is forgiveness, or a kiss from your daughter, or the opportunity to come back into a relationship after a damaging argument, or the chance to live into God’s best for you even when you’ve blown it.  Grace – it’s what we need to get through the day, and what we need to grow into the church that God calls us to be.  And God doesn’t parcel it out the way that I rifle through the coupons in my wallet prior to a trip to the store – God bestows grace lavishly.  He drenches us with it.  Grace oozes from every interaction we have with God.  Grace was here before we woke up this morning and will be here when we go to be tonight.  To say simply that God “gives” us grace is like saying that Tim Salinetro sort of likes birds.  It’s not enough.  There needs to be another word – or, in this case, two: bestow and lavish.  That’s the kind of grace God has for you.

God makes known.  What a joy that is!  Last week, I told you about the trouble we had getting the mission team back from Texas.  Can you imagine how frustrating it was to stand at the airline counter waving my ticket and seeing the airline representative on his phone and typing away at the computer, saying things like, “What if I…” or “OK, let’s put you on this flight and then…”  I was hearing less than half the conversation.  I was in the dark.  I was angry.  But Paul reminds the church that God will not keep us in the dark – God intends to show us those things that appear to be mysterious right now.  God reveals!

And the last verb we’ll consider today: God gathers.  There are no “loose ends” in the Kingdom.  There is no waste.  There is nothing that is left out or forgotten.  The God who chooses and blesses and directs and pours out and reveals is the God who, at the end of the day, will carefully sort and orient and bring together.  What a gift!  The energy you expend, the conversations you have, the deepest desires of your heart – they all have a place.  There are no fragments.  There are no broken edges.  God’s intention is wholeness and completeness – in the church and in our lives.

And that, my friends, is how the letter to the Ephesians begins.  When Paul starts to talk about what God intends for the church, he does so by listing a catalogue of verbs that refer to what God does.  To quote Eugene Peterson: “this orienting introductory sentence places us in a cosmos in which God starts everything…There is not a single verb commanding us to do something…No requirements, no laws, no chores, no assignments, no lessons.”[2]

This, my friends, is what I hope we can remember about who we are today: the church is God’s idea.  It is God’s project.  It is God’s business.  We do not invent, manage, or control it.  We grow into it.  God has blessed, chosen, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gathered our purposes into an identity.  The only imperative the church begins with – then or now – is to grow into that.

If you’re like me, you are tempted to talk small. To sell ourselves or our purposes short.  To think that we don’t make much difference in the world.  The letter to that tiny group of Christians in that huge town of Ephesus begins with a profound release from that sort of talk – because it’s not about me or you.  It’s about what God is doing and who God is, and how God invites us to come along.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up In Christ (Eerdmans, 2010) p. 15.

[2] Practice Resurrection p. 67-68.

Why I Need Lent (A reflection on Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent)

Mark 14:66-72, NIV

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by.When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it.

After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

For a time in my ministry, I served with a pastor who hated the prayer of confession.  This man would ask me incredulously, “Why should I say all that stuff?  That written prayer doesn’t mean anything to me.  Most weeks, I look at it, and I think ‘I didn’t do half of it.  I’m not confessing’!”

I looked at him doubtfully, but it turns out that he was just getting warmed up.  He continued, saying, “You get all jazzed up during the first hymn, and then you come and say, ‘Oh, God, I’m so terrible; I’m such a worm. I’m no good.’  That is such a downer!  Confession!  Who needs it?  Nobody wants to hear that they’re sinners.?

And so this pastor eliminated the prayer of confession in all the worship services that he led.  He instructed the musician to play a couple of happy songs instead.

Hmmm.  Beloved, I’m all for happy songs; I’m all for remembering the joy that comes from the Lord.  I like being Pastor Dave.  I don’t want to be Pastor Dismal.  I want to be energized by worship.  I want to craft worship that energizes God’s people!

But I need to have the prayer of confession – because while I hate to be reminded of it, I know that I am flawed.  I am not the person I ought to be.  There are some problems.  There is sin.  And when I acknowledge that brokenness, I am free to move into God’s best for my life.

I have another friend who thinks that the church is wrong to observe the season of Lent.

This friend says to me, “Why are you doing all that?  It’s not right.  You’re focusing too much on the suffering and on the death of Jesus.  The Jesus I worship is risen, he’s victorious, he’s not on the cross any more.  The cross is empty.  The grave is empty.  Hallelujah!  There’s nothing for us to to do in Lent – it’s an empty season.”

He’s right, of course.  The cross is empty.

The tomb is vacant.

Christ is risen.

So why do we need a prayer of confession?

Why do we need Lent?

I am pretty sure that Jesus doesn’t need me to tell him that I’m not the man I could be.

I am likewise pretty sure that Jesus doesn’t need me to fast, or to enter into extra prayer time, or to give up sweets or internet or engage in some other form of self-denial as a way to assess my worthiness to be his follower.

To be honest, I’m pretty sure that the second friend I have is right – Jesus doesn’t have much use for Lent.

But where was I on Ash Wednesday?  Standing in front of the worshiping community, robed in purple.  Why?

Readers of the blog know that I spent much of last year traveling.  I visited the Holy Land, and was able to walk in many of the places that we read about in scripture.  And some of you know that, frankly, such time was not always a blessing to me.  Every time I got to the “real” tomb of Jesus or “actual site” of some miracle or other, I rolled my eyes.  I’m not sure why – I knew it had to be the actual site, because the guy who sold me the ticket told me that it was.  Yet whenever a guide offered (for a fee) to let me put my foot where Jesus had walked, or to sit where Peter had sat, well, it felt a little hokey or shallow.

The Church of St. Peter Gallicantu

Until I got to a church called St. Peter Gallicantu, located outside the city walls.  It was built in 1931.  “Gallicantu” is the Latin word for “cock-crow”.  The church is built on the site where the High Priest’s house was located, and it memorializes Peter’s denial of Jesus.

Outside the church, there is a statue.  If you look closely, you might be able to see the words “non novi illum” at the base: “I do not know him.” (if you click on either photo, you’ll get to see a larger version that reveals greater detail).

The statue outside the St. Peter Gallicantu church in Jerusalem. It depicts St. Peter being confronted by the servant girl, a worker, and a Roman soldier confronting Peter in the shadow of the crowing rooster.

As I walked the grounds of that church, and I as considered the varied forms of art that adorned it, it was clear to me – I was not there when Jesus died.  I was not there when he fed the 5000 or raised the little girl from the dead or turned the water into wine.  I wasn’t there when he taught in the synagogue or when he cleared the temple.  I can read about those things, but I’m not sure how deeply I can own them for myself.

But I know that I can deny Jesus.  I know that there are many days, and many ways in which either my lips or my life is tempted to scream non novi illum!  I do not know him!

And that, my friends, is why I need Lent.  I don’t need it to impress Jesus with my will power or holiness.  I don’t need it to somehow reenact his death or elongate his suffering on the cross.  I need Lent because I need to remember that I am always this close to bailing out.  I am always capable of betraying the love that has set me free.  I am too often willing to trade the grace and mercy I have received from the Lord I love for some fleeting pleasure or some angry outburst.

The truth is that Jesus doesn’t need Lent.  But I do.  So for the next six weeks I’ll wear my purple.  I’ll refrain from singing “Hallelujah”.  I’ll think about confessing and about the ways that I have blown it.  And I’ll long for the Day when by his Grace I’ll be made complete and I will not have to fight these urges within my own self any longer.

The truth is, I do know him.  I love him.  I am known.  I am loved.  But I am always at risk of betraying the One I love.  Lent reminds me of that.  And in knowing that, in reflecting on that, I think that somehow, I may be better able to remain true to the purpose he has in mind for me.

And I may be alone in this.  Maybe you could have walked through St. Peter Gallicantu and shrugged your shoulders.

But I don’t think you’re that different from me.

Thanks be to God for the gift of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God for the promise of redemption that is stronger than our weakness.

I invite you to walk with me through Lent, and remember who you are, and who you are created to be.  Amen.

Here’s a good way to start…by listening to Stuart Townend singing his hymn “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us.”

Framing Expectations

This will be the last of the posts relating to the 2011 CHUP Adult Mission Team visit to Mission, Texas.

As our team drove back from Mission to San Antonio in 2010, there were certain folks in the van who were, well, less than thrilled with the prospect of seeing five hours worth of Southern Texas scenery.  To be honest, some were simply bored out of their minds.  Others were exhausted from the week’s work. There was not a lot of chatter.  I gamely tried to keep the conversation going, but apart from Kelly Salinetro playing DJ on everyone’s iPods, there was not much excitement to be had in the van.

Well, I was truly excited to see a Crested Caracara, but on that point I was in the decided minority of the group.

This is the Crested Caracara.                                                                                                    Admit it…when you heard the name, you said, “Gee whiz, I’d love to see what that looks like.”                                        You’re welcome.

We zipped along through nondescript scenery at about 75 miles per hour and suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it.

A zebra.

That’s right, off to the side of the road, there was, unmistakably, a zebra in the pasture.  I yelled, but did not stop (a bladder emergency was building in the back seat).  Most of the folks in the van thought I was just lying, but Stacey had my back.  She vouched for me.

Now, fast forward a year.  As we were driving down to Mission from San Antonio, the topic of The Zebra came up again.  Would we see it?  Was it real?  Well, as we “crested” what passes for a hill in that part of the world, Jon saw it first – and he named it.  The Zebra existed.

Now here’s the deal: at the end of the week, people in the van were no less tired than we had been a year previous.  And they haven’t built any more bathrooms along the way, if you know what I mean.  Yet somehow, as the group got to the little town of Alice, TX, the energy level picked up.  Eyes that last year couldn’t stay open were peeled.  We thought that The Zebra would be to the right as we headed north, but we weren’t sure exactly where.  People were looking so intently to the right that even when I commented on a beautiful tree or another interesting sight to the left, it was glanced at quickly and then fourteen eyes returned to studying the eastern side of the road.

The zebra along Texas Route 281 near Alice, TX.

And there it was.  Out in a pasture with four donkeys, was Our Zebra.  We stopped and took photos and looked through binoculars – amazed at the wonder of an African herd mammal here in the USA.

It got me to thinking…What would happen in my everyday life if I got up in the morning expecting to see The Zebra at some point?  What if, instead of waiting for the minutes and hours to plod by like so much barren Texas landscape, I actually dared to believe that I might encounter something as wonderful as a Zebra in the sagebrush?  What if, instead of rolling my eyes back into my head, driving on autopilot, and thinking that there was nothing left to see, I tried to frame my expectations in such a way that I might be open to wonder and awe?

I don’t know where your life has driven you today, or with whom you’ve spent your time, but I’m willing to bet that you’ve passed at least one thing that was worth stopping and taking a photo.  I can practically guarantee that you’ve encountered the Awesome or the Miraculous.  Did you see it?

Brenda and Peter have been great friends since the days when I served the Twelve Corners Church in Rochester, NY. They live in Pflugerville, TX and drove into San Antonio to greet our team.

We had a wonderful ending to the 2011 Adult Mission to Texas.  We spent the night in San Antonio and had a delicious dinner on the Riverwalk.  We enjoyed breakfast with my old friends, Peter and Brenda Hayes.  We stayed up late playing dice and wandered through the Alamo and made it to the airport in time to catch our flight home to Pittsburgh.

Bob takes in the sights along the Riverwalk from the perspective of a Riverboat.

Lindsay chats with a friend during a quiet moment in San Antonio

The problem was, the plane wasn’t there.  So instead of coming to Pittsburgh, we ended up getting routed through Chicago, where we had to spend the night.  My daughter, Ariel, was able to borrow a van and she picked us up at O’Hare at 11:00 p.m.  We drove to her home, where she had procured six mattresses, and we collapsed until 4:30 a.m., when we woke up to catch our flight to Pittsburgh.  We arrived in the Heights at about 9:30 a.m., and led worship at the 11:00 service.

I don’t deserve friends like Peter and Brenda Hayes.  I have no right to expect that every plane I take off on will land.  I didn’t think I’d run into Tom Hanks in downtown San Antonio.

But I did.

We didn’t expect to be re-routed, or to lose our bags, or to see Ariel, or to lead worship on four or five hours sleep.

But we did.

It was Awesome.

Thanks be to God for things that we don’t have the right to expect.

The team pauses to enjoy the sunshine along San Antonio's Riverwalk

Mission Accomplished!

Sandi installs, with our site coordinator Roland and Lindsay lending a hand.

As the Crafton Heights Mission Team begins our last full day in South Texas, we do so in the awareness of having participated in a great work.  We spent ourselves in wonderful ways on Thursday as we finished our labor on the home of Mr. and Mrs. Serasin Ramos.

Lindsay installs the T-111 siding.

The day was hot and the sun sapped folks – especially as the folks on the roof unrolled the felt paper and then the shingle material.  Thursday, more than any other day, we really divided into two teams: one on the roof and the other on the ground.  Gabe split his time as he did some much-needed (but not well-photographed) electrical updating on the interior of the home.

Jon installing the drip edge as we begin the end of the roof project.

As you see these photos, you might think to yourself, “Self, that house looks better than it did on Monday, but it’s not anywhere near ‘done’.  How does Carver get off calling this post ‘Mission Accomplished’?

Well, I guess it depends on what we mean by “Mission”, doesn’t it?
Maybe I meant “Mission Accomplished” in the sense that “we’ve made it to a little town in Texas named “Mission”.

I told them on the application "rough carpentry". Here I am making a hole for the kitchen plumbing with a circular saw. Rough, indeed!

Maybe I have an overinflated sense of our own work and am able to ignore the fact that the Ramos family is, today, living in a home that may have a new roof and new siding & insulation on one side of the house, but still has substandard flooring, no hot water, and three other sides that are pretty shabby.

But this is what I probably mean: I mean that our team has done what we came down to do.

Bob shows us how to unroll the felt paper so as to avoid the wrinkles!

We did not show up in South Texas thinking that we would eradicate poverty in the Rio Grande Valley.  Nor did we think that we would facilitate the region’s recovery from Hurricane Alex.  To be honest, we didn’t even think that we would rebuild a single house.  Early in the week, Jon led us through a devotion that contained these words:

5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. (from I Corinthians 3)

Stacey takes a little visit to the "gun show" as she totes her second roll of asphalt roofing up to the top.

As we discussed that passage, we remarked about the fact that the things that we could do would add a small measure of relief to folks who have been worn down.  We knew that we would not “fix” everything or “save” anyone.  But we also knew that our labor, as halting and as stopgap as it might be on any given day, was a part of something bigger that was happening here.  One aspect of our “Mission”, therefore, was to spend ourselves in a worthy cause adding to that work that God had already started and will eventually complete.  Mission Accomplished.

Then, last night, Lindsay had us reading from Matthew 13:

1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Gabe laying the roofing down.

As we talked about the words of Jesus there, one of the things that we noted in different ways was the combination of the great gift of God in giving us life and the incredible lavishness of the creator.  We started out talking about how sometimes we want to feel like it’s up to us – why didn’t the seed on the path try a little harder not to be taken away?  Couldn’t the seed in the weeds fight back?  But as we walked around in that a little, we noticed the liberality of the gardener – how He just spread seed willy-nilly all over the place, and kept believing that a crop would come.  That is an example to us to embrace that same generosity of spirit as we seek to give ourselves away freely and joyfully – and leaving the end result up to the Lord.  Mission Accomplished.

Another aspect of that same Mission was to spend time together in ways that would allow us to appreciate the image of Christ in each other.  Last night, we laughed late into the evening as we played games and told stories.  Just ask Bob about Dolly Parton, for example.  We grew to love and value each other in new ways this week.  Mission Accomplished.

The roof is done!

And finally, part of coming to Texas this week was being in “not Pittsburgh” for a spell.  Getting away from our daily tasks, challenges, opportunities, and routines in order to sense who we might be somewhere else, and how we might hear God’s voice in new ways.  Again, that happened for each of us in different ways on different days.  Whether it was time on the border or ripping plywood or learning to eat mangoes “Malawian Style” or singing in the Diercksen’s living room, we were able to do that, and it’s been good.  Mission Accomplished.

In a few hours, we head north.  We’ll spend the day en route to San Antonio, and hope to see some typically “Texan” sites on the way.  We anticipate a fine dinner tonight along the Riverwalk, and tomorrow we’ll explore the Alamo before we fly home.

With Mr. & Mrs. Ramos at the end of the week. The siding on the left is new; the roof is new, and the interior has been changed as well. So have we.

What a wonderful trip it’s been.  Thank God for the opportunity to participate in this Mission to Mission.  And thank God for the chance to share in that with you!

What’s the next Mission?

Can you be “that guy”?

Gabe had cheesecake for his birthday party on 2/28.

If you’ve ever been on a mission trip or most any group travel experience, you know that often there are catch phrases or words that get repeated and become a part of the group’s interpretation of the experience.  These phrases come from most anywhere, and can be irritating, funny, winsome, or simply nonsense – but they serve to provide a point of common reference.  For instance, anyone who was on the Twelve Corners Mission Trip to Neon, KY, in 1992 will remember “Dang, what’s wrong?”

Jon and Gabe work with Bob to peel back the dilapidated roofing materials.

Today, we’ve repeated the phrase, “Don’t be ‘that guy'” several times.  Who is “that guy”?  Well, could be a lot of things.  For instance, Jon was “that guy” who fell through the roof – but not completely.  Dave was “that guy” who fought the boards and couldn’t make the right cut on his first, second, or third try.  Stacey was “that guy” (yes, it’s gender-neutral) who tested the window glass with the hammer.  Steel is stronger, in case you were wondering.

The roof decking is nearing completion!

"The heat's in the tools, Stacey!"

This one, I cut right on the first try. Oh, wait, Lindsay cut it for me!

The roof decking is finished! Tomorrow: tar paper!

Stacey gives the plumbing the "sniff test". Still needs work!

Yeah, by the third day of the work project, especially when you are working on the roof in temperatures where 85 is a cool day, it’s easy to be a little bit chippy when someone else on the team is having a rough go of it.  By God’s providence, however, the scripture for our devotion today was Isaiah 40:28Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the eternal God, Creator of the earth. He never gets weary or tired; his wisdom cannot be measured.  29The LORD gives strength to those who are weary. 30Even young people get tired, then stumble and fall.  31But those who trust the LORD will find new strength.  They will be strong like eagles soaring upward on wings; they will walk and run without getting tired.

I am here to tell you that we experienced that truth today in our time together.  After a rocky start to the morning, we rallied and pulled together for the best (and shortest) afternoon’s work yet.  Part of it was having a van load of Americorps volunteers show up and lend their hands.  Part of it was seeing the end of a big part of the job in sight.  And part of it was simply grace.  We experienced joy and strength when we got to the end of the work day today.

On the banks of the Rio Grande with Officer Rositas

We did end a little early so that we could make a visit to the offices of the U. S. Border Patrol, where we met with Officer Rositas.  He accompanied us to some areas adjacent to the Mexican border, where we heard about the challenges faced by the officers on a daily basis.  We stood on the banks of the Rio Grande and could see the footprints in the sand that groups of immigrants had left earlier today as they tried to come into the country illegally.  It was fascinating to hear about how the job has changed over the years, and how the nature of the traffic at this location has denigrated from folks looking for work to more and more drug traffickers.

Our escort at the border, underscoring the severity of the violence these days.

The images of the giant fence around this section of the border may be arresting – and they should be.  When we see a people and a culture going to, or driven to, those lengths, something is wrong.  When there are several hundred people a day trying to climb or circumvent that wall, something is wrong.  I don’t know what the solution is – but we were humbled by the service of people like Officer Rositas (and the armed escort whose name we did not get, but who was following us with automatic weapons drawn).  We were frustrated by the enormity of the problem at hand, and the elusiveness of a solution.

Here's the team on the southern side of the border fence with Officer Rositas.

And then we came to the end of the day, where we baked pizzas and sat around the table and gradually affirmed each other.  We sang God’s praises and we heard the scripture and we joked about who had been “that guy” today.  But something happened.  Whereas at many points this week, being “that guy” has had negative connotations, it was a blessing to see that increasingly, folks on the trip named positive aspects of the day and said, “You know, you were there when I needed it today…”  Bob said, “You know, I can’t forget all those people who are a part of this adventure who aren’t here – the people who made the pumpkin logs or came to the dinner or supported us somehow.  If it wasn’t for them, none of this would be possible.”  So maybe, today, you were “that guy”.  Maybe here, or maybe someplace else.  But maybe you were “that guy” who helped people to see and claim the truth of Isaiah 40.

And if you weren’t “that guy” today, you get another crack at it tomorrow.  Hope it goes well for you!  Thanks for your prayers and support.

How Do You Eat An Elephant?

When I was in college I spent some time volunteering in Washington DC at an organization called “One Ministries”.  A central aspect of that neighborhood outreach program was called “adopt-a-block”, wherein churches would take specific homes or specific streets and pray for the residents and work towards improving their situations.  The Rev. John Staggers, founder of One Ministries, explained that the church of Jesus Christ is called to reach out to the poor and disenfranchised and, through service, model the Kingdom of God to the world.  When someone would comment that the problem is so big and the numbers so overwhelming, The Rev. Staggers would laugh and say, “We’re going to do this the same way we eat an elephant…one bite at a time.”

The supplies for the job are delivered bright and early Monday morning.

Today, our team got a glimpse of this strategy first-hand as we began to unravel the tasks related to rehabilitating the home of Mr. & Mrs. Serafina here in Mission.  In fact, in one discussion today, Gabe began by saying, “You know, if you were a ‘the glass is half-empty’ kind of a person, this could have been a rough place…”  To be honest, there are all kinds of things wrong with this home, many of which we will be unable to address.

Jon and Stacey begin the process of ripping off the old roof and determining which decking is too rotten to use again.

But some of them are well within our capabilities, and so on a windy and hot day in South Texas, our crew began.  In small groups, we ripped up roofing (and the tarps that did or did not cover the faulty roof) and knocked down drywall that was falling apart and re-constructed beams and joists that have suffered damage from weather, insects, dry rot, or a combination of all three.

Today, we made  a dent.  We worked well together as a team and we took a few bites out of the elephant.  We were particularly glad when Gabe did NOT fall through the roof (only his right leg did).  We were encouraged when a rogue piece of plywood got caught in a gust of wind and knocked Lindsay on her can…and she sat there laughing, unharmed.  And we were delighted when, after a particularly violent gust of wind pushed our 24 foot extension ladder right off the side of the building and it caught me full on the back of the head and shoulders that the only damage was stiffness and some bruising.  Good news all around.

Bob checks the condition of the joists

Lindsay shows us how to hammer the 16 penny nails

Sandi makes sure the kitchen is ventilated. Extremely well-ventilated.



Gabe replacing rotted timbers with sound ones.

We’re not sure exactly what this guy did all day…mostly walk around and mumble and point out where other people could be working harder.

We ended our day by celebrating a dinner with Dave and Nadine Diercksen at Rudy’s Bar-B-Q, followed by a cheesecake to commemorate Gabe’s birthday here in Texas.  A great day.

We've heard it said in Texas, "Go big or go home." The meals here were big, and the flavor even bigger!