Happy Birthday, Jim!

In 1604, James I of England came up with the idea of producing an English-language translation of the Bible that would allow the Anglicans and the Puritans  to find some common ground (and perhaps, not inconsequentially, get both groups off his back for a while).  The result of that suggestion was published in 1611 and we know it as The Authorized, or King James Version of the Bible.  2011 marks the 400th anniversary of this event, and I will be preaching a series of messages rooted in the more than 250 idioms that are a part of our English Language today as a result of this work.  

The message for Sunday, August 28, is rooted in Genesis 1:1-5 and the phrase “Let there be light”.

If I were to ask you what the current best-selling book in the USA is, would you want to hazard a guess?  Right now, Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help tops most of the lists.  It has sold more than 5,000,000 copies.  In fact, earlier this month, that book became first title ever to sell more than a million copies on Amazon’s Kindle[1].  That’s a lot of books.  5 million.

That’s today’s best-seller.  I have a hunch you know what the best selling book of all time is: The Bible.  Specifically, the King James Version of the Bible, which has sold between 5 and 6 billion copies since it was published in 1611.  That’s a thousand times more than the publishing phenomenon we know as The Help.

Do you have a King James? I mean, with 6 billion copies lying around, chances are you could lay your hands on one, right? Do you read it?  Do you know it?  Or is the King James Bible the most popular book that nobody reads?

The KJV is getting a lot of publicity in 2011 as it celebrates its 400th birthday.  Take a look at this brief clip that begins to explore the impact of that translation on our language:

You might not be surprised to hear your pastor say that the King James Bible is an important book.  But what about Richard Dawkins, who is perhaps the world’s most famous atheist?  When he read a chapter from the Book of Ruth for a YouTube Bible project, Dawkins said, “It is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.”[2]  Yes, that’s right.  We’ve got to keep those religious people away from the bible. The King James version is, arguably, the most influential book in the English Language.  As that video demonstrated, there are hundreds of idioms in contemporary English that come straight from this translation.  In the next few weeks, we will be looking at a few of those words and phrases in the context of their position in the King James Bible and then trying to see what, if any, the impact of those passages on our own lives might be.

The first words that God speaks, according to Genesis, are yehiy ‘or.  We could translate that as “let light exist” or “allow light to come into being”, but we know it best as “let there be light.”

“Let there be light” is a phrase that permeates our world.  Classical authors, like Alexander Pope and Victor Hugo, have used that phrase.  In a Star Trek book, Captain Jean-Luc Picard opens a bottle with that message scrawled inside.  Episode 6:13 of Sex In The City was given this title, as was a 1946 movie produced by the Army and directed by John Huston.  “Let there be light” is the name of a brand of matches sold in Brazil.  The Latin translation, Fiat Lux, is on the seal or in the motto of dozens of colleges and universities, including Waynesburg University.  “Let there be light” has become a way of expressing a desire to bring new clarity or understanding to a problem or situation.

For our purposes, of course, we want to consider that phrase in its original context.  Do you remember what your mother told you: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”?  Well, this is the first impression we get of God in Scripture.  As the Bible describes God’s creative acts and intention, showing how God is bringing order from chaos, this is the first thing that God says.  In the beginning – whenever that was – whatever was there was formless, meaningless, and purposeless.  And God’s speaking light into existence is the first in a series of creative acts in which God brings shape, meaning, and purpose to the cosmos.  “Let there be light” are the words God uses so that we might know that God is opposed to disorder and is instead the author of meaning and beauty.

And, of course, it’s not just Genesis that uses metaphors of light and speech.  The Bible is filled with passages that use these images to signify the purpose and direction of God.

Psalm 119 tells us that God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.

John 1 introduces Jesus of Nazareth by telling us first that he is the Word of God, and later that he is the Light.

Later, in John 8, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” and Matthew tells us that Jesus points to his followers and says, “You are the light of the world” – a statement that has been taken to heart by the group of people here at CHUP who have developed the SHINE initiative for our ministry and our building.  Today’s second scripture lesson, from 2 Peter 1:12-21, also conveys images of light and the word.  Listen for the Word of the Lord.

12 So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. 13 I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Do you see what is happening in the pages of Scripture?  God’s intentions are first expressed in Word and Light.  We later understand that light to be seen clearly in Jesus, and now in fact we are given to understand that the words of Bible are themselves, in some way, light.

Is that true?  Is this book sufficiently reliable and authoritative so that it can not only describe how God worked to bring order to chaos to a meaningless cosmos, but the Bible can in some way become the Word of God that brings order to my chaotic life?  Do the words that are contained on these pages provide us with some way to see meaning and purpose in our own existence, even when the edges of that existence are alive with fear, with chaos, or with disorder?

In other words, do we need a light to help us find meaning for life?  And if we do, can we find that kind of light in a book?  And if we can, is the Bible that book? And if it is, how do we glean such meaning from the Bible?  I mean, if it is possible that this volume can shed some light on our lives, how do we realize that?

First, we must get to know it.  This may sound very cliché, but it’s the truth: unless we know it, there is no way that it can impact who we are or will become.  So how do you get to know the Bible?  Well, if you wanted to get to know The Help (along with 5 million of your friends), what would you do?  You’d read it, right?  Maybe you’d go to Amazon.com or the New York Times and read a couple of reviews that might point out some aspects of the story that you missed.  In the same way, we are called to simply know the Bible.  To read it personally and when we come together.  To discuss it so that your ideas might inform me, and mine might shed a little light on your life, so to speak…

But knowing it isn’t enough.  I’ve told the story before of the man who was locked in a dungeon for decades with only a Bible for a companion. Every time the guards saw him, he was reading the Bible, making notes, scribbling away…and when he died, they found his notes.  They said something like, “The Bible has 31,102 verses and 788,258 words.” “The longest verse in the Bible is Esther 8:9.  The shortest verse is John 11:35.”  This man knew everything about the book in his cell, but he didn’t know the Bible as the Word or the Light.

We know the Bible so that we might love it.  As you read it, hear it, and experience it, look for things that ring true to you.  This is one of the true gifts of the King James Version, in my opinion – it is simply beautiful.  Nobody really talks like this any more (and they didn’t really talk like this in England in 1611, either), but when you hear phrases like, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help…” or “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child,” you are hearing a thing of beauty.  In addition to knowing the words of the Bible, look for ways to appreciate the truth and beauty of it.

As you do that, pay attention!  Where does what you read and hear make sense?  Where does it leave you scratching your head? Why is it confusing you?  How does that sound like good (or bad) news to you?

Now, so far, I’ve been talking about the way that you read the Bible as if it were an art appreciation class.  You know, you go to the museum and you look at the painting and you say, “Oh, yes, what a bold use of the dark lines there…” Or, “Wow, the painter really captured the essence of mystery in that woman’s face…”  In a museum, you wander around and you decide what you like and what you don’t like, and you allow the beauty there to inspire and encourage you.

Pablo Picasso, "Ma Jolie" (Woman with a Zither or Guitar), 1911-1912

Yet the Bible’s claim for itself is that it is not only beautiful, but that it is true.  It is authoritative.  You can go to a museum and see a piece by Picasso and say, “What is he, crazy?  That’s not what a woman looks like.”  And you can walk out.  But according to the Bible, I am not free to say, “One God, schmone God.  This is a load of malarkey” and slam the book down.  Whereas one reviewer might say that The Betty Crocker Cookbook is the best resource to have in the kitchen and another might suggest that The Joy of Cooking is the ultimate authority, the Bible does not invite us to go out and find another Holy Book and make comparisons.  The Bible claims to be the Word of God, and expects me to treat it as such.

And we have to be careful with that, don’t we?  I mean, the same Bible that says, “Honor thy father and mother…” and “Love thy neighbor” also mandates that disobedient children receive the death penalty and tells us that the path to hell is lined with cheeseburgers and shrimp scampi.  In our knowing and loving of the Scripture, we’ve also got to learn a way of reading it so that we might be able to know how best to live according to its teachings.  That means that we’ve got to be in community with each other, so that I can gain from your insight and you from mine; it means that I’ve got to be humble and willing to learn all the time; it means that I’ve got to read the words in a spirit of prayer and teachability.  I can do that, but not all the time; I sure don’t read the Post-Gazette or The Help that way.

I sat for an hour or so with Betty Hershberger the other day, and she said, “It’s so hard to believe that the time has gone so quickly.  Already, it’s Fall.  Time for another new year to begin.”  You know that is true.  You are on the edge of new challenges and opportunities.  You met some people this past week you didn’t know before, and one or two of them might be real friends in a couple of months.  You are starting new jobs, or leaving old schools, and you are looking at some scary places and huge holes in your life.  You need meaning and purpose in that life.

Beloved, the Good News is that the God who brought light into darkness and order into chaos is still speaking.  May you know the grace, the hope, and the joy of God’s light in your life today and in the weeks to come.  Let there be light!  Let there be light indeed.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Christmas in August

Friends, this past week I was not in the pulpit due to the Youth Group’s Mission Presentation.  I thought that it would be a good opportunity to shamelessly plug my new book by sharing a story.  This story, Hasn’t Anybody Seen Jesus?, has been on my mind a great deal in recent weeks for reasons unknown to me.  The scripture reference is from Philippians 2:1-11.  The story was first told on Christmas Eve, 2004, at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  The story is published in I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas, which is available by clicking HERE.  

When Earl Johnson turned his Ford minivan into the parking lot the morning of December 27, he saw something he hadn’t seen in…well, he didn’t know how long it had been since there was a line of people waiting to get into his store.  To be fair, two people only barely qualifies as a line, and, well, one of the people in the line works as a cashier at Johnson’s Gift and Variety Store…but a line is a line is a line.

The second person in line was Brianna Morgan, the eighteen-year-old girl who was clerking at Johnson’s while trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life.  It was no surprise to see her out front.  Earl Johnson figures that she’s lost at least three keys to his store in the past eight months.  But there in front of the “line” was Natasha Banks.  Uh-oh.  This didn’t look good.

The last time he had seen Mrs. Banks was about a week ago, when he sold her a nativity set.  About an hour after she left, he got a phone call.  “Mr. Johnson!  You’ve got to help me!  I need Jesus!” was the voice on the other end.  Once he got over the shock of hearing that, he realized that it was Mrs. Banks on the line.  She said, “Do you remember that nativity set I just bought?  Well I got home and went to set it up, but Jesus is missing.  Do you understand me, Mr. Johnson?  Missing!  How can I have a nativity set with no Jesus?”

Earl had allowed as how that might be problematic, and he said he’d try to find the missing figurine.  In the meantime, he thought the simplest thing might be for him to simply give her the Jesus carving from a similar set that he had in stock.  To his surprise, though, both of the remaining nativity sets were missing the Jesus figure.  “What the heck?” he thought.  “Who steals Jesus?”

He remembered asking Brianna to try to track down the missing baby, but he didn’t have high hopes.  After all, he joked to himself, it took three wise men a couple of months to find the Son of God, and they’d had a star to guide them.  Brianna couldn’t even keep track of her own keys.

So that’s what he’d been thinking when he pulled into his usual parking place.  He wasn’t looking forward to this.  First, he’d have to deal with an unhappy customer.  Then, he’d have to give Brianna another lecture about “How are we supposed to keep up with Wal-Mart when we have to spend all our money on locksmiths.”  Nope – this was not the way he thought he’d spend the first business day after Christmas.

So Earl Johnson was a little more than surprised when, upon walking closer to the store, he saw Mrs. Banks give Brianna an envelope, and then both women did a sort of a squealy-thing, and embraced.  Whatever else might be going on, nobody was upset this morning.

As he unlocked the door, Mrs. Banks reached into a shopping bag and pulled out a finely arranged gift basket that appeared to be stuffed with the kinds of gourmet coffees and chocolates that Earl really enjoyed, yet never bought for himself.  “Merry Christmas, Mr. Johnson!” she exclaimed.  “I’m sorry this is late, but it’s not really a Christmas gift.  It’s a thank-you present.”

If Earl had been confused before, he was positively bamboozled now.  “I’m — I’m afraid you’ve lost me, Mrs. Banks,” he said.   “I don’t recall doing anything special for you, other than losing Jesus last week.”

“That’s the best thing that’s happened to me all year!” Natasha Banks exclaimed.  “That’s what I’m here to tell you!”  And then she and Brianna did that squealy-thing again.

They walked into the store and Brianna said brightly, “Mr. Johnson, I think you’re going to want to hear the whole story.  Why don’t you and Mrs. Banks go back to the break room while I get the store ready to open today.”

Earl gave Brianna the look that he usually reserved for those times when his wife and daughter had the plan already made and he knew that there was no real choice involved.  “That sounds fine, Brianna.  Thank you.  Mrs. Banks, would you like to join me?”

Mrs. Banks smiled and said, “Of course – as long as Brianna remembers to set aside those other nativity sets for me -”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Banks,” Earl said.  “I thought I’d mentioned that those sets were missing Jesus, too.”

“Oh, you mentioned it all right, ” she smiled.  “That’s why I want them.”  And she walked to the break room in the rear of the store.

After they’d gotten seated, Natasha Banks unfurled the story that had carried her into the shopping plaza that morning.

“First if all, Mr. Johnson, I need to apologize for the way I treated you last week.  I know you were doing your best, and all I could think about was that someone had gypped me out of the baby Jesus in that manger I bought.  I’m ashamed when I think about what I said.”

Earl assured her that dealing with dissatisfied customers was something he’d learned to do a long time ago, and before he could apologize again for the missing infant, Natasha continued her story.

“You may remember that I called you on Monday – the day I bought the set.  Well, on Wednesday morning, I stopped by the Post Office to mail my Christmas cards.  I was waiting in line, and then your helper, Brianna, came in right behind me.  You’ll never guess what she had!”

Earl didn’t even try to guess.

“She showed me a crinkled-up piece of a newspaper from Bethlehem.  Bethlehem – in Israel!  You see, the nativity set that you sold me was carved in Bethlehem, and the men must have used this paper to wrap the set before they shipped it.  Anyway, when you told Brianna to look for Jesus, she went all through the boxes and found nothing but these newspapers – English-Language newspapers printed in Bethlehem.  And, well, you know how Brianna can get side-tracked sometimes…”

“Believe me, Mrs. Banks, I know very well how Brianna can get side-tracked!”

“Well, she got to reading this newspaper, and it talked about how a church in Bethlehem was being closed down because of the conflict between the Muslims and the Jews in the Holy Land.  Evidently, there’s some sort of a boundary wall that’s going up over there, and while it’s really cutting down on the number of suicide bombings in Israel, some of the Palestinian farmers are really having a rough time making ends meet.  The article talked about how this church had decided to start making food available to anyone who needed it – Christian, Jew, or Muslim – because of the travel difficulty.  Well, someone thought that was a bad idea, and the church got bombed.  Brianna got so wrapped up in this that she decided not to buy anyone Christmas presents this year, but to send all of her gift money to the missionary who was overseeing the food distribution.  She was at the Post Office to wire the funds to Israel.  I couldn’t believe this young woman responding to the world’s situation like that.  It was a real shock to me.”

None of this really surprised Earl.  He knew Brianna to be a good kid.  A little impulsive, perhaps, but kind-hearted and generous.  She loves the Lord.  He was proud of her.  But this wasn’t the end of the story.

“When I left the Post Office, I had to go to the hospital.  Nobody knows this, Mr. Johnson, but I needed to get a biopsy done on a lump I’ve discovered on my neck.  I was pretty scared…and still am, to tell you the truth.  Well, on my way into the hospital, I ran into Phil Terrance.  Do you know Phil?”

Most of the people in town know Phil.  Up until last summer, Phil had the kind of life most guys dream about – great job, loving wife, and their only child was the quarterback of the high school football team.  But in September, the boy, Sean, was diagnosed with a rare liver disorder. They had tried everything at the hospital, but Sean died on December 12.

“I was surprised to see Phil going into the hospital, and so I asked him if everything was all right.  He said that things were going along fine – he was just there to see a friend.  Do you know what, Mr. Johnson?  Phil Terrence goes into that hospital every day!  It turns out that the kid that was in the bed next to Sean has cancer.  He’s only eight years old, and he took it real hard when Sean died.  It looks like this little guy is going to pull through, but Phil goes in to see him and to pray with him every day, just to try to give him a lift.  I don’t know how he does it, myself.”

“Well, having my biopsy done didn’t seem like such a big deal after that.  I was hardly thinking about myself anymore – just wondering about what Phil and his wife were going to be doing on the holiday.  That must be so hard…but they’re really dealing with it.  They’ve got some faith, that family does…”

“Friday night I went to the midnight service, like I always do.  I got there kind of late, and by the time I parked the car and got in the room, my family had gone clear up to the front to sit.  The pastor was already talking, and there was no way I was going to traipse up that aisle in front of everyone.  So I just sat down sort of quick next to old Mr. Peters.”

“During the announcements, the Pastor told the congregation that the Hawkins boy – Ronald, I think his name was – was one of the soldiers killed in that attack in Iraq last week.  I heard something, and there next to me Mr. Peters was weeping.  He said he was all right, it’s just that he was sick of the killing.  He told me that he’d buried a brother in France during World War II and had lost a nephew in Vietnam.  This old man was simply weeping at the tragedy of war – he was crying for his brother, for his friends, for the Hawkinses…He was crying for the world, really, I think.”

The room was quiet for a moment, because now Mrs. Banks was crying herself.  Earl offered a tissue, but she waved it away and said, “No – no.  I’m getting to the good part.”  After a minute, she continued.

“So we get everybody home from church and I put the kids to bed and make some last-minute arrangements around the tree.  My eye happened to catch the nativity I bought last week when it hit me.”

“Do you remember the last thing I said to you last week, Mr. Johnson?”

Earl said that he remembered her calling and looking for the missing piece of the nativity set.

“That’s not quite right,” she said. “The last thing I said to you before I hung up the phone was, ‘For crying out loud, Mr. Johnson, hasn’t anybody seen Jesus?'”

“I sat down and I held that little empty manger, and I realized that of course Jesus isn’t in the manger.  Jesus refuses to be kept in a manger.  He’s not lost — he’s out on a mission!  You searched the store, and I searched my house, and he’s just not there…because he’s in the middle of cluttered lives and fragile families.”

“‘Hasn’t anybody seen Jesus?’  I have, Mr. Johnson.  I have.  I saw him at the Post Office, mailing food to people who are starving.  I saw him visiting a scared child in the hospital.  I sat next to him while he cried over the horror of war.”

“My whole life, I’ve been trying to keep things in order.  Trying to keep Jesus in the manger.  But look, Mr. Johnson, now I see.  Jesus doesn’t belong on a shelf, waiting to be dusted or displayed. Jesus is alive in me, Mr. Johnson!  Jesus is working in some of the darkest corners of this globe.  And I saw him.  I saw him.”

“So thank you, Mr. Johnson, for selling me that nativity set.  And thank you, too, for selling me the other two that I think Brianna has wrapped up for me this morning.  I can’t wait to drop them off at the Terrence’s and the Peters’.”  Natasha Banks stood up and extended her hand.  “Thank you again, Mr. Johnson.  And merry Christmas!”

She shook his hand and left the small room.  Earl sat there for a moment and tried to digest everything she had said.  It was an amazing tale.  Then he heard the front door open and close and saw that it was already 9:30 and time to open.

When he’d left home this morning, he was expecting to deal with the rush of post-holiday bargain-hunters.  But when he left the break room, he wasn’t looking for customers any more.  He was looking for Jesus.  And if he were here tonight, he’d tell you that that’s made all the difference.  He’s found the truth: that once you look for Jesus, you discover that Jesus has been looking for you for a long time.  That is the Good News that we hear at Christmas!  God bless you.

The idea for this story came to me while reading a personal account of a woman who had lost the Jesus from her nativity set in Lectionary Homiletics (“Jesus is MIA”, Dec. 2004, p.31).

What Will Heaven Be Like?

This week’s (8/14/2011) message at Crafton Heights was centered on the idea of eternal life.  It was occasioned by some of the controversy surrounding the Rob Bell book on Hell…but as I thought about it, it seemed that Heaven was more interesting to me.  The texts for the week were I Corinthians 13:8-13 and  Revelation 21:1-5

What will heaven be like?

That’s a question that I get asked with some frequency.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a pastor, and therefore am culturally presumed to have some sort of “inside track” on this sort of knowledge.  Maybe it’s because I radiate a sense of holiness and godliness that simply screams “heavenly” to strangers.  But mostly, I think, it’s because I am privileged to spend time with people who are dying.

Actually, of course, we are all dying.  When I say I spend time with people who are dying, I should say, “people who realize that they are dying” or “people who know that their time is short”.  At any rate, I am often in conversation with people who have significant questions about the afterlife and are close enough to discovering the truth for themselves that they’re willing to talk through them with an amateur like me.

The stereotypical depictions of heaven seem to involve clouds, angels, and a lot of harp-playing.  Mark Twain commented on these notions in his inimitable style:

Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.  It would just make a heaven of warbling ignoramuses, don’t you see?  Eternal Rest sounds comforting in the pulpit, too.  Well, you try it once, and see how heavy time will hang on your hands.[1]

In my own preaching, I have succumbed to the temptation to describe heaven as a place where you get to do all the things that you really like to do on earth, but somehow just haven’t gotten a chance.  I remember describing the death of a sports fan and saying something like, “Now, he’ll never miss another game.”  But it gets worse: at the funeral of a woman who liked to visit the casino I actually said something like, “Well, now our friend is living life in God’s Kingdom, where the slots always come up winners and every hand is a full house.”  Someone should just slap the microphone out of my hands when I say stuff like that.  That’s just ridiculous.  As if God created us and Christ redeemed us so that we’d be able to cheer for the black and gold, or pile up the chips for eternity. Seriously!  Pick any one thing that you really, really like…and then imagine doing it over and over again.  Forever.  I have a hunch that it would stop being heavenly in short order.  I suppose the Muslim version of this caricature involves 72 virgins.  One thing, no matter how exciting it may appear to you now, done ad infinitum, is probably not what heaven is about.  Give me a break, Carver.  Heaven had better be bigger and better and, frankly, more important than that.

My grandmother, prior to her death (obviously), asked me what age I thought she would be in heaven.  Would she be a little girl running and playing in the Midwestern cornfields of her childhood?  Would she be the beauty queen she was in her early twenties? (I’m here to tell you I didn’t get these rugged good looks by accident.  Clara Sophia Eickhoff just happened to be Miss Falls City, Nebraska, c. 1925)  I think her fear was that she wanted to know both her grandparents and her grandchildren – and be known by them.  If, in heaven, she were assigned an age of say, seventy, she’d know me and my siblings, but she’d not know her own parents.

Not long after my ordination to the ministry, I had a dream wherein my recently deceased mother came to visit me in the study as I was preparing to preach.  She had always hoped I’d wind up in the ministry, and I ended up dragging my feet enough to stretch the three-year seminary experience into eight, thus graduating four months after her death.  In my dream, I was dithering about in the study here at Crafton Heights, wondering if I was “good enough” to be a pastor, wondering why anyone in the world would want to listen to anything I was saying.  As the dream progressed, my mother basically kicked me in the rear and told me to get out there, that people were waiting for me, and that I better make sure that I told them the truth.  When I told my wife about that dream, she asked, “Do you think that she knows what you are doing?  Do you think that she’s in heaven looking down on us?”

My immediate reply was something along the lines of “Oh, please, I hope not.  I mean, I love my mom and I miss her, but I hope that heaven is somehow more interesting than that.  She’s in the presence of the Holy…and somehow, watching me preach is going to beat that?  I doubt that.  You have the opportunity to look Jesus in the eye, to be in the presence of the Father, but you’d rather come to church at CHUP?  Don’t get me wrong.  We’re good.  But we’re not that good.”

Erastus Salisbury Field, The Garden of Eden (1860)

Genesis gives me a clue about the afterlife, because it tells of a time when humanity and God enjoyed fellowship that was unencumbered by sin.  I’m a big believer in the notion that Genesis exists to give us some great insight into why things are the way that they are, rather than how these things came into being.  So it doesn’t matter so much to me to think of Genesis as describing twenty-four hour days or long epochs; I’m more concerned with the truth that God created humanity with the notion that fellowship between us was a good and beautiful thing.  In the beginning, we’re told, God created Adam and Eve in his own image.  From the description in the opening pages, it is clear that God seems to have conversed freely with the pair in Eden.  Note, too, how Adam and Eve are free to be totally honest with each other.  The biblical phrase is “naked and not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25).

I understand that to mean that prior to the entry of sin into our reality, there was nothing we needed to hide from ourselves, each other, or the Lord.  Genesis 3 describes the intrusion of sin and brokenness into that reality, and the immediate rush to hide a part of ourselves.

If we were created for intimacy with God and with each other, and sin interrupts that, and Christ came to free us from the eternal effects of sin, then it would seem to me that the essence of eternity must mean a true and real presence with and for each other and the Lord.  This is borne out in the apocalyptic writing that ends the scripture.  You heard a piece of that earlier, when we read from Revelation.  In both chapter 21 and 22, we see that the new heaven and the new earth is characterized by God’s dwelling with his people. God as present to us.  Do you remember what Mary was told to name Jesus?  Imanuel – God with us.  In the new order, says the author of Revelation, we will know that full power and grace of God in ways that we cannot imagine right now.

God’s curse will no longer be on the people of that city. He and the Lamb will be seated there on their thrones, and its people will worship God and will see him face to face. God’s name will be written on the foreheads of the people. Never again will night appear, and no one who lives there will ever need a lamp or the sun. The Lord God will be their light, and they will rule forever. (Revelation 22:3-5)

I believe and hope that the eternity we experience will have more to do with celebrating the real and true presence that we have with each other and less with singing praise songs or listening to harp music.  Although I have an unshakeable belief in the bodily resurrection for all as a condition of the “new heaven and new earth”, I believe that the “resurrection bodies” we will have will somehow be ageless.  I also believe that we will be recognizable to each other and to our Creator, and that we will enjoy the gifts of fellowship unencumbered by the self-consciousness or limitations of sin.

In 2010, I had a vivid picture of this kind of heaven.  Many of you will recall that I was gifted with a three month sabbatical from my pastoral ministry, and that involved an incredible amount of travel.  I walked the beaches of Chile, and hiked the rain forests of Peru, and sat for weeks on lakes and rivers in Pennsylvania; I visited the wonders of ancient Egypt and the Holy Land and I slept under the stars in the desert of Wadi Rum and swam in the Sea of Galilee and the Nile River.  When I returned from that adventure, many people asked me, “Dave, what was the best day of your trip?”  I had about thirty different answers, depending on the mood of the day and the questions that had preceded that one.  But whenever someone asks me, “What was the best ten minutes of your trip?” there can only be one answer.

Along the Tambopata River in Peru.

We had traveled many miles – and many hours – by motorized canoe down the Tambopata River in Peru.  When we got to our campsite, most of the rest of our group went towards the shelters.  But I thought I’d try my luck fishing.  I put my line in the water, and on the very first cast, I caught a little catfish.  What a thrill – to say that I’d caught a fish in the rain forest!  I rebaited, and after ten or fifteen minutes, I got a hit that was simply amazing.  The reel screamed and line flew out.  I would battle the fish in, and he’d head for the deeps.  I’d drag him closer, and he’d turn around and go flying once more.  For ten minutes on a cloudy day somewhere in the northern half of South America, I battled that fish, and finally pulled a barred sorubim (a.k.a. tiger catfish) from the murky waters.

Does this look like a shot for "Field and Stream" or what? Nice hat, eh?

During that time, I wasn’t worried about what was for dinner.  I didn’t wonder whether my friends thought that I was really all right or if I was simply annoying.  I didn’t think much about how the Steelers were going to fare in the upcoming season, or worry about the fact that I seemed to be putting on a few pounds.  I didn’t feel guilty about not reading as much as I thing I ought to, or not calling my family more.  I didn’t think about myself much, and I didn’t think about you at all.  No offense.

The Tiger Catfish: pseudoplatystoma tigrinum

No.  For those ten minutes, all that mattered was the fish on the end of the line.  I didn’t want my line to break.  I wanted to see that fish!  For the ten minutes that it took me to bring that fish in, adrenaline surged through my arteries and my heart pounded.  I was fully present in that moment, totally attentive to it.  It was exhilarating.

And you say, “For crying out loud, Carver, it’s a fish.  Get over it.”  And you’re right.  It’s a fish.  But more than that, it’s a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Because if right now, in my sinful and broken-down estate, I can get such a rush out of being fully present to a member of the family Pseudoplatystoma tigrinum for ten minutes along a muddy river bank in Peru…what in the world will it be like to be fully present to the Lord in all his glory?  What will it be like to know God as I am known by God, as we read in I Corinthians?  What will it be like to know you, and be known by you, even as God knows each of us?

What if heaven is a place that we don’t have to hide anything?  A place where we can truly be “naked, and not ashamed”?  What if our experience of eternity is one of being fully known, and knowing fully?  Of realizing who God has made us to be, and who God has been, is, and will be?  That’s an eternity worth hoping for – not just for me, but for you, and for the kid down the street, and for all whom God has called and loved and created.  What’s heaven going to be like?  After getting a glimpse of it through an unlikely experience along a river in the Amazon basin, I’m dying to know.

[1] “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” in The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers, 1922, p. 241)

Believing the Promises…In the Midst of the Storm

This message, originally entitled “What’s There to Be Afraid Of?” was preached at the Crafton Heights church on Sunday, August 7, 2011.  

The scriptures for the day were Isaiah 43:1-7 and Matthew 14:22-33.

Some of you know that we are just back from vacation.  A part of the time away included a few days on Raystown Lake.  While there, the starter on my boat broke, but fortunately, I was able to find a marine mechanic to look at it.  So here’s what happened: I towed my little boat to the mechanic, while 9 relatives and a dog waited on the rented houseboat for me to get back.  It was about 100° that day, and I was waiting in the garage at the boat shop.  For some reason, it seemed like a good idea for me to make a few phone calls while I waited.

So I’m sitting in a mechanic’s garage, roasting, air compressors running, etc., and I decide it’s time for a little pastoral care.  I know.  I’m an idiot.  I had a message from someone who presented a serious situation to me.  After a good phone conversation, I promised to pray about it, and then get back to her in a few days.  I wrote some important phone numbers down on a scrap of paper.  In our van. In the mechanic’s garage. On vacation. At Raystown Lake.

Well, you know what happened.  The boat got fixed, Uncle Dave returned to the houseboat, we had a blast, we filled the van, we cleaned the van, we went to Canada where I didn’t have cell service…and when I finally got back home this week, I called my friend.  I felt nervous and ashamed and embarrassed.  Why?  Because I was afraid that she would think that I didn’t care enough to call back.  I thought that she might think that I threw her under the bus and had simply forgotten about her situation.

Now, why would I think that?  Mostly because when I call my friend and leave a message, and there’s no call back, I immediately wonder, “Did I do something wrong?  Have I offended this person? Maybe this person thinks I’m a big pain in the rear!  Maybe this person has found another friend who is more interesting, or who has more fun, or who preaches shorter sermons…”

I am pretty sure that I’m not the only one in the room who feels like this from time to time.  It seems to me that one of the issues that most human beings have to face is that of being insecure.  We ask ourselves, “Am I lovable?  Do I belong? Does he care? Do I matter?”

I thought about that feeling a lot as I read this week’s gospel lesson.  You heard the story a few moments ago.  What you did not hear was that just prior to this account of Jesus’ nighttime stroll across the lake was the story of the day that Jesus, with the assistance of the disciples, fed 5,000 people.

That had to be an amazing day!  Imagine being one of the twelve followers of Jesus, and seeing hundreds and hundreds of people coming to Jesus to be taught and challenged and nurtured and healed…and then, as the twilight fell, to be a party to a miracle like that.  Wouldn’t that be awesome!  It must have confirmed for the disciples that Jesus really was the One.  For a couple of years they’d been working to understand who he was and what he was about, and now, they’ve hit the big time.  The message is getting out.  Now we are getting somewhere.

But look at what happens after the feeding of the 5000.  First, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat and shove off.  He dismisses the crowd and heads for some prayer time.

Now, really, if anyone deserves a little “me” time, it’s Jesus.  He taught all day.  He fed the crowds.  He was pushed and hassled and harried.  And, his cousin John the Baptist had just died.  You ask the disciples, and they’ll tell you that Jesus was positively bushed.  In their rational minds, I’m sure that’s what they thought.

Yet as the night wore on, I’m not sure that the rational minds carried the most influence.  The lake was getting rough and the waves were getting higher and higher.  All night long, he’d stayed away from the group, while they battled the wind.  For six, eight hours, these guys are out there straining against the wind.

With Ariel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at Capernaum, Israel.

I have been to the Sea of Galilee – it’s not that big.  My daughter Ariel and I drove around the entire lake one afternoon.  You can see across it.  Yet the disciples are straining at the oars all night long, trying to be safe, trying to make some headway.  I can almost hear them muttering, “Wow, what went wrong?  We seemed to have it!  We were doing so well yesterday…and then he sent us away.  Where is he now?  What did we do?”  Maybe they were being introspective, thinking, “Yeah, I know that I shouldn’t have been so pushy there around three o’clock…”  Or perhaps they were blaming each other, thinking, “If only Andrew and Simon would have shut up there for a while.  No wonder Jesus needs a break.  Those guys will talk your ear off…”

With Tim Salinetro in the Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada

A couple of years ago, Tim Salinetro and I spent a week canoeing through some amazing Canadian lakes.  Almost every day was beautiful.  But one day, it was rainy and windy all day long.  We would be paddling and paddling into the wind and the waves, wondering if the canoe would be swamped, and it seemed like we weren’t making any headway at all.  Every half hour or so, Tim turned around from his perch at the front and looked at me.  I assumed he was being encouraging.  After the third or fourth time, though, I said, “Hey, pal, everything all right?  Do you need anything?”  And he said, “I’m just making sure you’re still paddling.  It feels like I’m doing it all by myself and you’re looking for birds or something…”

That’s what I think the disciples had going on.  They wondered how in the world the great day they’d just had could have turned into a nightmare like this.

Christ Walking on the Water by Amedee Varin, 19th Century

Finally, during the “fourth watch” of the night – between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. – they see what they assume to be a ghost walking towards them across the water.  Something in them snaps at that moment – all the self-doubt, all the weariness, all the anxiety and the worry – they cry out in fear.  And they discover that it’s Jesus.

Two things I noticed about this meeting:  first, it’s a testament to Jesus’ reputation as being someone who was a little bit different that absolutely nobody said, “What are you, Jesus, nuts?  How come you’re walking on the water like that?”  Nobody seems surprised that Jesus is out there strolling on the waves.  “Ahh, I see. It’s not a ghost, it’s only Jesus, walking on the water…”  The disciples are used to seeing Jesus do things that would not ever occur to a “normal” person.

The second thing I notice about this meeting is that Peter, in the midst of the storm and the waves, etc., says, “Jesus, if you really are you, and you really are who you say you are, then I want to be with you.  I don’t want to be in this boat any more.”  Peter, a man who for decades had made his living on the water, who had lived in boats, worked on boats, knew boating like nobody’s business, was willing to leave the environment he knew in order to be closer to the Savior who knew him.  It’s not a scientific survey, but apparently 11 out of 12 people surveyed believed that being in the boat on a cold, rainy, windy night was better than being out of the boat.  But Jesus’ power and authority were so great that Peter was able to leave the sanctuary of the boat behind and walk towards his friend.  Who just happened to be Jesus.  Who just happened to be standing out on the water.

If you’ve heard this story before, you know that we often think of this as one of those “too bad” stories in Peter’s life.  Wow, Peter, you were so close.  You almost had it.  You made a good start, but then you began to focus on the distractions and the danger, and you slipped and started to sink.  Too bad, Peter.  Nice try.

But listen to this: Peter made it far enough.  He made it to Jesus.  He left the boat, he walked through the storm, and even though he didn’t walk right up to Jesus and give him the secret handshake or a high-five or anything like that, he got himself close enough to Jesus that when he started to sink, he reached his hand out and found that hand to be held in the firm grip of the One whom Peter came to know as the Son of God.

This is not a story about Peter’s failure to do everything just like Jesus.  It’s a story that points to the fact that Peter was gutsy enough to leave the boat and to walk through some of the scariest stuff he’d ever seen in order to get a little closer to Jesus – close enough, it would appear, for Jesus to take hold of Peter with a grip that would not fail.

I think that the message from Isaiah and the one from Matthew this morning echo each other.  People want to know, does God really care about me?  Does any of this really matter?  Or am I just pretending here?  As I mentioned earlier, it’s human nature to doubt.  When things are going great, we think that there are no problems whatsoever.  But when the tough times come, we wonder if somehow we’ve done something to offend the Lord or somehow get on his bad side.

The wind starts to rise up, and the temptation is to hunker down in the boat and ride it out – to cling to what we have and what we know in the hopes that somehow things will get back to how they were in just a bit.

But the promise of God is not that we can avoid the storm, but that somehow, God will sustain us in the midst of that storm.  Isn’t that the message from Isaiah?  The prophet does not say, “if the river rises” or “if the fire threatens you”; no, it says, “when you pass through the waters…” and “when you walk through the fire.”  The presumption is that the storm is a-coming.

I don’t know what your storm looks like, and whether it’s a brief cloudburst or a tropical monsoon.  But I know that you have storms.  I’ve seen them in your lives.  You are changing jobs – or afraid that you will have to soon.  The school system in your district is facing massive changes.  You are hoping for a baby, but none seems to be coming.  You are leaving for college.  You wonder about your health, or that of a loved one.

You know what it is to know fear.  You know what it is to sit inside the boat and cling to your seat, paralyzed.

At the beginning of this message, I talked about the fact that I’m afraid that if my friend doesn’t call me back, then somehow I have screwed up our relationship and that person must be angry at me.  I managed to gather the courage once to tell a friend about this, and she said, “Look, that may be your world, but it’s not mine.  I forget to call people back all the time.  I ignore my phone sometimes.  But we are good.  If we are not good, I’ll tell you.  But from now on, don’t worry if I don’t call you back – just try again later.”  And most days, I can leave messages now without worrying that I’ve fallen into disfavor.  I have, in other words, learned to believe my friend.

Friends, can you believe the promise of God?  Isaiah says, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Jesus says, “Take heart; It is I; do not be afraid.”  Let’s rest in that assurance, and encourage each other to do the same.  When the storms come, let’s follow Peter’s example and step out of the boat, looking to find Jesus in the midst of those storms, trusting that when we feel swamped, his arm will be enough to hold us up.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Conspire – a different kind of magazine

Conspire is a magazine that is eager to help people build relationships and strengthen the bonds of community.  It was birthed in The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community in Philadelphia, PA (most often associated with Shane Claiborne).  I grabbed a copy of this innovative publication while visiting my daughter Ariel when she was in residence at Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago, IL.  I signed up as a “co-conspirator” and was honored when the piece below was published in the summer 2011 issue.   For more information about this magazine, check the link above.  The theme of the Summer 2011 issue is “Children of God”, and contributors were invited to offer thoughts about the role of community in the nurture of children.


I apologize for being angry when you said it.


I know that you meant well.  You wanted to make me feel as though my energy and intentions were well-directed.  You wanted me to believe that there was something – I don’t know – maybe “noble” in what I was involved in.


But that’s not how I heard it.


I might have been telling you about Laurie, who never knew her father and was essentially abandoned by her mother as a teenager.  Laurie was the primary caregiver to her two siblings, while trying to do “normal” things like go to school and have a job. Laurie had some medical problems – but because she was young and poor and unfamiliar with the system, she didn’t go to a doctor.  She collapsed one day after not eating for a week because she couldn’t swallow. Turns out she had Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Within six months, she lost her ability first to walk, then to speak, then to breathe on her own, and finally to move anything except for her eyes.  I was her pastor and her friend and, in the end, her legal guardian.  I was with her when she asked for the breathing apparatus to be turned off, and I held her in my arms while she died.


Maybe I was talking about one of the young people who have graced our home with their presence over the years.  Some have stayed a night or two, while others have been here for a year.  Some have been kicked out of their homes. Others have come after the death of a parent or to pursue some educational opportunity.


But I guess it really got to me when I mentioned the problems that my friend Marcie was having with her addicted, unemployed parents and the fact that one of her “best friends” had date-raped her.


Because you care about me, you shook my hand and said, “Wow, she is really lucky to have you in her life.”


“Lucky!?!?!” I roared.  “Just what part of Marcie’s life qualifies as ‘lucky?’  Do you know how bad your life has to be before spending that much time with Pastor Dave qualifies as your best option?”


When I think of kids that are “lucky”, I think of those who win scholarships, or whose dads help them fix up their first car, or who get selected for the school play.  If moving in with me, or having me take you to the pregnancy clinic, or some similar event qualifies as “lucky,” your life is pretty lousy.  Those things don’t happen to “lucky” kids.


To call these people lucky denies the harsh realities of their lives and the deep stuff they have walked through. When we hear the details of someone’s battle with parental abuse or bullying or disease, it seems to me that our first response ought to be, “That’s terrible…Nobody should have to live with that.”  Please, don’t pat me on the back because my friend’s life stinks.


Secondly, you are assigning me some special identity.  Look, I know I’m a nice guy who tries to be an affirming presence in the lives of others.  But somehow, when someone says that Laurie or Marcie is “lucky” to have me around, the statement subtly places me in a separate category. Whatever I am privileged to do in and with the lives of these young friends could be done by another interested and compassionate adult. Often (though by no means always), I find that sharing the difficult path of suffering with someone I love has brought me closer to God’s blessings and love.


Most importantly, when you place me in that special category, it seems like you are letting yourself (and most of the world) off the hook too easily.  I think of how often people have said, “Well, I’m no Mother Theresa, but…” and I think, “Why not?  What has Mother Theresa got that you don’t?”


If I train myself to think that helping the poor die with dignity is reserved for saints like Mother Theresa, then I don’t have to concern myself. If good old Dave is able to take care of all of the train-wreck adolescent lives in this zip code, the rest of you can get back to “Dancing With The Stars” or playing “Mafia Wars” on Facebook.


I’m not nearly so self-righteous as I sound. I know that you were only trying to be nice.  But how about we experiment with other responses?  It would be nice to hear something like, “What could I do to help?”  “At my small group last week, we prayed for abused children.  I’m sad that it’s happening so close to home” works well too. It’s very encouraging when someone says, “That’s why I signed up to be a mentor.  Nobody should have to face that by themselves.”


What if the Body of Christ decided that people aren’t going to endure terrible things like these alone?  When my friend Laurie was diagnosed it was amazing to see how people reached out.  Friends visited.  The church prayed.  While I was in many ways “the lead dog” in her care team, I sure wasn’t pulling the sled alone.  The night she died there were two dozen friends in the room with her.  That doesn’t make her “lucky,” but it is a sign of God’s grace in the midst of a terrible situation.


My hope is that we grow in our ability to participate in these messy lives before things reach a boiling point.  For my community, maybe it’s as simple as giving a young person the benefit of the doubt before writing him off as completely irresponsible.  Maybe it’s as easy as inviting one of the young girls to help you when it’s your week to do childcare.  Or offering to watch someone else’s kid for free once in a while, so you can build a bond of trust that will be there when the stuff hits the fan in that child’s life.


Jack Bernard, co-founder of the Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, writes, “The key element in beginning to learn to embody the love of God is not heroic faith and determination. It has to do with whether or not we can take hold of the love of God as a power that includes us within it. The difference is between seeing life from the inside of God versus seeing it from within my own sensibilities and capacities. From inside the love of God, suffering becomes not only bearable, but a privilege of participating with Christ in his love for the world. This cannot be rationally explained or justified, but it is the fruit of a life trustingly lived in and for God who is all love.”


My young friends are not “lucky” to have me around. I am blessed to be included in their stories and honored by their trust.  By the grace of God, I have been in the right place at the right time.  As each of us grows in the ability to see all of life from inside the love of God we open up that love for those to whom it seems distant.


So, friend, thanks for caring enough to affirm me; thanks for listening to the rant; and thanks for walking with me towards God’s best.