On Seeing a Child for The Only Time…

Psalm 139 reminds us…

The Bullet Train that took us to Seoul - in a hurry!

Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts,  God!
How vast is the sum of them!

I was sitting in the railway station with a ticket for my destination…Waiting for the bullet train that would take us from Seoul to Daejeon, where I’d be preaching at the Central Presbyterian Church (where our friend Sue Makin worships).  I was fascinated as I watched a little boy – maybe three years old – sitting patiently with his mother.  Their backs were to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way this little man was devouring his breakfast – a bran muffin and a carton of milk.  As I did so, it occurred to me that in all probability, this was the only time in my life I would ever see this boy.  Most of the children in my life are experienced in the context of relationship…I love watching children grow. But this little boy will be forever in my mind a three year old eating a muffin while wearing a giant smile.

Our destination was the Central Presbyterian Church in Daejeon

I imagined this boy as a teenager going to school…as a young man entering the Korean military… I wondered about him as a father, and thought about what kind of job he might have, and whether he’d ever go fishing.  He has an entire life – it may end today, or he may outlive me by decades…and all I see is fifteen minutes in the Seoul railway station.

The limitations of space and time.  I can only see and potentially know anyone in the now.  And maybe, if I’m blessed, the “nows” will string together and we can have a story, you and I.  But how amazing is it that God sees us and knows us as ourselves – in totality.  God, who was, who is, and who is to come, knows me for myself and my story – not only for the now.

Somehow, sitting in that station watching thousands of God-beloved children and adults rush around me, that thought comforted me greatly.  Perhaps it will you, as well.

Many of the congregants at the English service are people who teach English in town.

I thought more about that boy as I brushed up against some of God’s favorite people later in the day, too.  We visited the Central Presbyterian Church in Daejeon, which is not nearly as large as the SaRang Community Church we visited on 10/23.  In fact, the pastor to whom I spoke at Central thought that his congregation had “only” 12,000 members or so (in comparison to SaRang’s 60,000!).  I was preaching at the English Language service, which met on the NINTH FLOOR of the church building.  We had a contemporary service led by a Deacon from the church (they have been searching for an English Language pastor for three years) and a worship band.  There were maybe three dozen folks in the room, but they were fully engaged in the worship and in the Word.

Enjoying time with David...while the rest of the delegation waited in line to get our lunch after church (shades of Malawi!)

After worship, we joined folks from the Korean Language service in the cafeteria downstairs, where we were treated to a full lunch.  I learned that the congregation serves a free hot meal every day to anyone who wants it – it was the only type of recognition I saw that this society has some systemic poverty that must be addressed at some level.  During the meal, we enjoyed getting caught up with our friend Sue, as well as David and his wife, a young woman named Béa (an exchange student from the Philippines to Korea for this semester) and several other worship leaders.

After the lunch, we hustled back to the train station, where we caught the bullet train and rode back to Seoul – often at speeds in excess of 250 kilometers/hour (that’s about 155 mph).  The ride was quiet and smooth.  The ticket for that hour-long ride was about $43 round trip.

The central Buddha at the Jogyesa

I thought about my little muffin-eating friend again when we visited the Jogyesa, the center for Zen Buddhism in Korea and the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul.  Statues of the Buddha towered more than 30 feet high inside the very traditional building that was adorned with paper prayer lanterns and filled with two very distinct groups of people.  Many people had come, as I had, to see this site, and we respectfully removed our shoes and walked through the worship center, awash in the mystery and exotic nature of the ritual.  Many more, it seemed, had come to worship, and were engaged in a pattern of standing, kneeling, and prostration in the direction of the Buddha. There was no sense of organized worship, so far as I could tell: it was totally a “choose your own adventure” sort of private worship.  The feet of the Buddhas were covered with offerings of food – fresh fruit and sacks of rice and other gifts.  One entire wall was covered with thousands of small statues, which I later discovered to be urns containing the ashes of the dead.

The Buddhas at the Jogyesa surrounded by worshipers and their offerings.

Maybe my little friend from the train station will grow up worshiping like that.  Or maybe he’ll grow up preaching to his friends about Jesus.  Or maybe he’ll grow up not even thinking about God, or the gods, or the Holy.  Who knows?  Not me.  As I went to bed with the images of that day swirling in my mind, I was less concerned about whether or not the little man believes in God than I was grateful that God already believes in him.

As I write this, I’m sitting in the airport, waiting to board a flight that leaves Seoul at 11 a.m. on Monday Oct. 31, and after flying for almost 13 hours, will arrive in Chicago at 9:40 a.m. on Monday Oct. 31.  I have almost two full Mondays this week (and I got cheated out of a Friday two weeks ago!).  How can this be?  God only knows.

But, as my friend Barbara Voeltzel used to say, “Thank God for God.”  Because he does.  He knows and sees me on all the Mondays and all the Fridays of my life.  And that is a blessing.

To return to the Psalmist (16):

 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.
I will praise the LORD, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.

One wall at the Jogyesa is covered with urns containing ashes of the dead.

At the Jogyesa

A Postcard from Seoul


One of the joys of the trip has been the ability for the Children’s School Staff to reconnect with some of the students who visited in January 2010

If I’m right, that’s “Hello” from Korea.  The word I’ve been saying sounds like “ahn-yung-HAS-see-oh” and people are smiling back, so I’m sticking with it.

I have posted a couple of stories from some of the wonderful and intense times of our visit here; I thought that today I might simply share some of the lighter side of things.  We are in Seoul because the Children’s School at CMU, where Sharon is the Director, has an emerging partnership with Duksung Women’s University here.  In January, about a dozen students from Duksung visited CMU, and Sharon was asked to make a return visit to explore ways to deepen the collaboration.  One of the reasons that seems logical is that Dr. Myunghee Kang, who teaches at Duksung, was a Grad Student with Sharon at the University of Rochester back in the late ’80s.  Myunghee greeted us at the airport and welcomed us into her home.

This is the reunion and welcome we got at the airport!

Donna, Jean, Myunghee, Dr. Shin, and Sharon relaxing at Myunghee's spacious table

Other staff and students from the University have made sure that in addition to the formal work of partnership, we’ve had a chance to see the sights.  We’ve toured several parts of downtown Seoul, which has a long and rich history.  We enjoyed a visit to the Korean Folk Village, which depicts life in rural Korea in the 19th century (If you’ve ever been to Old Bedford Village, that’s the sort of thing we’re looking at).  And we have eaten.  Mounds of amazingly spiced and delicious food, some steaming, some cold; some spicy, some mild; some raw, some cooked; but all delightful and ample!

One of the centerpieces of every day is food. Here, some of the students are preparing to teach us how to eat!

The "N Tower" is located on Seoul's Namsan Mountain. It's about half the size of the CN tower in Toronto.

In addition to the visit to the University, where Sharon and her fellow teachers Jean Bird and Donna Perovich have been speaking to staff, students, and lab school folk from Korea, I’ve had the chance to visit several ministries, including a visit with our old friend Sue Makin.  I was able to lecture at the Hannam University on Thursday, and I’ll be preaching at Sue’s church on Sunday the 30th.

This is a part of the world I never thought I’d have the chance to visit, but am so glad to have been here.  I hope that these images can give you a sense of what we’re doing.

A part of Seoul as viewed from the N Tower

At the Changdeok Palace in Seoul

This beautiful stream enhances the beauty of the folk village.

At the Korean Folk Village, a bride prepares for a traditional wedding ceremony.

After the wedding, the bride gets in the little box that is carried by four porters, and the groom leads the way on horseback.

This guy takes a slab of honey/rice dough and in a matter of minutes spins it into millions of "hairs" of sticky sweet confection.

One of the demonstrations at the Korean Folk Village is the tightrope walker who strolled and bounced and just had fun on this rope.

These six students took an evening off and treated us to dinner and a walk through one of the vibrant neighborhoods of the city.

Why yes, there are birds here I've not seen before. This is a Black-billed Magpie

With Sue Makin at Daejeon's memorial to the nations who participated in the Korean Conflict

Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Wall

The title of this post is the opening line from Robert Frost’s excellent poem The Mending Wall (first published in 1915).  If you click on that link before you read the rest of my story, you’ll hear one part of the background noise in my head as I spent the day on Wednesday, when we visited the  Demilitarized Zone, an eerily beautiful and quiet corridor that separates North and South Korea.  Take a look at that link and you’ll read the history of this fascinating and awesome place – a swath of land several kilometers wide where armies stare at each other across fields of green grass and generations of mistrust.

Guard stations like this line the highway en route to the DMZ from Seoul.

We joined a group that rode the bus north from Seoul about an hour or so and arrived at the military checkpoint.  After clearing inspection (by Korean and US military forces) we proceeded to one of four tunnels that have been discovered in the last forty years.  Although the North Korean government vehemently denies this, it is easily apparent that each of these tunnels was dug for the purpose of moving large numbers of troops and weaponry across the DMZ and into the South.   We walked down into the “Third Tunnel of Aggression” and went very nearly to the border (underground), imagining how difficult the labor of the construction of that project must have been.

From the tunnel, we went to an observation point where visitors can peer into North Korea and watch folk farming the land, working on their homes, and, well, watching back.  The final stop was a visit to a newly-constructed railway station – a wonderfully modern and sprawling station that is, for now, the “end of the line”.  The South Koreans built it about ten years ago in the hopes that the relationship between the two Koreas would thaw to the point where visits from one side to the other might be possible..

This sculpture shows the hope for reunification. Inside the globe are matching images of North and South Korea waiting to be joined together.

As I spent this somber day in that odd combination of tourist awe and human sorrow, something in me shivered.  Robert Frost’s poem includes a character who insists that “good fences make good neighbors”.  Maybe there’s something right about that, but it seems wrong to me.  I thought about the fact that I am a member of what must be a very small club: I have stood at more famous (or infamous) walls than anyone I know.  In 1987, I stood in West Berlin and watched the communist guards patrolling the top of the Berlin Wall.  In more recent years, I have walked the so-called “Separation Barrier” between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the “Border Fence” that separates the USA from Mexico.  In each of these locations, I’ve observed heavily-armed soldiers keeping close watch on civilians that, depending on which side of the wall they were on, appeared to be frightened, concerned, bemused, or blissfully ignorant.

Back to Frost:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

I must admit that I have and use locks on my door.  I have a fence around my garden.  I use passwords on my electronic devices.  Yet in spite of that, I do not love a wall.  I long for a way to exist wherein we might experience the freedom that comes from being with and for each other.  And that leads me to the other thought that was the background noise in my head at the DMZ: from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,  by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,  and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household… (Ephesians 2:14-19, NIV)

On the observation deck, the tourists peer across the DMZ into North Korea.

I rode the train today with a young Korean student who is not a Christian, but who had lots of questions about Christianity.  She wondered why the people who acted in the name of the Christian God were so often so cruel to those that they encountered.  I didn’t have any good answers for her, only to say that the intention of Jesus was that love and justice come together in a way that allows God’s reign to be experienced as a good gift.  She didn’t want me to preach to her, and I did not.  But in her questions, I experienced the ache of the world that fights against walls of hostility.

When I mused about being a member of the club that has seen the DMZ, the Berlin Wall, the Separation Barrier in Israel and the Border Fence in the USA, a friend said “That’s surprising, because I see you as someone of peace.”  I hope that is true.  And perhaps because that is true, I think that I will continue to be drawn towards the walls in our world – not out of a sense of morbid curiosity, but in the way that some folks go to the cemetery – to lament and grieve the loss of what was, or what could have been.  My hope, though, is that unlike the cemetery, when I visit the walls, there is a chance that in my lifetime something will and can change.  I joked to a Korean couple, who lamented the fact that they have family in the north whom they have not seen or heard from for fifty years, about the fact that following my visit to the USSR in 1987, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and not long after my time in Egypt, Mubarak’s regime crumbled.  They smiled and said, “Maybe there is hope!  We will buy some postage stamps (but not a train ticket yet).”

I want to be ready for the changes that bring life and light when they occur, and I am bold enough to think that in our prayers and in our lifestyles, we can be part of them.  I don’t like walls…but I will keep visiting them in hope and faith.

Starting the day off right!


Some of EWHA Media High School's student body during chapel.

When we were invited to come to Korea, I asked if it were possible for me to spend some time in the Christian Community here, hoping that I could learn something from them and to be encouraged by the church here.  Today was a “home run” in that regard.

The EWHA Media High School is a Christian School with 750 students, all of whom were gathered in the chapel this morning just after 8 a.m. when the chaplain, Pastor Lee, led us into the room.  The building pulsed with energy as a student-led band played a mix of Korean and Western praise songs.  There were about eight students on the platform leading the singing, and there were probably another dozen song leaders spread throughout the room.  There were three giant screens in the front of the room, so everyone could see the words.  It was joy- and energy-filled!

Sometimes, I'm accused of "preaching to the choir." Guilty as charged, your honor.

I started my sermon by saying, “I love Korea!” and the girls went wild with laughter and applause.  They really clicked with my style of preaching and while the translator was helpful for some of the older folks in the room, I have a hunch that the students didn’t need much help.  The message I shared was based on one I’d preached at CHUP a few months ago (posted here earlier this year), and the message about God’s love for us being powerful and complete seemed to hit home with the girls in the room.  There was a lot of laughter and candid response at various points in the sermon, and although I’m sure it’s simply because I was a guest speaker who preached in English, the student body erupted in applause and laughter after the worship ended.  Later, as we toured the school, it was a real hoot to run into smiling and excited schoolgirls for whom that message and our presence seemed to have made a real difference.

Ye Jin and Song-Iy were two students who greeted us warmly and requested prayer.

This group of Seniors is one month from taking the Korean version of the SAT’s. Just a typical reaction to my preaching most mornings….

If you’ve read the previous post on our worship at the SaRang Community Church in Seoul, you’ll know that I was really blessed and challenged by the worship on Sunday.  I have to say that it’s been a long, long time since I flat-out enjoyed and appreciated worship as much as I did this morning.

Before coming to EWHA, I was told to be careful in my preaching, as many of the students here are not Christian.  They attend the school because it offers excellent education.  The hope is that in the process of attaining this education, students will come into contact with the grace and love of the Lord.  I’m thrilled to say that I saw that process in action this morning.  Thanks be to God!

If you’d like to see a little bit about the school, check out their link here (it’s in Korean, but it’s really cool).  There’s also a story about the school, which happens to be in partnership with Edinboro University of PA, here.

I’d cut my sermons short for this reason…

All the cars on the left are lined up waiting to park in the church lot...as far as you can see!

I thought, having been around church as much as I have in the last five decades, that I’d heard and seen it all.  Until today.

When is the last time you were on your way to church and, as you approached, thought, “Oh, crap, there are too many people trying to get to church today.  We might not get a seat.”?  Today, as we approached the 60,000 member Sarang Community Church in Seoul, South Korea, our friend Myunghee showed us the special sticker on her windshield.  “This green fish tells people which lot I’m allowed to park in at church.”  When we were four or five blocks away from the church, she looked at the line of traffic and said, “Oh, no!  Look at all these people going to church today!  We might not make it.”

But make it we did.  She dropped us off at the entrance to a large office complex where there were hundreds of people milling about.  We stopped at the welcome table and borrowed headsets that would allow us to hear the service translated into English.  Then we got into a long line of people who were waiting to get into the 10 a.m. service.  At 9:15, the crowd from the 8:00 service came out and we made our way in.  By 9:40, the sanctuary was filled with several thousand people, including a worship band of about a dozen, a string orchestra of about thirty, and a choir of more than a hundred.  The congregation gathered with praise music and promptly at 10, the worship began.

And you’re thinking, “So we get it, Dave.  It’s a big church.  You were impressed.”  And that’s right.  But I’ve been in big churches before.  It was what the pastor said when he began his sermon that really got me.

“Today, I’m going to have to cut the sermon a little bit short, because we have 599 people who will be baptized or confirmed today.  So, pay attention and don’t get lost.”  599 people.  Today.  That’s not a typo.  Now, because we were only at one of the six services today, there were only 44 baptisms during our service, and only 56 people who made their profession of faith.

I was impressed by the depth and the reach of this congregation.  As I said, there are 60,000 members.  In addition to participating at worship regularly, the goal is for each of these Christians to participate in a small group.  To that end, each of the congregation’s 80 (eighty) pastors mentors 12 leaders each year.  These 960 leaders then lead groups of 5 – 8 people who gather weekly for prayer and Bible study.  The result is a worship service that is deep with passion and conviction.  The music was simply outstanding; the sermon was biblically based and a great mixture of challenge and affirmation; it was God-focused and believer-strengthening.  I was fed.

Let me tell you, those noodles are slippery when you're using stainless steel chopsticks!

Following worship, we stopped into a Korean fast food restaurant called Shin Mandoo (New Dumpling House), where I had a bowl of spicy noodles and seafood (fortunately, my attempts to use the stainless steel chopsticks resulted in a spattering of my shirt that provided me with a memory of this delicious meal all day long).

After lunch, we enjoyed a tour of the city center, including a great visit to the Cheonggyecheon, a delightful urban riverwalk that reminded me of San Antonio, TX – only without all the shopping!  We also toured Changdeok Palace and the Jongmyo Shrine, which provided us with very helpful historical and cultural background as we begin our visit.  The day was capped off by a luxurious meal on the 23rd floor of the Shilla Hotel, which afforded us a panoramic view of this metropolis that is home to about 13 million of Korea’s 50 million people.

In front of the Queen's residence at Changdeok Palace

Changdeok Palace contains many examples of beautiful architecture.

At the Cheonggyecheon Riverwalk

Flour Power

On October 16, the Crafton Heights Church began to explore “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations” – five behaviors which, if enacted consistently, will allow us to grow into the church that God intends for us to be.  The concept is based in the writing and teaching of United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase, and you can learn more about this material from his blog.

Our first practice is that of Radical Hospitality, and we considered Genesis 18:1-8 as well as the familiar teaching of Jesus regarding the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25:31-46

In November of 1965, poet Allan Ginsburg wrote an essay encouraging those who were against the war in Vietnam to make their protests witnesses to beauty and life.  In particular, said Ginsburg, protesters should carry flowers and offer affirmations of what is good, not just point out what is bad.  Ginsburg’s suggestion caught on with a number of people in the hippie culture, and some of the most memorable photos of that era involve protesters standing against weaponry with daisies and daffodils.

In fact, “Flower Power” became a rallying cry of the hippie movement.  When the mainstream culture referred to someone as a “flower child”, that was another way of saying that this individual was into psychedelic drugs, or social permissiveness, or some other countercultural behavior.  “Flower Power” became the recognized and durable image of a generation of Americans in the 1960’s and 70’s.

But you know, I trust, that Allan Ginsburg and Abby Hoffman weren’t the first to experiment with this rhyme.  You, or your mom, or your granddad might remember the flower power of the 1960’s, and that’s great.  But this morning I would like to talk with you about your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great….grandmother, Sarah, whose experiments with Flour Power more than three thousand years ago changed the world.

The desert of Wadi Rum in Southern Jordan

The story takes place in the Middle Eastern desert.  More than twenty years prior to the reading that you heard this morning, Sarah and her husband, Abraham, had been called by God and had heard great promises of amazing things.  Even though they were elderly, God said, they would have a son.  Even though they were few, they would have many descendants.  Even though they had no heritage to speak of, they would receive a blessing that would enable them to become a blessing to millions of other people.  God’s promise was that great things would happen.

Except for about two dozen years, nothing happened.  Oh, they had some ups and downs.  They went on a few nice trips.  They encountered the neighbors in all sorts of ways.  But the bedrock promise – the son for Sarah – was not fulfilled.

In the reading you heard a few moments ago, we hear that three visitors show up on Abraham and Sarah’s doorstep.  Now we know that one of these visitors was “the Lord”, but there’s no indication from the reading that either Sarah or Abraham had any idea who the visitor was.  What we do know was that during the heat of the day – at the absolute least-convenient time – three people arrive at their home.

Ariel breakfasting with the Sheikh in the desert at Wadi Rum, Jordan in September 2010

And when that happens, Abraham does what desert-dwellers (then and now) do – he offers hospitality.  The extending of a meal and a place to stay is not simply a courtesy that is offered by someone trying to be nice.  In inviting the men in, he is quite possibly saving their lives.  The desert is a wilderness that is full of danger and short on opportunity.  This was really impressed on me last year as our daughter Ariel and I camped with the Bedouin people in southern Jordan and northern Egypt.  Nobody knows what is coming next, and when you meet a fellow-traveler in this situation, you share what you have.  You share because you know that one day you’ll be the traveler and therefore you’ll be relying on someone else.

And in this case, Abraham and Sarah respond to the need with lavish generosity.  Abraham tells Sarah to go ahead and fix up “three measures of flour”.  That’s about the direct opposite of me setting out a couple of twinkies and a can of pop.  Three measures of flour is the equivalent of 128 cups of flour.  That’s sixteen five-pound bags – a bushel – of flour.  When you add the water to prepare the bread for baking, it comes to more than a hundred pounds of dough![1]  That’s more bread than you could eat in a week.  And just to make sure that the guests feel welcome, there’s an entire calf and some cottage cheese on the side.  For three visitors!

In the context of this meal that is shared, Abraham and Sarah come to learn of the identity of the three guests.  The promise of a son is renewed, and in fact a timetable is given – it will be within the year.  In addition, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family are saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  As Abraham and Sarah extend this gift of hospitality, they come to know God’s will and intentions in deeper and more powerful ways.

This is truly “flour power.”  This is a great example of God’s people responding to the needs of other people – or at least the opportunities that surround them – with grace and generosity.  All week, many of us have been reading about the practice of Radical Hospitality as one dimension of a healthy and fruitful faith community.  And surely Abraham and Sarah could be the poster children for this practice in the way that they offered themselves to these guests.  We can learn a lot from them.

If I stopped here, though, it would be tempting to view the practice of hospitality from some sort of a cost/benefit analysis.  After all, we could reason, our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents Abraham and Sarah shared hospitality and they got richly blessed.  Maybe if you or I follow suit, then we’ll be blessed, too.  After all, you’ve got to give it to get it, right?

And to be honest, that’s how hospitality is viewed in our culture today, isn’t it?  We speak of the “hospitality industry”, which includes lodging, dining, travel, and amusement parks, among other businesses.  Because our culture, unlike that of Abraham and Sarah, does not expect that people will house or feed strangers who find themselves on the road, Hyatt or Econolodge or King’s or McDonald’s will take care of that.  And the goal of the hospitality industry is to maximize profit by creating repeat customers who are loyal to a particular brand.  So it’s in the best interest of, say, the Hilton Hotel to treat you right so that you will not only sign up for their frequent traveler plan, but you’ll also recommend the Hilton to your friends.  Most of the “hospitality industry” stays afloat because they take care of their customers for less than their customers pay them – and the profits are returned to the shareholders.  You run a nice hotel, you get nice clients, you make money – everybody wins.

That model is present in the church, too.  Churches do analyses of their communities and discover who is there and then they come up with a plan to lure those folks in so that they can become members so that they will contribute so that the church won’t lose money and the church can stay open.  In fact, I got some grief about this a number of years ago when this church began to operate the Open Door Youth Outreach.  Another local pastor asked about our children and youth ministry and said, “But aren’t most of those kids in families that aren’t likely to come to your church?”  Maybe, I said.  “And a lot of the kids who come to your programs…are they low income?”  Quite a few, I said.  “Well, I just don’t get your strategy,” he said.  “You might be able to get a few of those kids to join, but they’re going to be lousy members and probably end up costing you money in the long run.”  I explained that we weren’t looking at the Open Door as a revenue generator or a member producer, but more as a chance to share the love of God with kids who might need to know about it, but I’m not sure he was convinced.  Oh well.

This idea of offering hospitality because it’s a smart way to plan on getting some sort of payback is pretty common in our homes, too.  We have a gathering and we invite “our kind” of people.  Folks who we want to like us, or to help us.  So far too often we screen our friends carefully and make sure that when we invite people in, they will be people who won’t mess up our stuff or stain the carpets.

The problem is that in every one of these cases, we don’t really know who is coming to the door.  According to Jesus, God is still in the business of making surprise visits to unsuspecting hosts.

Did you hear what he said in Matthew?  “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.  I was sick, or lonely, and you cared enough to show me some kindness.”

The righteous, of course, reply by saying, “There must be some mistake, Lord.  We never helped you at all.”

“Maybe not,” says Jesus – but when you extended yourself to the least of your neighbors, you were reaching out and welcoming me.”

Hospitality is a Kingdom value.  Those of us who claim to follow Jesus are bound to consider it in all the areas of our lives. I wonder: what are the implications of the Biblical commands to welcome the stranger and shelter the traveler when viewed in light of a particular nation’s immigration policies?  Do the things that Jesus says about caring for others find any traction when we make decisions about humanitarian assistance in other parts of the globe?  We are not going to explore those questions today, but it seems to me that it is foolish to think that there are no connections between the scriptural imperative to care for “the least of these” and the policies Christians around the world instruct our various governments to implement in our names.

But, as I say, we don’t have time (and, I suspect, you don’t have much interest in) to discuss all of those ramifications and viewpoints.  A little closer to home, we could ask how we as a region or a community welcome the stranger.  One of the reasons that I am excited about The Pittsburgh Promise is because I believe that it’s one means by which people in our city can say, “If you live here, we will help you do well by your children.”  But even county and city policies are a little adventurous for a morning sermon.

What about our own congregation?  What can we at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights do to be faithful to the command to practice hospitality?

You might say, “Well, Pastor Dave, we’ve made some great strides.  Look at the building!  People who were unable to be here two or three years ago can get into the room now.  The plumbing is accessible!  The ramp is working!”  And you’d be right.  The building is easier than ever to use.

But are we any better at caring for and with each other?  When I was a student in ministry, I served a large congregation.  I know it seems a little shocking to you, but in this congregation, people had gotten accustomed to sitting in their own pews – the very same pews week after week!  Can you imagine that?  One Sunday we welcomed a new minister to the church, and before he preached his first sermon, he made everyone in the room stand up.  He said, “I’ve only been here a week, but I want you to know, friends, that I’ve met a lot of people who sit over on the left side of the church.  And they are nice people.  And the folks on the right hand side seem pretty impressive, too.  You’ve all introduced yourselves to me – but I’m not sure you know each other.”  And so for the first two weeks, he made people get up out of their seats and cross the aisle and sit with someone else.

No, as a matter of fact, he didn’t last too long at that church.

But here’s the deal – we are a friendly congregation.  You show up to worship here, and I bet someone will shake your hand and maybe even offer you a cup of coffee.  That’s not shabby.  But there’s a difference between being friendly and being hospitable.  Friendly is saying hello after worship, and hospitable is asking if there is anything that you’d like us to pray about.  Friendliness is mentioning that there is childcare available in the back, and hospitality is offering to help with your crying baby or asking if you need some babysitting later in the week.

One of the best ideas you all have had in recent years is the afterschool program that Jessica Simcox is leading in this building four days a week.  Under her leadership, we are able to involve concerned and capable volunteers in the lives of young people who need safe places and trusted relationships.  Can we do that in other areas of our life together, too?

And finally, what about our own lives?  Forget about national policy, or local government, or even the Crafton Heights church.  What about the way I spend my time and energy?  At the end of the day, am I a welcoming person?  Not only in the sense of “sure, I’ll fix you a cup of coffee” but in the larger and more important sense of making my life a safe place?  When you talk, am I hearing you?  Or are you just background noise in my head?

When our ancestors Abraham and Sarah made room in their lives for some strangers, they used a hundred pounds of bread dough and a calf.  My hunch is that probably isn’t going to work in your neighborhood. What is the 21st century equivalent to that kind of radical hospitality?  I have a hunch it’s more than being “facebook friends”.

What would that kind of hospitality look like in your life?  Is it volunteering for the carpool? Cutting your neighbor’s lawn? Taking dinner to a friend’s family?

Flour Power.  Abraham and Sarah used it, and it changed the world.  I dare you to spend an hour this week thinking about what you can do in your world to demonstrate the concrete love and welcome of Jesus Christ in the world around you.  And then I double dare you to go ahead and try.  God bless you as you do.  Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdman’s/Zondervan 1985, p. 118)

Some Shameless Promotion


I just received word that my collection of Christmas stories, I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas, is now available for mass consumption via several web pages.

My friend Byron Borger has been stocking the title at Hearts and Minds Books in Dallastown PA for a couple of weeks.  If you contact Byron, you will support an independent bookseller AND he’ll give you 20% off the book.

If you prefer to do your shopping via the internet, you can buy the book on Amazon.com or through Barnes and Noble’s web service.

You could do me a great service by taking the time to add a REVIEW at one or more of these web sites (if you like the book, of course!).  To see a sample story, go to the “I Will Hold My Candle” tab in the blog and look for the link to “Hasn’t Anybody Seen Jesus?”

Thanks for helping me spread the word.

I Wish My Eyes Were Bigger

On October 2 2011, the Crafton Heights Congregation celebrated World Communion Sunday.  This was an extra-rich celebration as we also commemorated the 20th anniversary of the partnership between the Synod of Blantyre (Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian) and Pittsburgh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church USA).  For more information on the partnership, please visit the Malawi Partnership website

Our texts for the day consisted of a couple of wonderful images dealing with God’s intentions for his people: Isaiah 25:6-9 and Luke 4:14-21 

“I wish my eyes were bigger!”

That’s what I said when the British Airways Jet touched down in Central Africa in 1995.  I was in heaven.  There were so many sights – not to mention sounds, smells, tastes, and textures – that I knew that I simply didn’t have enough nerve endings to process them all.

The Lord heard that prayer, at least in regards to Malawi.  Along with many of you in the congregation, I have had the privilege of sharing in more aspects of this partnership journey than I ever thought possible – and what a gift!  As we celebrate this World Wide Communion Sunday, this is a fitting time for us to give thanks to the Lord for two decades of partnership between the church in Pittsburgh and the church in Malawi.

Partnership Sunday at Crafton Heights, 1998. Here is the Carver family with Abusa Ralph and Sophie M'nensa

In 1998 this congregation participated in the first ever Pastoral Exchange program between the Synod of Blantyre and Pittsburgh Presbytery.  Many of you in this room will remember that for six weeks, Abusa Ralph M’nensa and his wife, Sophie, lived in Crafton Heights as they shadowed us and enjoyed the life of this community.  And for a similar period of time, Sharon, our daughter Ariel (who was then nine years old) and I lived with them in their village of Machinga and saw a very different side of the pastorate.

One morning we were to travel to a Prayer House that was a part of the Chinkwezule CCAP on top of the Chaone plateau.  Because I’m an organized person who wants to plan (although you all know that I am merely the second-most organized person in my family), I asked M’nensa, “How will we get there?”  He told me that we’d drive to the bottom of the hill, and as there were no roads, we’d walk to the top.

We got to the bottom just after daybreak, and discovered a team of elders and deacons from the Prayer House was there to meet us.  After exchanging pleasantries, we started off, climbing upwards.  The air was cool.  The birds were singing in the trees. We had a tin of biscuits and some water. It was a glorious morning. It was going to be a great day!

Beginning the climb to the top of Chaone Plateau

“How long will this take?” I asked. “Not long.  About twenty minutes,” was the answer.

After an hour, we took a break and had some water.  The monkeys were playing in the trees.  It was getting warm.  The hill was getting steeper.  I asked, “Are we close?” “Ah, yes, Abusa.  It is tatsala pang’ono kufika– it is ‘just there’.”

Another hour later, it was flat out hot.  If you remember spending time with Ralph and Sophie, you might remember that Sophie was not particularly built for long uphill climbs.  I was worried.  We had arrived at the top of the hill, but there was no prayer house in sight.  I said, in my kindliest, most pastorly tone, “There don’t seem to be any buildings around here.  Is it close?”

One of the elders pointed to a tree in the distance.  “Do you see that Baobab tree?  It is tatsala pang’ono kufika – it is ‘just there’.”

A Baobab Tree

We got to the Baobab tree.  The sun was blazing.  The biscuits and water were gone. There was no prayer house.  As I started to ask my question, my escort interrupted me.  “Do you see those goats playing?  It is tatsala pang’ono kufika – it is ‘just there’.”  Yeah, sure it is, I thought.

In chapters 24-27 of the book that bears his name, the prophet Isaiah describes a strong city that is in defiance of God’s will.  God’s judgment is on the earth.  God’s people are in the midst of a place that they do not want to be – they are waiting to be saved.

While I have no definitive proof that the Zomba Plateau is indeed "the mountain of the Lord", it wouldn't surprise me, either.

The passage before us this morning describes the “mountain of the Lord” and all the amazing things that would take place there…but the reality is that the first hearers of this prophecy were far from the feasting and banquet that the prophet describes.

Don’t get me wrong – the people who heard Isaiah liked what they heard…  After all, what’s not to like?  God’s presence on Mt. Zion?  God’s ruling over all the earth?  That’s good stuff.  But it simply did not match their experience.  The promise may well be that God will remove the tears from their eyes at some point, but right now, there was plenty of crying going on.

Similarly, in the passage from Luke, Jesus preaches a real barn-burner.  The folks all liked what he had to say about the blind seeing and the oppressed going free…  Jesus says, in fact, that the Kingdom is here.  The scripture is fulfilled.

Really?  How far is that Kingdom, Jesus?

In Malawi, I have seen terrible things.  When I was getting active in the partnership in the 1990’s, my friends in Malawi were whispering about this terrible disease called AIDS – and we began helping churches lay the groundwork for a ministry, thinking that it would affect children.  Today, there are more AIDS orphans under the age of 14 in Malawi then there are residents in the State of Delaware, where I grew up.  I have seen children who have starved to death.  The gap between the rich and the poor continues to increase.

Today the scriptures have come true?  Really, Jesus?  How far until the kingdom?

In my neighborhood, I have seen terrible things.  In a single afternoon earlier this week, I spoke with a woman who had buried a granddaughter.  I prayed with someone whose daughter has cancer.  I counseled someone who needed to call the police to escort a suicidal man from her office to the psychiatric hospital.  I visited a terminally ill child. I spoke with the child of drug abusers who wondered when she’d find enough food in the house.  In one afternoon!  Here!

I can hear Isaiah saying that the promise holds, and that the feast is coming, and death will be swallowed up forever, and I want to say, “Forever?  How about we just give death a two-week vacation!”  Where is the promise?

In Malawi and in the USA and most places in between, the poor do not always have good news, people are imprisoned in a thousand different ways, and oppression and death and brokenness seem to rule the day.

And the churches say, “Yes, the reign of God is coming.  Yes, the promises of God are true.  Yes, Jesus has inaugurated a new rule. It is tatsala pang’ono kufika– it is ‘just there’.”

Worship at the Chaone CCAP

On that day in 1998, after more than two and a half hours of climbing and hiking, we got to the prayer house.  I was not feeling particularly holy by the time we arrived.  Then we started worship, and I learned that the congregation had not hosted a pastor for nearly three years.  As we spent the entire day in worship, we baptized babies and young children, we solemnized marriages, we ordained officers, we consecrated Women’s Guild uniforms, and we had the sacrament of communion.  We feasted on that mountaintop.  We prayed.  We saw the Kingdom of God that day.

And today, Church, I have a question for you – and our friends in Malawi, and for Isaiah, and Jesus, …Is the promise true?  Is the reign of God real?

Yes.  Yes it is.  The Kingdom is coming.

And if that is true – and I believe with all my heart that it is – then point it out.  Don’t just nod and say “hmmm.”  Stand where you can to feed the hungry and to heal the sick and to comfort the dying and to challenge the oppressor.

For the entire hike to the prayer house, I kept hearing, “tatsala pang’ono kufika – it is ‘just there’”.  To be honest, there were times I wondered if I would ever see the Prayer House.  But all along the way, people were pointing out signs to me.  A tree.  Some goats.  A stream.  Each one of those signs meant something to my guide – it meant that we were getting closer.  Finally, we arrived and we were able to celebrate in worship with God’s people.

Beloved, know this: that for your neighbors – YOU are the guide.  YOU are the sign.  The words in the Bible are too often just that – words.  But you.  You are real.  You have within you the capacity for love, for service, for hope.  In your action, you can help others to see the presence and the grace of God that is there – but may be unnoticed.

One day in Malawi we were sitting at the Chileka airport.  It was crowded and loud.  Some people were crying, anticipating separation.  Some were happy.  Most were focused on their own concerns.  And then our friend Tim Salinetro noticed a nest of swallows in the eaves.  First, he just stared.  Then, he pointed them out to me.  Then he got his camera and stalked the swallows.

You know what happened.  People noticed the big skinny white guy acting strange, and then they noticed the swallows.  As Tim crept up with his camera with the mega-ultra-super zoom lens, children stopped crying and adults stopped arguing.  They were entranced by the little drama of the baby birds and their parents.  All Tim did was look at the birds.  But in his looking, he inspired others to look.  And that changed their reality and behavior that moment.  And I’m talking about birds!  What would happen if you were the sign, not for birds that build nests, but for the Creator who cares for his children?

The partnership between Blantyre and Pittsburgh has been in existence for twenty years.  During that time, the Kingdom of God has not been realized.  For reasons known best to the Lord, Jesus has not returned.  We are still on the trail.  Yet along the way, for twenty years, I have had wonderful friends whispering into my ear, “tatsala pang’ono kufika – it is ‘just there’.”

Ariel and I testing out the new well in Ntaja, near our partner church of Mbenjere

Have you seen the signs? There’s a clinic over there…a water project…there are homes in Pittsburgh that have been strengthened by volunteers from Malawi.  Yet the partnership has meant an exchange of gifts far more valuable than any construction project or renovation.  How many homes have known something of hospitality from abroad?  How many new songs have been taught? How many prayers have been shared?

Each of those things, my friends, is a sign that the Kingdom of God is coming.  It is, in fact, “tatsala pang’ono kufika – God’s Kingdom is ‘just there’”.  This partnership is just one place where thousands of us have seen hundreds of signs that the Kingdom is near.

When I arrived in Malawi I prayed that my eyes might be larger.  Well, they are a lot older, now.  But they are bigger.  And the world is a lot smaller.  We can have the energy to keep climbing because we know that we are partners on the trip. We are guides.  And we are guided.  And the journey is worth it.  And the destination is real.  Celebrate the promises of God in your world.  And point to them as you encourage others.  Tatsala pang’ono kufika, my friends.  Amen.