Shaken, But Not Deterred

Well, the long-awaited trip to New Zealand is just about finished. I am in a hotel room in Los Angeles waiting for a dawn flight back to Pittsburgh. Incidentally, if anyone ever asks you what the best thing about several 12 hour flights on New Zealand Air is, you can say, categorically, that it gives one the chance to watch all 16 episodes of season 1 of “Hill Street Blues” with Belker, Washington, and Furrillo. What a great show.

Our last day in NZ (alas, no photos at this point due to computer issues) found us in city of Christchurch. You may remember that on 22 February 2011, New Zealand’s second-largest city was devastated by a 6.3 magnitude quake that killed 187 people.  16 months later, we were still winding our way through a maze of streets that are closed or blocked, and we passed by property after property that was simply vacant (the rubble had already been cleared) or fenced off and condemned. As we saw in Chile in 2010, the damage was sporadic. Some properties were fully functional and operational, and right next door was a pile of rubble.

All around town were signs of hope and resilience. The title of this blog posting, for instance, was scrawled across the face of a shop that, though damaged, was open for business.  Countless other establishments bore signs indicating “Yes, we are open to serve you.” There were a lot of places that looked as though they had weathered something terrible, but had kept going.

And, of course, there were the scars from those places which were not really places anymore. Huge heaps of debris. Vacant lots. Boarded up buildings. But the most iconic image I have of the destruction is that of a vacant lot that had been home to a church. All that remained of the church was the small steeple and bell tower, complete with a bell inside – it stood perhaps 12 feet high, placed carefully on the clean ground. Next to it was a weathered set of marble or granite steps – 3 small steps that led to nowhere. It was a stirring, mute, testimony of the fact that a congregation had existed in that place, but had left its footprint and moved somewhere else.

But what struck me most in Christchurch and indeed thoughout this tiny nation (the population of  just over 4.4 million for the nation is just about twice that of metro Pittsburgh’s 2.3 million) was the incredible friendliness and generosity of spirit amongst those with whom we had dealings. From Dave, the shop owner who gave us venison, to the fisherman who lavished us with a giant lobster/crayfish, to the dozens of people who took time out of their day to explain something to us, to invite us into their homes, or to simply pass the time of day…it is a magnificently friendly culture.

Kia Ora means “welcome”. It can also mean “thank you” or “I wish you well”. So to all those who bid us Kia Ora, I would like to now return the comment. My prayers go out with joy for those who have recovered, and with hope for those who are in the midst. Kia Ora, my kiwi friends!

On Spending the Solstice at the Other End of the World

For what I believe is the first time in my entire life, I have spent the June solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  For much of the day, I was quiet and withdrawn until it occurred to me that I was simply sad. Then that sadness struck me as curious, and I meditated on it for a few hours.

Don’t get me wrong. I imagine there are more than a few people reading this who are saying, “For real? Gimme a break, Carver! Look at where you are, where you’ve been, and you have the nerve to mention sadness?” Hear me out.

Every June 21 of my life has been the longest day of the year. The sun rises earlier and stays out longer than any other day. There is so much time – I have worked and gardened and fished and cooked and played ball – and more on the same day. It is a day ripe with potential and warmth and light.

Yet this morning I didn’t see the sun until about 8:30.  Sunset was before 5 pm. And it was the second-to-last day of my trip to this amazing place. For the past year, when I have thought about a trip to New Zealand, I have thought about all the things I might do or see. Because the clock had not yet started ticking on this experience, all I could think about was stuff that I might do, or that I hoped to do. For better than two weeks, I have been doing so much – many things I hadn’t even thought about. Yet today, as the darkness loomed and the frost set in, I was more focused on the things that I would NOT get to do. I had hoped to see a penguin in the wild. Not gonna happen. I had dreamt about hiking along the beach and discovering sea lions. Not this trip. You see – in so many ways, it  is insignificant stuff. So why was that making me sad?

The lighthouse at Nugget Point

It struck me as I looked at my second lighthouse of the day (note to self: don’t whine about seeing too many cool things). As we have driven up the eastern coast of New Zealand, we have encountered several of these silent sentinels. I marveled at the things that these beacons must have seen, and I realized that I am simply thinking about my own mortality. Every day that passes is one I won’t get back again. Like my daylight on this winter solstice, my days are getting shorter. How much? Who knows? Thanks be to God, there is no detailed timetable available. But if I am not careful, the sadness emerges.

And so the lighthouse reminded me that there is a greater truth. There is a fixed authority. Whether my days are long or short is not up to me: what is mine is to live into them with fullness and joy and fidelity.

In that spirit, here is what I did in the 9 hours and 39 minutes of daylight available to me on  June 21, 2012.

Sharon, Dan, and Beth at Curio Bay. At low tide, one can step among the petrified stumps of an ancient forest, now turned to rock.

We drove from Invercargill (the southermost city in the eastern hemisphere) along the coast. We stopped  at Curio Point, where my reflections on my own mortality were put into perspective by the petrified forest that lies within the tide pools at low tide.  

This 5+ month old Royal Albatross “chick” weighs at least 20 pounds. It still doesn’t walk very well, and here is stretching its wings.

The highlight was a visit to the Royal Albatross Centre near Dunedin, where we were able to view the only place on the planet where the Northern Royal Albatross nests on the mainland. We saw five young birds waiting for their parents to come and feed them, and I realized how fortunate I am. These amazing creatures have a wingspans of well over 9 feet. They spend the first five years after leaving the nest at sea. And then they return to this little peninsula to lay their eggs and care for their young.

The Swamp Harrier soars above the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin.

One of the last things I saw as the twilight fell was a Swamp Harrier – a hawk – cruising around looking for a meal. And that hawk reminded me that I had a Father who cares for me and will not leave me.

I wish the day was longer. I yearn for more light and heat. And it will come. My prayer tonight is that of the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (90:12) With God’s help, I won’t take another hour, let alone another day or solstice, for granted. And may you, in your own frailty and sadness and mortality, do the same.

One more thing…tomorrow is my birthday. And here, the 22nd is longer than the 21st. More seconds of light. More opportunities to count the days and to look for wisdom. Again, thanks be to God!

I Like The Sounds Of This Place

We saw this little mountain goat whilst hiking above Queenstown.

If you have followed along with recent posts you have heard me go on and on about the incredibly varied topographies and biomes that make up the small nation of New Zealand. I am here to tell you, this place simply doesn’t let up in that regard.  Just a couple of days ago, we hiked though a rain forest in order to climb onto, over, and through a glacier.  Our tour of New Zealand continued with even more adventure and incredible diversity.

We rode a cablecar 400 meters (more than 1200 feet) to get a view of how Queenstown is nestled into the alpine mountains and lakes of New Zealand.

We left the Fox Glacier and headed inland, crossing over the region that is known as “the southern alps”.  This lovely little town rests among a range of mountains called – I am not making this up – The Remarkables. One glance will tell you why. And somehow, between where The Remarkables end and Lake Wakatipu begins is this vibrant little city.  It being just about the beginning of winter here, the folk in Queenstown are gearing up for another ski season.  The mountains are all snow-capped at this point and the town is ready for peak season. Our highlight here was riding the Skyline Gondola 440 meters  (nearly 1500 feet) to a magnificent observation deck, from which we departed on a brief hike through the dense pine forest.  It was freezing, but incredibly beautiful. One final note about Queensland concerns the descent into town from the mountains. it was the twistiest, switch-backiest, most adventuresome piece of of pavement I have ever come across. I would have a photo to share with you, but my knuckles were too white from gripping the steering wheel, and I think that everyone else in the camper had their eyes closed in prayer at that point.

The Kea is a large parrot (almost 2 feet tall) that is native to New Zealand. It is a very inquisitive bird, as this guy’s attempt to investigate my camera demonstrated.

We left Queensland and came to the tiny hamlet of  Te Anau. From here, we were able to explore the region known as Fiordland. We boarded a bus here in Te Anau and drove to Lake Manapouri, where we embarked on a ferry that carried us across the lake to the West Arm power station.  This facility has been called the high point of New Zealand engineering. Here, water from the lake drops 200 meters (more that 600 feet) into turbines that produce 15% of the nation’s electricity. From the power plant, we boarded another bus and drove another 22 kilometers on an incredibly beautiful, but very limited-access road that led to Doubtful Sound.

In 1770 the explorer Captain Cook refused to take his ship into this vast body of water flanked by granite towers because he was “doubtful” that there would be sufficient wind to return him to the sea. Fortunately for us, our schooner was powered by diesel engines, and we spent 3 wonderful hours cruising through these glacier-carved caverns, islands, and valleys.  

The good ship Fiordland Navigator, which was our transport through Doubtful Sound.

The sunshine was brilliant, the scenery spectacular, and the naturalists on board were very informative. After plying the waters of the sound, we toured the power plant, which we entered via a tunnel that allowed our bus to drive 200 meters underground. The kiwis have every right to be proud of this facility that produces clean, renewable energy in harmony with the world heritage environment above it.

Doubtful Sound

As I reflect on these 2 days, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I have had to witness these sights, and awe-struck at the work of the Creator who laid the foundations of these places. Like Job, I felt very small and humble today. Life is good, and this garden we have been given is a treasure. Thanks be to God!

Doubtful Sound is home to a resident pod of Bottlenose Dolphins. This guy and his mates came to check us out aboard the Fiordland Navigator.

From One Extreme To The Other

If I understood the guide correctly, I am standing in a “moulin“- a tunnel within the Fox Glacier.

New Zealand continues to impress us with its amazing diversity. A week ago we were on the North Island enjoying its  geothermal wonderlands as we looked at geysers and boiling mud and sat in naturally heated thermal baths.  As I write this, I am huddled under two blankets inside Fiona (our intrepid campervan) fresh from a day atop the  Fox Glacier. For several hours we hiked over this huge and ancient mass of ice that surrounds Mt Tasman and Mt Cook, New Zealand’s  highest peaks.  In fact, kiwis call this part of the country “the southern alps” and I am not going to disagree with them. One thing that fascinates me, however, is the fact that as we began our hike to the glacier, we started walking in a rain forest!

Here the sun rises near our campsite outside of Greymouth,New Zealand.

According to the Lonely Planet, the drive from Westport to Greymouth NZ is “one of the top ten drives on the planet.” The 2 lane road hugs the Pacific Coast like this for about 60 breath-taking miles.

As we have driven through the countryside, I am reminded of the saying “getting there is half the fun”. The roads are very well maintained, if somewhat narrow and twisty. Driving on the opposite side (and shifting with one’s left hand) adds a certain novelty to the adventure. And every 10 kilometers or so there is a one-lane bridge  that requires a bit of finesse to get across. In fact, yesterday we crossed a bridge that in its single lane carried not only north and southbound vehicles, but a railway track too! And, of course, it’s always more fun to drive when you are scouting out new birds, new scenery, and new road signs.

These local green mussels have been the hit of our dinner times here in Fiona the campervan. Raised locally and served with garlic butter.

The last post mentioned something of our daily routine. I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed cooking here. Each of the campgrounds has a large clean kitchen, and many days we take our supplies there and cook breakfast or dinner. We have eaten a lot of lamb, a great deal of cheese, and, of course, prodigious amounts of kiwi fruit. Two pounds of that little gem costs about a buck and a half. Most days we barbecue, although we have made exceptions for shellfish and pasta on occasion.

So all in all our trip is progressing amazingly well. We appreciate the prayers and support we have received from everyone, and look forward to times to share more photos and re-engage on a more personal level.

The team of intrepid travelers atop the Fox Glacier. It is estimated that the ice on which we are standing is more than 100 yards thick.

“The Coolest Little Capitol In The World”

This playful little fellow is called a New Zealand Fantail. I wonder why…

That’s how the Lonely Planet guidebook describes Wellington, New Zealand, and they are not far off the mark.  We continue to be amazed at the beauty of this island nation.  We were surprised to learn that New Zealand is larger than England.

At an indoor garden in Auckland.

In the past few days we have spent time in many places.  Our “typical day” looks like this: we wake up,  and it’s about 30 degrees outside (and about 55 inside “Fiona”, our campervan).  We have a nice hot breakfast of oatmeal or eggs and then we unplug the van and drive.  If we see something that looks cool, we stop.

Breakfast – the most important meal of the day- inside Fiona.

When it’s time for lunch, we pull over and make ourselves some cheese sandwiches and have some fruit (I bought 6 pounds of apples and 4 pounds of pears today for about $4 American!).  Then, we drive some more,unless we hike or visit a museum or cultural show.  By mid-day, the temperature is usually about 50 or 55, and the last few days have been sunny & clear.  Eventually, we show up in a campground, plug Fiona in, and grill some dinner. Tonight, for instance, we are having some venison steaks that were given to me by the guy I bought my fishing license from in Taupo.  He heard me say I loved venison, and he said, “No worries, mate! I will fix you right up!”  And then I was holding 4 inch-thick steaks.  No worries indeed! We spent 7 days on the North Island.

One of the highlights there was the visit to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand (think “Smithsonian”).  Fascinating. We were very impressed with the relative youth of this nation and the way that they have welcomed (at times) immigrants and refugees.  Te Papa also has a number of very informative exhibits concerning the affects of human culture (both Maori and European) on this island, which has only been inhabited for about a thousand years).  We also learned quite a bit about New Zealand’s politics, and the ways that it has been a good friend to the US and the UK over the years.  I was interested in some of the material dealing with WWII, which indicated that when Japan entered the war and NZ became a potential target, the Allies had to station US troops here because so many Kiwis were fighting in Europe and North Africa.

Sunrise over Marleboro Sound, just outside Picton.

After our time on the North Island was finished, we took the Inter-Islander ferry across Cook Strait to the South Island. The crossing took about 3 hours, and it was extremely rough. In fact, the captain almost didn’t sail because of the high seas. The waves were 5.4 meters high (17.5 feet).  Sharon was a little green around the gills by the time we hit Picton, but recovered quickly.  The South Island is more rural than the North, and we have really enjoyed the scenery.  Today, we beachcombed near Nelson en route to Abel Tasman National Park.  Tomorrow, we will take a water taxi into the park and be  dropped off for a 4 hour hike down the coastal trail.

These snow-capped mountains looked at us from across Welcome Bay near Nelson.

Sharon celebrated a birthday in many ways; here she receives a scone (with tea) at the Bushy Park Nature Reserve – a native forest surrounded by a “predator fence” to keep out stoats, mice, rabbits, etc.

Invasive? Or Introduced?

If you want to get somebody going here in New Zealand, say something nice about a stoat.   Stoats are little animals in the weasel family that are, by all accounts, crafty and ingenious.

brown stoat

Stoats Are also ruthless and efficient hunters. They were brought to New Zealand in 1884 and released into the wild as a means of controlling the exploding rabbit population. However, the stoats soon figured out that it was a heck of a lot easier to catch and kill kiwi birds than rabbits.  The result is that the native fauna was decimated. Bird life, in particular, was drastically affected. Some estimate that stoats kill 60% of kiwi chicks born every year.   Not surprisingly, the stoat is listed as one of  the 100 worst invasive species on the planet, and many biologists consider bringing it to New Zealand to be one of the worst mistakes ever made.

However, there are some species that have been successfully introduced with very beneficial results. Ask a New Zealander about sheep, for instance.  By all accounts, these fluffy little wool producers have thrived here – there are about 4 million humans in this nation, and about 40 million sheep. In fact, the methane produced by these herbivores is so potent that there have been calls to enact a  “fart tax” on farmers as a means of containing those greenhouse gasses the sheep produce.  But I digress. MY point is that the average New Zealander would say that life has been enriched by sheep. Introducing that species has been a gift.

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of learning about another successful and beneficial species introduction: the rainbow trout. I came into the town of Taupo and connected with Fishy Steve, an American transplant who now serves as a guide and tutor in the art of fly fishing. Steve made time for me in his day and took me out along on one of  the many rivers that flow from Lake Taupo.

Rainbow trout were introduced in this country in 1883 and form the backbone of one of the most amazing fisheries on the planet. With Steve’s guidance and equipment, I was soon wading in beautiful waters and by the end of the day, I had two beautiful fish – about four pounds each, I would say. We enjoyed them for dinner – but not nearly as much as I enjoyed bringing them to the table. It was a simply awesome day.

And as I fell asleep on Saturday, I was delighted for introductions that have gone well. Life is better with trout – no doubt. And then I got to thinking about the things I bring, or have brought, into my own life. How many, I wonder, are beneficial introductions that enlarge my life and capacity for joy? And how many are predatory invaders that will sap my energy and kill my spirit?

May God grant each of us the wisdom, the strength of relationships, and the reflective character to be judicious in what we allow into our lives. We need to grow and we will change, but by God’s mercy, we’ll always be introducing successful and beneficial growth. Thanks for reading this. Now, I have some fish to clean!

Kia Ora!!!

Kia Ora – it means “welcome” or “hello” in the language of the Maori people.  Like “aloha”, it also means “goodbye” or “take care.”  Apparently it is a way of wishing you well – wholeness, health, and happiness, whether you are coming or going.  I like it!

We arrived in New Zealand on Tuesday morning June 5, and it was cold and rainy when we got here!  After picking up our EZ GO camper van, we took a few hours to zip through downtown Auckland.  Because, really, what better way to get a feel for a 22 foot long 14 foot high vehicle with a steering wheel on the right hand side than driving through the country’s biggest and most congested city? Am I right?  We enjoyed a tour of the Auckland War Museum (built to honor those who fought in World War I) and also the Wintergarden – a wonderful little botanical garden adjacent.  The botanical garden offered us a first – we walked through a “fernery”.  Yep.  An entire acre or so dedicated to ferns.  What can I say?  They take ’em seriously here.

We were able to make it south of Auckland to visit the Waitomo Caves.  Here, we donned wetsuits and helmets (with little lights on the top) and grabbed inner tubes and hiked/crashed/floated through an amazing underground system of caverns and streams.  Some of these chambers were quite large, while others required some careful stepping.  While 65 meters (almost 200 feet) underground, we  jumped BACKWARDS off the top of two different waterfalls and landed, butt-first, in our inner tubes.  Sorry to say, no film available of that!  The highlight of this experience was drifting along in the underground waterway and looking up at the millions of glowworms that had attached themselves to the roof of the cave.  The glowworms spin little webs that snare insects, which they then eat.  In their digestive process, they secrete a bioluminescent enzyme…in other words, their poop glows in the dark.  It looks amazingly like the night sky – which attracts more bugs to fly towards it, which results in more bugs being eaten, which leads to more glowing poop, and so on.  The great circle of life, if you will.  It was simply spectactular.

Bag End- the Baggins homestead

The next adventure involved a little trip to the Shire.  That’s right, we visited the farm where much of the filming for the Lord Of The Rings trilogy took place, as well as the two upcoming Hobbit movies.  The sun had come out by this time, and we really enjoyed our opportunity to visit the Party Tree, the lake, Samwise’s house, and, of course, Bag End – from whence Frodo and Bilbo set out on their adventures.  There are about 10 acres of set that is still developed as such, and the attention to detail is simply outstanding. 

Samwise’s home – the place to which the hobbit returns at the end of LOTR

Our travels on Friday took us to the town of Rotorua, which is a center for Maori heritage and culture.  While in Rotorua, we spent a very educational day inside a Maori village.  Here, indigenous people are working to protect their culture by teaching the arts and crafts to their children and educating the rest of the world to the riches of this culture.  We danced, we learned, we listened, and we walked.  One of the key attractions to this area is that it is a literal hotspot of geothermal activity.  We visited the geysers, which erupt about every hour or so, and were fascinated by the patterns of the water and the sulfuric markings on the rock.  Adjacent to the geysers were a number of pools of boiling mud.  That was simply amazing – huge tracts of gloppy, oily, mud just boiling away happily.  Supposedly, the mud has all sorts of wonderful health benefits, but I would think that they must be enjoyed indirectly.  Jumping into a pool of boiling mud is probably bad for your health.

The landscape in Rotorua is pocketed with thermal fissures like this batch of boiling mud

So all in all, I’d say that the Carver/Merry adventure to New Zealand has gotten off to a great start.  We are all healthy, we are all getting along fine, and so far we’ve always been on the correct side of the road.  Our next stop will include a National Park in the middle of the Taupo region of the country, which is renowned for its trout fisheries.  With a little luck, my next post will have a photo of me with a fish or two!

Notes From the Acorn Farm

On Sunday, June 3, 2012 we celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the founding The Open Door, our congregation’s outreach ministry to young people in this community.  I was asked to preach a message that would allow us to explore what God has done and open us to what God might be doing next.  Our texts included I Samuel 3:1 – 4:1 and Revelation 3:20-22.

For a quarter of a century, I’ve found myself involved in conversations that have involved well-meaning acquaintances who have asked, “Dave, what is The Open Door?”

I have often replied by saying, “Well, it’s a former theater that is a youth center…”  Yet as was pointed out in this month’s Church Newsletter, the property at 12 Stratmore Street has been the Open Door longer than it’s been anything else – an A & P Grocery Store, a nickelodeon, a ballet theater and studio.  More than that, though, our friend Brian Zeisloft would remind us that the Open Door is not necessarily a place – he taught us to speak of The Open Door Youth Outreach – reflecting the fact that the Open Door is more than geography.

So what is it?  I think that from now on, I’m going to say that The Open Door is an acorn farm.  I stole that phrase from my first real mentor in ministry, a former pastor here at Crafton Heights named Rick Sweeney.  Once, I was complaining about how slowly things move in church, and he said, “Dave, you have to remember that we’re acorn farming here.  It takes time.”  And he was right, of course.  If you came up to my house this afternoon, you could eat a snap pea that I planted less than two months ago.  It takes an oak tree anywhere from twenty to fifty years before it produces its first acorn.  An acorn farmer is someone who is learning to take the long view and see the big picture.

This morning’s scripture is about an acorn farmer named Eli.  You know, the Bible is full of unlikely heroes, but by any account, Eli is an odd person to celebrate.  He was a priest of God, but apparently not a very good one.  While he had some measure of the Spirit in him, he was apparently pretty lazy.   He and his family had a reputation for being greedy.  Under Eli’s watch, the spiritual care of the people of God suffered terribly.  His sons were simply jerks – and that’s using the nicest word I can think of to use in church.  In Eli’s time, and perhaps as a result of Eli’s difficulties, “the word of the Lord” was rare.  People could not see what God was doing, or where God was at work.  I’m not saying all of that is Eli’s doing, but he’s got to take a lot of the blame for the situation.  In fact, the last time we encounter Eli in the scripture is in I Samuel 4, where the 98-year-old priest is described as being fat, blind, and extremely limited in his ability to get around – and he falls off his seat, breaks his neck, and dies.

Eli is, to say the least, an unlikely hero.

Samuel Reading to Eli the Judgments of God Upon Eli’s House, by John Singleton Copely (1780)

But he did this: he taught a kid named Samuel how to hear the Word of the Lord.  I know, you heard it – he didn’t get it right on the first try.  But he did it.  And he taught Samuel how to speak the truth of the Lord – even when that truth was painful or costly.  And even though his own sons were arrogant and lazy and evil, somehow Eli taught Samuel to be trustworthy.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that Samuel was “all that and a bag of chips”!  No, Samuel could be abrasive and obstinate; he sure had a short fuse!  Samuel grew to be what some people might call a “curmudgeon”.  But through Samuel, as you have heard, God’s word was heard from Dan to Beersheba – the entire length and breadth of the country.

But more than that: through Samuel, a kid named David received God’s word and promises.  This kid, the youngest of a large family, grew up thinking that maybe he could be something special.  And, as you may already know, David became the greatest king Israel ever knew.

Yes, he was a murderer and adulterer, among other things. But there’s no denying that David pointed to God’s saving grace better than anyone else in town.  So much so that Jesus is often called “the Son of David”.

So, if you’re keeping track at home, we started with a fat, lazy, blind old man who led us to a short-tempered, grouchy prophet.  That prophet, in turn, mentored a narcissistic and adulterous shepherd turned warrior turned king and somehow, through all of this, the world changes.  Not just individuals, but because of these individuals and their relationships with each other and other people, there is a significant generational change.  Reality is altered.

You need to know this: that the world is a profoundly different place because of that conversation that Eli and Samuel had in I Samuel chapter 3 and because of Eli’s ability to stay with Samuel over the long haul.  Whatever else he might have been, Eli was an acorn farmer.  He did what he could with what he had, and the next generation of faith was richer because of it.

Not long ago I had a conversation with a man who asked me an unusual question.  He had been invited to a birthday party for a toddler, and he said, “What should I get for this kid?”

Yeah, that’s a pretty good strategy.  When you need to know what to bring to your favorite 1 or 2 year old, ask this 52 year-old guy who hates shopping, is down on consumerism, and can be really irritating if you get him started on the materialistic bent of American society.

So I channeled my “inner Samuel” and gave a grouchy, if prophetic, reply.  I said something along the lines of this:

Do you want to do something for that kid?  I mean something really nice, really thoughtful, that will change his life forever?  I’ll tell you what to do.  You love his mother…

When that baby’s mother is just a kid herself and her dad walks out on the family, then you go to the dance recital and cheer her on and tell her she’s beautiful.  When she’s 14 and she is longing for significance and to know that she matters, you call her on her birthday and tell her that you are so proud of her.  When she is 16 and convinced that most adults, especially her mother, are complete idiots, stay close to her.  When she is ready for college, help her with her essays, and make sure she gets them in on time.  When she calls home drunk and miserable because she had a fight with her boyfriend, then pray with her.  Go to her wedding.  Ask about her life.  Shape her, and allow her to shape you.  You want to do something for her kid?  How about you do that for his mother!  Because if you are able to love his mother and his father when they are 8, 10, or 14 years old, they’ll be better parents when they are 28 or 30.  And that little baby will have a better chance in the world because of what you did decades ago.

When my rant was complete, I was met with a rather blank stare, and my conversation partner meekly replied, “Um, well, I was sort of thinking of a gift certificate to that ‘Build-a-Bear’ place.”

Yeah, sure, you could do that, too, I suppose.  If you want to grow snap peas.  But if you wanted to grow acorns, you’ve got to show up a lot earlier in the day and stay a lot longer.

Listen:  Brian is right in saying that The Open Door is not a place.  It’s not a program.  I’m not even sure that The Open Door is an outreach.  At its best, the Open Door is a space where imperfect people meet other imperfect people in the hopes that amidst all our bungling, the Word of the Lord might be heard in our lives and in our world.

Twenty-five years ago, I was the Director of the Open Door for about a minute and a half.  I have been followed by Ed Hartmann, Dave Brown, Dennis Piper, Debbie Weinheimer, Stephanie Maier, Brian Zeisloft, Adam Robinson, Jason Dix, and a thousand volunteers.  These people have made a lot of mistakes.  We’ve shown a lot of arrogance and impatience and attitude.  But they’ve also shown a lot of heart and a lot of vision.  And most importantly, perhaps, there have been a lot of dance recital and ball games attended; hundreds of retreats have been led; essays have been coached, late night phone calls have been exchanged, pizza has been eaten, teenage drama has occurred, bail has been paid, money has been lent, and talks have been had.

In short, you’ve had a nice little acorn farm going for the last quarter of a century.  Each and every person on that list, and the hundreds I cannot name, has offered something in the hopes that we can help to raise new generations who are better able to hear the Word of the Lord than we are.  And I know that is true.  One of the privileges that longevity has given to me is the ability to take such amazing delight in watching young people who had very difficult family experiences two or three decades ago becoming amazingly wonderful parents and spouses.  Do you see: the Open Door is a place where cycles can get broken and hope can flourish.

And because you’ve given me this microphone, I’d like to take a moment of personal privilege and reflect on two photos that get at what I’m trying to say this morning.  Neither of them was taken at 12 Stratmore Street, but both of them have everything to do with growing acorns.

The first photo is from a youth mission trip in 1999 to Buffalo, New York.  It is one of my favorite pictures in the whole world because it shows my friend Jessica playing Frisbee in the park.  Six years after this photo was taken, Jessica died of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  The body that is shown here so free and energetic had failed her, and she was only able to move her eyes when she died.

It’s important for me to have this photo, not simply to remember Jessica, but to remember that not every decision, not every plan, not every life turns out the way I think it should.  In the last 25 years, I’ve done way too many funerals for people who are younger than me.  Babies and kids who have been afflicted by a cruel illness or struck by a car or maybe made some bad choices that led to their own deaths. But this I know: that even when the absolute worst happens, we have the privilege of making sure that nobody has to die alone and that people understand that no tragedy, no mistake, no sin, is so grave as to separate any of us from God’s love for us.  Life on the acorn farm means that we hold on to the best that we can see for as long as we can and then we point to the best for eternity for as long as we are able.  And the only way to do that is together.

And the second photo is one that was taken about a year after the Open Door opened.  That’s little Timmy Salinetro getting ready for a nap in one of his favorite places.  And church, let me tell you something:  When that photo was taken, I was about to break.  I was under a doctor’s care for depression, The Open Door was facing financial difficulty, there were racial tensions in Crafton Heights and instability in the pastoral leadership of this church.  Little Timmy is getting ready to take a nap, and I’m a mess.

But we stayed with it.  People came, and people left.  The ministry of The Open Door got stronger.  You hung in there.  We practiced listening for the Word of the Lord.  And now, a quarter of a century later, the world is changing.  Not only is little Timmy a teacher, he’s able to connect with kids far better than I ever dreamt I could.  He is a mentor and a guide and is shaping a generation that is yet to come.  And it’s not just Timmy.  Jennifer is a principal.  Stacy is a doctor. All around the world there are young people who have discovered something important about themselves and the world and their God because of the time that they have spent in this web of relationships.  Artists and filmmakers and lawyers and construction workers and teachers and bankers and fathers and grandmothers and students and nurses and farmers and missionaries and people of vision and faith and heart and generosity of spirit…they were here.  And not only were they here, but they are better able to talk about big ideas, they are more apt to dream big dreams, and they are more likely to help this community hear the Word of the Lord than you or I were at their ages.

One of the things that I’ve noticed about The Open Door is that it seems as though things happen in spurts or waves.  There will be a good number of young people who come to a great point in their lives, and then the situation will change for a while and some of the numbers will drop.  After a couple of years, we see new leadership rising amongst those we serve.

The Bowthorpe Oak tree in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England

It’s the same with oak trees.  In fact, it’s pretty much impossible for a tree, even strong, healthy one, to produce a strong crop of acorns every year.  Most oaks bear some each year, and produce a “bumper crop” ever fourth or fifth year.  But there’s no hurry – because the tree isn’t going anywhere.  A tree that begins producing at 20 or 25 will continue until well past 100 years.  In fact, the Bowthorpe Oak, in England, has been around for more than a thousand years.  With deep roots and healthy structure, we can count on both trees and The Open Door to continue to produce the seeds of change.

What is The Open Door?  One answer that we’ve given in the past is this: The Open Door is a place where children whom God loves can meet people who love God.  And that works.  For 25 years, that’s what has happened.

There’s one question I’ve been asked more than any other about The Open Door: for a quarter of a century, I’ve been met on the street or on the phone or via text with this query: “is the Open Door open?”  When someone asks this, what they really want to know is whether there will be dodgeball tonight, or Cross Trainers, or whatever.  That’s not my favorite question, because sometimes it is open and sometimes it’s not.

Maybe a better question is this: Is The Open Door alive?  Is it bearing fruit?  Praise God that for 25 years, the answer to that query has been “yes”.  Thanks be to God, yes.  Yes it is. Amen.