Editor’s Note: This is the message I shared for the devotion at the gathering of Pittsburgh Presbytery Malawi Partnership Ministry Team on September 17, 2012. We were privileged to have 27 visitors from Blantyre Synod with us as we celebrated the 21st anniversary of the Partnership between Blantyre Synod CCAP and Pittsburgh Presbytery. For more information on the Malawi partnership, visit the partnership’s web site.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For it they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Have you ever thought about rope? I’ve not spent much time thinking about it until recently. My daughter just “tied the knot”, so to speak, and she did it in Chicago, of all places. Which means that old Dad was driving the truck west with all sorts of things tied to the roof. I needed to make sure my rope was good.
Take a look at a rope sometime. Here’s what happens when a rope is made: first, you take a fiber, like cotton, or hemp, or even nylon, and spin it to the right as you make it into a thread of yarn. Then you take a number of yarns and give them a left-hand twist to form a strand. Finally, you take three strands and twist them to the right and you get a hawser, or a rope. If you take three ropes and spin them back to the left, then you get a cable.
Interestingly enough, what gives a rope its strength is the fact that all of this winding creates a certain amount of friction in the fibers. When stress is placed on the rope as a whole, the fibers literally pull on each other and hold themselves together, thus making sure that your daughter’s steamer trunk stays on top of your truck, your anchor doesn’t stay stuck at the bottom of the river, or that your wet clothes stay on the line and don’t end up in your yard.
For centuries, rope was made in a special structure called a “rope walk”. Hooks would anchor the ends of each strand onto a wheel and the rope-maker would walk as far as three hundred yards playing out the material while his son turned the wheel to apply pressure to turn the fibers into yarns into strands into rope. The tall ships of the 1700’s, for instance, required some long ropes – which meant some long rope walks.
Fascinating, isn’t it? Here you thought this was just a rope. A hawser-laid rope, as you can see, because it’s got the requisite three strands.
Swell, Pastor Dave. But does this have anything to do with the Malawi Partnership? Does this connect with either the scripture that we’ve heard or the visit we are sharing? Or is this just indicative of the fact that preachers have way too much time on their hands?
What are the fibers of the strands of the ropes of our lives? Just as a rope is made from innumerable fibers that are woven together in a specific way, so too the relationships we share – here in Pittsburgh, there in Malawi, and in between – are built on simple acts of daily service and love.
You know we love our partnership meetings. It’s a lot of fun to come together and sing songs and eat food and hear news from old friends… but those daily acts of service and love for the body of Christ, well, we’re not so sure about them. Extending forgiveness to someone who you think may have wronged you; reaching out (again) to someone who has ignored you; looking across the table at someone who you think is wrong about an important issue… It doesn’t always feel very good: in fact, sometimes it can feel like you’re being all twisted and knotted. It’s hard to be always thinking about someone else, to feel yourself being crimped and spun around. So we can get apathetic, or contentious, or cranky from time to time – because we don’t always like to do these things. It can be tempting to bail out on partnerships of all stripes.
Unless…unless you’re willing to believe that there may be a rope-maker out there. Unless there is Someone who can take the essence of your being – your YOU – and gently weave and shape that into something that’s useful, something that’s strong, something that’s beautiful, something that could even save someone’s life someday.
That’s what I’m asking you to believe today. The church needs people – and congregations- who will stick together in simple acts of daily obedience.
But here’s the warning: that in the ins and outs of daily life, you’re going to feel some stress and strain. Some friction, if you will. What will that do to us? Will it drive our congregations, our partners, apart? Or can it help us cling more tightly to each other and to the relationship that God has given us, just as the friction in the rope actually binds it to itself when strength is needed?
We can do that, you know, if we lean not only on the skill of the rope-maker, but on the presence of the third strand. God promises his Holy Spirit to sustain us in our relationship with each other and in faithful service to the world. Please don’t think of this partnership as a private little contract between Blantyre and Pittsburgh, or between Wexford and Michuru, or even worse, between you and your friend across the ocean. Our partnerships of any stripe are not our own. Think of this commemoration of partnership as the time when formally and officially we are recognizing that in this relationship there are three strands: Blantyre, Pittsburgh, and the Holy Spirit. And God, like a master rope-maker, is patiently walking up and down the pathways of our lives braiding us together into a hawser-laid love – a rope of three strands that will held fast when it is tested.
I don’t know about you, but I use rope every now and then. And the next time I do, I’ll be thinking about the task at hand: tying down the luggage or hanging out the laundry. But perhaps we can join together and say that when we use rope, that will be a reminder for us that we can expect to know something more about God’s purposes for the world by watching the ways that our churches treat each other. As we live your lives in front of the rest of the world, we will pray that God’s power might flow through us. Thanks be to God!