A Hawser-Laid Relationship

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.

The Rope-Walk (1932, Arthur Wilde Parsons)

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!

On Planting Trees at an Uncivil Union

Author’s note: the following are my notes from the ceremony in which my beloved daughter, Ariel, and her best friend, Drew, committed their lives to each other.  For reasons explained on their own blog, the two of them decided to call this rite an “Uncivil Union”.  To say that it was a “stretch” for Pastor Dad would be more than fair.  To say that it was a blessing would be more than true.  Although I did not have a clear picture of what would happen or how it might happen, I was blessed to participate.  In addition to their own description of the event, you can see photos by clicking here.

Ariel and Drew exchanging their vows for the future.

Thoughts on Planting Trees at an Uncivil Union

On the Occasion of the Union of Ariel Carver and Drew Daniels

The White Rose Catholic Worker Farm

Monee IL, September 1, 2012

I am deeply touched that Ariel and Drew offered me the chance to share a few thoughts at their Uncivil Union.  Many people, if they choose to marry, feel that they have to come to me as a pastor and therefore I have a certain amount of leverage vis-à-vis the law of supply and demand.  They want my signature on a piece of paper, and so they have to let me talk.  But Ariel and Drew didn’t want or need my signature, and they invited me anyway.  That is a gratifying thing, and I am humbled and overjoyed by it.

We gather to plant trees on this occasion – two pecan and three American Plum.  As we mark this union by the planting of trees, it is fitting to remember that our Story starts with a tree.

When the Creator of life, the Author of all that is, decided that he wanted us to understand who we were, whose we were, what we were called to do and be; when he sought to assure us that we were beloved and to give us meaning and purpose in life; he did so by using trees in a garden.  He put us in a place that he had spoken into being and invited us to join him in caring for it.  He used trees to establish boundaries and confirm identity and provide sustenance.

And the Story has a lot more trees in it as well.  When Abram and Sarai were given the promise of a son – and a future – it was on the afternoon where they had decided to act on that identity that they’d received by offering hospitality and sustenance in the shade of a glorious tree.  It wasn’t just any tree – it was the oak tree at Mamre.  The tree is so significant to the story that the author of Genesis decides to tell us its location and its species – because trees matter. (Genesis 13-18)

“Elijah’s Garden” is a spot near the peak of Mt. Sinai where Elijah is said to have been nurtured under the broom tree. Ariel and I were able to be there in 2010.

When Elijah was fleeing Jezebel after his trial with the prophets of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel, he ran as fast and as far as he could, gasping for breath, seeking some hope and promise.  When he couldn’t go any further, he collapsed under the broom tree on Mt. Sinai.  In 2010, Ariel and I had the chance to see “Elijah’s Garden” halfway up Mt. Sinai. (I Kings 19)

The Story continues by letting us know that when a despised person – a social disaster by the name of Zacchaeus – decided that he wanted to take a chance on seeing Jesus, he humbled himself by climbing and hiding in a sycamore tree.  In the context of that tree, his life and that of his entire community was re-shaped. (Luke 19)

The roots of these olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane were carbon dated to be at least 2300 years old…meaning that they had been there for three centuries when Jesus wept amongst them.

When Jesus of Nazareth was about to do the hardest thing that anyone had ever done, he wept alone in the shadows of some other trees that Ariel and I have seen, the olive trees that fill the Garden of Gethsemane. (Matthew 26)

And now, we come to the place in the Story where you’ve asked us to help you celebrate what God is doing in your lives by planting trees.  There are a few things about trees that will be helpful for you, and us, to realize as we do so.

Trees have roots.  Today, we sit here under these canopies and you are surrounded by the faces of people who have known and loved you both for a long, long time.  You did not come from nowhere; you have been shaped and taught and blessed and loved by these people here.  What a crew!  Do not ever, ever take this, or them, for granted.  Continue to explore how deep those roots are, and to cultivate space for your roots to grow even deeper in the context of the experiences that have made you who you are today.

Trees bear fruit.  Never forget that God intends to use your friendship, your union, to be a blessing to the world.  You are here because you believe that in each other, you will be strengthened.  Great.  You are more and better able to be the selves that you can and should be because you are together.  That’s right.  Remember that your lives, your love, your relationship, is designed to bear fruit.  You are a part of what God is doing in the world.  As Bonhoeffer says, you are now a “chain in the link of generations” that God is using to write his story upon the earth.

Trees need community.  When my wife had the idea of a tree planting, we decided that it would be nice.  But the more we researched, the more we realized that giving someone a single fruit tree is often a fool’s errand – because it can only do what it is created to do in the context of a community.  Those pecan trees will pollinate each other.  Those plum trees will send out roots and suckers that will meet underground, even as their pollen is exchanged above ground.  You need to be with others in order to be the selves that God has given you.

In fact, even though our Story starts with a tree in a garden, it ends in a city.  The book of Revelation describes the community that God intends as one where we are together in light and in truth.  If we do things right, both today (in terms of helping you two tie the knot) and throughout our time on earth (in terms of taking care of our roots, bearing fruit, and being in community) we will be developed into that community that John describes.

Planting the trees at the White Rose Catholic Worker Farm in Monee.

So I have a little homework for those who are listening to this.  We’ve heard that Ariel’s friend Ruth, clear over in Uganda, is going to plant trees today to honor this Union.  That’s a great thing, and it’s a mark of her love and care for Ariel.  That’s great.  I wonder what it is that the rest of you will plant – today, and in the days to come.  Care for the earth; care for each other.  Be stewards of this garden we’ve been given and the city that it’s becoming.  It is a beautiful and wonderful thing to plant – to plant trees, and anticipate nuts and plums; and to plant time and energy and love and to wonder how and where growth will lead us.

We love you, and we offer you these thoughts, our prayers, and our deep love as we bless you:

The way is long, let us go together.

The way is difficult, let us help each other.

The way is joyful, let us share it.

The way is Christ’s, for Christ is the Way, let us follow.

The way is open before us, let us go:

with the love of God,

the grace of Christ, and

the communion of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus and the Wells-Fargo Wagon

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering the meaning and message of The Lord’s Prayer this month.  On September 16, we took a look at “Thy kingdom come…”  Our scriptures included I Samuel 8:4-22 and Matthew 13:44-52

 We are here, of course, to celebrate the Gospel.  To proclaim the Good News.  Am I right?  Are you glad for the Gospel?  Great.  I believe you.  What is it?  That is, how would you tell someone, in simple and easy to understand language, the message of hope and reconciliation for which we rejoice?  One of the magazines that makes me think is a slim journal called The Christian Century.  Earlier this month, the cover story was entitled “The Gospel in Seven Words”.  In it the editors challenged leading Christian thinkers and writers to define the heart of the Gospel in seven words or fewer.  Here are some of the entries:

Craig Barnes, pastor at Shadyside Church, wrote, “We live by grace”.  Only 4 words – maybe the sermons at Shadyside are really brief.

Brian McLaren said that it boils down to “In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation.”

Martin Marty wrote “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.”

And Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament Scholar who has written my favorite book on Genesis, said this: “Israel’s God’s bodied love continues world-making.”  He went on to write, “I used only six words: I rested on the seventh.”[1]

That reminds me of a class I had in seminary, where one of my professors asked us much the same thing.  “What is the central message of the New Testament?” he barked.  One after another, my classmates stumbled.  “Um, love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself?” “Nein!”, my German-born lecturer roared.  “You are wrong!”  “If you ask Jesus to forgive you, you can go to heaven when you die?” “Dumkopff!  No!”  He didn’t embarrass me, though, because in those days I sat in the back and kept my mouth shut.  But finally, after some of the church’s best young minds gave up, he turned to Mark 1:15 and said, “This is what Jesus said: ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand!  Repent!’”

This morning, we continue our exploration of The Lord’s Prayer, and it is not, or at least it should not be a surprise that when Jesus talks to his friends about praying, the Kingdom ranks right up there.  There are 54 references in the Gospels to “The Kingdom of God”, and Matthew alone mentions “The Kingdom of Heaven” an additional 32 times.  When Jesus walked the Galilee, the core of his message was that God was doing something amazing, and in Jesus’ vocabulary, the shorthand for the thing that God was doing was “the Kingdom.”

Jesus wasn’t the only one to think about it, of course.  In his day, there were a number of Israelites who were sick and tired of living under the rule of the Roman Empire.  Many of those people looked back to Israel’s “glory days”, when King David or Solomon sat on the throne and Israel was not only free, but something of a power.  As some of those people talked, it was easy to look back in idealism and remember only the wonderful things about having their own king, and omit the kinds of things that Kings do – the things that Samuel talked about when he was warning them about having a king.  It was easy to skip over the generations of terrible kings and the decades of exile and the horrors of idolatry – all these folk wanted was a shiny new king to replace the Romans.

But when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom, he was looking forward, not backward.  He was taking a glance around, and saying, “You know, the Kingdom of God is here.” And he peered into the future and said, “The Kingdom is coming”.

And because Jesus was talking about a Kingdom, especially in his early ministry, he was incredibly well-received.  Even when he talked in crazy parables, some of which you heard earlier, people ate it up.  The Kingdom is like a treasure that is more valuable than anything else… The Kingdom is like a net that amasses a ton of fish – it is wide and varied…The Kingdom points towards a final accounting with the creator.  People loved that stuff – even when they didn’t know what he was talking about.

What got Jesus into trouble, then, was when people started figuring out what he meant.  As long as he was talking about some vague notion of “The Kingdom”, it was great.  When he got specific about what his notion of the Kingdom meant, well, that’s what got him killed.

Do you remember that old show The Music Man?  Professor Harold Hill comes into River City, Iowa and promises all sorts of change, beginning with teaching the kids how to play music.  He gets the townfolk all fired up and they place an order for the instruments – an order what would be delivered by the Wells-Fargo company.  A hundred years ago, Wells-Fargo was the UPS of the nation – a series of wagons and trucks that made home deliveries.  In this scene people see the delivery wagon arriving – and it is good news!  What’s in the truck?

The whole time, the town is going wild…and why?  Because nobody knows what is actually IN the truck.  People are dealing with their expectations, their hopes, their dreams.  “It could be curtains, or dishes, or a double boiler!  Or it could be something very, very special just for me!”

In The Music Man, and in real life, of course, the wagon arrives.  And it does not – it cannot – contain everything that everyone is looking for.  The musical instruments are there, but not everyone gets their double boiler or their rocking chair or their salmon from Seattle.  So when the Wells-Fargo wagon is unpacked, many, many people are disappointed.

That’s how it always is with prophets.  If you are telling people that the Kingdom is on the way, that’s great!  Everybody wants to see thing changed.  Everybody likes the guy who says that salvation is coming if we can just hold on a little longer.  The problem is when someone – like Jesus – starts saying, the Kingdom of God is at hand.  The Kingdom is here.

Whoa, Jesus.  Hold up.  Are you saying that this – this suffering and service, this forgiving, this hope – that this is the Kingdom???  Preacher Fred Craddock says it like this:   “There is enough misery in the world to make the message that a Messiah will come believable; there is enough misery in the world to make the message that a Messiah has come unbelievable.”[2]

The first thing that a Messiah has to do is convince us to stop looking for another Messiah.  He has to talk us into letting go of our own cherished notions of whatever God’s Kingdom looks like so that we can get on board with the Kingdom as it is revealed and shaped by God through Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Do you remember last week, when we started this message?  We talked about the importance of modifying words.  We don’t simply pray to “Father”, we pray to “Our Father.”  Those three letters make a difference, don’t they?

That idea is back again.  We pray for the Kingdom to come.  But not just any Kingdom.  And, fortunately for some of my friends, not just my idea of the Kingdom.  We beseech our Father to reveal his Kingdom.  We know that we need a Kingdom – and Jesus says, “Ask God to show you what his Kingdom is all about.

Great, Jesus – you tell us.  What is the Kingdom?  Give me the manifesto – the constitution – the lowdown.  Tell us, Jesus, what exactly is in that wagon called the Kingdom.

But Jesus doesn’t do that.  He talks instead about a kingdom that is more about process than product.  Do you remember what he said in the Gospels? The Kingdom is like a man who plants seeds all over the landscape and waits for them to grow.  The Kingdom is like a woman who kneads a little yeast into the dough.  The Kingdom is like a farmer who’s discovered that his enemies have mixed bad seed in with his good seed, and now he waits for things to sort themselves out.  The Kingdom is like a net that gathers all sorts of fish, not only the kind that I like, and then allows someone else to sort them out.

And so we pray, “Thy kingdom come.  Show us, Lord, where and how the Kingdom is growing.”

Jesus says, “Friends, if you are interested in following me, then look where I am looking.  Be attentive to the things to which I am attentive.  Seek the signs of the Kingdom that grows and hides among you.  Instead of propping up some tired old ideas of kingdoms that have failed; instead of waiting for perfection, look for indicators that the Kingdom is here and growing.”

But Jesus, what does that mean?  What does the Kingdom look like?

I don’t know everything, but I know some of what the Kingdom wagon contains.

The Kingdom contains justice – where people are treated well and hope is possible, the Kingdom is growing.

The Kingdom contains grace – where mercy is both offered and accepted, the Kingdom can take root.

The Kingdom contains faithfulness – where God’s people hold on to the truth, to God’s intentions, and to each other, the Kingdom is bearing fruit.

That may be some of what’s in this Kingdom wagon, but how do we live into that?  What shall we do with this portion of the Lord’s prayer?

There are times when some of us want to pretend that the Kingdom is already here in all of its fullness.  We can be tempted to think that if we just vote for the right person or get the right program in place, everything will take care of itself.  That kind of idealism does not recognize the truth that we are a sinful people who live in a broken world.  The Kingdom is among us, but it’s not here because we’re so great.

And there are other times when we want to throw our hands in the air and say, “Who am I kidding?  Justice is an illusion.  There is no grace.  Faithfulness is impossible.”  But this is also a mistake, because it fails to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world.  Fatalism is an unfaithful response because it denies the power of the King behind the Kingdom.

We cannot blindly expect that every day, things are getting better in every way.  And we cannot throw in the towel and say that nothing ever changes.  Instead, we pray for those gifts of justice, of grace, and of faith to show up in our own lives.  And we ask to be able to see signs of them along the roads that we travel.  And we press on, knowing (thank God!) that the Kingdom is not ultimately ours to manage or control.

Remember what Jesus said: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”  What did he expect us to do with that? “Repent.” The Greek word there is metanoia, and it can literally mean “alter your mind”.  Come up with a new way of understanding things and behaving because of it.  It can also mean, “turn”.  It can also mean, “be converted – be changed into something else.”

So we are on this road, and we are praying for the Kingdom.  Sometimes we think it’s like the Wells-Fargo wagon, full of goodies just for us.  But mostly we know that it’s God’s business coming in God’s timing, and we struggle to be faithful to that.

Will we stumble?  You bet.  Will we fall? From time to time, you know it. What will we do when that happens?  We’ll repent.  And then we’ll repent some more.  We will keep looking.  We will remember that when we are converted, it’s not to a certain set of ideas that are somehow “righter” than our old ideas.  When we change our way of thinking and our mindset, we do so as we embrace a relationship with the one who is teaching us to pray.

The Kingdom is here.  And the Kingdom is coming.  We pray for it.  We are not it.  But we belong to it.  And we can see it.  And on our best days, we can reflect it. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] The Christian Century, September 5, 2012, pp. 20ff.

[2]  Interpretation Commentary on Luke (Louisville, John Knox 1990), p. 127

A Matter of Life and Death

On September 9, the good people of Crafton Heights began a six-week exploration of The Lord’s Prayer.  As we considered the introduction and the first petition (“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”), we turned to Leviticus 19:1-13 and Revelation 4:6-11.

Both Matthew and Luke tell us about the day that Jesus’ closest followers sat him down and asked him if he would teach them something about prayer.  Jesus’ reply was so profound that in millions of churches today, we will stop what we are doing and thinking and join our voices as we repeat the words that he gave to them: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Teachers, can you imagine that!  Who remembers what you taught on Thursday, let alone two thousand years ago?  But that’s what we did.  We remember, and we continue to pray.  And this week we will begin a six-week exploration of the “Lord’s Prayer” – the “Our Father” – as we sit next to those disciples who are so eager to learn from the Master.

I had a rude awakening on Friday this week.  Not because I was up and out early, but because of what I saw.  I was walking through a hospital at about 7 a.m. when I happened to pass by the chapel.  This is one of my favorite rooms in the city – I often stop in there to pray, to read, or to simply clear my head.  It’s a beautiful room with about 150 chairs in it.  And as I walked by on Friday morning, I noticed that there were about a dozen, or maybe even fifteen people in the room.  It was the morning worship service.

Yet here is what broke my heart and gave me pause on Friday: not one single person was sitting anywhere close to another person.  Here, in this place of profound fear and illness and death and healing and hope and terror, nobody sat next to each other.

Yet Jesus begins his lesson by reminding us that prayer is directed towards “Our Father…”  We will see in the weeks to come that the prayer is in the first person throughout – we believe that God does care, not just for some vague notion of creation or some category – but that God cares for individuals.  For us.  But not for me alone – not for me in the absence of you, or the other.  For us.  Jesus teaches us that as we approach the Lord in prayer, we do so recognizing that God longs to be connected, but that we are mindful of the fact that we see that connection with God in light of our connections with each other.

Our Father, who art in heaven.

Hallowed be thy name.

Oh, great.  Don’t you just hate that about the Bible!  It seems like every page you turn in the scripture, it’s full of words that are used there, but no where else in the world.  Who else uses words like “sanctify” or “redemption” or “expiation” or “covetousness”?  Who says “hallowed” anymore?

We do.  Every week.  Why?

“Hallowed” means “set apart”, or “holy”.  When something is hallowed, it is revered and honored.  In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln stood near the Spangler family’s farm in Gettysburg and said that that ground was “hallowed” – it was forever set apart from the common work of growing and harvesting and reaping – because of what had happened there.  And if you’ve ever been to Gettysburg National Park, you know what I mean.  Arlington National Cemetery is another place that is hallowed.  Earlier this week, I read a note from our friend Ian Gallo, who visited the Kigali Genocide Center in Rwanda, and he wrote, “Around the edges of the room were glass cases.  Some had rows of skulls of victims, others had piles of femurs and personal belongings.  There is something incredibly powerful and intimate about looking a skull in the eyes that nothing can prepare you for.  I stood and wept.”  That place has become hallowed.

From the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. For more, check out Ian’s blog

When Jesus was teaching his friends – and us – how to pray, he taught us that everything that is connected with God, including God’s own name, is hallowed.  That is to say, that God is holy.  God is set apart.  God is nothing like anything I have ever known or experienced.  Whatever I am, it’s not God.  Whatever God is, it’s not me.

I don’t think that Jesus was suggesting that God is remote or distant – remember, we are to come together asking for an audience with “our Father”.  Rather, he is reminding us that God is not the same as us.  And indeed, the Bible is full of examples of the kind of relationship between God and humanity that suggest intimacy, but not sameness.  God is the potter, I am the clay.  God is the tree, you are the fruit.  Do you see?  These things are not the same, but there is a deep and vibrant connection between them.

The reading from Exodus describes the scene just after the people of Israel came out of Egypt.  They had been freed from the horrors of slavery.  In a series of incredible demonstrations that we remember as “the plagues”, Moses and Aaron showed the world that the so-called ‘gods’ of Egypt were merely powerless idols.  As the children of Israel march through the desert in those early days, you can almost hear them reminiscing about the looks on the faces of their former captors when our God showed his stuff.  I mean, think about how amazing and awesome it must have been to see that, and then to think, “Yeah, that’s OUR God.  He fights for us.  We play for HIS TEAM. That’s right, God.  Come on, YHWH, High Five!”

Um, yeah.  Not so much.

Exodus chapter 19 describes the precautions that Moses and the people had to take to avoid encountering the holiness of God.  Think about that for a moment.  You heard the promises that God made: I bore you on the wings of eagles!  You shall be my treasured people!  God is crazy about the Israelites.  But then a few sentences later, the people are told that if they cross that line and step onto the mountain, they’ll be struck dead.

Why?  Because you are not God.  God says, “You are mine.  But you are not me.  Don’t you ever, ever, ever forget that.”  For the people in Exodus, the holiness of God was a matter of life and death.  If they were to forget – even for a moment – who they were in relationship to who God was, it could kill them.

And you might say, “Wow, Pastor Dave, that’s so Old Testamenty of you!  I mean, of course, GOD is all stand-offish like that, but Jesus?  Heck, Jesus is like me.  Jesus is my buddy.  He gets me.  He has my back.

He is and he does.  But he is not you.

Jesus, the son of God, the son of Man, the second person of the Trinity, is not only “the greatest man who ever lived”.  Jesus is fully divine.  Jesus is God, enfleshed.  The theme of sacredness, of otherness, of separateness continues through scripture.  Do you remember when, on the morning he had been raised from the dead, he looked at Mary and said, “Don’t hold me!” – she was not free to relate to him as she might relate to Peter or John.

The Heavenly Throne, by Peter Olsen. Used by permission of the artist. For more of his work, visit http://www.peterolsenart.com.

In fact, this idea of God’s separateness continues until the very end.  The scripture you heard from Revelation chapter four describes a scene from heaven.  Do you remember what we read?  What do we learn about God in this passage?  We learn that God is holy, right?

Now, think for a few moments.  When you think about all the other passages from the Bible that you’ve learned, what are some other adjectives that come to mind about God?  How would you finish this sentence: “God is _____________.”?  Love.  Light.  Strength.  Power.

And you know, don’t you, that all of that is true, right?  God is Love, Light, Strength, and Power.  Whatever we know about those things, we learned from God.  But you will not find anywhere in the Bible any of those adjectives repeated three times.  “Love, Love, Love” comes from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.

Yet it says in Isaiah and in Revelation that God is “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  The thing that we know best about God is that God is Other. God is not me.

Isn’t that Good News!  God is Love, Light, Strength, and Power…AND NOT ME!  God is not marred by my sin, my imperfections, my brokenness.  God is fully and utterly light, love, strength and power and a million other blessings because God is wholly holy.

My friend Barbara Voeltzel used to think thoughts like that and shake her head and say, “You know what, Pastor Dave?  Thank God for God!”  I couldn’t say it better myself, Barb.

C.S. Lewis, when he was trying to get the idea of the holiness or the “otherness” of God across in his children’s tale The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, put it like this when he decided that the figure who represented the Lord would be Aslan, a Lion.

“Who is Aslan?” asked Susan.

“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know?  He’s the King…”

“Is — is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly.

“Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion — THE Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”[1]

And if you are thinking, “Wait, I saw that movie, and I don’t remember that scene,” it’s because when they made the most recent version of that film, they left that scene out.  Just another reason to keep reading, people.  Keep reading.

When Jesus is teaching us to pray, he wants us to know that we are not merely placing orders in the drive-through line.  We’re not texting our requests to a personal assistant; we’re not engaging in wishful thinking; we’re not talking to ourselves.

“Hallowed be thy name” – Jesus taught us that if we forget who God is in relationship to who we are, it could kill us.

As we begin this prayer, we are reminded that we can engage in communion with the Creator of all that is, the Author of life, the Giver of Light, Love, Hope…who calls us together and who invites us to love him as a father.

He is Good.  And he can be trusted.

Thank God for God.  Amen.

[1] The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 8.

Scenes from the Uncivil Union

The week of August 27 was a real adventure for our family as we shifted our attention to the town of Monee, IL, where Ariel and her beloved, Drew Daniels, pledged their lives to one another in an Uncivil Union ceremony.  The short version of that is that this was a gathering of family and friends who were committed to helping them live into their best selves as they join together for the years to come.  If you’d like a longer, and much more theological explanation of Uncivil Union, then check out their blog entry on that topic.

The Union took place on a ten acre plot of ground currently being cared for by The White Rose Catholic Worker House in Chicago.  They grow organic vegetables and are learning about the ways that God’s earth can be restored and revitalized.  Ariel, Drew, and I arrived on Monday and joined with John & Regina from the White Rose to begin laying the groundwork – building toilets, harvesting crops, etc.  Sharon and our friends the Prevosts arrived on Wednesday, and more friends and family streamed in as the weekend came closer.  Eventually, the land was dotted with tents (and one massive RV) and the ceremony itself took place on Saturday.

It was a Quaker-style ceremony, where every member of the community was invited to speak.  A variety of folks shaped the service, which included poetry, music, and a meditation  (which you can read here) by yours truly.  The skies were brilliantly blue all week…until Saturday, where we ended up moving under canopies for the actual ceremony.

It was a gift to be there, and we are grateful to all who supported Ariel and Drew by your prayers or your presence, your encouragement and your belief in them.  Here are some scenes from the week!

Ariel & Barb showing the afternoon’s harvest – string beans!

Matt & Erlina Mae Adler, along with my sister Debi, made the trip and lent a hand with everything from weaving to decorating to shoveling horse manure!

Don and I, with some able assistance from my brother-in-law Bob, put together the biggest and sturdiest picnic table I’ve ever built. Also the only picnic table I’ve ever built.

One of the “assignments” was for each attendee to bring a strip of fabric to weave into a wall hanging for Ariel & Drew. Here, Sharon and Ariel contemplate the project thus far.

Plan “A” was to enjoy the afternoon sunshine in a meadow dotted with Queen Anne’s Lace. Under the rainy skies, we adapted the storage shelter and a couple of canopies to host the actual ceremony.

Lynn and Marc Portnoff made one of the most important contributions of the day: in addition to reading a very meaningful communication from their daughter Ruth (Ariel’s best friend from 2nd grade through graduation), they brought the pies from Pittsburgh!

This is the book in which Drew and Ariel wrote their vows – I brought it back from Corinth, Greece in 2008.

Ariel and Drew exchanging their vows for the future under the canopy, surrounded by the images of their past and the friends of the present.

I was privileged to be able to address a few words to the honored couple, as well as the rest of the gathering, on the topic of trees as a metaphor for our lives. You may read more about that in a blog to come….

The ceremony ended with the planting of three plum trees and two pecan trees.

Ariel’s cousin Deb helps me inspect the assortment of pies – 20 total – that we set out to feed the hordes after the ceremony. There were seven varieties: peach, grape, apple, pear-berry, strawberry-rhubarb, mixed berry, and cherry. Almost all of the fruit was grown in our neighborhood.

The Prevosts and the Simcoxes were a great help as we anticipated and worked through the end run of the week’s festivities.

It was nice to see most of the McCoy clan gather with us on Saturday. We had everyone but Ryan Cascardo, who was already at American University in DC.

The four of us basking in the joy of the moment.