Nothing to Lose

For Lent 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights are considering some of the meals that have shaped us over the years. On February 24, we considered texts from I Kings 17:1-16 and Luke 4:22-30.

What was the best meal you’ve ever eaten? What is your favorite food? If you’ve been following the reports from the 2013 CHUP Texas mission team on my blog, you know that we’ve thought about food a great deal, and have explored the ways that it shapes who we are.

This Lent, we’ll be looking at some of the meals that are recorded in the Bible and the ways that those meals reveal something of the character of God or the needs of God’s people. Last week, Matt Fricker led us through an exploration of the Passover. Today, we will look at a couple of curious stories involving Elijah.

Raven_croakFirst, let me ask you what you know about ravens? We don’t think about them a great deal, I understand. But what is a raven? It is a large, ominous creature. Ravens are scavengers who will eat anything that is put in front of them, alive or dead, clean or unclean. According to Leviticus 11, the raven is a “detestable” creature.

RayLewis

But enough about the football players from Baltimore. Our text actually refers to the large black birds that resemble crows, but are bigger. They are enormously intelligent, and they have appetites to match. Has anyone ever called you “ravenous”: it means that you’re so hungry you will eat anything. I was telling the truth when I said that Scripture called them “unclean” animals – probably because they are scavengers who have no problem eating dead or decaying flesh. The Children of Israel were told to have nothing to do with ravens.

1280px-Raven_scavenging_on_a_dead_shark

In our reading from I Kings, God commands the prophet Elijah to speak out against the king of Israel and then to hide out in the hills for awhile. “Don’t worry,” God says. “I’ve commanded the ravens to take care of you.”

james-tissot-elijah-fed-by-the-ravensI can’t be sure of this, of course, but it is difficult to imagine that Elijah is particularly thrilled by this arrangement. He is a leader of the people of Israel, called to live a holy life, and now he is essentially dumpster diving twice a day – worse, actually, because he doesn’t get to choose which items in the dumpster wind up on his plate. And yet many scholars believe that Elijah is sustained in this fashion for about a year. An entire year wherein what you have been trained to think of as evil, unclean, and detestable…as your source of life and hope. Do you think that was tough for the prophet?

What do you think that Elijah learned as he sat by that brook every day waiting for his winged companions to bring him sustenance? He had to come to know at a deep level that God’s faithfulness and provision are sufficient. Every morning, one of the birds brought him enough to get through the day. Every evening, he had enough to get through the night. He had no ability to hoard or to save – he was forced into total reliance upon God. If Elijah was going to make it out of there, it was because God, not Elijah, was able.

Similarly, he had to come to see that God was not particularly interested in Elijah’s prejudices or notions. God did not ask Elijah’s permission before coming up with the raven plan; in fact, the Lord used what the prophet had been taught to despise as a means of saving his life.

And once God had taught Elijah that God’s provision is sufficient and that God is apparently willing to break down boundaries, God uses Elijah to teach that to someone else.

The prophet is sent to a widow in Zarephath. Zarephath is not a community of faithful people. Instead, it is a town in the
gentile regions near Tyre and Sidon. She would be an outsider to the Jews. Unclean. And if Elijah was lost and alone in the wilderness, this woman was lost and alone in her isolation and poverty there in town.

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) Two Figures (no date)

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) Two Figures (no date)

Elijah speaks to her (a clear violation of cultural and religious norms, by the way) and asks her for a little something to eat. Her response is heart-breaking: “I can’t. I’m running out myself – in fact, I am getting the things I need for my last meal. And then together with my son, I’ll starve to death.” Elijah says, “Trust me, I know more than enough about this. There will be enough.” And every day for the next two years, they learned and relearned the sufficiency of God. They learned to trust in God’s provision, and to allow God to shape and grow their minds and their hearts in new ways.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus was surrounded by a group of people who thought that they knew all that there was to know about him. In fact, they had known him for so long, and had watched him grow up that they didn’t feel the need to pay attention to him at all. And when his ministry was at a turning point, he used this story of Elijah to remind people that the God that they claimed to love and to serve is a God who does new things and who breaks down barriers.

More than that, Jesus used this story to remind people that he was not interested in being the “flavor of the day” when it came to their religious appetites. He was not interested in being one “faith option” among many. He was about to embark on his ministry of healing and reconciliation, of challenge and confrontation, of salvation and redemption. And as he began that ministry, he used the stories of Elijah to remind the people that we can only trust God for everything when we trust God with everything.

Let me repeat that: We can only trust God for everything – that is to say, we can know that God will supply our needs and sustain us – when we are willing to trust God with everything – that is, when we are willing to let God have control of everything in our lives and not feel the need to retain some places for our own purposes.

The meals in our Scripture lesson today encourage and challenge us to bring ourselves to God. Our entire selves. To trust God, and to depend on God to get us through and to give us what we need. To rely on God. Not God and something else. Not God and my job. Not God and my car. Not God and my kids, my health, my spouse. Not God and my good looks (that’s a relief, I know…).

Trust God. Rely on God. And live into that trust by giving the things we hold dear to God for God to use according to his purposes.

The church was in a bind. The roof had failed and the heater was making some funny noises. They were really low on money. One of the older members, a man who had the reputation in town for being very wealthy, stood up to encourage the flock. He said, “When I first came to this town, I was homeless. I was unemployed. I didn’t have a friend to my name. And I came to worship and I heard God ask me if I trusted him. And I said, ‘Yes, Lord, I do.’ And I heard God calling me to give myself to him. I looked in my wallet and the only thing there was a ten-dollar bill. It was all I had in the world, and I put it in the plate. I gave it all to God, and look at where I am now. That’s what happens when we trust God, friends.” The church was silent for a few moments, until one of the older women said quietly, “I dare you to do it again…”

Beloved in Christ, remember these meals. Remember that God is sufficient – that God is the Lord of your expectations and your prejudices, your hopes and your fears. God is the source of all that is. God is the one who calls us from where we have been and who equips us for the places to which he will send us.

God used a couple of disgusting birds and a poor widow to teach that lesson to Elijah. How is God teaching you to rely on him today?

Remember. And be thankful. Amen.

Before and After

Lots of times, when we finish a mission trip – particularly one that involves construction – we like to share some “before and after” photos. Generally, this means that the ones early in the week show the project in some early stages, often in great disrepair or distress, while the ones at the end of the week present a glistening new edifice ready for use.

Hello, mudders...

Hello, mudders…

Our trip this week did not lend itself to such neat categories. We were called to work on a huge structure (2600 square feet) that will be home to at least four adults and six children. When we got there, the homeowner had done a good bit of work – it was all under roof, framed, and had some drywall hung. When we left, it was still under roof, had an additional 112 sheets of drywall hung, and was about halfway taped.

It’s not glistening. It’s not “move-in” ready.

But it’s a few steps closer. A great many steps, in fact.

One of Gabe's tasks was to sort the bird's nest of electrical work into a functioning breaker panel.  Mission accomplished!

One of Gabe’s tasks was to sort the bird’s nest of electrical work into a functioning breaker panel. Mission accomplished!

One of my earliest mentors in ministry said to me, “You know, most days, you won’t finish. But every day, you have to stop.” That advice has served me well in a variety of situations, including this one. It’s not done. But we are. And fortunately for everyone concerned, this house has not been our responsibility. The Lord has called this family to a new and safe place, and the Lord will allow them to enter it in his time. We were fortunate enough to be a part of the process.

And now we are coming home. If we did this right, then we are changed as much as the house was. Just like that building, we look the same on the outside. But there have been some great laughs, some profound truth, some deep sharing, and, to be honest, some very interesting noises that have been shared. Our hope and prayer is that these steps in our journey will lead us closer to being more appropriate homes for the Holy One. One of the passages we read this week was from John 15: “Abide in me as I abide in you…”

Some were changed, some were "touched", and some...well, some...

Some were changed, some were “touched”, and some…well, some…

The plan was to fix up a house a little bit so that the rightful owner could come in and live in it more completely and fully. Along the way, we hoped to turn ourselves into more suitable dwelling places for the Holy Spirit. By the grace of God, perhaps both of those goals are a little closer to being accomplished.

Years ago, I read “Living Faith” by Jimmy Carter. In it, he told the story of asking an old Amish farmer if he knew the Lord – if he was “saved” – if he was a believer in Christ. The Amish man thought for a while and then asked for a pad and paper. He wrote four names on it. “These men are the ones who own the farms north, east, south, and west of me,” he said. “You go and ask them if I’m living like someone who knows the Lord.”

We’ll show you the photos of the house. You tell us if you can see Jesus any clearer in our lives.

The crew with our chief, Bob Sherwood.  We're sad to admit that Brian left a couple of hours before this shot was taken.  He should be in it.

The crew with our chief, Bob Sherwood. We’re sad to admit that Brian left a couple of hours before this shot was taken. He should be in it.


When we finished our work in Mission, it was time to head north to the Hobby Airport in Houston, where we’ll catch a flight early on Saturday so as to return home by evening. En route, we stopped at the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge outside of Galveston. I will close this post with a few images from the happy hours we spent there.

We passed this huge flock of Sandhill Cranes near Falfurrias as we left Mission.

We passed this huge flock of Sandhill Cranes near Falfurrias as we left Mission.

Roseate Spoonbills fill the marshes at the Wildlife Refuge.

Roseate Spoonbills fill the marshes at the Wildlife Refuge.

Fortunately, this guy was none too interested in having pasty, lumpy northerners for dinner.

Fortunately, this guy was none too interested in having pasty, lumpy northerners for dinner.

The Crested Caracara patrols the skies in much of Texas.

The Crested Caracara patrols the skies in much of Texas.

Sharing the Table

This Lent, my sermon series at Crafton Heights Church is based on the meals that the people of God have shared and the ways that those meals help to a) define us and b) remind us of who we are. One of the themes that is emerging from this trip to South Texas is the prodigious amount of food that is being piled upon us, the willing victims of a caloric conspiracy.

Just as the meals in my sermon series point us towards some meaning that is deeper than the various lamb, bread, or wine that is consumed, so too these opportunities to share food with folks here are inviting us to consider what response we can make to the gifts that are shared.

Two meals from Wednesday and the stories behind them:

Lunch is served, with Carol (standing) and Rog (far right) providing the delicacies.

Lunch is served, with Carol (standing) and Rog (far right) providing the delicacies.

In years past, we have all packed our own lunches and filled the cooler with sandwiches, chips, and so on, and then headed out to the job site. “Lunch break” meant sitting around on the ground and eating our sandwiches and just relaxing. This year, though, we are being fed by a cadre of volunteers. Carol and Rog are “Winter Texans” who hail from Illinois, and they brought our group a fantastic lunch of pulled chicken sandwiches, potato salad, fruit, and cookies. In addition, Rog offered to pick grapefruit for us to enjoy at a later time. More than any of that, the meal was changed from a quick “refueling stop” to an occasion to hear stories, to celebrate God’s faithfulness over the years, and to remember that we are connected in deep and rich ways. It still took about forty minutes to eat, and we still rested…but somehow the experience was a little deeper than I remember from prior trips.

With the crew of Solomon's Porch and the food they shared.

With the crew of Solomon’s Porch and the food they shared.

After our work was finished for the day, we returned to the friendly confines of First Presbyterian Church of Mission and cleaned up so that we could head back down to the gathered community of Solomon’s Porch. This is the new church that our friends Pastor Danny, Roland, and others are beginning in the burg of San Juan, Texas. Here we spent some time in study (really, a sermon I preached and Danny translated) and then dove into some amazing Mexican food. Our hosts prepared rice, beans, pork (in several ways), salad, tortillas, and home made cake. Again, the depth of the meal was beyond the quantity of food provided – we reveled in the capacity of God to meet our needs in the various places that the day had taken us. We heard stories of God’s provision in illness and in school competitions and mission trips and in relationships. We met a man who is preparing for baptism on Easter, a handful of children who were excited to be eating and worshiping with their family of faith, and pointed to the God who heals.

That’s a lot to ask of a simple lunch and dinner, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I wonder what would happen in our lives if more of us treated more of our meals in a similarly sacramental fashion. It might be worth a try.

Dinner is served!

Dinner is served!

Telling stories in English and Spanish...

Telling stories in English and Spanish…

With Bob Sherwood, our coordinator from First Presbyterian, and Roland Pecina, our long-time friend from the Rio Grande Valley.

With Bob Sherwood, our coordinator from First Presbyterian, and Roland Pecina, our long-time friend from the Rio Grande Valley.

Bob puts the finishing touches on the window.

Bob puts the finishing touches on the window.

Gabe is a corner bead king.  Just ask him!

Gabe is a corner bead king. Just ask him!

Brian finishes the drywall.  As we seek to "CHUP it up" a bit, note that this piece is about the size of a 3x5 card...

Brian finishes the drywall. As we seek to “CHUP it up” a bit, note that this piece is about the size of a 3×5 card…

The Job We Can’t Do

Showing Buckley the ropes in the sheetrock hanging business...

Showing Buckley the ropes in the sheetrock hanging business…

We’ve been faced with a lot of challenges in our various CHUP mission trips over the years. In 1982, our kids felled a couple of trees and made a bridge at Camp Crestfield, hauling the fallen log across the stream themselves after the tractor and the chains failed. In 2003, our unlikely group of travelers became a “choir” in Malawi because that’s what they needed us to be. We have painted rooms and built chapels and uttered prayers and played with children and been to places that we thought might never get painted or built or uttered or played with or visited. Somehow, we have always found a way.

Until now.

I know that it’s only Wednesday morning, but it looks as though the good people of Mission Texas have put before us a challenge that is simply too great for us to accomplish.

Looking good, Steve...

Looking good, Steve…


Oh, it’s not the work on the house. We’ll make a dent in that just fine. We won’t finish it, but we’ll bring it along to the next step and be glad for the chance to have done so. We’ll leave feeling fine about the work.

A little repast at Rudy's BBQ, where brisket is sold by the pound and the "sause" is amazing...

A little repast at Rudy’s BBQ, where brisket is sold by the pound and the “sause” is amazing…

I’m embarrassed to say, it’s the food.

There is just too much of it.

I know, I know, with Steve Imler, Bob Walters, Mike Keib, Gabe Kish, myself, and recent addition Brian Buckley, you’re thinking, “How could there be too much food?” You have no idea. Imler’s thought is that it may have been a stroke of genius for us to travel without any women this year. “You know, Pastor – now all these people think that they have to save us from ourselves!” He may be on to something, because we are not allowed to do much in the way of food preparation at all.

We arrived on Sunday night and they had a magnificent meal prepared for us. Every day on the job site, there is a different team who has volunteered to bring us a hot meal. Yesterday, the homeowner fixed us a barbecue that featured the biggest leg/thigh quarters I’ve ever seen in my life. We mentioned that we found the citrus fruit appealing (pun intended) and now we have bags of white, pink, and red grapefruit. Last night, one of the women arrived at the church carrying a coffee cake, saying, “I just wasn’t sure how you were getting breakfast. I hope this is ok.” Tonight, we’ll be eating dinner with our friends Pastor Danny, Roland, and the community at Solomon’s Porch church.

The fellows enjoying a little home-style BBQ chicken at lunch break.

The fellows enjoying a little home-style BBQ chicken at lunch break.

Don’t count us out yet. We’re going to give it our best shot. But don’t be surprised if we come home beaten men, defeated by mounds of uneaten food shared by incredibly gracious hosts.

And yes, we are working hard. Thanks for the prayers!

As if there isn't enough food being brought to us, there are TWO TANGERINE TREES on the job site! Oh, the madness! (And no, you can't have that sporty hat)

As if there isn’t enough food being brought to us, there are TWO TANGERINE TREES on the job site! Oh, the madness! (And no, you can’t have that sporty hat)

Texas Team Update 18 February

Your Crafton Heights Church Adult Mission Team has completed our first day of work here in beautiful Mission, Texas. In recent years, we’ve said, “We work with our partners at the First Presbyterian Church of Mission”, and what that has meant in the past is that they’ve lent us a place to sleep & bathe, they’ve fed us really well, and we’ve told them great stories about the work we’ve done.

Ken (on the ladder) and George are getting it done on site.

Ken (on the ladder) and George are getting it done on site.

However, under the leadership of elder Bob Sherwood, the phrase “our partners” has a whole new meaning. Bob has mobilized a group of volunteers here at the church – most of whom are retirees, many of whom are “Winter Texans” – who have adopted a house a month to rehab and/or build. Today, the five of us were joined by four fellows from the church…and another crew of volunteers brought us LUNCH (sloppy joe and chips with home-made chocolate cake)!

The home on which we're working.

The home on which we’re working.

The home to which we’ve been sent is the biggest we’ve ever worked on here. The owners are a married couple with six children who have aging parents who live with them along with at least one other family member. Currently, these ten or eleven people are living in a ramshackle “house” that is about the size of a mobile home. They began building a new home several years ago, but construction has been delayed due to lack of funds caused by the man’s inability to find a job. Last week he began a new position working at a local ranch. His wife is currently in nursing school. When finished, this spacious home will accommodate the entire family. One unique feature, at least for the homes on which we’ve worked, is the fact that the ceilings are more than ten feet high. That will make it much more comfortable in the Texas heat.

I asked Mike to "smile".  Mission accomplished.

I asked Mike to “smile”. Mission accomplished.

Today, we finished insulating the house and continued the drywall installation that has been in process for several months. We hung quite a bit of board and look forward to beginning the taping tomorrow (I say “look forward” in the sense that “we know it’s coming”, not necessarily “oh, yay! We get to tape and sand drywall…”).

All in all a great day. Thanks for the prayers and all the support!

Gabe Kish setting the board in place.

Gabe Kish setting the board in place.

Thoughts on Bilingual Worship

This morning marked the first full day of another Mission Trip in the life of the Crafton Heights church. For the fourth year in a row, we have a team of adults working in the Rio Grande valley in South Texas. Once more, we are in partnership with our friends at the First Presbyterian Church, Mission. One of their ministry teams has identified a homeowner who is in some crisis and we will be working alongside of the church volunteers to help bring about a more positive outcome. More on that in posts to come.

Once more welcomed to the First Presbyterian Church of Mission, Texas

Once more welcomed to the First Presbyterian Church of Mission, Texas

Today was a day of worship – an varied worship it was! We began with the 8:30 service at the First Presbyterian Church. This congregation is largely composed of “Winter Texans” – retired folks who have lived much of their lives in places like Michigan or Indiana or Illinois and who now spend at least several months out of each year living in the Valley and actively participating in life here. The attendance at First Presbyterian more than doubles in the winter months as these “snowbirds” come south. Worship was what you’d expect at a tall steeple church in a small town – the choir was excellent, the children had a role to play, the pews were comfortable, and the building in great shape.

After worship, we visited Pastor Eric’s Sunday School class on the topic of prayer and then got into the rental van for a quick trip to the little burg of San Juan, TX. There, we met our old friend Pastor Danny at a new church plant called “Solomon’s Porch”. Here in a non-descript storefront along a dreary stretch of highway, a small band of disciples gathered for worship in song, prayer, and the Word. The congregation was much younger than that of the Presbyterian Church, and it was intentionally bi-lingual. Several members of the congregation apparently spoke no English, and I can count at least five who didn’t have any Spanish!

Worship at Solomon's Porch

Worship at Solomon’s Porch

I thought about the tremendous differences between the worship spaces and services: one is rooted in an established building with pews bolted to the floor, well-maintained parking lots, hymnals and extensive signage. The other has recently begun to worship in its third space in several months: a storefront with no signage, chairs that were used for the first time today, and a powerpoint that seemed to be evolving during worship. As Pastor Danny switched effortlessly from English to Spanish and back again, I found myself wondering: How would people know to come here? If someone were to show up, how would they get here?

Of course, the answer is simply this: they’d have to be invited.

The worship leadership at Solomon's Porch

The worship leadership at Solomon’s Porch

Which is, no doubt, the only way that anyone ever has known to come to church. They are invited. Sometimes, those of us in the established churches try to delegate the task of inviting others to our signs, or our buildings, or our denominations, whereas the new churches are perhaps more likely to personally invite people to come and sit next to them.

The second thought I had as I compared these churches, and remembered my recent experiences in Africa was this: all worship is bi-lingual, at least. “Solomon’s Porch” is led in both Spanish and English, and the worship at First Pres was all in English. But to a greater, and more accurate degree, no matter how many languages are actually spoken during the hour, every effective worship service I’ve ever been in has been bi-lingual: there are aspects of the service that speak to “insiders” and to “outsiders”. If we speak only to those who are exactly as we are, we will die. If we pretend that everyone knows what we know and has gone where we’ve been, then we delude ourselves and cheat others.

My hope and prayer is that the worship in which I am involved will always be open to those who have had to find the building in one way or another. No matter how many signs we put on our structures, if we are unable to invite others into our lives, they won’t care about the songs we sing or the pews we sit in. If, however, we are able to include those who have been on the fringes in one way or another, then perhaps they’ll be willing to find us in our outdated structures or poorly-signed edifices because what is happening will have some meaning in their contexts.

For what it’s worth…

In other news, we spent a couple of hours at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge today. It was, in the words of a man we met on the trail, “A rather blustery day” (for those who do not speak British English or who have never read Winnie The Pooh, that means it was cloudy and quite windy). The lighting conditions were poor, but we really enjoyed our walks on the trails and our encounters with some of the local fauna. A good day indeed.

A Green Parakeet - we saw a flock with hundreds of these bright creatures in it.

A Green Parakeet – we saw a flock with hundreds of these bright creatures in it.

Altamira Oriole

Altamira Oriole

One more step and a couple of us would have ended up in Mexico!  That's the Rio Grande and Mexico behind us.

One more step and a couple of us would have ended up in Mexico! That’s the Rio Grande and Mexico behind us.

Caring for Bodies that Nurture Spirits

The primary purpose of this leg of the Africa Mission 2013 is to encourage the relief and development work that the Synod of Blantyre has done implementing the “A-Maize-ing Grace” famine relief/avoidance program. As has been documented Previously, that went off very well.

From left: ZTC Principal Kutundu, Jeff Tindall, and Vice-Principal Gunya

From left: ZTC Principal Kutundu, Jeff Tindall, and Vice-Principal Gunya

On Tuesday 5 February, we had the opportunity to explore an offshoot of that project. When my old friend the Rev. Daniel Gunya, now Vice-Principal at the Zomba Theological College, heard about the famine relief program, he asked if there was some way that the students at ZTC might benefit. These young men and women have been sponsored by their home Synods to undertake the training necessary for them to be ordained into the ministry as Presbyterian or Anglican pastors. The college operates on a shoestring and he knew that these students, most of whom are far from their homes, would face significant challenges.

We contacted our friends at the World Mission Initiative and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and they responded enthusiastically. The seminary sponsored a special offering at their Christmas worship, and students and staff also participated through the WMI office. Those funds, when topped off by a contribution from the First U. P. Church of Crafton Heights, came to $2500.

The symbolic presentation of Maize to the President of the Student Government Association.

The symbolic presentation of Maize to the President of the Student Government Association.

We arrived at the Theological College on Tuesday afternoon and met with the Administrative Team, several faculty members, and representatives of the student body and the Student Government Association. We learned that through purchasing in bulk and using a vehicle from the Synod, that money enabled the College to give each student and staff worker a whopping 75 kg (150 lbs.) of maize and 10 kg (20 lbs) each of rice and beans. Rev. Gunya said that would probably be enough to see most of those families through the middle or end of March! It was truly a gift to be able to witness God’s provision in this way.

ZTC students inspecting the storehouse of maize, beans, and rice.

ZTC students inspecting the storehouse of maize, beans, and rice.

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What was equally thrilling to those of us from the PC(USA) was the interest that the faculty and administration had in our recent discussions of partnership between Blantyre Synod, Pittsburgh Presbytery, and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. They asked a lot of questions about the training that our colleagues in South Sudan had received, and are eager to explore the possibilities of exchanging theological students. I felt blessed to be a part of the global church this day.

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And all day…rain. Lots and lots of rain. It made the drive back to Blantyre, shall we say, “interesting” (let’s just say that the fact that I had a four wheel drive vehicle made it fun, not frightening!). But everywhere you look, the gardens are green and growing. Thanks be to God for the promise of harvest!