A Season of Thanksgiving

Thanks to the folks who worked so hard on this amazing event.  Here: Joann, Barb, Cheri, and Glenn join Sharon and me.

Thanks to the folks who worked so hard on this amazing event. Here: Joann, Barb, Cheri, and Glenn join Sharon and me.

In his classic Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain describes an incident wherein Tom, Huck, and their friend Joe decide to run off to the island in the river where they have a whale of a time being young boys – camping, fishing, imagining – with no thought to the folks at home.  After a while, they hear the cannons that indicate a death, and then discover that the entire town believes the three of them have drowned.  Unable to resist, they sneak back across the river and into the church filled with mourners.  In this chapter, Twain describes how overcome the boys were as they heard the minister draw such pictures of their lives – they hardly recognized themselves, it was so beautiful and touching.  He made these ruffians sound so filled with grace and goodness that eventually the boys are unable to contain their grief and so they march down from the balcony to the wonder and joy of all present.

In reflecting on that episode in the days to follow, Tom reckons that perhaps the pastor was a little generous in his assessment of the boys’ lives, but resolves to try a little harder to be the kind of a boy of whom the preacher spoke.

Our table included colleagues from several walks of life as well as Sharon's folks Mary and Gene.

Our table included colleagues from several walks of life as well as Sharon’s folks Mary and Gene.

Recently I had the privilege of that kind of a view when members of the Crafton Heights church organized a celebration of twenty years of shared ministry as pastor and congregation.  The weekend included a gala “roast” hosted by our friends at the Southminster Presbyterian Church and featuring remarks from Tim Salinetro, Erlina Mae Adler, Brian Zeisloft, Dan Merry, and Stephanie Summers.  Glenn Mack did an amazing job as the MC and Sheldon Sorge offered some theological reflection and a bit of worship music at the close.  I can’t name all the folks who contributed, but need to acknowledge Barb Prevost, Joann Mikula, and Cheri Mack as the central organizers of the entire affair.

With friends like these...

With friends like these…

To say that I was humbled would be an incredible understatement.  To say that it was hysterically funny would be to sell it short.  To say that it was “touching” would be like saying snow in August is “surprising”.  It was one of the highlights of my life, and a true joy to see family and friends gathered from the many worlds of my life (relatives, congregants new and old, community members, friends from Malawi and Ten Thousand Villages and so many more…).

Sunday worship featured an original song by my friend Adam.

Sunday worship featured an original song by my friend Adam.

The following morning, we engaged in worship (see my post Asaph, Titus, and Us, which contains the message I preached, along with the lyrics to the song penned by my friend Adam) followed by an ice cream social and another chance to enjoy each other’s company.

As we celebrated together, I recalled a conversation I shared some years ago with my friend Kelly, who was then in college.  I’d taken a leadership evaluation that required me to score myself in a number of areas and then engage key leaders on the same questions.  One of those questions invited us to think about when it might be time to consider vacating the current call and exploring a new one.  When I mentioned this question to Kelly, she said, “Well, Dave, what do you suppose you’d do if you weren’t a pastor?”

One of the great gifts I received was a custom-made stole featuring handprints from children that I've baptized or dedicated over the years.

One of the great gifts I received was a custom-made stole featuring handprints from children that I’ve baptized or dedicated over the years.

I smiled, and thought that poor Kelly didn’t understand the question.  I explained that it meant “when would it be time to leave this congregation”, not “when is it time to leave the pastorate altogether”.

She persisted and said, “Dave, you know that you couldn’t go somewhere else and just be Pastor Dave in that place.  No, if you leave Crafton Heights, I imagine that you’ll have to do something else…be a missionary, or a teacher…You just can’t be a pastor anywhere else.”

Friends make the journey blessed!

Friends make the journey blessed!

She is right, of course.  For twenty years, and for twenty-six of the last thirty-one years, living in the 15205 has been the right place for me.  A God-ordered and holy place of joy, companionship and growth.  I cannot imagine being anywhere else, doing anything else with anyone else.

A few years ago (when I started this blog, in fact), I was launched on a four-month sabbatical from the pulpit at Crafton Heights.  The scariest thing about that summer was wondering if I could be just “Dave”, not “Pastor Dave”.  I wondered how I would miss that community and that vocation.

I liked the sabbatical.  I liked it a lot.  And I discovered that I like me pretty well, too – not just my vocation, but myself.  Some day, Lord willing, I’ll be finished at Crafton Heights and have time to be me.  But I’m awfully glad that that day hasn’t come yet.  And, Lord willing, it’ll be a long time from now.

Here's to another decade or two...

Here’s to another decade or two…

If the folks at Crafton Heights give me a chance, I’d like to stick around a few more years and try to live into being the kind of Pastor and friend that they talked about a couple of weeks ago.  After all, I’m not sure I know how to do anything else.

Thanks be to God…and to all who made such a wonderful weekend possible.

The “F” Word

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On 17 November, we heard the fourth and final installment in the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book (in terms of the amount of ink that he gets, anyway).  Scriptures included Psalm 14 and Judges 8:22-35.

Hey, did you hear the latest? Apparently, a politician was discovered to have been saying one thing, but doing something else.  Can you believe that?131010_john_boehner_barack_obama_ap_605

No, I’m not talking about the recent debacle wherein some of the folks who said they opposed a government shut-down actually voted to continue it.

BushAnd I’m not talking about a generation ago where a leader invited us to read his lips about tax increases.

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale_1805_croppedI’m not even talking about the author of such amazingly powerful language such as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” who in reality supported and practiced the buying and selling of human beings in chattel slavery.

Look, I know that I’ve left a lot of people out, and there are probably some folks who aren’t yet offended.  I’d give you more examples, but I only have 23 minutes…

I’m talking, of course, about this morning’s scripture reading and Gideon.

winepress-threshingWhen we first met Gideon, he was a man driven by FEAR.  Do you remember those days?  He was hiding out in the winepress, doing his best to thresh the wheat underground because he was afraid of the Midianite bullies who would come and take it.  He was afraid to move forward into God’s call, even when that call was reaffirmed on multiple occasions by miraculous signs.  Do you remember the fearful Gideon?

And then a couple of weeks ago, we spent some time getting to know Gideon as a man of FAITH.  Sure, he’d been nervous, but after the signs at the altar and with the fleece, he comes around to believing what he tells the people of Israel in the words of Judges 7:15 – “The LORD has given the host of Midian into your hand.”  And, in fact, we witnessed a great victory, didn’t we? Do you remember God’s people defeated a swarm of 135,000 with a force of only 300 men?Shofar

I would like to pause here, and note that after this amazing victory, Gideon stopped to worship the Lord.  I’d like to point out that when the Midianites were routed like this, Gideon liberated the Israelites to live in freedom and peace and that the justice of God prevailed.

I’d like to note those things, but unfortunately, I can’t, because they never happened.  The beginning of Judges 8, which was not included in our morning’s reading, contains an account of Gideon’s pursuit of the defeated enemy.  Remember, what’s the name of the book we’re studying?  Judges.  And what is a judge?  A bringer of justice, peace, and security.

Gideon leaves that role aside and winds up acting in arrogance and cruelty, with petty vindictiveness.  This man who was called by God to greatness and righteousness tortures some of his opponents and slaughters others.  In a particularly vile act, he tries to get his son – who is just a boy, and unable to lift or wield a sword – to murder two rivals in cold blood.

This would be a good time to review what we said when we began the series on Judges – that just as much as this volume is a collection of campfire stories about specific people and places, it’s also a story contrasting the reign and rule of God with the human tendency to be selfish, to grab and abuse power, and to create structures that diminish “the other” and inflate the self.  You may remember that I’m claiming that the most important verse in the whole book, repeated four times, is “in those days there was no King in Israel” – and so everyone did whatever he or she wanted to do.

This chapter of the Gideon story bears that out.  Things could have gone from bad to better, what with the Midianites being defeated and all that.  Justice and faithfulness could hold sway.

But what actually happens?  Once again, the Israelites and those in power among them fail to act like God.  They escape oppression only to become the oppressors. They are delivered from idol-worshipers only to act like pagans themselves.  I want to note one particularly sad fact about today’s reading: in verse 28 we read that after Gideon’s victory, “the land had rest for forty years”.  Here’s the bad news… That’s the last time that phrase appears in the book of Judges.  From here on out, there is no rest for the land, no peace, no Sabbath.  I’m telling you, hold onto your hats because it’s going to get worse.

Let’s look a little further at today’s reading.  The Israelites ask Gideon to be their king and rule over them.  Why?  Because, they tell him, “…for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.”

Now I would very much like to pause here and say point out that Gideon corrected the flawed theology of his fellow Israelites by pointing them to the truth that we have already considered from Judges 7:15, and telling that “the LORD has given the host of Midian into your hand.”

I’d like to do that, but of course, I can’t, because Gideon doesn’t come close to correcting them in that manner.  He gives them a kind of an “Aw, shucks guys, it was nothing…I’m just glad I could help the team out” kind of a speech.  And then, he does something curious.  He says, “You know, if you’d like to show your gratitude, maybe just one small gold earring per person.  Nothing big, not a lot of bling, you understand…but a token would be nice, and I’d sure appreciate it. I’m sure that the Mrs. (or, in Gideon’s case, the Mrs.-s plural!) would like that too.”

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Nicolas Poussin (1633)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Nicolas Poussin (1633)

Uh-Oh.  Do you remember the last time we were in a jam, and a really big army came against us, and we got through, and the leader asked for a token from us?  Like when Pharaoh’s army was swamped in the Red Sea and Moses’ brother Aaron collected a few of our trinkets and put together…the golden calf?  Yeah.  When we ministerial types start asking for a little something on the side, it doesn’t usually end up too well.  Be warned, folks.  This is not a good omen.

Here’s the deal: Gideon says all the right things.  “Oh, no!  Heavens! Your king is God, you silly little Israelites!  Not me.  No, no, no…I would not ever want that kind of a job.” That’s what he says… But let’s take a look at what he does:

He collects all those earrings and uses them to make an ephod.  I know what you’re thinking: “An ephod?  Really?  Come on Gideon, don’t you have three or four of them lying around already?  What would you want with an ephod…”

EphodAn ephod, of course, is a piece of religious apparel that was worn by the person who was called to be the High Priest.  It contained some sacred stones that were used to determine God’s will.  Exodus talks about the fact that these vestments were to be worn by the one charged with consulting God on matters of importance to the whole nation.

And here, Gideon makes an ephod and brings it to his hometown – short-circuiting the role of the High Priest.  In doing this, Gideon is essentially saying, “Sure, of course, God is King.  Not me.  I’m just his errand boy.  In fact, if you have any questions about what God wants from you, just come to me and I’ll make sure that you know what God is looking for…”

And Israel absolutely loves this idea.  We read that the nation “prostituted themselves” to this garment – they worshiped it.  The clothing became an object of worship – and note that this language is very similar to that which describes the ways that the Jews went after the false gods of Baal and Asherah.

So Gideon makes an ephod.  What else does he do?  Well, how many kids does he have? Seventy.  And how many wives does he have? “Many”.  Hmmmm.  Seventy sons, many wives and concubines…who has families that look like that? Kings do!

And lastly, Gideon names his son “Abimelech”. Granted, it’s not my favorite Biblical name.  I’ve never baptized one of those…but here’s the deal on that: “Abimelech” means “My father is the king.”

Do you see what’s going on here?  On the surface, Gideon is saying the right things: “Look, God is in control, not me.  I’m just his humble servant…is everything all right for you guys?”  Yet in manipulating the religion of the people, and establishing a dynasty, and naming his children, Gideon is doing the opposite.

This man of FEAR who grew into a man of FAITH has now devolved into a man of FOOLISHNESS.

The Hebrew word for “fool” is “Nabal”, and you heard about fools in the reading from the Psalm: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God…’”  And look, please, at the way that the fool’s heart is revealed “…they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.”

Foolishness, as defined by the Bible, is not primarily a problem of intellectual capacity or theological correctness.  The problem with a fool is what he does, not necessarily what he believes.

And Gideon, by this definition, is a fool.  He says all the right things – but he doesn’t act on any of that great theology.

It is tempting to stop here and walk around inside of Gideon’s story a little more.  I’d like to really consider the ways that Gideon blows it and plays the fool by acting like such a knucklehead around God and God’s people.

And if I were clever, I could go back to the beginning of this message and tie in a few more current politicians or cultural leaders and say, “Do you see how this one or that one is really screwing it up big time?  But hey, they are politicians… crooks… Democrats…  Whaddya gonna do?”

But I wouldn’t be much of a pastor if all I talked about was Gideon or failed religious leaders or Republicans.

I want to talk about you.

In what ways have you been delivered from fear into faith, only to start behaving as a fool?

You know all the right things to say: Jesus wants us to love the neighbors…God is in control, and will work it out…Grace is a gift from God, and I really need to share it…

But how often do I live as though “I am the boss of me!  Nobody, but nobody tells me what to do with my time, my money, my kids my energy my…mine…mine…”

Um, hello…

Doesn’t God get to tell you what to do with your time, money, kids, energy, and so on?

Every single day, we are tempted to live into our own rules – to tell stories in such a way so that the behavior that we have chosen is justified.  We claim the faith, but we act the fool – because we behave, time and time again, like Jesus is not who he said he was.  We, no less than Gideon and the ancient Israelites, live in a culture where there is no king, and everybody does what they want to do when they want to do it.  And if we have a little bit of doubt, we listen to the people who tell us what we want to hear so that our own prejudices and ignorances are bolstered.

A wise person, on the other hand, allows other viewpoints to be considered.  We’ve spoken of politicians this morning.  Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our greatest President, achieved that prominence in part by surrounding himself with a cabinet comprised of intelligent people who disagreed with him in some key areas – a “team of rivals” who guarded him against the temptation to simply do whatever he wanted to do.

How do you know what to do with the time, money, kids, energy, and other things with which God entrusts you?  Who helps you to explore the core decisions of your life when it comes to school or child rearing or money and energy?  Do you have a community that comes alongside of you and helps you discern how best to move forward?

Or are you more likely to join Gideon and head out to the tabernacle you’ve built in your own backyard, strap on your own custom-made ephod, and do whatever the heck you want to do just because you can?

Beloved, if we are going to grow into the people God would have us be, I am sure it’s because we are willing to seek out wise counsel.  We are willing to pray with those whom we respect – some of whom might actually agree with us, while others might see things differently than do we.

The story of Gideon, at this point, is not an inspirational nugget designed to foster effective leadership practices at home and work.  It is a stark warning to a people who are too often in a hurry to play the fool by saying all the right things and somehow doing too many of the wrong things.

Beloved, let me encourage you this day to know and study God’s intentions.  That’s great.  But more than that, act towards those intentions.  Behave like someone who believes all the great stuff you believe.  Hold on to the promises, and act like they are true.

They are.  You can.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Asaph, Titus, and Us

The message presented here was shared on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary celebration of my ministry with the good people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  It was preached on November 10, 2013.  Texts included Psalm 78:1-8 and Titus 1:5, 2:1-7.  

OTHeroesLet’s pretend that I’ve asked you to write a booklet entitled “Great Heroes of the Old Testament”.  Who do you include?  Abraham? Joseph? Noah? David? Solomon? Deborah? Elijah?  You can come up with quite a list, can’t you?

How long would that list have to be before you got around to including Asaph?

Who?

Exactly.

The Choristers by James Tissot

The Choristers by James Tissot

Asaph was a young man who was brought into the limelight by David when he was a little more than twenty years old.  He started out in the percussion section, where he played the cymbals as the Ark of the Covenant was brought back to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles.  Not long afterward, he was promoted to “Chief Musician.”  King David appointed Asaph to be the worship leader in the “Tent of Meeting”.

How intimidating would that be? David, who was a skilled musician, a “man after God’s own heart”, asked Asaph to lead the music.  That’d be like Sidney Crosby asking Ron Gielarowski to take a couple of his shifts while he was working on something else, or maybe Paul McCartney asking Jon to fill in on bass while he played the piano.

But that’s what Asaph did.  For four decades, he was called to remind people of God’s grace; to lead them in giving thanks; and to help them express their grief when times got tough.  He was there when they were meeting in the Tent and he was there when they dedicated Solomon’s temple.  In many ways, Asaph became the consummate religious insider.  He watched David’s rise from rebel leader to King; he saw him fall in the scandal that surrounded his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah; he was on hand for Absalom’s revolt and he witnessed the decay of the nation’s faith when David’s son Solomon started to worship false gods.  Asaph is noted as the author of twelve Psalms, which means that he’s credited with writing more of the Bible than Abraham, Elijah, or most of the twelve apostles.

Asaph is not on anyone’s list of great Bible heroes.  Well, he’s on mine.  Because all he did was to keep pointing to the Lord.  All he did was to remind people that it’s a good thing to give thanks.  All he did was to pray fervently that the Story would live on in the hearts and minds of God’s people.

Psalm 78 is an amazing bit of truth-telling in the midst of the Bible.  Asaph presents himself as a teacher who points to God’s amazing goodness…and to the ways that we, God’s people, have fallen short.  He says, “Look, we have to keep saying the hard things to make sure that we don’t hide anything from the next generation – we want them to grow up knowing God.  In fact, we want them to grow up being better than we are.”

I have to interrupt Asaph right there and say that’s not a very Christian attitude.  Specifically, it’s not a very 21st-century American Christian attitude.

Here’s what I mean: in my experience, very few believers expect anything in the church to be better fifteen or twenty years in the future.  The story of the American church in the last century is to think about how it was last year, or five or ten years ago, and then try to figure out a way to make what we’re doing this year almost as good.  As if we’re stockpiling our supply of God’s grace and power, and we don’t want to blow it all at once.  As if God can’t use our children more powerfully than God uses us.  And so on our best days, we hope that our children are like us. Or, to be honest, almost as good as we are.

But Asaph reminds us that the call of God is to give the next generation all that we are and all that we have and all that we know so that they will not, in fact, be like us…but that they will be better.  God’s call is that the next generation is not to be stubborn and rebellious, but that they might be more faithful than we.  More generous than we.  More obedient than we.

And because Asaph looks at my parents, and me, and then at my daughter and my unborn grandchild like that, and expects God to continue working in a family like mine…Asaph is one of my heroes.

NTHeroesNow, let’s pretend that the volume of Old Testament Heroes sold so well that you’ve been commissioned to write a sequel, which I’ll imaginatively call “Great Heroes of the New Testament”.  Who do you include in that work?  Jesus, of course.  Mary?  Peter? Paul? John? Zacchaeus? John the Baptist?

How long would it have to be before that list got around to including Titus?

I would imagine more people have heard of Titus than Asaph.  Titus was a young follower of the Apostle Paul.  They must have made an odd pair.  Paul was a crusty old Pharisee who had been classically trained by one of the greatest minds in the first century, the Rabbi Gamaliel.  His entire life was focused on preserving ancient truth and the traditions of the ancestors.  Paul was a Jew’s Jew.  He was a hothead.  He was always on the go.  And he wrote half of the New Testament.

Saint Titus, as presented in a 14th-century painting in St. Nicholas Church, Kosovo

Saint Titus, as presented in a 14th-century painting in St. Nicholas Church, Kosovo

And somehow Paul becomes involved in a life-changing relationship with Titus, a man who was much younger than he, who wasn’t even Jewish, never became a Jew, and didn’t write a single verse of the Bible.  If Asaph was the consummate insider, Titus was the consummate outsider.  He wasn’t even allowed into the Temple in which Asaph served for four decades.  By the rules that Paul taught for most of his life, Titus wasn’t good enough to carry Paul’s lunchbox around for him – and definitely couldn’t share lunch with Paul.

And yet, somehow, Paul calls Titus “my true child in the faith”.  How intimidating would that be? To have the guy who’s pictured in all the stained-glass windows and has his fingerprints all over the original copies of the New Testament point his finger at you and say, “You, son…you’re next.  You’re amazing.”  But that’s what it says.  I mean, it’s my own translation, and a loose one, but that’s essentially what’s happening here.

Titus was Paul’s emissary on numerous trips to churches around Asia and Europe.  He corrected the Corinthians.  He took up offerings for the church in Jerusalem.  And this morning we read of how he was sent to Crete to establish and nurture a Christian community there.

How did Titus do that? By employing the same methods that Asaph used. He met people where they were and valued them for who they were.  He told the people the truth about who they were – good and bad – and he loved them.  He trained them and he equipped them to grow.  Titus expected those people to live into the fullness of their identity as Christ’s body on earth, the church.

OK, let’s imagine one more time.  Our series of Biblical Heroes books has sold so well that we’ve been commissioned to do one further volume: “The Greatest Churches in North America Since 1900.”

PreachersI hate to break this to you, but just like Asaph and Titus aren’t on most people’s lists of Biblical heroes, you’re not going to find The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights included in any retrospective of significant developments in ecclesiology over the past century.  And if you Google “most influential pastor in America” you get three quarters of a million “hits”.  If you Google “most influential pastor in America” and “Dave Carver”, you get…um, zero “hits.”

We know the truth, don’t we, my friends?  Who are we?  We’re us.  We know we’re not all that.  Come on, if I walked into the room and said, “OK, we’re going to ‘CHUP it up’ a little bit”, most of you would know what I mean by that – we’re going to find a way to make the thing work – we’re going to look for God’s grace and celebrate his love…but it might not be pretty.  Let’s CHUP it up.

We know that we are closer to Asaph and Titus than we are to the power of David, the glory of Solomon, or to the wisdom of Paul, aren’t we?

Isn’t that great?  I can think of no better comrades for our journey in this time and this place than Asaph and Titus.  Here’s why:

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that one of the defining characteristics of the Christian community is that we always want to compare ourselves to others – and that leads to the kind of intimidation I mentioned might have been present with Asaph and David or Titus and Paul.  Bonhoeffer speaks of the passage where Luke records that “an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest”.  According to Bonhoeffer, “…no Christian community ever comes together without this thought immediately emerging as a seed of discord.”[1]

That tendency to compare – to think, “I’m not as holy as so and so, but man, am I better than you know who” is corrosive to our ability to be the kind of community that Asaph, Titus, and indeed Christ envision.  When we can release that tendency, then we discover great freedoms.

One is the freedom to truly love each other.  When we refuse to compare or judge, Bonhoeffer says, “…each individual will make a matchless discovery.  He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person…and thus doing violence to him as a person.  Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be…God did not make this person as I would have made him…God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image.”[2]  When I celebrate that image, then I love both God and the other.

Another freedom we gain from refusing to compare ourselves is the freedom to listen to each other.  Again, turning to Bonhoeffer: “Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others…[that] they forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking…There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say.  It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person…We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”[3]

And when we refuse to compare ourselves with others, and therefore are free to love and to listen, we become free to proclaim the mystery of grace to one another.  One more quote from Bonhoeffer on this:  “We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need.  We admonish one another to go the way that Christ bids us to go…Why should we be afraid of each other, since both of us have only God to fear?…Or do we really think there is a single person in this world who does not need either encouragement or admonition?  Why, then, has God bestowed Christian brotherhood upon us?”[4]

Beloved, can you see some of us in those quotes?  That when we are at our best, we acknowledge that we are not the most amazing faith community with the best structure and the greatest pastor in the world today.  That’s OK, because we are not called to be those things.  We are called to be loving and listening and proclaiming the Truth in this place with these people at this time so that the world will change.

Speaking of painting, if you haven't seen the new paint job at CHUP, you've been away too long...

One of my favorite examples of this truth is the time that one of the pastors from a very large, wealthy, and influential church sat with a small group of us back in the parlor and quizzed us for 45 minutes as to what we were doing and how we were doing it.  At the end of the time he said, “Thank you so much for sharing this.  This means a lot, because my church thinks that it can’t do very much, but what you are doing…and the way you are doing it.  I mean, don’t be offended by this, but the truth is, if CHUP can do it, anybody can.”

EXACTLY!  If Asaph and Titus teach us anything, it’s that with God’s help, anybody can do this!

Listen:  this weekend we are having a good time celebrating two decades of shared ministry as pastor and people.  We are aware of the fact that for 26 of the last 31 years we have been together.  That is rare in the church in North America, and it should be noted.

But the reality is that although it is rare, things are as they should be.  That is to say, what you are doing here is passing along the gifts of Asaph and Titus: one generation seeks to take its strength, its hope, its gifts, and hand them to the next.  It’s God’s plan.  It works.

As the committee came to me with the suggestion that this morning’s service include a time of celebration of shared ministry, the one thing that was clear to me was that this service is not about me, and it’s not about us.  It is about the power of God to work in and through the Body of Christ.

As I have reflected in recent weeks, I am personally deeply humbled and profoundly grateful that I have been allowed to participate in these ministries.  The stories you have told me…the trust you have placed in me…the horrors we have faced together…the babies we have buried…the children we have witnessed soaring above us…the games we have played…the sin that has been exposed and forgiven…the friends who have brought us here or joined us on the way…the mission trips and retreats that have changed us…the profoundly broken people who have been such amazing vessels of Christ’s love and grace to us…the photos that line my study and the memories that fill our heads – these are all reminders of the fact that we have never, ever been alone on this journey.

And so like Asaph and Titus, we echo and we do not forget the works of God.  We name them.  We celebrate them.  We share them.  We are blessed – and that is wonderful.  But we never forget that we are blessed in order that we might become a blessing to others.  Let’s celebrate where we are, and dream about where we are going, because there are amazing things ahead of us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

To help celebrate this anniversary, my dear friend Adam Simcox composed an original song to be sung as a part of the worship experience on November 10.  I have his permission to share the lyrics with you here, and if I can come up with a way to get the recording online, I’ll do that, too.

Out On The Water

Sidewalks don’t change but the faces come and go / having lost their own way some barely pulling through.

hands that reach out and pull us in tight / when we rest in your love on those long dark nights.

(you continue to fight)

all alone lost in the fray / accepting a lie we’ve gone too far away

I’m not worthy and clearly not worth it / My motives don’t always measure up

At times I feel so helpless they look to me for “holy” / Will my efforts ever be enough

On my own I am nothing / In you I’m made complete 

CHORUS: But you’re already there out on the water calling my name

should I walk out in faith it’s so easy to falter / I hear your voice speaking to me

your hand reaching to the deep setting me free

we’re all in the same boat floating along / longing for the deeper in this life.

I’m just a man and they’re just someones / we hope for a glimpse with these crippled eyes

to your purpose to your plan / each small step your holding our hands

chorus

Each day I wake up help me to live / into your plan into your will

you see each one not for what they are / but for who you’ve meant them to be

who you’ve made us to be / won’t you please help us to see

chorus

During the Service, my beautiful bride presented me with a gift symbolizing twenty years of ministry in the congregation.  It is a handmade stole, reflecting the artistry of our friend Jenny at Carrot Top Studio in Pittsburgh.  It’s white, the color for celebration and resurrection.  It has on it handprints from 25 children who have been baptized or dedicated over the years – an incomplete sample, to be sure – but an amazing symbol nonetheless.  There is even a handprint for a little guy who has been born, but has yet to be baptized – my little friend Brogan (thus making 26 prints).  Jon, at 25, is the oldest “child” represented; and Brogan is of course the youngest.  It is simply amazing.  Here are a couple of images:

Carver-anniversary-front


Carver-anniversary-back

[1]Life Together (HarperSanFrancisco, 1954) p. 90

[2] Life Together pp. 92-93.

[3] Life Together pp. 97-99.

[4] Life Together p. 106.

What’s in YOUR Hands?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On 3 November, we heard the third installment in the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book.  Our scriptures included Judges 6:33 – 7:23 (below) and  Psalm 33:12-22

vikingI can’t imagine that anyone savvy to the internet isn’t familiar with the series of Capital One advertisements featuring the tagline, “What’s in Your Wallet?”  Whether it’s with Vikings or secret agents or sports stars, actor Alec Baldwin assures us that as long as we use his preferred credit card, we’ll get what we want, when we want it.

How will you get what you want or need, when you want or need it?  That’s the question that faced Gideon in the book of Judges.  He, along with all the other Israelites, were sick and tired of the Midianites coming in and emptying the pantry every harvest time.  The Israelites were primarily agriculturists, growing wheat and barley on their small farms in and around their settled villages.  Yet every fall, the nomads from Midian would swoop across the border and devour the harvest, thus impoverishing God’s people.Ruth gleaning

You’ve heard it before in Judges.  The people cry out to God, swearing, “God, you’ve gotta save us!  If you do, we’ll follow you from now on.  Really!  We mean it!”

God appears to Gideon and says, “Yes – I will.  I will deliver the Midianites into your hands.”   And if you were here a couple of weeks ago, you’ll remember that Gideon asks God for a little ID, and God ignites the offering that Gideon has set out.  So we’re good, right?  “Not so fast, God,” says Gideon.

Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.

Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. (Judges 6:36-40 NIV)

Gideon and the Miracle of the Dew, Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574)

Gideon and the Miracle of the Dew, Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574)

So here we see God, who has already demonstrated his purpose and intentions to Gideon, giving him a second and a third proof that he is who he says he is and will do what he says he will do.

Have you ever done something like that?  Offered a little prayer… “Um, God, if you really want me to do such-and-such, well, you’ll have to give me a sign.”  If I should ask that girl out, then let the next car I see be red.  If you want me to call my sick friend, then let the next sound I hear be a telephone.  If you think I should increase my giving to the church, Lord, then let the Pirates make the playoffs this year.  Look, I’m not suggesting this as a strategy, but let’s not limit the Lord, OK?  In this case, however, God gives Gideon the grace of two more signs that he is not alone, and that he will have victory.

Gideon believes God, and rounds up 32,000 friends to go out and face the Midianite army that contains, if we can trust Judges 8:10, 135,000 soldiers.  You don’t like those odds, but hey, God is on our side, right? Only there’s one problem:

Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained. (Judges 7:1-3 NIV)

Yep, there’s a problem.  Gideon has too many soldiers.  If the Israelites won the battle, they’d be tempted to think that they were “all that” and had just skunked the enemy in their own strength.  So God instructs Gideon to allow anyone who’s nervous about the battle to leave.  That cuts the army by two-thirds, but it turns out there’s a problem: that’s still too many men for the people to know that it’s really God’s hand at work here.

But the Lord said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.”

So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.

The Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.” So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others. (Judges 7:4-8, NIV)

Okie-dokie, God.  We get you now.  We’re down to 300 men.  We’ve lost 99% of our soldiers.  If we win now, we’ll know that it’s you.  Hoo-boy, will we know. I have a hunch that if Gideon had given the fellows a second shot at that “is anyone here nervous?” question, he’d have lost some of the 300 who remained at this point.  But finally, they are ready for combat, right?

Not quite:

Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley. During that night the Lord said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.” Judges 7:9-11a NIV)

I like how God says, “if you are afraid”.  Do you remember Gideon? Hiding in his basement threshing wheat?  Explaining to God how he couldn’t possibly be the one to deliver Israel because he was too weak.  And God says, “if you are afraid to attack”?  That sounds like God doesn’t know Gideon very well.  You and I know that Gideon was afraid:

So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp. The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.

Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. “I had a dream,” he was saying. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”

His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.” (Judges 7:11b-14 NIV)

When I first read this, I thought, “Seriously, Gideon?  It’s not enough for God to show up in your basement and promise you, and prove it.  Then, for two nights out on the back porch, you get a sign. Now, this knuckle-headed Midianite buck-private says something and you all of a sudden believe what God is telling you?  Get real, Gideon.”

But then I thought, “How many times has something sunk in on the fourth, fifth, or tenth time I’ve heard it?”  You know what that’s like: someone tells you something, or you read about it, and it doesn’t register…until one day, something just “clicks” and it all makes sense.  Beloved, let me encourage you to be unfailing in your willingness to continue to speak words of encouragement and truth to the people around you.  You can’t be sure when they will actually hear them.  It may be that someone is so scarred and so afraid that they simply won’t be able to hear you the first time you speak to them about love, forgiveness, grace, and hope.  Make that a refrain of your life, so that when the time is right, you will be heard – because you’ll still be saying it!

At any rate, Gideon finally, finally believes, and we get to the thrilling conclusion of today’s reading:

When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he bowed down and worshiped. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, “Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into your hands.” Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside.

“Watch me,” he told them. “Follow my lead. When I get to the edge of the camp, do exactly as I do. When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’”

Gideon and the hundred men with him reached the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard. They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands. The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled.

When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the Lord caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled to Beth Shittah toward Zererah as far as the border of Abel Meholah near Tabbath. Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites. (Judges 7:15-33)

Wow!  A group of 300 men routs an army nearly 500 times its size!  Gideon’s army wins – without actually fighting.  The night was divided into three watches.  So when Gideon’s men showed up all around the camp and blew their trumpets and shone their lights, there were about 1/3 of the enemy standing guard, there were 1/3 walking back to their tents, and 1/3 asleep. Imagine what it would be like to hear that there was an attack, be awakened, and find an armed man coming into your tent.  It must have been that before they realized what was happening, the Midianites were slaying each other.

Did you notice how Gideon’s men won?  By simply standing there.  They held their torches and blew their trumpets, and the Midianites beat themselves.  It ought to be clear to anyone and everyone that this is God’s victory, right?  Seeing a squad of 300 men defeat an army of well over 100,000 – that’s a miracle on a par with the crossing of the Red Sea or the feeding of 5000 people with a couple of loaves of bread.

ShofarExcept…except did you see what Mr. Scaredy-pants did back there when he was instructing his men?  After God had given him four signs that God would win the victory, Gideon put his own name in the headlines.  “Look, fellas, when you shout out, remember to say, ‘This is for the Lord…and Gideon!”  I’m here to tell you that this means trouble – but we’ll consider that another day.  I’d like to focus today on the fact that here, in this moment, God’s people are victorious.

How? By trusting in God.  And how did they trust?  Look at what this group did: they had to release the things that they usually carry – things like swords or spears and shields.  And then they were free pick up…well, they pick up what God tells them to pick up.

They pick up a trumpet.  Literally, a shofar.  An instrument made from a ram’s horn.  It’s the same trumpet that God said should be blown to announce the year of Jubilee; the same trumpet that would herald the forgiveness of sin; the same trumpet that would declare the Day of the Lord.

littlebuglerDo you remember all those old western movies? Who plays the bugle?  The skinny guy, the kid, the wounded guy…the one who is too weak, too weary to actually fight.  The bugler doesn’t do anything…except to announce the arrival of a power that is far greater than he.  Nobody in the history of buglers has ever been afraid of the bugler.  We fear and respect the one that the bugler announces and summons, don’t we?  We fear and respect the power that those notes represent.  God’s people picked up bugles.

The other thing that they picked up was a torch.  A means by which they could see and, more importantly, be seen.  A light that pierces the darkness and reveals what is really true.  The presence of God!

What’s in your hands this morning?  As I’ve suggested, an ancient Israeli soldier would probably be clinging to his spear or sword and a shield.  A weapon for attack and something to defend himself against attack.  I bet that you don’t have either of those things today.

But hold up your cell phone.  And hold up your wallet.  I bet that if for some reason we needed either of those things today, you could put your hands on yours inside 15 seconds.  What does that say about us?

Gollum_iPrecious5-734388This cell phone is, for many of us, the way that we stay in contact.  It reminds us that we are somebody.  We get texts.  We update our status.  I heard on the radio this morning that the average college student checks his or her facebook status 20 times an hour.  We use that phone, don’t we?  We need that phone. The phones we carry are precious indeed.

And our wallets?  They contain our ID.  We use them to prove we are who we say we are.  We use them to gratify our needs, or to complain about why we have so many needs.  My wallet contains either a wad of cash reminding me how powerful I am, or it contains a couple of bucks reminding me what a loser I am because I’m so broke.  Either way, we are tempted to use our wallets as measuring sticks.

I’m no Gideon, but I’m here to invite you to lay down, to profane, if you will, the things that you don’t want to let go of.  If you turn off your cell phone, are you still you?  If your last status update didn’t get twelve “likes”, do you still have friends?  If you can’t reply instantly to that pile of email that came in while you were listening to the sermon…do you matter?  Beloved, don’t allow any piece of technology to control what you do.  Turn it off, every now and then.  Take a Sabbath.  Listen to the people who are with you now.  Be present to The One who is always present to you.

And what about that wallet?  Can you loosen up the grip that money and materialism has on you?  You can, you know.  You can profane the power of money and stuff in your life by simply wanting less and giving more.  Refuse to allow your net worth to define your true worth.

fire_torchListen, if you loosen up your grip on your cell phone and your wallet every now and then, you’ll have a hand free to pick up a torch or a trumpet.  If you refuse to allow those external devices to dictate your identity, then you can have access to the Power that not only saved the day for Gideon and his friends, but who paved the way for the ultimate act of grace and strength in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  If you can open up your hand and grab a torch, you’ll be able to see into the darkness far more clearly.  You’ll grow into a life in which there is no reason to hide in the darkness.

What’s in your hands?  You know the answer to that.  But what should be there?