A Hen in the Fox House

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 31, 2014 our readings came from Luke 13:31-35 and I Corinthians 1:18-31

What’s your favorite animal? If you could not be yourself, but had to choose instead to be another creature, what would it be?

Maybe you’ve seen some of those surveys that come across online: “Which superhero are you?”, or “Which city in the world should you live in?”

In the interest of researching this message, I took three online quizzes, each of which promised to tell me which animal I was most like, or from which I derived the most power. I’m here to report that I am an elephant. Or a butterfly. Or an owl, wild dog, or prairie dog (I think I threw one of the quizzes for a loop). I can own those choices, as different as they may be from each other.

If we can trust the Bible and the testimony of the church, Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, was pre-existent with God the Father. That is to say, the person of Christ was present with God the Father and was, in fact, an agent of the creation. According to the Gospel of John, “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (1:3). So Jesus came up with the ideas for the animals. Which animal was Jesus’ favorite?

I don’t know if we can answer that question. But I do know the one with which he compared himself: the hen. You heard it from Luke’s Gospel a moment ago.

chicken-and-her-babiesHave you ever taken one of those on-line quizzes and not liked the result, so you go back and answer it differently? “Oh, no, I can’t possibly be like that, I better check my answers…” Can you hear Jesus’ friends? “Whoa, Jesus, careful now. That just doesn’t sound right…a messiah like you? A chicken? No way, man…”

Last week, we talked about the rooster, and how around the world, it is a symbol for all that is strong, virile, and powerful. But that’s a rooster. That’s a cock.

If you’re a chicken, what are you? You’re weak. Afraid. Powerless. It’s a playground taunt, isn’t it? If you want to goad someone into doing something that they aren’t sure they want to do, how do you do it? You call them “chicken”. You belittle them by comparing them to a hen…which Jesus says he is like…

HenThe gallus gallus domesticus with which we are familiar is a descendant of the Red Junglefowl. There are more than twenty billion of these birds on the planet today, making the chicken the most abundant bird on earth.[1] Everyone, everywhere, knows chicken. In fact, when my friend John was traveling to exotic places in the world as a part of his work with PPG, I overheard him answer a question about his diet by saying, “I haven’t ever been to a place where they don’t serve chicken.” And that’s been my experience too (although I have eaten it in some very unusual ways, and I’ve certainly eaten parts of it that I’ve yet to find in American stores!).

If the chicken is the most common bird on earth, it may also be the most abused. In our quest for cheap eggs and lots of white meat and inexpensive fried chicken, we have created giant factory farms where millions of birds are kept in tiny boxes, with their beaks cut off, laying eggs onto conveyor belts as quickly as they can until they are considered “spent” and then destroyed. We do horrible things to these birds.

And if it’s not the most abused animal, I would at least suggest that it is the most taken for granted. Not many people think that much about chickens, but most of us have some interaction with them most days.

And if chickens are abused and omnipresent and taken for granted, well then, maybe it is easier to see how Jesus would compare himself to these birds.

Debbie Blue writes in Consider the Birds,

           In Christian art, Jesus is represented more often as a lion or an eagle than a hen, even though he himself gives us the image: Jesus as chicken. Did the church veer away from this representation from the beginning because it was too emasculating? However Jesus thought of himself, or the revelation from God he embodied…we’d like to think of him as big and strong and awesomely powerful…
Christ does not come in power. This is a truth so deeply embedded in our narratives of him that it is hard to get away from – no matter how we might try. He comes as a baby. He is baptized by John. He heals some people, but he doesn’t even come close to being as effective as the smallpox vaccine… Jesus doesn’t dine with the emperor or slay dragons…
Jesus doesn’t make power plays.

Every time there’s a choice, the smart money is always bet on the Herods of the world. When Jesus is warned about the fact that all his talk about the Kingdom of God is making the Establishment Ruler very unhappy, Jesus calls Herod a fox. The fox is a clever, wily, opportunistic, and violent killer. That sounds about like what we know of Herod.

And in his next breath, Jesus compares himself to a hen. Herod is a fox, and I’m a hen, says Jesus.

If you know many children’s stories or fables, you can see where this is going. The image of the fox in the henhouse is a staple of folklore, and it’s a way of conveying the fact that, given half a chance, people will exploit situations or each other to their own ends.

Fox in a Chicken Yard - Jean-Baptiste Marie Huet 1766

Fox in a Chicken Yard – Jean-Baptiste Marie Huet 1766

When we say that there’s a fox in the henhouse, we generally mean that there’s a predator afoot: your shady brother-in-law was just named power of attorney for your parents, or the industry lobbyist has been appointed to develop government policy, or a four year old has just volunteered to guard your pile of candy.

The fox gets into the henhouse. In spite of how we try, that’s the way of the world. It happens. Most days, much of our experience has something to do with foxes running amok in henhouses.

And then Jesus turns that on its head, and says that his way of life is more like the hen in a fox house. Jesus looks at Herod and at those who would try to warn him to keep his distance and says, essentially, “Yep. The world is a violent, scary, sleazy, and dangerous place. But I am not going to allow those things to change my nature. Tell Herod that this hen is right here.”

The way of Jesus is summarized in a poem written by Kent Keith. Mother Theresa thought so much of this that she had a copy hanging on her wall in Calcutta. It’s called The Paradoxical Commandments :

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.

Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.

Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.

Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.

Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.

Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.

Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.

Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.

Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.

Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.

Give the world the best you have anyway.

The Apostle Paul saw that the power of Christ was the power of love, and he recognized that it was a weak and foolish power when contrasted with the things that often typify our world. And yet he claimed that at the end of the day, love was the only power that mattered.

It doesn’t make sense. Somehow, the mathematics of the cross and the empty grave add up to more than the total of evil and violence in the world – but it’s hard to see that on some days.

In fact, in my experience, those who demand proof of this truth are rarely convinced, because love looks so powerless when compared with hate.

But when people experience this firsthand, they know.

The power of the hen to which Jesus compared himself is not the power of force of arms or might. It is not the power of violence or brute strength. No, the hen’s power is that which shields the vulnerable and protects the weak. The hen’s strength comes in her willingness to place herself between her children and anything that would threaten them. It is the power of love.

Today, the call of the Gospel is for the people of God to ask for that power to infect our hearts. To ask the Giver of all gifts to invade our lives with this kind of power.

In this power, we will find that we are able to look at young brown men and remember that they were created fearfully and wonderfully and are called to live in humility and service. In this same power, we will find that we are able to look at police officers and remember that each of them was created fearfully and wonderfully and is called to live in humility and service.

The way of the world is the love of power. The way of the world is to look at people and see a type. All cops are jackbooted thugs. All young men of color are gangbangers with no regard for other people.

The way of Jesus is the power of love. The way of Jesus is to look beyond type and see individuals. To believe and to remember that each of us carries within us a spark of the Holy, and to call forth that spark from those with whom we relate and to display that spark in our own lives.

We are more accustomed to the way of the world. We are used to seeing the fox in charge of the henhouse. It’s predictable and reliable, and a safe bet to say that the rich will get richer, the weak will become weaker, and those on the margins will be pushed further out and eventually over the edge. That makes sense to us. It’s logical.

Yet Jesus and Paul call us to a new reality in which the power of love is central. Life in this reality calls forth a new culture, and demands new language and fresh habits. And, like any new culture, it will take time to learn, and it is more readily learned when adopted by a community that is willing to reinforce the core truths of that reality on a daily basis. We need each other to model this power of love because it is so easy to forget.

You see, when you look up information on the fox, you’ll find that it’s described as a solitary, opportunistic feeder that hunts live prey.[2] The fox is on his own, and in it for himself.

Yet the hen is a complex social animal that lives in and relates with a group. Hens exist in the community of the flock. They need each other.

Let me invite you to join in this new reality by remembering today that you are surrounded by the love of God. You are shielded by the arms of Christ. You are enfolded deep within his heart. And let me remind you that you are sent out into the world as an agent of that love. Together, we are called to be a demonstration of that love.

And for me, at this point in our story, demonstrating that love needs to involve being closely attuned to the stories of all those who might be lumped into a category or a type and refusing to treat them, first and foremost, as that category or type. Being a hen in the foxhouse means standing with those who are vulnerable. It might even mean standing between those who are vulnerable and those who would wield power unjustly or inflict harm. It means love.

Jesus isn’t naïve. He knows exactly what will happen. “Go tell that fox where he can find me.” He knows what’s going to happen later that same week, when the powers that be string Jesus up. But Jesus also knows what’s going to happen at the end of the story, where somehow being a hen in a foxhouse is the Godly thing to do.

I know, it sounds crazy. But it just might work. So far as I know, this kind of love, this kind of hen in the foxhouse lifestyle, is the only means by which death has been defeated. That’s good enough for me. Now, hold me to it. Amen.

[1] http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/08/peak-chicken

[2] http://www.worldanimalfoundation.net/f/Fox.pdf

I’ve Got This…

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 24, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 26.  

morning roosterWhat’s the one thing that everyone knows about roosters? They crow when the sun comes up, right? That’s what roosters do.

Right. Sort of. I had my first rooster encounter in the summer of 1993, when the mission team I led to Mexico spent a week in a small village where everyone raised chickens. I learned there that roosters crow at daybreak. They also crow half an hour before daybreak. And at noon. And as dusk settles. They crow when the Steelers win and when the Browns get the first round draft choice. One would be correct to say that roosters crow at sunrise. One would be more correct to say that roosters just don’t stop crowing. After living in that village for a week, and having sleep disturbed for six days, I never saw a group of people tear into a chicken dinner the way that team dove at the barbeque on the Friday night of that mission trip…

Roosters don’t crow to tell you the time. Roosters crow because they want you – and the hens – to notice them. They crow because they can. They crow because they want to mate. They crow because they want other roosters to know they’re around, and who’s the at the top of the pecking order.

Five years later, while living for the summer in Africa, I discovered how violent these birds can be. Every now and then, we’d go to a worship service and be presented with a live chicken for our troubles. Most times, we’d bring the hen home and put it with the others and all would be well.

One day, though, we received a beautiful cock. I mean, he was fierce and proud looking and decked out with just about every color of the rainbow. I brought him home and threw him in with the other chickens. About an hour later, I heard a tremendous disturbance. I went to the chicken coop and saw the new bird attacking the resident rooster. There was blood everywhere, and both birds were pretty beat up. We had to choose one rooster to keep and one to eat, or they’d both be dead.

The Cock Fight (1885), Winslow Homer

The Cock Fight (1885), Winslow Homer

Cock fighting is perhaps the world’s oldest spectator sport, and dates back at least 6000 years. Although it’s illegal in all fifty states, there are many places around the world where specially-trained birds enter a ring and attack each other until one of them dies. From Indonesia to Central America to parts of Europe, men (and it’s almost always men) crowd around and place bets on these birds as they seek to destroy each other. A winning cock will often stand upon its dead opponent and crow loudly. For millennia, the cock has been a symbol of power, arrogance, machismo, strength, and dominance.

In fact, when we say that someone is acting “cocky”, we are communicating our opinion that someone is a little too proud of him or herself; that he or she is overbold, overconfident, overly proud.

In Consider the Birds, Debbie Blue points out that there is a lot of cockiness written all over the Last Supper. For some time, Jesus has been telling his friends that he is marching towards his own death. The kingdom that he announces is in such conflict with both the political and religious establishment that they will have no choice but to kill him – and he wants everyone to know that he is laying his life down of his own free will.

"The Last Supper" (detail) (c. 1530) Joos van Cleve

The Last Supper (detail) (c. 1530) Joos van Cleve

The disciples, however, won’t have any of this. They can’t figure out what is wrong with Jesus, and when given half a chance, they engage in remarkably cocky behavior. While he is telling them the most important things in the world, they are arguing about which of them is the greatest. After they share the Eucharist, Jesus leads them out to the Mount of Olives where he predicts that they will be scattered as he faces his death, and Peter just won’t shut up. “No, Lord, not me! The rest of these losers? Well, I can’t make any promises about them, but I’m your man! I’ve got your back! We can take these guys, Jesus!”

And Jesus says, famously, “Peter, before the cock crows tonight, you’ll deny me not once, but three times.” In other words, you will crumble in no time, my friend.

But Peter just preens and struts a little more: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, you’re a nice guy, but you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You and me, Jesus. I’m here for you, man. I’ve got this, Jesus.” It is a defining moment in his life!

Let me ask the women in the congregation this morning: how many of you have ever, even once, heard a man announce a plan of action that made you cringe and say, “What are you thinking? Are you sure?”, only to be met with the response, “It’s OK, honey. I’ve got this.

What is it about the male of our species that leads us to place such undeserved trust in our own abilities? From “Look, Ma, no hands!” to rewiring the house by ourselves to driving down the street holding the mattress on the car roof with one piece of twine and our bare hands, we are fools, are we not?

And while I’ve had a little fun at the expense of the men, I won’t call out the women on this one but simply say that pride and arrogance are not gender-specific, are they?

Where did that pride, that arrogance, that cockiness get Peter?

The Repentance of Peter (Carl Bloch, 1834-1890)

The Repentance of Peter (Carl Bloch, 1834-1890)

You know what happened. It is one of the most tragic stories in the Bible. The same night that he professes his ultimate allegiance and undying loyalty to Jesus, he denies him not once, not twice, but three times. In one of the saddest moments of the gospels, Peter turns his back on the one that he loves.

Look, say what you want to about Peter. He’s a hot-headed racist and sexist who can’t keep his mouth shut…but he loves Jesus. He’s clueless and arrogant and full of himself… but he loves Jesus. And here, on the worst night of his life, he publicly declares that he’s never met, never even heard of Jesus.

And just as he finishes his final lie, the cock crows and he remembers the words of his friend. Isn’t that the most pathetic thing you’ve heard all morning?

The last time that Peter is mentioned in the gospel of Matthew is this scene, where the strong, virile, cocky fisherman is huddled, bawling like a baby, as dead as the loser in a cockfight, while pride and masculinity and power crow out their victory over top of his slumping form.

At this moment, Peter is lost. He is bereft. He is alone. He is nothing. His pride has cost him everything.

Do you know how that feels? Can you imagine it? In recent months, I have had the opportunity and responsibility of walking with a few people who have been publicly disgraced. These are men whose worst acts and most ill-considered decisions have become public knowledge. Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone knew the worst thing about you?

What is the opposite of pride? It seems to me that it is shame. Pride feels good. When we tell our children to “stand up and make us proud!”, we want them to feel strong, to be energized, to have a sense of control in their lives.

And shame? Shame is demoralizing. It makes you weak and impotent. You are embarrassed and paralyzed and afraid. Shame will kill you if you let it.

And sometimes, when we are considering a polarity like this, with Pride over here and Shame over there, we say, “Well, heck! If pride feels good and shame feels bad, if pride makes me strong and shame makes me weak, then give me some of that there pride!”

And so we move towards pride and esteem and, well, cockiness. We strutt our stuff. We want people to notice us and to like what they see. We want to be the best we can be, and to be recognized as such.

But here’s the secret: pride kills too. Shame will, as I’ve said, kill you if you let it. But pride will kill you every time. Every time.

What are we to do, then? If we’re stuck between two poles, each of which will kill us, how can we move?

We can follow Jesus. Jesus lays out a third way for us. The author of the book of Hebrews describes an action plan in this way:

…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb. 12:1-2)

Jesus refused to serve pride and did not fear shame. He walked in humility and confidence the path that God had set out for him.

I know that some will hear me use the word “humility” and think of “humiliation”, which sounds an awful lot like “shame” to us. That’s not what I mean. I understand “humility” to mean a realistic assessment of yourself, gathered with the input of God, your community, and your own observations.

Sometimes in our world, being humble means walking around saying, “Aw, shucks, it’s nothing, really…” Which, of course, prompts people to say, “No, wow, that’s amazing! You really are great!”, which, of course, pumps you up, so that at the end of the day, you feel…PROUD. That’s not humility.

In essence, being humble is recognizing that you are who you are. You are probably reasonably good at a couple of things, and you struggle mightily with others. You are strong in a few places, and ridiculously close to your breaking point in others. You know those things about yourself and while you work to improve, you accept yourself. You even love that self.

A humble person knows all those things about her or himself and treats other people as though those things are true of them, too. You can accept and love those people, too.

Debbie Blue says this about Peter:

At the end of the Gospel stories, Peter is not strutting like a cock. He weeps…we glimpse a different side of Peter than the one he has tried to project. He is not made as fierce as possible as a disciple of Jesus. He is not trained to put on a good show in the ring. Jesus is not this kind of trainer. He does not impress us with his ability to do violence to others. He lays down his life, his sword – he walks out of the ring, so that we may likewise be free to do so. Imagine the space that might open up outside the sphere of competition, what might grow outside the confines of the ring.[1]

Listen: every day, the world does its level best to convince you that life is a cockfight. It tries to make you believe that your only choices are to be violent, arrogant, vindictive, and proud or weak, powerless, impotent, and ashamed.

The God we have gathered to worship this day taps you on the shoulder and invites you to consider an alternative reality – to wake up, if you will, in a new day. A way of living wherein we are gentle with ourselves and with others; a place where we are glad to see beauty where it exists and in whom it is present; a lifestyle in which we are quick to forgive and willing to believe the best about ourselves and each other; a community in which when brokenness is revealed we are able to point to the healing that comes from the cross.

May we call ourselves and each other to this way, today and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013) pp. 167-168.

The LBJ Principle

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 10, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 10:1-31

Think, for a moment, about your passion. What do you love – I mean, really love? Running? Cooking? Sports? Do you remember the day that you fell in love with that hobby?

A Malachite Kingfisher

A Malachite Kingfisher

In 1998 I was traveling through Machinga, Malawi, in Central Africa. My friend, Pastor Mnensa, and I were on our way to the Chikhale CCAP, and were crossing a little “bridge” about 20 kilometers from the nearest paved road. As we came near to the bridge, Ralph began to tell me about a wonderful little bird he had seen near that stream on an earlier trip. We stopped and waited for a moment, and I was delighted to see a Malachite Kingfisher – the most beautiful bird I think I’ve ever seen.

Later that same year, I was sitting in my friend Dirk’s living room in Pretoria, South Africa, and I noticed all the birds that were flocking to his feeder. Of course, to my mind, they were all exotic. I was in Africa, after all. I said something to the effect of, “I can’t believe you have so many cool birds here. If we had nice looking birds in America, I might start watching them there. But all we have are boring birds.”

Fortunately for me, and perhaps unfortunately for anyone who gets stuck in a conversation with me, I have since discovered that we have some amazing birds in the 412 and across our continent.

House Sparrows

House Sparrows

However, at the time, I was thinking about all of the LBJ’s that flock to my feeder every day. An “LBJ” is a “little brown job” – one of those small, undistinguished creatures with dull plumage that seem to be everywhere. There are at least 35 species of sparrow in North America, and by and large, they are (at least from a distance) LBJ’s.

I know, I’m committing some sort of ornithological heresy by saying this, but I don’t see the excitement in watching a flock of a hundred small brown birds looking for the one with a different color eye stripe or bill color. Once in Texas, I talked with a man who had followed a flock of sparrows around the wildlife refuge for an hour because he thought that in and amongst the House Sparrows there was, in fact, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. And there was. And it’s hard for me to envision a scenario whereby that photo would be worth an hour of my time, but…

A Lincoln's Sparrow.  I know - this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

A Lincoln’s Sparrow. I know – this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

The House Sparrow is a much-despised bird, even among serious birders. There are articles that talk about how to create an environment in your backyard that discourages these LBJs from crowding out the feeder. There are about 150 million of these birds in the United States, and not many people like them.

In fact, in the late 1800’s there was a movement called the “Great English Sparrow War”, wherein this bird was called a foreign invader who was lazy, immoral, and harmful to native songbirds as it stole their food and habitat.

Publicity poster for Mao's "Four Pests" campaign.

Publicity poster for Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign.

Half a world away, a couple of generations later, Chairman Mao named the English Sparrow as one of the four pests that had to be eradicated from China for the country to succeed – again, calling it an immoral and lazy bird who stole food from the native inhabitants. For hundreds of years, people have spent a good bit of energy hating the sparrow.

And yet Jesus says that God actually cares about the sparrows. Billions of sparrows in the world, living, breeding, dying, hatching…and God actually cares for them. God knows what is going on in their lives, if we can trust Jesus on this one.

God gave me one child. I love Ariel, and now her daughter, Lucia, with my entire being. I am not exaggerating when I say I love them more than life. Sometimes I look at my friends with 2, 3, 4, or more children and I say, “How do you do that?” Not so much, “how do you manage to get everyone to school on time, or in dance classes or little league or those activities?”, but “I know how fiercely I love my one child. How do you love that many children as much as I love mine? Isn’t it exhausting?”

Loving people wears you out, doesn’t it? It’s nerve-wracking and annoying – you worry about people making bad decisions and getting caught up in someone else’s bad decisions and…

I am a hover-er. Ask any of the kids in the youth group, and I bet they will tell you, “I know that Pastor Dave loves me, but he sure asks a lot of questions. And he hugs me a lot.” At this moment, I am as drained and spent as I have ever been because of the ways that I have tried to love the kids from this community who have served on a Mission Team for the past week. I would walk across broken glass for them, but I am beat.

But as noble as all that is, I am not that good at loving and caring, at least compared to God. My world is so full…and my head hurts and my heart aches and sometimes I just throw up my hands and sigh.

And yet there is something in the divine nature that loves and treasures even the House Sparrow. These little creatures, which Matthew tells us are sold two for a penny, are noticed and valued by God. When Luke gets around to this part of the story, we see that he must be shopping at Walmart, because he finds them five for two pennies.

They are as close to worthless as they can be. And God cares for them.

What does this mean? It means that in the divine economy, there are no Little Brown Jobs. God refuses to look at some part of the creation and say, “Oh, that? Meh. It’s not my best work. I’ve done better.” God knows, values, and cares for everything in creation.

By extension, therefore, it would seem as though I, made in the image of God, am called to a similar level of attentiveness and care. I am not free to disregard or despise that for which God cares.

Which leads me to some thoughts about the current crisis on our nation’s southern border…or the educational system in our inner cities…or the famine in South Sudan…or the warfare in Israel and Palestine.

It seems to me that so much of what is truly evil in all of those places comes from the way in which one group of people looks at another group of people and says, “Them? Meh. They’re nothing special. Just some little brown jobs. Don’t bother with them. You can’t do anything. They’re lazy, and immoral. They don’t belong in our world. You’re best off trying to find a way to get rid of them.”

Beloved, this is the truth: that kind of reasoning is more prevalent than we admit, and that kind of thinking will kill not only “them”, but “us” as it removes their humanity and tarnishes the image of God in us.

BOrderChildrenSince October of last year, more than 63,000 children have been caught crossing the border alone. Many of these children have run right to the Border Patrol officers. These children tell stories about being sent on this harrowing journey by their parents who have said, “Look, this is the best choice we have right now. Sending my seven year old daughter, by herself, through Mexico and into the USA is the best way I can think of to protect her from sexual predation or murder.” These are parents who love their children as much as I love Ariel.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. How bad must your range of options be if that is the best idea that presents itself? If you would like to explore this a little further, watch the movie Sin Nombre some time. It is harrowing and disturbing.

But back to these 63,000 children. Look, I’m not sure what we are supposed to do with them as a matter of national policy. I don’t know enough about immigration law and the situations in their own countries to be able to pretend that I have a great idea as to how to “solve” this crisis.

But I’m not preaching a sermon because I want to sell you my ideas about solving the crisis. I’m preaching this sermon because I am sure that we are not free to disregard or despise those children. You don’t have to agree with me or anyone else as to which policy is most effective at stemming the tide of children who fear for their lives. But I’m pretty sure that the gospel forbids the church of Jesus Christ from looking at any child of any ethnicity and saying, “Oh, for crying out loud. What are we going to do with all of these stinking LBJ’s?”

This is what I realized last week: I cannot think of a single one of my friends who, if they went down to get their morning paper and found a naked, cold, nine-year old who appeared to have been violated in some horrific way, would turn that child away. I know rich and poor people of all ethnicities. I know liberals and conservatives, crunchy-cons and libertarians, socialists and anarchists. But I cannot think of a single friend of mine who would look at a child like that and say, “Tough luck, kiddo. I think you’re on your own,” and then take the paper and go indoors.

I don’t know any of my friends who would shoot a neighbor for being in the wrong place.

But many of us are content to look at situations on the border or in the Middle East or somewhere in the world and say, “You know what? Let’s get rid of them all. They bother me.”

We wouldn’t say that. But we employ institutions to say that for us. We are fundamentally good people who are kind and generous who find ourselves asking the government or someone else to be ruthless on our behalf. There is an inconsistency in that which threatens our ability to live faithfully.[1]

Jesus says that not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Not one escapes his notice.

Debbie Blue says this in Consider the Birds:

Can you love songbirds and still be compassionate to the house sparrow? Can you have an incisive critique without a hardening of the heart? Maybe it’s tricky, not completely easy, a little complex, but we of all species are especially equipped to handle a little complexity.

The house sparrow is not necessarily dull and uninteresting. In Australia, they’ve learned to open automatic doors. Some hover in front of the electric eye until the door opens. Others…sit atop the electric eye and lean forward until they trip the sensor…

Our hearts beat seventy times a minute; the house sparrow’s beats eight hundred. At rest, we breath about eighteen times a minute; a sparrow, ninety times. I like thinking of them breathing so fast – all this breathing out in the world, all this heartbeating.

Love your neighbor. It’s the most brilliant instruction. It’s wise and wonderful and something we need.[2]

Complexity is difficult, but we can handle complexity. I have to admit, I don’t know how to make love the cornerstone of our social policy. I am not sure what the best way to care for these children is. But I do not want to live in a nation where indifference or vindictiveness is the rationale around which we set up our systems and institutions. I don’t know how to help those children or our Border Patrol or anyone affected by this. I don’t know.

But I don’t want to not help. So I guess I’ve got some learning to do.

Consider the sparrow. There are no LBJ’s in the Kingdom.

Consider your neighbor.

Love – even when it wears you out.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

[1] South African theologian Peter Storey has said, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnection between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American -people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good -people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among -people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.” (this was in an “Open Letter” to the people of the United States, written not long after September 11, 2001)

[2] Consider the Birds (Abingdon 2013), pp. 147-148.

2014 Youth Mission Update #5

One of the important decisions that has to be made on each Youth Mission Trip is “how will we spend our ‘free’ day?” As I mentioned in post #1 about this trip, our goal is to create memory that will help to shape identity.  This year, we had to decide: do we stay on the beach? Head to a wildlife refuge? Visit the boardwalk somewhere?  At the end of the day, we decided to head towards historic Philadelphia, and try something completely different.  In our entire group of 19, I believe I am the only one to have laid eyes on the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, or anything like that.

So we drove an hour to Collingswood, NJ, where we met my friend Kate.  I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.  When we were looking for a site for this year’s trip, the kids asked for a beach locale.  I called Kate, who had been the seminary assistant at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Delaware when I was in High School, and asked her for help.  She connected me with the folks in Brigantine, and thus we made it here.  When I told the kids how we were able to be here, most were appreciative of the nature of relationships and connectivity in the church.  Carly, however, stared at me with wide eyes and said, “You mean that the person who was your youth group leader is still alive?”  The happy news is yes, in fact, Kate is very much alive and willing to lead us through the city of brotherly love.

We rode the train into town (another first for many in our group) and walked around.  Did we see everything?  Not a chance.  Did we see some?  You bet.  Stories were told and created, history was visited and made, and we thoroughly enjoyed the day. That part of the day was capped off by a cookout and a fire at Kate and Gary’s home.

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The Liberty Bell

Our group poses in "The City of Brotherly Love".  In the far left you can see (way in the distance) the Art Museum steps, made famous in the film "Rocky".

Our group poses in “The City of Brotherly Love”. In the far left you can see (way in the distance) the Art Museum steps, made famous in the film “Rocky”.

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Inside George Washington’s pew at Christ Church.

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The room in which the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were debated and adopted.

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Gary is overseeing the creation of some perfect s’mores.

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My very-much-alive friend, Kate. What a great day to be together!

We arrived back in Brigantine and headed straight to the beach for our final devotional.  The highlight of this was the way that Corie and Alexis, our two seniors, shared with the team some of their closing thoughts about youth group, life, and God.  In what was one of the more interesting prayer circles of which I’ve been a part, we gathered to lay hands on these two girls and were interrupted by 2 vehicles of the beach patrol, spotlights glaring, wanting to know what in the world we were doing.  I’m not sure they believed us, but Jeff told them something and off they went in search of other, more nefarious, activity.

Lexi and Corie in the moonlight after sharing their stories with our team.

Lexi and Corie in the moonlight after sharing their stories with our team.

When we asked the kids what they thought about the trip to Philly, almost everyone said that the best part was our visit to the Old Friends Meeting House and Christ Church, where we met guides who told us how people of another era lived out their faith in the best way that they could.  Both of these faith communities are still active today, more than 250 years after being founded.

I was reminded of a sign I saw while in the Holy Land.  Outside the church in the Garden of Gethsemane, there was a plaque instructing the guides not to interrupt the reverence of the moment:

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I loved that sign for all kinds of reasons, the chief of which is that I do not want to be a part of a church where pastors try to explain things.  Too many pastors interfere with people’s ability to see where God is guiding them because we insert ourselves in all kinds of places where we wind up being less than helpful.  Like our best guides yesterday, I want to bring people to a point where they can see reality for themselves and figure out what to do with it.  Like the best guides, I think it might be helpful if I know a few stories and can offer some background and perspective.  But like the best guides, I think that pastors do well to remember that nobody comes to Philadelphia to hear the guide – people come to see the history and to be reminded and enlightened.  Guides are helpful, but not the point of the story.  My hope and prayer is that the kids on our team were able to see this week a little more deeply into the lives of people who are upended by a catastrophic storm; that they might know that they have within themselves the gifts that God can use to make the world a little less fractured; that they are surrounded by beauty and joy and can share that with their neighbors; that we are all called to walk with justice and humility in the love of God; and that it’s almost always best when we do that together.

If any of them learned any of that this week, then I was a good guide.  I guess we’ll know in a decade or so how this part of the tour turned out.

2014 Youth Mission Update #4

One of the most irritating things about leaving a worksite after a week is taking inventory of the tools.  Imagine having your tool box out, along with those of two of your friends, and having 15 people who aren’t really sure what’s the difference between a wrench and a set of pliers, or what a “ball peen” is, rooting through your box looking for that thingamajig that Pastor Dave is yelling about from the top of the ladder.  By the end of the week, my tools and Tim’s tools and the worksite tools are pretty commingled.  It happens.

Yesterday as we packed up, I made one final look through the shed, and I saw it – actually, I told the kids that I heard it calling to me.  In a bucket, there in the corner, was the hammer that I got when my dad gave me my grandfather’s tool box a lifetime ago.  “Grandpa’s hammer!” I yelled to the kids.  “You almost forgot Grandpa’s hammer!  And then it would have to live in New Jersey!  Nooooooo!”

(You might find this difficult to believe, but I tell the kids stories about the tools that we use, the way that they’re used, and other people who have used them while we work.  Me.  Talking.  Telling stories.  Hard to imagine, right?)

Fortunately, my young friends gave grandpa’s hammer the respect that it deserves and it’s back in the toolbox with its mates, awaiting further adventures.

No work to do on the job site?  As long as we've got a frisbee, no problem!

No work to do on the job site? As long as we’ve got a frisbee, no problem!

We anchored the steps to the house using a tool that is basically a real gun that fires nails into concrete.  "Cool" is an understatement.

We anchored the steps to the house using a tool that is basically a real gun that fires nails into concrete. “Cool” is an understatement.

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Nico taking care of the last few steps.

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Jake and his crew used bolts to tie the whole project together.

Sometime, ask Marla or me to tell you the story of the design and build of these steps.  To say I'm proud of them would be an understatement of epic proportions.

Sometime, ask Marla or me to tell you the story of the design and build of these steps. To say I’m proud of them would be an understatement of epic proportions.

This is what the house, and we, looked like as we finished the project.

This is what the house, and we, looked like as we finished the project.

I was thinking about that last evening as Tim led the kids through a study of his favorite verse, Proverbs 22:6, which reads “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”  In a very eloquent exploration of this passage, Tim compared our lives to the collections that we all have at home – some of us have shells, or rocks, or gardens, or animal skeletons… But the point is, all of us keep stuff.  All of us collect something in the thought that “this’ll come in handy, or bring me joy, or be useful at some time.”  

Tim’s point was that our lives are collections – we are given experiences and friendships and opportunities – and it’s up to us to discern what we keep, how we treat it, and and what we do with it.  He followed in the path started by Jeff, Marla, and me in encouraging these young people to value opportunities such as those afforded by this trip and these relationships and to take care to remember where God is calling us to be.

Thursday of this week gave us the chance to put a few more items into that marvelous collection of youth group experiences.  Our day started out very rough, as communications mix-ups on the part of a couple of our cooperating agencies meant that we were stuck at the job sites for several hours with nothing to do.  But one of the beautiful things about this group is that they didn’t let that stop them.  They took walks, played frisbee, and visited.  They did not moan and groan, but simply waited for the opportunity to arise.

When we finally got the materials we needed, we did all we could to finish the decking and the steps to which we’d been assigned.  And, in the course of one short morning, Tim not only learned how to operate a jackhammer, but in fact trained another volunteer group from New Jersey in its operation.  It ended up being a good day on the job.

After work, we made our usual pilgrimage to the beach (did I mention it is only 2 blocks away!!!) and enjoyed the surf and a rousing game of beach volleyball.  Chinese take out was a new adventure for a few (good thing we had some leftover pizza as a back up!) and our singing was, as usual, rousing.  Many of our kids spent the moonlight hours wandering the beach and looking for shells – there was an entire hour Thursday night where I was alone in the church!

It is a good life we’ve been given, and I’m glad to watch these kids be so wise about what to add to their collections this week.  Thanks be to God!

2014 Youth Mission Update #3

We hit Wednesday of the mission trip in full stride: we arrived at our work site feeling pretty confident about what we were supposed to do and how we would do it.  It’s a real pleasure to see the kids jump out of the van and head to the storage shed with a sense of purpose: someone is bringing the generator out, someone else is setting up the air compressor, the saw station, etc.  One of the great fruits of a trip like this is seeing the confidence emerge as young people try new things and experience some success and satisfaction.

In terms of the work, it was pretty straightforward.  We started the day at the main site and by lunchtime we’d completed so much that Tim and Marla took ten of the group to another project for the afternoon.  While Jeff and I stayed with a small crew of carpenters to install spindles and stair railing, that group of twelve went to a site that needed to have a great quantity of construction (actually, destruction) debris gathered and bagged for removal.

Alexis digging a hole for the footer for the deck.

Alexis digging a hole for the footer for the deck.

This is the hole by which all future holes in the history of deck construction will be measured.

This is the hole by which all future holes in the history of deck construction will be measured.

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I asked Katie to dig a hole. She found a HUGE block of cement about 2 inches under the sand. Demonstrating the qualities that will make her a fine youth leader in years to come, Katie simply dropped a hint about how hard it must be to move that rock and she doubted anyone could do it. Before long, everyone was busting up Katie’s block of cement, and she was standing on the sidelines, sipping water and offering encouragement. Well played, Katie. Well played.

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Marla and McKenna continue to work on the stairwell that has been such a source of both pride and frustration to our team. We designed and have just about installed the entire thing.

 

Our second work site shows the process of elevating the homes above the flood risk.

Our second work site shows the process of elevating the homes above the flood risk.

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Bagging debris from the second site.

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Remember, it’s been two years since the storm hit. What a deep impact on people’s lives!

Our day ended a little earlier than normal and we took advantage of the proximity to the beach for another session of wave riding and play. We followed that up with a dinner consisting of individual chicken pot pies and salad.

It was my turn to lead the evening devotion, and I used the characters of John Mark, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy to talk a little bit about who God can be present in different ways at different parts of our lives, and one of the best things we can do is to look for an older, more mature person to be a guide or mentor, a group of peers with whom we can share the journey, and a couple of younger people for whom we can serve as guides.  I finished the discussion, as we do every night, with an opportunity for the folks to share something about the day or the trip.  On Wednesday, however, I asked the kids to write something down.  Several of the folks gave me permission to share their thoughts in this venue.  Take a look and spend a few moments praying for these kids whom God loves so much.

So far I have learned to bite my tongue when I see that somebody isn’t or hasn’t done something correctly.  If that’s how they want it done, I won’t embarrass them with telling theym they’re wrong.  If anything, I could just simply give them a tip.  Not everybody likes that, I know I don’t.  I’ve learned to move to the middle ground, to both learn and instruct new techniques.  You always have room for more, at least in your brain.  God has shown and inserted me into many paths in my 16 years, and every single one has made me stronger and has put me closer to Him.  That is my personal life goal as a Christian and as a growing man.

What really touched me ahas when me, Tim, and Jacob were walking on the beach and our sand prints out of feet was behind us and made me feel a lot closer to God and that just made me feel so good about this trip and I hope I can go on another.  I would be so honored.

This mission trip has meant the world to me. I learned to interact with more older kids than just my age.  It gives me the ability to get to know them…The people I was with helped me realize that I have it better than most people in the world, and I was blessed to get to help just a few of those many families. It also makes me feel loved to have people care about me – even those that I don’t talk to outside of youth group.

Unlike other mission trips this is a rather large group.  We wouldn’t call each other outside of youth group to do something but for a week we get to spend time with each other and enjoy other people’s company.  It’s also meaningful to look back and realize a group of us became friends at Cross Trainers now we are on mission trips together continuing and building that friendship.

I have become so joyful this week, in total honey-to-God joy.  I have struggled so long with accepting the behavior of Christians and trying to figure out how to be comfortable around Christians who are so noticeably self-righteous.This group of kids gets it.  They know how to be good people, and live that out each hour, and never hint at stepping out of bounds, yet so humbly and casually, but confidently, stick to the right path.  I have laughed with them all week in honest, pure, fun.

Honestly I am really happy that we are all able to work together without moaning about it or anything.  If someone asks someone to do something it’s done without back talk.  Sometimes actually all the time I wish we could do it all the time.  It just shows that we respect and care for one another and that we show that we are growing and maturing not only that, but we are able to learn how to word harder together and in groups – to push ourselves and learn new jobs and techniques.  Yup, so just loving one another and not griping or moaning and being able to have fun and enjoy one another’s company.

1. How God works.
2. The beautiful things God creates.
3. Friendship.
4. True teamwork.
5. Helping a person can help you too.

I wish I had time to type out all the ones that were given to me to share.  Maybe you’ll see more.  The point is, I think that many of these kids (and us) are getting it.  Life is being enjoyed and discovered and lived and shared.  Thanks be to God.  As I said on Monday, I wish you were here to see it.

Some of our number woke up at 5:45 and headed out to see the sunrise.

Some of our number woke up at 5:45 and headed out to see the sunrise.

I. Love. These. Kids.   The sun rises on a new day of exploration and adventure.

I. Love. These. Kids.
The sun rises on a new day of exploration and adventure.

2014 Youth Mission Update #2

Tuesday on the team’s mission site in Brigantine New Jersey was decidedly less adventurous than our previous 30 hours, and we were all right with that.  We spent a full day on site, where we moved the railing along towards completion, designed, created, installed the insides of a stairwell and landing, and in general moved forward with helping this home become ready for a family to re-occupy.

Tim, along with his Leopard Slug friend, shows us the importance of concentration.

Tim, along with his Leopard Slug friend, shows us the importance of concentration.

Mind fully engaged, Tim is ready to go...

Mind fully engaged, Tim is ready to go…

Paige continues the railing.

Paige continues the railing.

After leading mission work projects for 30+ years, Pastor Dave experiences a first: no one has ever simply said, "Well, the drawings are there.  Go ahead."  Don't you hate it when someone calls your bluff?  Yikes!

After leading mission work projects for 30+ years, Pastor Dave experiences a first: no one has ever simply said, “Well, the drawings are there. Go ahead.” Don’t you hate it when someone calls your bluff? Yikes!

Caleb, Joe, and Katie moving the railing toward completion.

Caleb, Joe, and Katie moving the railing toward completion.

NIco and Joe working on the stairway.

NIco and Joe working on the stairway.

 

Katie and Rachael bring to an end the day's labor by finishing the steps for now.

Katie and Rachael bring to an end the day’s labor by finishing the steps for now.

Following the day’s work we headed for the beach, which was experiencing very heavy surf due to a storm in the south.  In fact, the life guards helped drag one of our folks to higher ground after it looked like he was drinking as much sea water as he was swimming in, but it all turned out fine in the end.  We did, however, choose to cut our time in the water short and engaged in beach volleyball, frisbee, and more.

Trying to get the hang of this whole "Beach Pyramid" thing...

Trying to get the hang of this whole “Beach Pyramid” thing…

The girls show us how to make a real beach pyramid!

The girls show us how to make a real beach pyramid!

Marla led us in a reflection about “How did I get here?” and helped us to wonder why in the world we are where we are…and what we can do about that next.  More singing, lots of running around late at night, and a little bit of grumpy Pastor Dave threatening those who set alarms but then do not heed them rounded out our day.

Well, that’s the long and the short of it.  It was a beautiful day, and we appreciate your prayers.

That is, in fact, the long and the short of things on this Tuesday.

That is, in fact, the long and the short of things on this Tuesday.