Welcome to Mexico (Texas Mission 2015 #4)

Our congregation has been sending men and women to participate in the work of Christ’s people in the Rio Grande Valley for six or seven years.  In that time, a couple of groups have crossed the border and visited Mexico.  Others have toured with the US Border Patrol and seen the Rio Grande and looked into Mexico.  We have shared deeply and widely with our partners and our hosts, and it’s been a great gift to our congregation and neighborhood over the years as people have come back changed as a result of the time invested here.

In 2015, though, we have been someplace we’ve never been – right here in Texas.  The “chemistry of the company” on our team, combined with the deep faith and graciousness of the families with whom we have served, has immersed us in a sense of connection and relationship that is deeper than that we’ve seen in previous trips.

One of the “rookies” on the trip is a man goes by the nickname “Libby” (it’s a long story).  Libby is a co-worker of Mike’s who has also served alongside our congregation’s feeding ministry with “The Table”. When he heard about this trip he was eager to be a part of it.  We were glad to welcome him, as Spanish is his first language and we can always use a translator on site.  It has been a rich experience in all kinds of ways, and one of the things that Libby has enjoyed is sharing memories of his childhood in Los Lorenzos Guanajuato, Mexico.  As we have spent our days immersed in the Mexican culture of the neighborhoods, Libby has helped us understand the culture and history of many of the people with whom we are spending time.

Gathering around the shared feast is a sign of Christ's Kingdom.

Gathering around the shared feast is a sign of Christ’s Kingdom.

I mentioned in an previous post the amazing hospitality that we’ve received.  Yesterday, the homeowners with whom we have worked cooked us a hot meal for the second time in as many days – home made flour tortillas and beans and eggs and… oh my.  As we sat and enjoyed the food, the conversation, the sunlight, the sounds and smells and friendship, Libby looked at me and smiled and said simply, “You’re in Mexico now, Pastor.”

We didn’t cross the border, but we’ve lowered some boundaries.  And that is a good thing.  I think there is something gospel-ish about that.

And, of course, we did a little work.

God is good, and we have known, seen, felt, and tasted that in a new way this week.  Thanks be to God!

Joe finishes installing the baseboard.

Joe finishes installing the baseboard.

Bob worked to install handrails to the entrances of the home.

Bob worked to install handrails to the entrances of the home.

Mike puts down the primer.

Mike puts down the primer.

Tim offers a lesson to a painter in the making.

Tim offers a lesson to a painter in the making.

Chris and his apprentice add the finishing touches.

Chris and his apprentice add the finishing touches.

The blue room nears completion!

The blue room nears completion!

And the whole gang, together as we prepare to head for home.

And the whole gang, together as we prepare to head for home.

For Crying Out Loud (Texas Mission 2015 #3)

While my wife and I were having dinner at a nice restaurant one evening,  we ran into a woman who had shared some pretty painful things with me in the past.  As we greeted each other, I asked how she’d been that day.  She burst into tears and asked if we could talk further at a later date.  Later, at a movie theatre, a similar scene unfolded with a different person.  When we got home, my wife said, “So how often do you have a conversation with people who simply start crying like that?”

Hey, it happens.

It happened today.  Wonderfully, beautifully, amazingly, today.

Sharing a meal with the family on whose home we are privileged to work.

Sharing a meal with the family on whose home we are privileged to work.

We are here along the Texas/Mexico border working with our friends at First Presbyterian Church of Mission and Solomon’s Porch Faith Community to help establish the poor in decent housing.  The welcome we have received has been inspiring, to say the least.  People are literally lining up to feed us, for one thing.  They are listening to our stories, and telling a few of theirs.  And smiling.  Oh, it is beautiful.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that God seems to care about bodies, the way that we care for them, and the ways that we are His body.  That theme emerged again today in marvelous ways.  Listen:

A meal like this puts a smile  on everyone's face!

A meal like this puts a smile on everyone’s face!

The homeowners of the small three bedroom house on which we are working asked if they could share a meal with us as a way to express their gratitude for the work that we’ve done.  Of course, the answer to that is always “YES!” The two families got together and fixed a huge dish of carne asada, arroz dojo, frijoles a la charr, and tortillas, along with home-made churro cookies.  If that was all that would have happened, it would’ve been enough.

After dinner, I asked one of the young women in the family, sixteen- or seventeen-year-old L, about the shirt she was wearing.  She told me about her high school (the source of the shirt) and then about how much she liked her church.  As she spoke, she made several references to the fact that no matter where they lived, she felt like it was her duty and privilege to make sure that her younger siblings got to church.  I asked a simple question: “Can you tell me about what makes your faith so important to you that you feel the need to share it in this way?”

Sharing stories…

That’s when the tears started.  “I have to!”, she said.  “God has been there for me all the time – since I was born.  There has never been a time when he has left me.”  She told me that when she was born her intestine was tangled around her other internal organs and she was facing certain death, until a Mexican surgeon was convinced to attempt the risky surgery.  There were actually two little girls with the same syndrome who received the operation that night, and each set of parents was told that there was a 10% survival rate.  The other little girl died, but L survived, only to face another challenge: she needed a blood transfusion but there was not a suitable donor in her village.  An uncle arrived in town late that evening, got tested, and proved to be a perfect match.  She needed two such transfusions.

Not long afterward, she developed complications, requiring a second surgery.  Her parents had to beg a doctor even to look at her – most told them to plan her funeral and think about other children.  Finally someone agreed to try – and again, met with success.

Here's a rare shot: Tim captivating a group of children.  Hmmm.

Here’s a rare shot: Tim captivating a group of children. Hmmm.

Through her tears, my friend related episode after episode in her life where she saw the hand of God unmistakably.  Some readers might recall the story I told about the visit to a UN Camp in South Sudan where a young girl sang plaintively wondering whether God had forgotten her.  L‘s story became for me the other side of that coin as she said, “I know that God has never ever left me.  My parents, my family, the doctors – everyone was getting ready to give up on me.  But God never has.  And God never will.  How can I not share that kind of love with my little sisters and brother?  I do not do these things because I think I can pay God back, or because I want to make God love me – I do them because I love God so much for every day I have been given.”

I was privileged to share with her a story from my own past wherein I, too, learned the reality that there are no guarantees, and that all we can do is celebrate each heartbeat knowing that God alone knows how and when this part of our story ends.  You may not be surprised to learn that she was not the only one crying at this point.

Yes, that’s right, you get me talking about important things and I can be a red hot mess.  That’s who I am.

We closed our conversation by remembering the words of the Psalmist, who wrote

Though my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will receive me…
I remain confident of this:
    I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord. (Psalm 27:10, 13-14)

It was a wonderful, beautiful, amazing day.  Thanks be to God.

Oh, and we also did a lot of painting, drywalling, and construction-y stuff.  That part went fine, too.


Jon smoothing things out on the site. He’s all about finesse.


We call Bob Walters "B-O-B"  and our worksite liaison "Texas Bob" or "Tejano Bob".  They are both blessings!

We call Bob Walters “B-O-B” and our worksite liaison “Texas Bob” or “Tejano Bob”. They are both blessings!




This may be the first time we've ever been able to put  a finish coat of paint on a project.  It's a good feeling!

This may be the first time we’ve ever been able to put a finish coat of paint on a project. It’s a good feeling!

Did someone say she wanted a ROJO bedroom?  Mission accomplished.

Did someone say she wanted a ROJO bedroom? Mission accomplished.


The Body at Work (Texas Mission 2015 #2)

Lord, you have examined me
    and know all about me.
You know when I sit down and when I get up.
    You know my thoughts before I think them.
You know where I go and where I lie down.
    You know everything I do.
Lord, even before I say a word,
    you already know it.
You are all around me—in front and in back—
    and have put your hand on me.
Your knowledge is amazing to me;
    it is more than I can understand.
You made my whole being;

    you formed me in my mother’s body.
I praise you because you made me in an amazing and wonderful way.
    What you have done is wonderful.
    I know this very well. (Psalm 139, selected verses)

I read those verses often – every time I visit a new baby, in fact.  It is one of the holiest aspects of my ministry and life – reminding children (and their parents) about the care that God has had for each of us, and about the wonders of our bodies.

I thought about that passage a lot yesterday.  What brought it to mind was the generous invitation from our friends at the First Presbyterian Church in Mission to attend a performance by the New Shanghai Circus, a group of phenomenally-gifted and beautiful acrobats, gymnasts, and performers who visited McAllen last night.  We were treated to a breath-taking evening as we watched these athletes twist and stretch and shape their bodies in ways that left us with mouths agape.  To be honest, some of our guys were a little unsure when the tickets were offered – we’d had a long day at work, and it was cold (35°) and rainy… But, to a man, we came home filled with awe and joy at the things that these people had been able to do with the bodies that they’ve been given – bodies that were truly and very evidently made in “an amazing and wonderful way.”

These were not the only bodies we saw yesterday, of course.  I thought a lot about bodies that had been made amazingly and wonderfully, but had not been honored or treasured or sculpted in the same way as had those of the athletes we saw last night.

I thought about bodies as our team laid down a bunch of drywall mud and tape in a small three-bedroom home (perhaps 800 square feet) that will become the home for a family of six.  They are currently living in a single room (I would guess that it measures about 10 x 12 feet) beneath a canopy of makeshift tarps and with little, if any, protection from the elements.  In the United States of America.  In 2015.  This family, which has been awarded refugee status by our government, probably thinks about bodies a lot.  I say this because the mother wears a scar across the top of her head the size of a coffee saucer that, as I was told, is the result of a gang attack.  She is, as they say, “lucky to be alive.”  These bodies, no less than the finely honed and perfectly sculpted forms of the acrobatic team, were made in an amazing way.  But no one was applauding them yesterday.

The exterior of the "large" home on which we're working this week.

The exterior of the “large” home on which we’re working this week.

When we got to our work site, one of the first things that the family did was introduce us to their neighbors who, according to the homeowner with whom we are working, are “really in trouble”.  This family of seven is living in a small trailer.  Normally, when I say “trailer”, you think of a wheeled conveyance that is a temporary home for a small group.  Well, this particular object has wheels, but it’s barely holding together on this little patch of Texas dirt.  If you tried to move it it would simply blow away.  The good news is that this family has gathered some resources and begun to construct a new home for themselves – a 10′ x 28′ pole structure that will somehow contain two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom.  Unless it’s like the wardrobe entrance to Narnia, they are going to be shoehorned in there in ways that defy my imagination.  So far, they’ve got the shell almost all the way up – but they don’t know much about electric or plumbing.  What a gift for us to arrive, and to have the ability to offer our time, energy, and, well, bodies.


Libby lays the drywall mud down!

If we are serious about the theology of the Psalmist, then we need to take bodies seriously.  Some of my friends do this by calling attention to the ways that the unborn are are treated; others protest wars or feed the hungry.  God cares about bodies – God made them.  This week, our team is striving to live into the truths proclaimed by the author of life – that each life, that each body, is important.  It is our deep hope that the work we do, and the way that we do it, will honor not only the bodies of the friends with whom we’ve been placed this week, but the Maker of all bodies.

You might remember that when His son was walking the earth, he looked at people like you and me and told us that we are his body now.  May we behave as though we believe that we, the church of Jesus Christ, are amazingly and wonderfully made.  May we point to all that is good and beautiful and perhaps, from time to time, be breathtaking ourselves in one way or another.


Jon gets a lesson in corner bead application.



Chris and Gabe pulling wire in the second home that we’ve picked up this week.


Texas Mission 2015 #1

Each year for nearly a decade, the Crafton Heights Church has sent a group of adults to the Rio Grande Valley in Southern Texas to share in a week of fellowship, growth, and service with God’s people there.  Along the way, we’ve established partnerships with First Presbyterian Church of Mission, TX and Solomon’s Porch Faith Community in San Juan, TX.

The gang at the Crossroads BBQ

The gang at the Crossroads BBQ

We left Pittsburgh on February 21, about half an hour before the snow made things miserable.  After several uneventful flights, we found ourselves in the 86° temps of San Antonio, from whence we began the 250 mile trek to Mission, TX.  Along the way, we found time to stop at the Crossroad Bar-B-Que, where we’ve received a warm welcome in years past.  Let’s just say that our friends did not disappoint!

Sunday, our first full day, was spent largely reconnecting with our church partners.  I was privileged to preach at the 8:30 & 10:30 services for First Presbyterian as well as at the 11:30 service for Solomon’s Porch.  It was a real honor to bring to our sisters and brothers here the news of the church in South Sudan.  Both congregations were gracious in their reception of our team and my messages.

At the First Presbyterian Church in Mission

At the First Presbyterian Church in Mission

This year, Gabe Kish led our team in producing banners to share with our church partners, and we presented them in worship at each congregation.  By mid-afternoon, when our day was getting full, the folk at Solomon’s Porch blessed us with a delicious Mexican feast for lunch.

Following the meal, we split up, and Tim, Jon and I went to the nearby Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge whilst the rest of the team headed a bit further east to visit the Gulf of Mexico and South Padre Island.  This afternoon time was a real gift as we enjoyed the amazing weather and took a break from Pittsburgh – we feel like we are really here now.  It’s a good way to start the week!

Presenting the banner at First Presbyterian

Presenting the banner at First Presbyterian

With the Solomon's Porch Faith Community

With the Solomon’s Porch Faith Community

Tim with some young friends at Solomon's Porch.

Tim with some young friends at Solomon’s Porch.

The Gulf of Mexico… And a fine crew!

The obligatory shot of the Rio Grande River, with Mexico in the background.

The obligatory shot of the Rio Grande River, with Mexico in the background.

The Texas Green Jay

The Texas Green Jay

Altamira Oriole

Altamira Oriole

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee





Returning and Re-Turning

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for Ash Wednesday came from Matthew 4:1-11.

Do you remember the first time that you and I met? Take a look around the room at the other people you could call friends or acquaintances. How about them? Can you remember the first time you laid eyes on each other?

If you are like me, I would imagine that there are some folk for whom that first meeting stands out with vivid clarity in your mind’s eye. Yet I suspect that most of the people in your life have sort of edged in there gradually. You don’t carry around a first impression so much as you have a sense of who this person has been to you, what this person means to you today, and what hopes you might have for your relationship in the days and months to come. I suspect that for most of us, most of our relationships are a story of returning to the same people again and again and again.

This Lent, we will spend some time in worship getting to know some people who came to Jesus again. The Gospels tell us a number of stories of people who met Jesus once and their lives were changed forever – the Canaanite woman, for instance, or the thief on the cross. Yet there are many stories of people who had an encounter with Jesus, and then walked away from him only to return another day.

Christ in the Wilderness: Awaking, by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

Tonight, we begin that exploration by considering the encounter between the devil and Jesus, a reading that is often shared at the beginning of Lent.

And you might be tempted to call a foul on the play and say, “Look, Pastor Dave, you are breaking your own rules! The gospels do not record any prior conversation between Jesus and the devil. How can this be a ‘returning’ story if this is the first time?

Well, I could say that since Jesus is a co-eternal person of the Holy Trinity and since Satan is a fallen angel who despised God’s authority, their fingerprints have been all over each other since the beginning of time.

Or I could point out that the devil begins the conversation by saying, “if you are…” or “since you are the Son of God…”, that presumes a knowledge of and some sort of relationship with Jesus.

Or you could simply throw me a bone and accept the fact that the devil comes back to Jesus three times in this one reading. I think it’s fair to call this a “returning” story.

And on every occasion in this story, the tempter suggests that Jesus would be happier if he believed less about God.

“God is not caring for you the way that you deserve to be cared for. Turn these stones into bread.”

“God is not protecting you as well as you ought to be protected. Prove that you are in control of your own destiny.”

“God can’t give you what you really want. I will.”

Again and again, the tempter returns to Jesus and says, “You know, you really ought to settle for less than that which you were called to be.”

And again and again, Jesus turns back to God. He re-turns to the promise of the Word and anchors himself, his answers, and his hope in God’s word, God’s presence, and God’s power.

I mentioned that this passage is often read at the beginning of Lent, and I would not be the first pastor to claim that this is proof of the fact that Jesus is just like us in that he knows what it means to be tempted. In fact, the unknown author of the book of Hebrews puts it this way: “Jesus understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are. But he did not sin!”

Christ in the Wilderness: The Scorpion, by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

Christ in the Wilderness: The Scorpion, by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

And that makes sense, I’m sure. However, I have never had the urge to myself off of Mount Washington just to see what would happen. When Sharon and I were driving through the desert last month and I missed lunch, it never occurred to me to grab a boulder and try to turn it into a Big Mac.

However, even though the temptations that I face are not listed in this reading from Matthew, I sure know what it’s like to be tempted, and to hear the suggestion that I, like Jesus, ought to settle for less than God’s best for my life.

How do you deal with temptation in your life? What do you do when you find yourself dealing with a burning desire or a secret sin or wanting something so badly that you’ll do something foolish in order to get it? Allow me to make a couple of suggestions.

First, re-turn to God. Were you distracted? Did you lose focus? Do you know what it means to really blow it, big time? Of course you do. That’s going to happen if you’re human. You are not Jesus. When you find yourself dealing with or even succumbing to temptation, re-orient yourself. Re-turn, and look toward God again. The Biblical word for that is one that sounds really religious: ‘repent’. It means ‘turn around’. Stop looking over there and look over here. The best way to get back on track spiritually is to acknowledge the fact that you’ve gotten off track and re-set your steps.

As you do this, you will find that it is immensely helpful if you are clear about what, and who, you are fighting. Listen: in the passage that we’ve heard from Matthew, the identity of Jesus’ opponent emerges gradually. In verse 3, we’re told that “the tempter” approached the Lord. The Greek word there is peirazon, and it means ‘the one who tempts or tests’.

Later on, in verse 5, we see that the tempter is also diabolos – the slanderer, or the devil. The one who tests is also the one who lies about the nature of reality, God, and yourself. As both the number and frequency of the temptations grows, and as Jesus is bearing an increasing load, he turns and addresses his opponent by name in verse 10: “Away from me, Satan!” Satanas: the adversary has a name: Satan. The Lord calls the tempter by name and reveals him for who he is. I have found that to be an excellent strategy in my own life. When you find yourself facing temptation, think about what is really happening and name the real evil that confronts you.

For instance, if you struggle with food and body image, I’m not convinced that the enemy is named “fat”. I think that there are two lies behind your struggle. On the one hand, there are those who will say that God doesn’t really care about your body, that all God cares about is your soul. On the other hand, there is a lie that far too many of us believe that says we are only lovable if we look a certain way. In either case, the extra piece of pizza or the second helping of mashed potatoes is not the real temptation: the temptation is that you are being asked to believe less than the best about yourself. God isn’t going to love you any more when you are skinny – yet if you are dwelling in a rich and true relationship with God, you accept the notion that how you treat and how you view your body matters – because that body is a gift from God and a way to honor God.

Similarly, you are well aware of the impact of pornography on our culture. You may struggle with porn – but if you do, the worst thing is not that your parents or spouse or boss or pastor will find out what you’ve got on your laptop. The worst thing is that pornography sends out a signal that preys on a deep fear: that somehow, there is no real person who will love me for who I am…and so I am in an imaginary relationship with an assortment of perfect – but unreal – partners… because I do not measure up, somehow.

Do you see what I mean? When you find that you are in the grip of temptation, let me ask you to ask yourself, What am I really afraid of here? What deep need is this desire really uncovering in my life? The problem is the pepperoni or the Penthouse – the problem is that you, like Jesus, are being asked to accept a shadow of something real for which you have been intended. Can you name the real need to which your secret sin, or addiction, or fear, or excess, is pointing? And, having done that, can you re-turn to God in the light of the hope that he offers to meet you in the worst place of your life?

The invitation of Lent is to constantly re-orient yourself in a Godward direction, to wake up once more in a desert place and say, “Well, God, here I am. Again. In this place. Fighting this foe. Heal me, Lord. Fill me. Send me. Use me. Allow me to be the me that you have intended from the foundation of the world, and take away from me anything, however shiny, that is less than your best for me. Just as you sent your angels to attend to Jesus, send me the encouragement that I need this hour.”

The Christian faith is not a “one and done” kind of deal. It is a daily walk, with Christ, that gives us the opportunity to turn, re-turn, and re-re-turn to the Lord. Thanks be to God for that! Amen.

Not Who You Thought?

On the day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the saints at Crafton Heights considered the account of Jesus on the mountain as recorded in Mark 9:2-9.  Our other reading came from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.

Sometimes I start the sermon with a joke, or a funny picture. Today, I have a serious theological question that I’d like you to think about. You don’t need to answer this one out loud, but give it some thought: Does Jesus ever change?

Absolute_ImmutabilityThe theological concept here is called “immutability”, and it refers to the notion that if God is truly God, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, forever and ever and ever, then God cannot change. And if Jesus is God, then Jesus cannot change either. So one scholar recently answered my question this way:

According to a broad consensus among the Reformed divines, the second person of the Godhead remains immutable by adding a nature that, while personally united with His own divine nature, does not alter it: the incarnation is to be regarded such that ‘the human mode of being was added to the eternal mode of the Logos by the assumption of the human nature into its personality without altering the latter.’… To suggest that the divine nature could change was to fail to uphold its own distinctive properties, confusing it with the human…[1]

In 1560, the leaders of the Church in Scotland that was to become the Presbyterian Church put it this way:

We acknowledge and confess that this wonderful union between the Godhead and the humanity of Christ Jesus did arise from the eternal and immutable decree of God from which all our salvation springs and depends.[2]

These great theologians were simply trying to get at some of the truth that is found in Scripture:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)

God is no mere human! He doesn’t tell lies or change his mind. (Numbers 23:19, CEV)

 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17, NIV)

So, if you’re taking an examination at seminary or before the Presbytery, the right answer is this: Jesus does not change.

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Except, well, right there in Mark 9, Jesus sure seems to change. He was “transfigured” in front of his disciples. His appearance – his visage, clothing, bearing, and stature – they all change. We know this because it scared the heck out of the disciples, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote it down so that we’d know about it.

And there are other places where it sure looks to us like Jesus is changing. In Mark 8, for instance – and in a lot of other places, to be honest – the disciples, or somebody, comes to Jesus and say, “Hey! You’re the Messiah! You’re from God!” And Jesus’ response is “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.” But in Mark 5, a man comes to him and says, “I know who you are – let me come with you!” And this time Jesus says, “No, you can’t come with me. Go to your home village and tell everyone what’s happened!”

One time, Jesus tells a man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, and another time he allows a woman to pour all kinds of expensive oil on his feet, even while some of his followers are saying, “Wait! Aren’t we supposed to be giving this stuff to the poor?”

And even beyond all that, how can we say that Jesus never changed? I mean, seriously, he was human and divine, right? Which means, presumably, that at one point he was three feet tall and later he was five feet tall. He needed haircuts. He got older. Jesus changed.

You’re not surprised to learn that the theologians have considered all of those cases, and they turn to look at me with patience and sympathy and say, “Well, of course, Dave, those changes were real. But they were changes in Jesus’ method of communication, or changes in his physical expression. It’s not the same thing. When we talk about immutability, we mean that in Jesus Christ, the unchanging purposes of the unchanging God were clearly visible: the grace, mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and holiness of God were made known in Jesus of Nazareth. Those things never change. The person and work of Jesus Christ is fully consistent with the eternal, changeless, omnipotent being.” And then, just because some theologians can be sort of snooty, at least one of them would do a facepalm and say, “For crying out loud, Carver, don’t come and talk to me about Jesus and haircuts. Seriously.”

And I would say, “Fair enough. I accept the immutability of Jesus, and will agree that God’s purposes are eternal and unchanging.”

But that leads me to another question: What if Jesus isn’t who you think he is?

Years ago, I was introduced to a man who was to become a friend to me: Bart Campolo. But because this was the early 1980’s and neither of us had any money and we lived on opposite coasts, we communicated – can you believe this – through the U.S. Mail. Every now and then we would talk on the phone, but mostly we sent letters. Yeah. I’m a dinosaur.

So one fall day in 1988 we were both going to be at a conference in Chicago. Michelle Salinetro was there, and she saw me walk into the room wearing my big old “Dave Carver, Pittsburgh PA” nametag, and extend my hand to “Bart Campolo, Oakland CA” and say, “Hey, Bart, man, it’s good to finally shake your hand.” And Bart Campolo looked at my face, and then at my nametag, and then at my face, and then at my nametag, and he finally said, “You’re Dave Carver? From Pittsburgh? Dude…I always thought you were black…” Ummmmmmm… Not sure what to say to that.

But what if we do that to Jesus? What if when we get a closer look at him – he’s not what we expect him to be?

Jean Vanier lived a life with which many of us can identify. He was born into a very comfortable family and was taught at an early age to strive and to achieve. He served in both the Canadian and British navies and rose through the ranks. When he finished in the navy, he received a doctorate and taught philosophy in Toronto. And then, through an odd twist, he was asked to leave the world of academia and live with people with profound mental and physical disabilities. He said,

I had to change, and change quite radically. When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself… When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing![3]

Can you imagine how disconcerting that would be – to go through most of your life thinking that Jesus was this way and then to discover that, no, Jesus is that way?

But that’s what happened to the disciples on the day of Transfiguration. The Jesus that they thought they knew ended up to be someone else. And that leads me to a couple of observations that might be helpful for 21st-century followers of Jesus.

First, don’t limit Jesus. I don’t know about you, but in recent weeks, the Carvers have finally taken down the last of the Christmas decorations. My wife’s growing collection of nativity scenes has been packed away, and all the little baby Jesus figurines are safe in tissue paper and plastic bins in the basement. Those items have been carefully protected, and I am here to tell you that nothing is going to happen to baby Jesus in my basement in 2015. He’s safe and sound.

The problem with that, of course, is that as long as I keep Jesus safe and sound and hermetically sealed in a Tupperware in the basement, he’s not going to challenge me or change me.

You see, a lot of times, the disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds – they thought that they had Jesus all figured out. They’d seen him at work, they knew his stuff. And so they began to wrap him up and put him in a little box where they thought he belonged. They began to respond, not to the living Lord, but to their image of who or what they thought he was. Jesus was not pleased when this happened…

Don’t limit Jesus, or try to pack him into a little box. He won’t fit. And my second observation is the mirror of that: don’t limit yourself.

You, unlike the one eternal and immutable God, are destined for growth and change. There is nothing about your body that is exactly the same today as it was a week ago.

A few years back, I returned from a trip with the youth group. Sharon took the camera and asked to see some of the photos. Since members of the youth group had taken most of the photos, I was eager to see them, too. We sat on my sofa and we got to one shot that I just couldn’t place. I recognized the playground where the image was taken, and I knew several of the people in the photo. But there in the middle of the scene was an older guy looking away from the camera. All I could see was the top of his head and his shoulders. Before I could say anything, Sharon said, “What are you doing there?” And I said, “I’m not sure. I don’t know who this is.” My bride said, “It’s you!” I said, “It can’t be me. The guy in this photo has a bald spot.” And she said, “Honey, it’s you.” I said, “Seriously? I have a bald spot? And nobody told me?” I had no idea why my head had been so cold. I had changed – but not known it.

You and I change physically. We grow mentally and intellectually. Depending on where we are in our lives, we either accept those things or celebrate them.

What about spiritually? Where are you growing, and how are you changing spiritually?

The person and work and hope of Jesus Christ is eternal and unchanging. I get that. But how is your perspective of that work, and your relationship with that person growing? We ought to be constantly developing as spiritual creatures. If your understanding of God in Christ and the role he plays in your life is the same now as it was when you were four, then you are in trouble.

I accept the scriptures fully – that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That he is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Jesus does not change.

But our ideas about Jesus probably will change, because faith is alive and active and engaging and growing. If we are not able to hear Jesus calling us to some new places every now and then, I fear we are not listening.

This coming week we will observe Ash Wednesday here at Church. The season of Lent begins, and this forty day period, as much as any other season of church life, presents us with an opportunity to engage Jesus and develop our spiritual lives.

I am begging you to do this in the next six or seven weeks. Invite the unchanging Jesus into all of your life. Ask that Christ to show you where he is at work in the world.

I know that for many people, Lent is thought of as a season in which we “give up” something. We deny ourselves some pleasure or treat in the hopes that we might identify more completely with the suffering of Jesus.

And, to tell you the truth, if going without meat or television or Facebook is going to help you learn more about Christ’s suffering, then by all means, go for it.

But let me ask you to do this thing, too. If you are going to “give up” something this Lent, then please “take up” something as well. Read. Pray. Sing. Serve. Write. Walk. Share.

For instance, what if, instead of giving up sweets for Lent, you decided that you were going to bake cookies or bread or pie once a week and share that with your neighbors? What if you made time in your life to be a blessing in a simple, unexpected way?

What if, instead of giving up coffee and making everyone in your workplace or home miserable until Easter, you took fifteen minutes a day to visit with someone – either by phone, in person, or through the mail? What if you adopted a practice that would immerse you more deeply in the lives of people that Jesus loves?

The word “Lent” comes from Old English and Germanic words that mean “lengthening daylight”. Between now and Easter, the days will get longer, the sun will get higher. You may start your garden seeds indoors. In some parts of the State, the trout season will open. Lent is a time of year that is full of newness and growth and life and depth.

It would be an absolute shame if all of that newness and growth and life and depth was found in the natural world, and not in our hearts, spirits, and lives. Jesus doesn’t change. But I will. And by God’s grace, my ability to know, understand, and follow Jesus will, too. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Sumner, Darren, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 45.

[2] The Scots Confession 3.07

[3] Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press 1994, pp. 18, 23).

The South Will Rise

Our scriptures for the second week of February, 2015 included John 17:20-26 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Reflections on The Belhar Confession, Black History Month, and the hope that is the church.

I have been in some pretty sketchy places over the years. Earlier this week I was telling my wife about one of the rooms I stayed in on my recent trip to Africa, and I heard myself saying, “You know, once I got used to the rats, it wasn’t bad at all.” I remember taking the youth group into an incredibly seedy fast food joint a number of years ago, and a very disturbed and clearly hallucinogenic patron could not quite make up his mind whether he wanted to order food, throw up, or make a pass at Jessica Prevost, so he did all three of those things. In that order. As I recall, I was not among the finalists in “Youth Group Leader of the Year” that season.

LiveCustomersHere’s a photo of me in another sketchy place. I’m standing at the door to the bus station in Dangriga, Belize. In case you can’t make it out, the sign on the door at the bus station in Dangriga, Belize reads, “Live Customers Only.”

I’ll let you sit on that for a moment. “Live Customers Only.” What do you suppose happened there, and how many times must it have happened, to lead someone to say, “You know what, Luis? I’ve had it. I’m sick of this. Put up a sign. We’ve got to have some sort of policy about live customers only.” Really? How many places in the world is this a problem – too many dead people trying to take the bus? It was a sketchy place.

BelizeBusI hasten to add that I was not in Dangriga for the purpose of visiting the bus station. I was there because, well, I wanted to get on a bus. We were heading into the heart of that country to visit the Central American rain forest – a place of beauty and wonder and awe. And because I believed that that destination was worthwhile, I found myself clutching my sixteen year old daughter a little closer as we waited in this sketchy place, surrounded by broken, but live, people.

February is Black History Month in the USA. It is not a religious observance, per se, but it does provide us with an opportunity to reflect on where we are vis-à-vis race relations in the US, in Pittsburgh, in Crafton Heights, and in our own lives.

And I don’t know whether it’s connected or not, but during Black History Month, Pittsburgh Presbytery will be taking a vote as to whether a document called The Belhar Confession should be included in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. The Book of Confessions is a collection of faith statements written over a span of about 1700 years that helps to shape our journey toward faithful discipleship in Christ. The Belhar document is a statement that was written by a group of South African theologians as that nation and its cultures wrestled against the demon that was the apartheid system of racial oppression, torture, and death.

BelharWorshipService440x180I like the Belhar Confession. I think that it is Biblical, practical, and wise. If you’d like to read it for yourself, there are some copies on the table in the back of the room – it’s just a few pages. Unlike every other document in our Book of Confessions, the Belhar Confession is rooted in the global south. Nearly all of our other creeds and statements, such as the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Declaration of Barmen, and everyone’s favorite, the Second Helvetic Confession of 1536 come from the north of Europe. It’s not wrong to have a Book of Confessions that is rooted in one place; it’s just incomplete.

Some of my friends will look at the title of this message and say, “The south is going to rise? Yeah, baby, you know it will…” For many, that phrase evokes echoes of this nation’s civil war, or as some of my friends insist on calling it, “the war of northern aggression.” Saying that the South will rise is another way of saying that the bad old days of slavery and Jim Crow are going to come back.

You will not be surprised, I hope, to learn that this is not what I mean. When I say that the South will rise, I hear it as a message of hope. Christians with life experiences that are different than mine will gain prominence in the world. As this happens, the global church will be made more complete and will more adequately reflect all of God’s intentions for humanity. When I say the South will rise, I do not mean to imply that the North will fall. All of us can be lifted. The fact that the Belhar Confession is under consideration by a church with roots in Switzerland and Scotland is an encouraging sign that perhaps the South is, in fact, rising.

What can we learn from the Belhar Confession? Well, let’s go back to the bus station in Dangriga. I knew, even before I saw the sign, that I was in a difficult place. Similarly, you don’t need me to tell you that this world is damaged in significant ways. We are surrounded by things that are not as they should be.

The Belhar Confession names some of that brokenness this way:

We believe

  • that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;

  • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;

  • that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;

  • that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;

  • that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly…

Do you hear what that says about the world in which we live? That it is full of injustice and hatred, oppression and hunger; that there are too many who are orphaned or widowed or captive or poor. The world is not the way that it should be!

But remember, I didn’t go to the bus station in Dangriga in order to visit Dangriga. I had a destination in mind: the rain forest. The bus station was simply the place from which I started.

The Belhar document reminds me that the places where we begin are not necessarily the places for which we are destined. The kinds of brokenness that surround us now are not God’s purposes for his beloved children. God’s intentions, as stated squarely by Jesus in John 17 and Paul in the letter to the Romans, are for God’s people to live together in right relationships, connected truly and authentically with God and with each other.

The Christians in South Africa put it this way:

We believe

  • that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another…

  • that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted…

  • that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind…

Isn’t that where we want to go? We don’t need to stay where we are – it woudn’t make sense to stay in a place that is broken. Doesn’t that passage describe God’s purposes for the church?

But how do we get there? How do we leave the bus station and get to the rain forest? How do we pull away from the brokenness and separation that surrounds us and grow into the community to which Christ calls us?

4701837-Chicken-Bus-in-Belize-City-1Well, back in Dangriga I got on the bus. Listen to me, beloved: I did not make the bus. I did not drive the bus. I had no information as to the safety inspections of that bus. All I know is that if I was going to get my family to the rain forest, we were going to get on that bus. The bus was a given to be enjoyed (or endured) – an experience with many languages, many children, many baskets of produce, many, um, delicate aromas, many chickens, and a few turkeys. That bus was the means by which I would leave the station and arrive at the rain forest.

Similarly, God has given this world a means in which to leave the brokenness of our present condition and grow into the fullness of his intentions for us. The vehicle in which he intends us to arrive at his purposes is, well, us. The church is God’s instrument of healing in the world.

handsinsandMake sure that when you hear me say that, you understand that I mean the church as it is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ, not necessarily the institution that sits on this corner and enjoys a tax break every now and again. If God is going to do what God says God is going to do, then it’s going to happen because the church – the whole church, the one church – will point to those intentions of God. And the only way that we can do this is in the strength of Jesus Christ.

Listen one more time to what Belhar says:

We believe

  • that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.

  • that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world…

Note that the strength and the power that is given to the church does not come through political policy or worship style; it’s not based on skin color or moral purity – it is based in the unity that we have received as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

The church is one. The church is the Body of Christ. We are not supposed to be Christ’s Body, or going to be that Body some day. By definition, the church is one and the church is Christ’s.

In 1982, a group of Christians came to see this in South Africa, and they rejected the sin of their age: an evil system of racial hatred and segregation that had been enshrined not only in the national law, but in the church doctrine. The brothers and sisters in that time and place rejected apartheid as false teaching and repented. That is to say, they changed direction.

Beloved, as we stand on this corner at the beginning of 2015, we confess that like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, or Paul writing in a prison cell, or believers living in Capetown thirty-five years ago – we are not where we should be. We have been called to walk towards God’s best for his children. And in this time and this place, I need to say that I will walk in that direction, and that I will walk the only way that the church knows how to walk – with everyone who has been called of God. I can’t go only with the people that I like the best, or with the folks with whom I feel most comfortable. I can’t go only with people who think I’m right all the time, or who speak in a language that I understand flawlessly.

As we seek to be the church, the Body of Christ, in this time and place, may we be ever-increasingly aware of the unity that is ours in Jesus.

I get it. Black History month is an artificial construct. It can be downright hokey. But let’s use it anyway. Let’s use these days to learn something of a culture that may not be our own. Let’s listen for stories we don’t know. Let’s consider where there are places that we may need to repent, or turn around, or try again.

It’s not a black thing, and it’s not a white thing. We don’t do this because it’s politically correct, or because it will make us feel all warm and gushy inside. We do this because the unity of the Church is a given; it is essential to the very life and being of the church. We ought to live like that unity is not merely an idea, but a reality; and if we deign to call ourselves the church, we ought to live like the Lord has called us to live.

We may not be where we want to be, and we are not where we are going to be – but God has shown us his intentions. – where he wants us to be. And, so far as I can see, there’s only one bus out of this place, and it’s called the church, the Body of Christ. May we be that body – that living, breathing, very much live body – in this place and time. Amen.