Are You Like Mike?

The scripture is full of invitations to act – to set things into motion.  In worship on August 30, the folk in Crafton Heights thought a bit about ways in which “going through the motions” is helpful and ways in which that becomes a distraction or even worse.  Our scriptures for the day included Mark 7:1-8 and James 1:22-27.

 

If you were around after worship last Sunday, you might have overheard Brad discussing a rather unusual problem: he was trying to give away Steelers tickets and he couldn’t find any takers. He had a number of seats to the game between the Steelers and the hallowed Green Bay Packers, and he was having a hard time finding anyone who was interested in going along. Who passes up Steeler tickets? FREE Steeler tickets at that!

Oh, wait, you say – it was last week’s game? A preseason game? No thanks. I’d rather water my lawn or sort out the coins that have piled up on my dresser.

Tomlin2Preseason football is meaningless, some people say. Not only that, it’s dangerous for some players: just last week the Steelers lost at least two key players for some time due to injuries incurred during the preseason game. But perhaps worst of all, preseason football is BORING. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has gone on record as saying that he does not play preseason games to win. When asked what his goal was in a recent preseason contest, the coach said this: “We’d like to keep penalties to a minimum. We’d like to play assignment-clean football. At this point we’ll see where we are in that regard.”[1]

Yes, because nothing says “excitement” like “assignment-clean football.”

But the fact that the coach isn’t playing to win doesn’t imply that he doesn’t care about the game. Far from it: Coach Mike believes it’s important to see who is growing as a player and who has lost a step; he wants his team to try out new formations, and the individual players to develop some muscle memory in terms of how to do what they’ll need to do once the season starts. “I think the preseason is very necessary to develop regular-season readiness,” Tomlin said, “and the only way to do that is to play. I’m always a healthy guy play type of guy.” He remembers that almost every single good team in the NFL ended last year with a loss. Coach Mike is one of the best coaches in football because he usually knows why he is doing what he is doing.

So maybe, in spite of the fact that very few of us in the room are ready for life in the NFL, we can “be like Mike” when it comes to being ready for whatever comes our way. Sometimes, you put yourself through the motions because that’s what gets you ready for the things that really count.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were amazingly adept at going through the motions. In fact, they were so good at going through the motions that they challenged Jesus about it one day.

washinghandsThe Hebrew scriptures command the people of God to be grateful for the food that they enjoy and the land from which it comes, but there is no commandment specifying exactly how that is to happen. Over the years, the religious leaders built up a number of traditions so that by the time that Jesus was born, the way that one demonstrated one’s gratitude to God was to pour a specified amount of water (that which could be contained in one and a half medium eggshells) over the hands in such a way so that it covered at least the middle knuckles of each finger. Having done that, your hands were clean, your gratitude was apparent, and you could enjoy the meal.

james_tissot_pharisees_400When the Pharisees condemned the disciples for failing to wash their hands, they weren’t concerned about hygiene, or spreading germs. They were offended because Jesus and his followers didn’t go through all the motions – they were not keeping the traditions that came, not from God, but from other Pharisees.

Jesus’ response is quick and to the point: “Why do you care more about trying to prove to other people how holy you are than you do about pleasing God? You’ve left your relationship with God out of the equation here, and you’re not honoring him with your life, your thoughts, or your hand-washing. You’re just showing off. Learn the ways of God first, and then see how human traditions fit into them.”

So if you’ll allow me to extend the sports analogy a little further, I might say that for people like this, all of life is like a preseason game. There is a repetition of the basics that just goes on and on and on; there are dozens of opportunities for people to get hurt or inflict injury on someone else; there’s not much connection between what they do day in and day out and things that matter eternally; and there is real uncertainty as to why they do what they do.

Which leads me to the story of another Mike. It is a true story.

On September 10, 1945, Clara Olson, of Fruita Colorado, sent her husband Lloyd out to prepare a chicken for the evening meal. Clara reminded Lloyd that her mother was coming for dinner, and that her mother really enjoyed, of all things, the neck of the bird. So Lloyd selected a strapping young rooster that weighed about two and a half pounds and took it to the chopping block where he lined up the axe in the hopes of making Clara’s mother a happy woman. He struck the blow and the chicken went running around the barnyard as is typical of these animals once they’ve lost their heads.

Lloyd&MikeWhat happened next, however, was surprising. Instead of eventually dropping over and expiring, as you might expect, the bird shook off the effects of the decapitation and never looked back (which would have been impossible, given the fact that he no longer had eyes). He walked around the barnyard and made as if he was pecking for food. Lloyd left the bird and presumably made other arrangements for his mother-in-law’s evening meal.

The next morning, Lloyd found the bird, whom he came to call “Mike”, sleeping with the stump of his neck under his wing. He decided that if the bird was that intent on living, he’d find a way, and so he began a regimen of feeding Mike grain and water through an eyedropper.

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

In the next 18 months, Mike the Wonder Chicken grew to weigh more than eight pounds and was a feature at sideshows and other venues where the eager public lined up to pay a quarter a head (pun intended) to see this oddity. He was insured for $10,000 and his fame was broadcast in Time and Life magazines. I’m sad to say that while the Olsens were bringing Mike home from one of his trips to Los Angeles or Atlantic City, they woke up in the middle of the night to find Mike choking. They were unable to find the eyedropper and because of that, “Miracle Mike the Wonder Chicken” passed onto whatever eternal reward awaits barnyard chickens.

It is amazing to me that a chicken can live for a year and a half without a head…but perhaps it should not be a surprise. The reality is that far too often, churches and Christians are like this Mike: they exist, but not fully. Somehow, they have become cut off from the head of the body, which is Christ, and found a way to perpetuate their existence in isolation from the One who first called us and who directs and sustains us.

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

Think about it: a lot of churches have clean and shiny buildings filled with busy staff people and very efficient programs, but there is no apparent connection between all of the business inside and God’s movement and purposes in the world.

A lot of Christians get up in the morning and sit in front of their bibles or TV screens for a few moments, and then run out the door to make it to the church work project or to volunteer at the clothing drive or the strawberry social but somehow, in the midst of all of this energy and excitement, there is not any vital connection with the One who called them into being and charged them to follow. They are simply running through the motions, doing what Christians are supposed to do because that’s what they do.

“Miracle Mike” the Headless Chicken is indisputable proof that it is, at least in some cases, possible for an organism to exist and even grow while severed from its head.

But why? Can we really call that “living”? Is it wise for us to emulate that kind of existence?

As we wrap up this summer and turn the corner to fall, I’m here to tell you that you’re going to receive a lot of invitations from your church family. Can you volunteer with the kids from time to time, or fold the newsletter? Do you plan to come to the All Church retreat in October? You know, the folks at Real Food and the Table are looking for some energetic hands. And don’t forget small groups like FaithBuilders and the Tuesday morning ladies.

There is a lot of church-related busy-ness that goes on in our lives. And to be honest, on a lot of days, a lot of us show up at these programs and feel like we’re just going through the motions. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves employed in a series of worthwhile activities that repeats itself again and again and again but fails to lead to any greater meaning. Imagine how terrible football would be if every game ever played was like a preseason game!

James warns us about this (about collecting activities and practices without meaning, not about preseason games) when he calls us to live life with the “revealed counsel of God” foremost in our thoughts. We listen for the call of God and then we respond with actions that have meaning and purpose and lead us in a particular direction.

1-ephesians-4-body-of-christJesus leads us in this way of reflective action, and is perhaps assisted unknowingly by Mike Tomlin. In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be taking a hard look at Jesus’ call to come out and go through the motions of faithful living – to be present to people who are in need, to be open to God’s call in Bible Study, and to be focused on building a community that forms and shapes us.

We go through these motions not because serving others, reading scripture, or spending time with the community are ends in themselves, but because these exercises are the means by which we stay connected with our head, who is Jesus. These practices, carried out with faithfulness and diligence and joy under the guidance of the Holy Spirit can lead us into the fullness of life in Christ – so that when we are presented with a challenge, an opportunity, a burden, or a new set of circumstances, we are able to respond to it as Jesus would. We engage in these behaviors so that when Christ calls us to be his functioning, alert, alive Body in this time and this place, we’ll be ready to do that. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] This quote and the one to follow are both taken from http://espn.go.com/blog/pittsburgh-steelers/post/_/id/8038/tomlin-wont-play-to-win-preseason-games

Unhindered

Some thoughts on bringing babies to Jesus – and what keeps them away from his intentions.  Our worship on August 23 was anchored in Luke 18:15-17, Colossians 3:21, and Proverbs 22:6

It’s been a busy week here at the Crafton Heights Church. As we creep closer and closer to September, there is more and more activity in and around this building. This week we had painting and Preschool planning and staff conversations and the newsletter was published and lots more – including a Session meeting. At that meeting, the elders of this congregation approved a six-page document called “The Safe Church Policy of the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights”. This is a statement regarding the protection of minors while they are in our building or attending church-related events.

safe_church_0The “Safe Church Policy” was made necessary by some sweeping changes in the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These changes resulted from a number of high-profile cases wherein adults have done unspeakable things to children.

This is not a new problem, of course. There are many people in this room who are survivors of childhood trauma and abuse. And this is not a distinctively American problem – all around the world, people do horrible things to children. And so, under the rallying cry of “Somebody ought to do something,”, the lawmakers and insurance companies got together and created these new regulations that will result in a host of new policies and practices at virtually every facility that serves children.

Here at Crafton Heights, that means that there will be more open doors, an increased need for adult volunteers, a heightened screening of those volunteers and staff, more paperwork and increased oversight as well as additional fees. And we are fine with that – because we want to do it right.

But here’s the deal, beloved: Our goal is not simply to comply with the law. Our objective is not to create a paper trail that will make it harder for us to be sued. That’s aiming too low. Our calling is to be a blessing to children and youth. To nurture, protect, and guide these children as they grow. To love them as God in Christ has loved us. That’s what we want to do – keeping them safe is simply a part of that.

jesus-children-clipart-6I would imagine that just about everyone in the room is familiar with today’s Gospel reading. Jesus blesses the little children. It’s the stuff of Sunday School posters and bad artwork for longer than any of us have been alive. We know that about Jesus. Jesus blesses children – of course he does. That what Jesus is all about, right?

Christ Blessing the Children Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

Christ Blessing the Children
Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

In his day and age, Jesus’ attentiveness to children was counter-cultural. In the ancient world it was not uncommon for unwanted children to be left to die of exposure or given away to those who would raise them as gladiators or beggars, yet Jesus points to the weakest members of society and honors them. Luke heightens this emphasis, for whereas Mark and Matthew say that people bring their “children” to see Jesus, Luke points out that they are bringing babies. Jesus’ blessing of such babies is entirely consistent with his affinity for standing up for those who are on the fringes.

This morning, though, I don’t really want to look at what Jesus does; I’d like to consider what he says. In this brief passage, Jesus gives pretty explicit instructions to his followers: “let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

Let’s talk about that word, “hinder”. In the game of racquetball, if I get between you and the ball such that you can’t reach it, instead of me getting the point for being such an amazing athlete, we have to replay the point because I have “hindered” you. That is, I’ve gotten your way; I’ve cut off your access to the ball. The Greek word kaluo is a key word in the Luke’s writing. At least twelve times in the two-volume work that forms Luke and Acts, he uses this word to communicate something important about the Gospel.

In Luke 6, Jesus says that we are not to hinder another person’s access to the things that he or she needs, even if that thing is “ours”. In Luke 9, Jesus scolds his disciples for “hindering” someone who is doing God’s work simply because he’s not doing it the way that they expect him to. Later, Jesus charges the Pharisees with “hindering” people’s ability to live faithfully.

When Luke was writing Acts, he mentioned that the Ethiopian eunuch wanted to know if there was anything that “hindered” him from being baptized, and he uses the same language in the conversations around Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius – there is no reason, apparently, to “hinder” the progress of God’s truth. In fact, the very last word in the book of Acts is the negative form of this word: akaluo. Luke finishes telling the story of Jesus and the early church by saying that the Gospel itself is “unhindered” as it is set free in the world.

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. Used by permission. http://www.jesusmafa.com/?lang=en

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. http://www.Jesusmafa.com

Jesus MAFA

So when Jesus says, “don’t hinder the children”, he’s saying more than simply “keep out of their way”. I think that he’s telling his followers that these children deserve unfettered access to the love of God in Christ, and that disciples of Jesus are called to do everything in our power to give children the opportunity to be embraced by the Lord.

So of course, we need to have a “Safe Church” policy. But we need to remember that protecting children from physical abuse is the starting point – the ground floor of this enterprise. What else are we going to do?

Well, I can promise you several things that will be true as long as I am the pastor of this congregation.

If you and I are talking and someone who is less than four feet tall comes and starts to tug on my robe, I can pretty much guarantee that you and I will be interrupted, because I want that little person to know that Pastor Dave is interested in what she or he has to say.

You need to know that children are going to cry during worship, God willing. I know, it’s very important that we nurture and instruct our kids in the art of sitting in and participating in the worship service – but the fact of the matter is that not all of us are good at that all the time, and neither are our children. And we will not banish children who make a little noise.

This congregation will work to create meaningful experiences outside of this room wherein children can be welcomed: FaithBuilder classes and toddler care rooms and other places where faith can be nurtured and intergenerational friendships can flourish.

Through the ministries of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool and The Open Door, we will enlarge the circle of caring by providing excellent role models and mentors and safe places to grow and learn what faith looks like and how we practice it on the playground and on at Youth Group Mission Trips.

Those are the policies and procedures and programs that we will continue to work on as we strive to make this church a “safe place” for all children. If you see something going on here that is hindering someone’s access to the love and blessing of Jesus, I hope that you’ll tell me what it is. Because if the Gospel is unhindered in the Roman world, it sure as heck ought to be unhindered here in Crafton Heights.

But the reality is that it’s not enough for the leaders and volunteers here to seek to remove hindrances. There are some obstacles to faith that are rooted in the home.

One of the most significant barriers between children and the embrace of Jesus is a demon whose name is “perfectionism”. We do our children and grandchildren a disservice when we expect them to do everything right all the time, or when we think that the way that they will live into their discipleship has to look exactly like the path that we have followed. Parents, don’t expect your children, your family, or your church to be perfect. Again, look to Jesus: he lived with and shared grace all the time – surely we can too. The reading from Colossians indicates that even crusty old Apostle Paul took time to write to the parents in his churches and remind them that it’s important to give the next generation a break every now and then.

Another word that I would have for parents in this regard is to please, please, please be attentive to the schedules that you are building for your children’s lives. Activities and extra-curricular events are important and wonderful opportunities for children of any age, but we have to make sure that worship and time with family are anchors for the week. Karate and football and music lessons and dance are foundational experiences in so many ways, but my hope and prayer is that they would find their meaning in the context of a life that is rooted in Sabbath, worship, and other rhythms that nurture the child in Jesus’ love and embrace.

JesusAndChildrenAnd even if we as a congregation have an amazing set of programs and policies, and individual families are diligent when it comes to establishing patterns that point children directly into the arms of Jesus, there are some larger cultural issues to which we ought to dedicate ourselves.

None of what I’m going to say now will surprise you. We want to work for that which promotes peace and justice and hope. We have to support structures that educate and feed and shelter those who are at risk. We must be diligent in our willingness to stand with those who are oppressed and do what we can to remove anything that would hinder their experience of Jesus’ blessing.

So, yeah, it’s been a busy week here at Crafton Heights. But the truth of the matter is that writing out a “Safe Church Policy” is the easy part. By all means, go over and see Jason and Cheri. Fill out the paperwork. Give your fingerprints to the FBI if you need to. Go ahead and check all that stuff off your list.

But know this, beloved: filling out the forms and making the insurance company happy is not the same as blessing the children in Jesus’ name. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

May we – as a congregation, as a community of families, and as a culture – commit ourselves to doing the things that will take time, energy, love, and creativity as we seek to bring the children with whom God has entrusted us to a place where they will have access to the fullness of his love. Thanks be to God for the children we’ve been given and for the mercy under which we live. Amen.

Youth Mission 2015 Update #4

 

In a few hours we’ll be loading up the vans and heading for Pittsburgh. Most of us are a little sore. All of us will be ready for a good night’s sleep. And if we did it right, none of us will be the same. As has become my tradition, I’d like to allow the young people to write this final “Mission Trip Update”. Last night, I asked them to think about what it meant for them to be able to spend a week in this community called “Deep Roots” with each other and the folks who are calling it home right now. Here are their responses, and I’ve given the names of the people who are willing to be so designated.

This is a wonderful trip and I hope we can do this again. It’s nice to try. We helped.

Tim had a whole week of games for the group.  Here he is getting a taste of his own medicine.

Tim had a whole week of games for the group. Here he is getting a taste of his own medicine.

This trip changed me on Day One when John [our site coordinator] told us at orientation to put the idea of service out of our heads. From that point we were no longer here to serve the less fortunate, we were just here to share some things we were able to do for each other. It has less to do with who has more cards in their hand and more to do with humbly and willingly evening out the playing field. If you’ve got more, you want to help out however you can. You don’t want to make a big deal of ‘serving the less fortunate’ because it just makes it more obvious that you place yourself higher than them.

Tim created this game where we had to balance pencils on the back of our hands and then snatch them out of midair. Tommy was pretty good...

Tim created this game where we had to balance pencils on the back of our hands and then snatch them out of midair. Tommy was pretty good…

...but Noah was a master.  He eventually made it to the point where he could do it with 35 pencils in one hand!

…but Noah was a master. He eventually made it to the point where he could do it with 35 pencils in one hand!

If I have learned anything from this trip, it’s not to appreciate the things I don’t have. It’s to be thankful for the people who don’t mind throwing themselves into a bucket of paint or under a building just to make a person’s life easier. I love every person that came on this trip and all of those who couldn’t come too.

This photo does not do the job justice.  The building looks brand new!

This photo does not do the job justice. The building looks brand new!

My favorite thing on every mission trip is the stories that are made, told, and heard. I enjoy everything that I learn from them. I think I learn more from the stories made with the youth group than I do in school.

This mission trip meant a lot to me because like I said [in closing devotions on Friday night] I was in a depression stage and didn’t think a lot meant to me and I thought I was at the lowest of the los but helping people who needed help really hit me and I was like I have a reason. God created me to help people who need it and I decided to come help these people before I get my own help. But helping others I would do again and again but this mission trip means a lot to me. (Tim W)

This trip was one of the best trips that I have been on. The work was great and I felt like we really made a difference. The group was amazing and we all could contribute something. (Katie P)

My first mission trip. I had lots of fun. I had much more fun moving mulch than painting the building.

Loading all of S's possessions into our little trailer to help her move her little family to their new home.

Loading all of S’s possessions into our little trailer to help her move her little family to their new home.

Out of 6 mission trips this was the hardest. The work was not hard but the circumstances we saw were hard (although definitely not as hard as Dave’s experiences in South Sudan). Watching these people who live here made me very frustrated. I felt like we needed to show the kids a lot of attention because the parents were not always doing that. Then helping S. move into her new home I became frustrated with the idea of her kids living in that area and being away from Deep Roots. Coming into this trip I expected to do some work and learn someone’s story. But we did more than work and I did not learn a story. I know our work and me alone could not change these families’ situations but it did open my eyes to more things I can change about myself. Overall the tripo was a success and it allowed me to do a lot of thinking, learning, and reflecting. (Rachael P.)

I was excited to join this group for the first time and I was not disappointed. The work that everyone did with each other was inspirational. I was happy to wake up every morning and serve with these people. (Nick V)

Our evening Bible Study.

Our evening Bible Study.

I really haven’t formulated a thought on this trip. I had good days and I’ve had bad days but I truly learned so much about myself. I did things I never thought possible and I wanna thank everyone for the wonderful work they’ve done here and I look forward to next year’s. (Ricky L)

It is a privilege to be with such amazing young people who care for each other and those they encounter. This group adds so much joy to my life and for that I am so thankful!

This has been a complete eye-opening experience seeing the people that live here and how little they have but also how much they have to give. It makes you appreciate what you have been given. (Josh D)

The "underneath", with a new ground cover and vapor barrier in place.

The “underneath”, with a new ground cover and vapor barrier in place.

This trip has been one of, if not the best trip, I have ever been on. Productively I feel that it has been the most successful, and it has also changed me spiritually. It has changed the way I look at my everyday life and I feel it has changed me for the best. Can’t wait for next year! (David S)

While painting was not Evan's favorite thing, he sure gave it his all and I'm proud of him for that.

While painting was not Evan’s favorite thing, he sure gave it his all and I’m proud of him for that.

I have mixed emotions about Deep Roots or, as other people know it, Meeting Ground. Day 1: Everything was great and it was hot. Day 2: Lots of mulching. Day 3: BEACH = awesome. Day 4: A lot of paint and dirt. Day 5: Three-quarter day and then we swam in the lake. (Evan W)

In this past week I have realized that the littlest things can make a difference in lives. Like how we put down mulch in the playground and later on Pastor Dave told a story how one of the residents said that it made a big difference because of the weeds growing so fast, and how when it rained it was too muddy to play in and when it doesn’t rain the ground is too hard to play on. (Caleb C)

This group works well together and works hard. People look out for each other and look for how they can contribute and serve to make things better for the residents here.

Using a text from Galatians 6, Carly led our devotions on Friday evening, talking about the ways that we are to do all we can to help others while taking responsibility for ourselves.

Using a text from Galatians 6, Carly led our devotions on Friday evening, talking about the ways that we are to do all we can to help others while taking responsibility for ourselves.

Friday was my favorite work day because I got to help someone who has lived in Deep Roots for a couple of months to finally move into a new home. As she was leaving a lot of her friends were saying their goodbyes and had tears in their eyes. It made me realize that while people are living here they make real connections with each other and even become an odd type of family. It made me very grateful for my own family. (Carly B)

This mission trip I feel like I accomplished the most not only physically but this year spiritually too. The group worked very hard this past week and I am very grateful that I was able to come.

Singing is a big part of our evening devotions - it helps us create a safe place to be with and for each other in the presence of God.

Singing is a big part of our evening devotions – it helps us create a safe place to be with and for each other in the presence of God.

There you have it – in their own words – a small hint of the stories that God is writing in the lives of these fifteen young people and five of their leaders. Many of the kids paid $125 to get here for the week. Others were not able to afford that. None of us could have gotten here if it were not for generous donations from people who came to the baked potato luncheon or who made other gifts that allowed us to rent the vans, to buy the meals, and to offer a day at the beach. As I said in the first post, it’s one of my favorite weeks of the whole year (I am, however, ready to spend a few nights in my own bed!). Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Maybe you can guess that this is one of my favorite images from the trip.  I'm not sure who took it, but it expresses well my hope for this and other trips.

Maybe you can guess that this is one of my favorite images from the trip. I’m not sure who took it, but it expresses well my hope for this and other trips. You probably can’t read the writing on my shirt, but it has the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s motto on it: “Out of chaos, hope”.  For too many of the kids who came with me on this trip, life is chaotic.  In the past couple of years we have buried too many parents and seen too much grief…we’ve had trouble in school and made horrific mistakes…and we’ve seen great joy and made wonderful strides.  In the same way, Deep Roots brings a sense of hope and purpose to the lives of even the littlest residents, and the opportunity to think that we can make positive steps in the days, months, and years to come.  That’s not insignificant – not at all.  It’s a little step, some days, but at least we’re walking into hope.

Youth Mission 2015 Update #3

Making memories.

Paddleball in the surf

Paddleball in the surf

When we come on mission trips with the young people, we try to do a lot of important work.  A large part of that important work involves the labor that the kids invest on behalf of others: most years that involves something like building wheelchair ramps, framing walls, dropping mulch, watching children, or painting buildings.  Some of that important work goes on inside the lives of the young people themselves: we engage in conversations about things that really matter as the kids trust me or another advisor or even each other in reflecting on things that really matter to them.

A couple of veterans show 'em how a wave ought to be ridden.

A couple of veterans show ’em how a wave ought to be ridden.

But one of the most important things that we do when we come on a trip like this is simply making memories.  We try to create a well of shared joy-filled experiences that can sustain the members of the community when they feel alone, scattered, or simply un-joy-filled.  Memories bring a shared story to the group that grows and evolves over time and informs the group identity – and reminds each participant that she or he shares in that identity.  In fact, one of the greatest times in any mission trip or retreat comes when some of the younger people gather around Tim and me or some of the other advisors and ask us to tell them stories about when they were new in youth group, or when their older siblings were in the group.  They are learning the stories and finding their places in the history of the group.

Yeah, we're pretty sure that these were dolphins.  Sure enough that we sent a few kids out to check them out, anyway...

Yeah, we’re pretty sure that these were dolphins. Sure enough that we sent a few kids out to check them out, anyway…

So yesterday, we didn’t do any “real” work on the mission trip.  We drove 90 minutes southeast of Deep Roots to Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes Delaware and we jumped into the Atlantic Ocean.  We swam.  We rode waves.  We played paddleball.  We watched a whole bunch of dorsal fins that we assumed to be dolphins and not sharks.  We gathered shells, we got pummeled by waves, some of us ignored Pastor Dave’s warnings about sunscreen, and we laughed.  And laughed.  And laughed.

We saw a lot of this yesterday.  A lot.

We saw a lot of this yesterday. A lot.

Afterwards, we drove a little further south to the little town of Rehoboth, where we strolled the boardwalk and then ate a little of Delaware’s famous “Grotto Pizza”.  We had a Bible Study and sang on the beach, and then Tim bought us all ice cream.  We didn’t get home until nearly 11 pm.  And we were tired – from not working all day.

Tim led the search party that discovered this horseshoe crab, which was a source of wonderment not only to our group, but dozens of other curious beach-goers.

Tim led the search party that discovered this horseshoe crab, which was a source of wonderment not only to our group, but dozens of other curious beach-goers.

At Grotto Pizza.

At Grotto Pizza.

Today, we’ll be stiff (particularly those of us that are north of 50 years old).  Some of us will be a little touchy as the effects of sunburn become more apparent.  And all of us will be richer for the memories we’ve made.

It is my hope and prayer that these memories will help to sustain the kids and remind them of who (and Whose) they are when questions come in the days ahead.

Devotions on the beach at sunset.

Devotions on the beach at sunset.

The end of a great day. There are lots of memories here.

The end of a great day. There are lots of memories here.

 

Youth Mission 2015 Update #2

 

I sat with John, the Farm Manager here at Deep Roots, as the young people from Crafton Heights were buzzing around us engaged in a variety of tasks. Several members of the team were caring for children whose parents were on job or housing interviews; many were distributing mulch throughout the compound; still others were engaged in a variety of small repair jobs. John smiled at me and said, “So Dave, the first thing I did when we finished work on Monday was to call in some help from the members of our board. I said, ‘Ed, you’ve got to get me more supplies. We’ve got a group here who gets it. I mean, they really get it. We have to be ready for these kids because they are moving.’”

The mulch pile seems to have grown overnight!

The mulch pile seems to have grown overnight!

“They get it.” I was so proud to hear someone say that about our group. As we rolled into Maryland, I asked some of our team what their hopes for the week were. I heard things like, “I hope that we don’t run out of work”, or “I hope that this year we get to meet the people that we are working with”. The work ethic that these kids display, by and large, is admirable. Their willingness to engage those with and for whom we serve is a mixed bag (it’s not everyone’s cup of tea), but for some of our young people it is a real highlight.

Today, our team spent the morning weeding and mulching the remaining garden beds, exploring solutions for a water condensation problem, and playing with children. Afternoon, we had two main teams: one was crawling through the foundation of the education building removing a problematic insulation system and the other was beginning to paint the dining hall. Throughout, the group was encouraging, helpful, and eager to serve. I am delighted to be associated with this team.

Ricky with a couple of the children from the Deep Roots community.

Ricky with a couple of the children from the Deep Roots community.

Each day we take our meals in the dining hall with the families and volunteers who form the Deep Roots community, and with each meal, I’m more likely to see tables in which CHUP-sters have integrated with others.

After dinner tonight, we played another round of exciting and unusual games led by Tim, and then Karen facilitated a discussion on the parable of the sower and the seeds as found in Matthew. We sang a few songs, we talked about important things, and then we split into groups for a little free time and relaxation prior to bed.

 

Caleb  is clearly in control of this group of kids!

Caleb is clearly in control of this group of kids!

I am as tired as I have been in a long, long time. But there is no place else I’d rather be right now. CS Lewis might say that “Aslan is on the move” amidst this group of young people, and I’d agree. Important things are happening in them, and perhaps through them.

 

Here are a few images from our day:

Solving the insulation and condensation problem...

Solving the insulation and condensation problem…

I'm not entirely sure what is going on here, but trust me, safety is our first priority!

I’m not entirely sure what is going on here, but trust me, safety is our first priority!

Noah shows off the largest slug I've ever seen.

Noah shows off the largest slug I’ve ever seen.

The team begins to "cut in" on the painting of the Dining Hall.

The team begins to “cut in” on the painting of the Dining Hall.

Painting progresses...

Painting progresses…

Jake sets the pace in a game that left us in stitches.

Jake sets the pace in a game that left us in stitches.

Ricky attempting to collapse the cups into a stack.

Ricky attempting to collapse the cups into a stack.

 

Youth Mission 2015 Update #1

The 2015 Crafton Heights Youth Mission started off in a big way on Monday. We arrived at Deep Roots on Sunday to a phenomenal dinner on Sunday night and got settled in the “mission house”. Regrettably, we only needed 20 of the 21 bunks that were set up for us, as a last-minute illness prevented our friend Lindsay from joining the team. We’ve already missed her smiling face and servant’s heart.

The first thing we saw upon arrival at Deep Roots was this mural, painted by young members of the CHUP community in 1998!

The first thing we saw upon arrival at Deep Roots was this mural, painted by young members of the CHUP community in 1998!

We were warmly welcomed by members of the eight or so families currently residing at Deep Roots as well as some of the volunteers in residence. We awoke early on Monday and were faced with an opportunity vastly different that that of last year: more work than we could do in a day. Whereas in 2014 we struggled with the results of an administrative mix-up that left us idle for a few hours, today we were able to divide into five teams and work at various sites throughout the compound: Karen’s team put the door hardware into place on the Education building, Tim’s group was working on the vinyl siding, Marla’s group and Dave’s group were working in the gardens, and Brad’s group was able to spend some time with a group of children that needed care.

This truck contained half of the mulch we used today.

This truck contained half of the mulch we used today.

After lunch, we tackled the big job of the day: placing a truckload and a half of mulch on the large playground area. I was thrilled to see how the team came together to plan out and execute this project. It involved measuring and cutting the plastic landscape cover and mobilizing a fleet of wheelbarrows to put the mulch into place. Those who know me well will understand how much better the experience was for me once Tim started quoting lines from Cool Hand Luke.

After dinner, Marla led us in a discussion centered on the reminder that Moses gave to the people in Deuteronomy. God’s intention was for the people of Israel, who had known enslavement, poverty, and homelessness, to offer the stranger and traveler in their midst a more sustainable reality. It was a great opportunity for the folks on this trip to reflect on the stories that they’d heard earlier in the day.

 

Evan strolls through the playground as we prepare to lay down the mulch.

Evan strolls through the playground as we prepare to lay down the mulch.

Rachael with a young friend.

Rachael with a young friend.

The siding team at work.

The siding team at work.

"If we pull all the weeds, then maybe Pastor Dave will let us out of this holding pen..."

“If we pull all the weeds, then maybe Pastor Dave will let us out of this holding pen…”

The wheelbarrow caravan.

The wheelbarrow caravan.

David setting the pace.

David setting the pace.

How I think I look when I spread mulch.

How I really look while I spread mulch.

How I really look while I spread mulch.

Why Should I Stop Thinking?

I continued to reflect on our Malawian journey in worship on August 2 2015.  Our scripture passages were Acts 18:24-28 and Hebrews 5:11-14

Most of you are aware of the fact that I am fresh from one mission trip and packed for another. You need to know that the time in Malawi, Central Africa, was just amazing. You’ll hear more about this next week, but I need to tell you that there was more that happened in those two weeks than I ever thought possible.

PartnershiplogoOf particular joy to me was having the opportunity to see the Christians from South Sudan and our partners from Malawi enjoying the time together so completely. For a long time, our church has partnered with the church in Malawi, but a couple of years ago that was broadened to include Christians in the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan. Since then, I’ve often used the analogy of a piece of furniture, saying that while one might be able to rest on a two-legged chair, a three-legged stool was far more practical and durable and comfortable. The possibilities of this trans-African partnership are just beginning to be explored, and the future appears to be very, very rich.

An elder from South Sudan put it this way: “We are glad to be in partnership with people in Pittsburgh, but we think that we will profit far more from our relationship with Malawi than with the USA.” It was just glorious to watch these two churches begin to fall in love with each other, and I believe that this could really change the face of mission in Africa if not the world.

This trip was amazing; it was important; it was life-changing; and it may have even been life-saving.
Three years ago, the church in Malawi presented itself to the world, so far as I could see, as a “receiving” church. It was chronically needy. Our friends there had come to believe in themselves as people who will always need help from the outside just to get by. When the Christians in South Sudan came alongside, that offered believers in Malawi the chance to re-evaluate their strengths and resources and gifts. Together, these two African churches have discovered wonderful opportunities.

As we were leaving Malawi, a good friend of mine who is in leadership in that church said to me, “It was a good trip, but I wish it was not yet over.” And I smiled, and shook his hand, and said, “You bet! I wish we could stay here longer.”

He shook his head and said, “No, not here. I wish that you were leaving here and spending three more days in Mozambique. The Christians there are struggling, and we are trying to help them. In fact, I believe that next week we will be signing a partnership agreement with the church in Mozambique.”

I looked at him in surprise and exclaimed, “Hey, really? Are you already trying to change my three-legged stool into a four-legged desk?” And I laughed.

And my friend, this beautiful Christian man, looked at me and said simply, “Why should I stop thinking? I am a Christian, after all.”

I’m sorry to say that immediately I thought of a whole new line of t-shirts and hoodies that would bear that message: Why should I stop thinking? I am a Christian!

StopTHinkingShirtThe reality is, however, that for far too many people, Christianity is about saying “yes” to a set of ideas. It’s saying, “I believe that Jesus is my savior,” and that’s it. We say what we believe when we are twelve, or twenty-two, or forty, and from that point on, the focus is on defending that amazing truth from every changing, from ever developing, for fear that we somehow “lose it”. We concentrate on some moral behavior (we don’t smoke or drink or sleep around or vote for the wrong people), but the core of our spiritual identity, in too many cases, does not change. Ever.

How many friends do you have who might say something like, “Of course I’m a Christian. I became a Christian on the afternoon of September 19 2009.”? For these people, the Gospel is a line of some sort. I’m not a Christian. Now, I’ll pray that prayer, and cross over the line. I am a Christian. That’s it, right? I just wait here, then I’ll die, and I’ll get to go to heaven. Amen.
As popular as that theology seems to be in some circles, there’s a problem with it: it’s just not biblical. Faith is alive. It is living and vital. And as with all living things, the normative state for faith is to grow. Which means that our faith will change and evolve over time.

Ss. Aquila and Priscilla with St. Paul, fresco in the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome Domenico Tojetti (1807–1892)

Ss. Aquila and Priscilla with St. Paul,  Domenico Tojetti (1807–1892)

In Ephesus they had a little church. It had been started by a guy who knew a little about changing and growing over time, the Apostle Paul. As that congregation experienced numerical and spiritual growth, Paul was joined by two colleagues, a husband and wife team named Aquila and Priscilla. Eventually, Paul pulled up stakes and moved on. Not long after that, Apollos wanders into town.

Apollos?And Apollos seems to be the real deal: he’s tall, he’s good-looking (ok, the text doesn’t actually mention this, but, c’mon – with a name like Apollos, you don’t think he was a short fat guy with a mullet, do you?)… He’s a great speaker with funny jokes and impeccable timing.

Apollos (more likely)

Apollos (more likely)

The only problem was that he didn’t have the whole “Christianity” thing down. He was missing some key concepts on the presence of the Holy Spirit and the nature of life in Christ. When they learned that, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and helped him to grow – and he was able to change his understanding and practice of faith.

That’s not surprising in the book of Acts – after all, that’s what Christians do. And like Paul, Apollos went on to help people grow in their faith. He encouraged them to move, not simply from “A” (not believing in God) to “B” (believing in God’s activity through Jesus Christ), but to grow from “A” to “B”, and then from “B” to “C”, “D”, and even “E”. Because faith is based in relationship. Because faith grows. Because faith changes us and as a result, the way that we live into that faith had better change in and through us over time.

Listen: I love my granddaughter. One of my favorite things in the world is watching her eat. I’m here to tell you that that kid can put it away: fish. Beets. Sauerkraut. Berries. Beans. One of her new favorites is liver and onions. She loves to explore, she loves to taste, and she eats like a champ.

But every now and then, Lucia will enjoy some “mama milk”. And why shouldn’t she? The kid is not even two years old! Everyone knows that breast milk is a great source of so much that is good for human development.
But she won’t always be like that, will she? I mean, if in ten years, she’s still having appetizers with Grampy and then taking her main meal via breast milk, well, we’ve got a problem. Eleven year olds move and think and act and operate a lot differently than do 20-month olds. Or, at least, they should operate differently than toddlers.
We know that, right? We get that concept in the physical sense…but not always spiritually.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews – who many scholars believe might very well have been Paul’s friend Priscilla, says to those in her congregation, “What the heck is wrong with you people? Grow up already! You ought to be mature by now – even teaching other people, for crying out loud. But you’re still over there, drinking up the milk like it’s going out of style. You need something you can sink your teeth into – you’re too big for this kiddie stuff anymore.”

One of the magazines that comes to my study each month is a little volume called The Christian Century. It’s full of news about the world of religion, insightful articles on faith and belief, and a lot of other stuff I don’t usually have time to read. For many years, The Century has had an occasional column entitled “How my mind has changed”, in which a prominent theologian or spiritual leader talks about her or his journey of faith, and how that person has been led to change denominations or shift views on baptism or adopt some new pattern of behavior. I love those columns, even when I disagree with them, because too often we look at someone and say, “So and so is this.” When we say that someone is “like that” all the time, we forget that each of us is, or ought to be, where we are as a part of a process.

This morning I wonder: If the Christian Century came to you and offered you the chance to write a column on “how my mind has changed”, could you do it? Are there places in your life where you used to be uncertain, but now you’re holding on tightly? Or perhaps the opposite – something about which you were convinced five years ago that now has you scratching your head?

Or has your faith and your life become so calcified that it looks exactly like the old Doxology: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be; world without end – Amen!”?

Beloved, the Lord intends for us to grow – to grow physically, to grow emotionally, to grow spiritually. I know darned well that you’re not the same person I met the first time we laid eyes on each other – not physically, anyway. How have you changed spiritually? Where have you grown?

If you’re not sure how to answer that, then let me encourage you to take this last month of the summer, these “dog days”, and spend some time shaking yourself up. Borrow a book from a friend and then talk about it afterwards. Ask Gabe Kish to tell you about his trip to Africa. Study an issue that has you perplexed. Go serve up a hot meal with some hungry people at The Table. Engage someone who is really different from you. Read a part of the bible that has scared you in the past. Sit with your pastor for a season. Learn to pray out loud. Visit someone who is grieving. Write a letter to a prisoner. Show up at a protest or a march. Ask someone about her tattoos. Give something away.

Some of you are going on a mission trip this week. If you come back unchanged, then I’m not a very good pastor – or you’re not a very good participant. We will be staying on a farm in the country at a shelter for homeless families. How will that affect you? Which of these people with whom you’re sitting will be a better friend when you get back? How do you think the next year in school will be different because you’re participating in this trip? Have you ever really spoken to someone who’s been homeless before? Why does God allow poverty in the world, anyway? I mean, if God can do anything, why doesn’t God just snap his fingers and whip up some more food or an apartment complex or something? What’s the deal with that? Why do you have a home and the people you’ll meet later today don’t? Are you better than them? Smarter? Holier? Does God like us better than he likes them?

Cute-Kittens-and-Babies-17-HD-Images-WallpapersI know, these are hard questions. Here’s a cute photo of a kitten  to calm you down so you don’t have to think so hard.

new_ideasBut the truth is that you will be a different person next week. How? And how will you allow that change to help you grow into God’s person in this world where you are?
You are a Christian. Why should you stop thinking?