Bridges and Harbors and People I Love

Our congregation ended the month of August 2016 by sending our friends Michael and Rachel Weller back to Ethiopia after a season in which we had enjoyed each other’s company for eight months.  You can read more about their ongoing work as mission co-workers by clicking here.  Our texts for the day included Luke 10:1-12 and selected verses from Romans 16 (included below).  

 

If you have spent any time with me on the river this year, you’ve probably been forced to hear me wax poetically about two bridges that exist almost side by side on the Allegheny River just upstream from the Point.

The Northside terminus of the 16th Street Bridge

The Northside terminus of the 16th Street Bridge

The Sixteenth Street Bridge (also called the David McCullough bridge) is my favorite span in the city. It is a thing of beauty and strength as it connects the North Side and the Strip District. I love the sculptures – winged seahorses in spheres – that symbolize the four corners of the earth; I love the engravings of fish and of Poseidon that adorn the columns; and I love the fact that you can walk across it. It’s a bridge that points to awe and wonder and reminds us that it’s good for communities to be connected to each other and we ought not to take that for granted.

Veterans Memorial Bridge

Veterans Memorial Bridge

Just downstream from that structure is the Veterans’ Bridge, an imposing platform that whisks traffic from Interstate 279 to Interstate 376 as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is a giant, ugly conveyance that seems to regard the communities over which it towers as little more than distractions or inconveniences. The only way to cross that bridge is in a vehicle, preferably as fast as you can – because that bridge is not designed to create wonder or awe or thanksgiving – it’s designed to get people from someplace way over there to someplace way over there as smoothly and rapidly as possible. “Here” does not matter to those on the Veterans’ Bridge.

And if we were in a boat under those bridges, I’d tell you that I think the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be more like the Sixteenth Street Bridge than the Veterans’ Bridge. The Church ought to create wonder and awe as we celebrate connections that can be made and progress that can be measured.

Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge

Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge

And as I pondered this, I drove my boat under the Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge, which goes from Homestead to, well, something that isn’t there anymore. And it occurred to me that a lot of our churches are more like this bridge than either the Sixteenth Street or the Veterans’ Bridges. That is to say, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to create an elaborate structure, characterized by strong support systems and rock-solid foundations – and yet, that structure doesn’t really go anywhere, make any connections, or lead to any accessibility. In terms of functionality, the Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge is a useless relic.

That said, if you offered me a chance to visit one of these bridges this afternoon… I’d choose the Carrie Furnace, hands down. I think it’s fascinating.

Why does any of this matter?

Because I realized a long time ago that I would have made a horrible apostle – at least initially.

This is my idea of a great day!

This is my idea of a great day!

I think I would have been a great disciple. It would have been so cool following Jesus around, engaging in long, drawn out conversations about stuff that really matters, and having deep and intimate relationships with other followers. I like that kind of stuff. And so when I heard Jesus say, “Pray that God will send out some people to do God’s business in the world,” man, I’d be all over that prayer. “Come on, Matthew, Andrew – let’s pray that God sends some people!” And then, after the prayer, before I can say, “Hey, Simon, what are you doing for lunch? I know this great shawarma place over in Capernaum…”, Jesus says “Go! I am sending you!”

Um, really? Me?

Look, I understand if you don’t believe me now, but the truth is that “Go!” is not my first nature. I’ve learned something, and there will be more about that in a moment. But if I had been in charge of the early church, it would have looked much, much different.

We’d have been hanging out together, and we surely would have missed Jesus after his ascension and all that. And I’d make sure that we got together each night for a little singing, and then I’d probably ask some awkward and intrusive questions that made you want to avoid eye contact for a while. We’d keep building the relationships amongst the disciples, and we’d dive deeper and deeper into that small group…

Yet fortunately for everyone who’s ever lived, I was not in charge, then or now. The first disciples (translated from the Greek word for “follower”) were shaped to become the first apostles (translated from the Greek for “one who is sent out”). And as that happened, they left the relative safety of their own homes and culture and families, leaving the delight of constant relationships with each other in order to follow God’s call into the rest of the world.

If it had been me, we’d have hung around in Jerusalem, Bethsaida, or wherever, mooning and spooning about the good old days and wondering if God would ever use us again. But thanks be to God, the real Apostles did what Jesus told them to do.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure that the intimate relationships continued. You know that when Peter and John were in the same town, they got together and prayed and talked and maybe even sang a few of the old songs. I am certain that personal relationships are the fabric from which the church was created.

The text that taught me that was today’s Epistle reading, Romans chapter 16. This chapter, incidentally, is the number one reason you have never signed up to be a reader in church – because you’re afraid that I’m going to stick you with something like this.

Here’s the background: Paul, the Apostle who traveled the most, is also the Apostle who left the best record of his deep and intense personal connections with people. Here, he closes his letter to the church in Rome, which happens to be one of the heaviest theological treatises in the New Testament, with a list of names. In so doing, Paul turns the discourse on correct theology and Christology into a love letter as he names names, sparks memories, and points to the web of relationships that sustains the church.

I’m going to read it now, and in the split second that you hear a name, try to imagine each name as a real person; someone with a story, a home, a friendship, and a joy. Listen for the intimacy that is here…

Be sure to welcome our friend Phoebe in the way of the Master, with all the generous hospitality we Christians are famous for. I heartily endorse both her and her work. She’s a key representative of the church at Cenchrea. Help her out in whatever she asks. She deserves anything you can do for her. She’s helped many a person, including me.

Say hello to Priscilla and Aquila, who have worked hand in hand with me in serving Jesus. They once put their lives on the line for me. And I’m not the only one grateful to them. All the non-Jewish gatherings of believers also owe them plenty, to say nothing of the church that meets in their house.

Hello to my dear friend Epenetus. He was the very first follower of Jesus in the province of Asia.

Hello to Mary. What a worker she has turned out to be!

Hello to my cousins Andronicus and Junias. We once shared a jail cell. They were believers in Christ before I was. Both of them are outstanding leaders.

Hello to Ampliatus, my good friend in the family of God.

Hello to Urbanus, our companion in Christ’s work, and my good friend Stachys.

Hello to Apelles, a tried-and-true veteran in following Christ.

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico, about 1423-24)

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico, about 1423-24)

Hello to the family of Aristobulus.

Hello to my cousin Herodion.

Hello to those who belong to the Lord from the family of Narcissus.

Hello to Tryphena and Tryphosa—such diligent women in serving the Master.

Hello to Persis, a dear friend and hard worker in Christ.

Hello to Rufus—a good choice by the Master!—and his mother. She has also been a dear mother to me.

Hello to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and also to all of their families.

Hello to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas—and all the followers of Jesus who live with them.

Holy embraces all around! All the churches of Christ send their warmest greetings!…

And here are some more greetings from our end. Timothy, my partner in this work, Lucius, and my cousins Jason and Sosipater all said to tell you hello.

I, Tertius, who wrote this letter at Paul’s dictation, send you my personal greetings.

Gaius, who is host here to both me and the whole church, wants to be remembered to you.

Erastus, the city treasurer, and our good friend Quartus send their greetings.

All of our praise rises to the One who is strong enough to make you strong, exactly as preached in Jesus Christ, precisely as revealed in the mystery kept secret for so long but now an open book through the prophetic Scriptures. All the nations of the world can now know the truth and be brought into obedient belief, carrying out the orders of God, who got all this started, down to the very last letter.

All our praise is focused through Jesus on this incomparably wise God! Yes!

Paul, the Apostle who was sent by God to amazing places – was Paul in each and every one of those places. He had long conversations, and he asked irritating questions. He interceded in arguments and started a few, and there were some old songs along the way. But everything he did was in service of the mission on which he’d been sent. Paul was who he was, where he was, for the sake of the One who had called him and sent him.

I started this message with thoughts of bridges, and I talked about how the church of Jesus Christ ought to be about bridging divides, revealing wonder and awe, and so on. And as I think of our own little expression of that church – the community of people here in Crafton Heights, I am drawn to a slightly different metaphor: that of a harbor.

Ships in Harbor, by George E Lee (1925-1998)

Ships in Harbor, by George E Lee (1925-1998)

According to our friends at dictionary.com, a harbor is “a part of a body of water along the shore deep enough for anchoring a ship and so situated with respect to coastal features, whether natural or artificial, as to provide protection from winds, waves, and currents… any place of shelter or refuge.”

This place – this building, this set of relationships, this collection of ministries… this needs to be a place of safety. We are called to be a refuge to which you can come as you are with no fear of judgment and no pressure to be perfect; the church is a community in which you can let down your guard. When you’ve been out to sea for a while and you feel beaten up and drenched and overwhelmed by storms, this congregation is the place to which you come for healing and restoration and refreshment.

And this is a place for equipping – you ought to be growing while you are here. Learn about yourself, discover resources that will help you on the next leg of your voyage. Become enlarged in your capacity to serve, give, or lead.

And remember that like all harbors, this is a place from which you will be sent. No one is here forever, soaking it all in, hiding from the peril and adventure of the open sea.

A harbor, after all, is valuable only inasmuch as it is a place where vessels come and go. Ships, of course, are made for sailing. Ships are specifically built to transfer people and cargo, knowledge and ideas, from one place to another. Harbors exist to make sure that when it’s time for a ship to sail, it’s ready for the journey.

A harbor that is full of vessels that never go anywhere is a waste! There is no benefit to the community that surrounds the harbor, and in discouraging ships from sailing, a harbor is seeking to prevent them from accomplishing their created purpose.

A vibrant harbor is an active, confusing place: it is complete with vessels that are coming and going, transferring resources from one crew to another, sharing advice or notes as to where to travel, how to deal with storms, or amazing sights that the open sea will bring. A harbor that is working as it has been designed is a place of vibrancy and life.

This morning, in our little harbor, we say “God be with you” to Rachel and Michael Weller as they prepare to return to their home in Ethiopia. It has been good having you in port these past eight months, and we hope that you are somehow a little better equipped for the next part of your journey.

In our little harbor, a lot of collegians have already left, and more will head out tomorrow. We’ll welcome a new musician next week, and an additional staff person at the Open Door the week after that. The programs at the Preschool and Open Door are getting ready to kick into gear, and some of you are going to get a call from the Nominating Committee in the next few months.

Beloved, let’s remember with gratitude and affection those with whom we’ve been privileged to spend time, but who now find themselves at sea – on the journey elsewhere. And let us pray that they find the next harbor when it’s needed.

Beloved, let’s include those who have made it here safely, and who need some respite, equipping, and a place to share their gifts.

Beloved, let’s encourage each other to live into the purpose of being the church in this place, at this time, with these people. And let us not be afraid of the journey that is to come – this afternoon, this week, this month – knowing that the One who calls and sends us is the One who guides and protects us. Thanks be to God! Amen.

You Need the Challenge of a Cross Cultural Partnership

 

This is an adaptation of a talk that I presented at the New Wilmington Mission Conference/Malawi Mission Network on July 25 2015. I offer it here in the hopes that it will spur some thoughts on how we can be more effectively in partnership with those whose stories are different from our own.

Let me present three scenarios that may or may not sound familiar.

Scene 1: A number of years ago I got a telephone call from a church in Malawi. The conversation went something like this:

“Abusa, do you know people at ____ church in such-and-such town?”

“Yes, I know a few people there. Why do you ask?”

“They are building a building for us, and there are now some problems, and we need help sorting them out.”

“A building? What kind of building?” I had been to that community in Malawi, and I was surprised by their response. I continued, “Tell me, do you need such a building in your community?”

The Malawians replied, “No, not really. It will be nice, though, and the Muslims have all started to admire it because we have well-wishers in the USA.”

“Did you tell your friends in the USA that you didn’t need that building?”

Well, we did not. But it’s almost done. All that is remaining is a certain part of the roof.”

I braced myself, but asked the question: “Well, what do you want me to do about this building you’re not sure that you need?”

“The problem is the plans that they have sent. They are very complicated drawings and our local craftsmen can’t understand them. It appears as though they are calling for us to use materials that we do not have, and a type of construction we do not know how to do, and that will lead to maintenance that we cannot afford. We need you to get them to change the plans and tell us how to finish their building. They have stopped answering our calls and are withholding any money until we can prove that we are doing things according to plan. Will you fix this, Abusa?”

Scene #2: I got a call from a young woman who had been deeply touched by a lifetime of witness in a missional congregation in the USA and several international mission experiences. At the time, she was in a long-term mission placement in a developing nation. She was also in tears.

“Pastor Dave, don’t know what to do. I am here, but I am not doing what they said I would be doing.”

“What’s going on?”, I replied.

“The ministry said that they needed someone to do _____. I know that I can do that; I’ve done that in other places in the US and in other countries; I am ready to grow here. But the problem is that the local ministry leader does not trust me. I found out that he didn’t want to have any Americans here, but was afraid that the funding he gets from America would stop if he said ‘no’. I tried to talk with the leadership of the board that runs this organization, but they said that I was not accountable to them, but to the onsite leader – the man who doesn’t want me. He is spreading lies about me to the local workers; he is not letting me do anything that I’m trained to do, and all I do is sit in my room and wonder why I am wasting my life here. I’m afraid to talk with anyone at home about it, because they all think that I am changing the world and doing all kinds of great ministry here. Plus, they gave me money to come. I’m embarrassed to think that their money is being wasted, and I am frustrated that my own gifts and education are being wasted, and I am saddened because I know that the things I’ve been trained to do could make a real difference in this community.”

Scene #3: Each year, our church takes a trip to the Mexican border region in Texas, where we work with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and local partners on housing rehab and construction for those affected by natural disasters. For several years, we had the same local site coordinator. As we got to know this man, he invited us to his small church. Our team shared meals, laughter, etc. with this man and his community. One day he came to me and said,

“Pastor Dave, is there anyone that you know in Pittsburgh who needs help with their house or anything?”

“Oh, sure… There are homes in my own neighborhood that need help. Why do you ask?”

He continued: “We are working with the young people in our community – you’ve seen these kids the past few years; they are gifted, smart, energetic… but the problem is that people up north keep sending help and mission teams down here.”

I was taken aback, and said, “Wait! Are we causing you a problem? We came to help?”

“No, the problem is that for years and years and years, all that the local Hispanic culture is doing is receiving. We are teaching our kids that they don’t have anything to offer; that they don’t ever need to give anything because the richer churches from up north will come and provide everything. We are teaching our young people that they don’t have any worth. I would like to take a group of kids to the north and have them give something to someone else. I would like them to grow in service, and from what I’ve seen, your congregation is a place where people will come and let these kids serve somehow. If you let us come to your neighborhood, we can become givers, not just receivers.”

Chances are that you’ve probably not had those exact things happen to you… but you probably have seen dozens of occasions like that. Helping is good. But sometimes, helping can hurt – it can hurt everyone. And I know that there is a book entitled When Helping Hurts (Steve Corbett, et al, Moody Press 2014), and from everything I can tell, that is a sensational book. I also know that I have not read it, and so I don’t want anything that I say to be construed as my reaction to that piece of work. When the organizers of this conference sent me the early draft of the schedule, this session was called “When Helping Hurts” and I asked to change it because I don’t want to sully that book’s reputation with my thoughts. I was asked to offer some personal reflections on partnership and development and what it means for us to do ministry together in a broken world.

To that end, this presentation has been titled “You Need the Challenge of a Cross-cultural Partnership”. Let’s unpack that for a moment. Just to keep it interesting, I’m going to start at the end and work my way to the front.

 

Partnership. The Body of Christ is only effective as it works in and through partnership. Paul states this explicitly in I Corinthians 12: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” When everything is functioning as it should, anything that any of us do we do because we are seeking the health of the entire body. We – especially the church in North America – have to understand that in every way that matters, we are equals in the eyes of God. We can only stand together in partnership and humility, therefore, and seek to offer and receive encouragement, admonition, assistance, inspiration, and more in our day to day lives. We are together. Everyone has something to give. Everyone needs something. Any congregation or group of Christians that believes anything different believes less than the complete Gospel.

 

Cross-Cultural. I know that there are specific fields of study that seek to pinpoint the meaning of this term, and that you can go to some of the finest universities in the world and spend years and years defining it, but the reality is that any partnership with another person or entity is, in some way, cross-cultural. When I have a couple of 22 year olds who come into my study and want to talk about getting married, one of the first conversations we need to have is about the cultures in which they’ve grown up – they may both be white, or attended the same school, or whatever, but each of them has absorbed a culture – a world-view – in which “everybody in my house knows” that the mother pays the bills in a family or the father cuts the grass or that men can’t be trusted or that a woman’s first job is to get pregnant or… That’s the “culture” with which each person is familiar. The problem is, of course, that “everybody knows” different things – which is why pre-marital conversations are such good ideas. And if that’s true in a relationship wherein two people who’ve known each other intimately for a few years are coming together, how much more true is it in a relationship where two churches are coming together across town or across the globe?

As we develop into partnership, we are obliged to give some real thought to what we know, and how we know it, and how that knowledge affects the way that we work.

For example, some years ago I was privileged to participate in a short-term pastoral exchange wherein a Malawian colleague and his wife came to our congregation and walked with me for six weeks. Some time later, my family and I moved to Malawi for the summer and did the same thing. One of the first thing that my friend the Rev. Ralph M’nensa noticed about me was that I was always wearing t-shirts around my neighborhood. As time passed, he came to see that I could do that because I’d been in this neighborhood a long time; our congregation is fairly small, and on this side of town, everyone knows me, what I do, and where I live. Finding Pastor Dave is not a problem.

When we went to Malawi, however, Ralph and I wore clerical collars everywhere. You see, Ralph was the minister in charge of three congregations and another thirteen different prayer houses (rural worship sites). In the Malawian church, pastors typically stay in a particular call for only three to five years before rotating to a new parish. Ralph was the only clergy serving approximately 10,000 people, very few of whom had ever met him personally. If he didn’t wear the collar, he would be less able to be of service to those who needed, but did not know him.

Another example of cultural awareness has to do with the simple concept of asking a friend to help with a project. In the USA, if I need you to help me unload the truck, I send you a text, or I call you and say, “Hey, I’ve got a load of firewood and wonder if you can come over and help me get this done.” In the context of our Malawian partners, however, the “ask” is typically much more involved. I stop by your house and you make me tea. During the first cup of tea, we talk about our families: how is everyone getting along, etc. During the second cup I might mention how it sure is getting cold and hasn’t it been a great summer, etc. On the third cup of tea, I excuse myself to go unload the truckload of firewood and ask if you are free to come join me. Sometimes the American custom of “getting right down to business” seems harried and pressure-filled to our Malawian friends, where as we can be frustrated by the fact that “everything takes so long in Africa”.

None of the above is innately right or wrong; we simply have to realize that we all start someplace different.

There may and will be places where we come to believe that one or the other partner is, in fact, mistaken in theology or practice, but we can only address those things in the knowledge that we are not all the same and that we have different starting points. And that leads to the fact that every Cross-Cultural Partnership is a…

 

Challenge. Any relationship is hard work. The marriage that we referenced earlier? If it succeeds, it will be because both partners keep working even through tough times. The young person stuck in a foreign country with a boss who mistreats her? The only way through that kind of pain is to name the difficulty and trust in God’s healing.

I’d like to go out on a limb here and suggest that if you are in a partnership that you perceive to be “effortless”, I bet that your partner feels otherwise. If you think that there are no difficulties, no challenges, no changes that need to be made… perhaps your partner is absorbing a great deal of that to which you are ignorant. We have to always be learning, always be willing to grow, always be willing to stand corrected, always be willing to adapt our own theology or practice if God reveals through partnership that the situation could be other.

The key to all of this is the Christian virtue of humility. Remember the passage in Philippians 2, where we are told to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…”   Good marriages, good friendships, and good mission work are not about demanding your rights; nor about being treated like a servant or a dog. It’s about discerning where God is calling us together and figuring out a way to get there.

Having said that, let me offer a brief word about money, which can be absolutely cancerous to partnership, even with the best of intentions.

I became personally aware of this while serving on the pastoral exchange in Malawian parish that was unaffiliated with the partnership in the late 1990’s. As I visited churches that had partners and churches that did not, it was easy to see a spirit of rivalry and envy developing as the congregations in Pittsburgh were engaging in unregulated giving to local African congregations. One church would get, unexpected and unannounced, a financial windfall equivalent to the yearly salary of five or eight full time workers. Another would have a manse built – all without the input or oversight of leadership bodies on either side of the partnership. I saw then that one of the things that money can do is turn “partners” into “sponsors” or “donors” or “well-wishers”. There’s nothing wrong with being any of those things. Philanthropy is a worthy endeavor and a satisfying hobby. And if you want any of those things, great! But just don’t call it partnership, because it’s not.

I am thrilled by the fact that recently five young people from my own small congregation have approached me and asked me if I could take them to Africa. When I asked them why they wanted to go, I was blessed by their response. They said that they had seen changes in me as I have encountered our partners in Malawi and South Sudan, and they saw that I act different than a lot of the people that they know in America. They told me, “We know that being in a place like this can really effect us, and we know we need to be changed.” I said that if we do it right, a trip to visit our partners would really screw them up as they tried to fit in with the consumerist, materialistic, acquisitive culture that is so dominant in the 21st century USA and they said, “Exactly! That’s what we need.” If you participate in a partnership trip (either by traveling or by hosting) and it does not change you somehow, you are doing it wrong.

A related point comes from one of the early criticisms of the partnership between Blantyre Synod and Pittsburgh Presbytery. There were some who condemned Americans who visited Malawi as nothing more than do-gooders who would rather help poor Africans than deal with racial/social justice in Allegheny County. Such critique had best not be true; if we travel well in the spirit of partnership, we will undoubtedly be equipped to be better voices, more sensitive ears, more generous spirits in our own homes. The way that we shop, the places that we live, the manner in which we educate our children, the choices we make about food – all of these are ripe for reflection, evaluation, and improvement as we learn more about the world from those whose experience is different.

 

You Need. As I have indicated, sponsors and donors and well-wishers are hobbyists. Philanthropy is a nice way to spend your time, and do something good with your money. But none of those things are essential, and none of them are partnership.

I get it: travel is a blast! Our churches and universities are filled with opportunities for people of every age to go somewhere, get a cool shirt, learn some characters or phrases that will make a great tattoo, or give us the opportunity to toss off phrases like “when I was in Peru…” But travel is not partnership. One of the dangers of the church is where we are training generation of wealthy young people in practice of “voluntourism”. That happens when we invite people to put their regular lives “on hold” and then go and spend a couple of weeks building a medical clinic or a school. We find ourselves holding a starving orphan for an awesome social media post that shows the world how a)amazing and b)sensitive we are, and when the trip is over we come back to resume our regular lives.

Partnership is something we each need because we need to grow. We need to learn, and re-learn, and re-re-learn, that none of us is complete and no one has all the answers, all the resources, all the wisdom. We do partnership because it is essential to the living the Gospel in its fullness.

One of the best pieces of writing that is a part of the PCUSA tradition is the passage from our Book of Order containing the “Great Ends of the Church. The sixth and final “great end of the church” is “the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world”. We become more Christlike, more heavenly, when we move together in partnership. I don’t go to Malawi or South Sudan because I am a nice guy; I go (and receive wisdom from) there because I am incomplete. I am less than Christ-like as I move through my daily life, and I need the constant reminders that my sisters and brothers from the rest of the world bring to me.

I can’t think of anything on which I work harder, at least in certain times of the year, than International Partnership. I don’t do it because I think that Blantyre Synod or the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church need Dave Carver to save them; I do it because I know that I need them to save me. I need the challenge of a cross-cultural partnership to remind me of who, and whose, I am, and of my responsibilities in the world that in which God has placed me.