After the Storm: Foundations of Faith

The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates.  In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed.  On June 20, we looked at the desolation that the Israelites experienced in Psalm 137 as well as Paul’s prescription for the church in Colossians 3:12-17

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

I don’t know how it was for you growing up, but the Carvers had a family dinner time.  Not only that, but our family had assigned seats.  Every meal I can remember growing up, no matter where it was, my mother sat on the left end of the table, my father on the right, my brother sat to my left, and my sister sat at the side opposite my brother and me.  When my grandmother was living with us, she sat next to my sister.  It didn’t matter whether it was our kitchen table, our dining room table, a restaurant, or the picnic table at the campground.  That’s how we ate.  Maybe it had to do with one of us being left-handed.  Maybe there was a disciplinary strategy.  I only know that even as an adult returning home, I always knew which was “my” seat.

Until the day we buried my mother.  We came home from the funeral and after a while began to fix a little something.  Someone carried it in and sat it on the dining room table and, well… we didn’t know what to do.  Her chair was just so empty.  A visitor saw the empty seat and began to sit down, only to be glared out of it.  It seems as if we stood around the table for a long time, trying to figure out how in the world we were supposed to eat while we looked at the hole in the seating arrangement.

So much of our lives we are operating on “auto pilot”.  We take a great deal for granted, and then when something happens, we are adrift.  After a significant loss, we recognize that so much of what we’ve simply assumed is, in one way or another, up for discussion.  We may look at something as simple as setting the table and we think, “How can I possibly do that?”  How do we do what we’ve always done when so much of our world is different?

For the next few weeks, we’re going to continue to explore the kind of people we’re deciding to be as the most intense elements of storm of the Coronavirus appear to be passing.  When we emerge from what my friend Kelly calls our “Covid caves”, how will we choose to re-engage the world?

Psalm 137 is a song of two cities.  On the one hand, we consider Babylon, which is portrayed as the enemy, the destroyer, the kidnapper, or the crusher of dreams.  On the other hand, we have Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was once the exemplar of our highest ideals, but now it lies in ruins – burnt, isolated, uninhabited, and desolate.

By The Rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137) By Michele Myers. Used by permission of the artist.

Babylon is addressed first.  The Psalmist utters the dreadful name once, and then there are four times where the word “there” is spit out.  It’s almost as if the name itself is a curse: “there we sat down and there we wept…on the willows therewe hung up our harps…”  The city is so horrible that its name shall not be spoken any more than necessary.  Yes, that place.  How can we be us in that place?

We now have captors. We have tormentors.  We are constantly reminded of our status as “less-than”. We don’t like it when we are forced to be there.

You know something of that feeling.  You’ve just gone to your almost-prom.  Or maybe you’re trying to find your way after having been laid off.  You lost at least three months – an entire season – caring for a loved one who still isn’t the same.  You’ve wept as you watched your bright, energetic child get frustrated by the struggles imposed by “virtual learning”, and yet you didn’t have a way to make it better for them.  For more than a year, you’ve been stuck someplace you never thought you’d be, you didn’t deserve to be, and you have had little control over how long you’d have to stay there.

And now, you go to the grocery or the diner and everyone is just crowding in like nothing ever happened?  Like the pandemic is somehow magically over?  People you know and love have ripped off their masks, and jumped in the pool, and we’re just supposed to go back to “normal”?

Maybe you don’t know how to do that right now.  You’re still limping, somehow.  You’re still scarred.  You’re still there, and while you wish you could change your outlook or your mindset, you’re just not sure how to do that.

And yet, you know, like the Psalmist, that there is a second city.  There is Jerusalem, which is above our highest joy.  Jerusalem, which in the Psalm stands for our heritage, and our hope.  It’s our DNA – it’s who we have been on our best days.

And that “song of Zion” that our captors demand of us – it’s a joyous hymn, a song we’ve known all our lives.  It’s a triumphant melody that celebrates God’s power, and our feeling of safety and security, and our faith in the un-shakeability of our lives.  For years, it’s been one of our favorites, sung on the days that have felt the most like “home” to us.

How are we supposed to sing a song like that, now, here?  But on the other hand, how can we forget it?  The Psalmist promises to remember, and to prioritize that sense of who we have been.  The Psalmist realizes that it’s important to teach the children who were born in Babylon the songs we hope to sing once more in Jerusalem.

Beloved, I honestly think that this is a good metaphor for where we are as a people.  So much of who we were, of what we said, and how we acted in the “before” time seems unattainable now.  Yet at the same time, we’ve got to figure out what’s next.  We don’t want to forget who, or whose, we are, and we carry the hope that we will not always be in this place that can feel so strained and joyless.  We’re not yet home, but we realize that we are able to move in some ways.  How will we do so?

As we contemplate the reality that is coming toward us, I celebrate the fact that we are beginning another season of Cross Trainers here in Crafton Heights.  In some ways, any time we operate Cross Trainers is a look back.  For more than two decades, we’ve operated a summer camp.  It’s a part of our communal DNA now. It’s who we are.

And in other ways, it’s who we are striving to be. Last year, we stood on this date and, with fear and trembling, said, “Look, everything is closed and we’re supposed to be sheltering in place… only we’re not sure how to do summer around here without Cross Trainers” – and so we ran a smaller, shorter camp swaddled in protection. And this year, children will sing, play, eat, and pray together.  Those have not always seemed like radical practices, but, well, here we are in the second summer of the great pandemic.

One of the best parts about Cross Trainers, and I need to say this loudly for the staff who will not always believe me on this, is that we do these things – sing, play, eat, and pray – every blessed day!  For the next seven weeks, you’ll inhabit this building and the lives of the children we’re called to love when you feel like it and when you don’t feel like it.  Some days you’ll drag yourselves here.  Other days you’ll stroll in here like you own the joint, filled with pride and enthusiasm.  The important thing is that this day you are committing to being here with the kids, with each other, and with the God who has whispered your name since before you were born. You are cultivating the amazing practice of habit in yourselves and in these children.

The early Christians knew themselves to be in the midst of a storm.  The torture and death of Jesus was always present in their minds.  The communities that formed in his name faced sporadic persecution from the government, the established religious authorities, or both.  There were many days when churches in places like Corinth and Ephesus and Colossae woke up and wondered, “How are we going to move forward today?  What do we do next?”

My friend Bruce has brought forward a few verses that were vitally important to the church in Colossae as a theme for our own Cross Trainers in 2021.  Paul had written to his friends there and in that letter he lifts up a series of practices in which God’s people can engage.  In the weeks to come, our children and the staff here will contemplate what it means to live and act with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness.  Please note that these are not attitudes, nor are they feelings.  These are practices.  They are noble ideals.  They are difficult, at times.  And they are surely of God.

To use the language of Psalm 137, these are Jerusalem practices.  These are who we are supposed to be when we are acting at our best.  These are how we are supposed to live when we are in the place that God intends us to be.  These practices are the means by which God’s people train to live faithfully.

But here’s the deal: if you were to go down the street, taking a survey, and ask, “How do you feel about compassion?”, or “Are kindness and patience valuable in our world?”, well, my hunch is that most folks would say yes – that is, they’d affirm that by and large, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness are great ideas.

What sets your work this summer with Cross Trainers apart is that you will be coming in here every day this summer and inviting our children and our families to practice these behaviors.  You will, on behalf of the whole church of Jesus Christ, commit to giving us an opportunity to try these behaviors out five days a week for the next six weeks.

And you ought to know this, but for the folks who aren’t sure, let me be clear: it’s not just the kids in the neighborhood who need these practices, dear friends.  It’s us.  All of us.

As we emerge from the storm that Covid-19 has brought us, we need to ask ourselves, “what are we practicing, and how?  Who are we becoming, and why?”

If you’re listening to me right now, chances are that you’ve decided that, at least occasionally, worship is a good idea.  That’s probably the case, unless you’re here by accident, or someone has tricked you into showing up somehow.  If participating in worship regularly is not a part of your plan, let me encourage you to make it so.

The Psalmist sung of a community that gathered in lament and sang to remember who they were, and to help them to frame that identity for their children.

The church in Colossae identified a number of practices to which they committed themselves, and they further pledged to gather together even in challenging times, to choose the best for themselves and for their community.

As you think about where you’ve been during this most recent of storms, what have been your goals, and markers, and practices?  Maybe you learned to make an amazing sourdough bread.  Perhaps you managed to watch all of not only Tiger King but Ted Lasso, too.  That’s not bad.

But can you remember to engage in the formative practices that make us who we are?  Maybe when we had to stop having Sunday School, you thought, “You know what? I can do more to give my child direction in faith development.”  Maybe you and the people who are important to you decided that you could affirm the importance of common worship by participating – either in the pew or on the sofa – on a regular basis.

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness – these are the disciplines we’ve been asked to practice.  Our shared worship is the context in which we develop a vocabulary for these disciplines.  Cross Trainers, or small groups, or intentional friendships – these are the laboratories in which we try them out, and to help to mold ourselves and the children we’ve been given to love in the kinds of habits that will allow us to define what “normal” should look like.

As we continue to emerge from the “Covid caves”, let’s remember that the goal is not simply to rebuild from the last storm we’ve suffered, but to live in such a way that prepares us to not only survive, but to thrive, in the next one.  The story of God’s people is one of encountering wave after wave of blessing and trial. Anchoring ourselves together in worship and practice is a way that we grow during the blessings and ride out the storms.  Thanks be to God for the gift of the community that allows us to look back at the places from which we’ve come and look ahead to those areas where God’s call is beckoning now.  Amen.

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