So, What Do You Do?

Our second Advent worship for 2011 continued to explore the folks who found themselves gathered around the manger on that first Christmas.  The readings for December 4 focused on the shepherds, and included Luke 2:8-20 and Psalm 34:8-14

So…What do you suppose is the longest-running prime-time game show in the history of US television?  Family Feud? Millionaire?  Nope.  Click on this link and take a trip down memory lane (or discover that snazzy graphics weren’t invented in the 21st century….Sheesh!):

What’s My Line debuted in 1950 and was in production until 1975.[1]

My hunch is that most folks under the age of 40 have not seen or heard of the program, so here’s how it worked: There were 3 celebrity panelists who were asked to question contestants in order to determine what their profession was.  These jobs included what you might expect – airline pilot, nurse, housepainter…but also some unusual occupations, such as “breadbox maker”.

“What’s my line?” is a question that I would imagine doesn’t make a lot of sense to many people these days.  While it’s proper to say, “Dave, what line of work are you in?”, that seems old, and stiff, and formal.  More likely, we say, “Dave, what do you do?”  And you might think that’s just a more efficient way of asking the same question using fewer syllables…  But I think that it reflects a change in our cultural understanding.

“What line of work are you in?” invites you to tell me about some aspect of yourself.  The question recognizes that your occupation is a part of who you are, but not the sum.

“What do you do?” is an attempt to get you to define yourself by your profession.  I’m a barber.  I’m a janitor.  I’m retired.   It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s a difference nonetheless.  I suggest that the truth is that in America in 2011, more often than not, we allow our occupations to define us.  Which is, I might further suggest, at least one reason why there is such misery, grief, and confusion among the unemployed or the underemployed and even the retired.  After all, if I AM what I DO, and what I DO is not valued, then I am not valuable. If I am ashamed of what I do or don’t do, then I am ashamed of myself.  So I like asking “what is your line of work?” or “tell me a little bit about yourself” much more than I like asking “what do you do?”

Believe it or not, I actually tried to find out whether they’d ever had a shepherd as a contestant on “What’s My Line”, but even with the vast tools of the internet and six minutes of research time, I couldn’t get an answer to that one.  But I can guarantee that if this show was running in Jerusalem in 4 BC, shepherds would not have made the guest list.

We love the shepherds at our mangers.  We like to think of the sheep as cute and cuddly and the shepherds as gentle, yet strong protectors.  That’s us.

Most middle-easterners, in biblical times at any rate, thought of shepherds as low-lifes who were rude and dirty.  They were men who were believed to be unfit for anything else, and commonly perceived as thieves.  Their reputation for untrustworthiness was so engrained in the culture that the law forbade a shepherd from ever testifying in court.  Why bother?  You can’t ever believe a shepherd…

And yet…and yet, when Mary and Joseph are huddled around the newborn Son of God, the angels appeared to a group of shepherds.  Isn’t that crazy? God’s PR campaign for the “Messiah Initiative” begins with a group of men who were legally unable to tell the truth in a court of law…  That’s irony.

Portinari altarpiece by Hugo Van Der Goes (1476)

And when the angels show up, what happens? The shepherds leave their jobs and go running off into the village to check out this God-thing that is going on.  Isn’t that just like a shepherd?  Seriously!  You can’t rely on these jokers for anything.  No wonder nobody trusts them – they leave the sheep and go traipsing off after some song and dance from the angels.  No sense of commitment, I tell you…

Here’s a question for you.  When you think of shepherds and Christmas, where do you picture them?  Don’t we always have them hanging around the manger?  Last week, we talked about the fact that the Magi would have had to make a journey that lasted months to arrive and worship.  The shepherds were close by.  Whenever we put up a crèche, where are they?  Right there.  In fact, they’ve been lollygagging over there under the Christmas tree for more than a week now.

But check out verse 20.  What do the shepherds do?  They go back to work.  They returned, glorifying and praising God…  That doesn’t sound like typical shepherd behavior to me.  I mean, if they really were as lazy and shiftless as everyone seems to think that they are, then what better excuse to stick around town and have a couple of beers and some wings?  “Wow, Larry, how about those angels?  God’s Son coming into the world…this round is on me, boys!”

Only that’s not what happens.  They go back to work.  They are full of praise and glory – they are changed – but they return to their occupation and responsibilities.

I know that not every adult in this room is employed or has a job.  But each of us have work to do.  For some, there is a profession or an occupation.  For others, there is the care for a child, a spouse, or a parent.  We pray, we garden, we volunteer, we encourage each other through the written or spoken word… each of us works.  It’s a part of the created order – God gave Adam & Eve work to do.  Work is a good thing.

Do you ever leave your work?  I mean, do you, like the shepherds, ever turn aside and “go with haste” to a place of wonder and amazement?  How hard is it for you to set aside the business of your day and find a quiet place?

Some might say, “Oh, I wish!  But you know, if I stop working for a day or so, there’s so much to do when I get back it’s just crazy.  My boss is a tyrant.  My work environment is insane.  Trust me, if I let up for a minute, I’m hopelessly behind.”

And others might respond, “Wow, that’s lucky for you.  Nobody even notices me at work.  Heck, I could be playing solitaire on my smart phone all day and it wouldn’t make a difference.  I am never even tuned in at work.”

And someone else might think, “At least you have somewhere to go.  I don’t do a thing.  I am just useless.”

Another way of asking the same, or a similar question: why do you do the things you do?  What is it that keeps you working at whatever work is in front of you?

Do you keep working because you’ve got bills to pay?  And is the work that you do enough to pay for what you need?  Are you working for things like food and shelter, or are you working to have newer and shinier toys?  Or do you work because that’s the part of your life where people notice you and affirm you…You get so many props for the things that you DO that it slowly blends into the thing that you ARE?  Or do you labor because you’d feel guilty if you didn’t.  Someone has got to do something around this place, and you’re not going to let people think you’re the slacker?

But whatever your work, do you ever stop?  Can you, like the shepherds, hear the angelic call and follow?  I had an interesting thought this week as I read through Luke.  The shepherds were outside.  The angels appeared in the skies.  Do you think that the shepherds were the only people who saw the angels?  What if there were lots of other people out that night… soldiers… innkeepers… travelers… pastors… What if the roads were full of people who saw something, but were so focused on getting their important work done, or so afraid of what would happen if they left their posts even for a moment, that they could not pay attention to the angels?  Scripture doesn’t say anything about that, does it?  But isn’t it at least possible that there were some people out and about that night who heard the ruckus and decided that it was too risky, too dreamy, or too unproductive to stop their jobs and wander over to the stable?

The shepherds are a good model for what it means to be human.  They are fully engaged in their work, and they notice the Holy when it appears.  They are able to set down their work for a season and enter into a time and place of awe and wonder.  And then they fully re-engage in their work in ways that bring health and fruit for the community.

And this would be a good time for someone to say, “You’re talking pretty big for someone who only works an hour a week, Dave.” Yeah, I get that.  I don’t have a real job.  But I know what it’s like to be trapped by your work.

In 1987 I was putting in between 80 and 90 hours a week at work and at school.  I dried up inside, and was diagnosed with clinical depression and burn out.  I had to leave a job I loved because I wasn’t doing it the way I thought it needed to be done.  I moved to a new town, got a new job, and tried to learn a new way of engaging the world around me.

I came to be the pastor here in 1993.  Eventually, some of the old behaviors caught up with me.  I began to worry, a lot, about my performance as your pastor.  I lived in fear that I was letting someone, somewhere, down.  And so I started to work more.  And harder.  And longer.  And every now and then, I would disappear for a while.

An elder in the church visited me and said, “Dave, I’m worried about you.  You are way too engaged here.  You’ve got to slow down a bit.”  And I looked at her and I said, “You know, that’s why I go to Africa every now and then.  I get so worried about how I am doing or not doing what I’m supposed to do that I just need to get away and be in a different place.”

And she said, “Doesn’t that seem at least a little bit odd to you that you’ve got to physically leave the continent in order to disengage from your professional role?  Are you so task-oriented that you can’t bear the thought of being unavailable and staying on Cumberland St.?”

Bazinga!

One of the enduring gifts of my sabbatical time is, I hope, an ability to look for ways to be my best person and to do my best work in all sorts of areas with intensity and purpose.  To work long and hard at those tasks to which I am called.

And then, to stop for a while.  Since the Sabbatical experience I had last year, I’ve read more than I have in a long time.  I’ve played, and worshiped, and been a good neighbor. I’ve seen some amazingly wondrous things…in my own backyard.  I’ve been able to write more and better material than ever before.

I don’t think that I’m doing any of these things to the detriment of my vocation.  Instead, I think that my participating in some of these behaviors is making me a better pastor who is trying to pay at least as much attention to what God thinks of him as to what the guy in the fourth pew from the back on the right hand side thinks of him…or to what the people I don’t even know, but somehow feel the need to impress think of him…  I think that I’ve learned something from the shepherds about turning aside and sitting down with the Holy for a while.

This Advent, let me invite you to do the same.  If you are doing something because you are driven by some compulsion; if you are consumed by a pressure to DO and to ACCOMPLISH and to PRODUCE – whether it’s for your job or some other need in your life – then let me encourage you to find a way to leave the driven-ness behind and enter into the joy and wonder that waits for each of us in the manger.  Like the shepherds, can we leave our work for a while, and then worship, and then return to our tasks, glorifying God?

Earlier this week, I posted on Facebook and I emailed to everyone whose addresses I have a link to an Advent Devotional.  It’s called Following The Star, and if you’d like to click on that link, you can experience a well-done exercise that includes music, scripture, and space.  That’s a start.  Maybe you can take ten minutes today and listen to some good music, read the scripture, and pray.  Maybe you can do something else.  I hope that in your Advent journey, you will allow God to shape who you ARE, not just what you DO.  Amen.

Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Wall

The title of this post is the opening line from Robert Frost’s excellent poem The Mending Wall (first published in 1915).  If you click on that link before you read the rest of my story, you’ll hear one part of the background noise in my head as I spent the day on Wednesday, when we visited the  Demilitarized Zone, an eerily beautiful and quiet corridor that separates North and South Korea.  Take a look at that link and you’ll read the history of this fascinating and awesome place – a swath of land several kilometers wide where armies stare at each other across fields of green grass and generations of mistrust.

Guard stations like this line the highway en route to the DMZ from Seoul.

We joined a group that rode the bus north from Seoul about an hour or so and arrived at the military checkpoint.  After clearing inspection (by Korean and US military forces) we proceeded to one of four tunnels that have been discovered in the last forty years.  Although the North Korean government vehemently denies this, it is easily apparent that each of these tunnels was dug for the purpose of moving large numbers of troops and weaponry across the DMZ and into the South.   We walked down into the “Third Tunnel of Aggression” and went very nearly to the border (underground), imagining how difficult the labor of the construction of that project must have been.

From the tunnel, we went to an observation point where visitors can peer into North Korea and watch folk farming the land, working on their homes, and, well, watching back.  The final stop was a visit to a newly-constructed railway station – a wonderfully modern and sprawling station that is, for now, the “end of the line”.  The South Koreans built it about ten years ago in the hopes that the relationship between the two Koreas would thaw to the point where visits from one side to the other might be possible..

This sculpture shows the hope for reunification. Inside the globe are matching images of North and South Korea waiting to be joined together.

As I spent this somber day in that odd combination of tourist awe and human sorrow, something in me shivered.  Robert Frost’s poem includes a character who insists that “good fences make good neighbors”.  Maybe there’s something right about that, but it seems wrong to me.  I thought about the fact that I am a member of what must be a very small club: I have stood at more famous (or infamous) walls than anyone I know.  In 1987, I stood in West Berlin and watched the communist guards patrolling the top of the Berlin Wall.  In more recent years, I have walked the so-called “Separation Barrier” between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the “Border Fence” that separates the USA from Mexico.  In each of these locations, I’ve observed heavily-armed soldiers keeping close watch on civilians that, depending on which side of the wall they were on, appeared to be frightened, concerned, bemused, or blissfully ignorant.

Back to Frost:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

I must admit that I have and use locks on my door.  I have a fence around my garden.  I use passwords on my electronic devices.  Yet in spite of that, I do not love a wall.  I long for a way to exist wherein we might experience the freedom that comes from being with and for each other.  And that leads me to the other thought that was the background noise in my head at the DMZ: from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,  by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,  and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household… (Ephesians 2:14-19, NIV)

On the observation deck, the tourists peer across the DMZ into North Korea.

I rode the train today with a young Korean student who is not a Christian, but who had lots of questions about Christianity.  She wondered why the people who acted in the name of the Christian God were so often so cruel to those that they encountered.  I didn’t have any good answers for her, only to say that the intention of Jesus was that love and justice come together in a way that allows God’s reign to be experienced as a good gift.  She didn’t want me to preach to her, and I did not.  But in her questions, I experienced the ache of the world that fights against walls of hostility.

When I mused about being a member of the club that has seen the DMZ, the Berlin Wall, the Separation Barrier in Israel and the Border Fence in the USA, a friend said “That’s surprising, because I see you as someone of peace.”  I hope that is true.  And perhaps because that is true, I think that I will continue to be drawn towards the walls in our world – not out of a sense of morbid curiosity, but in the way that some folks go to the cemetery – to lament and grieve the loss of what was, or what could have been.  My hope, though, is that unlike the cemetery, when I visit the walls, there is a chance that in my lifetime something will and can change.  I joked to a Korean couple, who lamented the fact that they have family in the north whom they have not seen or heard from for fifty years, about the fact that following my visit to the USSR in 1987, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and not long after my time in Egypt, Mubarak’s regime crumbled.  They smiled and said, “Maybe there is hope!  We will buy some postage stamps (but not a train ticket yet).”

I want to be ready for the changes that bring life and light when they occur, and I am bold enough to think that in our prayers and in our lifestyles, we can be part of them.  I don’t like walls…but I will keep visiting them in hope and faith.

Believing the Promises…In the Midst of the Storm

This message, originally entitled “What’s There to Be Afraid Of?” was preached at the Crafton Heights church on Sunday, August 7, 2011.  

The scriptures for the day were Isaiah 43:1-7 and Matthew 14:22-33.

Some of you know that we are just back from vacation.  A part of the time away included a few days on Raystown Lake.  While there, the starter on my boat broke, but fortunately, I was able to find a marine mechanic to look at it.  So here’s what happened: I towed my little boat to the mechanic, while 9 relatives and a dog waited on the rented houseboat for me to get back.  It was about 100° that day, and I was waiting in the garage at the boat shop.  For some reason, it seemed like a good idea for me to make a few phone calls while I waited.

So I’m sitting in a mechanic’s garage, roasting, air compressors running, etc., and I decide it’s time for a little pastoral care.  I know.  I’m an idiot.  I had a message from someone who presented a serious situation to me.  After a good phone conversation, I promised to pray about it, and then get back to her in a few days.  I wrote some important phone numbers down on a scrap of paper.  In our van. In the mechanic’s garage. On vacation. At Raystown Lake.

Well, you know what happened.  The boat got fixed, Uncle Dave returned to the houseboat, we had a blast, we filled the van, we cleaned the van, we went to Canada where I didn’t have cell service…and when I finally got back home this week, I called my friend.  I felt nervous and ashamed and embarrassed.  Why?  Because I was afraid that she would think that I didn’t care enough to call back.  I thought that she might think that I threw her under the bus and had simply forgotten about her situation.

Now, why would I think that?  Mostly because when I call my friend and leave a message, and there’s no call back, I immediately wonder, “Did I do something wrong?  Have I offended this person? Maybe this person thinks I’m a big pain in the rear!  Maybe this person has found another friend who is more interesting, or who has more fun, or who preaches shorter sermons…”

I am pretty sure that I’m not the only one in the room who feels like this from time to time.  It seems to me that one of the issues that most human beings have to face is that of being insecure.  We ask ourselves, “Am I lovable?  Do I belong? Does he care? Do I matter?”

I thought about that feeling a lot as I read this week’s gospel lesson.  You heard the story a few moments ago.  What you did not hear was that just prior to this account of Jesus’ nighttime stroll across the lake was the story of the day that Jesus, with the assistance of the disciples, fed 5,000 people.

That had to be an amazing day!  Imagine being one of the twelve followers of Jesus, and seeing hundreds and hundreds of people coming to Jesus to be taught and challenged and nurtured and healed…and then, as the twilight fell, to be a party to a miracle like that.  Wouldn’t that be awesome!  It must have confirmed for the disciples that Jesus really was the One.  For a couple of years they’d been working to understand who he was and what he was about, and now, they’ve hit the big time.  The message is getting out.  Now we are getting somewhere.

But look at what happens after the feeding of the 5000.  First, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat and shove off.  He dismisses the crowd and heads for some prayer time.

Now, really, if anyone deserves a little “me” time, it’s Jesus.  He taught all day.  He fed the crowds.  He was pushed and hassled and harried.  And, his cousin John the Baptist had just died.  You ask the disciples, and they’ll tell you that Jesus was positively bushed.  In their rational minds, I’m sure that’s what they thought.

Yet as the night wore on, I’m not sure that the rational minds carried the most influence.  The lake was getting rough and the waves were getting higher and higher.  All night long, he’d stayed away from the group, while they battled the wind.  For six, eight hours, these guys are out there straining against the wind.

With Ariel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at Capernaum, Israel.

I have been to the Sea of Galilee – it’s not that big.  My daughter Ariel and I drove around the entire lake one afternoon.  You can see across it.  Yet the disciples are straining at the oars all night long, trying to be safe, trying to make some headway.  I can almost hear them muttering, “Wow, what went wrong?  We seemed to have it!  We were doing so well yesterday…and then he sent us away.  Where is he now?  What did we do?”  Maybe they were being introspective, thinking, “Yeah, I know that I shouldn’t have been so pushy there around three o’clock…”  Or perhaps they were blaming each other, thinking, “If only Andrew and Simon would have shut up there for a while.  No wonder Jesus needs a break.  Those guys will talk your ear off…”

With Tim Salinetro in the Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada

A couple of years ago, Tim Salinetro and I spent a week canoeing through some amazing Canadian lakes.  Almost every day was beautiful.  But one day, it was rainy and windy all day long.  We would be paddling and paddling into the wind and the waves, wondering if the canoe would be swamped, and it seemed like we weren’t making any headway at all.  Every half hour or so, Tim turned around from his perch at the front and looked at me.  I assumed he was being encouraging.  After the third or fourth time, though, I said, “Hey, pal, everything all right?  Do you need anything?”  And he said, “I’m just making sure you’re still paddling.  It feels like I’m doing it all by myself and you’re looking for birds or something…”

That’s what I think the disciples had going on.  They wondered how in the world the great day they’d just had could have turned into a nightmare like this.

Christ Walking on the Water by Amedee Varin, 19th Century

Finally, during the “fourth watch” of the night – between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. – they see what they assume to be a ghost walking towards them across the water.  Something in them snaps at that moment – all the self-doubt, all the weariness, all the anxiety and the worry – they cry out in fear.  And they discover that it’s Jesus.

Two things I noticed about this meeting:  first, it’s a testament to Jesus’ reputation as being someone who was a little bit different that absolutely nobody said, “What are you, Jesus, nuts?  How come you’re walking on the water like that?”  Nobody seems surprised that Jesus is out there strolling on the waves.  “Ahh, I see. It’s not a ghost, it’s only Jesus, walking on the water…”  The disciples are used to seeing Jesus do things that would not ever occur to a “normal” person.

The second thing I notice about this meeting is that Peter, in the midst of the storm and the waves, etc., says, “Jesus, if you really are you, and you really are who you say you are, then I want to be with you.  I don’t want to be in this boat any more.”  Peter, a man who for decades had made his living on the water, who had lived in boats, worked on boats, knew boating like nobody’s business, was willing to leave the environment he knew in order to be closer to the Savior who knew him.  It’s not a scientific survey, but apparently 11 out of 12 people surveyed believed that being in the boat on a cold, rainy, windy night was better than being out of the boat.  But Jesus’ power and authority were so great that Peter was able to leave the sanctuary of the boat behind and walk towards his friend.  Who just happened to be Jesus.  Who just happened to be standing out on the water.

If you’ve heard this story before, you know that we often think of this as one of those “too bad” stories in Peter’s life.  Wow, Peter, you were so close.  You almost had it.  You made a good start, but then you began to focus on the distractions and the danger, and you slipped and started to sink.  Too bad, Peter.  Nice try.

But listen to this: Peter made it far enough.  He made it to Jesus.  He left the boat, he walked through the storm, and even though he didn’t walk right up to Jesus and give him the secret handshake or a high-five or anything like that, he got himself close enough to Jesus that when he started to sink, he reached his hand out and found that hand to be held in the firm grip of the One whom Peter came to know as the Son of God.

This is not a story about Peter’s failure to do everything just like Jesus.  It’s a story that points to the fact that Peter was gutsy enough to leave the boat and to walk through some of the scariest stuff he’d ever seen in order to get a little closer to Jesus – close enough, it would appear, for Jesus to take hold of Peter with a grip that would not fail.

I think that the message from Isaiah and the one from Matthew this morning echo each other.  People want to know, does God really care about me?  Does any of this really matter?  Or am I just pretending here?  As I mentioned earlier, it’s human nature to doubt.  When things are going great, we think that there are no problems whatsoever.  But when the tough times come, we wonder if somehow we’ve done something to offend the Lord or somehow get on his bad side.

The wind starts to rise up, and the temptation is to hunker down in the boat and ride it out – to cling to what we have and what we know in the hopes that somehow things will get back to how they were in just a bit.

But the promise of God is not that we can avoid the storm, but that somehow, God will sustain us in the midst of that storm.  Isn’t that the message from Isaiah?  The prophet does not say, “if the river rises” or “if the fire threatens you”; no, it says, “when you pass through the waters…” and “when you walk through the fire.”  The presumption is that the storm is a-coming.

I don’t know what your storm looks like, and whether it’s a brief cloudburst or a tropical monsoon.  But I know that you have storms.  I’ve seen them in your lives.  You are changing jobs – or afraid that you will have to soon.  The school system in your district is facing massive changes.  You are hoping for a baby, but none seems to be coming.  You are leaving for college.  You wonder about your health, or that of a loved one.

You know what it is to know fear.  You know what it is to sit inside the boat and cling to your seat, paralyzed.

At the beginning of this message, I talked about the fact that I’m afraid that if my friend doesn’t call me back, then somehow I have screwed up our relationship and that person must be angry at me.  I managed to gather the courage once to tell a friend about this, and she said, “Look, that may be your world, but it’s not mine.  I forget to call people back all the time.  I ignore my phone sometimes.  But we are good.  If we are not good, I’ll tell you.  But from now on, don’t worry if I don’t call you back – just try again later.”  And most days, I can leave messages now without worrying that I’ve fallen into disfavor.  I have, in other words, learned to believe my friend.

Friends, can you believe the promise of God?  Isaiah says, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Jesus says, “Take heart; It is I; do not be afraid.”  Let’s rest in that assurance, and encourage each other to do the same.  When the storms come, let’s follow Peter’s example and step out of the boat, looking to find Jesus in the midst of those storms, trusting that when we feel swamped, his arm will be enough to hold us up.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Tourists or Pilgrims?

On November 2, a vessel carrying one Mr. John Carver neared the shores of North America.  As they drew close to landing, Mr. Carver and his 101 fellow-travelers made some decisions regarding how they would relate to each other and how those relationships would sustain their lives in the days to come.

On September 29, a vessel carrying Dave & Ariel Carver neared the shores of North America.  As they drew close to landing, the Carvers and about 200 fellow-travelers were anxious to finish the movies on their personal tv screens, to complain about the dubious quality of the Delta Air Lines egg sandwich, and to plan the timing for their connecting flights.

John Carver and William Bradford preside at the signing of the Mayflower Compact

My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle, John Carver, was among the group of people we know as the Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic on board the Mayflower in 1620.  They were men and women who, by and large, were religious separatists seeking the freedom to worship the Lord as their consciences dictated, rather than according to the practice of the Church of England.  As they drew near to the coast of Massachusetts, it became apparent that they needed some form of order for their life together if they were going to survive the winter in this harsh and strange land.  Accordingly, they drew up a document, called the Mayflower Compact, in which they pledged their lives to each other and to the community as they sought, together, “to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia” for “the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country”.  John Carver, William Bradford, and the rest of that group were by no means perfect in either intentions or practice, but their willingness to travel together, to risk their lives together, and to covenant together for the purpose of survival indicates a level of community and involvement that seems remote in our day.

Contrast the life and decisions of the Pilgrims with those represented by the people who shared Delta flight 85 from Cairo to New York with Ariel and me.  There are, more or less, 250 seats on board a Boeing 767.  While far from luxurious, I think that old Uncle John would have gladly traded his berth on the Mayflower and her 66-day voyage through perilous seas for my economy seat on the twelve hour flight.  Carver and his fellow pilgrims depended on each other for survival.  Ariel and I were encouraged to be as cocooned as possible for the trip: we were put in a specific spot, the lights were dimmed, we were given earphones and personal tv screens and urged to sleep and not be disruptive to the other travelers.  It goes without saying that we were not in any significant way connected with either the crew of the airliner nor the people with whom we shared space.  We were simply 250 people who, for one reason or another, wanted to get from Cairo to New York.

In his excellent book Preaching to Strangers, Will Willimon notes that at one time, when Christians gathered together in worship, they were pilgrims on a journey: people who had come together and who knew that the success of their venture and the authenticity of their faithful witness depended on their ability to live with each other all the time, not simply pass an hour together in the same room.  Willimon points out that twenty centuries after the resurrection, the church, more often than not, is more apt to resemble a group of tourists who happen to be riding the same bus but who otherwise have no connection with each other.

The Intrepid group of tourists at Wadi Rum, Jordan

I’ve thought a lot about Willimon’s thesis these past few weeks.  I have been a tourist traveling amongst other tourists. While our little group of twelve came to know, appreciate, and respect each other during the three weeks we spent traipsing around the Middle East, in no sense did we really have a hold on each other’s lives.  In fact, at the end of the time together, I’m not sure that any one of us could have given the first and last name of the entire group.  We were friendly, and many of us have expressed an interest in staying in touch…but we were not (nor did we intend to become) a lasting community.

While it is unrealistic to expect that every group of people with whom we happen to share space will become for us a community that involves the kind of risk, trust, planning, and commitment that characterized the colonists in 1620 I think it is fair to ask, with whom do you share that kind of relationship?  Who knows you?  Who holds you accountable to the promises you make?  Who helps you become more than you thought that you could?  Who reminds you that you are more than you think you are on your worst days and not as great as you think you are on your best days?

I think that a lot of why I was so deeply longing for home in the last week or so of the greatest travel adventure of my life so far is the fact that while I was surrounded by people who seemed to like me well enough and even enjoyed my presence, there was no permanence to those relationships and no sense in which we belonged to each other.  We had taken time out from our “real lives” to engage on this adventure, and then, come the beginning of October, we’d head back to Australia, Canada, Germany, or the US and resume our lives as pharmacists, government workers, students, pastors, or whatever else we may have been.  Being present in that world necessitated an absence from this one – and I have discovered that I am more and more a person who longs for the deep connection and intimacy that is more common among pilgrims than it is among tourists.

Ariel greets the sunrise as she stands on the Mount of Olives and looks toward the Dome of the Rock and the Old City of Jerusalem. She has come from a wonderful place, and is in God's hands as she ventures to a new one.

On Sunday, Sharon and I will be taking Ariel to Chicago, where she has been accepted for an apprenticeship with the Reba Place Christian Fellowship.  This group of believers has been together for more than fifty years and have covenanted to follow Christ together in an intentional community. I am delighted with Ariel’s desire to plunge herself into that collection of relationships and eager to see how the Lord will use these months in the story He is writing across her life.

One of the most successful television shows in recent decades is Cheers, which ran for eleven seasons (8 of which were top-ten).  The thing that defines that program, in many respects, is the theme song:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.

The reason that Norm and Cliff and Sam and Dianne kept returning to the bar was because the people there were connected to them and knew their stories.  My hope and prayer is that each of us has the ability to be wound into a community where everybody knows our names – and that we rest in the strength of that community to grow into the people God would have us be.

So here’s to old Uncle John and his community that changed the world.  And here’s to the friends and family who help me to believe that maybe we can change the world. And here’s to the community of God’s people at Reba Place who are waiting for Ariel to arrive.  And here’s hoping that you have someone, someplace, with whom you share the pilgrimage and not merely the airplane.

Homeward Bound

Maybe you’re old enough to remember the way that Simon and Garfunkel put it:

I’m sittin’ in the railway station

A fishing boat lies in the sand as the moon rises over the Mediterranean Sea in Alexandria, Egypt

Got a ticket for my destination
On a tour of one night stands
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And every stop is neatly planned
For a poet and a one man band

Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound
Home, where my thought’s escaping
Home, where my music’s playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me

As this posts, Lord willing (insha’allah), Ariel and I’ll be winging our way towards Pittsburgh.  This last month has been the adventure of a lifetime, and don’t think you’ve read the last post about it yet.  But the sense that comes to the fore of my mind most readily at this point is that of relief.  We have seen extraordinary sights.  We have had amazing adventures.  We have eaten…well, interesting food.  We have been joined by some great new friends along the way.
Yet we are not home.
The other day, we were walking together through the city of Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast.  We were both hungry and tired, and it was so frustrating to not even be able to read the letters on the signs that jumped at us from every building.  All we wanted was a restaurant, and we weren’t sure which establishments sold food and which sold auto parts or underwear.  We were dis-oriented.  We had lost our compass and our sense of perspective.

While our tour has officially ended, a few of the stalwarts had one last meal together at Khan-el Khalili. From left, you'll see Paul (US), Manuel (Germany), Tony (Australia), Lara (Canada), Ariel, Jenny (Australia) and me.

So tonight, insha-allah, we will seek to begin our re-integration into the lives that the Lord has for us in the USA.  We are grateful for where we have been, and excited about where we are heading.
Hope to see you soon!

Ma deenet el alf Midhana

The Minarets of Al-Hazr Mosque, which dates from 970 AD.

“The City of a Thousand Minarets” – that is the nickname that travelers have given Cairo for a number of years.  And, as someone who has been summoned to prayer five times a day by a cacaphony of muezzim who are broadcast from the towers that surround the mosques, I’m here to say that’s not an underestimate.  The YouTube video above gives you the barest hint of what it sounds like as you walk through the streets (or lay in your bed at 4:30 in the morning…).

The courtyard of the Al-Hazr mosque

Inside the Al-Hazr Mosque. Note that Jenny and Ariel were asked to don extra robes because they had been wearing short-sleeved tops.

The main worship space in the Al-Hazr mosque. This facility can accomodate 12,000 worshippers.

The population of Egypt is 90% Muslim, and the nation is officially an Islamic State.  As our official tour of the Middle East finished on Sunday, we wanted to get a deeper glimpse into the lives of those who follow Christ in this part of the world.  There are 16 denominations of Christians present here, representing 2,700 congregations (including 1050 Protestant churches, of which 312 are Presbyterian).   Presbyterian Missionary Dr. Darren Kennedy graciously invited us to visit the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo for such a peek.

The main office building at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo

To give you a sense of perspective, Egypt’s 82 million people live in 28,000 administrative districts (neighborhoods, villages, etc.).  According to some startling demographic research done by one of the Seminary’s professors, the church is only present in 800 of these – which means that more than 27,000 Egyptian communities have no witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Sherif Salah Habib Nakhla, Professor of Missiology

The Seminary has had some astounding growth in recent years as it seeks to share the light of Christ with the communities that make up this vast land.  In 1999, there were approximately 65 students, and none of the faculty members were Egyptians with their PhD’s.  Now, a faculty including 4 Egyptians with their doctorates (as well as 3 who are pursuing that degree) tutors a student body with more than 250 students, each of whom has already earned a Bachelor’s degree.  On average, 15 students graduate each year.  We had the good fortune to meet with several of these energetic and faithful leaders, and were very impressed by their commitment to the Lord and to their students.

Dr. Darren Kennedy, PCUSA Mission Co-Worker and Professor of Systematic Theology

A highlight of our visit was the chance to sit for half an hour with two incredibly articulate and inspiring students, George and Emir.  Each of these young men has been through three years of study already and they were full of testimonies as to where they had seen the Lord at work.  They shared some of the great challenges facing the church in Egypt: for instance, it is illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity, and it is illegal to seek to encourage anyone to do the same.  While churches are legal here, it is illegal to conduct anything that looks like church business/worship/sacraments at any location other than a church building (thus constricting the ability for home Bible studies, for instance).  And when a congregation wants to build, they have to get the written permission of the President of Egypt before they do.  As we prayed together, I was struck by the courage and integrity of these students.

We also were able to attend a chapel service, where the theme for the day came from 1 Timothy 2:1-4:

1I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

It was humbling to listen to Emir’s translation of the morning’s sermon, which implored the assembly to be in prayer for the local and national leaders here in Egypt; the preacher asked those present to make it their aim to live quiet lives in which the light of God’s love in Christ could be seen plainly, all the while seeking to be a blessing to their neighbors (Christian or Islamic).  It occurred to me that the believers living in this time and place face circumstances very similar to those encountered by Paul and Timothy – an Empire which was not at all interested in their ideas and was more interested in keeping things quiet and calm.

More challenging and instructive than the sermon, however, was what happened next.  While the message was perhaps ten minutes long, there was at least 25 minutes of prayer – prayers for President Mubarak, for the upcoming elections, for the Parliament of Egypt, for locqal authorities, and for the ability of the Church to be faithful.  I commented to Darren that too often in the US it’s the other way around: a long sermon followed by a short prayer.  Here, students and faculty alike prayed long and hard with each other towards the ends outlined in 1 Timothy.

My “take-away” lessons from this wonderful day are these:

1. Here in the Middle East, there is no concept of the USA as a nation with a secular government.  To the contrary, people assume that the USA is a “Christian” nation, and that the things that our government does are done in and for the cause of Christ.  When I understood that, I understood why so many Muslims interpret the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Christian attack on Islam.

2.  I was challenged as a pastor as to how I live the verses in 1 Timothy.  Do I pray for the leaders of our nation, and encourage my church to do the same?  So often we in the USA tiptoe around this, lest we appear “too Republican” or “too Democratic” to the politically-sensitive people in our congregations.  Yet we are bound to pray for all the leaders, and I hope to be better at this in the future.

3. I wondered what it would mean for me to live in an intentional awareness of my neighbors, and whether or not Paul might think that I am living “peacefully and quietly in godliness and holiness.” 

I’m still thinking on that one.

Gotta run…the call to prayer is starting…

How Long?

You know, the entire time we’ve been in Egypt, we’ve been wandering around inside of tombs.  We’ve been in the pyramids.  We’ve seen the “Valley of the Kings” and the “Valley of the Queens”, the “Tombs of the Workers”, and even some catacombs.  You can safely say that Ariel and I have wandered around a lot of places that have been filled with dead people at one time or another.

Inside the El Alamein Military Museum

Yet on Friday, I was caught short by my reaction to a visit to another place remembering the dead.  We stopped by the Military Museum and the Commonwealth War Cemetery at El Alamein, Egypt. The battle of El Alamein was the culmination of a series of conflicts that was fought across Northern Africa for the second half of 1942.  It was a significant victory for the Allies – perhaps the first that was accomplished without American aid.  Winston Churchill said of Montgomery’s defeat of Rommel, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” He also wrote “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”  It was a tremendously decisive battle for the Allies as it denied Hitler and Mossolini access to the Suez Canal.

This fighter, a British Spitfire, was shot down during the action at El Alamein

The Museum is an interesting one, because it has a room dedicated to the participants from each country: there is an Italian room, a German room, an Egyptian room, and a Commonwealth room (highlighting not only Great Britain, but also Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and other nations within the British Commonwealth).  Stories are told in English, Arabic, Italian, and German.  It is an interesting museum, because it’s not built by either the victors or the defeated – it’s just telling the story.

However, it was not the size or scope of the battle, or even the museum that got to me.  It was wandering around the Commonwealth War Cemetery.

J. V. Griffiths, J. W. McNeely, A. F. Martin, J. Alastair Seabrook, and too many "unknowns" populate the Commonwealth War Cemetery

The thing that took my breath away was row upon row of headstones – each with a name and an age.  Boys who came from Aukland, New Zealand, or Pretoria, South Africa, or Cardiff in Wales or Calcutta, India, or Ontario Canada…and died at 21 or 23 or 32 in the deserts of North Africa.  There were so many graves…and so many “soldiers known but to God.”

And I wept.  In fact, I made the tour bus late because I didn’t want to get on the bus while I was crying.

The words of the prophet Habakkuk rang in my head:

 2 How long, O LORD, must I call for help,
       but you do not listen?
       Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
       but you do not save?

 3 Why do you make me look at injustice?
       Why do you tolerate wrong?
       Destruction and violence are before me;
       there is strife, and conflict abounds.

 4 Therefore the law is paralyzed,
       and justice never prevails.
       The wicked hem in the righteous,
       so that justice is perverted. (Hab. 1:2-4)

Understand this, my friends: I was not necessarily weeping for the men and boys who were buried in these sands sixty years ago…That was a terrible battle, and I cannot imagine the horrors that they faced, nor the families that they left behind on five continents.

As I touched the stones of these dead soldiers, I was weeping because we are still building war cemeteries…

How long, Lord?  How long will you tolerate the folly of your children?  Why do we seek to do such violence to each other?

I saw the names on the headstones, and I prayed for the people I know who are wearing uniforms, and I prayed for the people I don’t know.  I prayed for the people who think that they have the power to decide the fate of nations, and I prayed for the mercy of Christ to come pouring out like a river.

How long, Lord? How long?

In a few hours, I’ll visit the famed Library of Alexandria.  The original edifice was destroyed in an earthquake in 27 BC.  It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  I’m keen to see this one because there is a room dedicated to the late Anwar Sadat – the “man of war, man of peace” who broke ranks with the Arab nations and moved, with the US and Israel, towards some sort of peace in the Middle East.  As you may know, he was assassinated by his own bodyguards – angry because he spoke of peace.

He was a hero to me…he is a hero to me.  Where are the Sadats, the Mandelas, the Romeros of the Middle East today?  Who will help us move towards peace?  Who will guide the nations so that all the graves are filled by those who die of old age?

How long, Lord?  How long?

Interspersed amongst the graves at the Commonwealth War Cemetery are shockingly beautiful bouganvilla plants.