Rain and the House-Eating Troll

I have a delightful granddaughter who carries the moniker “Rain” as her middle name.  She is amazingly creative, whimsical, and at times – a little nervous.  On the night that her baby sister Violet was born, she was very wound up.  She asked me to tell her a story, and I told her that when her mama was a little girl, I used to ask her mama to give me some things that we needed to put into the story that I’d tell.  My granddaughter suggested that the story ought to include a House-Eating Troll, a garden, and the word “frightened”.  I started talking, and fifteen minutes later, she said, “That’s a good story, Grampy.”

I was taken aback the next night, when she said, “Tell me the Rain story again, Grampy”.  I struggled to remember, and it was a good thing – because I probably told that story a dozen times in the week we spent together.  

My hope in sharing it with you is not that you might spend much energy thinking about whether I am or am not a good teller of stories (I already have my most important fan!), but rather that you might consider how your words, presence, and encouragement can help a child in your world grow in her or his ability to see strengths in him or herself as well as beauty and grace in the world.  Alert hearers will detect that Rain is resourceful and brave, and Grampy is wise and lovable. If you think that’s a little self-serving, well, make up your own story.  You can read mine, or listen to it by clicking the audio link below (you’ll have to find your own lap, though…).

This is the story of a brave, kind, funny, loving girl named Rain, and how she saved her home and her neighbors from the House Eating Trolls.

Rain lived with her little sister, Violet, in a beautiful home on Johnson Street. There were seven houses on Johnson Street, and every single one of them was beautiful. Rain’s house, in particular, was beautiful because of the bright colors that she painted it. Her favorite colors were pink and purple, and she loved them both so much that she couldn’t decide which color to paint her house! One day, she painted her roof pink and her walls purple, but not too long after that, she would switch and paint the roof purple and the walls pink. Either way, it was beautiful and she, and everyone who saw it, thought it was amazing.

All of the neighbors on Johnson Street had gardens, but Rain’s garden was by far the most beautiful. She grew everything from apples to zucchini! Rain’s garden had beans and beets, raspberries and rhubarb, lingonberries and lemons; she grew kiwi and cucumbers and apples and, of course, watermelon.

In fact, the story for today has something to do with watermelon. There was going to be a big festival in her town, and Rain had been saving an especially large and pretty watermelon to share with her friends there. She decided that the day had come to pick the watermelon, and so early one morning she went outside to get the fruit.

Imagine how surprised she was when she got to the garden and she saw that the watermelon was gone! She looked all through the garden, and in the woods, and all through her yard, but it wasn’t there. She went back to the garden to think, and then she realized something.

Her toes were wet. But not just her toes – both feet were wet – all the way up to her ankles! Rain was standing in a puddle! And then she realized something else: she was not standing in an ordinary puddle – she was standing in a puddle of something PINK! She looked down, and she saw that her amazingly beautiful, tasty watermelon had been stomped on and squished! And then she noticed something else that made her a little bit frightened: it was not a normal puddle – she was standing in a footprint!

Now, this was not a normal footprint. It was not a footprint the size of baby Violet. It was not even a footprint the size of Rain’s foot. It was even bigger than Rain’s Grampy’s footprint. In fact, it was as big as a TRAMPOLINE!

Well, Rain decided that the best thing to do would be to call her Grampy. She pulled out her phone and called him.

“Grampy,” she said, “Someone has squished my watermelon!” And she almost cried, because she liked the watermelon a lot.

“Oh, no!”, he said. “I’m sorry about that. Who do you think it was? Was it baby Violet?”

“No, Grampy, it is a huge foot! Bigger than Violet’s, bigger than mine, and bigger than yours! In fact, I’m standing in the footprint right now. It’s as big as a TRAMPOLINE!”

Grampy, who was very wise and loved Rain more than just about anything, said, “Turn the phone around and let me see this big footprint.”

And she did that, and then Grampy said, “Oh, no! Rain, I am not sure about this because the connection isn’t very good, but it looks to me like that is a special footprint. Will you count the toes in that footprint for me?”

Rain began to count the toes. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Grampy, there are eight toes in this footprint.”

And then it was Grampy’s turn to sound a little bit frightened. “Rain,” he said, “That can only mean one thing. You have been visited by a House-Eating Troll! They are big, mean creatures that eat houses up. When I was seven years old, my family’s house was eaten by a troll and we had to move to a different neighborhood.”

“Oh, no, Grampy!”, Rain said. “I love my house. I love living on Johnson Street! I don’t want anyone to eat my house!”

“Well,” said Grampy, “I don’t know if there is any way to kill a House-Eating Troll. I will see what I can find out. In the meantime, be careful! I have to go now. I love you, Rain!”

“I love you too, Grampy!”, she replied.

The next thing that Rain did was very brave. She climbed right up on top of her house and yelled as loudly as she could, “HEY, TROLL! LISTEN, BUDDY, I LOVE MY HOUSE! I LOVE MY SISTER! I DON’T WANT ANYONE EATING ANY PART OF MY HOUSE OR SCARING ME AND MY SISTER, SO YOU JUST BETTER STAY AWAY!”

And then she climbed down and went inside.

A couple of nights later, she was helping Violet get ready for bed, and she heard some noises. The first ones sounded like, SLURP, SLURP, SLURP. Then she heard two noises that sounded like CRUNCH, CRUNCH. And on the second CRUNCH, she thought that her house shook a little bit! She was so scared that she decided to sleep with Violet that night.

In the morning, she went outside and looked around. She saw that half of her apples were gone! Someone had eaten them. Then she saw that there were more eight-toed footprints in her garden. Just then, she saw her neighbor, Mrs. McGillicutty walking her dog, Buttons.

“Excuse me, Rain,” said her neighbor. “Have you seen my garage?”

“Your garage? Isn’t it connected to your house?”

“Yes, dear,” said Mrs. McGillicutty, “that’s what I thought too. But when I got up this morning, I looked where I thought my garage should be and all that was there was a small pile of sticks, my gardening tools, and the lawnmower!”

Rain looked, and sure enough, the garage was missing!

Just then, Mrs. McGillicutty said, “Oh, my, dear! Look at your beautiful home!”

And they looked, and there on the side of the house, it looked as if someone with very bad teeth had taken a large bite out of the corner of Rain’s pink and purple home.

“Mrs. McGillicutty, no one took your garage! We have been visited by a House-Eating Troll! I have to call my Grampy right away.”

Mrs. McGillicutty and Buttons walked away, and Rain called Grampy. She showed him the footprints, and the place where the garage had been, and the bite in her house. “I’m scared, Grampy,” she said. “What can I do?”

Grampy, who knew a lot of things, said, “Rain, I’m not quite sure what to do. As I told you before, there is no way to kill a House-Eating Troll. The only thing I do know about these monsters is that they are really allergic to beets and sauerkraut. I’m not sure how that helps, but that’s what I know.”

Rain said “thank you” to her Grampy, and she told him she loved him, and then she sat down to think. And then she got an idea. It was a crazy idea – but it just might work.

The first thing she did was go and pick a lot of cabbage in her garden. She took it inside and chopped it up and started to make some sauerkraut. Then she went back out to the garden and picked a whole bunch of beets. She took the beets inside and started to boil them.

Do you know what color the water in the pot turned when she boiled the beets? PURPLE!

After the beets boiled a long time, Rain and Violet mashed them down. Then Rain mixed some of the sauerkraut in with the beet juice and it was a thick, lumpy, purple mixture. Rain put all of that into a bucket and took it outside. She painted her whole house with the purple beet/sauerkraut paint. It took her almost all day, but when she was done, her house was still purple – but it was BEET and SAUERKRAUT purple.

Then, she went up on the roof again and shouted out, “HEY, TROLL! LISTEN, BUDDY, I WARNED YOU TO STAY AWAY FROM MY HOUSE. I’M NOT KIDDING AROUND. IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU, GET LOST, BUDDY!”

Well, it didn’t take long for that House-Eating Troll to come back! Two nights later, Rain and Violet were in the house reading and they heard noises outside. The first noises sounded like SLURP, SLURP, SLURP! Then there was a little CRUNCH, and the house shook just a little bit. Next, they heard a loud, long, licking noise. That was followed by three HUGE sneezes and then a ROWF, ROWF, ROWF sound. Finally, there was the sound of big feet with eight toes running away from the house. Then it was quiet.

In the morning, Rain went outside and she wasn’t sure what she’d find. She looked, and there were more apples gone from the tree. There was a small bite taken out of the corner of her house, and then a long stripe where it looked like a House-Eating Troll’s tongue had licked all the paint off one part of the house. Right next to her lingonberry patch was a big pile of Troll boogers where it looked like something really big and ugly had sneezed a lot. And there were eight-toed footprints running away from her house!

Rain knew right away what had happened. The House-Eating Troll had come back, all right. He ate a little of her house, and he licked the paint – and because he was allergic to the beets and sauerkraut she had used for paint, he got sick and scared, and so he ran away.

Because Rain is so kind and generous, she told all her neighbors how she had defeated the House-Eating Troll. And so now, every Thursday night, all the neighbors on Johnson Street sprinkle sauerkraut on their gardens. That is just enough to remind any House-Eating Trolls to STAY AWAY from their homes and just leave them alone. And ever since that time, no one on Johnson Street has ever seen or even heard of a House-Eating Troll again. They were all glad that Rain was so brave and creative, and her Grampy wrote her a special letter telling her how proud he was of Rain. And, of course, he told her that he loved her all the way to the moon and back. Because he does.

The End.

The Visible Man (A Christmas Story)

As has been my custom for more than 20 years, Christmas Eve I told a story to the saints at Crafton Heights. It’s an original story, so far as I can tell.  I read a lot.  If you see something good in here, I probably remembered it from something else I read.  The inspiration for this story, and the truth to which it points (I hope) is found in Luke 1:46-55, the song of Mary known as The Magnificat.

Scott McBurney was not invisible.

He arose every morning of his life, trusting this to be the case.  He was not, and had never been, invisible.  He knew that.

He knew that even on the days when it felt otherwise.

When he was born, his parents were expecting twins.  And so when his sisters Susan and Sarah emerged from the womb, there was joy.  There was delight.  There was celebration.  There was…another baby!  Scott was born eight minutes after Sarah, to the utter surprise of everyone in the room.  For the first four days of his life he was known to all, including his parents, simply as “the boy”.

While a name was eventually found for him, along with a bedroom and the other necessities of life, he often felt as though he were, in fact, invisible.

Susan was the beautiful one.  She was simply stunning, and as the kids grew, she was never at a loss for a social life.  She lit up the social networks.  Scott did not.

Sarah was the brainy one.  Whenever the homework was arranged on the refrigerator, hers was the one with the most checkmarks, stars, or exclamation points.  She received a number of college scholarships and academic awards.  Scott did not.

Scott was the boy.  With the exception of being a triplet, he had about the blandest life imaginable.  Widely regarded as “a heck of a guy” or “one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet”, he still found himself – often – in the company of those who had forgotten his name.

He didn’t resent that.  He didn’t regret anything.  It just was, that’s all.

He taught High School English and Communications in suburban Chicago.  While there’s not much of an indication that he was anyone’s favorite teacher, the kids didn’t hate being in his class, either.

Late one autumn his second period Communication Arts class was studying Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.  He’d asked the class to take turns reading through the famous speech line by line.  At the end of the first paragraph, Marcus Dixon, a young man with a mild speech impediment, read, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in re- re- re- re- re- re- regard to it is ventured.”

And as young Mr. Dixon was wallowing in the re- re- re- of “regard”, Scott McBurney’s attention was drawn to Angela Wallace, who was hands-down the most attractive and most-intelligent student in the eleventh grade.  Although she had been blessed with looks and brains, kindness was not among her attributes, and she was very subtly, but unmistakably, drawing everyone’s laughter to poor Marcus’ plight.

And here, Scott did something he did not often do.  He assigned homework out of anger.  “All right, Miss Wallace,” he said.  “Since you are obviously so fascinated by the etymology of the word ‘regard’, I’d like you to enlighten the entire class.  On Monday, I’ll expect you to have a three minute speech, with at least four sources, on the meaning of and history behind the word ‘regard’.”

It wasn’t much, but Scott felt like he had to do something to support Marcus.

He was neither surprised nor disappointed when Monday arrived, and, like everything Angela did, the speech was flawless.  She was poised, relaxed and informative.  Scott, along with the eleventh grade Communication Arts class, learned that while much of the time “regard” is used to mean “esteem” or “glance”, it actually comes from a very old French word, garder, meaning “guard” or “watch”, and “re”, meaning “back” or with added intensity.  “Regard”, once upon a time, then, meant to look at, to watch out for, to pay attention to with some real energy.  Angela also pointed out that it carried with it a meaning of holding something or someone in esteem or respect.

And, because she was so, well, so Angela, she got an A on the speech and came out smelling like a rose.  And Scott McBurney gradually allowed that episode to fade from his mind for a few weeks.

On the Sunday before Christmas, Scott found himself in a place that was at once quite familiar and intensely uncomfortable: exactly halfway across the third pew from the front on the right-hand side at the church in which he and his sisters had grown up.  Susan’s children were in the pageant and it was expected that he would deviate from his normal routine and re-appear at the church to observe this spectacle.  And, because it was expected, and because he was still, in many ways, “the boy”, there he sat.

As he waited for the rest of the family to arrive and the service to start, he found himself humming the first line of a song that the kids at school had been playing over and over again: “I’m still alive, but I’m barely breathing / just praying to a God that I don’t believe in…”[1]

As he sat in that hard pew, it occurred to him that this whole Jesus thing reminded him of everything about his sisters that he resented.  He had grown up being taught to worship the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that wowed the multitudes with his amazing teachings and snappy miracles.  In other words, the Jesus who was every bit as attractive and intelligent as Susan and Sarah.  That, he thought, is why he had found it so easy to walk away from the church.

And on any other day, or had it been any other reading, by any other child – well, it might have just slipped by.  But on this particular morning, his own niece stood up and moved to the microphone and read Mary’s song of praise, known as the Magnificat.  And as that halting soprano raced through the lines, one word caused her to stumble: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has re- re- re-garded the low estate of his handmaiden.”

Mary's Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission

Mary’s Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission.

“Seriously?” Scott thought to himself?  “Regarded?”  And because he’d been brought to that pew every week as a boy, he knew that if he reached into the little cubby underneath his seat that he would find, in addition to some ancient bulletins and candy wrappers, a battered pew bible.  He thumbed his way to Luke 1 and there he satisfied himself that he had heard correctly: apparently, the Almighty is in the business of regarding…of watching.  Of looking for, or respecting, or guarding.  Of taking second glances. And he wondered.  And then he thought that maybe he’d been spending too much time at school, or, worse yet, too much time thinking about Angela Wallace.

A couple of days later he found himself back in the third pew from the front on the right-hand side of the church – his twice-yearly appearance (not counting the bonus points he’d earned for showing up at the children’s program).  And, as it happened, the preacher had chosen to read again from Luke.  This time, it was about the shepherds and the innkeeper.  And it struck Scott, again, that these were folks who were widely un-regarded.  Not worth a second look.  Shepherds and innkeepers and carpenters and unwed mothers were a part of the furnishings… but not here.

For the first time in his adult life, Scott McBurney wondered if this blond-haired blue-eyed popular miracle worker was, well, was not really Jesus at all.  Maybe that character didn’t even exist.

During the week between semesters, Scott sat down and read through the entire Gospel of Luke. It only took about an hour and a half.  And as he did so, he encountered an old man named Simeon, and Peter’s mother-in-law, and a tax collector, a centurion, a whole bunch of bleeding and disfigured people…an assembly of outcasts, all of whom would have been dis-regarded by the people of that time, as well as Scott’s own.  None of whom was worthy of any consideration.  And yet each of whom was sought out by Jesus of Nazareth.  Here was this son of whom Mary sang, honoring these people with his presence.  He was, in fact, regarding them in their lowly estate.  By the time he’d finished this exercise, Scott had left the shepherds and the fishermen and the sick masses…and wondered about himself.

Scott McBurney knew that he was not invisible.  But he never thought much about the fact that he had been regarded.  And somehow, that changed things.

Angela, and Marcus, and the rest of the second period Communication Arts class probably didn’t notice anything.  Mr. McBurney was still a nice guy.  He was still, mostly, the boy.  Oh, if anyone had had reason to thumb through his calendar, they might have noticed that he was spending more time not only at church, but in the feeding ministry the church ran on Tuesday evenings.  Had someone access to his checkbook, it would have been easy to see that his priorities had shifted dramatically.

Yet Scott would say that these changes weren’t really worth noticing, because they were merely symptoms of something more important going on.

He would say that once a person realizes that he’s been regarded, well, that person starts to do some regarding himself.  Once he realizes he’s been seen by Jesus, and he looks at Jesus, well…he just begins to look with Jesus.  And the world becomes a different place.

Scott McBurney is not invisible.  Nobody is.  Thanks be to the God who has regarded us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

IMG_1171Christmas Eve affords me with my absolute favorite view of the entire year.  It’s darker than it usually is…but I like to think that when I gaze at the congregation while they are holding their candles, just after we finish singing Silent Night, that we see each other more clearly than usual.  People who have hovered around the edge of the Holy, even on a dark and cold night, become more visible than we usually are.

When the writer of the Gospel of John was telling the story of Christmas, he didn’t monkey around with shepherds and angels.  He went straight to Jesus, and he said this:

“The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.”

(Jn. 1:14, The Message)

The Word – the Son of the Father – is the Visible Man.  God – in Christ – has a face.  And tonight, I celebrate that it looks like the people I get to worship with.

Scott McBurney took a couple of hours and read through a Gospel.  This Christmas season, I’d like to challenge you all to do the same thing.  Put aside the new toys, the fix-it projects, and the dirty dishes.  Grab your old Bible, or simply go to Bible Gateway, and look for a Gospel.  Read it in a new translation – like The Message.  And don’t read it for answers or for the Jesus you already know.  Read it as if you’d never heard it before. And look for yourself there.  Because you are visible there, too.

Thanks be to God, I can see you in the Gospel, and I can see the Gospel in you.  Never forget – you are regarded.


[1] Breakeven (Falling to Pieces), recorded by Irish band The Script, 2008 Phonogenic Records

Something Completely Different…

This Lent, the folks at Crafton Heights continue to examine the ways that meals have shaped the People of God.

Our texts for March 3 included 2 Samuel 9:1-13 and Luke 6:27-36

You may or may not have noticed, but we’ve just witnessed another grand tradition in our nation’s capital. No, I’m not talking about the sequestration, or the fiscal cliff, or the current “emergency” of the day.

On February 1, Hilary Clinton resigned as Secretary of State and was replaced by John Kerry. Clinton herself, of course, replaced Condoleeza Rice, who assumed that post when Colin Powell stepped down.

This is the Secretary of State. The person who is fourth in line for the US Presidency. This job carries with it a huge responsibility, an enormous staff, and a sizable budget. Of course, Secretary of State is not the job – neither John Kerry nor any of the other people I’ve mentioned are President of the USA. But still, it’s a significant post.

Yet very regularly, after every Presidential election – no matter who wins – the Secretary of State resigns and a new leader is chosen for the foreign policy team.

Why?

To remind us, and to remind the world, that it’s not Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice, but George Bush’s policy that counts. It’s not Hilary Clinton or John Kerry, but Barack Obama who calls the shots from the Oval Office.

It’s a time-honored practice – when a new leader takes over, or when a current leader is re-emphasizing his or her influence, that leader wants to ensure loyalty from the underlings. Our typical pattern looks like this: elevated to service > resign from public sector > become a consultant or a lobbyist > earn big bucks on the lecture circuit.

Say what you want about that system, but it’s a lot cleaner than some of the earlier practices. In the old days, the norm was to simply exterminate any of your rivals. If you were to become king or queen tomorrow, the first thing that you’d do would be to wipe out anyone else who might have a claim to the throne. One of the “poster children” for this line of thinking is our old friend Herod, who executed at least two of his wives and three of his sons when he saw them as a threat to his power. And when he did that – it probably didn’t even make the papers. That’s what kings do! They hold on to power and they eliminate anyone who poses a threat.

So it did make the paper when King David did not act in that way. That’s the meal that we consider in our reading for this morning.

David and Saul, Ernst Josephson (1878)

David and Saul, Ernst Josephson (1878)

Here’s the background: Saul was the king. And, to be honest, he was a bad king. He was a real schnook, and eventually, God said, “Saul, you’re not king any more. I’m going to anoint a new king.” And through the prophet Samuel, God chose a young boy named David to be the next king. Samuel anointed David and told him that he was king.

The problem was that Saul thought he was still king. Saul’s family thought that he was still king. The people of Israel thought that Saul was still king. For years, Saul acted like, and was treated like, the king – even though David had received the calling and the anointing of God.

Finally, Saul died. And I should note that he was NOT killed by David (even though Saul had been trying to kill David for years), but by the Philistines. And so David, justifiably so, thought, “OK, so now it’s my turn. I am the king.” And David sent out the press releases.

But Abner, who was Saul’s military chief, said, “NOPE! David is not king. Saul’s son, Ishbaal, is king.” And for several years, there is a split decision in Israel. Some of the folks treat David as king, while most of the country treats Ishbaal as king. Until one day when Ishbaal’s head gets split open by members of his own family, and finally, years after receiving the anointing from Samuel, years after being told by God that he was the king, David becomes king of all Israel.

David, by Michelangelo (1501-1504)

David, by Michelangelo (1501-1504)

And the first thing that he does, we’re told, is to start looking for any surviving members of Saul’s family.
Uh-oh. We know where this is going. When the new king starts looking for the old king’s relatives, heads are gonna roll. Literally.

Except not here. Not now, they’re not.

David’s first order of business in 2 Samuel 9 is to find someone in Saul’s family to whom he can show “kindness.” Do you see that there in verses 1, 3, and 7? Three times, he says he’s looking to show kindness.

This is one of those unfortunate situations where there is simply no good English word to convey the meat of the Hebrew text. The word that is translated here as “kindness” is hesed. In addition to being a word that is very fun to say, it is a very tremendously important word in the Old Testament. Hesed shows up 240 times, and it means strength + loyalty + love. Every time we see hesed, we have to remember each of those emphases. Love alone is too sentimental and sloppy. Strength alone is too hierarchical and power-centered. And loyalty alone makes it seem like too much of an obligation or a duty.hesed

Almost always when we read of God’s love in the Old Testament, the word that is used is hesed. Try these on for starters:
Exodus 34:7: The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin…

2 Chronicles 7:6: The priests took their positions…[and] gave thanks, saying, “His love endures forever.”

Ezra 9:9: Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia..

Nehemiah 9:32: Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love

Isaiah 16:5: In love a throne will be established;
 in faithfulness a man will sit on it—
one from the house of David—
one who in judging seeks justice
 and speeds the cause of righteousness…

Jeremiah 33:11: … the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord, saying, “Give thanks to the Lord Almighty,
 for the Lord is good;
 his love endures forever.”

Micah 7:18-20: You do not stay angry forever
 but delight to show mercy.
 You will again have compassion on us;
 you will tread our sins underfoot
 and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
 You will be faithful to Jacob,
 and show love to Abraham, 
as you pledged on oath to our ancestors
 in days long ago.

That’s eight instances. If you’d like, we can look for the other 232, or you can trust me. Hesed is a huge deal. It is the way that God treats us. With love, with strength, and with loyalty.

And here, in 2 Samuel 9, David uses his inaugural meal at the royal palace to show that for all the ways that he has and he will screw it up, he understands that the people of God are supposed to treat each other like this. We are not called to behave like everyone else – we are called to treat each other the ways that God has treated us. God moves towards us in hesed, and we move towards others in the exact same way.

agape350Jesus makes much the same point in his teaching in Luke. And just like we saw in the Old Testament reading, words matter. Four times in the span of a single verse (6:32), Jesus uses the word “love”. In Greek, that’s agape. And just like hesed, agape carries a lot of baggage with it. Agape is not a feeling; it’s not a desire or a craving or a sentimentalism; it’s surely not sexual. Agape is a behavior. It’s the closest word to hesed in the New Testament, for my money. Love your enemies. Decide to act towards them – and towards each other – in their own best interest and for their own good. Choose to treat one another as though each matters. Agape and hesed are two behaviors to which we, as those made in the image of God and bearing the name of Christ’s body, are called.

This week, I’d like to challenge you to do that. I am daring you to enact this kind of love in one specific way. What your pastor is asking you to do in the next seven days is to listen to someone else. To someone who is, in some way, “other” than you. Give your time, your energy, your attention to someone else.

“If you listen only to those who listen to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners listen to those who listen to them.”

OK, the parallelism isn’t exact – that’s talk radio, or the internet – but can you do that? Can you open your life up to someone else, and can you ask them to open their lives up to you?

That man who is sitting a couple of rows behind you – don’t look now – he has some very different beliefs about the nature of marriage than you do. That woman over there? She has ideas about homosexuality that might make your blood boil. And that guy? His views on gun control and the Second Amendment are soooo different than yours. And let’s not even look at that person whose views of the changing neighborhood are so off-base.

Can you engage this person? This person who, even though they may believe other than you, is loved by the Father and claimed by the Son and sought by the Spirit?

I was en route to Africa – I was flying by myself that time.  As we settled into the flight, the elderly woman sitting next to me mentioned that it was her first flight over water.  We chatted a bit, and then she asked my profession.  I replied that I was a pastor, and she said, “Oh…well, you see, I’m Jewish.”  As if that was all we could say to each other.  And she pretty much stopped talking with me for a while.  Some time later in the flight, as I was dozing, we ran into some real turbulence.  I awoke to find my seatmate grabbing my hand, squeezing it, and exclaiming, “Look, I know you don’t believe what I believe – but will you pray for me anyway?”

Can we do that?  Can we pray for someone who doesn’t believe what we believe?

Listen. And don’t just listen to the talking points so you’ll know where you agree and where this person is a complete idiot. Listen for the story. What has happened in that person’s life that makes that belief so important to them? I don’t care if you convince each other about any specific issue…but will you engage each other as valued and beloved?

Mephibosheth Kneels Before David.  Illustration from The Morgan Bible, French, 13th Century

Mephibosheth Kneels Before David. Illustration from The Morgan Bible, French, 13th Century

Here’s one more thing that I see in this meal from 2 Samuel. Two times, we are told that Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth is handicapped. Verse three tells us that he is “crippled in both his feet”, while verse thirteen reminds us that Mephibosheth “was lame in both his feet.” Clearly, that is a part of his story.

Why? Why couldn’t he walk?

Because years earlier, when he was only five, his grandfather Saul and his father Jonathan were killed in battle. And the nurse, knowing what happened to male relatives of kings who died, was in a hurry to scoop this little kid up and get him to safety before someone else who wanted the throne could kill him. The nurse was trying to save Mephibosheth from David, really. The nurse assumed that David would kill the whole clan. And in her haste, she dropped the young boy, and broke both his feet, and he hadn’t walked a step in his life since then.

Now, in our reading today, David finally catches up to Mephibosheth, and proves the nurse wrong. Instead of seeking to kill him, he shows him hesed. Mephibosheth didn’t see that coming, I don’t think.
This week, how about we try that? Strength and loyalty and love to those who are so different from us…let’s see what that does.

Amen.

What Do You Say?

The Jebel Evangelical Church

The Jebel Evangelical Ch

So, what do you preach when you are asked to stand in front of a group of people you have never met, whose language you do not know, and whose culture and habits are unlike you own? Several of you have asked me that, either in preparation for this trip or in emails as we’ve been walking through it.

The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) is a “daughter” of the Presbyterian Church (USA), so it should not be a surprise that the worship is similar to ours in many respects. We open with a hymn (on 1/27 we stood up, stood up for Jesus in the Nuer language), and then we confess our sin. We share the apostle’s creed and there are a couple of anthems from the choir (our drummer, Ron, has nothing on some of these guys!). There was another hymn (Jesus loves me), and then the Clerk of Session shared the announcements. Scripture was read, the morning’s prayer was offered, and then I preached (more on that in a minute). After the sermon, a little more singing from both choir and congregation as the offering is collected, some more prayers, and then the benediction.

At the conclusion of worship, the preacher comes out and shakes hands. The first person out shakes the preacher’s hand and stands next to him. Everyone who comes out shakes the hands of those who are there, and then joins the line – so by the time we have all come out, we have all shaken each other’s hands. W are then standing in a curling line around the front of the church. When we are lined up like that, then the choir comes out and sings one more song in the middle of the circle. It was wonderful!

With the choir from Jebel Church

With the choir from Jebel Church


But to the question: what did I preach?

I chose as my texts Ephesians 4:14-21 (the call to live as Christ’s own) and Matthew 12:46-50 (Jesus’ mother and brothers). And then, because I am not sure I have any right to speak into this culture, I told a story about my own – my family, actually.

I had two great-aunts who lived in the same tiny town. Aunt Marian had 21 children, and she lived in a small house in town. 21 children! Can you imagine? I sure could not. The were all older than me, of course, and while I met many of them when I was a boy, I didn’t know them. By the time of her death, I was living in another town an hour away. I went into the small town, where her 19 living children, 49 grandchildren, and 65 great grandchildren had gathered, and when I ate breakfast in a restaurant, I mentioned that I was a member of her family. Someone I never met exclaimed, “really? Me too!” In fact, every time I turned around, I was bumping into relatives that I had never known.

Of course, that has been my experience in the Church as well. Every place I travel, I meet sisters and brothers I never knew I had. People who look different than I do, who sing different songs or work in different places or have different ideas – we are not the same, of course – but we are family! Wonderful!

I had another great-Aunt – Aunt Mae. She and her husband lived on a big farm outside the small town. They never had any children. My earliest memories of Aunt Mae were that she was always mean and grouchy. She never seemed particularly happy to see me, but if I was in town and did not visit her, then she let me know that she was really unhappy about that. She just seemed so angry all the time.

As I grew up, I discovered a little about Aunt Mae, and I came to see that she wasn’t really mad at me. She was mad at the world, frustrated with God, disappointed in herself…because she never had any children. Here her sister-in-law had 21, and she had none. I cannot imagine the pain of that for her.

Which leads me to my second point: there are people in my family whose pain is simply unimaginable to me. I have no idea about the places that they hurt, or how, or why. Sometimes, the best I can do is to stand close to one in my family who aches and ask our Father to bring the kind of healing that is needed, because there is nothing I can do.

And here is the third thing I told my brothers and sisters about my family in the USA: when mean, grouchy Aunt Mae died, every one of Aunt Marian’s children showed up for the funeral. I heard stories like this: “I never had my own pair of new shoes until the summer I went to live with Aunt Mae.” Or, “The first time I ever owned a new suit or a new dress, it was when Aunt Mae took me shopping.” This is what that sad, disappointed, childless, and yes, grouchy old lady did: every year, she went to her sister-in-law’s home and took three or four children to live with her on the farm and help her and uncle Glenn with the cows, the eggs, the crops. And she cared for them.

And this, my friends, is the stunning conclusion to my first sermon to be translated into the language of the Nuer people – a people who have lived a life that I could not imagine- a life of persecution, of displacement, of exile and return. It seems to me that what my family at home has taught me is that at the end of the day, we are measured by how we treat each other. When Jesus talked about his family, he didn’t mention whether they knew his favorite songs or agreed with him on all the important issues of the day. He said, “The one who does the will of my Father – that one is my mother, my sister, my brother.”

Part of your family in Juba, South Sudan

Part of your family in Juba, South Sudan

So my family is bigger than I can imagine. And it hurts in ways that I do not always understand. But my responsibility is to treat each one in love. To share kindness and grace as best I can. To ask them to put up with me where I fall short, and to try to offer them the same courtesy.

I told my family that I was glad to meet them, and that I would pray for them when they hurt and celebrate with them when they rejoiced, and that I would do my best to extend the love that Christ gave to me in the places where He sent me.

It was a good worship. And you have a beautiful family. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Pastor Tony Gets Back on Track

It is my custom to write an original short story each year and tell it to the good people of Crafton Heights on Christmas Eve.  My hope is that in the hearing of my story, The Story will emerge a little more clearly.  The Story, of course can be found in John 1:1-14 and other places in Scripture.  If you like this story, you may be interested in I Will Hold My Candle & Other Stories for Christmas, a compilation of stories from the past couple of decades.  You can learn more about that volume by clicking here or just contacting me.  I would suggest that you find a hot beverage and a friend, and read this aloud.  Merry Christmas.

Cheryl Donaldson was, for one of the few times in her life, speechless.  She looked at her father, who sat awkwardly on the couch pretending to study a fascinating stain in the carpet near his left foot.  After a few moments, she broke the silence.

“How can that possibly be, Dad?  You have never been on a train?  You?  That is all you ever do!”

As Tony continued to study the carpet as if it held the secret to a long and happy life, Cheryl’s mind flashed back to the home on 33rd Street in the little town of Beaver Falls – the home in which she had grown up, and the home which at this moment was a veritable HO Gauge metropolis.  The man lived and breathed model railroading, and here he was saying he’d never been on a train?  It was incomprehensible.

When she was just a kid, Cheryl’s dad had taken her younger brother, Phil, into Pittsburgh to do some Christmas shopping.  While there, the two visited the old Buhl Planetarium and saw the miniature railroad village they always set out.  That same year, Phil’s Christmas present was a simple oval track layout and a couple of buildings from a town called “Plasticville”.  For the next three years, it was a little tradition that gradually escalated, as Tony bought Phil a couple of new buildings, or a new locomotive, or some other improvement to the 4 x 8 layout.

But after the third year, things changed dramatically.  That May, Phil was struck and killed by a drunk driver as he was riding his bike home from ball practice.  At Christmas, Cheryl was surprised to discover that even though she had never been all that interested in the goings-on in Plasticville, she had somehow become the heiress of that tradition.  She was glad for the attention from her father, and she went along, although she realized soon that it was never really about her.

A couple of years later, the 4×8 layout grew to become 6×12.  When she left for college in Washington, DC, her bedroom was officially designated as the train room. Tony didn’t like working on the layouts down in the cellar, and besides, it gave him something to do on his day off year-round.

Not long after his wife died of breast cancer, Tony drew the attention of the folks who were curating the train exhibit down in Pittsburgh when he actually cut a couple of holes in the walls between Cheryl’s and Phil’s old rooms.  In so doing, he was able to construct tunnels that would connect two increasingly elaborate layouts in the separate rooms.  Cheryl’s room remained the traditional winter scene, whereas Phil’s became a testimony to the splendors of rural life in the summer.  The folks from Buhl, and later the Carnegie Science Center, made several trips to the little house on 33rd Street in order to see how Tony managed the connections for such a project.

She looked at her father, who still hadn’t said a word, and remembered that the only time he had ever raised his voice to her was just three years ago, when in an effort to help bring him into the new millennium she had replaced all of his incandescent light bulbs with those new compact florescent bulbs that were supposed to save so much energy.  When Tony went in to work on the layout, he just about exploded.  He made her come into the room and listen to him talk about the ways that these new bulbs threw off his color scheme so completely that he couldn’t think of anything else.  He complained until she finally went and dug all the old ones out of the garbage and replaced them.  That year for Christmas, she gave her father an entire case of 75 watt incandescent bulbs just so he could be sure that the sun in Plasticville was always glowing predictably.

She knew that this was a difficult year for Tony.  Three months ago, he had finally retired from his pastorate at the church.  Or, to be more precise, the church had retired from Tony.  It simply slipped away, and when they had fewer than fifteen folks showing up on most Sundays, the denomination encouraged them to think about consolidating with another congregation.  Tony found himself a sixty-six year-old man who had lived in the same home for twenty-nine years…but unable to participate deeply in the life of the community to which he’d devoted three decades.  They decided that he would spend the Christmas holiday in Cheryl’s home in Prince Georges County, MD.  She wanted him to see his grandkids in the Christmas pageant and he didn’t have anywhere else to go, so that about settled it.

Cheryl had just asked her father if he’d be willing to take an older man from her own church, Mr. Belser, into Washington DC to see about straightening out a question with the Veteran’s Administration about his benefits.  Mr. Belser knew his way around all right, but he had become dependent on oxygen, and he needed a second set of hands to help him handle the tanks.  Cheryl loved Mr. Belser, and she thought that her dad would jump at the chance to help him out, particularly since they’d be taking the Metro into the District.

Only now, the strongest man she had ever known sat on her sofa with a look of terror in his eyes.  His last words to her had been, “I’m sorry, Cher, but I can’t do that.  I’ve never been on a train before.  I don’t know how.”

Finally, she looked at her father, put the route map in his hands, and said, “You’ll do fine, Dad.  Thousands of people do this every day.  I promised Mr. Belser we’d do it, and I’ve got get the boys ready for the pageant at Church.  You’re on.  Now go get some rest, Pops.”

Later that night, a sixty-six year-old man lay wide-awake in bed.  He was too scared to sleep.  He was too excited to sleep.

Now know this, my friends, about Pastor Tony.  He knew more about the railroad than anyone he knew.  But he didn’t really know trains at all.  What I mean by that is that he could read all of the signal lights, and he knew the various codes for each blast of the locomotive’s horn.  Not only did he own a copy of the Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee rulebook on train movement and protocol, he had read it.  Twice.  He knew the slang that trainmen used.  And, as I’ve previously noted, he had forgotten more about model railroading than most people will ever know.  He knew railroads.

But he didn’t know trains.  He had never sat on the cracked vinyl and felt the shudder of the airbrakes approaching a station.  He could not anticipate the peculiar combination of odors brought about by industrial lubricants, electric transformers, and the commuting public.  He had never sat in a rolling passenger car filled with strangers glued to their Kindles or working their smart phones, all the while tethered to their iPods in a desperate attempt to avoid human interaction.  Pastor Tony, in spite of the hundreds of feet of track he’d laid in a dozen different Plasticvilles, had never felt the clatter of the rails deep in his bones.

But he would.  And the thought filled him with anticipation.  And with dread.

As it turned out, it went pretty well.  His daughter took him down to the Deanwood station on the orange line, and Belser was already there.  They headed to the elevated tracks and purchased their tickets, and there Pastor Tony confessed his anxiety to his traveling companion.  Belser thought it was a joke!  What a fuss!  He’d spent his whole career riding to work in trains, first in New York and then later in DC.  When Tony told him of his fascination with model railroads, Belser simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t get it.  I mean, no offense, but really – trains are not toys. They are for riding.  They are a way to connect with the real world.  I’ve always said, I learned more sitting on a train than I ever did watching that idiot box my grandkids always have on…”

And the adventure went off smoothly.  With Belser’s experience and Tony’s willingness to heft the oxygen tanks, they rode the Orange Line into L’Enfant Plaza and switched to the Green Line all the way up to the Georgia Avenue stop.  As Tony’s anxiety lessened, he was able to see what Belser was saying about the little universe of each railway car.  He watched the people and took in the sights and walked through the turnstiles and generally enjoyed himself.  They had such a good time, in fact, that after visiting the VA, they rode the Orange Line clear out to New Carrolton, where they sat for a while looking at the big Amtrak yards full of trains and people and their stories.

After his trip was finished, Pastor Tony sat in the third row of the little Methodist church there in Maryland and watched the Christmas pageant.  It hadn’t been going for but three or four minutes when the child assigned the role of the Angel Gabriel flubbed her reading badly.  Tony’s first thought was, “What kind of a yahoo is this pastor?  That’s why we don’t do Christmas pageants with our kids.  You can’t trust kids – they are late, or they forget, or even worse, they show up and they cry.”

So much of Tony’s life, to be honest, had been based on order and predictability.  That’s why he loved his train set at home so much – because he always knew what to expect there.  The lawns in Plasticville are always perfectly manicured.  The dogs never keep you awake with their barking.  The church parking lots are always full.  Gasoline is $129.9 down at the filling station.  In Plasticville, the death rate and the crime rate are zero.  There are no drunk drivers.  There are no accidents.  Plasticville is so reliable in so many ways.

But when you stop to think about it, as Pastor Tony did that very night, it’s not only the crime rate and the death rate that are zero.  In the whole history of Plasticville on 33rd Street in Beaver Falls, not a single person had ever been born.  No one ever graduated.  Nobody grew at all.  And while the passenger lines and freight cars ran faithfully and sometimes ceaselessly – not a soul ever boarded or disembarked from those trains.

And as Pastor Tony watched his grandson giggle with the other shepherds when they had to say, “Hail to you, O Virgin fair”, it hit him – this was what made the birth of Christ so important.

His whole adult life he had talked and taught about the incarnation – about the idea that God became a human.  And yet his concept of God had been so limited.  In Pastor Tony’s mind, God hovered above the earth in the same way that Tony doted on Plasticville – manipulating the environment and setting up pretty displays.  But if the incarnation means anything, thought Tony, it means that all of these things matter.  It means that somehow, the God who made us cares enough about us to come into the noisy and smelly and cluttered places of our own lives.  It means that God enters in, fully and completely.  And if that is true – and he believed it more that night than he ever had before – then it meant that God was not expecting Tony to be some perfect statue who kept it all together and remained unshaken.  No, the incarnation means that God expected Tony to grow in and through each step that each day brought him.  In Jesus Christ, God moved into our neighborhood in a way that Tony could never enter Plasticville…and because God was willing to risk doing that in Jesus, Tony was free to grow in ways that were impossible to the denizens of his bedroom empire.

By the time the three bathrobe-wearing wise men dropped off their improbable gifts to an increasingly antsy Joseph and a Mary who looked as though she really needed to find a bathroom in a hurry, Tony knew that he probably wouldn’t be spending a lot more time rearranging the landscapes back in Cheryl’s old bedroom.  He wasn’t sure, exactly what he would be doing – only that he would be doing – and not watching – for as many days as God gave to him.

For his entire adult life, Pastor Tony resisted change, seeing it only as loss.  When he got a glimpse of a God who was willing to transform and walk with him in the midst of anything, Tony’s fear of change diminished, and was replaced with a sense of trust and adventure.  Oh, he knew he hadn’t got it all figured out yet, but he also knew he was on the right track.

And that has made all the difference.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.