Regular readers of this blog will, I hope, forgive me for a departure from the normal format. My sister has asked me to create a post to house the message I was privileged to share at the funeral service for her son, my nephew Ben Butzbach. Ben was a real character — larger than life in so many ways. Interested readers can find his obituary by clicking here.
To listen to the message I shared, use the media player below:
An avid fan of the Nashville Predators, Ben cohosted a radio program called Penalty Box Radio. Click here to hear a tribute show that was aired just after Ben’s death.
Ben’s passion for hockey led him to help establish Fire House Hockey, a non-profit dedicated to helping teams composed of first responders and public safety personnel in their mission to raise funds and awareness for members of their community that suffered loss.
During the television broadcast of the Predators game immediately following the funeral, the announcers gave a wonderful send-off to the man they called “Big Ben.” The NHL network featured this tribute on this website.
Ben leaves behind a legion of friends, but most particularly his wife Brandy and his son Jake. A fund has been established to help provide for Jake’s education in the years to come. You can learn more about that by Clicking here.
I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones. I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous. Our scripture on August 27 included Luke 20:9-19 and Romans 8:28-39
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media file below.
You’ve heard them before. You’ve probably said them yourself a time or two. You might even believe them. I’m talking about those pithy sayings which, when uttered with just the right inflection and tone, have the sound of righteousness and wisdom. They sound like the kind of common sense that “everybody knows”.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness. God works in mysterious ways. God helps those who help themselves. Love the sinner, hate the sin.
You’ve probably even heard them in church.
The thing is, though, is that they are not in the Bible. I understand that they are often used by well-meaning Christians to try to communicate some sort of comfort or challenge; they may also seek to provide some rationale or basis for behavior. But most of them are just not quite right.
Author Adam Hamilton calls them “half truths”. They sound spiritual, and are certainly a good fit for the 21st century American ethos. However, as theologian Miroslav Wolf says, “the nuggets of wisdom we often let guide our lives may contain some serious levels of contaminants.” Because they are common sentiments, if not common sense, we’ll be taking a look at a few of these sayings in the weeks to come.
If you’re like me, you probably don’t remember the first time you heard any of these. They are so enmeshed in our culture and identity that it’s tough to recall. I do, however, remember the first time that one of these really got under my skin.
My freshman roommate at Geneva College was a young man from Coraopolis named Tim. He and I were born on the same day in the same year – we had a lot in common. I vividly remember sitting in the student union building on campus and being told by another friend, “Well, Tim died. It was his heart.”
What? In my world, 18 year olds don’t have heart attacks, thank you very much. But Tim did.
Four years later, all our finals were done and the papers had been turned in. There was a smaller group of us on campus celebrating “Senior Week”. We were packing our belongings, saying our goodbyes, and preparing for graduation, jobs, marriages, and so on. I got a call: “You better get on down to the softball field. Steve has collapsed. I think he’s dead.” And like that, another young friend who we all thought had “his whole life in front of him” died of a heart attack. At age 22.
I will never forget roaming the halls at Geneva College, sitting on a bench overlooking the Beaver River, and yelling skyward, “Why? Where are you now, God?”
And on each of those occasions – and a thousand others since, someone who loved me very much came and put arms around me and said, “Well, Dave, you’ll get through this. Don’t forget… everything happens for a reason.” And some of my more spiritual friends even backed that up with a quote pried away from its scriptural context, “all things work together for good”, right?
My first response to that phrase was one of relief and release. “Oh, good,” I thought. “The world may appear to be a red hot mess right now, but I can relax, because God is still in charge. There’s no need for me to be sad or to worry, because God is going to sort things out. Tim and Steve – they are in a better place. I’m OK. It’s all good, right?”
But the more I thought about things, the closer I got to my second reaction, which was “Are you kidding me???? Everything happens for a reason? What reason could there possibly be for apparently healthy young men dropping dead? What about babies dying? Cancer? Lynchings or slavery? Starvation? Child abuse? I mean, if everything happens for a reason, someone’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
There’s a deep theological question here. If everything happens for a reason, then we can say with integrity that everything that happens, happens because it’s a part of God’s plan. If everything that happens happens because God has planned it, then the choices and decisions that you and I make, as well as the actions we take or fail to take, have absolutely no bearing. Why bother wearing a seatbelt, saving money for the future, or voting in elections if everything is a part of God’s eternal plan? “Let go and let God,” right (also not in the Bible, along with “Jesus take the wheel”)?
Do we really want to say that all the horrible stuff in our world is divinely planned? That God’s eternal providence mandates the drowning of toddlers, the devastation of atomic bombs, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, or the senselessness of 20 years of futility for the Pittsburgh Pirates? Are you going to pin all of that on God? Because that’s what you’re doing when you say, slowly and compassionately, “everything happens for a reason.” You are essentially saying that God is, well, a real jerk.
The Bible’s answer to the question, “Who’s in charge around here?” is, not surprisingly, fairly complex and at times bafflingly incomplete.
God, obviously, is in charge. But some Christians – often Presbyterian Christians – have taken that view to the extreme and espoused a doctrine known as “determinism”. The line of thinking goes like this: God is all-powerful. As such, then, anything that happens happens because God made it happen. God planned – or determined – that it would happen. People who hold to this view of a micro-managing God would be logically compelled to recognize that the Divine plan for this day included your choice of socks for today, the President’s latest tweet, and the price of tea in China. If God is power and God is strength, then God is power and strength everywhere, and his control is absolute.
And in our zeal to rebel against that sort of controlling, despotic, notion of the Diety, we say, “Well, yes, of course God is all powerful – but God’s goodness is no less complete than God’s power. God does not visit destruction and chaos on the universe or the world he loves. God doesn’t cause drunk driving or bridge failures or adulterous marriages…” So some people swing to the other extreme and say that the only thing for which we can account is the impact of personal responsibility. It’s all up to me. I can’t depend on God, if there is one, because he is unable or unwilling to intervene in the operation of the created order. If he could, he would; but since he’s all good, and wouldn’t want any of that bad stuff to happen, he must be unable to prevent it, and so it’s up to me.
Fortunately, a rigorous reading of scripture preserves us from either of those two alternatives. God is both all-powerful and all-loving. God cares for the creation enough to invest it with some measure of freedom. For us, that means that we make choices and our choices matter – but that nothing we do can ultimately thwart God’s ultimate intentions for his universe. Those intentions – clearly outlined in Romans 8 – are for the good of the creation. It is impossible, it says, for anyone to act in such a way that isolates one’s self from the love of God in Christ Jesus. There are just some places that are too far for us to go, and pretending that we can live outside of God’s love and care and compassion does not make that possible.
That being said, the parable in Luke points out that human decisions have very real and direct consequences. What is simply remarkable in the story that Jesus tells is that God appears willing to take some of the pain and grief that are the results of our decisions upon himself.
Luke 20 contains the account of Jesus telling a story to a group of religious leaders a few days before he would be killed, in large measure, because of choices that those same religious leaders would make. In his parable, Jesus describes God as a man who entrusts what is dear to him to a group of other people, even though those people continue to prove themselves to be wholly undeserving of such trust. In spite of this, the man continues to allow those people the opportunity to make different choices, and ultimately he becomes vulnerable to the point of intense personal pain and loss.
You know, I’m not really sure that I can fit this into a 17 minute sermon, much less a sympathy card or an internet meme, but here’s what I think that scripture says in regard to my “Why?” questions…
God is the source of all that there is and ever will be.
The heart of God is love.
God does not cause tragedy, but often reveals himself in or through it.
God gives you and me the freedom to make choices – even spectacularly poor ones – and promises to walk with us through the blessings, joy, chaos, or carnage that result from those choices that we and others make.
There are times, apparently, where God is willing to intervene in some sort of supernatural ways. More often God tends to work in and through people like me and you.
At the end of the day it is not my responsibility – nor is it even within my capability – to understand and explain God, or God’s actions or inactions. I must confess that God is God and I am not.
At the end of the day it is my responsibility to claim the fact that God is with me in joy and in pain, and to do my best to live as Jesus did. I do this when I do all I can to stand beside those who struggle, to stand in front of those who would do evil, and to stand behind the Jesus who promises that no mistake I make or tragedy I suffer is beyond the power of his resurrection love.
You could say it’s not fair. I asked “WHY?”, and God said, “you’ll get through this.” That’s not a direct answer, but it is, in my view, the answer from scripture.
Not everything happens for a reason. I get that. But there is nothing that happens in such a way that isolates us from the presence and power of God’s ability to bring healing, hope, and resurrection. I don’t know why some of these horrible things happened, nor can I predict where and when and why they will happen again. But I can tell you that you and I have the opportunity and responsibility to choose how we will respond to the tragedies that fill our world. May God bless you in your suffering, your choices, and your participation in God’s intentions for the world. Thanks be to God for those intentions. Amen.
 I am indebted to Hamilton for the idea for this entire sermon series, which was inspired by his book of the same name (Abingdon Press, 2016).
 Wolf’s quote is on the back cover of Hamilton’s book.
Well, we had another fantastic day working in the great Smoky Mountains. The weather was once again very favorable, and our team responded with energy and imagination. We find that having limited access to tools and ladders poses a challenge to involving everyone all the time, but the young people are very understanding, and everyone is taking turns to make sure that each person is contributing to and participating in the work at hand.
We were amazed that on Wednesday we were able to essentially complete the large porch structure, including the roof. One of the things that I love about these trips is that it pushes all of us – including the leaders – out of our comfort zones. We were able to innovate and adapt with what we had on hand in order to get the job done.
Our evening on Wednesday had a decidedly different rhythm, and we were grateful for that. First, we enjoyed an amazingly bountiful potluck dinner at the Cherokee United Methodist Church. There was no program – just an opportunity for us to sit and visit with another work group ( from Ohio!) as well as members of this congregation.
Following the meal, we went to an outdoor ampitheater, where we enjoyed a live production entitled “Unto These Hills”. For about 2 1/2 hours, we watched local actors engage in some traditional Cherokee dancing, followed by a presentation of the history of the inhabitants of this area. We continued to soak in aspects of Cherokee history and culture of which many of us have been ignorant. The drama included some Cherokee mythology about the nature and purpose of the creation, but was mostly centered in on how the Cherokee people developed a peaceful agricultural community in these mountains. It narrated the history of relationship between Native Americans and the Europeans and included a glimpse at some of the ways that the various groups of native Americans related to one another. Of course, no telling of the Cherokee story would be complete without reference to the removal in the late 1830s and the “Trail of Tears” in which so many died. It was a somber moment for our group to participate in this.
We are having a great time in Cherokee NC, and I wish I could tell you just HOW wonderfully this team is coming together. We are technologically limited, and I forgot my “real” camera, so the updates will be sparse. However, here are a few images of our work on Tuesday – the kids put in a looooong day and then came back and had a great conversation about how God seems to use the “little” and “foolish” things in the world to make big differences.
You’ll see the deck beginning to take shape and the progress that the young people are making. You will not see the huge rocks that people pulled out of the ground, the amazing smiles when our hosts shared the sweetest watermelon I’ve ever tasted, or the relief and laughter we shared when the day was finished and it was time to sing.
The weather poses a challenge to our plans, but it appears as though today is another workable day!
You’ve gotta start somewhere… with some deep holes!
I had just experienced the most intense pain of my life, a back spasm that was literally crippling. That pain led to what I later learned was a “Vasovagal response” – essentially, the trauma was so intense that it triggered a slowing of my heart rate and a drop in my blood pressure – and in fact I lost consciousness for a few moments. It was frightening.
It happened on Wednesday, November 23. Several hours previously, Sharon, Ariel, Drew, and Lucia and I had arrived at La Communidad Llaguepulli in the Araucania region of Chile, where we were intent on learning more about these indigenous people and their culture. The Mapuche are the “first people” of Chile, and were here to greet (or suffer under) the conquistadores of Spain several hundred years ago. As an ethnic group, Mapuche comprise nearly 10% of the Chilean population, yet we have heard many of the older members tell of the ways in which the Mapuche were deprived of opportunities to practice their culture and in fact suffered from attempts to “educate the Mapuche” out of them.
Our hope was to spend two days in this remote place, bearing witness to the heritage of the Mapuche and learning more about their culture and world-view. And when I suffered my spasm, I was afraid that this hope would be crushed. However, this is what happened: a young woman who is studying to be a doctor immediately took my blood pressure and other vitals; she gave me fluids and made me comfortable. Another woman offered me some tea made from the bark of the Palo Santo tree, a traditional remedy for inflammation. And the entire community made accommodation for my limited mobility for the next twenty four hours. As a result, our family was able to spend Thanksgiving with a beautiful community and learn a great deal about how they view life, the universe, and everything. We made sopaipilla (fried bread), soup, and other delicacies; we tried our hand at weaving and spinning yarn (the really productive kind, not what I usually do when I spin a yarn…); we heard about the theology and cosmology of these people; and we even took a boat ride wherein Lucia and I tried our hand at fishing. And I should mention that we were the first people ever to stay in a newly-constructed cabin within that community, which is trying to expand their hospitality to eco-tourists in the hope of bridging cultural gaps and promoting awareness.
It was ironic that all of this happened on Thanksgiving, because it’s not the first time that some visitor named Carver has had his skin saved by the kindness of Native Americans. If I can believe what the older folks have told me, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great uncle John Carver was in a similar fix.
Sketch depicting John Carver and Yellow Feather Oasmeequin [a.k.a Massasoit] smoking a peace pipe commemorating the treaty.
In 1620, old Uncle John had been elected by his fellow travelers on the Mayflower to be the first governor of what they’d decided to call Plymouth Colony. Interestingly enough, there were already people living on that spot – the Wampanoag people. The so-called “Pilgrims” were in a tough spot – the land, the weather, the animals, the inhabitants, and even many of the trees were new and frightening. The food ran short, and folks were dying. The Wampanoag were gracious, and pretty much everyone agrees that none of the passengers from the Mayflower stood a chance of survival apart from the help they received from the First People. Many of us in the USA remember this as “the first Thanksgiving” in 1621. While I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen the way that we read about it in the picture books, the long and the short of it is that when things got tough, folks chose to work together, to learn from each other, and celebrate – even while keeping an eye on one another.
If you know much about “the rest of the story”, you’ll know that the first Americans didn’t fare so well with the folks who followed Uncle John. The European immigrants to the “new world” were unwilling to adapt to prevailing culture and languages of the people who were already there, and scores of people groups were simply wiped out.
Which is why I counted it a privilege to be taking my grand-daughter – the 15th generation of Carvers to be found in the Americas – to visit a community of indigenous people on Thanksgiving. Make sure you get what I’m saying: we didn’t travel all this way to somehow atone for the ways in which conflict has soured relationships between various ethnic groups; and we didn’t come to place anyone on a pedestal nor to abase our own culture. We came to simply celebrate the fact that there are MANY cultures, many voices in the choir, many ways to look at life. What we take for granted may or may not be “what everybody knows”. And that’s OK.
My hope is that in making a visit like this, we are modeling for our communities (both here in Chile as well as at home) the truth that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and ALL that dwell therein.” I want to honor those who are different; I want to learn about that of which I am ignorant; I want to be a better neighbor to the folks on Cumberland Street as well as the Mapuche who breathe the same air and need the same water.
It was a miserable, painful day. And yet one which occasioned thankfulness. I hope to pass it on in the days to come.
Outside a “Ruka”, the traditional home and gathering place of the Mapuche.
Inside the Ruka
Three generations of crafty women to bless my life!
Drew helping with the stew.
Making Sopapailla – the young woman instructing us is the medical student who attended to me.
A walk through the herbal and medicinal garden
We had a ride in an ox-drawn cart!
A walk down to the lake, which is surrounded by 120 Mapuche communities (about 13,000 people).
They weren’t biting, but we gave it a go!
The cabin where we were privileged to stay the night overlooks the lake.
I’m not sure how traditional it is, but we were served a lemon meringue pie for breakfast on Thanksgiving! I think Uncle John would approve.
A beautiful experience…a day filled with Thanksgiving!
On Wednesday morning, our time on the shores of beautiful Lake Malawi came to an end. As mentioned in the previous entry, our friends from South Sudan really opened the eyes of many of their partners with an informative and personal reflection on the history of their nation and church. The bus ride from Mangochi to Zomba featured in-depth discussions about the nature of ministry in South Sudan, the needs and the gifts of our partners there, and the ways in which our lives and callings can intersect. It is worth noting here that our colleagues from South Sudan seem to be very interested in partnership with individuals and congregations in Pittsburgh, but positively passionate about the possibilities of deepening ties with the CCAP in Blantyre Synod. There have been many times on this journey when I’ve compared our tripartite partnership to a stool, indicating that it was possible to balance on a chair with two legs, but a stool with three functional legs was even better. That third leg is getting sturdier each day!
Davies Lanjesi and Silas Ncozana, representing the present and past of the partnership.
We traveled south from the lake to the town of Zomba, a journey of about three and a half hours. Here, we were met by many from the Blantyre Synod Partnership team as well as many dignitaries from Domasi Presbytery and the host congregations for those of us who have sister churches in the northern part of the Synod. Newly-ordained ELDER Davies Lanjesi and his Partnership Steering Committee team organized a fantastic lunch buffet for us at the scenic Ku Chawe Inn on the upper slopes of Zomba Plateau. The Rev. Dr. Silas Ncozana gave a stirring history of the Pittsburgh-Blantyre Partnership and we rejoiced in the fruit of recent days as well. One surprise for me was when Silas said, “I really appreciated that sermon you preached in Mulanje on Sunday!” I apologized for not even recognizing that he was in attendance, and he said, “I wasn’t! It was on the national radio twice!” I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time!
CK and Doreen Chirambo are Partnership Pioneers who came to join us in Zomba.
Our congregation helped to provide this borehole, which supplies clean water to thousands of people. It is my great honor to drink from it!
After lunch came a pivotal moment in our pilgrimage, where our team of sixteen split into thirteen as we paired up with hosts and departed for Balaka, Nansambo, Chiphola, Sande, Blantyre City, and other destinations. Sharon, Gabe, and I headed to the north and to the east, up to another plateau atop of which rests the small town of Ntaja. Here, we are staying with Abusa Johnson Damelekani and his family as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the twinning of the Mbenjere and Crafton Heights congregations.
The Mbenjere congregation is home to about 700 Christians and is divided into 15 “zones”, each of which is guided by a team of elders and gathers for midweek prayers in various homes. In addition, there are three smaller worship centers, called “prayer houses” that are attached to this main congregation. I should note that Abusa Damelekani has four other congregations (and each of them has zones and prayer houses as well!).
A portion of the student body at Michongwe School.
Our task on Thursday was to introduce ourselves to the community, and it was a grand day. We began with a breakfast in the home of one of the elders, and from there we proceeded to the Michongwe Primary School. This school has at least tripled in size since the first time we visited it, and there are now 3800 students in grades 1-8. These students are taught by 58 teachers and 14 student teachers. The crowds are so large that on some days as many as 17 classes meet outside under the trees. The students held an assembly in our honor, and Dr. Sharon Carver presented an impassioned plea for the students to work hard and stay in school (especially the girls!). I got the kids to sing Palibe Wofana Naye with us, and then we were deafened by the sound of the entire student body singing the Malawian National Anthem at the top of their lungs. Such pride in their nation! We met with many in the teaching staff and also heard a presentation by two young ladies who are studying to enter a secondary school course in tourism.
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139)
We then were pleased to visit the Ntaja Health Centre, where our friend Edith Makuluni has worked for many years. She was off today, but we were given a full tour of this clinic, which functions as essentially the Malawian equivalent of an “urgent care” center in the USA. A highlight for me was being given the opportunity to speak and pray with a group of about a dozen extremely pregnant women and their “guardians”. These women have come to the Health Centre because their deliveries appear imminent, and most have been accompanied by another family member who will care for them, cook their meals, and so on as they await the arrival of their babies. I explained to them that one of my highest privileges in ministry is greeting new babies and reading with them the 139th Psalm. We read this together, and I encouraged the women to remind their children over and over again that they have been “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
Gabe in his preaching debut.
The afternoon was spent visiting one of the zone meetings, where Gabe Kish honed his preaching skills by leading an inspiring Bible Study from Acts 2:42-47 about the church’s call to celebrate the awesome nature of our God. Following a time of worship, the group stayed for well over an hour of question and answers about the church in America, and Crafton Heights in particular. It was a very fruitful time of discussion and sharing, and if you can judge by the size of the crowd that followed us singing and laughing as we walked the mile or two back into Ntaja center, they enjoyed it every bit as much as did we.
The Nkuna North District Prayer Meeting from Mbenjere CCAP.
Of course, the entire day was punctuated by way too much food (prepared by our friends Mr. and Mrs. Haiya and Mr. and Mrs. Mphaso – Mrs. Mphaso is better known to some old friends at CHUP as “Ronnie Gonani”, a visitor in 2000). Tea was drunk, biscuits were shared, and joy abounded. I believe that’s how partnership works!
On a sad note, we learned today of the untimely death of Silimyake Mutafya, a beautiful and engaging young woman who visited our congregation in 2012. She got married in 2013 and was expecting her first child when something went wrong with the pregnancy and both she and the baby died. It was a grim reminder that we can take nothing for granted.
Tomorrow we will be up and out early again, as we visit several prayer houses and zones. As always, your prayers are appreciated. Zikomo kwambiri!
Whoever said “Getting there is half the fun” has never traveled to Malawi from the USA. Getting there is tedious, boring, cramped, and well, not a little miraculous. I mean, really – the notion of putting all that stuff into a plane, with all of us and all the food and beverage and other supplies necessary to sustain our village at 36,000 feet for fifteen hours – well, that’s just magic, is what that is.
Checking our bags at Dulles Airport. We were not everyone’s favorite customer that morning!
Regardless of what percentage of fun getting there was, that’s what we’ve done for most of the last 36 hours. After our drive from Pittsburgh to DC, we awoke on Tuesday and headed over to Dulles International Airport for a series of flights that took us from DC to Addis Ababa to Lilongwe to Blantyre. And in spite of the inconveniences that such travel occasioned, it was worth it when, after arriving in Addis Ababa, we connected with the three members of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church who will be joining us in this venture. And it was sheer joy when we were whisked from the plane in Chileka onto a patio filled with members of the Limbe CCAP choir and representatives from more than a dozen congregations. It was a joy to see members of churches here – some of whom had ridden minibuses for hours in order to be present – greet and celebrate their visitors from the USA and South Sudan. And, oh, the fun of watching the South Sudanese revel in the singing and dancing of their Malawian sisters and brothers!
With the General Secretary of the CCAP, the Rev. Alex Maulana.
I meant it when I said, ndi wokondwa nda bwelaso kumudzi – “I am happy to be at home”
We came to the Grace Bandawe Conference Center, where we rested for a bit, enjoyed a few appetizers and soft drinks (along with a few more speeches), and finished the night with a team devotional led by Pastor Aaron Gordon. Tomorrow we hit the ground running as we do some banking and are then collected by our first host families. I’m happy to indicate that everyone is well and we are really feeling cared for.
Our three delegates from South Sudan are with Blantyre Synod Partnership Chair Davies Lanais
The choir from Limbe CCAP led the welcoming!
Vanessa is pretty good at making friends!
Barb with friends from her sister church.
Our old friend Silas Ncozana caught up with us at GBCC!