Chiloidateth

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

My pilgrimage in Africa has followed a definite course.  I began with two weeks in Malawi, a place where I have deep roots and many relationships. From there, I proceeded to South Sudan. This was my third visit to South Sudan since 2013, and I have been helping to nurture the deepening partnership that exists between Pittsburgh Presbytery, the Synod of Blantyre in Malawi, and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.  You can read about those visits in previous posts in this blog.

I have spent most of the past week in a place where I’ve never been: Gambella, Ethiopia.  I’ve been privileged to grow in friendship with Michael and Rachel Weller in recent years, and each time I’ve flown to Africa they’ve said, “You know, the plane stops in Ethiopia.  Why not visit our home and our colleagues and friends in Mekane Yesus?”

And so I made the plans. Even though Michael was teaching in Juba, the Weller’s home is built to accommodate guests, and so I arrived on Thursday 25 July with both a deep curiosity and a hunger to learn and with neither a plan nor any of my luggage (but that’s another post).

As I arrived, Rachel took me out for lunch at a local restaurant!

The Ethiopian Evangelical Church: Mekane Yesus (EECMY) is the largest individual member church of the Lutheran World Federation – there are estimated to be more than eight million members in Ethiopia.  Here in Gambella, there are two main synods: the East Gambella Bethel Synod is comprised of mainly Anywaa believers while the West Gambella Bethel Synod consists of members of the Nuer people group.  Although the Wellers are working with each Synod, their home is located on the grounds of the Western Bethel Synod.  As a result, I’ve been spending most of my time with Nuer, which is the same ethnic group as many of the congregations with which I’ve met in South Sudan.

After getting settled in on Thursday evening, I was able to play a part in Rachel’s ongoing work with a group of young boys.  Many of these children call her their “coach” for the community’s football/soccer team, and each of them holds a special place in her heart.  Like so many others in this area, these children have experienced significant pain and violence.  Rachel has been leading them through a sequence of child-appropriate Trauma Healing workshops and she asked me to join them.  The boys talked a little of what they’d previously discussed, and then I shared with them the story of Joseph’s imprisonment as a result of the treachery within Potiphar’s household.  We talked about the fact that sometimes, terrible things happen to people who do not deserve them, and how many people might be tempted to feel as though God has forgotten them, or worse, that God is punishing them.  We talked about feeling lonely and afraid and forgotten and vulnerable – and about the importance of developing friends with whom you can share those feelings.  As we closed, they asked me to teach them a song, and so I shared one that I’d learned from PCUSA Mission Co-worker Shelvis Smith-Mather: “When Jesus Says ‘Yes’, Nobody Can Say ‘No’!”  There was a surprising amount of laughter for a session that was labelled “Trauma Healing”!

 

This is the workbook that the young people are using to talk about difficult issues.

Pastor Matthew was translating but participation was enthusiastic in any language.

Rachel guides participants through an activity that reminds us that we are all connected in Christ.

One of the things I’ve learned is that here in the EECMY, just as in the other African traditions with which I’m familiar, is that the definition of “Youth” differs from that which we use in the States.  In the Western Bethel Synod, the Youth tend to be the “young marrieds” – folks who appear to be in their 20’s.  While in the past, this group has met almost exclusively to serve as a choir, there has been some movement to encourage them to think of themselves as a learning community. To that end, I was invited to speak with a group of about 30 young people about the importance of always growing in faith and helping others to grow as well.  We talked about the fact that Paul was not always the super-Apostle who wrote half of the New Testament, but rather that he learnedhow to follow Jesus by watching someone else (Barnabas).  As he was learning, he discovered that he could not carry the load alone, and he partnered with his friend Dr. Luke and they shared the walk of faith together. As he grew older, Paul gradually called to himself other, younger people (like Timothy and Titus and Silas) and spent his time teaching them how to teach others. We broke into smaller groups and celebrated the mentors, colleagues and protégés that God has put into our lives. At the end of this discussion, they were very interested in knowing more about how young people function in the churches in the USA.  They were pleased to learn that in Crafton Heights we often elect those who would here be termed “youth” to lead the church; in fact, I passed around a photo I’d taken at Easter, when one of the CHUP Deacons who happens to be 20 years old was visiting an older member of the congregation: they could not believe that in that photo, the younger person was the church officer while the older person was the one receiving “care”.  It was a full and rich discussion.

Participants at a “Youth” Discussion.

I was captivated by the condition of this young woman’s Bible. I’m told that Nuer translations are hard to come by and although this one has seen better days, she was guarding it closely.

Sunday was reserved primarily for worship.  We didn’t make the entire service, but I expect to get some credit for sitting through more than three hours of it!  With the exception of a few remarks that I made, the entire service was conducted in Nuer. As I sat there feeling that I was both vaguely a central part of what was going on and yet I struggled to make sense of any of the sounds I was hearing. I wondered how often I place people in a position like that in the USA.  Oh, I understand that I very rarely will plunk someone down in the middle of a four-hour proceeding and then proceed to speak in a dialect unknown to them. I am increasingly aware, however, that there are many aspects of congregational and worship life in the USA that must be unintelligible to a new participant – and yet we all soldier on, using the words and singing the songs and saying the prayers that we think we know and assume that everybody should know… I hope that when I get back in the saddle of ministry again, I’ll be a better translator!

The congregation with which I worshiped.

Rachel and I used Sunday afternoon to pursue two of my hobbies.  One of these is a long-standing pastime with which readers of the blog are familiar.  We borrowed a car and we went birding.  I was pleased to be able to add a couple of new species to my “life list” and even got a few photographs as well.  We combined that passion of longstanding with another, newer, preoccupation: looking for my suitcases.  I’m on a first-name basis with a few employees at Ethiopian Airlines, but nobody can tell me where my luggage is. More on that in another post.

Black-Winged Red Bishop

Black Crowned Crane

This is obviously not a bird, but the colors on this Agama lizard are magnificent! (about 9 inches long)

Monday was rich in conversation as well: in the morning, we’d planned on meeting with the EECMY’s Western Synod staff in some of the Synod campus’ “common areas”, but the rains forced us inside the Weller home.  It was a great opportunity to talk about the need for and the nature of partnership in the body of Christ.  In the afternoon, I was asked to meet with a different group of young people.  Again, we talked about the importance of life-long discipleship and Christian growth.

Some of the group from the Synod with whom I was pleased to share breakfast!

As one of the meetings was breaking up, several people came to me and said a few things in Nuer to which I simply shook my head and grinned.  After they laughed at me for a while, they said something that sounded like “chiloidateth” to my ears. I’ve been told that there is no direct equivalent in the Nuer language for “thank you”, but this is the term that is often used when one has received a benefit or favor.  It means “it makes my heart happy”.

I’m not finished in Ethiopia yet, but I can say that.  Chiloidateth. My heart is, indeed, happy. Thanks be to God!

The Weller home, not unlike my own, tends to have an “open door” policy.  This afternoon a group of young people came with a deflated soccer ball and two partial inflation needles.  They were pleased to know that the old white guy who wears the same clothes all the time was able to combine the two needles into one functioning unit and thus ensure that the game could go on!

As a bonus: during my time with the leadership of the West Gambella Bethel Synod of the EECMY, they asked repeatedly whether I knew of a congregation, Presbytery, or other church body that would be interested in developing a relational partnership.  I would encourage my friends to think prayerfully about this and if you’re interested, let me know or speak with Michael or Rachel Weller!

Africa Pilgrimage Update #6

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

 

I should actually write more, but I’m really bushed and we’re getting up in six hours.  So here is a taste of our day today. Highlights included the second Youth Partnership Conference, held at Koche CCAP outside of Mangochi, as well as a trip on Lake Malawi in a small boat that allowed us to view the Lake Malawi Cichlids, swim, and view the African Fish Eagle (the national bird of Malawi).

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this is a huge post.

My day started with a solo walk, whereupon I encountered this Collared Sunbird – a first for me!

The Malawian presenter at the conference this morning was my old friend the Rev. Dennis Mulele. We first met in a famine relief effort in 2003 and he’s been one of my heroes ever since!

Eddie Willson was the Pittsburgh Presenter, and he got things moving in a hurry. Everyone agreed that this was a very energetic and inspirational conference!

Eddie had us mingle around until we found “elbow partners”. Even though I only have two elbows, somehow I wound up with 8 partners!

Small groups work through some of the challenges and possibilities faced by youth in Malawi and the USA.

Our day also included conversation in groups of three or four (or, in my case, nine!).

(Most of) the Malawian and Pittsburgh youth and leaders at the conference today.

Setting sail for an adventure!

Rayna soaking it all up!

Lake Malawi is remarkable for the more than 700 species of cichlids it contains. It is the fourth largest lake in the world in terms of volume.

Feeding the cichlids.

So why not swim with the cichlids?

An African Fish Eagle comes up with some dinner!

The ending of a beautiful day.

Fossils or Fingerprints?

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

When I checked into the Salt Lake City hotel as our 8-state, 3745 mile road trip came to an end, the young woman said, “Wow, that sounds like an amazing time.  Was this like, a ‘bucket list’ item for you, or what?”

My first thought was, “Hey, kid, how old do I look to you, anyway? Do I LOOK like I’m close to needing to check items off my bucket list?”

But upon reflection, I realized that she was right.  There was a lot about this trip that was “bucket-list-able”.  And I’ve been thinking about the fact that I’ve buried a lot of friends who are younger than I am, and about my own sense of accomplishment at having to made it to age 59 after my mother’s death at age 58.  We mustn’t take these things for granted, friends.

Our trip began and ended in Salt Lake City, Utah (about 8 o’clock on this map). Proceeding as indicated, we visited portions of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming (again), South Dakota (again), Nebraska, Wyoming (again), Colorado, and Utah. Amazing!

Having prefaced this entry with the above, it’s not a little ironic that the last real “stop” on our great adventure was the Dinosaur National Monument, which spans areas in both Colorado and Utah.  We spent the night at a campground on the Green River just a mile or two away from where Andrew Carnegie’s chief fossil collector, Earl Douglass, unearthed an incredible trove of bones belonging to such amazing creatures as the Apatosaurus that is still on display in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.  Between 1909 and 1924, he shipped more than 700,000 tons of bones and other materials back to Pittsburgh until finally, the museum decided that it had all of the Jurassic bones that it needed.

At the Dinosaur National Monument’s Quarry Exhibit.

Here’s the crazy thing: there are still more of them there – just sitting in the ground.  I mean, it’s crazy – walking down the path and seeing a giant bone protruding from the dirt.  Touch it.  Climb on it. We have more…  In fact, the Quarry Exhibit Hall is built right into the side of a hill, and visitors can see, exposed in the dirt, more than 1500 fossils. Walking along the trails of the Monument, we saw not only dinosaur bones, but fossils of other creatures including clams and some prehistoric dolphin-like fish.

The Quarry Exhibit Hall, built into the canyon itself.

Scientists have some theories about why there is such an immense quantity of bones at this particular site.  There were wetlands here at one time, and the thought is that during a time of drought, a large number of these creatures gathered looking for water.  Then an unexpected flood came and many dinosaurs perished at once.  Their bodies were swept to a certain location along the floodplain where they were covered with silt and sand and the process of fossilization began on this “logjam” of dinosaur bones.

The inside of the Exhibit Center contains a rock face displaying hundreds and hundreds of fossils.

You can say it: this is just a couple of old fossils in Utah.

Obviously, the easiest answer to the question “why are there so many bones here?” is this: “because so many animals died here.”  While the dinosaurs obviously didn’t vote for or decide to do this, they got overwhelmed by a flood or stuck in the mud and that was it.  They became fossils.

A dinosaur bone that we noticed on the trail in the Monument.

We knew we’d be seeing bones on this visit, but we were delighted to see something else – something even cooler, to my mind: a vast treasure trove of petroglyphs: etchings on the rock walls of these canyons that have been here for hundreds and probably thousands of years.  As we wandered through the park, we saw dozens of these markings – lizards, dancers, hunters, necklaces, and more.  Many of the sandstone faces of these cliffs are a darker hue on the outside – it’s called “sandstone varnish” – the wind and elements have apparently scorched them a deeper shade.  At some point between 200 AD and 1300 AD a group known as the Fremont People lived in this area.  Using sharpened rocks, they chiseled away at this varnish and left petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) on the walls.  While they are of great beauty and interest in and of themselves, what fascinates me even more is the fact that some of these pieces of art must have taken months or even years to complete.  Which means that someone in that community had the luxury of some free time – that not every second of every day was devoted to the same old grind of hunting and gathering, hunting and gathering.  This also tells me that those who left this art behind were doing more than simply waiting to become fossils themselves – they were leaving fingerprints all over this desert in the hopes that their peers and their children and grandchildren would find the land a little more hospitable, a little more welcoming, and a little more beautiful.

How many different images can you see in this single photo?

 

Many scientists believe that the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives are birds – like this Lark Sparrow that greeted me in the morning.

Fortunately, this is not a dinosaur.

This formation has been named “Turtle Rock” Can you see it?

A panoramic shot of the Green River. our campground is front and center.

So here’s the deal, beloved, as I conclude this part of the sabbatical.  Each of us, sooner or later, has the opportunity to become a fossil. One day, the folks will stand around me in a circle, throw dirt on my face, and then go back to church and eat some cheesy potatoes and ham.  There’s nothing I can do about that – I’m no better off than those bones in the Carnegie Museum in terms of my earthly mortality.

But I can choose to use the time I’ve been given to leave my fingerprints in places that will, I hope and pray, lead to beauty and joy and reflection; I can work to shape the environment so that my child and grandchildren will have more keenly developed senses of awe and wonder because I’ve walked these paths; I can be grateful for those moments of leisure and reflection that I’ve enjoyed.  This is the difference between fossils and fingerprints: a fossil says, essentially, “Well, I made it this far, and then I died.”  Fingerprints say, “While I was here, I did this.  And then I went on to somewhere else, and did something else.”

I am trying to be grateful, and I am trying to remember that I am still on my way.  And I challenge you to be the same.  Think about your own “bucket list” – what is something you can do todaythat will allow you to resist the rush towards fossilization and give you the chance to shape someone’s world with hope or beauty or joy?  Do it.

Since I’m on Sabbatical, and I’ve been thinking and reflecting in a different way, I’m remembering poetry that has shaped me.  One work that has shaped me for several decades – and in fact has been clipped and rides inside my Bible everywhere I go – is by Scott Cairns.  Listen, and remember:

Imperative

The thing to remember is how

tentative all of this really is.

You could wake up dead.

 

Or the woman you love

could decide you’re ugly.

Maybe she’ll finally give up

trying to ignore the way

you floss your teeth as you

watch television.  All I’m saying

is that there are no sure things here.

 

I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,

and she’ll probably keep putting off

any actual decision about your looks.

Could be she’ll be glad your teeth

are so clean.  The morning could

be full of all the love and kindness

you need.  Just don’t go thinking

you deserve any of it.

– from philokalia, ©2002 by Scott Cairns

We ended our travels by sharing dinner with former CHUP organist Alec Chapman and his wife, Rachel. What a joy to reconnect – undeserved – but treasured!

Watch and Hope

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

I started thinking about the idea of a Sabbatical experience two years ago.  I began the work of planning it about 11 months ago.  I got really serious about six months ago, and designed our route, signed the contracts for our RV and began to book campsites.  One of the interesting features about our travel schedule is that it requires us to cross the Continental Divide at least two times. A continental divide is a line of demarcation indicating where water will flow across a continent – it’s a division where the precipitation that falls on one side of the line winds up in one ocean (say, the Pacific Ocean) or another (say, the Atlantic Ocean).  For most of the United States, that divide runs along the crest of the Rocky Mountains.

Which means that back in November when I was planning this route, I drew up a route that would have us ascending the mountains at least twice as we began and will end this sojourn in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I consulted all the best guides; I did my research, and the itinerary I drew up called for us to leave the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of June 26 and drive up and over the crest of the divide and exit the western gate of the park. It made sense.  It was a lot of driving to get from the eastern gate of the Rocky Mountains to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah in one day, but it was only about 300 miles.  I could do it.

Except for the fact that it snowed like crazy in the Rocky Mountains the weekend prior to our arrival. We showed up at the east gate and were informed that the Trail Ridge Road – the only road connecting east and west in the park – was impassable due to a heavy snow accumulation.  This route, rising to 12,183 feet (3713 meters), is the highest continuous paved highway in the USA.

The Trail Ridge Road as it looked on days 1 and 2 of our Rocky Mountain Adventure…

Well, doesn’t that just beat all?  I’m in the tail end of a well-planned and meticulously organized travel plan, and the ONE ROAD I absolutely need is closed.  I stood in line at the Park Ranger’s desk and asked about the likelihood of the road opening up in time for me to make the rest of my journey.  Believe it or not, he seemed unimpressed with my meticulous planning.  Even after I explained that I was The Reverend Dave Carver and I had a tight program to keep, he pretty much said, “Well, let’s keep your eyes on the sign boards and hope.”

All of my plans for this trip had boiled down to whether the weather would clear and the crews would be able to dig out the road.  There was nothing I could do but to watch and hope.

As I did, I thought about a dear friend of mine who is engaged in the fight of her life with a deadly illness. She could tell me something about having plans interrupted by icy blasts and drifts that make progress seem unattainable.  I thought about another friend, whose dreams for the future seemed to disappear when her child died.  I remembered my own condition in the months leading up to this journey – some of the situations over which I have felt powerless to change and yet over which I worried a great deal.  As I considered the foolishness of my complaining about the weather, I was driven to prayer for those whose only options all day are to watch, and hope, and pray.

It was not the spiritual discipline I’d planned for myself this week of Sabbatical, but it was an important and holy work nonetheless.  We stayed in the area of the park that was accessible to us, and then less than 24 hours before I “needed it”, the road was indeed opened.  As silly as that may sound, it gave me hope for those situations that I named above.  I want to sing to my friends, “There is a way through!”  It may seem impassible or impossible now, but sometimes watching and hoping and praying lead us to a new experience of, and gratitude for, the journey.

Some of the drifts seemed to be fifteen feet high – on June 26th!!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not equating my ability to drive a powerful vehicle on a mountain road with someone else’s battle with a deadly illness or the depths of grief.  I’m saying that my circumstances led me to a deeper awareness of the situations in which my friends have found themselves, and for that I’m most grateful.

I made it to the top of the Rockies this morning – it was hard to breathe, and the snow was deep.  As we wandered into a section of tundra atop the mountain, I recalled a poem that has meant a great deal to me in times where I wondered whether my plans were all shot to hell.  It’s called “Resurrection”, and it’s written by Mary Ann Bernard.  It reads as follows:

Long, long, long ago;
Way before this winter’s snow
First fell upon these weathered fields;
I used to sit and watch and feel
And dream of how the spring would be,
When through the winter’s stormy sea
She’d raise her green and growing head,
Her warmth would resurrect the dead.

Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would pass
With winter’s pain, and peace like grass
Would simply grow.  The pain’s not gone.
It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
It cuts so deep and far within.

Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold.  I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.

Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by spring.
Now, I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and from the dark, cold, grime
A flower comes.  It groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins.

Flowers of many types were already bursting through the tundra atop the mountains…

Most of you are reading this in the summertime.  I invite you to think about those of your friends who are snowed under today, and find a way to watch, hope, and pray for them.

 

I’m not the only one who felt good about making it to the top of the Continental Divide today!

Mule Deer are plentiful in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

We saw a number of moose today, including this cow and calf.

The pika is a small mammal about the size of a large chipmunk – it’s called “the farmer of the tundra” for its habit of storing seeds under rocks.

Adams Falls, on the west side of the park.

At Bear Lake, on the eastern side.

Wilson’s Warbler

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

After we had made it over the mountains and down the other side, there was still one threat to my plans: this five foot Prairie Rattlesnake. Now, to be fair, I had a 4,000 pound vehicle, and all he had was a really snazzy rattle and a little venom. We called it a draw and let each other pass…

Glimpses of the Black Hills and the Badlands, South Dakota

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

We spent several days exploring a fascinating part of the country in Western South Dakota.  The Black Hills are named because after miles and miles of prairie, these gentle slopes covered with dark pine arose to greet the settlers of the west.  Further to the east (and also in North Dakota), is an area called The Badlands.  The Lakota people were the first to call this place “mako sica” or “land bad.” Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain led to this name. French-Canadian fur trappers also called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.” We found traveling in the RV that the land was good and the hills were gentle!  Enjoy these photos!

The Black Hills of South Dakota

A visit to Wind Cave – the bottom of the Black Hills!

Boxwork – a calcite formation that is fairly unique to Wind Cave – the calcite remained in place after the limestone eroded away.

Also in the Black Hills – the town of Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickok met his maker whilst holding the “Dead Man’s Hand” of a pair of black aces and a pair of black 8’s. He looks pretty good here…

Deadwood was a hub for the “Gold Rush” in the Black Hills. Here I am checking out the accommodations.

I celebrated my birthday at Wall Drug, with ONE of these pieces of Cherry Pie.

The Black Hills was the first place we encountered feral donkeys on our trip. I’ve seen plenty of wild asses all over the world, however…

We couldn’t make a visit to the Black Hills without seeing four great leaders on Mt. Rushmore…

… or glimpsing the titanic monument to another at Crazy Horse Mountain. In the foreground is the model for the finished work; the background shows completion to date.

A panoramic shot of The Badlands. Can you imagine trying to get from here to there across THAT?

The Badlands at sunset.

A pair of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep navigate the Badlands with ease.

Western Meadowlark

A Great Horned Owl greeted us at the dawn of a new day…

…and, being less than impressed, went about his business elsewhere.

I learned that it’s egg-laying season for Painted Turtles in this part of the world, and that they like to find gravelly areas to do so. That meant turning the RV around a few times to help some of these ladies make it to the other side of the road and accomplish their mission…

While leaving the Badlands, we were driving through northwest Nebraska when we got an email from our old friend Mark Campbell. Turns out that we were only a hundred miles away at the time, so we headed west in time to eat a (lake trout!) dinner with Mark and his wife Cindy. We spent three hours catching up, praying, and enjoying each other’s company. What a gift!

A Few Quick Photos

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

Our trip continues with great adventure and joy.  Here, without much reflection, are some photos of a few of the amazing sites we’ve been privileged to visit – here at Pompeys Pillar in Montana, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and Devils Tower in Wyoming.

Pompey’s Pillar along the Missouri River in Wyoming

Visiting Pompeys Pillar gave us the chance to learn a lot more about the Lewis and Clark expedition. William Clark visited this place with a portion of the Corps of Discovery, in 1806. This diorama features from left Clark’s slave, York, Clark, Sacajawea, and Sacajawea’s son Jean-Baptiste (aka “Pompey”). York and Sacajawea were regarded by Lewis and Clark as full participants in most aspects of the trip, and are recorded as having voted in communal decisions – really “radical” for that day and age.

Wait! There’s an imposter sneaking into the Corps of Discovery!

What is it about humans – particularly the male of the species – that makes us want to carve our names into every blessed thing we see? Here is Clark’s graffiti on Pompeys Pillar (which contains, in addition to other names, some hieroglyphs).

The view from atop Pompeys!

The Badlands of North Dakota as seen from a butte in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

We really enjoyed wandering through the trails at TRNP – especially near the Prairie Dog towns!

A spotted towhee literally buzzed us on the trail when I played the towhee call from my birding app. He was NOT happy with us being in his territory!

Devils Tower geologic formation that rises from the plain in Wyoming. It is a sacred site to many Native American groups. There are records of human activity here for at least 10,000 years.

Because of the sacred nature of this site, a Japanese artist included it among three in the world (the other two are the Vatican and a Buddhist shrine in India) that would be wrapped in the “ring of smoke” signifying human prayer and yearning for connection to the Divine.

No photos, but I saw a couple of Peregrine Falcons as well as their nesting spot near the top.

 

Ya Never Know!

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

One of my great hopes when I came out to this part of the country was that I’d be able to do a little fishing, especially for some of the wild trout that fill these lakes and streams. One of my great fears was that, while I know a thing or two about fishing EAST of the Rockies, I’ve never tried fresh water angling west of the Mississippi.  My hopes and my fears were both amplified when my friend Gabe presented me with a lovely rod to take with me on this trip – “Good luck, buddy!”, he said.

Well, I thought I’d need more than luck.  Who wants to waste a day in the Grand Tetons fishing with the wrong gear in the wrong spot? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!  So I decided that I better learn from someone smarter than I am.  Fortunately, there are a number of those folks around at any given moment.  I hired “Captain Phil” to take me on a two hour fishing excursion on Jackson Lake.  Turns out that the price was the same for one angler as for two, so Sharon Carver bought herself a fishing license!?!  Ya never know.

Captain Phil’s boat is clean and well-appointed; it’s comfortable; it seems like a great retirement gig for this kind man from California.  It’s just that, well, we did waaaaay more “fishing” than “catching”. Oh, it was a pleasant enough couple of hours, but I had hoped for more.  Near the end of our trolling, we ended up each reeling in a nice-sized lake trout.  It was a great tour and a delightful couple of hours, but I didn’t really feel as though I’d “fished”.

Look who’s into a Lake Trout!

She was happy to reel it in, but she wasn’t gonna hold it just so YOU could see…

Crusing with Captain Phil. You’ll understand when I said it didn’t really feel like “fishing”…

Luckily, I ran into a very helpful clerk at a visitor’s center who told me about a great spot – just below the dam on Jackson Lake.  He suggested where I should stand, and what I might throw.  I had happened to bring a small tackle box with me, and I had four suitable lures.  “Great!”  I thought. “Now let’s fish!”

Could this be the “honey hole”?

I got to the spot and I saw a few fellas with stringers that were full.  That boded well.  On my first cast, I lost what I thought was my best lure.  Sigh.  A couple of casts later, I was very excited to get a hit on my line, but disappointed when I discovered that I’d foul-hooked a fish whose name I forget, but it’s related to a carp or a sucker – in other words, not a “keeper.”  I managed to land a small rainbow trout, but also managed to lose two more lures – my line was bad.  I switched reels (yeah, I brought two on vacation – don’t judge me!) and then things turned around.  Using my last spinner – a white Rooster Tail, I brought in four very nice lake trout.  It was the best trout fishing day I’d ever had (not counting steelhead)!  Ya never know!

Oh, I think “YES!” Gabe will tell you “it’s all in the equipment…”

Dinner! And Lunch! And Dinner again!!

There was a young man who saw me catching these fish and he crept closer and closer to me.  He asked what I was using.  He brought his tackle box to me and asked me to help him choose his lure.  Still, I was reeling them in and he was cursing quietly and politely.  Finally, I had accomplished something in two hours that I rarely accomplish: I caught more fish than the Carvers could eat.  Ya never know!  It was time to pack it in and head for the campsite (those fish weren’t gonna clean themselves!).  I cut my line, gave the Rooster Tail to the young man next to me, and rejoined my bride.

It seems to me that fishing, and life, are better when we share what we have and what we know.  Gabe didn’t need to give me a fishing rod – but he did.  The clerk didn’t have to tell me where he fishes and what he uses, but he did – and it made my day so much better!  My fishing companion was surprised when I gave him my lure – but really, I’d been given so much already it seemed like literally the least I could do.  And maybe he’ll do the same some day.

Don’t worry, I didn’t spend my whole time in the Grand Teton National Park fishing.  We covered a good bit of the park in our RV and saw some amazing wildlife.  We took an exhilarating hike around the shore of Jenny Lake.  We saw a grizzly with her cubs, some elk and antelope, and a host of other beautiful sights.

Overlooking Jenny Lake

An Elk shared the trail with us for a bit…

Hidden Falls at Jenny Lake

This little Marmot didn’t know what to do about us sharing his rock!

My hope is that you’ll find some unexpected gifts – either received, or to share – in this day, and that something small might turn out to be something big.  Because…ya never know.

A White-Crowned Sparrow on our trail.

PS: I did get up early this morning and drive to a tackle shop.  I might have bought a few more lures.  I might have caught and released four very nice lake trout because our freezer is full. Ya never know.

This guy and three of his friends made it back into the water thanks to my full freezer this morning!

Partnership in African Mission Final Update (#10)

In one of my first messages to a Malawian congregation on this trip, I shared the news that people in Pittsburgh were preparing to run a marathon this spring.  Explaining to some of these folks exactly why anyone would voluntarily attempt to run 26.2 miles took some doing, but we got there.  I said that one of the customs in such a race is to have people line the path and offer encouragement by cheering or sharing water with the racers.  Nobody really sees the entire race, but each step is witnessed and applauded.

I believe that in many ways, that’s a good analogy to the trip that Brian and I have shared with our Malawian hosts, South Sudanese partners, and my friend Lauren.  We’ve been running up and down and all around the country, and it’s been tough in some regards – but so worth it! And just like the end of the race features the finish line and the time to rest, so our sprint through Central Africa brought with it a “last day” and one last chance to take in the beauty of this nation and her people.

We began by attending the 6:00 a.m. English-speaking service for the Mawira CCAP in Liwonde.  It was the first time that the service had begun at that hour, as it has been pushed back to accommodate a third worship service on Sunday morning in this rapidly-growing congregation.  Nevertheless, the small group of about 60 swelled to well over 100 by the time 6:30 rolled around.  The service was led by the Youth of the congregation, and it was tremendously encouraging to see how these kids are moving in leadership and ministry in this congregation.  I was especially delighted when I realized that the pastor of this church is my old friend Dennis Mulele, whom I first met while doing a famine relief trip with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in 2003.  He really made an impact on me during that trip and it was a great joy to reconnect in worship.

With Dennis Mulele at Mawire CCAP. The first time we met, the only gray was in our clothing!

 

Sharing the story

 

Offering the benediction.

Following the worship, we spent the afternoon in Liwonde National Park.  This park has been steadily improving in terms of security (anti-poaching) and accessibility of wildlife during the time I’ve known Malawi.  The location – right in Liwonde, about five minutes from the church – made it a great option for us to relax and unwind with a drive through the park as well as a “boat safari” on the Shire River. It did not disappoint in the least!

The graceful Impala!

 

Kudu

African Elephant

This is a really bad photo of a jackal, but it’s the only jackal I’ve ever seen in Malawi.

 

A warthog with baboons in the background

 

Little Bee-Eater

 

Hippopotamus

 

Pied Kingfisher

 

The African Fish Eagle is the national bird of Malawi. It looks like the North American Bald Eagle, but it is not quite as large.

We made it home after dark and have spent the last 18 hours or so resting, packing, doing some last minute shopping, and enjoying a Penguins win from afar!  We are so grateful for the ways that this trip has allowed us to carry the best wishes of Pittsburgh Presbytery into our partnerships here; for the chance to grow in friendship with each other and those who have accompanied us; for the grace of God that has sustained us in so many ways.

So for now, we say, Tionana, Malawi – “so long” – but not “goodbye”!

If you would like to hear more about this journey, find out how you or your (Pittsburgh Presbytery) congregation can be involved in the Partnership, or are interested in knowing about the upcoming plans to host a delegation from Africa in October 2018, please click  here or simply come to our next meeting, Monday, May 7, 2018 at the Pittsburgh Presbytery Center (901 Allegheny Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15233).

Mulungu Akudalitseni – May God bless you!

Texas Mission 2017 #2

Yesterday I was pleased to narrate some of the highlights of our first day in the Rio Grande Valley – a day filled with worship, fellowship, food, and anticipation.  Today, Monday, we were privileged to begin to explore and experience a little of the work to which we’ve been invited this week.  We are working with a network of churches and non-profits in the Valley to assist folks in to safe and adequate housing. This year, as in several previous years, we are tasked with helping the family close the gap between the work that a previous group or groups has done and finally entering the home themselves.

That means a bit of detective work… It’s not unlike turning on an episode of a program with which you’re familiar, but you haven’t seen lately.  And you’re in the middle of the episode… and you know most, but not all of the characters, and you’ve got to make some educated guesses as to who belongs where and why.  In the same way, we come into a home in which someone has made decisions about wiring, plumbing, and carpentry – all decisions, I’m sure, that made perfect sense to those folks at the time… but then they had to leave before they could finish.  And we show up, and we’re not exactly sure which wire leads to which outlet, or why the insulation isn’t in that room, and who knows anything about the way that these door jambs are set?  We know something about how to do all of these things, and we can help… but first we have to figure out where things were left.

Today we had the good fortune of beginning that adventure with a rarity – a cool, rainy day.  On the one hand, that meant a lot of muck and mud.  On the other hand, it made digging ditches for the water and septic lines a whole lot more pleasant than it might have been had it been 95° and sunny (the forecast for later this week!).  So we got a slow start – but a positive one – on the home with which we’re working. And it was good.  And, by God’s grace, so will tomorrow be.

We were delighted to have received a dinner invitation from Jose and Secylia and their family.  We were their guests at an amazing little Mexican restaurant in Edinburg, TX.  The food was delicious and authentic and the company and fellowship were even better.  We’re all the better for having shared that time.  This is an example of a friendship that has developed through the years… We have enjoyed time together now and then, and these folks sought to deepen the partnership through hospitality and generosity.  We are glad to be making and sharing more memories…

I’ll close with a few images of the day…

The water line is laid...

The water line is laid…

... as is the septic line...

… as is the septic line…

The heavy rains overnight turned the mud driveway into a quagmire. One good thing about having 13 people on the trip is that we weren't stuck long!

The heavy rains overnight turned the mud driveway into a quagmire. One good thing about having 13 people on the trip is that we weren’t stuck long!

Lindsay and Kati are fitting in a piece of drywall that was inexplicably missing...

Lindsay and Kati are fitting in a piece of drywall that was inexplicably missing…

...while Tina and Jack work to discover the mysteries of the door jambs...

…while Tina and Jack work to discover the mysteries of the door jambs…

The team works together to raise the decking onto a termite-resistant surface.

The team works together to raise the decking onto a termite-resistant surface.

Look - it's a bird! One I've never seen before: A White Tailed Kite!

Look – it’s a bird! One I’ve never seen before: A White Tailed Kite!

...who revealed herself to be a black widow spider. We left her be!

…who revealed herself to be a black widow spider. We left her be!

 

An investigation of a small cobweb near a cactus revealed this little lady...

An investigation of a small cobweb near a cactus revealed this little lady…

 

 

Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Wonder vs. Worry

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On April 17, we returned from our Lenten/Easter hiatus from this message and considered Jesus’ charge to be worry-free.  We did so by listening to the Word contained in Matthew 6:25-34 as well as Proverbs 3:5-8.

 

Some people call it “quote-mining” or “contextomy”. You may not be familiar with either of those terms, but I know you’ve seen this practice in action. I’m talking about the ways that we pick and choose what to repeat to others to make sure that our message, our presumptions, our prejudices come across in the best light possible.

SevenPosterFor instance, when the film Se7en was released, Entertainment Weekly printed a pretty harsh review, noting that the best part of the entire move was the opening credits: “The credit sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psychoparaphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia.” When they printed a movie poster, however, it read glowingly, “a small masterpiece!”

In 2013, the British daily paper called The Guardian ran an article about the wisdom of touring Sri Lanka. The author said, “Sri Lanka has the hotels, the food, the climate and the charm to offer the perfect holiday…It’s just a pity about the increasingly despotic government.” Yet within hours, the official Sri Lankan news agency provided a highly-edited link to the article, proclaiming “Sri Lanka has everything to offer the perfect holiday”.[1]

You might wonder why this matters today, here… It’s simple – people do this all the time in church. We find a little nugget that we like in the Bible, and then we memorize it and we repeat it and we sell it on t-shirts or inspirational posters. It doesn’t always work well, of course. Try quoting Hosea 1:2 at the next seminar for Christian singles: “Go and marry a prostitute who will bear illegitimate children conceived through prostitution.” Without the proper context, this verse is at least misleading if not dangerous.

Similarly, how many times have you heard someone quote Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength”? So often we take that to mean that you can literally do anything: run a marathon, win the Super Bowl, solve a Rubik’s Cube… because Christ will give you the strength to do whatever you want. Of course, when Paul wrote that sentence, he was talking about his own imprisonment and difficulties, and what he really meant was that he could get through or endure anything in the knowledge that Christ was with him. Context matters.

SermonMountI say all of this because we return to the Sermon on the Mount today, not having been here since January. And the reading that you’ve just heard represents some of the most beloved, most familiar language in the entire Bible. You’ve seen these words on greeting cards, on wall décor at the Christian bookstore, and in a thousand memes that come across social media.

And very few, if any, of these instances include the first word of the reading: “Therefore” (in Greek, dia touto). When someone says “therefore”, it is incumbent on us to read what has come before – that provides necessary context and information. “Since all of this is true, then…” So before we get to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field we need to remember what Jesus has already said.

Throughout the message, Jesus has indicated repeatedly that the life of a disciple is difficult because we engage the world on different terms than do those who are not followers. More specifically, he has just finished a statement about accumulating wealth and the dangers that arise when we build our lives around the service and worship of Mammon rather than God. He says that if we want to serve Mammon, or wealth, we can do so – but in seeking to orient our lives that way we will invariably be saying “no” to the life of faithfulness that he expects from his followers.

Having said all of that, then, he says “Therefore… If you want to serve God, and if you want to de-throne Mammon from your life, you can start by letting go of worry.” Worry, Jesus says, can get in the way of faithful service to God and neighbor, and has no place in the Christian life.

Which sounds good in theory, but the truth is very few people will confess to enjoying worry; most of us wish we had fewer worries; and when someone tells us “Hey, don’t worry”, that’s about as helpful as having a friend tell you to “Cheer up” or “don’t be mad”. “Don’t worry about tomorrow.” As my niece reminded me this morning, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.” Thanks, Jesus. Short of putting Xanax in the drinking water, how are we going to do this?

Fortunately, Jesus has a concrete suggestion or two. “Look at the birds”, he says. “Consider the lilies”.

And we think now that maybe Jesus is guilty of a little decontextualization. Consider the birds? Are you crazy, Jesus? Didn’t you see that news story about die-offs that are occurring these days? Last week, dozens of starlings were found dead in Fairfax County, VA. Before that, villagers in Bangladesh found 5000 dead robins, mynahs, kingfishers, and nightingales in the wake of a storm; last month they were picking dead Northern Gannets off the shores of Florida. If you want us not to worry, I’m not so sure that this is a great example, Jesus…

Relax. Jesus’ point is not that every bird lives an idyllic existence and dies happy of old age. His point is that it is not in the nature of birds to define themselves by their ability to acquire or store material objects. Birds and flowers and other living things are, Jesus said, dependent upon that which is beyond them to satisfy their daily needs and engage in any kind of meaning and purpose.

So when Jesus says, “Look at the birds!” or “Look at the flowers!”, what he’s doing is advocating the spiritual practice of wonder, which almost always, in my experience, leads to the fruits of appreciation and joy – the opposite of worry.

In a world that is obsessed with efficiency and productivity and acquisitiveness and making sure that I have mine, disciples are called to live with the freedom that says that it is not up to us. We are not the first movers, the prime actors, or the ultimately responsible parties. We are followers. We are servants. We are companions. We learn this as we engage in the joy of exploring and wondering – by simply looking at that which surrounds us and seeking to be filled with awe as we contemplate its existence and joy as we see where it leads.

If you know much about me, you know that I have found the ability to engage in the discipline of wonder through immersing myself in the natural world. When I am able to slow down and remember that I am surrounded by a creation that is not mine to control, I am able to be grateful for that gift and to the One who is the Author of such a creation.

A friend passed along a little book entitled How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, and the British author captures my sense of wonder and awe well in this description of his encounter with a drab little bird in his backyard. Listen:

A Dunnock, or Hedge Sparrow - a "Little Brown Job", or "LBJ" if ever there was one in the birding world!

A Dunnock, or Hedge Sparrow – a “Little Brown Job”, or “LBJ” if ever there was one in the birding world!

…I came in from a hard January frost and a feeble winter sun. The sun didn’t do much for me, but it stirred the soul of a dunnock. A dunnock is perhaps the drabbest bird in Britain… a dunnish, brownish, smallish, skulking little thing… And he, ignoring the cold, was filled with a sudden excitement about the coming of the warmer weather. In that iron frost, he felt the tug of spring; and he sang his heart out as a result. It’s not a great song, compared with that nightingale on Walberswick marshes. It’s not a special bird, in terms of peak experiences; I’d come in telling everybody about my hobby, but I wouldn’t take up anybody’s time with a dunnock moment.

But there he was against the cold blue sky, every feather picked out by the low winter sun as he sang his song of spring and gave it absolutely everything. It was a song that made the whole day better. A common bird; a rare moment.[2]

Do you see? I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said “Consider the birds” – look for ways to be engaged with the world that point you to wonder and awe.

As I’ve said, for me, that means taking a walk or working in the garden. Maybe that helps you wonder, too. If not, here are a few other ideas:

  • plant a seed, preferably with the assistance of a child. Watch. Wait. Repeat.
  • turn off the talk radio and the 24 hour news channels, which are entire industries built on instilling worry and anxiety in people like us.
  • try your hand at baking a loaf of bread
  • take some photos – or just look at some
  • the next cobweb you find – look at it carefully. Consider how intricate, how frail, how temporary – how wonderful – it is.
  • if you have access to a pregnant friend, look at her belly. Touch it. Marvel at the gift of life (warning: make sure that this person is a) a really good friend and b) has given you permission. If you don’t, it’s at least really, really creepy and probably illegal as well!)

In short, stop to consider all of the breathtakingly amazing stuff that happens every single day for which you have absolutely ZERO responsibility and over which you have no control.

KidneyYou may recall that math and science are not the things at which I’m best. In fact, most of my teachers spent a great deal of time suggesting that I major in English or Social Studies of some sort. And yet the single best lecture I’ve ever heard was in my required biology course at Geneva College, where Dr. Calvin Freeman spoke for three hours on the topic of “The Renal Cell Structure as it Reflects the Glory of God.” In that talk, Dr. Freeman spent two afternoons describing for us in painstaking detail the ways that the cells in our kidneys were structured and how they functioned. His point was that if we never had the book of Genesis, if we never read a word of the Creation, even then we could ascertain the power and majesty of the Creator simply by looking at and learning from the Creation. Dr. Freeman taught me about wonder, and I’ve always been grateful for that.

Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies, Stanley Spencer, 1939

Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies, Stanley Spencer, 1939

When we wonder, we are more free to be involved in and interested in this thing that is greater than we are; when we consider that for which we are not responsible, we are better equipped to do what we can to participate in the world that is bigger than we are. As we discover the work, the care, the beauty of the source of all life, we are increasingly free to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness – two other things that are not ours to manipulate or purchase.

Consider the birds… Look at the lilies… In admiring and appreciating that which is not ours to control, command, produce, or achieve – it becomes easier to use what we do have and who we are becoming in ways that are congruent with God’s purposes for us, our neighbor, and the world.

You’ll see a lot in the next few days, I suspect, about “Earth Day.” You’ll hear about the weather. You’ll probably rejoice in or complain about it. The pollen will have you sneezing or itching. The birds are on the move. Notice this, people of God. Notice it. And give thanks. And live like it matters, not just to you, but to your neighbor and to the One who gave it to us, and the One who takes great delight in it and in you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] These and other instances of quote-mining can be found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_quoting_out_of_context#cite_note-7

[2] From How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, Simon Barnes (Pantheon, 2005). I don’t have a page number because my copy has gone missing; this quote was found here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1176663883