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

2015 Malawi #6

If you’ve been following this journey, you know that the weekend was a rigorous exercise in missionary activity – we spent a great deal of time in conversation with our hosts, in meeting and greeting neighbors in churches and prayer houses, and bouncing across some pretty questionable roads in bone-jarring fashion. When I told the team that I said that they looked as if they’d been “rode hard and put away wet”, some of them suggested that I was speaking gibberish and that perhaps I should offer an interpretation in common English. Fine. From The Urban Dictionary:

The way someone looks or feels when they’ve had a hard time of it. From a horseman’s term, when someone has not taken care of a horse after a hard day.

He was all hot and sweaty, he looks like he was rode hard and put away wet.

The fact of the matter is that our team was beat. And when you’re worn out, what’s better than toting fifty pounds of luggage into the bus and riding on more of the same roads for twenty minutes – I mean, four hours? But that’s what we did, with the promise of some rest and restoration in the form of a retreat on the shores of Lake Malawi.

Our team is greeted at Naming'azi Farm Training Centre

Our team is greeted at Naming’azi Farm Training Centre

Before we arrived, though, we made a couple of stops. The scheduled stop was at the Naming’azi Farm Training Centre, a ministry of the Synod of Blantyre. Here, local farmers are invited to receive training in more sustainable and fruitful agricultural techniques. From composting to fruit-tree grafting to animal husbandry practices, the staff at Naming’azi are seeking to provide village farmers with new (or sometimes ancient) tools with which to ply their craft. It was a great opportunity for the group to see the Synod’s engagement, and we were particularly encouraged by the ways in which Naming’azi has partnered with other NGO’s (non-government organizations) to make goats available to local villagers. As we left the farm, Vanessa and I talked about the fact that a hundred and thirty years ago, the missionaries showed up and built churches, schools, and hospitals. My sense is that in many ways, the missionaries of the next fifty years will need to start farms – places where we can learn and re-learn the practice of stewardship of creation and gratitude for life. Perhaps when the Kingdom comes, it will look a little bit like Naming’azi.

Randy and John relaxing at the Farm

Randy and John relaxing at the Farm

Naming'azi Farm sits in the shadow of the Zomba Plateau

Naming’azi Farm sits in the shadow of the Zomba Plateau

One thing that has not changed about Malawi for centuries is the need for fuel to cook the family meals.

One thing that has not changed about Malawi for centuries is the need for fuel to cook the family meals.

Elephants&BoatBecause our trip to the farm took more time than we expected, we made a second stop. We pulled into the Hippo View Lodge at Liwonde for lunch, and although the iconic “river horses” were missing in action, we were treated to a view of a family of elephants stopping by the river for a quick drink. It was a joy to watch the team appreciate these enormous beauties, and I also was delighted to walk up and down the riverbank sharing my binoculars with families who had none. The awe and majesty of nature was clearly on display.

 

We arrived at the Boadzulu Lodge (“a place to call home”) in time for a warm dinner and vibrant devotions (led by Deac).

Gabe enjoys a sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Gabe enjoys a sunrise over Lake Malawi.

I found a pair of Lilac-Breasted Rollers!

I found a pair of Lilac-Breasted Rollers!

IMG_7618

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This morning we awoke and traveled to Cape MacLear, where we were privileged to board a couple of small boats and see the amazing diversity of fish in Lake Malawi. One source indicates that Lake Malawi itself has more species of fish than all of the rivers and lakes in North America and Europe combined. A highlight was having the opportunity to watch several African Fish Eagles swoop down and grab their lunch from the water!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lake Malawi Cichlids

Lake Malawi Cichlids

Lake Malawi Cichlids

An African Fish Eagle takes his lunch before our eyes.

An African Fish Eagle takes his lunch before our eyes.

Enjoying the island off Cape MacLear.

Sharon enjoying the island off Cape MacLear.

Pastor Angelo and Elder Daniel get a review of the Partnership.

Pastor Angelo and Elder Daniel get a review of the Partnership.

The afternoon was spent relaxing, and quite a few naps were taken. I spent some time with members of the South Sudan delegation, trying to catch them up on 24 years of partnership history and tradition and give them a chance to assess how and where the SSPEC might be appropriately invested in this relationship.

 

 

DancerOur “day off” was completed by a festive meal attended by several representatives from the Mangochi Presbytery. We were then treated to a performance by a group of young people featuring traditional Yao dancing, drumming, and costumes. This was our best chance at spending some “down” time together as we prepare to be separated to our sister congregations on Wednesday. Bananagrams is an international sensation, and several times the Americans got “schooled” by our host, Jatto, whose command of the English language is amazing. It was a blessed day.

I have to say, Sarajane takes no prisoners when it comes to Bananagrams!

I have to say, Sarajane takes no prisoners when it comes to Bananagrams!

Texas Mission 2015 #1

Each year for nearly a decade, the Crafton Heights Church has sent a group of adults to the Rio Grande Valley in Southern Texas to share in a week of fellowship, growth, and service with God’s people there.  Along the way, we’ve established partnerships with First Presbyterian Church of Mission, TX and Solomon’s Porch Faith Community in San Juan, TX.

The gang at the Crossroads BBQ

The gang at the Crossroads BBQ

We left Pittsburgh on February 21, about half an hour before the snow made things miserable.  After several uneventful flights, we found ourselves in the 86° temps of San Antonio, from whence we began the 250 mile trek to Mission, TX.  Along the way, we found time to stop at the Crossroad Bar-B-Que, where we’ve received a warm welcome in years past.  Let’s just say that our friends did not disappoint!

Sunday, our first full day, was spent largely reconnecting with our church partners.  I was privileged to preach at the 8:30 & 10:30 services for First Presbyterian as well as at the 11:30 service for Solomon’s Porch.  It was a real honor to bring to our sisters and brothers here the news of the church in South Sudan.  Both congregations were gracious in their reception of our team and my messages.

At the First Presbyterian Church in Mission

At the First Presbyterian Church in Mission

This year, Gabe Kish led our team in producing banners to share with our church partners, and we presented them in worship at each congregation.  By mid-afternoon, when our day was getting full, the folk at Solomon’s Porch blessed us with a delicious Mexican feast for lunch.

Following the meal, we split up, and Tim, Jon and I went to the nearby Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge whilst the rest of the team headed a bit further east to visit the Gulf of Mexico and South Padre Island.  This afternoon time was a real gift as we enjoyed the amazing weather and took a break from Pittsburgh – we feel like we are really here now.  It’s a good way to start the week!

Presenting the banner at First Presbyterian

Presenting the banner at First Presbyterian

With the Solomon's Porch Faith Community

With the Solomon’s Porch Faith Community

Tim with some young friends at Solomon's Porch.

Tim with some young friends at Solomon’s Porch.

The Gulf of Mexico… And a fine crew!

The obligatory shot of the Rio Grande River, with Mexico in the background.

The obligatory shot of the Rio Grande River, with Mexico in the background.

The Texas Green Jay

The Texas Green Jay

Altamira Oriole

Altamira Oriole

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee

 

 

 

 

A Mixed Bag

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On September 7, 2014 our readings came from Luke 12:22-25 and Psalm 37:1-7

Have you ever noticed how when two people describe the same event, there are almost always some subtle differences between the two accounts – small details that reveal the biases of the person who is telling the tale? I might mention that on a late night outing to do some mission trip planning, we shared a pizza. Someone else might describe the same trip and say that Pastor Dave ate five pieces and everyone else had one. It’s the same information, more or less, but the omission or addition of detail reflects the different emphases of the storyteller, and perhaps influences the way the story is heard.

The men who wrote our Gospels are the same way. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each chooses to include some details and leave others out. When we look at what they mention and what they don’t, we can guess some of their priorities.

St. Luke, Frans Hals (1625)

I thought about that as I read today’s scripture reading, and about how much more I tend to enjoy Luke’s writing than I do that of Matthew. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not down on Matthew. You can be sure that you’ll be hearing from him in the months to come. But I simply love the way that Luke takes every opportunity he gets to tell the story of Jesus from the vantage point of the underdog.

When Matthew wrote his Gospel, it was directed primarily towards educated Jews who had become believers in Jesus – people who could be considered “insiders” in some important ways. A few years later, Luke wrote the Gospel that bears his name with an eye towards gentiles who had heard about this Jewish messiah, Jesus, and wanted to follow him. Luke’s readers are often those who are on the outside looking in.

To give you a sense of how these differences are reflected in their writing, consider the fact that when Matthew is giving us Jesus’ “family tree”, he traces it back to Abraham, the “father” of the Jewish nation. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus has come to save “us”! But when Luke presents a genealogy, he goes all the way back to Adam, indicating that Jesus is here to offer salvation to everyone.

Matthew tells us that Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” opening up a can of worms as to what it means to be poor in spirit. Luke simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor.”

feederbirdsMatthew remembers the day that Jesus was preaching about trusting God, and he says that Jesus reminds us to “consider the birds of the air”. That lacks specificity, and, if you’re like me, you hear someone asking you to think about birds and you think of small, beautiful, brightly-colored and dainty creatures. Inoffensive, happy, chirping little companions who have come to brighten up your day. Jesus says that God feeds and cares for these birds and you think, “Well, why wouldn’t he? I put out a little birdseed myself every now and then. They are just so fun to watch…”

Yet when Luke remembers this story of Jesus’ teaching, he points out that Jesus said, “consider the ravens.” Well. Hmmm. That changes the old mental picture a little bit, doesn’t it? If you stop to consider one of these birds for a moment or two, I’m pretty sure that “dainty” or “beautiful” are not words that will come to mind. What is his point?

The Common Raven

The Common Raven

Well, let’s consider the raven. According to Leviticus, it’s an unclean animal. Many in the ancient world taught that the raven was a cursed beast; some say that ravens were white when Noah took a pair of them onto the ark with him, but when that bird proved to be unhelpful to him, God ordered that all of its offspring wear the color of coal. A few ancient rabbis taught that this curse was given because the raven feasted on the flesh of the corpses of those who had died in the flood, and of course when we see ravens today it’s often because they are scavenging roadkill. Ravens are described as menacing, and are associated with death and desolation. In some cultural fables, the raven is associated with gluttony, and in fact if I want to tell you how hungry I am, I will say that I am simply “ravenous”.

On the other hand, though, ravens are one of the few birds known to relate intentionally with mammals. In many parts of the wilderness, ravens and wolves travel together, and the ravens can be seen actually playing with wolf cubs. Similarly, ravens have been taught to speak. While it is true that a raven turned its back on Noah and the occupants of the ark, Elijah, the prophet of God, was saved from starvation when these birds brought him sustenance.

Not only that, but the raven is an incredibly intelligent creature. Studies have shown that these birds can learn, will use logic to figure out puzzles and tests, and can recognize individual human faces as well as remembering specific birds for at least three years.

Consider the raven. A large, intelligent, ominous creature. One that has the potential to partner with wolves or rescue prophets. A creature with an enormous capacity and an even larger desire. The raven is truly a mixed bag, isn’t it?

Does anything sound familiar here? Are not the ravens far more like us than we are like the juncos or hummingbirds or cardinals? Are we not creatures who know something about what it means to be capable of great good and terrible harm? Of, shall I say, ravenous capacity for that which brings life as well as that which would kill?

In Consider the Birds, Debbie Blue writes

They are scavengers. They are ravenous. They rave…you can see the dark in its eyes. And God feeds it.
It’s one thing to believe that God feeds the little pretty birds of the air. They have small appetites. They need a few seeds. Everybody loves them. It’s not that much to feed. They do not seem needy. But what if you’re ravenous?
Is the hope that God will feed you as long as you’re not that hungry, as long as you don’t need that much? God will feed you, sure – if you have the appetite of a little dove, as long as all you need is seeds, dry little seeds? The hope is not so proscribed.
God feeds the ravens, the ravenous, the mixed-up greedy gluttonous carrion eater. That’s saying a lot more, somehow, something more shocking, maybe, than that God’s willing to give bird food to light eaters. And how much more will God feed us? We need a lot. A lot of food and attention and love and healing. The world needs a lot. And I don’t think I usually believe that God will feed us all. Jesus seems crazy here to me, unreliable, like, how can we even listen to him here? How can we model ourselves on the raven, the lilies – it’s lunacy to ask us to believe we will be fed.[1]

That’s why I like Luke so much: because he is daring us to believe great things about God and God’s care for and in our lives.

Jesus doesn’t like you better if you know all the verses to all the songs they play on K-Love. Jesus doesn’t care if you feel particularly holy or if you feel so overwhelmed by the problems of the world that you’re not sure what to do next. God’s not asking us to be polite, or to be beautiful, or to smell nice or to have sensible diets.

What Jesus is telling us is that God wants us to trust him. It’s OK, says God. Just settle down and listen for a moment. Relax. Let me take care of things.

A Raven

A Raven

Maybe we are, in our heart of hearts, ravens. We know that we are a mixed bag; that we can be too smart for our own good sometimes and that we are willing to scavenge for whatever scraps we can find laying around. We sometimes choose to run with the wolf pack and share in the kill, and yet we have it in us to befriend prophets and love our neighbor, too. Maybe some days we get out of bed and we look ourselves in the mirror and we realize that we are sleek, dark, shifty creatures who can’t always be trusted to do the right thing, and who are afraid, in our heart of hearts, that we aren’t good enough – for God, for each other, or for ourselves. And so we pretend to be juncos or goldfinches or hummingbirds instead.

What if somehow, some way, we were able to believe for an hour or two that God really will take care of us? What if we could stop pretending long enough to listen to what Jesus is saying, and to trust that God does long to shape us according to his purposes?

If we could approach life with that kind of trust in the One who made us, then maybe it would be a little easier to care about other people, and to cut people a break when they need it. If we wasted less time and energy pretending to be something we’re not, then maybe we’d have more enthusiasm for seeking justice and peace in the world.

If we could believe that God was truly holding tight to us, and to those whom we love, then maybe we could loosen our grip on our children and grandchildren and be less inclined to hover over or smother those with whom God has entrusted us.

TrustGodIf we could trust that God is willing to give us what we need, then maybe we’d be more likely to recognize the gifts of God when they show up in our lives, and it’d be a little easier to offer what we have and who we are to those who surround us.

Yeah, I hear you, Pastor Dave, but I’m starting a new job. I had to change schools last week. My kid is riding the BUS now. I haven’t had a regular paycheck for three years. They shut off my gas. I’m not sure my wife loves me anymore. You can talk all you want about trust, Pastor Dave, but I’m falling apart here. Do you know what will happen if I can’t hold it together?

Luke gives it to us straight: consider the ravens. Look at those things, and all that is true about them. God made them. God cares for them. God is present with them. How much more, then, is he with and for you?

Believe that. Accept that. And be with and for God. And be with and for those people who are sitting all around you – and those who are afraid to come into this room – so that they, too, might know – and trust – the embrace of God.

[1]  Consider the Birds (Abingdon, 2013), pp. 201-202.

A Hen in the Fox House

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 31, 2014 our readings came from Luke 13:31-35 and I Corinthians 1:18-31

What’s your favorite animal? If you could not be yourself, but had to choose instead to be another creature, what would it be?

Maybe you’ve seen some of those surveys that come across online: “Which superhero are you?”, or “Which city in the world should you live in?”

In the interest of researching this message, I took three online quizzes, each of which promised to tell me which animal I was most like, or from which I derived the most power. I’m here to report that I am an elephant. Or a butterfly. Or an owl, wild dog, or prairie dog (I think I threw one of the quizzes for a loop). I can own those choices, as different as they may be from each other.

If we can trust the Bible and the testimony of the church, Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, was pre-existent with God the Father. That is to say, the person of Christ was present with God the Father and was, in fact, an agent of the creation. According to the Gospel of John, “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (1:3). So Jesus came up with the ideas for the animals. Which animal was Jesus’ favorite?

I don’t know if we can answer that question. But I do know the one with which he compared himself: the hen. You heard it from Luke’s Gospel a moment ago.

chicken-and-her-babiesHave you ever taken one of those on-line quizzes and not liked the result, so you go back and answer it differently? “Oh, no, I can’t possibly be like that, I better check my answers…” Can you hear Jesus’ friends? “Whoa, Jesus, careful now. That just doesn’t sound right…a messiah like you? A chicken? No way, man…”

Last week, we talked about the rooster, and how around the world, it is a symbol for all that is strong, virile, and powerful. But that’s a rooster. That’s a cock.

If you’re a chicken, what are you? You’re weak. Afraid. Powerless. It’s a playground taunt, isn’t it? If you want to goad someone into doing something that they aren’t sure they want to do, how do you do it? You call them “chicken”. You belittle them by comparing them to a hen…which Jesus says he is like…

HenThe gallus gallus domesticus with which we are familiar is a descendant of the Red Junglefowl. There are more than twenty billion of these birds on the planet today, making the chicken the most abundant bird on earth.[1] Everyone, everywhere, knows chicken. In fact, when my friend John was traveling to exotic places in the world as a part of his work with PPG, I overheard him answer a question about his diet by saying, “I haven’t ever been to a place where they don’t serve chicken.” And that’s been my experience too (although I have eaten it in some very unusual ways, and I’ve certainly eaten parts of it that I’ve yet to find in American stores!).

If the chicken is the most common bird on earth, it may also be the most abused. In our quest for cheap eggs and lots of white meat and inexpensive fried chicken, we have created giant factory farms where millions of birds are kept in tiny boxes, with their beaks cut off, laying eggs onto conveyor belts as quickly as they can until they are considered “spent” and then destroyed. We do horrible things to these birds.

And if it’s not the most abused animal, I would at least suggest that it is the most taken for granted. Not many people think that much about chickens, but most of us have some interaction with them most days.

And if chickens are abused and omnipresent and taken for granted, well then, maybe it is easier to see how Jesus would compare himself to these birds.

Debbie Blue writes in Consider the Birds,

           In Christian art, Jesus is represented more often as a lion or an eagle than a hen, even though he himself gives us the image: Jesus as chicken. Did the church veer away from this representation from the beginning because it was too emasculating? However Jesus thought of himself, or the revelation from God he embodied…we’d like to think of him as big and strong and awesomely powerful…
Christ does not come in power. This is a truth so deeply embedded in our narratives of him that it is hard to get away from – no matter how we might try. He comes as a baby. He is baptized by John. He heals some people, but he doesn’t even come close to being as effective as the smallpox vaccine… Jesus doesn’t dine with the emperor or slay dragons…
Jesus doesn’t make power plays.

Every time there’s a choice, the smart money is always bet on the Herods of the world. When Jesus is warned about the fact that all his talk about the Kingdom of God is making the Establishment Ruler very unhappy, Jesus calls Herod a fox. The fox is a clever, wily, opportunistic, and violent killer. That sounds about like what we know of Herod.

And in his next breath, Jesus compares himself to a hen. Herod is a fox, and I’m a hen, says Jesus.

If you know many children’s stories or fables, you can see where this is going. The image of the fox in the henhouse is a staple of folklore, and it’s a way of conveying the fact that, given half a chance, people will exploit situations or each other to their own ends.

Fox in a Chicken Yard - Jean-Baptiste Marie Huet 1766

Fox in a Chicken Yard – Jean-Baptiste Marie Huet 1766

When we say that there’s a fox in the henhouse, we generally mean that there’s a predator afoot: your shady brother-in-law was just named power of attorney for your parents, or the industry lobbyist has been appointed to develop government policy, or a four year old has just volunteered to guard your pile of candy.

The fox gets into the henhouse. In spite of how we try, that’s the way of the world. It happens. Most days, much of our experience has something to do with foxes running amok in henhouses.

And then Jesus turns that on its head, and says that his way of life is more like the hen in a fox house. Jesus looks at Herod and at those who would try to warn him to keep his distance and says, essentially, “Yep. The world is a violent, scary, sleazy, and dangerous place. But I am not going to allow those things to change my nature. Tell Herod that this hen is right here.”

The way of Jesus is summarized in a poem written by Kent Keith. Mother Theresa thought so much of this that she had a copy hanging on her wall in Calcutta. It’s called The Paradoxical Commandments :

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.

Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.

Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.

Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.

Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.

Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.

Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.

Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.

Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.

Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.

Give the world the best you have anyway.

The Apostle Paul saw that the power of Christ was the power of love, and he recognized that it was a weak and foolish power when contrasted with the things that often typify our world. And yet he claimed that at the end of the day, love was the only power that mattered.

It doesn’t make sense. Somehow, the mathematics of the cross and the empty grave add up to more than the total of evil and violence in the world – but it’s hard to see that on some days.

In fact, in my experience, those who demand proof of this truth are rarely convinced, because love looks so powerless when compared with hate.

But when people experience this firsthand, they know.

The power of the hen to which Jesus compared himself is not the power of force of arms or might. It is not the power of violence or brute strength. No, the hen’s power is that which shields the vulnerable and protects the weak. The hen’s strength comes in her willingness to place herself between her children and anything that would threaten them. It is the power of love.

Today, the call of the Gospel is for the people of God to ask for that power to infect our hearts. To ask the Giver of all gifts to invade our lives with this kind of power.

In this power, we will find that we are able to look at young brown men and remember that they were created fearfully and wonderfully and are called to live in humility and service. In this same power, we will find that we are able to look at police officers and remember that each of them was created fearfully and wonderfully and is called to live in humility and service.

The way of the world is the love of power. The way of the world is to look at people and see a type. All cops are jackbooted thugs. All young men of color are gangbangers with no regard for other people.

The way of Jesus is the power of love. The way of Jesus is to look beyond type and see individuals. To believe and to remember that each of us carries within us a spark of the Holy, and to call forth that spark from those with whom we relate and to display that spark in our own lives.

We are more accustomed to the way of the world. We are used to seeing the fox in charge of the henhouse. It’s predictable and reliable, and a safe bet to say that the rich will get richer, the weak will become weaker, and those on the margins will be pushed further out and eventually over the edge. That makes sense to us. It’s logical.

Yet Jesus and Paul call us to a new reality in which the power of love is central. Life in this reality calls forth a new culture, and demands new language and fresh habits. And, like any new culture, it will take time to learn, and it is more readily learned when adopted by a community that is willing to reinforce the core truths of that reality on a daily basis. We need each other to model this power of love because it is so easy to forget.

You see, when you look up information on the fox, you’ll find that it’s described as a solitary, opportunistic feeder that hunts live prey.[2] The fox is on his own, and in it for himself.

Yet the hen is a complex social animal that lives in and relates with a group. Hens exist in the community of the flock. They need each other.

Let me invite you to join in this new reality by remembering today that you are surrounded by the love of God. You are shielded by the arms of Christ. You are enfolded deep within his heart. And let me remind you that you are sent out into the world as an agent of that love. Together, we are called to be a demonstration of that love.

And for me, at this point in our story, demonstrating that love needs to involve being closely attuned to the stories of all those who might be lumped into a category or a type and refusing to treat them, first and foremost, as that category or type. Being a hen in the foxhouse means standing with those who are vulnerable. It might even mean standing between those who are vulnerable and those who would wield power unjustly or inflict harm. It means love.

Jesus isn’t naïve. He knows exactly what will happen. “Go tell that fox where he can find me.” He knows what’s going to happen later that same week, when the powers that be string Jesus up. But Jesus also knows what’s going to happen at the end of the story, where somehow being a hen in a foxhouse is the Godly thing to do.

I know, it sounds crazy. But it just might work. So far as I know, this kind of love, this kind of hen in the foxhouse lifestyle, is the only means by which death has been defeated. That’s good enough for me. Now, hold me to it. Amen.

[1] http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/08/peak-chicken

[2] http://www.worldanimalfoundation.net/f/Fox.pdf

I’ve Got This…

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 24, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 26.  

morning roosterWhat’s the one thing that everyone knows about roosters? They crow when the sun comes up, right? That’s what roosters do.

Right. Sort of. I had my first rooster encounter in the summer of 1993, when the mission team I led to Mexico spent a week in a small village where everyone raised chickens. I learned there that roosters crow at daybreak. They also crow half an hour before daybreak. And at noon. And as dusk settles. They crow when the Steelers win and when the Browns get the first round draft choice. One would be correct to say that roosters crow at sunrise. One would be more correct to say that roosters just don’t stop crowing. After living in that village for a week, and having sleep disturbed for six days, I never saw a group of people tear into a chicken dinner the way that team dove at the barbeque on the Friday night of that mission trip…

Roosters don’t crow to tell you the time. Roosters crow because they want you – and the hens – to notice them. They crow because they can. They crow because they want to mate. They crow because they want other roosters to know they’re around, and who’s the at the top of the pecking order.

Five years later, while living for the summer in Africa, I discovered how violent these birds can be. Every now and then, we’d go to a worship service and be presented with a live chicken for our troubles. Most times, we’d bring the hen home and put it with the others and all would be well.

One day, though, we received a beautiful cock. I mean, he was fierce and proud looking and decked out with just about every color of the rainbow. I brought him home and threw him in with the other chickens. About an hour later, I heard a tremendous disturbance. I went to the chicken coop and saw the new bird attacking the resident rooster. There was blood everywhere, and both birds were pretty beat up. We had to choose one rooster to keep and one to eat, or they’d both be dead.

The Cock Fight (1885), Winslow Homer

The Cock Fight (1885), Winslow Homer

Cock fighting is perhaps the world’s oldest spectator sport, and dates back at least 6000 years. Although it’s illegal in all fifty states, there are many places around the world where specially-trained birds enter a ring and attack each other until one of them dies. From Indonesia to Central America to parts of Europe, men (and it’s almost always men) crowd around and place bets on these birds as they seek to destroy each other. A winning cock will often stand upon its dead opponent and crow loudly. For millennia, the cock has been a symbol of power, arrogance, machismo, strength, and dominance.

In fact, when we say that someone is acting “cocky”, we are communicating our opinion that someone is a little too proud of him or herself; that he or she is overbold, overconfident, overly proud.

In Consider the Birds, Debbie Blue points out that there is a lot of cockiness written all over the Last Supper. For some time, Jesus has been telling his friends that he is marching towards his own death. The kingdom that he announces is in such conflict with both the political and religious establishment that they will have no choice but to kill him – and he wants everyone to know that he is laying his life down of his own free will.

"The Last Supper" (detail) (c. 1530) Joos van Cleve

The Last Supper (detail) (c. 1530) Joos van Cleve

The disciples, however, won’t have any of this. They can’t figure out what is wrong with Jesus, and when given half a chance, they engage in remarkably cocky behavior. While he is telling them the most important things in the world, they are arguing about which of them is the greatest. After they share the Eucharist, Jesus leads them out to the Mount of Olives where he predicts that they will be scattered as he faces his death, and Peter just won’t shut up. “No, Lord, not me! The rest of these losers? Well, I can’t make any promises about them, but I’m your man! I’ve got your back! We can take these guys, Jesus!”

And Jesus says, famously, “Peter, before the cock crows tonight, you’ll deny me not once, but three times.” In other words, you will crumble in no time, my friend.

But Peter just preens and struts a little more: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, you’re a nice guy, but you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You and me, Jesus. I’m here for you, man. I’ve got this, Jesus.” It is a defining moment in his life!

Let me ask the women in the congregation this morning: how many of you have ever, even once, heard a man announce a plan of action that made you cringe and say, “What are you thinking? Are you sure?”, only to be met with the response, “It’s OK, honey. I’ve got this.

What is it about the male of our species that leads us to place such undeserved trust in our own abilities? From “Look, Ma, no hands!” to rewiring the house by ourselves to driving down the street holding the mattress on the car roof with one piece of twine and our bare hands, we are fools, are we not?

And while I’ve had a little fun at the expense of the men, I won’t call out the women on this one but simply say that pride and arrogance are not gender-specific, are they?

Where did that pride, that arrogance, that cockiness get Peter?

The Repentance of Peter (Carl Bloch, 1834-1890)

The Repentance of Peter (Carl Bloch, 1834-1890)

You know what happened. It is one of the most tragic stories in the Bible. The same night that he professes his ultimate allegiance and undying loyalty to Jesus, he denies him not once, not twice, but three times. In one of the saddest moments of the gospels, Peter turns his back on the one that he loves.

Look, say what you want to about Peter. He’s a hot-headed racist and sexist who can’t keep his mouth shut…but he loves Jesus. He’s clueless and arrogant and full of himself… but he loves Jesus. And here, on the worst night of his life, he publicly declares that he’s never met, never even heard of Jesus.

And just as he finishes his final lie, the cock crows and he remembers the words of his friend. Isn’t that the most pathetic thing you’ve heard all morning?

The last time that Peter is mentioned in the gospel of Matthew is this scene, where the strong, virile, cocky fisherman is huddled, bawling like a baby, as dead as the loser in a cockfight, while pride and masculinity and power crow out their victory over top of his slumping form.

At this moment, Peter is lost. He is bereft. He is alone. He is nothing. His pride has cost him everything.

Do you know how that feels? Can you imagine it? In recent months, I have had the opportunity and responsibility of walking with a few people who have been publicly disgraced. These are men whose worst acts and most ill-considered decisions have become public knowledge. Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone knew the worst thing about you?

What is the opposite of pride? It seems to me that it is shame. Pride feels good. When we tell our children to “stand up and make us proud!”, we want them to feel strong, to be energized, to have a sense of control in their lives.

And shame? Shame is demoralizing. It makes you weak and impotent. You are embarrassed and paralyzed and afraid. Shame will kill you if you let it.

And sometimes, when we are considering a polarity like this, with Pride over here and Shame over there, we say, “Well, heck! If pride feels good and shame feels bad, if pride makes me strong and shame makes me weak, then give me some of that there pride!”

And so we move towards pride and esteem and, well, cockiness. We strutt our stuff. We want people to notice us and to like what they see. We want to be the best we can be, and to be recognized as such.

But here’s the secret: pride kills too. Shame will, as I’ve said, kill you if you let it. But pride will kill you every time. Every time.

What are we to do, then? If we’re stuck between two poles, each of which will kill us, how can we move?

We can follow Jesus. Jesus lays out a third way for us. The author of the book of Hebrews describes an action plan in this way:

…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb. 12:1-2)

Jesus refused to serve pride and did not fear shame. He walked in humility and confidence the path that God had set out for him.

I know that some will hear me use the word “humility” and think of “humiliation”, which sounds an awful lot like “shame” to us. That’s not what I mean. I understand “humility” to mean a realistic assessment of yourself, gathered with the input of God, your community, and your own observations.

Sometimes in our world, being humble means walking around saying, “Aw, shucks, it’s nothing, really…” Which, of course, prompts people to say, “No, wow, that’s amazing! You really are great!”, which, of course, pumps you up, so that at the end of the day, you feel…PROUD. That’s not humility.

In essence, being humble is recognizing that you are who you are. You are probably reasonably good at a couple of things, and you struggle mightily with others. You are strong in a few places, and ridiculously close to your breaking point in others. You know those things about yourself and while you work to improve, you accept yourself. You even love that self.

A humble person knows all those things about her or himself and treats other people as though those things are true of them, too. You can accept and love those people, too.

Debbie Blue says this about Peter:

At the end of the Gospel stories, Peter is not strutting like a cock. He weeps…we glimpse a different side of Peter than the one he has tried to project. He is not made as fierce as possible as a disciple of Jesus. He is not trained to put on a good show in the ring. Jesus is not this kind of trainer. He does not impress us with his ability to do violence to others. He lays down his life, his sword – he walks out of the ring, so that we may likewise be free to do so. Imagine the space that might open up outside the sphere of competition, what might grow outside the confines of the ring.[1]

Listen: every day, the world does its level best to convince you that life is a cockfight. It tries to make you believe that your only choices are to be violent, arrogant, vindictive, and proud or weak, powerless, impotent, and ashamed.

The God we have gathered to worship this day taps you on the shoulder and invites you to consider an alternative reality – to wake up, if you will, in a new day. A way of living wherein we are gentle with ourselves and with others; a place where we are glad to see beauty where it exists and in whom it is present; a lifestyle in which we are quick to forgive and willing to believe the best about ourselves and each other; a community in which when brokenness is revealed we are able to point to the healing that comes from the cross.

May we call ourselves and each other to this way, today and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013) pp. 167-168.