Trumpet (Trombone) Lessons

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered in worship to consider the mystery of the resurrection of the body that is so central to the Christian faith.  Our texts included Job 19:23-27 and I Corinthians 15:50-58.  You can read the manuscript, and you can also click on the arrow on the left of the bar just below this paragraph to hear the sermon as recorded in worship on April 2, 2017. 

If you are unable to hear the sermon by clicking on the bar above, please visit https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/sermon04-02-17.mp3  Ignore the rather confused older man speaking in the beginning of the recording.  I’m sure he means well.  He’s a nice guy, and mostly harmless.

I have a confession to make.

For a minister, I don’t talk about heaven very much. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable.

There are a few reasons for that. For starters, I’m really wary of what might be termed a “transactional faith”, in which I try to boil the entire message of the scripture to a simple exchange wherein I insist that Jesus came and lived and died and rose again so that I could get my sorry butt into heaven when I die. I know, it doesn’t sound that great when I say it like that, but the truth is that’s what a lot of us believe and you can visit any Christian bookstore in the world and find volumes and volumes written from that particular perspective. Jesus came to save my soul from the fires of hell. Amen. I think that there has to be more to it than that.

Another reason I don’t like to talk about heaven too much is that I find myself agreeing with famed American author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who once complained that “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” You know people like that – they are so set on getting pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye that they can’t be trusted to do the shopping or clean up from the youth group meeting…

And lastly, I think I don’t often bring up heaven because I’m pretty sure that I don’t really understand it all that well. Is heaven a real place? What happens to us when we die? Our bodies decompose and fade away… but what happens to the “us” that is “us”? I mean, you can send out a tweet that makes heaven sound pretty good, but the more you think about it, the more questions we face…

Detail from School of Athens, Raphael (1509-1511)

When I was a child, there was an old lithograph that hung above the sofa in the living room. We weren’t usually allowed to spend much time in that room – it was for the grownups – but I’ll always remember this image of “The School of Athens.” In it, we see Plato and his star pupil, Aristotle. Aristotle is gesturing outward, indicating his belief that what truly matters is that which is tangible and can be empirically experienced. Plato, on the other hand, points to the heavens as he indicates that ultimate reality is always and only spiritual – the things that we think we see or experience here on earth are only shadowy forms of something more real or more true in the spiritual realm.

I’m not sure why my mother chose to hang that print there. It may be that there was a give-away at the grocery store and she had a blank spot on the wall. It may be that she had a soft spot for ancient philosophy of which I was unaware. But that image captures what was the dominant western mindset at the time the Bible was written: that to be human means that we possess a body and a soul. When we die, our body rots away, but our soul is freed for eternity. The soul is limited by the reality that the physical body imposes, and once death arrives our soul is finally able to achieve the state for which it was intended.

The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly parting with Life, William Blake (1813)

For too many Christians, that view has received a quick baptism and has become our dominant belief. We are born into this vale of tears and suffering, and for a while we do our best. But eventually, these bodies fail us and our spirits are freed to go to heaven where the troubles of the physical existence will be forgotten.

When we think about humans as having an immortal soul, we get into trouble. For one thing, that diminishes the significance of the bodies we’ve been given. If there is no value to the human form, then why bother to help those who are suffering through famine or natural disaster? I mean, if this life is so horrible, then why not rejoice when you get to leave it and go straight to heaven? And if this physical existence is not significant, then why should I care about climate change or pollution or the health of the planet?

If my immortal soul is the only thing that matters, then who gives a hoot about what I do with my body or to yours?

But you would say, I hope, that those things do matter. That the ways we interact with each other, the things we do with and to our bodies, and the ways we relate to the cosmos that surrounds us – they all matter.

Detail from Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (c.1512)

That is, I hope, because you’ve come to embrace the biblical truth that the notion of an immortal soul trapped in a decaying and virtueless body is simply a lie. When the Bible talks about how life came into being, we’re told that God scooped up some of the dust – which he’d already made and pronounced as “good” – and breathed into it the breath of life. When the breath of God met the dust of earth, the man was given nephesh – a life force. Neither the breath of God nor the dust of the earth is the totality of this experience of true life… our existence is the product of both these things.

Scripture is pretty clear about the value of our physical selves. Leaf through just about any book of the Bible and you’ll find laws about what God’s people should or should not eat, or wear, or do with their bodies. More than that, there are expectations as to how we treat each other and animals, too. We are even instructed to care for the earth.

All of this points to a value of the tangible, physical, corporeal self. The truth of scripture is that whatever makes you who you are is some combination of your body, your mind, and your heart.

That is to say, there is not some essential “Daveness” that can be isolated merely from the things that I think or feel. I am a white male human who has taken 56 trips around the sun. I have a lot of hair, high cholesterol, and a body mass index that is way too high according to that scary chart my doctor has hanging in his exam room. All of those things contribute to me knowing who I am. I am not, nor have I ever been, and nor will I ever be a “real” Dave that is tethered to an irrelevant bag of bones that my soul just has to cart around until I die.

The Bible teaches that the creation of all that is, seen and unseen, was beautiful and right and true… until somehow, it was not. That which was perfect became sullied and imperfect; things that were designed for life began to suffer death. But the Creator, not wanting to see the universe so twisted, began to talk of making things right. The means of this making things right is resurrection.

There is a current reality, which you and I are experiencing right now. You are aware of the hardness of your seat, the temperature of this room, and the effectiveness of your morning coffee. When this current reality has run its course, it will be replaced by a new reality that not only contains the essence of that which we know now, but fully matches the intentions of the Creator. The prophets all talked about the “new heavens and the new earth.”

Job pointed to this in the passage you heard a few moments ago. He was in the midst of pain and alienation and estrangement, and yet declared that somehow, in all of his Job-ness, he would encounter the Divine. He saw his flesh heading to destruction, but he trusted that such was not the end. There would be, in some fashion, a re-making.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, lays out a careful theology of resurrection. In chapter 15, he points to the resurrected Jesus as the indicator of that which is to come in all of creation. Using the analogy of a garden, he compares our current physical selves with seeds that undergo several transformational steps, and yet retain their full integrity at every stage.

For instance, I could show you a seed, a tree, a blossom, a piece of fruit, and a pie. If I were to ask, “What kind is this?”, the answer in every shape and form would be “apple.” The appearance and in fact the cell structure, aroma, sound – all would be different in each of these expressions of that which we call “apple”, but each of these is, undeniably, “apple.”

As a gardener and baker, I seek to be attentive to “apple” in whatever form I find it – treating each iteration of “apple” with attentiveness and respect even as I do what I can to appreciate what it is, what it has been, and what it might become. I can only be faithful with what I have in front of me at the moment and seek to create a future in which that which is now only potential might, in fact, be realized.

You and I, along with the entire created order, are, I believe, headed toward a reality in which beauty, grace, integrity, love, relationship, truth, worship, and God are all central. Those are things that matter forever. Our task, therefore, at this particular juncture of space and time, is to be attentive to those things in such a way that prepares us to experience eternal reality. We are called to practice those things in whatever way we can right now even while we wait for a fuller and richer understanding and experience of them in the future that God has prepared.

Listen: when I was in high school, I was hired to teach a young man named Billy how to play the trombone. Each week, I was given $7 to sit next to him on the piano bench in his living room. I showed him the positions of the slide, talked with him about his embouchure, and noted the importance of emptying the spit valve in appropriate places. I was a fair trombonist at the time, and the band in which I played won some renown.

That was forty years ago. I’m not sure I could find my trombone these days – but I know that it’s dusty and unused. I couldn’t tell you how spell embouchure to save my life. Yet if you were to Google my former student, you’d find that he’s a professional trombonist who has performed in many, many venues and led great musical ensembles.

Why?

Because he did what I stopped doing: he practiced. In 1977, I was a waaaaaaay better trombonist than Billy was. And yet today, he’s wearing tuxedos and blowing his horn in ways that he would not have believed then and I can only dream about now. Because he practiced.

“The trombone will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (I Cor. 15:53) I know, your translations say “trumpet”, but I’m convinced that there’s been an error in the Greek manuscripts…

The resurrection of the dead is not just some amazingly complicated mystery that preachers fall all over themselves to explain. It is where we are headed. And since it’s our future, I’d suggest that we practice resurrection living right now.

I know… we’re not very good at it all the time. We fail, and we try again. We fall, and we get back up. We sleep, and we are jolted awake. We suffer, and we look toward healing. Each of these is a mini-resurrection that is in some way preparing us for that which is to come.

In his amazingly profound book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson writes,

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

We are God’s people, called to practice God’s way of resurrection life. We do this all in the context of the relationships we have, using the bodies we’ve been given in the knowledge that one day our understanding and experience and our selves will be complete.

How does it work? I’m not sure, exactly.

But I want to keep practicing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up In Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12

For Crying Out Loud (Texas Mission 2015 #3)

While my wife and I were having dinner at a nice restaurant one evening,  we ran into a woman who had shared some pretty painful things with me in the past.  As we greeted each other, I asked how she’d been that day.  She burst into tears and asked if we could talk further at a later date.  Later, at a movie theatre, a similar scene unfolded with a different person.  When we got home, my wife said, “So how often do you have a conversation with people who simply start crying like that?”

Hey, it happens.

It happened today.  Wonderfully, beautifully, amazingly, today.

Sharing a meal with the family on whose home we are privileged to work.

Sharing a meal with the family on whose home we are privileged to work.

We are here along the Texas/Mexico border working with our friends at First Presbyterian Church of Mission and Solomon’s Porch Faith Community to help establish the poor in decent housing.  The welcome we have received has been inspiring, to say the least.  People are literally lining up to feed us, for one thing.  They are listening to our stories, and telling a few of theirs.  And smiling.  Oh, it is beautiful.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that God seems to care about bodies, the way that we care for them, and the ways that we are His body.  That theme emerged again today in marvelous ways.  Listen:

A meal like this puts a smile  on everyone's face!

A meal like this puts a smile on everyone’s face!

The homeowners of the small three bedroom house on which we are working asked if they could share a meal with us as a way to express their gratitude for the work that we’ve done.  Of course, the answer to that is always “YES!” The two families got together and fixed a huge dish of carne asada, arroz dojo, frijoles a la charr, and tortillas, along with home-made churro cookies.  If that was all that would have happened, it would’ve been enough.

After dinner, I asked one of the young women in the family, sixteen- or seventeen-year-old L, about the shirt she was wearing.  She told me about her high school (the source of the shirt) and then about how much she liked her church.  As she spoke, she made several references to the fact that no matter where they lived, she felt like it was her duty and privilege to make sure that her younger siblings got to church.  I asked a simple question: “Can you tell me about what makes your faith so important to you that you feel the need to share it in this way?”

Sharing stories…

That’s when the tears started.  “I have to!”, she said.  “God has been there for me all the time – since I was born.  There has never been a time when he has left me.”  She told me that when she was born her intestine was tangled around her other internal organs and she was facing certain death, until a Mexican surgeon was convinced to attempt the risky surgery.  There were actually two little girls with the same syndrome who received the operation that night, and each set of parents was told that there was a 10% survival rate.  The other little girl died, but L survived, only to face another challenge: she needed a blood transfusion but there was not a suitable donor in her village.  An uncle arrived in town late that evening, got tested, and proved to be a perfect match.  She needed two such transfusions.

Not long afterward, she developed complications, requiring a second surgery.  Her parents had to beg a doctor even to look at her – most told them to plan her funeral and think about other children.  Finally someone agreed to try – and again, met with success.

Here's a rare shot: Tim captivating a group of children.  Hmmm.

Here’s a rare shot: Tim captivating a group of children. Hmmm.

Through her tears, my friend related episode after episode in her life where she saw the hand of God unmistakably.  Some readers might recall the story I told about the visit to a UN Camp in South Sudan where a young girl sang plaintively wondering whether God had forgotten her.  L‘s story became for me the other side of that coin as she said, “I know that God has never ever left me.  My parents, my family, the doctors – everyone was getting ready to give up on me.  But God never has.  And God never will.  How can I not share that kind of love with my little sisters and brother?  I do not do these things because I think I can pay God back, or because I want to make God love me – I do them because I love God so much for every day I have been given.”

I was privileged to share with her a story from my own past wherein I, too, learned the reality that there are no guarantees, and that all we can do is celebrate each heartbeat knowing that God alone knows how and when this part of our story ends.  You may not be surprised to learn that she was not the only one crying at this point.

Yes, that’s right, you get me talking about important things and I can be a red hot mess.  That’s who I am.

We closed our conversation by remembering the words of the Psalmist, who wrote

Though my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will receive me…
I remain confident of this:
    I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord. (Psalm 27:10, 13-14)

It was a wonderful, beautiful, amazing day.  Thanks be to God.

Oh, and we also did a lot of painting, drywalling, and construction-y stuff.  That part went fine, too.

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Jon smoothing things out on the site. He’s all about finesse.

 

We call Bob Walters "B-O-B"  and our worksite liaison "Texas Bob" or "Tejano Bob".  They are both blessings!

We call Bob Walters “B-O-B” and our worksite liaison “Texas Bob” or “Tejano Bob”. They are both blessings!

 

 

 

This may be the first time we've ever been able to put  a finish coat of paint on a project.  It's a good feeling!

This may be the first time we’ve ever been able to put a finish coat of paint on a project. It’s a good feeling!

Did someone say she wanted a ROJO bedroom?  Mission accomplished.

Did someone say she wanted a ROJO bedroom? Mission accomplished.

 

The Body at Work (Texas Mission 2015 #2)

Lord, you have examined me
    and know all about me.
You know when I sit down and when I get up.
    You know my thoughts before I think them.
You know where I go and where I lie down.
    You know everything I do.
Lord, even before I say a word,
    you already know it.
You are all around me—in front and in back—
    and have put your hand on me.
Your knowledge is amazing to me;
    it is more than I can understand.
You made my whole being;

    you formed me in my mother’s body.
I praise you because you made me in an amazing and wonderful way.
    What you have done is wonderful.
    I know this very well. (Psalm 139, selected verses)

I read those verses often – every time I visit a new baby, in fact.  It is one of the holiest aspects of my ministry and life – reminding children (and their parents) about the care that God has had for each of us, and about the wonders of our bodies.

I thought about that passage a lot yesterday.  What brought it to mind was the generous invitation from our friends at the First Presbyterian Church in Mission to attend a performance by the New Shanghai Circus, a group of phenomenally-gifted and beautiful acrobats, gymnasts, and performers who visited McAllen last night.  We were treated to a breath-taking evening as we watched these athletes twist and stretch and shape their bodies in ways that left us with mouths agape.  To be honest, some of our guys were a little unsure when the tickets were offered – we’d had a long day at work, and it was cold (35°) and rainy… But, to a man, we came home filled with awe and joy at the things that these people had been able to do with the bodies that they’ve been given – bodies that were truly and very evidently made in “an amazing and wonderful way.”

These were not the only bodies we saw yesterday, of course.  I thought a lot about bodies that had been made amazingly and wonderfully, but had not been honored or treasured or sculpted in the same way as had those of the athletes we saw last night.

I thought about bodies as our team laid down a bunch of drywall mud and tape in a small three-bedroom home (perhaps 800 square feet) that will become the home for a family of six.  They are currently living in a single room (I would guess that it measures about 10 x 12 feet) beneath a canopy of makeshift tarps and with little, if any, protection from the elements.  In the United States of America.  In 2015.  This family, which has been awarded refugee status by our government, probably thinks about bodies a lot.  I say this because the mother wears a scar across the top of her head the size of a coffee saucer that, as I was told, is the result of a gang attack.  She is, as they say, “lucky to be alive.”  These bodies, no less than the finely honed and perfectly sculpted forms of the acrobatic team, were made in an amazing way.  But no one was applauding them yesterday.

The exterior of the "large" home on which we're working this week.

The exterior of the “large” home on which we’re working this week.

When we got to our work site, one of the first things that the family did was introduce us to their neighbors who, according to the homeowner with whom we are working, are “really in trouble”.  This family of seven is living in a small trailer.  Normally, when I say “trailer”, you think of a wheeled conveyance that is a temporary home for a small group.  Well, this particular object has wheels, but it’s barely holding together on this little patch of Texas dirt.  If you tried to move it it would simply blow away.  The good news is that this family has gathered some resources and begun to construct a new home for themselves – a 10′ x 28′ pole structure that will somehow contain two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom.  Unless it’s like the wardrobe entrance to Narnia, they are going to be shoehorned in there in ways that defy my imagination.  So far, they’ve got the shell almost all the way up – but they don’t know much about electric or plumbing.  What a gift for us to arrive, and to have the ability to offer our time, energy, and, well, bodies.

IMG_4271

Libby lays the drywall mud down!

If we are serious about the theology of the Psalmist, then we need to take bodies seriously.  Some of my friends do this by calling attention to the ways that the unborn are are treated; others protest wars or feed the hungry.  God cares about bodies – God made them.  This week, our team is striving to live into the truths proclaimed by the author of life – that each life, that each body, is important.  It is our deep hope that the work we do, and the way that we do it, will honor not only the bodies of the friends with whom we’ve been placed this week, but the Maker of all bodies.

You might remember that when His son was walking the earth, he looked at people like you and me and told us that we are his body now.  May we behave as though we believe that we, the church of Jesus Christ, are amazingly and wonderfully made.  May we point to all that is good and beautiful and perhaps, from time to time, be breathtaking ourselves in one way or another.

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Jon gets a lesson in corner bead application.

 

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Chris and Gabe pulling wire in the second home that we’ve picked up this week.