Don Quixote and Me

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 May 8, we sat with Disciples as Jesus warned about the rigors of “the narrow way” (Matthew 7:13-14, below).  Our readings also included Peter’s plea for communal love and discipline as found in I Peter 4:7-11.  May 8 marked our observance of “Preschool Sunday”, in which our congregation highlights the importance of the ministry of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool to both our community and the families of the children involved.

 

If you happen to find yourself sitting next to me and my cell phone “rings” (yes, I’m one of those old timers who, embarrassingly at times, allows his phone to ring when getting a voice call…), you’ll get an earful.  Listen:

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

That, my friends, is the Overture from the sound track of Man of La Mancha (the first 30 seconds of which call me to attention whenever I forget to hit the “silence” button). The central figure in that show is an old man named Alonso Quijana, who has become so steeped in stories of chivalry and injustice that he renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha and goes forth as a knight-errant to save the world.

If you don’t already know this, you should: Don Quixote de La Mancha is my hero.

Seriously. I mean, my daughter is under orders that she’s got to find someone willing to sing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at my funeral. I’m a little over the top on this one.

Why?

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at http://www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote is an idealist who charges at windmills and who dreams of slaying dragons. He treats those on the margins with respect and honor, even while all the time he is thought by the world to be a madman.

Yet at the end of his story, he has taught a community to believe the best about themselves and each other. He has led his squire, Sancho Panza, and the lowly kitchen wench, Aldonza, to not only embrace his so-called folly, but to share and appreciate the value of what he calls “the quest”: the task of making the world a better place by the way that you treat it and those who are in it.

I thought of Don Quixote this week as I encountered the next few verses in the Sermon on the Mount. Since September, this congregation has been considering this body of teaching by Jesus that has been called the greatest set of ethical instructions ever offered. We have heard the beatitudes, the reimagination of the Law, and the proper direction for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – we’ve overheard Jesus’ instructions to his followers as to how to live lives like his. And now he is coming to the conclusion, and he says this:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

road-to-hellYou know, when I was younger, this passage scared the heck out of me. I remember wondering, “How will I know if I’m on the right road? What if I’m wrong? This road sure looks crowded…am I heading for destruction? What if someone I love believes the wrong things about Jesus? How can I possibly know everything? What if I get to the gate and I’m wrong?

You see, I had almost always pictured this verse as some sort of theological final exam. You choose a path and you walk down it and you get to a gate (hopefully, a really teeny-tiny one) and someone asks you if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Reconciler of the world and you say “Yes” and start to come in but then there are a lot more questions about the virgin birth and the theory of atonement and the doctrine of the Trinity and prevenient grace and transubstantiation and so on and so on. I’d thought of the “narrow gate” as having the ability to give my intellectual assent to some core doctrines of the church. If I get enough right answers, then I’m allowed through the narrow gate; if I don’t, well, I guess I’ll have plenty of company on that other road…

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

I As I said, that’s what I used to think. However, I’ve come to see that this interpretation does not fit the text. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ means of equipping his followers to live as he does. Verse after verse for three chapters contain a whole array of practices in which the disciples are called to engage. There is very little in this message about doctrinal correctness or theological certainty. Rather, Jesus is describing the life of faith – the best life possible – as a journey, or better yet: a quest.

German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his monumental work The Cost of Discipleship. Listen:

The path of discipleship is narrow, and it is fatally easy to miss one’s way and stray from the path, even after years of discipleship. And it is hard to find. On either side of the narrow path deep chasms yawn. To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For he is himself the way, the narrow way and the strait gate. He, and he alone, is our journey’s end.[1]

The Sermon on the Mount is the way that Jesus chose to communicate the core truths – not about what to believe theologically, but how to live in the world day in and day out as we follow in his steps.

And the message sunk in, eventually.

How do I know this? Because one of the men who was there when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, a fisherman named Simon Peter, found himself in a jail cell thirty years or so later, writing to a community of people who wanted to know what it meant to call themselves “Christians” – or followers of Christ. And as Peter found himself nearing the end of his own life, he wrote to this group of believers, saying, “Do you want to know how to live right? Then do these things…”

Now maybe you remember a few things about Peter’s life, but just in case you forgot, Peter is the man who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane not once, not twice, but three times after Jesus begged him to stay awake… And this man now writes his friends and says, essentially, “For God’s sake, people, stay awake! Be alert! Look for chances to love each other and to be welcoming and hospitable to the stranger. Share the grace that you’ve been given, and look to God to get you through. Love Jesus. Love each other. Share what you have.

And you shake your head and say, “OK, Rev., that’s mildly interesting. What’s your point today?

"Jesus and the Children of the World", Richard  Hook (1965)

“Jesus and the Children of the World”, Richard Hook (1965)

My point is that today is Preschool Sunday here in Crafton Heights. And whether you have access to and responsibility for a particular three year old of your own or not, this is as good a day as any for us to pause and think about which road we are training our children to follow as they come to know the opportunities and dangers that await them on the journey ahead.

We want our children to choose life and avoid destruction, don’t we? How do we shape them for that? How do we equip them to become those people whom God is calling them to be?

Albert Schweitzer, the famed physician and theologian, said this: “There are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example, the second is by example, the third is by example.” If that’s true – and I am certain that it is – the question is not so much, “How will we teach our children?”, but rather, “What are we teaching our children?”

I’d like to suggest three ways by which we who are a little further along the road of discipleship and faith might help shape and nurture the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who are following us.

Are you engaging in a model of life-long discipleship and learning? That is to say, are you in a relationship with some community or group that includes adults talking about matters relating to faith and practice of life together? When the children around you consider your behavior, do they see someone who is not only regularly present for worship, but who is active in worship? If faith and discipleship and “the narrow way” are, in fact, lifestyles rather than dogmas that we accept or reject, we’ve got to demonstrate to our children the fact that we are actively walking in this way.

More specifically, we’ve got to engage in practices of love and generosity with some intentionality. You can help the young people around you learn to adopt and share these values by allowing them to help you shop for the food pantry, for instance. As they get a little older, it’s important to have conversations around your house about how you get money into the house and how you choose how to spend it.

And while we’re on the topic of money, can I please ask that we put on particular sentence on indefinite leave of absence? I think that we do our children a disservice when we hide being the phrase “but we can’t afford that”. Whether you’re talking about another candy bar in the checkout line or the latest in electronic gadgetry, saying “we can’t afford that” is an easy cop-out that diminishes the opportunity for genuine conversation and deeper faith formation. Our children are learning how to prioritize and make choices all the time. If we simply say, “That’s not something we value in this family”, or “I can see why that’s appealing to you, but we are going to use our money for…”, then that teaches the child that all of life is about choosing how to spend the selves that we’ve been given in some of the many, many places of possibility.

Finally, as we walk with and in front of the next generation, can we do so in a way that will allow them to say that we were honest, forgiving, and kind? Can we interact with each other and those around us in ways that recognize that we, ourselves, are those in need of forgiveness too?

One of the ways that we can model this for the children that we love is to have open and honest conversations with them about things like racism, hatred, and bullying. I am ashamed to say that for much of my own early parenting, I was not as intentional as I could have been because, you know, racism didn’t affect our family. I was wrong then, and you can see it now – our culture is increasingly toxic when it comes to matters of hate and exclusion and villanization. And perhaps the central task facing adults in our culture is whether we are able to help our children recognize that toxicity before it kills them.

We don’t agree on everything. Some days we don’t agree on much. I don’t think that having the same views on any number of issues are prerequisites for the life of faith. Yet, as we heard from Jesus last week, maintaining a posture of love and humility are: treat others as you would have them treat you. Let’s teach that to our kids, shall we?

I’d like to thank the Preschool teachers, the Open Door staff and volunteers, and all the people who give of themselves to help create programs here that foster these behaviors in our children.

And in the same breath, I know I speak for many who offer prayer for moms and dads, grand parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and coaches – advocates who are tireless in investing yourselves in the welfare of the next generation.

No one of us can do all of this alone. That’s ok. We’re not supposed to. Some days, you may feel like you’re charging at a windmill, or stuck on the quest all by yourself. The life of faith is not always fun or easy or natural. But it’s good.   And it’s worth it. And it leads us to life in abundance. Let us go – and let us remember equip those who follow us to walk in this way. Let us teach them to believe that they, and their world, and the people with whom they share this world, are of great worth. Let us model lives of heroism and courage and idealism. I’m not saying you’ve got to change your ring tone, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a song like that stuck in your head when you go out to slay the dragons tomorrow morning. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 211-212)

Unhindered

Some thoughts on bringing babies to Jesus – and what keeps them away from his intentions.  Our worship on August 23 was anchored in Luke 18:15-17, Colossians 3:21, and Proverbs 22:6

It’s been a busy week here at the Crafton Heights Church. As we creep closer and closer to September, there is more and more activity in and around this building. This week we had painting and Preschool planning and staff conversations and the newsletter was published and lots more – including a Session meeting. At that meeting, the elders of this congregation approved a six-page document called “The Safe Church Policy of the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights”. This is a statement regarding the protection of minors while they are in our building or attending church-related events.

safe_church_0The “Safe Church Policy” was made necessary by some sweeping changes in the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These changes resulted from a number of high-profile cases wherein adults have done unspeakable things to children.

This is not a new problem, of course. There are many people in this room who are survivors of childhood trauma and abuse. And this is not a distinctively American problem – all around the world, people do horrible things to children. And so, under the rallying cry of “Somebody ought to do something,”, the lawmakers and insurance companies got together and created these new regulations that will result in a host of new policies and practices at virtually every facility that serves children.

Here at Crafton Heights, that means that there will be more open doors, an increased need for adult volunteers, a heightened screening of those volunteers and staff, more paperwork and increased oversight as well as additional fees. And we are fine with that – because we want to do it right.

But here’s the deal, beloved: Our goal is not simply to comply with the law. Our objective is not to create a paper trail that will make it harder for us to be sued. That’s aiming too low. Our calling is to be a blessing to children and youth. To nurture, protect, and guide these children as they grow. To love them as God in Christ has loved us. That’s what we want to do – keeping them safe is simply a part of that.

jesus-children-clipart-6I would imagine that just about everyone in the room is familiar with today’s Gospel reading. Jesus blesses the little children. It’s the stuff of Sunday School posters and bad artwork for longer than any of us have been alive. We know that about Jesus. Jesus blesses children – of course he does. That what Jesus is all about, right?

Christ Blessing the Children Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

Christ Blessing the Children
Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

In his day and age, Jesus’ attentiveness to children was counter-cultural. In the ancient world it was not uncommon for unwanted children to be left to die of exposure or given away to those who would raise them as gladiators or beggars, yet Jesus points to the weakest members of society and honors them. Luke heightens this emphasis, for whereas Mark and Matthew say that people bring their “children” to see Jesus, Luke points out that they are bringing babies. Jesus’ blessing of such babies is entirely consistent with his affinity for standing up for those who are on the fringes.

This morning, though, I don’t really want to look at what Jesus does; I’d like to consider what he says. In this brief passage, Jesus gives pretty explicit instructions to his followers: “let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

Let’s talk about that word, “hinder”. In the game of racquetball, if I get between you and the ball such that you can’t reach it, instead of me getting the point for being such an amazing athlete, we have to replay the point because I have “hindered” you. That is, I’ve gotten your way; I’ve cut off your access to the ball. The Greek word kaluo is a key word in the Luke’s writing. At least twelve times in the two-volume work that forms Luke and Acts, he uses this word to communicate something important about the Gospel.

In Luke 6, Jesus says that we are not to hinder another person’s access to the things that he or she needs, even if that thing is “ours”. In Luke 9, Jesus scolds his disciples for “hindering” someone who is doing God’s work simply because he’s not doing it the way that they expect him to. Later, Jesus charges the Pharisees with “hindering” people’s ability to live faithfully.

When Luke was writing Acts, he mentioned that the Ethiopian eunuch wanted to know if there was anything that “hindered” him from being baptized, and he uses the same language in the conversations around Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius – there is no reason, apparently, to “hinder” the progress of God’s truth. In fact, the very last word in the book of Acts is the negative form of this word: akaluo. Luke finishes telling the story of Jesus and the early church by saying that the Gospel itself is “unhindered” as it is set free in the world.

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. Used by permission. http://www.jesusmafa.com/?lang=en

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. http://www.Jesusmafa.com

Jesus MAFA

So when Jesus says, “don’t hinder the children”, he’s saying more than simply “keep out of their way”. I think that he’s telling his followers that these children deserve unfettered access to the love of God in Christ, and that disciples of Jesus are called to do everything in our power to give children the opportunity to be embraced by the Lord.

So of course, we need to have a “Safe Church” policy. But we need to remember that protecting children from physical abuse is the starting point – the ground floor of this enterprise. What else are we going to do?

Well, I can promise you several things that will be true as long as I am the pastor of this congregation.

If you and I are talking and someone who is less than four feet tall comes and starts to tug on my robe, I can pretty much guarantee that you and I will be interrupted, because I want that little person to know that Pastor Dave is interested in what she or he has to say.

You need to know that children are going to cry during worship, God willing. I know, it’s very important that we nurture and instruct our kids in the art of sitting in and participating in the worship service – but the fact of the matter is that not all of us are good at that all the time, and neither are our children. And we will not banish children who make a little noise.

This congregation will work to create meaningful experiences outside of this room wherein children can be welcomed: FaithBuilder classes and toddler care rooms and other places where faith can be nurtured and intergenerational friendships can flourish.

Through the ministries of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool and The Open Door, we will enlarge the circle of caring by providing excellent role models and mentors and safe places to grow and learn what faith looks like and how we practice it on the playground and on at Youth Group Mission Trips.

Those are the policies and procedures and programs that we will continue to work on as we strive to make this church a “safe place” for all children. If you see something going on here that is hindering someone’s access to the love and blessing of Jesus, I hope that you’ll tell me what it is. Because if the Gospel is unhindered in the Roman world, it sure as heck ought to be unhindered here in Crafton Heights.

But the reality is that it’s not enough for the leaders and volunteers here to seek to remove hindrances. There are some obstacles to faith that are rooted in the home.

One of the most significant barriers between children and the embrace of Jesus is a demon whose name is “perfectionism”. We do our children and grandchildren a disservice when we expect them to do everything right all the time, or when we think that the way that they will live into their discipleship has to look exactly like the path that we have followed. Parents, don’t expect your children, your family, or your church to be perfect. Again, look to Jesus: he lived with and shared grace all the time – surely we can too. The reading from Colossians indicates that even crusty old Apostle Paul took time to write to the parents in his churches and remind them that it’s important to give the next generation a break every now and then.

Another word that I would have for parents in this regard is to please, please, please be attentive to the schedules that you are building for your children’s lives. Activities and extra-curricular events are important and wonderful opportunities for children of any age, but we have to make sure that worship and time with family are anchors for the week. Karate and football and music lessons and dance are foundational experiences in so many ways, but my hope and prayer is that they would find their meaning in the context of a life that is rooted in Sabbath, worship, and other rhythms that nurture the child in Jesus’ love and embrace.

JesusAndChildrenAnd even if we as a congregation have an amazing set of programs and policies, and individual families are diligent when it comes to establishing patterns that point children directly into the arms of Jesus, there are some larger cultural issues to which we ought to dedicate ourselves.

None of what I’m going to say now will surprise you. We want to work for that which promotes peace and justice and hope. We have to support structures that educate and feed and shelter those who are at risk. We must be diligent in our willingness to stand with those who are oppressed and do what we can to remove anything that would hinder their experience of Jesus’ blessing.

So, yeah, it’s been a busy week here at Crafton Heights. But the truth of the matter is that writing out a “Safe Church Policy” is the easy part. By all means, go over and see Jason and Cheri. Fill out the paperwork. Give your fingerprints to the FBI if you need to. Go ahead and check all that stuff off your list.

But know this, beloved: filling out the forms and making the insurance company happy is not the same as blessing the children in Jesus’ name. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

May we – as a congregation, as a community of families, and as a culture – commit ourselves to doing the things that will take time, energy, love, and creativity as we seek to bring the children with whom God has entrusted us to a place where they will have access to the fullness of his love. Thanks be to God for the children we’ve been given and for the mercy under which we live. Amen.

Ordinary Time

The previous posts in this stream narrate some of the experiences I had on a partnership visit with God’s people in South Sudan.  In this entry, I offer a theological reflection on the most powerful worship experience of my life.  Scriptures for the day were Psalm 137 and Ephesians 2:11-22.

If you look at the bulletin you received earlier today, you’ll see that right across the top of the page it indicates that today is the “Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time”. Ordinary Time. What is that about?

OrdinaryTimeWell, mostly, “Ordinary Time” refers to the part of the church year that is not associated with the major cycles of either Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter. One way to put it would be like this: “Ordinary Time is the norm of time kept by the church. The Sundays of Ordinary Time celebrate the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the unfolding presence of the new creation. Ordinary Time presents us with an ongoing opportunity to witness to the living Lord who makes all things new. The standard time of the church is Ordinary Time.”[1]

The name, though, is a little misleading. Rather than meaning “standard” or “routine” – “the usual”, the term “Ordinary Time” actually comes from the word “ordinal”, meaning “counted”. Ordinary Time is “counted time” – we begin with the incarnation, and we count towards the Resurrection. We begin at Pentecost, and we count towards the intrusion of Christ in new ways. “Ordinary Time” is the standard time for the church in that the church is looking forward – always looking forward – to the new inbreaking of God’s presence among us.

Given that, I’d like to tell you how I passed the first week of “Ordinary Time” in 2015 while I was spending time with God’s people in South Sudan, in Africa.

I will begin by confessing a weakness in my theology that may make me a poor excuse for a pastor, but it is the truth. I have long believed that children should be cute in worship.

I try not to manipulate children, as sometimes happens when we pass the mic around during the children’s sermon and we hear those little rascals saying the darndest things. No, I mean the times when we ask them to lead us, and it’s just so beautiful.

Were you here a week or so before Christmas, and Jess had the kids come up front and sing, and Henry was playing the drums while his dad was playing the guitar? Come on, Scrooge, admit it, that was way off the cuteness scale. It was beautiful. Or maybe the first time that little Rachel Salinetro served as a lay reader in church. I bet no one else remembers the way that she tried to pronounce the same word in the Gospel of Luke five times before she finally shook her head, and said, “wait a minute, I got this”, and then she did it flawlessly. It was pure gold. Or the time that I had been away for a number of weeks and Aviva came flying up the aisle at during the last hymn and would not let me put her down, even for the benediction. Do you know what I mean? That stuff is cute!

That’s the way I like to think of kids in church. We eat those things up.

The underlying thought behind the notion that children ought to be “cute” in worship is that we want our worship to be a safe place. We hope that the kids who are here are comfortable and secure; we want them to enjoy God’s people and to be enjoyed; we want them to know the strength and power of God’s protective embrace.

The worship service I attended and led two weeks ago was the single most powerful worship experience of my life. And it was a time when children – hundreds of them – were present. They were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were active. But they were not, by any measure, “cute.”

map-south-sudanHere’s some background: In 2011, South Sudan achieved independence after half a century of struggle and warfare. As a result of the peace agreement, hundreds of thousands of black Christian and Traditional African Religious adherents were forced to leave their lives in Khartoum and other parts of north Sudan in order to come back to their “ancestral homeland” in the south. They were not allowed to take much property with them, and they arrived in a sparsely-populated, under-developed part of the continent with little infrastructure and few easily-developed resources. The world’s newest country was among the world’s poorest countries. But they had hope.

I visited this nation in January of 2013, not quite 18 months after independence, and I saw growth and joy, the beginnings of a plan for self-governance and a longing to emerge into a more developed future.

However, in December of 2013, a political conflict developed into a clash within the South Sudanese military. That quickly denegrated into ethnic and tribally-based violence and erupted into a full-scale civil war. Within months, two million people were displaced from their homes. Entire communities were obliterated. Thousands were butchered. Millions were traumatized. And although the situation has improved enough for me to visit, the fighting continues even to this day. South Sudan is not a safe place.

Walking towards worship at the UN "Protection of Civilians" site in Juba.

Walking towards worship at the UN “Protection of Civilians” site in Juba.

And on the day when my dear friend Saleem was here preaching so eloquently about the church’s calling to continually participate in the work to which Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed, I was asked to preach at the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church service in the United Nations Mission Protection of Civilians Base #3 near Juba. This camp supports more than 30,000 people who have lost nearly everything in the past twelve months and, fearing for their lives and safety, have sought refuge in this vast community of plastic tarps, dust, weeping, and squalor about 400 miles from their homes.

Most Sundays, I walk to worship. I come out of my home and I look to the left and see the Gielarowski’s and I smile at the Simcox’s up the hill. I walk down Cumberland, thinking about the things that await me in the morning, and I pray for the people in the homes I pass. I cut down between the Prevost’s and the Phelps’ and I catch a glimpse of the Sam’s and the Barnes’ places. I come through the vacant lot and look up at the homes where Jason and Kelly, Lindsay, Rachel, and Stacey live. By the time I unlock the door, I am already richly and deeply invested in a community that is filled with beautiful people that I love.

On January 18, I was driven to church over pitted dirt roads. I stopped at checkpoints manned by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. I was passed by trucks filled with squads of fully armed UN soldiers. There were armored vehicles and machine gun emplacements. I passed by children playing in the street, and many of them had scars on their heads and faces that bore witness to violence endured. Eventually, the road came alongside a ditch, on the other side of which was a tall fence covered in razor wire and then a large earthen berm so I could not see inside the compound.

We came to a break in the fence, which was a large shipping container with doors at either end. As I walked towards the door, which was the entrance into the camp, I saw over the earthen wall a small green flag with a cross on it. I thought, “Hmmm, this may be a church on the other side”.

ChoirProcessionJust before I entered the container, filled with UN soldiers and armed guards, a man behind me screamed and I saw the flag wave. I heard singing from behind the fence. I came through the container and was greeted by a single file line of 150 teens in matching shirts who were singing their hearts out. It was the choir that had come to greet me.

I walked with the choir – single file – for a long time. Maybe a mile or a mile and a half went by as they sang first of Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They broke into a new song and pointed at me as they sang, in Nuer, “Here he comes – this one is a soldier of Christ.”

Normally, I resist military imagery as it is connected with worship, but as I thought about all the weaponry and machinery of death that I’d passed in order to get to this point, I had to ask myself whether I really believed that the promise I have in Jesus Christ is stronger than the weapons of destruction by which I was surrounded. And I came to the conclusion that, at that time and place, I was in fact a soldier of Christ – only the weapons that I had been issued were hope, love, and forgiveness. The protection given to me was not a bulletproof vest or a blue helmet, but a promise.

ChurchEventually, we arrived at the most substantial structure I’d seen inside the camp – a long mud building with iron sheets for a roof and a crude crossed nailed to one end. I guessed that there were about 1200 people inside the building and nearly that many outside.

And we worshiped. Our opening song two weeks ago was the same one with which we began worship here this morning: “To God Be the Glory”. Of course, we sang it in the Nuer language.

CongregationI have to tell you, I’m pretty good at African worship. I know how to tell a joke to an African crowd, I can work with a translator in a sermon, and we had a fine time. There were lots of choirs, some official greetings, and I preached a really long sermon (hey, nobody in the IDP camp was worried about getting home for the game, I can tell you that). None of this was what made it the most powerful worship experience of my life.

I sat down after the sermon and we began to pray. We prayed for those in the community and the nation and the world. And when the prayers were finished, I was told that the Sunday School Children were to enter and sing a few songs.

And they came. And they came and they came. There must have been more than 200 children. And they sang. They sang beautifully.

If I say that the songs that they were singing were in a “major” key, would you know what I mean? I mean that they sounded strong and confident, victorious. “To God Be The Glory” and “Amazing Grace” are sung in a major key. “O Come, O Come Emanuel” or “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” are in a minor key. These songs sounded full of life and strength.

And they were songs with actions. The boys and girls were standing and sitting in turn. I liked that. I thought it was cute as they boys called and the girls responded. I asked my host, “What are they singing?”

He said, “Well, the boys are saying, ‘You can attack us’ and the girls are replying, ‘but you can’t get all of us.’ The girls sing, ‘We know you will kill us’ and the boys say, ‘But not all of us will die.’ And together they sing, ‘Even when we die, we are not defeated.’”

This was the children’s choir. Boys and girls from about four to about fifteen years old. And this is what they were singing.

And it was loud. I mean, it was loud. Some of you know that I like to watch the fireworks in my boat because there on the water, so close to the launch site, I can not only see and hear the explosions, I can feel them in my chest. Have you had that experience during fireworks? I am here to tell you that when these children were singing about their own deaths in that beautiful major key, I could feel the words bouncing off my chest.

Louder and louder they sang, and then suddenly, all 200 of these children just slumped to the floor, draped across each other. It was as if every single one of them had been shot simultaneously. They laid there as if they were dead, unmoving.

It was silent, and the silence was deafening. I could feel the silence in my chest even more than I had felt the singing. It was powerful. It was not cute – in no way, shape, or form, beloved, was this part of worship “cute”.

And then one little girl in the back – a child about Samaiya’s size – stood and began to sing in a wail. She was singing, “We may be killed. We may all be killed. But we will surely rise in the light of Jesus. The star of Bethlehem is in us.” And one by one, the children stood and joined this little girl’s song. It got louder and louder.

And then this little girl came up and knelt on the floor a foot from me and sang “O God, you made us, why aren’t you saving us? Why can’t you see us? Do you still love us? We are wandering in our own land, Father. Why have you forgotten us? Are you the one who created us or not?”

I was overwhelmed.

I was glad that they were asking the questions of God, and not of me. I had no answers. I still don’t. It was all I could do not to collapse into tears right then.

The kids finished, and we sang a little more. I was asked to share the benediction, and I gave them the same one I offer here each week. I was invited to share a bowl of rice, sorghum, and beef broth in one of the tent homes, and then I was escorted from the compound, past the soldiers and back to the guest house.

It was the most powerful worship moment in my life. I am still not sure, even eight pages into this thing, that I have words for it.

Psalm 137 is a lament. It is a song, sung in a minor key, describing how it feels to be lost, abandoned, and hopeless. The singer remembers being isolated and alone and forgotten by God. And then the Psalm concludes with that angry prayer for vengeance and retribution. It is a Psalm that points to a downward spiral of violence and death and increasing hatred.

And the songs of the children in United Nations Mission Protection of Civilians Camp #3 were also songs of lament, but they were in a major key. They were songs that spoke of depths of pain and suffering that I cannot imagine, but somehow, those songs were able to anchor their lament in a place of hope. There was not a prayer for retribution, but for restoration. There was not a prayer for the death of the enemy, but for life abundant.

I tried that morning two weeks ago to preach a good message. I used Isaiah and Luke, and I talked about the promise of God’s kingdom. I had some really good stuff.

But the children presented the hope and the message that day in a way that I never could. I knew that I was on Holy Ground as these disturbing, Spirit-filled, recklessly-trusting children who were not at all cute forcefully asked God to do what he said he would do and to be who he said he would be.

If we want our worship to be safe, and calm, and tame, and cute – I believe we will limit the power of the gospel. May we pray for boldness to trust the promises of God as recklessly and as forcefully as did my young friends two weeks ago.

May God be with us as we stand with and for them to create a world where they grow free of fences and convoys and ration cards and weapons of destruction. God is who God says he is. And God will do what God says he will do. And we, his body, are bound to participate in the demonstration of that truth.

Ephesians says that Christ himself is our peace, and that Christ alone can break down the walls of hostility.

I want to close with a story from another part of Africa that describes this hope perfectly.

It was 1959 in the nation of Malawi. There had been increasing pressure for the British to end their rule and give this nation independence. Racial and tribal tensions were on the rise, and word went out from London that all whites were to leave the country for fear of their own lives. The mission station in Livingstonia Synod was so remote that it could not be reached by the road, and the British government was concerned about the ability of the white missionaries to survive in this conflicted environment. They sent a plane from the Royal Air Force to drop a

Livingstonia Mission as seen from the air, 1959

Livingstonia Mission as seen from the air, 1959

message so that the whites could plan their evacuation for the next day. The next day when the plane approached, the pilot saw an unmistakeable message written in stones on the ground: Eph 2-14, which as you know reads “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…”

Listen, my friends – the world needs to see that message. It needs to hear it in the UN Camps in South Sudan and in the streets of our own nation. It needs to resound from the rooftops of Palestine and into the bowels of Kolkata.

May we be living stones that spell that out, all day, every day, wherever we may be. Where people can read it, or hear it, or feel it in their chests…may we be able to participate in proclaiming it here…and in South Sudan…and everywhere.

Every day.

In ordinary time.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Liturgical Year: The Worship of God (Supplemental Liturgical Resource #7), Westminster/John Knox, 1992 p. 51.

It’s About the Walk

As the Autumn begins, the gathered community in Crafton Heights is focusing on Micah 6:8 –

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.”

On October 19, as our congregation observed “Preschool Sunday”, we considered the command to “Walk Humbly with God”.  The scriptures that helped us engage this topic were Psalm 131 and Mark 10:13-16

For the last several weeks, we’ve been looking at one of the key texts in the Old Testament. The people have left God’s best for them and are now faced with the threat of war, exile, and even the extinction of their nation. They turn to Micah, God’s spokesman, and say, “Well what can we do? How are we supposed to stay alive?” And the response, which you’ve already heard this morning, is clear: “He has shown you what is good – and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?”

That’s how we stay alive. Do justice: that is, when you are in a position to assist one who has been wronged or to lift up someone who has been stepped on, do it.

And love kindness: that is, growing into a pattern of living where those acts of justice come, not as a response to a command, but out of the depths of your heart.

And walk humbly: that is, shape your daily behavior in such a way so that God’s power and presence in the world is more visible to the people who are around you. When the prophet, or God, or you and I, use the word “walk” in this way we are referring to a way of life.

I find it interesting (and refreshing) to see that this last condition on how we are to make it out of here alive does not hinge on our theological dexterity. It is not based on our intelligence, nor does it rely on us having the correct position on current political issues. The prophet asks us about the way that we live.

In that way, of course, he reminds us of Jesus, who wasn’t particularly big on inviting people to sit around and make sure that everybody agreed on a particular set of ideas. Jesus didn’t come with a slate of answers or a political agenda to which he required everyone to adhere.

DustNo, when Jesus wanted to get inside of your head or your heart, what did he say? “Follow me.” “Walk like I do.” The way that you live, and the one that you follow, says a lot about what you believe. The Jews have recognized this when they refer to the collective body of written commandments as wisdom as halakha – that is, “the way to walk”. Neither Micah nor Jesus talks about ideas in the abstract; instead, they invite us to join with the Lord in a way of living.

And how does Micah invite us to walk? We have a very rare Hebrew word here, which is usually translated as “humbly.” As I look at that word, and at the ways in which it is used in other places, I think that I will agree with those scholars who suggest that a more faithful translation would be “wisely” or “carefully”. We are to engage the world (that is, to live) each day knowing who we are and who God is, and acting as if that matters.

The scriptures you’ve heard this morning talk about that kind of awareness and lifestyle. And, not suprisingly on Preschool Sunday, each of the verses point us in the direction of children.

The 131st Psalm is very useful to us in our daily devotion because it reminds us to be alert to two dangers in the Christian life. On the one hand, we are to be alert to the evil of pride. A modern translation of this passage gets it right: “God, I’m not trying to rule the roost, I don’t want to be king of the mountain. I haven’t meddled where I have no business or fantasized grandiose plans.” (The Message)

If we are to walk wisely, we must remember that we live in relationship with God. We are not in charge, we are not in control – we have a place in the universe that is less than primary.

That idea, even though it sounds terribly obvious when I stand up here and say it out loud, runs counter to the experience that most of us have every day. Our culture tells us that we are supposed to be on top of the heap and exercise our own power and strength. When Eugene Peterson writes about this verse, he says,

It is difficult to recognize pride as a sin when it is held up on every side as a virtue, urged as profitable and rewarded as an achievement. What is described in Scripture as the basic sin, the sin of taking things into your own hands, being your own god, grabbing what is there while you can get it, is now described as basic wisdom: improve yourself by whatever means you are able, get ahead regardless of the price, take care of me first. For a limited time it works. But at the end the devil has his due There is damnation.[1]

An essential, if seemingly-obvious, aspect of the faithful walk is recognizing that at the end of the day, God is in charge and I am not. Pride is my enemy.

But the Psalm does not only warn us against the evil of arrogance. The next passage cautions us against the resignation that can come from a clingy dependency and a refusal to grow up into being our own person in God’s sight.

Dave with Caitlin & MackenzieOne of the great blessings of being me – and there are many – is that I have known a lot of babies. Not only that, but people seem to trust me with their children, and will willingly hand me the little angels when they are only a few hours old. And here is something I have noticed about every infant I’ve ever held: sooner or later, that baby will get fussy and start to scream at me for something that I will never, in a million years, be able to provide. You know what I’m talking about – there I am holding that baby, smiling for the photos, and what starts out as a nuzzle before too long turns into a situation where that child is rooting around expecting old Pastor Dave to come up with some milk. Sooner or later, every infant cries – not for a relationship, not for affirmation – but for a meal. If you have ever been a mother, you know what it is like to be yelled at, not for who you are, but for what you provide. You are a meal ticket.Dave with Caitlin & Mackenzie

But the Psalmist compares himself to a weaned child resting at its mother’s breast. A weaned child is not looking at mom as a commodity. A weaned child is there because that child has learned that mom’s lap is a delightful place to be in and of itself.

Many of you know that I was away for much of 2010. I traveled the world and saw some amazing things, and I am hard pressed to say which of the experiences I was blessed with was the most memorable. For four months, I was living in a dream.

But this is one thing I hope I never forget about that trip: In September of 2010 I arrived home from the airport. As I carried my bags up the steps on Cumberland Street, I heard a small voice coming from next door: “Hey! Pastor Dave is home! Pastor Dave is home!” And before I could reach my front porch, I was bowled over by my next-door neighbor and covered with kisses.

Samaiya was only about two and a half years old at the time, and she didn’t need me for anything. She wasn’t expecting a gift, and she didn’t think I had snacks. She just wanted me. That is what Psalm 131 looks like – rushing to embrace God because he is there, and he is good, and he loves you, and because you love God.

A few hundred years later, Jesus holds out the children in his community as special. He doesn’t think that they are pure or perfect. He commends them because they are willing to be blessed, eager to be loved, and wanting to be taught.

A weaned child is content with the relationship for its own sake. That child doesn’t see her mother as a means towards satisfying herself, but rather as a good and loving presence that is to be treasured and received. Again, I would imagine that the parents in this room know the difference between a weaned and an unweaned child.

But here’s the deal: weaning is hard work for both the wean-ee and the wean-er. It’s confusing and painful and noisy. But it needs to happen eventually if the child has any hope at a real and somewhat normal life.

In your spiritual life, are you weaned?

The reason I ask that is that from time to time, someone will come into my study and say, “I don’t know, Pastor, it’s just different. I’m not feeling it any more – not like I was. When I first followed Jesus, I knew that God had my back. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I cried out for something and there was a miraculous answer right then and there. When I needed God, he was right there. But now, when I pray, it seems different. I cry out, and I’m not sure that God even hears me. Does God still love me?”

Of course God loves you. God couldn’t love you any more. But maybe God is weaning you from an infantile dependence on the emotional lift you think you need in order to get through the day so that you might grow up into a discipleship that is healthy and vigorous. Maybe God is teaching you how to discern and act for yourself, building on the lessons you’ve already learned, so that you can walk wisely in this world.

I just spent twenty-four hours with my daughter and her husband and my eleven-month old granddaughter. It was wonderful. I had not seen them since September 1.

But things are changing. Do you know that the last time I was there, Ariel carried Lucia everywhere. It seemed as if that child could not move on her own – the only way she got from the living room to the kitchen to the car was if some big strong grown up came along and scooped her from one place to another.

But yesterday, I put that baby down in the living room and when I went to the kitchen to get some coffee, I turned around and she was there! I set her by the table, and in ten seconds she was climbing towards the sofa.

And you say, “Of course, you idiot. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Lucia is learning to walk. Watch out – once she’s mobile…boom!”

Of course she has to learn to walk. Like she will learn to feed herself, and dress herself, and think for herself. We would not have it any other way.

In the same way, those of us who are made in the image of God are called to learn to walk on our own, and freely, in the direction that God has set out for us.

Sooner or later, we all get to the questions that Micah’s audience had in the 6th century BC: what does God want from me? How am I supposed to live, anyway?

The answer provided here and demonstrated by Jesus is clear and natural: a step by step living with and walking with God, living for others; a life where we advocate for the powerless and care for those who are hurting and help those whom are are able.[2]

We come together each week to remind us that this walk is for us, and for our children, and for those whom God loves in our community – which is to say, it is a walk to which each of us is called.

I don’t know what scares you or thrills you or bores you or excites you about your life today. Are you concerned about Ebola, or worried about your property values? Are you afraid you might be pregnant? Or concerned that you never will be? Is it your job, your marriage, or your lack of one of those conditions? I don’t know.

But I do know that God has put you in a place where you can learn to walk towards his best. You may cry out and sense an immediate rescue. And you may find a season of confusion and discomfort. You may find, in the struggle, that you have resources or abilities you did not realize were yours. You are still you. And God is still God. Our calling to so live as if those things are both always true. Thanks be to God, they are. Amen.

[1] A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity, 2000), p. 152.

[2] Adapted from James Limburg’s commentary on Micah 6:8 in the Interpretation series (John Knox, 1988, p. 193).

The LBJ Principle

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 10, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 10:1-31

Think, for a moment, about your passion. What do you love – I mean, really love? Running? Cooking? Sports? Do you remember the day that you fell in love with that hobby?

A Malachite Kingfisher

A Malachite Kingfisher

In 1998 I was traveling through Machinga, Malawi, in Central Africa. My friend, Pastor Mnensa, and I were on our way to the Chikhale CCAP, and were crossing a little “bridge” about 20 kilometers from the nearest paved road. As we came near to the bridge, Ralph began to tell me about a wonderful little bird he had seen near that stream on an earlier trip. We stopped and waited for a moment, and I was delighted to see a Malachite Kingfisher – the most beautiful bird I think I’ve ever seen.

Later that same year, I was sitting in my friend Dirk’s living room in Pretoria, South Africa, and I noticed all the birds that were flocking to his feeder. Of course, to my mind, they were all exotic. I was in Africa, after all. I said something to the effect of, “I can’t believe you have so many cool birds here. If we had nice looking birds in America, I might start watching them there. But all we have are boring birds.”

Fortunately for me, and perhaps unfortunately for anyone who gets stuck in a conversation with me, I have since discovered that we have some amazing birds in the 412 and across our continent.

House Sparrows

House Sparrows

However, at the time, I was thinking about all of the LBJ’s that flock to my feeder every day. An “LBJ” is a “little brown job” – one of those small, undistinguished creatures with dull plumage that seem to be everywhere. There are at least 35 species of sparrow in North America, and by and large, they are (at least from a distance) LBJ’s.

I know, I’m committing some sort of ornithological heresy by saying this, but I don’t see the excitement in watching a flock of a hundred small brown birds looking for the one with a different color eye stripe or bill color. Once in Texas, I talked with a man who had followed a flock of sparrows around the wildlife refuge for an hour because he thought that in and amongst the House Sparrows there was, in fact, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. And there was. And it’s hard for me to envision a scenario whereby that photo would be worth an hour of my time, but…

A Lincoln's Sparrow.  I know - this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

A Lincoln’s Sparrow. I know – this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

The House Sparrow is a much-despised bird, even among serious birders. There are articles that talk about how to create an environment in your backyard that discourages these LBJs from crowding out the feeder. There are about 150 million of these birds in the United States, and not many people like them.

In fact, in the late 1800’s there was a movement called the “Great English Sparrow War”, wherein this bird was called a foreign invader who was lazy, immoral, and harmful to native songbirds as it stole their food and habitat.

Publicity poster for Mao's "Four Pests" campaign.

Publicity poster for Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign.

Half a world away, a couple of generations later, Chairman Mao named the English Sparrow as one of the four pests that had to be eradicated from China for the country to succeed – again, calling it an immoral and lazy bird who stole food from the native inhabitants. For hundreds of years, people have spent a good bit of energy hating the sparrow.

And yet Jesus says that God actually cares about the sparrows. Billions of sparrows in the world, living, breeding, dying, hatching…and God actually cares for them. God knows what is going on in their lives, if we can trust Jesus on this one.

God gave me one child. I love Ariel, and now her daughter, Lucia, with my entire being. I am not exaggerating when I say I love them more than life. Sometimes I look at my friends with 2, 3, 4, or more children and I say, “How do you do that?” Not so much, “how do you manage to get everyone to school on time, or in dance classes or little league or those activities?”, but “I know how fiercely I love my one child. How do you love that many children as much as I love mine? Isn’t it exhausting?”

Loving people wears you out, doesn’t it? It’s nerve-wracking and annoying – you worry about people making bad decisions and getting caught up in someone else’s bad decisions and…

I am a hover-er. Ask any of the kids in the youth group, and I bet they will tell you, “I know that Pastor Dave loves me, but he sure asks a lot of questions. And he hugs me a lot.” At this moment, I am as drained and spent as I have ever been because of the ways that I have tried to love the kids from this community who have served on a Mission Team for the past week. I would walk across broken glass for them, but I am beat.

But as noble as all that is, I am not that good at loving and caring, at least compared to God. My world is so full…and my head hurts and my heart aches and sometimes I just throw up my hands and sigh.

And yet there is something in the divine nature that loves and treasures even the House Sparrow. These little creatures, which Matthew tells us are sold two for a penny, are noticed and valued by God. When Luke gets around to this part of the story, we see that he must be shopping at Walmart, because he finds them five for two pennies.

They are as close to worthless as they can be. And God cares for them.

What does this mean? It means that in the divine economy, there are no Little Brown Jobs. God refuses to look at some part of the creation and say, “Oh, that? Meh. It’s not my best work. I’ve done better.” God knows, values, and cares for everything in creation.

By extension, therefore, it would seem as though I, made in the image of God, am called to a similar level of attentiveness and care. I am not free to disregard or despise that for which God cares.

Which leads me to some thoughts about the current crisis on our nation’s southern border…or the educational system in our inner cities…or the famine in South Sudan…or the warfare in Israel and Palestine.

It seems to me that so much of what is truly evil in all of those places comes from the way in which one group of people looks at another group of people and says, “Them? Meh. They’re nothing special. Just some little brown jobs. Don’t bother with them. You can’t do anything. They’re lazy, and immoral. They don’t belong in our world. You’re best off trying to find a way to get rid of them.”

Beloved, this is the truth: that kind of reasoning is more prevalent than we admit, and that kind of thinking will kill not only “them”, but “us” as it removes their humanity and tarnishes the image of God in us.

BOrderChildrenSince October of last year, more than 63,000 children have been caught crossing the border alone. Many of these children have run right to the Border Patrol officers. These children tell stories about being sent on this harrowing journey by their parents who have said, “Look, this is the best choice we have right now. Sending my seven year old daughter, by herself, through Mexico and into the USA is the best way I can think of to protect her from sexual predation or murder.” These are parents who love their children as much as I love Ariel.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. How bad must your range of options be if that is the best idea that presents itself? If you would like to explore this a little further, watch the movie Sin Nombre some time. It is harrowing and disturbing.

But back to these 63,000 children. Look, I’m not sure what we are supposed to do with them as a matter of national policy. I don’t know enough about immigration law and the situations in their own countries to be able to pretend that I have a great idea as to how to “solve” this crisis.

But I’m not preaching a sermon because I want to sell you my ideas about solving the crisis. I’m preaching this sermon because I am sure that we are not free to disregard or despise those children. You don’t have to agree with me or anyone else as to which policy is most effective at stemming the tide of children who fear for their lives. But I’m pretty sure that the gospel forbids the church of Jesus Christ from looking at any child of any ethnicity and saying, “Oh, for crying out loud. What are we going to do with all of these stinking LBJ’s?”

This is what I realized last week: I cannot think of a single one of my friends who, if they went down to get their morning paper and found a naked, cold, nine-year old who appeared to have been violated in some horrific way, would turn that child away. I know rich and poor people of all ethnicities. I know liberals and conservatives, crunchy-cons and libertarians, socialists and anarchists. But I cannot think of a single friend of mine who would look at a child like that and say, “Tough luck, kiddo. I think you’re on your own,” and then take the paper and go indoors.

I don’t know any of my friends who would shoot a neighbor for being in the wrong place.

But many of us are content to look at situations on the border or in the Middle East or somewhere in the world and say, “You know what? Let’s get rid of them all. They bother me.”

We wouldn’t say that. But we employ institutions to say that for us. We are fundamentally good people who are kind and generous who find ourselves asking the government or someone else to be ruthless on our behalf. There is an inconsistency in that which threatens our ability to live faithfully.[1]

Jesus says that not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Not one escapes his notice.

Debbie Blue says this in Consider the Birds:

Can you love songbirds and still be compassionate to the house sparrow? Can you have an incisive critique without a hardening of the heart? Maybe it’s tricky, not completely easy, a little complex, but we of all species are especially equipped to handle a little complexity.

The house sparrow is not necessarily dull and uninteresting. In Australia, they’ve learned to open automatic doors. Some hover in front of the electric eye until the door opens. Others…sit atop the electric eye and lean forward until they trip the sensor…

Our hearts beat seventy times a minute; the house sparrow’s beats eight hundred. At rest, we breath about eighteen times a minute; a sparrow, ninety times. I like thinking of them breathing so fast – all this breathing out in the world, all this heartbeating.

Love your neighbor. It’s the most brilliant instruction. It’s wise and wonderful and something we need.[2]

Complexity is difficult, but we can handle complexity. I have to admit, I don’t know how to make love the cornerstone of our social policy. I am not sure what the best way to care for these children is. But I do not want to live in a nation where indifference or vindictiveness is the rationale around which we set up our systems and institutions. I don’t know how to help those children or our Border Patrol or anyone affected by this. I don’t know.

But I don’t want to not help. So I guess I’ve got some learning to do.

Consider the sparrow. There are no LBJ’s in the Kingdom.

Consider your neighbor.

Love – even when it wears you out.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

[1] South African theologian Peter Storey has said, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnection between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American -people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good -people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among -people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.” (this was in an “Open Letter” to the people of the United States, written not long after September 11, 2001)

[2] Consider the Birds (Abingdon 2013), pp. 147-148.

Where Are The Five?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  This week’s message provides the second introduction to the book as well as a challenge to care for our children well.  Scriptures include Judges 2:6-19 and I Peter 2:9-12.

         You know, I couldn’t tell you how many people have said to me already today, “Do you know what I would love to see, Pastor Dave?  I would love to see a simple, creative graphic that describes the Deuteronomic Cycle as we see it lived out in the book of Judges.”

Deuteronomic Cycle 1Yeah, well, OK, that’s a lie.  Because, quite frankly, no one, ever, has asked me to talk with them about the Deuteronomic cycle.  But maybe that’s just because while you have always wanted to see something like this, you never thought to bring it up in polite conversation.  So today is your lucky day, because here is a representation of the Deuteronomic Cycle, one that was given to me by our friend Tammy Weins Sorge.

The Deuteronomic Cycle is a term that is used to describe the theological history of God’s people during the time that the book of Judges was written.  It’s a way to interpret the narrative that we’ll be studying for the next few months.  You can see how the cycle works – essentially, the people start off all right, and then they blow it somehow.  God gets really angry and then zaps them.  The theological term for this is that “God’s wrath is unleashed.”  The people suffer because God is so mad, and then they cry out to God. God hears them and cuts them a break by sending them a leader, or a judge, who sets things straight… until they screw up again, when he gets angry again, and so on.

As I say, this is a time-honored way to understand the book of Judges.  And it is essentially correct – at least in the cyclical nature of things.  However, I’d suggest that we read the story this way because we’re the people.  We believe that God did something to us, when in reality, it may have more to do with our own choices than we’d like to admit.

Did you ever hear a student complain, “Can you believe it?  She gave me a “C” in that class?”  Or maybe a friend has said, “Well, I lost my job because the cops took my driver’s license.”  When you ask why the mean old policemen took his license, he says, “Well, they said that I had another DUI…”

Do you see?  We find it very, very easy to minimize the effects of our own choices some times.

I would suggest that in the book of Judges, we see a cycle all right – but instead of it being a cycle wherein God gets angry and punishes people for being so stupid, it’s a description of the truth that time and time again, humanity chooses poorly, and God allows us to experience the consequences of those choices.

Take a look at our reading from Judges for this morning.  Twice in the span of three verses, we read of a choice that God’s people made: in verses 12 and 14, we see that God’s people forsook – that is, they abandoned, they left, they walked away from, they made another choice – and they served the other gods.  And when they make that other choice, God gives them what they want: God “gave them over…”

Ba'al

Ba’al

In this case, and in many, many places in the Old Testament, the decision that God’s people make is to forget about worshiping God and instead choose to worship the Ba’al and the Asherah, the gods that the Canaanites worshiped before the Israelites show up in the land.  Ba’al is a fertility god, usually depicted as either a bull or a man with a lightning bolt in his hand. He is a propagating, inseminating, seed-spreading machine.  Asherah is his female counterpart, said to be the “Queen of Heaven”, and she was often worshiped at poles that were erected in her honor.  The “worship” of Ba’al and Asherah almost always involved some sort of sexual activity on the part of the priests and the worshipers.  It was, I must say, a very popular religion.  And time and time again, the people of God, the people who ought to know better, choose to be fascinated with the allure of the Ba’als and the Asherah rather than to serve the God who called them from slavery.

Asherah

Asherah

And here in Judges 2 we see a fascinating, horrible situation.  It’s a second introduction to the book of Judges, and we once again encounter Joshua giving the people their final instructions.  Under the leadership that Joshua shared with Moses, the people have left Egypt and trekked through the desert for a generation.  They’ve eaten manna, seen God at work time and time again, and crossed into the Promised Land.  And here, before Joshua and his peers are cold in their graves, the people of God choose to abandon God and live, act, and worship like Canaanites. In the space of a few years, they’ve gone from being followers of God to acting as his enemies.

Joshua addresses the people

Joshua addresses the people

How could this happen?  Why did they make this choice?

Last week, I mentioned what I thought was both the theme, and the saddest verse in the book of Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes…” (21:25)  We talked about the fact that it is easy for us to behave as if there is no God, no source of authority.

The second saddest verse in this book comes in this morning’s reading:

…and there arose another generation after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel. (2:10b)

The people of Israel had done what God asked them to do: they entered the Land that he was giving to them…  But they forgot who God was. They forgot who they were, and they forgot why they were.

All those years coming into the Promised Land, and Joshua failed to mentor a leader who could replace him.  All those years walking across the desert, and the families of Israel forgot to do what Moses had told them in Deuteronomy 6:6-8

And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  Don’t forget!

Yet in less than a hundred years, the people of God did forget who they were.  Of course they made bonehead choices!  How could they choose wisely at all when they were operating out of a place of ignorance and mistaken identity?

Beloved, can you see that this is where the Church in North America is heading today?  In our own tradition, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the median age is 63.  That means that half of the worshipers are older than 63.  80% of Presbyterians are over the age of 45.  I came across a study of churches in England that sent chills down my spine.  In that country today, 39% of churches say that they have no worshipers under the age of 11.  None.  49% have no attenders between the ages of 11 and 14, and 59% report no participation at all by those between the ages of 15 and 19.[1]

ukstats2Here’s another way to look at the people who are (or who are not) church in the United Kingdom this morning.

And maybe the temptation is to see that skinny red line of participants who are under the age of 20 and then to look around this room and hear the beautiful noise of crying babies and say, “THANK GOD that’s not us.  Wow, that would be terrible.  Good thing we’re not in that situation.”

And that, my friends, would be a mistake.  Because we are the church.  And the church is losing her children.  We are creating a generation who does not know the power or presence of God.

How is this happening?  The folks at the Fuller Youth Institute suggest that one of the problems is that most churches today are giving their kids what they call “Red Bull experiences of the gospel.”  Red Bull, as you know, is a drink that contains significant amounts of sugar, caffeine and other substances that will, its ads say, “give you wings”.  That is, people who drink Red Bull find that they have a temporary burst of energy and effectiveness for study, driving, or whatever.  Of course, that’s often followed by a let-down. SONY DSC

A “Red Bull experience of the gospel” means that the church gives our kids an experience of faith that might be potent enough to help them make decisions at a high school party, but is not deep enough to foster long-term faith.[2]

This research hits me hard on a personal level.  Because for the last forty-one years of my life, I’ve gone down to church on Sunday evening for youth group meetings.  Thirty-five of these years, I’ve been a leader.  For a long, long time, I sought to connect with kids by making a splash, and by making Youth Group entertaining, relevant, and cool.  And, I’m ashamed to say, I could get away with that thirty years ago.  And I did.

But now, whenever I see entertaining, relevant, and cool, well, it’s in the rear-view mirror.  Any relationship I had with those qualities is in the past.

And yet…and yet…I love children and young people now more and better than I did in the 1980’s.

Beloved, here’s the thing that you need to know this morning:  studies have shown that teens who have had five or more adults from the church invest in them during the ages of 15 – 18 are far less likely to leave the church after High School.[3]

YouthRallyBack in the day, I tried to be it for the kids that I knew.  I played amazing games and was familiar with pop culture and tried so hard to make sure that every kid knew that I was there…  And many of those young people are not interested in faith any more… in part, I’m afraid, because I tried to do everything myself.

We need a culture wherein each of the young people whom we are called to love (which, I might remind you, includes all young people) are reminded of who they are according to the glorious truth of 1 Peter – that they, and we, like the first Israelites, are called into a place of blessing so that we can follow God in Christ so that the world might know God’s deep and rich love and blessing.

Each of the young people we are called to love needs to be coached on making decisions and experiencing consequences and living into truth.

What does that mean for us? Well, we have 27 children signed up in our Preschool program.  There are an additional 27 students enrolled in the after school program with 5 on our waiting list.  In the first two weeks, we’ve had 22 teenagers show up at our Sunday night youth program.  If you’re doing the math that adds up to 81 children…not counting all the babies you see here.

Where are the five for these young people about whom God is crazy and for whom Christ died?  Which five people are seeking to somehow encourage, nurture, love, and build up each of those 81 children…and the others we know?

Relax, people.  I’m not trying to sign you up as a Sunday School teacher, a youth advisor, or a volunteer at the Open Door.  Jessica and Jason might do that, and I think that some of you should, but that’s not my point.

And don’t worry, I’m not trying to say that because I’m no longer entertaining, relevant or cool, you need to be those things to attract kids to Jesus.

This is what I’m saying: I have come to understand that perhaps the most important thing I do in life is to try to confirm Christian identity in young people.  To help them claim their heritage as being fearfully and wonderfully made; chosen by God for a future of grace and love, witness and service.  I really believe that may be the most important thing I do.  And I think I can be pretty good at it.

Can we get off this thing now?

Can we get off this thing now?

But here’s the deal: like virtually everything else around this place, it doesn’t mean squat if only one person does it.  The only way that this matters is if in some way, each of us is one of the five for some of the 81.  Don’t come to youth group.  But pray for these children.  Don’t think you have to play dodgeball on Friday nights.  But sitting here being glad that we have kids among us isn’t good enough, either.  Can you engage, support, and encourage the young people you see, or at least the adults who are able to be in those relationships more actively?  Maybe you can buy a pizza for someone who is working with kids, or babysit for free?  How will you act and pray for the ability to see the children and youth in this community the way that Jesus does?  As far as I can see, that’s the only way to get off the Deuteronomic cycle in our own age – and in so doing, to raise a generation who is more faithful than we are.  God hear our prayer.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.