God Isn’t Asking You To Be “Nice”

Continuing in our year-long exploration of the stories surrounding King David, the folks at Crafton Heights listened on May 7 to the stories of Mephibosheth.  Our texts included II Samuel 9 and Luke 14:12-14.  

To hear the sermon preached in worship that day, simply use the audio player below:

I’m excited to continue our exploration of David and his story, because it may be that our reading for today contains one of the best stories you’ve never heard in scripture.

Besides David, the key protagonist in our narrative is a man named Mephibosheth, and he is the son of David’s best friend, Jonathan – which makes him, of course, the grandson of Saul, who had been king prior to David. Go ahead, say it: Mephibosheth. It’s important that we learn that name.

We meet Mehibosheth three times in the book of Second Samuel. In chapter four, we’re given his “back story”. On that horrible day when his grandfather, his father and two of his uncles were killed in a battle against the Philistines, Mephibosheth became an endangered species. People knew that David was hoping for the throne, and the common practice was for the one who wanted power to wipe out all of the males in his rival’s family.

So when word of the death of King Saul and his sons came in to the family compound, a well-meaning nurse grabbed the child and started to flee – thinking that she was saving the boy’s life. However, she dropped Mephibosheth, and he broke both ankles. The bones didn’t set properly, and Mephibosheth never walked again.

He was hustled off to a town on the east side of the Jordan called Lo-Debar. The name means “no pasture” or “no communication.” It was an impoverished, remote place – the kind of town where people don’t ask each other questions and everyone is just trying hard to get by.

We don’t know how Mephibosheth was raised, but there is every temptation to believe that he grew up wallowing in self-pity, despair, and cynicism. After all, he had seen the palace… but was brought to maturity in a wasteland, forced to suffer the dual indignities of anonymity and dependence on others. It’s easy to think that day after day he was taught that everything bad that had ever happened to him was David’s fault, and that he grew up resentful and angry.

The events of which you just heard, in II Samuel 9, take place about twenty years later. David has finally been established as king over all of Israel and he has succeeded in securing the nation’s borders and building a capital. Now, he finds that he has the time and the opportunity to reach out to Saul’s family in an effort to keep the promise he’d made to his best friend, Jonathan. He asks his staff whether there are any survivors to be found.

They call one of the long-time palace employees, a man named Ziba, into the room, and he replies “Well, as a matter of fact, there is one guy. He’s a cripple, and he’s been holed up in Dead Man’s Gulch for as long as anyone can remember.”

David asks Ziba a question, and the reply is that the person being sought is worthless. He’s not named. He lives in the middle of nowhere. And he’s not much good to anyone, because he’s disabled. Ziba does everything he can to minimize Mephibosheth’s personhood.

David calls for Mephibosheth to appear before him, and the young man comes before the king cringing with fear.

I want you to pay attention to this: what is the first word that David speaks to this man who is on his knees, eyes averted?

“Mephibosheth!”

David speaks his name. David acknowledges his worth. Where everything about his upbringing and everyone in his culture would say that he is worthless, David recognizes Mephibosheth’s personhood by using his name.

Mephibosheth kneeling before David; detail from the Maciejowski Bible (13th Century)

That’s crucial, because in the next sentence he announces his intention. In our English translation, we hear “I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan.”

This is an unfortunate translation, but it’s understandable. When we use the word “kind” in American culture today, we think it refers to being “nice” or “polite”. If you are “kind” to someone else, it means that you’re showing some momentary generosity of spirit… The other night, I was out on the river and a couple of guys were having some boat problems. I had a couple of spare parts they could use. I handed them off the fellas and then drove away. It was a nice thing to do.

You’re driving in rush hour and all of a sudden a minivan filled with screaming kids and out-of-state plates swerves in front of you just before the Fort Pitt Bridge. You slow down to make space for them. You smile. Because you’re a kind person who does nice things.

Except that’s not what the Bible is talking about here. When David says, “I will show you kindness”, the word that is used is chesed. If you look at a variety of translations, you’ll see that people try to express the meaning of this word as “kindness” or “loving-kindness” or “mercy” or “steadfast love” or even “loyalty”. It’s tricky, because there really is no English equivalent. Those of you who have had the exquisite joy of sitting in my study for six or eight premarital conversations might recall the emphasis that I place on the word “troth”, and for my money, that’s the best equivalent there is for chesed – except that nobody but me really uses the word “troth” in a sentence that frequently. Chesed, like troth, conveys elements of love, loyalty, generosity, and faithfulness that are willingly and eagerly extended to one with whom I desire relationship.

That last qualifier is what makes “kindness” or “niceness” poor substitutes: one can only show chesed to someone in the context of a relationship. One does not act in chesed to a stranger, any more than one pledges one’s troth to the person who just sat down next to them on the bus.

Chesed is used 240 times in the Old Testament, and it is almost always preceded by a word like “doing” or “keeping” or “showing”. It is a word full of integrity and intentionality that bears fruit in concrete ways, and it is one of the central attributes of God. For instance,

  • Isaiah 54:10: Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
  • Lamentations 3:22-23: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
  • Or even in Psalm 103, which you’ve already read this morning as a part of our assurance of pardon: For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…

It is important for us to note that in II Samuel 9, David is choosing to act like God in this context. He says that he wants to show and to keep chesed with Mephibosheth and his family. He lives that out by restoring to him his grandfather’s land, which guarantees this family an income and an inheritance. Furthermore, he elevates this formerly anonymous non-person to a place of prestige by insisting that Mephibosheth eat at the king’s table. Can you imagine the difference between dinnertime in Lo-Debar and the feasting of the royal table in Jerusalem?

David is referred to in the Bible as “a man after God’s own heart”, and I think that today’s reading is a great example of that. He is seeking out someone who has been pushed to the fringes of society and choosing to engage with him with a generosity of spirit and a steadfastness of purpose that brings healing and hope in the context of an intentional, ongoing relationship.

The third time we see Mephibosheth mentioned in II Samuel, it’s under very different circumstances. It takes place about ten or fifteen years after this meeting and presumably, Mephibosheth and David have been present to each other for all these years. David’s son, Absalom, is intent on seizing the kingdom and so he starts an insurrection. Everyone in Jerusalem has to decide: whose side are you on? David’s? Or Absalom’s?

The rebellion intensifies so much that David is forced to flee the capital. As he’s running out of the city, he encounters Ziba, the man who’s been charged to care for Mephibosheth’s affairs. They greet each other, and Ziba assures David of his loyalty. David asks where Mephibosheth is, and Ziba throws his master under the bus, saying that Mephibosheth has always hated David and that he’s stayed behind in Jerusalem in the hopes that David’s reign will collapse and Mephibosheth can become king.

David is, understandably, irked by this revelation, and so he gives Ziba all of Mephibosheth’s property on the spot.

Absalom’s rebellion ends with his death, and David returns to the city having won a military victory, but having lost a son, and a great deal more. He’s wrapped in grief and regret. When he gets to the palace, he discovers that Mephibosheth is there to greet him – and Mephibosheth is in mourning – he’s unshaven, he hasn’t bathed or changed his clothes – he’s a mess… but he’s so happy to see David! Mephibosheth manages to convince David that Ziba was lying, but the best that David can come up with in this time of grief and crisis is, “You know what? You guys work it out. Divide the property between yourselves.”

At this point, Mephibosheth responds by blurting out, “Property? Shoot – he can take the whole place! I’m so happy that you’re all right. That’s what really matters to me!”

The chesed with which David treated Mephibosheth over the years had come to bear fruit. The fearful, angry, resentful anonymous man who had grown up in Lo-Debar was now a friend who sought to treat David with the same chesed he himself had received. Mephibosheth has totally left the bitterness and self-pity of Lo-Debar and embraced David with the embrace that he himself received. The community has been substantively changed because of this relationship of chesed.

So what?

I mean, really, it is a great story – but what does it mean for us today?

We are made in the image of God. We are made to be like God. It’s not only David who is called to act as a person who is “after God’s own heart”.

Yes, you say. We get that, you say.

But too often, we think that acting like God means being “nice”. We think that being good Christians means being bland, polite, people who aren’t interested in making waves of disturbing anything.

But take a look at David. Consider Jesus of Nazareth, or those who followed him. The day that Jesus died, there was nobody who stood at the foot of the cross and said, “Now, you know what? That’s a real shame. I mean, this Jesus was a nice guy.”

When Peter or Paul or any of the rest of that crew blew into town and started preaching the Gospel and showing the love of Christ, nobody’s first thought was how well-mannered and polite these nice young religious boys were.

These people who were sold out to the heart of God and passionate about the love of Christ reached out to real people, dealt with real problems, and showed real love. They moved in chesed.

As should we.

For some of us, that means that it’s time for us to get up and move out of Lo-Debar. We’ve suffered greatly, perhaps as a result of someone’s intentional action or perhaps as a result of some unfortunate accident… but in either case it’s left us angry and bitter and living in the place of desolation… and it’s killing us. Some of us are called to open ourselves to the God who is reaching toward us in chesed and accept the truth that new beginnings are possible and healing of our damaged selves is the divine intent.

And all of us are called to live our lives in such a way so that there are fewer “nobodies” in our lives. We are called to learn people’s stories and to speak people’s names. You can see that in so many ways here. After worship, in fact, a group of people called the “connectors” will meet. Their goal is to make sure that people in this community are remembered. On the front of the bulletin every week we are told that one of the main purposes of this congregation is “to share life’s joys and sorrows.” The Connectors try to make sure that we don’t do that in the abstract, but that we know the stories of the people we sit next to each week.

We saw it again on Monday evening. A group of young people took a big fat check down to the Presbytery to be used for famine relief. But here’s the deal. Those kids are not interested in “feeding the hungry”. They are committed to sharing their resources and themselves with their partners in faith and their brothers and sisters in Malawi and South Sudan. They want to act in chesed towards those with whom we are connected by a vibrant relationship. We know each other’s names. We’ve eaten at each other’s tables.

I’ll be honest with you – if you want to follow Jesus, being nice helps.

But you can’t do it without a willingness to enter into real (and sometimes messy) relationships with real (and often irritating) people who are in all sorts of real (and often complex) situations. The challenge for you, people of God, is to spend some time learning their names, hearing their stories, and showing them the chesed in which you yourself have walked. Thanks be to God. Amen.

How’s the Water?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to listen for our story in the stories of the Book of Judges.  On January 26 we sat once more with the disturbing character of Samson, perhaps the greatest and undoubtedly the worst of the Judges.  Our text included selected verses from Judges 14 as well as I Peter 2:9-12.

TwoFishDid you hear about the two young fish who were swimming along and encountered an older fish?  “Morning, boys!  How’s the water?” he said as he passed them.  He went on his way.  After a few moments, one of the pair turned to his friend and said, “Water? What the hell is water?”[1]

I love that little story because it reminds us how easy it is to forget the fact that we exist in a culture.  Every day, we make decisions and choices based on what we, or what “everyone” knows.  This morning, as we continue to explore the book of Judges, we see how the story of Samson illustrates for us the ways in which it is so easy to allow someone or something else to define our environment and expectations.  When that happens, rather than looking towards God’s best, I am simply swimming thoughtlessly and often faithlessly along with the tide.

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

Let’s think about what we know already from last week’s reading.  Why was Samson born? “To begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:5)  God is sending this person into the world so that God’s people might have an alternative way of living – so that they can reject the slavery, oppression, violence, and greed that characterize the cultures around them and live into the purposes of God.

So Samson is going to begin this.  How?  What is distinctive about this baby?  He is called to be a Nazirite.  One who is set apart, or consecrated.

OK, do you remember what a Nazirite looks and acts like? Are there rules for this sort of thing?  Of course.  Samson is not to allow his hair or beard to be cut; he is to avoid contact with anything related to grapes; and he is to avoid becoming unclean by contact with the dead, or by eating anything unclean.

That’s what we learned last week, and when we left chapter 13, young Samson was beginning to experience the Spirit of the Lord.

In chapter 14, which we did not read, he falls in love with a Philistine woman. Yes, that’s right.  The one who has been sent into the world in order to “deliver us” from the Philistines now finds himself drooling at the thought of marrying one.  That’s a funny way to deliver us…like sponsoring a “Gambler’s Anonymous” meeting at the casino.  But, well, you know…young love…

And so on his way to visit this young beauty, he has an encounter with a lion as he is taking the shortcut through the vineyard.  An observant reader such as yourself might think, “Self, I thought Nazirites were supposed to avoid contact with grapes.  Why is this Nazirite hanging around vineyards, let alone sponsoring a seven-day feast “as was customary” at the wedding?”

Hmmm.

This sounds like a lot of grape wine.

At a Nazirite’s wedding.

To a Philistine girl.

The author of Judges reveals Samson as one who time after time receives the blessing or the empowerment of God, but who takes that blessing lightly.  More than any other character in this book of Judges, “the Spirit of the Lord” comes to Samson, but nearly every single time he uses the benefit of that encouragement and strengthening to vent some petty, vengeful, selfish rage.  The impression one gets is that Samson is a shallow hothead, and if we are honest, we see that the one who was born to begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines is, in fact, acting just like them.

Remember, my theory is that the book of Judges was given to describe the choices we make, and to consider in what ways we are willing to embrace God’s intentions of justice, freedom, and joy.

How’s the water, Samson?

In the passage you heard this morning from chapter 15, we discover that the leaders of the nation of Israel are turning Samson over to the Philistine authorities.  Why? Because evidently, they fear the Philistines more than they trust God.  Did you hear what they said to Samson?  “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us?”  Last week, we noted that the people of Israel didn’t cry out when they were suffering the oppression of the Philistines.  Here, we see that they take it as normal.  It’s just the water that they’re swimming in, that’s all.

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

The leaders of Israel cave in to the purposes of their Philistine rulers.  Samson hides out in selfishness and anger, and when he is finally brought face to face with them, the Spirit of God comes upon him.  And when the Spirit of the Almighty fills him, our hero, the Nazirite, grabs… the jawbone of a donkey.  A dead donkey.

Nazirite rule #1 – no grapes.  Gone.

Nazirite rule #2 – no contact with the dead.  Gone.

And in spite of that, Samson overpowers the enemy and slays a thousand men.  With the jawbone of a dead donkey.

And then, for the first time in his life that we can see, Samson cries out to God.  Do you remember how many times the book of Judges contains the phrase, “and the people cried out to God to save them from their enemies…”?  When the people realized how weary they were of sin and death and slavery and idolatry?  Do you remember when the people prayed BIG prayers and said, “Lord, save us”?

And here, the people don’t pray.  The people have given their leader over to the enemy.  One man prays.  And he doesn’t even pray a big prayer.  He asks for a drink of water.

Do you see how the faith is being diminished here?

Yes, God responds – because God’s grace is amazing.  But doesn’t this whole set-up seem wrong?  This can’t be what God had in mind when he brought the Children of Israel to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey – to a life characterized by God’s presence and God’s purposes.

It’s not.  Look at the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson “led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.”  Do you see?  God’s people.  God’s hopes.  But Philistine days.

How’s the water?  It’s Philistine water.  And what has happened in the last fifteen chapters is that our people have become increasingly defined by the purposes of others.  We have lost sight of the Lord and accept as truth conditions imposed by powers in our world – powers that defy the truth and beauty of God.

We believe lies, and we live as though we can’t change them.

And this is what is so frustrating and disappointing to me on January 26, 2014: that the people of God in so many ways continue to live in the days of the Philistines.  We continue to accept as truth the lies of the enemy, and to pretend that there is nothing we can do to change that.

We see that in our world.  This week, Oxfam released a report indicating that the world’s wealthiest 85 individuals have a combined worth that equals that of the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people.  One group of people, who could ride in a single Megabus (as if that is ever going to happen), are richer than the number of people who currently live in North and South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and Europe.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

When that statistic came out this week, there was a collective yawn.  A few folks talked about “class warfare”. Some raised questions of justice.  But mostly, the people I talk to said something like, “Well, what are you going to do?  That’s the way that the world is. The rich get richer.”

They do.  We do.  But although these are the waters in which we are currently swimming, they are not the waters of God’s intentions for the earth.  I do not deny anyone the right to work hard and to benefit from his or her labor.  But as George Monbiot has said, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

I don’t know how to fix it, but I would suggest that a world in which wealth and power flow increasingly from the many to the few is a world that looks more like the slavery and oppression of Egypt rather than the justice and sufficiency of the Promised Land.  The Church of Jesus Christ worships a savior who was born in poverty, raised as a refugee, lived as a homeless man, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.  We don’t need to attack the rich – but we dare not forget the poor and work for justice.

GunDrawing001In our own nation, we live in the days of the Philistines.  Every year, more than 30,000 human beings are killed in the United States by guns.  Every day, 32 Americans are murdered with firearms.  Every day, 8 children die of gunshots.

Now hold your horses, Second-Amendment Sally.  And don’t get all worked up, Gun-control Gus.  I don’t want to start an argument about strategy right now.  What I hope is that the people of God in the USA in 2014 can think about those numbers – 30,000 deaths in a year, 32 murders in a day – and say, “You know, that’s too many.”

Can the NRA and the people from the Brady Campaign agree on much? Nope.  But can the church of Jesus Christ say that it is not acceptable to simply say, “Hey, it happens.  People die.  Nothing we can do.”

Again, I don’t know what the answer is – I only know that this water is making me sick.  We will disagree on strategies and on policies and maybe even priorities.  If we knew that once a year, somewhere in the USA, a building the size of PNC Park was going to be wiped out, would we want to do something?  I hope so.  In the same way, I hope that we can begin to think that maybe losing 30,000 people a year to gun violence is preventable – that there are solutions that honor individual rights and responsibilities.  People of faith need to be talking about how to end illegal gun sales.

following-the-crowd_thumbAnd it’s not just in our world or in our nation.  It’s in our own lives.  How often do we allow the culture around us to define who we are, or who we are becoming?  We cheat on the test.  We drive like maniacs.  We get drunk and act like idiots.  We participate in all kinds of behavior which is less than God’s best for us.  Why?  Because everyone else is doing it.

Listen, beloved – this is not a sermon on the distribution of wealth or guns or personal choices.  It’s a call to be the people who know that the place we live in isn’t always shaped by God’s intentions but who act like those intentions are still valid.

When we live like this, we refuse to throw up our hands in despair over the evils of racism, domestic violence, or anything else, saying “What are you gonna do?”

When we live like this, we refuse to behave as if these are the “days of the Philistines” and we seek to act reflecting the love and mercy and justice of Jesus of Nazareth.  When we live like this, we acknowledge that our lives point to a greater truth.

The Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson and he slew a thousand Philistines in a fit of rage.  And for doing that, he got his picture in the Bible coloring books.  He’s a hero.

But can we conceive of a reality where the Spirit comes upon Samson and instead of satisfying his personal vendetta he used the power he got from God to establish justice?  Could Samson have used that power from God differently?

To be honest, that’s a rhetorical question, and right now I’m not particularly interested in that.

What I do want to know, this morning, is this:

What will you do, in the waters where you are swimming right now, when the Spirit of God comes upon you?

In whose days do you live?  What makes you sigh and say, “What are you gonna do?”

And what are the intentions of the God that you worship and serve? And how do you point to them…even if no one else can see them right now?  And will you help me point to them, too?  Because unlike Samson, we are not in this alone.  Let us work together to discover and demonstrate the purposes of God in and for this place. Amen.


[1]  Adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College

Give Us A Sign!

Advent worship continued at Crafton Heights on Sunday 15 December.  We heard God’s word from Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11:2-11.

If you have a Facebook account, you know what I’m talking about.  If you use email, you understand.  In fact, if you have ever, even once, logged on to the internet, you have gotten a message, tagged “urgent”, entitled something like, “Guys, check this out!” or “Hey, this is amazing!”  You have seen them plastered all over your virtual wall.

cute-facebook-timeline-covers-kittensKittens.

Cute, adorable, cuddly and playful.  Kittens.  Oh, there are a few puppies thrown in.  Some photogenic children.  But mostly, it’s kittens.

Why?  Seriously, why?  Not “For the love of God, man, please make it stop!” why?, but simply, “Why?”  What is it about the kittens – or, more likely, what is it about us – that makes this seem like a good use of the kind of technology that has sent humans to the moon and toppled dictatorships?

9481510-newspaper-cuttings-and-headlines-natural-disasters-and-tragediesI have a theory.  It’s not supported by anyone, so far as I can tell.  But this is what I think: I believe that in an over-stimulated, over-connected world that is now linked to a 24/7 news cycle, we need to know that there is still good news.  We are weary of the shootings, the racism, the debilitating poverty and the unending stream of negativity and….awwwww, kittens!  Aren’t they adorable?beautiful-christmas-cats-hanging-wallpaper

To put it Biblically, we want a sign.  We want to know that what we see isn’t everything, and that what we face is not interminable.  We want to hope that things are different than they sometimes appear to be.

And if we, the richest, healthiest, longest-lived, most-medicated generation the planet has ever seen – if we need to know that things get better and that beauty exists, well, then imagine the audience that showed up to hear Isaiah preach.  They were captives who descended from people who had been forcibly removed from their homes in Israel.  They’d lived for a generation in Babylon, the enemy capital.  They were aware that whatever passed for home back in Palestine had been destroyed and overrun; they were unable to fully worship; they were immersed in a foreign culture; and they wondered what was true.  They wondered if hope was something that they could afford, and if faith was worthwhile.

01. DESERT HILLS.And the prophet says, “Yes.  Yes, there is a future.”  And he starts with an image that they understand: he says, “Do you know what happens to the desert after it rains for a couple of days? How the dull brown apparently unending death is jolted with new life and color and vibrancy?  Well, beloved, that can happen in your world, too.  God’s purposes are for life and good.  The heat and the parchedness do not win.  Life wins.  desert_flowersRedemption is God’s intent.”  And then the old prophet and preacher gives his neighbors a sign that God is not finished with them yet.  Some parts of that sermon and sign, like blind people seeing or redeemed people returning home must seem impossibly distant.  Yet other aspects of those purposes are as close as the next rain shower.  There is good news for Isaiah’s people.

And for us.  We want a sign, too.

And yet if we, the most literate, technologically-advanced, nutritionally blessed generation with the cutest children and grandchildren ever imagined – if we want a sign, well, imagine how John the Baptist felt.

We heard about John last week.  Do you remember him, out in the desert, eating locusts, wearing the camel hair shirts?  When we last saw him, he was riding the wave of public opinion.  The crowds were coming out to see him and be baptized; he had challenged the religious and political leadership of his day.  After that, he found himself asking the king some tricky moral questions and wound up imprisoned for his troubles.  I can’t imagine that is what he thought was supposed to happen.  And so he wonders, “Is it true?  All this stuff I’ve said about the coming Kingdom…can I count on it?  Or am I wrong?  Have I wasted my life?”

 Used by permission © suntreeriver design

Used by permission © suntreeriver design

He sends his followers to ask Jesus, who is quick to reply: “Look, you fellows run back and tell John what you’ve heard.  Describe what you’ve seen.  The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, and good news is being preached to the poor!”  John’s reality appears otherwise, but this is exactly what old Isaiah was talking about.  God is on the move.  Grace is his intent.  Healing is real.  Love wins.

And, as readers of Matthew know, Jesus unleashed the new reality in amazing ways.  He spoke the truth.  He gave us God’s design.  He pointed to God’s future.  Jesus was, as we all know, amazing.

Yet the reality is that the future that Jesus described and to which Isaiah pointed is, in many ways, still the future.  Oh, none of us is in exile, really.  None of our neighbors are in prison for making helpful comments about the King’s sexual adventures.  And nobody we know is facing crucifixion.

And yet…and yet…we know that the world is not as it should be.  The world that we live and breathe and work and shop and play in is too full of abuse, debilitating poverty, addiction, persecution, and death.

And like the Israelites, and like John, we need to know that what we see is not all there is.  Our neighbors and our world need to be reminded that we will not always be where we are now; things will not always be as they are now.

To put it another way, we say that we are in Advent, a time of waiting.  Well, if we are willing to dedicate a portion of our lives to waiting, we must acknowledge that for which we wait.  If we say that we hope, we must point to that for which we hope.  We want a sign.

Beloved, this is the truth: you are the sign for this time and this place.  This congregation is a living reminder of the coming reality that God has promised to his creation.  The people in exile, and John in his prison, and folk up in down this street and across this city say, “Show me a sign”, and God holds up…well, YOU.

CHUP WorshipYou know, thank God, that God is a God who speaks.  Your presence here gives witness to the fact that you believe God has a word – not just for Hebrew slaves and first century prophets, but for our world.  You show that sign by your willingness to engage in worship together.  Your worship is strong and intergenerational.  It is full of the real parts of life – we laugh and we cry.

BaptismYou point to this God who speaks in other ways as you seek to understand the written Word.  Adult Faithbuilders discussions center on the Bible.  There are vibrant studies in the evenings for adults.  Your children and grandchildren are learning how to listen for and honor God’s word.

And this God who has spoken and still speaks calls us together in community.  Every week the front of the bulletin reminds us that a part of why we are called together is to “share life’s joys and sorrows”.  And you do that.

I have noticed here that when the specter of death emerges among you, as it does everywhere, no one is alone.  When the gift of life appears in your midst, there is shared joy.  When someone you love – or are learning to love, is in need of healing – you point to it.  You are learning what it means to be God’s people with and for each other.  You are recognizing that when we know God and seek to participate in his kingdom, we can’t do it alone.  We can only do it with and for others, whom we are learning to love and trust and serve.

IMG_6851And this God who speaks and calls us together empowers us to share his intentions with the world.  We believe that while there is great suffering and pain and dysfunction in the world, God’s purposes are greater still.  And so this congregation, this year, launched a ministry that wound up feeding 1300 starving families in 8 apparently forgotten African villages for three of the toughest months they’ve known.

This congregation, at this time, serves as a welcome beacon for dozens of neighborhood children who long to know that they are important to someone and that they can thrive in this community.  The Open Door ministry is a tangible sign of God’s love and presence on our street.OpenDoor

Downstairs, there is a food pantry that is bulging at the seams.  Three weeks ago, we thought we wouldn’t have enough food to share with hungry neighbors, and so someone stood up here and said that we thought we needed more.  And earlier this week I walked into the room downstairs and one of our most dedicated volunteers was complaining because there wasn’t room for all the food that was coming in.  God’s intentions for abundance are evident for our neighbors in tough times.

And to a generation that wants to see a sign and that was raised on visual imagery, I have one more.  This is one of our partners in our newest mission endeavor located in South Sudan.  Some of you know that for generations, folk from the north of that country have raided the south and stolen people into slavery.  This video clip is an image of a Christian leader who has brought a group of former slaves home to their village in the south. The Christian community in South Sudan and around the world has come together and now those who have lived in captivity are being reunited with their loved ones – because of the Gospel and Christ.  

These things are amazing!  They are fantastic, beautiful, wonderful signs of a God who comes.

I don’t want to sugarcoat things, or pretend that we live in a world without problems.  We know well enough that every day is a challenge.  I am very aware of the fact that it was all some of us could do to get out of bed and drag ourselves in here this morning, and we are preparing to go home to pain, to dis-ease, to a secret or shame that threatens to overwhelm us.  We are sinful and broken people who live in a world that is profoundly disrupted by sin and brokenness.  I know – believe you me, I know that sin and brokenness are unwelcome intruders.

But now, and here, I proclaim to you – and you to each other – that deserts do bloom.  That the deaf can and will hear.  That the poor can eat.  That the dying do receive new lungs. That those enslaved – by hostile neighbors, by abusive relationships, by debilitating drugs – that all those enslaved can be freed.  Addictions can be broken.  I proclaim that as the message from the God who speaks, who calls us together, and who sends us out.  And, seriously, my friends, isn’t that way better than kittens?

What remains is for you to explore what that means for you.  God is opening a new way of life in Jesus Christ.  That’s wonderful and amazing.  So what?

How are God’s intentions, promised to Israel and revealed in Jesus Christ, evident in your life?  How are you participating in those things with this, the body of Christ in this time and this place?

Celebrate those intentions now.  Point to them in your life.  Live the grace and truth of God, and share it as a sign, in your life this week.  Thanks be to God for this wonderful gift!  Amen.

Caring for Bodies that Nurture Spirits

The primary purpose of this leg of the Africa Mission 2013 is to encourage the relief and development work that the Synod of Blantyre has done implementing the “A-Maize-ing Grace” famine relief/avoidance program. As has been documented Previously, that went off very well.

From left: ZTC Principal Kutundu, Jeff Tindall, and Vice-Principal Gunya

From left: ZTC Principal Kutundu, Jeff Tindall, and Vice-Principal Gunya

On Tuesday 5 February, we had the opportunity to explore an offshoot of that project. When my old friend the Rev. Daniel Gunya, now Vice-Principal at the Zomba Theological College, heard about the famine relief program, he asked if there was some way that the students at ZTC might benefit. These young men and women have been sponsored by their home Synods to undertake the training necessary for them to be ordained into the ministry as Presbyterian or Anglican pastors. The college operates on a shoestring and he knew that these students, most of whom are far from their homes, would face significant challenges.

We contacted our friends at the World Mission Initiative and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and they responded enthusiastically. The seminary sponsored a special offering at their Christmas worship, and students and staff also participated through the WMI office. Those funds, when topped off by a contribution from the First U. P. Church of Crafton Heights, came to $2500.

The symbolic presentation of Maize to the President of the Student Government Association.

The symbolic presentation of Maize to the President of the Student Government Association.

We arrived at the Theological College on Tuesday afternoon and met with the Administrative Team, several faculty members, and representatives of the student body and the Student Government Association. We learned that through purchasing in bulk and using a vehicle from the Synod, that money enabled the College to give each student and staff worker a whopping 75 kg (150 lbs.) of maize and 10 kg (20 lbs) each of rice and beans. Rev. Gunya said that would probably be enough to see most of those families through the middle or end of March! It was truly a gift to be able to witness God’s provision in this way.

ZTC students inspecting the storehouse of maize, beans, and rice.

ZTC students inspecting the storehouse of maize, beans, and rice.

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What was equally thrilling to those of us from the PC(USA) was the interest that the faculty and administration had in our recent discussions of partnership between Blantyre Synod, Pittsburgh Presbytery, and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. They asked a lot of questions about the training that our colleagues in South Sudan had received, and are eager to explore the possibilities of exchanging theological students. I felt blessed to be a part of the global church this day.

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And all day…rain. Lots and lots of rain. It made the drive back to Blantyre, shall we say, “interesting” (let’s just say that the fact that I had a four wheel drive vehicle made it fun, not frightening!). But everywhere you look, the gardens are green and growing. Thanks be to God for the promise of harvest!

Enough!

There is enough.

Isn’t that our story?

God planted humanity in a garden and said, “Take what you need…there is enough.”

God’s people wandering through the desert – a desert of sin, of sand, of isolation…but there was manna. And it was enough.

Elijah went to the widow in Zarephath, and told her to fix him a little something. “There’ll be enough,” he said. And there was.

Five thousand men and their families wanted to hear Jesus speak, but they were having a hard time doing so because of the rumbling in their bellies. And so The Lord took a little bread and a few fish, and passed it around, and there was enough. More than enough, actually.

Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth, and said “You know, the folks back in Jerusalem are having a hard, hard time. Seems like there ought to be enough, somewhere. I just wish we could spread some of it over there.” And they did.

And there was.

Enough.

I saw it again, today.

I don’t suppose that anyone is going to write any books about it. It’s clearly not scripture-worthy. But oh, my. There was enough.

imageWe went to the village of Chifunga. You never heard of it, I’m sure. The bustling metropolis of Mwanza (sarcasm alert) is about thirty minutes to the west, and the city (truth) of Blantyre is about two hours to the east.

Chifunga, like much of Malawi, was plagued by drought last year. The subsistence farmers who live there are close to the margins. In a good year, they harvest enough in April to feed them for 12 months. 2012 was not a good year. In Chifunga, like much of Malawi, there was not enough.

The irony is that we the rains have been good. The corn (maize) is five or six feet high in some places. The cobs are forming. Bt they are not ripe. And many people in Chifunga have no food. Had no food. Until today, when there was enough.

Maize, beautiful maize.

Maize, beautiful maize.

We gathered outside the little church. A couple of hundred people, including a quartet of Traditional Authorities (chiefs), the local District Councilman, church leaders, members of the Blantyre Synod Health & Development Commission, and representatives from the Partnership team. Using a variety of measures, the BSHDC has identified 1300 families in the Mwanza region who are at risk for food insecurity (read, “they have eaten their last harvest 90 days before the next one will be ready”). And 128 of those people live within a 15-20 kilometer radius of Chifunga.

Thanks to the A-maize-ing grace project, 128 families received 50 kg. (100 lbs.) bags of maize today. In a month, they will get another bag. And in two months, they will receive a third bag.

Hunger knows no age limit...

Hunger knows no age limit…

Which means that they can let the promising crops ripen without trying to eat them too early. Which means that the will have the energy necessary to work in the fields to ensure that the crops come in. They have enough now…which means that there’s a good chance that they will have enough next year.

Heading for home, where there will be enough.

Heading for home, where there will be enough.

Enough.

Doesn’t that word sound wonderful?

Biblical?

Redemptive, even?

Thanks be to God, there is enough.

For more about the A-maize-ing grace project, The Malawi Partnership Home Page or My blog entry on that topic.

The Waiting Game

I love to travel. Regular readers of this site will find that perhaps the greatest understatement of the week, if not longer.

But more than that, I love to travel as a missionary. Almost always, anyway. And I know, I know – on the one hand, I’m most definitely not a “real missionary”, because I get to do this a couple of weeks, or maybe a month each year. and I also know that in another sense, every believer is a missionary every day. But some days…well, some days it’s a little easier to feel holier than others. Let me explain.

Sometimes, the work that travelers get to do is simply amazing. You finally get face to face with some partners, or you are able to dig deeply into a project, and WOW! There is no greater feeling in the world than being dead tired because you have expended your body, mind, and spirit in some great cause. One of the things that draws me into this kind of trip is that feeling of exhilaration that comes from knowing you have committed yourself and all the best that is in you to some great cause, idea, or friendship and coming back to the guest house in the evening realizing that such an expenditure has paid off in some way. It doesn’t matter if the travel is to Malawi or Texas or to the North Side of Pittsburgh – there is something wonderful about leaving the normal pace of life and concentrating fully on a different work. It is one way in which I become more fully engaged in the whole of my life – that which I have temporarily left, and that which I am temporarily embraced. Going “all in” brings a certain freedom.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, mission travel is, well, boring. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, of course. One of the great mission travelers in history pointed this out in a passage that those of us in the 21st century would do well to remember. When the apostle Paul writes to his friends in Galatia about the early days of his work, he throws out a phrase that just about sneaks by.

“Fourteen years later…” (Galatians 2:1) Seriously? FOURTEEN YEARS LATER? Yes, that’s what the man said. Lots of times, you are sitting in meetings, dreaming dreams and casting vision with your mission partners, or you are in the field getting your hands dirty or teaching or worshiping.

But lots of time, to be honest, you are sitting. And waiting. And sitting some more. Just as Paul spent 14 years waiting in Tarsus before God equipped him to take the next step.

When you book a cruise or plan your trip to, say, the great capitals of Europe, you do so knowing that you have a certain amount of time and there are certain things that you’ll need to do. Itineraries are planned weeks, months, or years in advance. And while it takes a little fiddling around to get the pieces to fit perfectly, you can do that, because you know when the Eiffel Tower wills be open, what time the show starts at the theater, and how long you’ll be able to stay at the Coliseum. You pay a guide service or invest your own energies into making sure that not a moment of time is wasted.

But when we travel in mission, we are often exploring an itinerary, or waiting to see what develops. Rather than employing a guide, you are engaging a partner – one who may face a variety of challenges and other commitments. More than that, you are seeking to be open to the movement of the Spirit in an ever-shifting landscape.

Our intrepid crew on the banks of the Nile.

Our intrepid crew on the banks of the Nile.


And so it was that Monday, January 28 found six deeply committed spirits doing, well, nothing for ten hours. We had had wonderful discussions about partnership and engaged deeply in worship and been immersed in the rhythm of life in South Sudan. But n Monday, our partners had a lot to do with their General Assembly. And it became apparent that they could do it better if they were not saddled with the additional burden of translating every aspect of the experience into English, or making sure that we were properly hydrated or knew where the toilets were. Sunday night, it had been the absolute right thing for us to be at the General Assembly. How I wish that I could have captured the enthusiasm and appreciation with which we were received. Our coming to stand with these partners who were trying to live into a new identity in a new place was received exactly as we had intended. In particular, seeing the way that the commissioners greeted the Rev. Mercy Chilupula was a gift! The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church does not ordain women, but they were blessed by the presence of a strong and faithful woman leader that night.

But the next morning, things were different. So we said, “Please, just let us rest somewhere for a few hours where we will not distract you.” Our hosts took us to a small inn along the western bank of the Nile River, where we expected to spend a few hours admiring the mighty river, using the Internet, and simply relaxing. That was the plan.

However, the wireless service was barely functional, the riverine view lost its appeal after five hours or so, and the heat was intense. I wish I could say that one of these six brilliant minds came up with a way to redeem that time – that we held an unanticipated council wherein we solved one or more of the world’s great problems. Yes, it would be nice to say that. Only it would be a lie.

Some sort of a waxbill, but I know not what...

Some sort of a waxbill, but I know not what…

We did see some beautiful birds, and revel in the historic river. For a time. We read, we chatted, and we exchanged faith stories. Some. But we also dozed, sighed, griped, and fretted – we hadn’t come to do this. But whatever fruit comes from this trip, I think, will have been made possible, perhaps, because we chose to wait on this day.

On Sunday evening, Mike Uko said that the CCAP Blantyre Synod and Pittsburgh Presbytery had been together for 21 years, and maybe it was time for that partnership to give birth to something new. Mike’s imagery was very helpful to me as I recalled long hours in hospital waiting rooms – time that I have spent, in some ways, enormously “inefficiently”. It just doesn’t make good sense to sit somewhere simply waiting, when there is often so much to DO. But some days, waiting is all you can do.

Yellow-billed Kites were everywhere!

Yellow-billed Kites were everywhere!


The truth is, our Sudanese partners did have a great deal of DOING to do, and they didn’t need us at that moment any more than the OB/GYN needed me the day that my daughter was born. Yet on Tuesday morning, when Jeff Tindall prayed with the Sudanese assembly, and we shared our joy at what they had been able to do, the waiting of Monday was Paul into perspective.

Years ago, Desmond Tutu wrote, “the privilege is ours to share in the loving”. Sometimes that sharing looks a lot like hammering or sweating or praying or doing. And sometimes that sharing looks a lot like waiting. The Apostle knew that. The church has always known that. And I am learning that. Again.

Ironic post-script dept: two hours after completing this little missive, the vehicle in which we were to take the four hour drive from Lilongwe to Blantyre broke down, so the aforementioned humble and patient missionaries had the chance to live into its truth whilst waiting in the rain for plans B, C, or D to develop. It was tough to gripe after having just written this. I get it, Lord.

South Sudan/Malawi Journey 2013

On January 22, I will be leaving Pittsburgh for nearly three weeks in Africa so that I might take part in an historic mission trip to the Republic of South Sudan and the Republic of Malawi.  The overall purpose of this journey will be to explore the possibility of formal partnership between Pittsburgh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church USA), Blantyre Synod (Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian), and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.  In addition, I will visit Malawi to witness and encourage the implementation of the “A-MAIZE-ing Grace” Famine Relief program launched by Pittsburgh Presbytery and the Synod of Blantyre several months ago.

I have had the privilege to travel to many places in the world for a variety of reasons.  As I prepare to leave on this journey, my sense of CALL is stronger than it has ever been.  That is a little unusual, because my sense of WHAT I WILL ACTUALLY BE DOING is a little fuzzy.  I believe that I am supposed to go, and that I am supposed to concentrate on BEING more than on DOING in the next few weeks.

For those reasons and more, I ask my friends to join me in prayer.  Here is a little more about the journey.

South Sudan: 24 – 29 January, 2013

map-south-sudanThe Republic of South Sudan was created on July 9, 2011, when more than 98% of the population voted to leave their northern neighbor, Sudan.  This nation is about the size of the US State of Texas and has 36 miles of paved roads.  The population consists of approximately 8 million who earn their living primarily as rural subsistence farmers.  Life has been hard in this nation, which has only known peace for about ten of the last fifty-five years.  The result of this conflicted history has been serious neglect, lack of infrastructure development, and major destruction and displacement. More than 2 million people have died, and more than 4 million are internally displaced persons or became refugees as a result of the civil war and war-related impacts.

Despite more than 50 years of civil war and an infrastructure that is in ruins, a sense of hope now pervades the people of South Sudan. The Republic of South Sudan began nationhood as one of the world’s poorest countries, but it has a landscape with rich natural resources and churches with abundant faith. The PC(USA) is working with its partner churches and organizations to help craft a brighter tomorrow for the people in South Sudan.

During this visit, I will join Pastors Ken White (Southminster Presbyterian Church) and Jeff Tindall (Carnegie Presbyterian Church / Stated Clerk of Pittsburgh Presbytery) will join PC(USA) Mission Co-Worker Michael Weller as we observe the General Assembly of the Southern Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church in the company of our Malawian partners.  Our hope is that this time of face-to-face conversation, worship, and prayer will lead to fruitful discernment as to the possibilities of a formal partnership between two or more of these bodies.  For more information about the Republic of South Sudan, check out the CIA Factbook entry.

Malawi: 29 January – 8 February, 2013Malawi Map

Malawi, a relatively small English-speaking country, is poor and has suffered from drought and floods as well as the spread of HIV/AIDS. Pittsburgh Presbytery, in Partnership with the Synod of Blantyre since 1991, has joined the PC(USA) in supporting the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian’s ministries. We have had a share in such things as include health and development programs focusing on women and children, activities for youth, care for orphans, leadership development, and water and sanitation.   Members of the CCAP were influential in standing up for oppressed minorities in 1994 and bringing about a multiparty democracy.

On January 29, Jeff and I will fly south to Malawi, where they will be welcomed by our long-time partners in the CCAP Blantyre Synod.  Here, we will spend a little more than a week engaged in a number of activities relating to the A-Maize-ing Grace Famine Relief Program.  We will visit the Mwanza district, which is the epicenter of the church’s food distribution program.  In addition, Jeff and I hope to take part in a ceremony at the Zomba Theological College, which has received an outpouring of support from the students and staff at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  While in Malawi, Dave also hopes to reconnect with friends in our partner church, the Mbenjere congregation in the town of Ntaja.  Our congregations have been twinned in ministry since 1995.

The A-Maize-ing Grace Famine Relief effort was launched when we learned that there were more than 2.1 million Malawians at risk for food insecurity in this year’s “hungry season”.  So far, this program has yielded more than $80,000 that will purchase food to supplement the diets of thousands of families in Malawi.  For more information on this program, click here.  For some of my own personal reflections on the origins, please refer to my earlier post on that subject.  If for some reason, you’re my friend and don’t know much about Malawi, you can view the CIA Factbook here.

A-MAIZE-ing Video

If you have not yet seen it, take a minute to watch this fantastic video put together by dear friend and brother Thad Ciechanowski.  And then, by all means, please share the link with anyone and everyone!  If you can’t see it here, the url is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOfYH9K_baM&feature=youtu.be

Specific Prayer Requests include

  • Safe travel to and from these countries.  In addition to our intended destinations, we’ll be flying in and out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Nairobi, Kenya; Lubumshasi, Democratic Republic of Congo; and Rome, Italy.  In addition to the complicated network of air travel, the team will be driving hundreds of miles across a variety of roads in the USA, South Sudan, and Malawi.
  • The ability to be fully present to the people to whom we are being sent.  This request would include prayers for the ability to be physically attentive, spiritually discerning, encouraging, and gracious in conversation.
  • The ability to represent Pittsburgh Presbytery and our home congregations well.
  • The ability to communicate as needed with those who are at home.
  • Growth in our own lives as we learn from these African brothers and sisters whose walk is different from our own.
  • The opportunity to model sound and wise partnership in ministry and mission to any who are observant.

On Friday, March 1, 2013, you are invited to come to a formal report presentation, including photos and stories, at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  The program will begin at 7 pm.  This will be in conjunction with our Youth Group’s spring FAMINE RELIEF FUNDRAISER.  If you show up, we will hit you up for money to support this effort.  You won’t have to give, but you’ll be asked.  Save your pennies!