Texas Mission 2020 Update #5

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Usually, the “work” portion of our week in Texas ends on Thursday afternoon.  That’s when we tidy up loose ends and begin the process of packing up, as Friday is reserved for a drive to San Antonio to prepare for a flight early on Saturday.  This year, however, we found our opportunity cut short in an unexpected fashion: for what I think is the first time in the history of these trips, we were unable to finish a day’s work due to rain.  It was chilly here in the morning – maybe 50° or so – and the mist hung in the air throughout the first half of the day.  By the time we broke for lunch, however, it had turned into a more determined rain.  This is good news for the farmers in the Rio Grande Valley who depend on this rain for their livelihoods, and who have not received much this year.  But it is, of course, disappointing to us and the folks who are counting on getting their homes built.

This trailer was totally enclosed in the structure we demolished on Tuesday and Wednesday. Today we tore it apart for recycling and scrap.

The first step in building Dulce and Pablo’s new home is setting the foundation blocks – there were 28 of them in all. They had to be measured, laid out, and then brought to level.

Lynn, Josie, and I did a little happy dance each time the level told us that we’d finally gotten things squared away!

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the power of friendship and shared experiences to shape lives and mission.  On Thursday, we had the opportunity to dive more deeply into the realm of friendship with those we have become privileged to know and serve in our time here in the RGV.  Our hosts for this week, a couple named Pablo and Dulce, had asked us if we’d be willing to share a noontime meal with them.  When we got to the place in the morning, the charcoal was already hot and the chicken was marinating.  As we worked through the morning, we were enticed by the smells emanating from the home and the grill, and the noontime feast of chicken, sausage, guacamole, rice, onions, and… CHEESECAKE was indeed a festival.  As it became clear that we would be unable to continue to work safely and effectively in the rain, the lunch break went on longer than usual as we shared stories and dreams.  Before we left, we spent some time in prayer with these folks, and in doing so we talked about the ways that Moses prayed for the Promised Land without ever getting to enter it.  In the same way, we stood with Pablo and Dulce in the very first stages of their new home, trusting that it will be built in the days to come.  They’ve insisted that we come back and visit them next year to see them settled in.

The grill is fired up and ready…

… and Pablo is at his post!

What a feast!

Pablo and Dulce

The Texas clay tells the story of why digging wasn’t such a good idea this afternoon…

While most of the crew was on the construction site, Susana returned to the Catholic Charities Hospitality Center in McAllen, where her life experience and linguistic skill make her a valuable volunteer indeed.  While on site, she was able to spend time with a young women who, now 8 1/2 months pregnant, is about to be reunited with her husband in the USA.  In addition, Susana was able to escort a Haitian family (whose journey to the USA has taken them through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, and Mexico at least) to the bus station, where they departed in order to join friends and family in Florida.  If you know geography, you understand that this is about the longest way imaginable to travel the 900 miles from Port Au Prince to Florida…

Next stop: Florida!

A long journey is nearing its end!

When evening rolled around we were privileged to visit a family that we first met in 2015. Our team was privileged to meet Juani and her family as we were assigned to their home five years ago, and we have sought to reconnect with them on our annual visits as well as through social media.  How encouraging it is, and what a blessing, to enter this home that we had a hand in constructing!  What joy it brings to feel the love that reverberates from every wall in that place.  It’s been deeply rewarding to watch the children grow into new places of maturity and development, and to hear about their hopes and dreams.  Juani and her family fed us like royalty, and we ate some of the most amazing beans, chicken, rice, sausage, and “Five Cup Cake” that you can imagine.  The food was dynamite.  The conversations were even better.  Heck, they even had a FaceTime call with our old friend Nemorio, who was present on the 2015 team and was able to greet us in that place.

We didn’t finish all of the labor that we’d hoped to accomplish on Thursday.  A wise mentor of mine once told me (and thereafter reminded me again and again) that in ministry and in life, one very rarely gets to finish – but every day, one must choose to stop.  And so we stopped building, because we had to.  But we engaged in a relational pattern that reminds me of the Gospels.  Time after time we hear of Jesus dropping a truth bomb or sharing great grace with folks in the context of a meal.  He frequently compared the Kingdom of God to a party, or a feast, or a celebration.  When we get to travel to Texas, some of you might think that all we do is eat.  Some days, you’re not wrong.  But as we do so, we know that we have been given the great gifts of fellowship and shared time, characterized by the abundance that the Divine intends for each child of God.  We know more about all of that stuff than we did a week ago, and so we prepare to leave this part of Texas a little heavier and a lot more grateful.  Thanks be to God!

Throwback Thursday: here’s the team in 2015 outside the newly-completed home…

…and here’s the 2020 team celebrating INSIDE the same home!

Tim and Vicky (and, I think, Ricky) in 2015…

Tim and Vicky sharing time together this evening…

I am deeply impressed by the ways that Julio continues to reflect maturity and love in the world. I am privileged to be his friend.

Kimberly was in middle school when we showed up five years ago – and now she’s a senior, contemplating her future. She has so many positive things going on in her life!

Sharing stories around the feast…

When we were preparing to leave, we prayed, and then Vicky asked to read us this note she’d written. It says, “I love you guys with all my heart and I will always love you. I loved how you are funny and I like when you come in my house. And you play with me. And that you [buy] my mom a present. And me dancing when I was little. And that you liked my mom’s food and her cake.  And that you liked Ricky’s pictures of the characters that he likes and that I like.  And thank you for coming to my house.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself…

Texas Mission 2017 #2

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

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

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

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

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

The water line is laid...

The water line is laid…

... as is the septic line...

… as is the septic line…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Texas Mission 2017 #1

In 2009, I had the privilege of joining my friend Stacey and my daughter Ariel on a brief visit to Reynosa Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas.  During that time, we developed an idea in which a group of adults from Crafton Heights could return and engage in a cross-cultural mission experience in partnership with the churches in South Texas and North Mexico.  In 2010, the Church sent a team of 8 adults, and ever since then we’ve been able to enjoy growing relationships with two churches on the Texas side of the border: The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and Solomon’s Porch Faith Community in McAllen.  These two churches have hosted us, fed us, and walked with us as we consider the ways in which God invites us to grow in our understanding of what it means to be one body in Christ.

Each year, we leave Pittsburgh, ostensibly to join together with service agencies such as Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery or Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in order to provide adequate housing for those affected by tragedy.  And we do.  In the days to come, you’ll see photos of us doing something.

But truth be told, I’m here for the food.

Ok, not literally.  But I’m not here only to hold a hammer or a paintbrush.  If that was the only goal, we’d have some cool fundraisers and send a check so that the folks here could hire real painters or drywall hangers.  But we have the fundraisers and send ourselves, because we believe that what happens inside us is as important as anything we might accomplish in the way of home rehab.  And for me, a lot of times that happens around the dinner table as we share stories, remember hardship, and revel in laughter.

Tina learns about Texas hospitality first-hand!

Tina learns about Texas hospitality first-hand!

We arrived in Houston Texas on Saturday morning and drove about six hours south to Mission, Texas.  When we got here, our friends from FPC mission were waiting with beef brisket and smoked turkey and all manner of delicious food.  We shared that meal with our team of 13 and an equal number of Texans.  Sunday morning we had the privilege of worshiping twice: once in English and once in a bilingual service.

In addition to having the largest group ever to travel to Texas, we were greeted by a sizable contingent from First Pres, who prepared and shared a fantastic meal with us.

In addition to having the largest group ever to travel to Texas, we were greeted by a sizable contingent from First Pres, who prepared and shared a fantastic meal with us.

David lays down the blessings at Solomon's Porch (Pastor Danny translating into Spanish).

David lays down the blessings at Solomon’s Porch (Pastor Danny translating into Spanish).

The service at Solomon’s Porch was incredibly personal for our team because David and Joe brought the sermon as they preached about the impact of our recent trip to Malawi (see this post and the ones following for more about that trip!). Our hosts were so moved by the experience that they presented the preachers with a special gift…

Joe talks about the fulness of the body of Christ.

Joe talks about the fulness of the body of Christ.

Evidently, the fee for the preaching that these guys have was communicated from Malawi. Dave & Joe receive their chicken from Solomon's Porch!

Evidently, the fee for the preaching that these guys have was communicated from Malawi. Dave & Joe receive their chicken from Solomon’s Porch!

Hmmmm... Seems like food is what brings us together. Another church, another amazing plate of BBQ!

Hmmmm… Seems like food is what brings us together. Another church, another amazing plate of BBQ!

After worship, the members of Solomon’s Porch presented us with a meal consisting of… wait for it… beef brisket and smoked turkey and all manner of delicious food.  More than that, they gave us the gift of themselves in conversation and partnership.

The morning service in the new worship space being built by Solomon's Porch

The morning service in the new worship space being built by Solomon’s Porch

The CHUP team in the entry to Solomon's Porch

The CHUP team in the entry to Solomon’s Porch

Following the meal, our team visited La Lomita Chapel on the banks of the Rio Grande and marveled at the history of this area.  We were further blessed to wander around in 85° sunshine at the Bentson-Rio Grande State Park.  Some of us caught a glimpse of a bobcat, and all of us enjoyed the wind and the sunshine.

La Lomita (the small hill) was first built in 1865 It was an important site for the Calvary of Christ, the Oblate missionaries who rode up and down the Rio Grande Valley visiting widely separated Catholic churches, baptizing newborns, performing marriage ceremonies and blessing the dead.

La Lomita (the small hill) was first built in 1865 It was an important site for the Calvary of Christ, the Oblate missionaries who rode up and down the Rio Grande Valley visiting widely separated Catholic churches, baptizing newborns, performing marriage ceremonies and blessing the dead.

Inside the tiny chapel at La Lomita Mission.

Inside the tiny chapel at La Lomita Mission.

That's the Rio Grande behind us. It's a river.

That’s the Rio Grande behind us. It’s a river.

We didn't see too many birds in the park today, but this black-crested titmouse stopped by to say "hello".

We didn’t see too many birds in the park today, but this black-crested titmouse stopped by to say “hello”.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We ended our first full day in Mission by listening to a concert by a local Barbershop chorus.  We are constantly grateful for the ways that joy finds its way into our experiences here… and hope that these stories and photos will prompt you to think about your own journey this day.

We were surprised and delighted to be invited to a concert by "The Men of A-Chord", a Barbershop Chorus. The venue is the First Presbyterian Church, where we are staying.

We were surprised and delighted to be invited to a concert by “The Men of A-Chord”, a Barbershop Chorus. The venue is the First Presbyterian Church, where we are staying.

Thoughts and Prayers are Not Enough

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 3 included Ruth 2:8-23 and James 2:14-17 

Our story began with a famine that drove a couple named Elimilech and Naomi from their home in Judah into the land of Moab. While there, the couple’s two sons each married Moabite women. Elimilech died in Moab, as did both of the couple’s children. Grief-stricken, Naomi hears that there may be food once again in Judah and seeks to return, urging her daughters-in-law to remain in their own country. Orpah does as she is told, but Ruth clings to her mother in law and accompanies her to Bethlehem, where she discovers how tough life can be for a poor, hungry, female refugee.

Ruth Gleaning, by Marc Chagall (1960)

Ruth Gleaning, by Marc Chagall (1960)

Determined to keep her promise, however, Ruth doubles down on her efforts to care for her mother in law by engaging in the ancient, if demeaning, task of gleaning. She joins a line of destitute women who follow the farmhands through the fields, picking up anything that is edible in the hopes that it will be enough to sustain them or their families. It is back-breaking, humiliating work…but it keeps her alive – or, I should say, it kept her alive through the end of last week’s scripture reading. What about today? What’s next in our story?

The owner of the field, a man named Boaz, sees Ruth working with the gleaners and for whatever reason, he congratulates her for working so hard. She’s done so well, in fact, that by the end of the day, she is able to collect about 3/5 of a bushel – five or six gallons – of grain. She takes this home to celebrate with Naomi and thanks God for the provision of the day.

After he speaks with Ruth, Boaz pulls the foreman aside and asks him sternly, “What is wrong here, Zadok? Why are we losing so much of our product? Can’t your men be a little more careful as they bring in the crop?”

Frustrated, Boaz goes out that very evening and spends a few thousand shekels buying one of those new, efficient harvesting combines he’s been reading about. After all, he reasons to himself, it’s only good business sense to cut down on the wasted crops. If he can increase the yield per acre, he’ll have a higher profit margin, and with more profit, he’ll be able to do more work with the local charities, right? The more grain Boaz puts into his silos, the better able he’ll be to help some of the deserving poor who have become so common in Bethlehem.

So the next day, Ruth shows up, ready to glean again, and there’s Boaz with a nice bottle of chilled water to give to her as she begins her gleaning. He encourages her to admire his new harvesting technology, and says, “Go ahead – help yourself to anything that’s left over!”

Ruth does as she did the previous day, but finds that Boaz was absolutely correct about the harvesting combine – in spite of the fact that she works two hours longer, she comes away with less than half the grain she was able to get the day before. As the dusk settles on the Bethlehem sky, she turns for home, passing Boaz along the way, who shouts, “Ruth! Glad to see you! You’ve been in my thoughts and prayers today!”

The third day seemed to dawn even earlier, and Ruth was so weary that she got to the field half an hour later. By the time she arrived, the entire field had been mown down and other gleaners were out. She crouched in that blazing sun for seven hours and still only managed to find a cup and a half of barley to take home. She was frustrated and embarrassed by the thought of appearing before Naomi with such a pitiful offering.

As she sat and contemplated her future, Boaz came upon her and offered her a water bottle. When he saw that she was discouraged, he invited her to apply to his foundation for assistance. All she had to do, Boaz explained, was to stop by on the second Tuesday of the month with the appropriate identification and proof of need, and his people would be more than happy to consider her request for assistance. He then gave Ruth a little leaflet describing his charitable enterprise, on the back of which was printed a lovely prayer asking God to bless the poor. Ruth, of course, thanked him profusely and started for Naomi’s home, wondering what kind of recipe she could find that would stretch twelve ounces of barley into a day’s meal for two adults… but thrilled by the thought that she was included in Boaz’s thoughts and prayers. She went home exhausted, but happy.



Nope. I can’t do it. You know that is not what happened. You know, I hope, that is not the narrative that is found in the Scripture.

Landscape With Ruth and Boaz, by Joseph Anton Koch (1823-1825).

Landscape With Ruth and Boaz, by Joseph Anton Koch (1823-1825).

That’s not what the scripture says. You heard a story of a wealthy man who noticed the striving and difficulty of a poor widow and who went out of his way to encourage her; a man who, in fact, made it easier for this woman to sustain herself and her family by embracing a pattern of behavior that affected his personal bottom line negatively. You heard how Boaz understood Ruth’s presence in his community to be a means by which she was seeking the shelter that God, through his people, provides to those who are vulnerable. You heard how Boaz ensured that Ruth’s experience of seeking to care for her family was safer and more effective as he changed the ground rules for gleaners in his fields.

You know what happened. And you know that the alternate reality I tried to paint in the beginning of this message was a lie. The scenario I described is neither what actually happened nor what ought to have happened. So what is our take-away from this part of Ruth’s story? What do we see, and what can we do? Some observations…

A Yazidi woman and her family , Iraq, 2014 (Reuters)

A Yazidi woman and her family , Iraq, 2014 (Reuters)

The world can be a dangerous place. If the Book of Ruth teaches us anything, this is surely something we’ve got to remember. Economies fail, crops get parched, factories close, people we love die. And if all of that isn’t bad enough, we’ve got to remember that when we are down and out, people will try to take advantage of us. Did you hear Boaz telling Ruth to stay close to the people that he trusted, and not to venture into other fields? Boaz knows the dangers that face young vulnerable women who have to take calculated risks with their own dignity and personal safety simply to survive in a world filled with predators. Nothing in our story minimizes the harshness of Ruth’s struggle or the dangers that she encounters with regularity.

And, as we mentioned last week, we each have an obligation to do what we can to take responsibility for ourselves in a broken and fearful world. When Ruth and Naomi show up in Bethlehem, they’ve got to develop and implement a plan for their survival. Gleaning, while far from attractive, provides these women with the opportunity to sustain themselves even as they hope and pray for something better to come along.

As we consider the other participants in today’s chapter, we see another truth emerging: those who have resources do well to employ them in order to serve and support the weak and the marginalized. As we’ve noted, Boaz takes the opportunity to make sure that he’s not wringing every last cent from the ground he’s been given, but rather allowing that acreage to become a blessing in the lives of those who are less fortunate. Additionally, he uses his “male privilege” to create safe space for a vulnerable female refugee, literally surrounding her with people who will see to her personal safety.

While he doesn’t say so explicitly, there seems to be a strong connection in Boaz’s mind between the sovereignty of God and God’s care for the world and Boaz’s call to use the assets at his disposal as a part of God’s care for the world. Moreover, one can read in Boaz’s behavior and conversation the notion that he perceives this kind of partnership in the Divine purpose to be a gift that he’s received, and he goes above and beyond in his efforts to share what he’s been given. Boaz knows the core truth of scripture as contained in Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s (not mine) and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it.” Whatever Boaz has, he’s been given by the One who truly has the right of ownership.

Similarly, how would it be if we each spent a few hours this holiday weekend taking inventory of the gifts that we have received and looking for ways that we might channel those gifts so that they reflect God’s blessings in the world around us. Our culture is busily training us to see all the things that we do not have, all the places where our neighbors have it better than we do, or how someone else is getting ahead of us. The perspective of faith, I believe, calls us to acknowledge our gifts and strengths and to employ them in such a way as to become a blessing to someone else.

Boaz and Ruth, woodcutting by Gustave Dore (1900)

Boaz and Ruth, woodcutting by Gustave Dore (1900)

And because we live in a dangerous world that is too often filled with toxicity, we do well, as a community, to create and dwell within structures that facilitate the loving of our neighbor. There is a sentiment that has found favor with a large number of religious people that the only meaningful charity and assistance comes as a result of individual action and autonomous choice. I’ve heard some people speak against a food stamp program, for instance, because “the government shouldn’t get involved in feeding people, it should be up to the individuals to care for their neighbors.”

Now while I’m not here to advocate for a so-called “nanny state”, especially on Independence Day, I think it is worth noting that the practice of gleaning wasn’t Boaz’s idea. The idea of refusing to wring every ounce of productivity from your land specifically so that the poor and disenfranchised might benefit from it was at least a societal norm and civic expectation. Boaz and his fellow landowners were following the law instructing them to leave sustenance for the poor – they weren’t just being nice or extra faithful.

In the same way, I believe it behooves us to create some sort of a societal “safety net” that allows the most vulnerable to receive some of the benefit of life in the richest society the world has ever known. I’m more than happy to share a sandwich with a friend who I know is hungry. If my neighbor needs help, I can see that and will offer it. But the problem is that just as Ruth was unknown to Boaz, so many of the people in our world who are most at risk are not my friends. I don’t know who they are. But they are my neighbors. And so I appreciate being able to contribute towards some sort of structure that allows the marginalized to receive help when they need it that does not depend on me knowing who they are.

This is, as I’ve mentioned, Independence Day. Take some time to reflect on what it means for you to have participated in and, most likely, grown up in this land of abundance. When you hear the fireworks in the next few days, I hope you get down on your knees and thank God that you get to hear explosions as celebration, and not as bombs dropping on your home or invaders coming to wreak havoc. We live in a place that has received a great many blessings, and we ought to acknowledge that.

And at the same time, ask yourself, where are the Ruths and Naomis in your world? What will you do to extend these privileges and benefits to your neighbors – especially the neighbors whom you do not know personally?

I promised you when we started the Book of Ruth that it was a love story with a happy ending, and we’re moving toward that ending. But today, let’s not ignore this crucial part of the middle, which teaches us that we are, by God’s grace, bound together. We are connected. And we have the responsibility to care for and to seek God’s best for the other, even when the other is a stranger, a refugee, a person of poverty. Let us, this day, commit to giving thanks for where we are, and who we are with, and what we have been given… and let us move beyond “thoughts and prayers” to create a world wherein it is normative to share our gifts with those for whom they seem to be out of reach. Thanks be to God, Amen!

I Wish You’d Have Been Here (Malawi Update #11)

I wish you could have been here today. It was wonder-filled.

I wish you had been here at Grace Bandawe Conference Center as the group of visitors from Pittsburgh and South Sudan streamed in through the late morning and early afternoon. With only a couple of exceptions, most of the team had been disbursed individually to a variety of homes and partner churches within the Synod of Blantyre. Some were in the big urban center of Blantyre or Limbe. Others went to smaller towns like Balaka, and still others found themselves in pretty remote areas. For five days, the team visited hospitals or prisons or schools, led worship, preached (for the first time in some cases), administered the sacraments, went on hikes, had long talks with host families, spent quiet afternoons “resting”, ate a lot of chicken, and who knows what else… and today, we reunited. If you’d have been here, you’d have heard the chatter and concern in their voices as they told stories and listened well to each other. I think you would have liked seeing that.

Gregg Hartung sharing resources with his media colleagues at Blantyre Synod Radio.

Gregg Hartung sharing resources with his media colleagues at Blantyre Synod Radio.

I wish you would’ve been with us when we were able to tour the studios at Blantyre Synod Radio, and to see the progress that’s been made in only two short years. It was particularly gladdening to my heart to see Gregg Hartung of Presbyterian Media Mission pass along some episodes of his award-winning radio program “Passages”. Gregg was a real encourager to the team from Blantyre Synod several years ago when they first shared the idea of a radio station with us.

A moment to reflect on the countless thousands of chickens who have made the utmost sacrifice in the name of partnership over the years...

A moment to reflect on the countless thousands of chickens who have made the utmost sacrifice in the name of partnership over the years…

But mostly, I wish you’d have been here for the “Farewell Banquet” this evening. This event, held in the largest room at Grace Bandawe, offered at least 175 people the chance to enjoy the opportunity to reflect together on journeys in mission and ministry. I say “journeys” because while the focus of the evening was clearly on the 2015 team, there were echoes of many previous visits that are still bearing fruit in the lives of those who have been given the gift of travel.

Deacon Gabe from USA and Elder Daniel from South Sudan

Deacon Gabe from USA and Elder Daniel from South Sudan

Had you been here this evening, you’d have heard things like this:

“I’m taking home much more than I brought with me from South Sudan. I came as a stranger and I was really welcomed and I became one of them, and was really at home. I have learned a lot.”

“Do you remember me? I came to America in 1994 and that really opened my eyes to the world. I have never been the same since then.”

“I wanted to introduce myself to you, Pastor. My wife came on the trip to USA in 2014, and I feel like I already know Pittsburgh because of how excited she was to be there and to learn at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. I already know you, from her; now I want you to know me.”

The Michiru Youth Choir.

The Michiru Youth Choir.

You’d have heard more, of course, including the amazingly outstanding fantastic and splendid Michiru Youth Choir. They sang everything from Siya Hamba to the Hallelujah Chorus to contemporary African choruses and so much else. Oh, how the sound echoed from those plaster walls! You’d have heard laughter – a lot of it – coming from my table where my friend Moyenda Kanjerwa and I got caught up. The clinking of cutlery and the popping of bottles of Cocopina and Cherry Plum…

A relationship is formalized.

A relationship is formalized.

You’d have seen Pastor John Hamilton and Pastor Joseph Maganga sign a covenant of partnership between the Bethany and Chiradzulu congregations. You’d have seen Malawian leaders try to hang on every word of our new partners from South Sudan, and offer ideas as to how to increase the impact of the trans-African nature of this partnership. You’d have seen people show up at the door ten minutes late and be disappointed because there was simply no room for them in this, the biggest room at Grace Bandawe.

I wish you’d have been here. Because I wrote this down and added a few photos, you know some of what happened. But you don’t really – you can’t, really – know what happened here. There was a resonance that was palpable and beautiful.

I wish you’d have been here.

Presenting the gift from Pittsburgh Presbytery to our partners.  Here I am pictured with Pastor Angelo from South Sudan.

Presenting the gift from Pittsburgh Presbytery to our partners. Here I am pictured with Pastor Angelo from South Sudan.

Vanessa rekindles a friendship that was initiated during the first hosting period.

Vanessa rekindles a friendship that was initiated during the first hosting period.

A group of leaders from three nations met this afternoon to begin to dream about 2016 and 2017.  Look and pray for great things!

A group of leaders from three nations met this afternoon to begin to dream about 2016 and 2017. Look and pray for great things!


Welcome to Mexico (Texas Mission 2015 #4)

Our congregation has been sending men and women to participate in the work of Christ’s people in the Rio Grande Valley for six or seven years.  In that time, a couple of groups have crossed the border and visited Mexico.  Others have toured with the US Border Patrol and seen the Rio Grande and looked into Mexico.  We have shared deeply and widely with our partners and our hosts, and it’s been a great gift to our congregation and neighborhood over the years as people have come back changed as a result of the time invested here.

In 2015, though, we have been someplace we’ve never been – right here in Texas.  The “chemistry of the company” on our team, combined with the deep faith and graciousness of the families with whom we have served, has immersed us in a sense of connection and relationship that is deeper than that we’ve seen in previous trips.

One of the “rookies” on the trip is a man goes by the nickname “Libby” (it’s a long story).  Libby is a co-worker of Mike’s who has also served alongside our congregation’s feeding ministry with “The Table”. When he heard about this trip he was eager to be a part of it.  We were glad to welcome him, as Spanish is his first language and we can always use a translator on site.  It has been a rich experience in all kinds of ways, and one of the things that Libby has enjoyed is sharing memories of his childhood in Los Lorenzos Guanajuato, Mexico.  As we have spent our days immersed in the Mexican culture of the neighborhoods, Libby has helped us understand the culture and history of many of the people with whom we are spending time.

Gathering around the shared feast is a sign of Christ's Kingdom.

Gathering around the shared feast is a sign of Christ’s Kingdom.

I mentioned in an previous post the amazing hospitality that we’ve received.  Yesterday, the homeowners with whom we have worked cooked us a hot meal for the second time in as many days – home made flour tortillas and beans and eggs and… oh my.  As we sat and enjoyed the food, the conversation, the sunlight, the sounds and smells and friendship, Libby looked at me and smiled and said simply, “You’re in Mexico now, Pastor.”

We didn’t cross the border, but we’ve lowered some boundaries.  And that is a good thing.  I think there is something gospel-ish about that.

And, of course, we did a little work.

God is good, and we have known, seen, felt, and tasted that in a new way this week.  Thanks be to God!

Joe finishes installing the baseboard.

Joe finishes installing the baseboard.

Bob worked to install handrails to the entrances of the home.

Bob worked to install handrails to the entrances of the home.

Mike puts down the primer.

Mike puts down the primer.

Tim offers a lesson to a painter in the making.

Tim offers a lesson to a painter in the making.

Chris and his apprentice add the finishing touches.

Chris and his apprentice add the finishing touches.

The blue room nears completion!

The blue room nears completion!

And the whole gang, together as we prepare to head for home.

And the whole gang, together as we prepare to head for home.


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. 

The series continued on June 29 with readings from Exodus 16:1-15 and Psalm 37:1-6.

There are, as many of you know, a number of reasons to love my friend David. He is a wonderful human being. I was struck by Dave’s thoughtful and reflective nature earlier this week, when a large group of people had gathered to watch a World Cup Soccer game. The cameras focused in on Cristiano Ronaldo who is the most highly-paid, and by most accounts, the best soccer player in the world.

David looked at the screen and said something like, “Look, I don’t care what kind a person you are or how you are wired, you have to admit that man is an attractive person. It doesn’t have to do with being gay, but he is just gorgeous.”

What a risky thing to say in a room full of people! Because almost always, when a man says, “that person is beautiful”, the presumption is that is a statement of desire, and if there is desire, the presumption is that the speaker would love to move towards a physical relationship.

As David (who gave me permission to share this story) pointed out, that’s not what he was saying. He was naming the truth: Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, OIH has been blessed with an astounding set of chromosomes. Thanks be to God.

That conversation with Dave got me to thinking about the business of desire. Desire is defined as “a strong sense of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.” You could say that Clint Hurdle desires a pennant for Pittsburgh, or that the 1956 Thunderbird was Larry’s heart’s desire.

Desire is key in our lives. As a grown-up person in America, I am astounded at how many times I am involved in conversations where the biggest question is, “What do you want?” Sometimes that’s because I’m down at Hanlon’s and the server is inquiring about my menu choice, but I have asked that question of a couple in a struggling marriage, a woman seeking to overcome decades of addiction, or a child throwing a temper tantrum. “What do you want? What do you wish would happen?”

Billy Graham Preaching, Bible RaisedWhen I was a teenager, my mother was a big, big Billy Graham fan. She somehow obtained a written copy of a sermon he preached in 1972 entitled “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil” and compelled me to read it. I’m not sure what Billy Graham was actually saying, but this is what I took from that message: desire is a simple matter. You can want what God wants you to want, or you can go the other way. I spent most of my teen years desiring all the “wrong” stuff, and was therefore convinced that I was headed the way of “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Just about everything I wanted was pretty darn worldly, and I knew I would burn eternally because of that. It was pretty black and white to me.

For 400 years, the people of Israel languished in slavery. Generation after generation of Jewish children grew up and grew old and died as captives in Egypt. I don’t suppose that old Pharaoh was much for protest marches, but if they had them, I would imagine that the chant could have gone like this: “What do you want?” “FREEDOM!” “When do you want it?” “NOW!” These folks wanted to get out of Egypt. They wanted to live as God’s people. That’s pretty black and white, I think.

DesertSooooo, six weeks after they get that for which they’ve been longing for 400 years, how’s that march coming? “What do you want? “The Fleshpots of Egypt!” “When do you want them?” “NOW!”

Seriously? Six weeks? Six weeks of wandering in the desert, and they begin to long for the bread and the stew that they “enjoyed” while living in slavery?

This story gets told twice in the Old Testament. In the Exodus reading we’ve just shared, God’s response to their complaining is to send them bread and meat. There’s manna to be found every morning, and in the evening, the quail come blowing in and pile up in heaps. “You want meat? No problem, I’ll give you meat,” says the God of Exodus.

The common quail is a simple and easily domesticated bird. Although it can fly, it prefers to walk and scavenge along the ground, and will usually only take to the air as a means of avoiding a predator. Even quail that migrate, such as those mentioned in Exodus, are such weak fliers that if they have to go very far (like across a desert or an ocean), they will wait for a strong wind that’s going in that direction to help blow them along.

The Common Quail

The Common Quail

The first time I saw a quail, I marveled. I admired its plumage, I wondered at its ability to camouflage itself in its surroundings, and I chuckled at the way that it ran amidst the desert grasses. In following Jesus’ command, I considered the quail.

The Israelites of Exodus, though, had no such time for appreciation or consideration. They were hungry, they told God they wanted meat, and the evening breeze brought them a vast ocean of quail – not to wonder at, not to consider, but to eat.

The first time we read about these birds, in Exodus, the implication is that God is lavishly providing for his people. They long for the meat of their slavery, and he gives them the meat of freedom in abundance!

In the book of Numbers, however, the story is told from a slightly different perspective, and for many, the quail become a “last supper”. We’re told that God promises that they’ll eat the meat that they so desire – and in fact, that they will eat it until it “comes out of their nostrils”. Many die after gorging themselves on this quail that has literally been a “windfall”. Traditionally, we’ve understood this to be the biblical way of saying that God is punishing his people for having the wrong desires, as if God is saying, “Look, you miss the meat of your slavery? Fine. Here. BOOM! That’ll fix your wagons.”

OK, I’m pretty sure God never threatened to fix anyone’s wagon, but sometimes, in my head, God sounds a lot like my mom. My point is that we have often read the bit about the quail and the people dying as God’s way of getting even with us for wanting the wrong thing.

And if that’s not confusing enough, a couple of hundred pages later we get to the scripture from the Psalms, which promises that “God will give you the desires of your heart.”

DelightNow, put yourself in the place of a young Dave Carver, who is pretty sure that there are “good desires” and there are “bad desires”, and if you choose poorly, well, that’s an eternal bummer for you… And then the minister comes in and says, “Remember what it says in the Good Book: ‘God will give you the desires of your heart…’”

My response was “Noooooo! That would kill me!”

How often have you thought, “Thank God I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back there!” How often have you been willing to choose the thing that would kill you if you let it?

Think about that: what if you ate everything that you wanted to eat? What if you watched or surfed every show or site that attracted you? What if you actually said everything you ever wanted to say?

Do you see? It might be alcohol, it might be driving like a maniac, it might be doing mean things to your spouse with a stick – but there are times when we really, really desire and crave and want things that will just crush us. We long for things that will cause us and those around us great damage…and we want them anyway. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just Israelites who long to be Pharaoh’s slaves.

So how are we to understand the promise that God will give us “the desires of our hearts”?

Let’s remember the whole passage. It starts with some commands: “Trust in the Lord!”. “Live right!”. “Live where God sends you.” “Do what the Lord wants you to do.”

Too often, we wake up in a world where we are taught to believe that our desires and our wants are the most important thing – or at least the first thing. We think about what we want, and then plan our day after satisfying that on our own terms.

But the scriptural approach seems to be the opposite: we wake up and we decide that we’ll let God order the universe and our lives. We’ll seek to be attuned to the things that God has or will do, and then, when we’re in that kind of rhythm, God will give us the desires of our hearts.

Listen: the world is filled with people who are as beautiful as Cristiano Ronaldo or George Clooney or Taylor Swift or Scarlett Johannsen. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that amazing! Can we praise God for beautiful creatures?

And the world is filled with delicious foods, and tasty beverages and shiny objects and gorgeous art. Again, wonderful! It is right and good to notice, to admire, and to appreciate beauty where you encounter it without presuming to manipulate that beauty or to allow your noticing of that beauty to lead you to an unhealthy wish to own, control, or use that beauty in a way that diminishes the creatureliness of either you or the other.

What do you want? And how will you get it?

Here’s a young mother who is stressed by the demands of her full-time at-home job and her part-time gig at the grocery store. The boss was yelling before she left work, the kids are crying now, she’s got a headache to beat the band, and she passes by the liquor cabinet. She wants a drink so bad that she can already taste it. Why?

Because she’s so tired of hurting and feeling inadequate and incomplete. What do you want, mom? I want to feel like I can do it. I want to know I matter. I want to experience life without thinking that someone is squeezing it out of me.

Those are huge wants, and deep desires. You know that a couple of shots of Tequila aren’t going to satisfy them, right?

Here’s a man who finds himself sitting at a meeting next to a stunning woman. She is beautiful, and his thoughts begin to drift towards all the ways that he might use or enjoy that beauty. He imagines a conversation – and more – that is based on how badly he “wants” her. Why?

Because he’s stressed. He’s a man, after all. He has needs.

And he does. He needs to know that he is not unlovable. He wants someone to tell him that he is not old or fat or ugly, and if someone that attractive would want to be with him, well, then he would, in fact, be attractive, beautiful, or worthwhile himself.

And when he stops to think about what he really needs, as opposed to what his first impulse is, he might realize that that’s a lot of pressure to put on a woman to whom he’s never even spoken before.

What would happen if either of these people would look to God and ask God to help them understand who they are as his children? What would happen if you or I were to look to the Creator, not a creature, to offer self-worth and validation?

In her excellent book that inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue points out that in the Bible, quails are signs of both God’s extravagant provision and the fact that our desiring and wanting need to be transformed and renewed.[1]

Today, in our celebration of and remembrance of baptism, we acknowledge the truth that we don’t always know what we want. Too often, we look in the wrong places, or we use a beautiful creature in the wrong way. As we baptize these infants, we name the truth that God’s grace is here, and that it has been since well before you or I knew to ask for it. As we baptize them, we indicate to them, and we remind ourselves, that there is a new way of living – there is a way to trust that God will give us what we need.

Beloved, the God who created and called and claimed you knows who you are, and he knows what you need. Bring God the things that you want. Ask God about what you want. And ask God to help you to identify the need that is behind that want. God in his grace is already there, helping you to transform the desire and appreciate the beauty that is present. Move toward and into that grace. Relax in that grace. Grow in that grace.   Name and celebrate all the beautiful things you see in your world, and ask God to give you the ones that you need. Thanks be to God! Amen.


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