Return To Sender

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 10 I Corinthians 10:11-13 and Isaiah 43:1-7.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

In 1962 Elvis Presley made a fairly forgettable movie entitled Girls, Girls, Girls in which he sang one of his best-selling songs, Return to Sender. I bet that many of you have heard this little ditty, which presupposes a reality wherein one party attempts to give another a message or letter, but the second party refuses, saying that she wants nothing to do with either the message or the one who sent it.

That song and phrase came to my mind as I was considering the theme of this week’s message. I don’t know about the stuff that you have to worry about when you go into work. I suppose that it’s an occupational hazard for construction workers to have debris fall on them, or for a fisherman to fall overboard, or for a nurse to get accidentally stuck by a needle. One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is that you have to smile blandly through all kinds of terrible theology.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking with someone through a situation that is simply horrible – a devastating medical diagnosis, the sudden death of one who was greatly loved, the loss of a job… and some well-meaning person comes alongside and says, “Well, just remember… God won’t give you more than you can handle…”

And maybe it’s because it’s September and football season is upon us, but when I hear that I want to get out my little yellow bandanna and yell, “Flag on the play! That right there is a theology foul. You’re not allowed to say anything else for fifteen minutes!” Have you heard that one before? In keeping with our September theme of “Half Truths”, there is something that is vaguely spiritual and maybe even true-ish about this, but really, there are just so many reasons why this phrase is wrong…

Before we get to the theological foul, though, let’s consider where it might come from. Why do people say it, and how might they think that it’s connected to the Bible?

Romans During the Decadence, Thomas Couture (1847)

When God called the Apostle Paul to share the good news of Christ’s love in Europe, one of the places that Paul went was the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was an important center of shipping and commerce, and a real “melting pot” of the Roman Empire. There were all sorts of people with all kinds of ideas from all over the world who had gathered there. In many ways, Corinth was a “Navy Town” – a lot of sailors in and out, many of them looking to have a good time while they were ashore. In fact, in 50 AD if you were to say that someone was “living like a Corinthian”, you meant to imply that they were drunk and promiscuous.

In this context, Paul tries to launch a little church. He writes to those who had come to believe that they are to live lives centered in the holiness of God and the love of Christ. They respond, apparently, by saying, “Um, Paul, do you remember what it’s like here? How in the world can we stay faithful in a place like this? There’s no way we can be the kinds of people God wants us to be when we are surrounded by this kind of decadence and decay.”

Paul reminds them that it is possible to say “no”, and that, in fact, “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength…” In other words, the Apostle is saying, when you are going about your daily business, you can always do what is right. God will not place you in a position where it is impossible for you to be a disciple.

And somehow, “God won’t send you to a place where it is impossible to be faithful” has shifted to “Anything that happens to you is from God and he will pull you through it.” That is, essentially, what we are saying when we say “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, right? If you wake up one morning and you have this huge ball of ugliness staring you in the face, this is the “truth” to which many would have you turn: You have to get through this… after all, God won’t give you more than you can handle, right?

Just think about that for a moment, and then think about this week’s news, or your life. That hurricane that just wiped out your town… That unspeakable event that occurred when you were nine…and eleven…and thirteen… Those cancer cells that are tearing apart your loved one’s brain… Are they “gifts” from God? Did God send them to people? Did God give them?

If we say that “God won’t give me more than I can handle”, then we’re saying that any and all pain and struggle and dis-ease I might experience is, in fact, a gift from God.

And if hurricanes, abuse, and cancer are sent… do we have the option of simply refusing delivery and saying, “Return to sender….”? Can we say, “That is not acceptable. I want a different life, please…”

I suspect that some of you have tried that strategy. In the words of the famous theologian, Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?”

Here’s the truth: I often turn to I Corinthians 10 when I am faced with a moral choice, or when I want to give up in the face of adversity. These verses are really helpful to me – as they were intended to be to the original recipients – when I am trying to chart a course of moral behavior in the midst of confusing times. This message from Paul is a great reminder that you and I have the power to choose how we might respond to the situations in which we find ourselves.

But when I need to make sense of a situation in which some part of my world is apparently going to hell in a handbasket, I find that Isaiah 43 is more useful. Here, the prophet is speaking to a group who have witnessed and lived through the unspeakable. They are returning from an exile in a foreign land, and they see the devastation of their homes. They have to be asking themselves and each other, “What’s going on here? Is YHWH really in charge? Or are the gods of Babylon and Assyria more powerful? What has happened? What are we going to do?”

Isaiah begins by anchoring his message in who God is – God is sovereign and mighty. God is the force behind all that is – God is the creator. More than that, YHWH is a God of power. He calls us by name – we do not have to invent ourselves, God tells us who we are. And then, after we understand who God is and who we are, the prophet tells us where God is. God is with us, it says in verse 3. Do you remember the phrase that Isaiah used earlier to describe the presence of God? Immanuel. God with us.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and our God – is not a deity who sits on a lofty throne, scoffing at the creation, occasionally tossing lightning bolts at people when they get out of line. Far from it.

In fact, Isaiah names the fears that these vulnerable people have: the rising flood waters, the burning flames – elements that will consume us in a heartbeat – and says, “When (not IF) these things happen, I am with you.

Why? Why would YHWH, why would our God, act this way? The answer to that comes at the very center of today’s reading, verse 4: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

I want to show you a graphic that I made up while I was studying this passage. I know that it’s a lot of words, and it’s a little nerdy, but remember that I was an English Major in college, and that you love me. I want to show you how the shape of Isaiah 43 reinforces the meaning.

This passage appears to be written in the form of a chiasm – that is, a literary style where there is a key point that is surrounded by a series of mirrored phrases or themes. If I’m right about this, then the core message of Isaiah 43:1-7 is that you are loved and cared for by God – the God who promises to be with you, who calls to you, and who has in fact created you. This passage starts and ends with the power of God in creation, but is centered on the notion that wherever you are, God is right there with you.

If that’s true, then, the promise is not that “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, but rather “Whatever mess you find yourself in right now, you can get through, because you are not alone.” You can have strength for the battles you fight every day; you can have endurance and stamina for the daily grind; and you can have hope for the days and situations that you cannot yet see.

I began this message by citing Elvis Presley, and suggesting that there might be times where we wish we could take some portion of our life and mark it “return to sender – no such number…” Perhaps the message of this morning needs to be a reminder that it is, in fact, we who are being “returned to sender”. Could that be what is being said in the last few verses of our reading from Isaiah? That God will call all that he has made, everything that bears his name, and that he will give an ultimate place, context, and home to the creation?

Hear me, people of God – I do not want to get all “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye” on you. I do not want to say, “Oh, come on, you can make it – I mean, it won’t matter that you’re suffering now because heaven is going to be so great.” That is not what I’m saying here.

However, we must realize that there is always more to our lives, the workings of the world, and the movement of the creation, than we can see. We confess that our perspective is limited and finite, but that God’s is neither. I think that means that we come to worship trusting in the ultimate and eternal intentions of our creator even as we do our best to face the challenges of any particular day.

So to those of you who are feeling as though you are stuck in a place of unspeakability right now – those of you who find that it is difficult to see much of anything in terms of God’s eternal purpose and design… let me simply encourage you to hold God to his promise. Here’s a prayer you can use: “God, you said that you love me. You said that you’d be with me. How are you with me? Where is your love?” Ask God those questions.

And to those of you are are not stuck right now, but live in a world that is filled with horrible places, let me encourage you to ask God how you might be an answer to the prayers that his children are calling into the darkness. If you have the presence and love of God, you can share that love and presence. And when you’re in the grip of terror or pain, sometimes just being with someone who can bear witness to the presence and love is enough. So please, beloved, ask God where you need to show up in the days to come.

God doesn’t “give” hurricanes, or drunk drivers, or abuse. And yet our lives are interrupted by those things in ways that seem horrible. Thanks be to God that God does give us each other. And thanks be to God that God does promise his love and his presence. May we share those things in abundance as we encounter the trials of this day, this week, and this year. Amen.

Deal Gently…

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David and trying to make sense out of them for our own journeys.  June 25, we rejoined that narrative and considered the ways that David reacted to the rebellion of his beloved son, Absalom.  The text was from II Samuel 18:1-8 and we also considered John 13:34-35.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the player below:

 

Do you remember being in a place or time where you saw something happening that you thought was just terrible, but you felt as though you were powerless to stop it because you were too young, or too recently hired, or too inexperienced, or something similar? Maybe you were playing in a youth ball game and the coach totally belittled a player who’d made an error, and you thought, “When I get to be coach, I’ll never do that!” It could be that you watched your parents relate (or fail to relate) with each other and you made a vow that if you ever got married, things would be different in your house. Or maybe you had just been hired and your supervisor threw you under the bus at the budget meeting, causing you to vow, “When I’m in charge, this will not happen!” Does anyone remember something like that? More to my point, can you think of something you do now, consciously, as a result of such an experience?

“Saul Wishes to Slay Jonathan” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

I’m asking because as we return to our year-long study of King David, I’m pretty sure that the events of this part of the story are framed by David’s experiences as a young man. Perhaps you’ll recall back in October, when we listened to the part of the story that took place prior to David’s installation as king of Israel. He was living with Saul, the acknowledged king, and more than anything, Saul wanted his son, Jonathan, to be king after him. Jonathan and David were best friends – like brothers, really – and while Jonathan could see God’s hand of blessing on David, and the future of a Davidic kingship, Saul was blinded with rage. In fact, not only did Saul repeatedly try to murder David so as to ensure that Jonathan would succeed him, when he thought that Jonathan was helping David he actually tried to kill his own son, too. I can only imagine a young David thinking to himself, “If and when I make it to the throne, I will never, ever treat my son like that…” Those experiences had to have left some vivid scars on David!

“Absalom Leaves David To Start a Conspiracy,” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

The last time we heard from this story, David’s oldest son, Amnon, had been killed by his younger brother, Absalom. Following that, Absalom fled the country and even when he returned after three years, his father wouldn’t speak to him for two more years. David is apparently overwhelmed with depression or lethargy or something, and Absalom decides that he’d really like to be king – even if the office isn’t vacant yet. The prince wins the support of the military and many of the people of Israel, and then declares war on his father. Absalom has the advantage of numbers, perhaps, but David is more experienced and has a much better network and strategy.

II Samuel chapters 15 – 17 describe the lead-up to the battle that everyone knows is coming, and so it seems a little anticlimactic when the entire conflict is summarized in two verses you heard earlier – David and his men put down the rebellion.

What strikes me about today’s reading, however, is the conversation that David has with his key leaders on the eve of the battle. He proposes one strategy, and they make a counter-proposal that he humbly accepts. Then he issues a direct order: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”

David has thousands of men assembled to go out and protect him from this son who is trying to kill him… and he says, “Deal gently…” David remembers a father who sought to slay his own son, and he wants no part of this – no matter what Absalom has done. One translator renders this verse as “For my sake, be sure that Absalom comes back unharmed.” (CEV) Let’s unpack this phrase and consider some of its implications for us today.

The first imperative is, of course, “deal”. Absalom has created a huge problem, and that problem has got to be dealt with. David is unwilling to simply roll over and pretend that he’s not king anymore. Absalom has made a serious threat to David and the entire nation, and that has got to be named, taken seriously, and resolved.

But there’s an adverb – a word that is used to express the means by which the imperative is to be carried out. By all means, deal with the situation – but do so gently. Do not be harsh or cruel to the young man…

And the order ends with what the grammarians call a “subordinate clause”. The dealing that needs to be done, and the gentleness in which it is hoped to occur, are to be carried out “for my sake”. Of course, David recognizes that Absalom is dead wrong here. But David hopes that the breach is not beyond repair. “Don’t give Absalom what he deserves”, the king says. “For my sake, treat him better than that…”

So what can we learn from this for our own lives today?

Well, again, let’s start at the top. Deal. You and I encounter a host of issues in our lives every day. Most of them, thankfully, don’t rise to the level of having one of our children try to kill us in cold blood, but each of us faces challenges, slights, wounds, and attacks from others. Many of these are not significant enough to bother with – and you can walk away and let them roll off your back without causing anyone any damage.

But, beloved, you know that there are some attacks, some offenses that have wounded and continue to grieve you. If you pretend otherwise, you are simply allowing an open sore to fester and become infected with resentment and perhaps lead to a greater disaster in the days ahead. After all, David sought to ignore the difficulty with Absalom for years – and found that his son’s resentment grew every day.

Look at your life, look at your situations, and seek to discern what it is that you need to deal with. What is there that is happening to you or around you (or maybe because of you) that cannot be excused or ignored and must, instead, be named and dealt with. If you are being mistreated by a colleague at work, or in an abusive relationship, or otherwise being marginalized or diminished, it may be time for you to come up with a plan to address and improve this situation.

When you see that, make sure that your plan for correction includes humility. Deal – but deal gently. How can you move towards healing and changed relationship in a way that doesn’t do violence to someone else? Not long ago, I had to ask a friend to write a letter to a pastoral colleague in another state. The reason I had to do this was because many years ago, an issue developed between the two of us. I was quick to name the issue, and I spoke truth to the person who was in the wrong. But listen to me, people of God: even though I spoke truth, I did so harshly and clumsily. I wounded my colleague to the extent that she ended our relationship. Because of my arrogance, a friendship was broken unnecessarily.

As you seek to address the situations in your lives with humility and honesty, know that you need to do so for your own sake. Even the boss that is mistreating you, or the spouse who abuses you… if you do not find a way to let go of the pain or resentment, it will become a cancer inside of you that will overwhelm you. You may be 100% correct, and have all the virtues of truth and justice on your side… but if you do not seek to overcome the pain or work through the grief, you will be weighed down forever. Any resentment that you harbor will ferment into toxicity. A few of us were talking not long ago about a quote that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping that it will kill your enemies.” No matter who was at fault, no matter where the blame lay – if you cannot find some way to deal with it, pain and bitterness will eventually consume you.

“David and Absalom,” Marc Chagall (1956)

Deal gently…for your own sake. That sounds pretty easy. Six little words. But how do you do that when the problem is as big as an abusive relationship or an addiction that is sucking the life from an entire family? How do you do that when you are filled with shame or depression or fear?

We can take another lesson from David here. In the chapters leading up to our reading from II Samuel, there is an account of the ways that David and Absalom prepared for this clash.

Absalom was hungry for power; he told people what they wanted to hear, and he surrounded himself with those who did the same for him. He made as though he was going to worship the Lord, but he did so only as a ruse – for Absalom, faith, humility, and integrity were foreign concepts. Life was a show, and as long as the spotlight was on Absalom, things were good.

We’ve talked enough about David to know that he, the people of Israel, and anyone else knew that he wasn’t perfect by any stretch. He was deeply flawed; he both gave and received significant pain. Yet on this occasion, David sought to surround himself with people he knew and trusted were committed not only to him, but to the Lord. Some of these people had been with him for years, and he’d trusted them with his life on many occasions – men like Joab and Abishai. But others were newcomers who had impressed him with their faithfulness and wisdom. In fact, the third commander that David entrusted on this day was Ittai, a Philistine man who had only been in town for a couple of days – but David recognized that he had gifts and wisdom that would help the nation. And when these three men heard David’s plan, they helped him to see the flaws in it and he allowed them to re-shape the strategy that wound up allowing his monarchy to survive despite being desperately outnumbered.

Beloved, are you surrounded by trustworthy companions who will help you do what you need to do? Are you humble enough to hear the thoughtful encouragement and good counsel of others? Is there someone in your life who can tell you not just what you want to hear, but the truth?

Moreover, is there someone who will walk with you into the difficult places when you’re not sure you can get there on your own? If you are trapped in an abusive relationship, who will help you be strong enough to leave it? Who loves you enough to not only tell you the truth about the damage that addiction is doing in your family or circle of friends, but to go with you to an AA or Al-Anon meeting? Is there someone who will care enough for you to sit with you in the midst of your depression or anger and then not leave you there all alone?

The story of Absalom’s rebellion does not end well for anyone, really. Absalom is caught up in his own scheming and pride, and eventually Joab runs him through without blinking an eye; David was restored to the palace in Jerusalem, and sought to make peace with those who had rebelled – even issuing a general amnesty. It was a painful time, and we’ll talk more about that in weeks to come. For now, I want to emphasize the fact that each of us have situations in our personal and professional lives that need to be dealt with and addressed with gentleness and humility so that they will not overwhelm the things that God is trying to accomplish in and through us. We seek out good counsel from old and new friends and hope to find a way to live into that which is best.

Jesus showed us how to do this. On the night that he was arrested, he watched his friend Judas get up from the table and embark on his traitorous mission. And then he looked his followers square in the eyes and said, “Listen: the only way we’re going to get anything done is if you love each other the way that I love you. The only way any of this is going to make sense to anyone else is if you can put aside all of your fears and failures and give yourselves fully to each other and to the work I’ve put before you. Love each other.”

At the end of the day, Absalom lay dead and the old king’s heart was nearly broken. David cried out, “Oh Absalom, my son! If only I had died instead of you… my son… my son.” As Frederick Buechner points out, David meant every word of that. “If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”[1]

In David’s love for both his people and his son, we see something of God’s love for us and for our world. Let us learn from that love, and let us share that love in the days we’ve been given. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peculiar Treasures:A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 6

The Long and Winding Road

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On April 23, we watched as David (now almost 40 years old) was anointed as king by the elders of Israel… decades after Samuel had made a similar anointing.  Our texts included II Samuel 5:1-5 and Philippians 1:3-6.  To listen to the audio version of this sermon, please use the player below.

One afternoon in 1968, a 25 year-old man paused to take stock of his life. For a decade, he had been climbing to the top of the world. Since he was 15, he and his friends had played in a band that had gained some real success, but now their worlds were crashing in around them. Tensions between the lads were high, and what had once seemed effortless and carefree was now a morass of conflict and miscommunication.

That day, young Paul sat down at his farm in Scotland and plinked out a melody on his piano. He later said, “I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at that time. It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.”[1] The result of that afternoon’s labor was a ballad entitled “The Long and Winding Road”, which was released a month after Paul’s band, The Beatles, broke up. It sold 1.2 million copies in the first two days of its release, and was the last #1 hit The Beatles ever had.

My hunch is that you know this tune, but to refresh your memory, here is a portion of the lyrics:

The wild and windy night

That the rain washed away

Has left a pool of tears

Crying for the day

Why leave me standing here

Let me know the way

Many times I’ve been alone

And many times I’ve cried

Any way you’ll never know

The many ways I’ve tried

Paul recorded a demo version of the song, and was unhappy with it, and left it. Later, John Lennon gave that recording to a producer, who added strings, horns, and a female choir. Paul was so incensed by these changes to his work that when the hearing over the dissolution of The Beatles took place, he listed the treatment of this song as one of his chief grievances. It’s a sad, sad song.

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

If you didn’t know better, you might imagine King David singing this song at some point in his life. The reading we’ve had for today from II Samuel announces a significant change in David’s life. Here, at age 37 or so, he is crowned as the King of all Israel. Prior to this, he’d spent seven and a half years as king of the tribe of Judah in the village of Hebron. That was preceded by two years running a band of 600 guerrillas out of Ziklag. For eight years before that, he’d been hiding out as a fugitive from Saul and the army of Israel. That was preceded by time serving on Saul’s staff as a royal musician and part-time Philistine fighter. He had risen to prominence as a teenager when he killed the giant, Goliath, but he first attracted our notice when he was called in from tending the flocks of his father’s sheep in Bethlehem and anointed, as a boy, by the prophet Samuel.[2]

If anyone had a right to sing sad songs about long roads that go nowhere and friends who say one thing but do another, it would be David. For virtually his entire life, he was bounced around and searching for some way to live into the call that had been extended to him. More than once, I’m sure it must have been tempting for David to think of life as a twisted, directionless trek that left him alone and powerless against the world.

This is not, however, the song that David chose to sing. Instead of seeing himself as the victim of an unfeeling universe, David opted to see himself as one who had been invited to cooperate with YHWH and to participate in joyful and energetic response to the ways that God had been moving in the world around him.

We have noted several times that David was a mere boy when the prophet Samuel pulled him aside and told him that God would establish him as the king. For the better part of three decades, young David continued to act upon that promise even when he couldn’t see how it was coming to fruition. God had appointed him to lead, and so he sought to do that as best he could. Even the staunch traditionalists in Israel offer testimony to the same thing on this, the day of his coronation.

In verse 2 of our reading, these men come to David and say, “In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns.” This is a tacit affirmation of the fact that even while Saul was wearing the crown, it was David who as acting as a King should act. The further Saul descended into his own madness, the more David took it upon himself to do the work of the king – keeping the people safe from their enemies, working for justice, and so on. The people of Israel are able to see in David’s actions that which had only been promised, and now they ask him to step into that role.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

In doing so, we see that there is a beautiful symmetry to David’s life. Here, at his coronation, the elders remind David that YHWH has called him to be their shepherd. The one who as the eighth-born son of a poor farmer was out tending to the flocks in the field has now become the leader of all of Israel. In choosing this vocabulary, they are reminding David to take advantage of the lessons he’s already learned about caring for the weak and vulnerable and to apply them in his office as King.

The other bit of vocabulary that jumps out of this verse is the next term that the elders use to describe David: he is called to be not only the “shepherd” of Israel, but their “ruler.” The Hebrew word here is nagid. The statesmen could have said, “David, be our melek, or “king”. But that’s the kind of ruler Saul had been. David is charged to be nagid, which can mean “ruler” but is often translated as “prince”.

Think, for a moment, of the implications of coming into office as the “shepherd” and “prince” of Israel. Although the word is often attached to him, this passage makes it clear that David is not to be “king” in the same way that Saul had been king. A prince is someone who rules in collaboration with a greater authority. YHWH is the King; David is a prince. He has come to realize that true strength will often come through submission, sacrifice, and service – attributes with which Saul appears to have been unfamiliar.

There is no reason to suspect that Paul was thinking about David’s willingness to hold on to the promises of God even when outward circumstances seemed to argue against it, but this story would have made sense to the people who formed the church of Philippi.

Philippi was on a busy highway, the via Egnatia, between two important towns. It was officially a “colony” of the Roman Empire, meaning that life here was to reflect as closely as possible the circumstances of those in Rome. This includes, presumably, worship of any number of Roman gods, participation in an economy that is driven by a multitude of slaves, peasants, and service-providers all of whom were there to cater to the whims of the Roman soldiers and former soldiers who ran the place. The church in Philippi had not gotten off to a promising start – there were very few Jews in town, and so the Christian community appears to have been formed by a rag-tag group of marginalized folks. When confronted with the pomp and circumstance of the Roman Empire, I suspect that there were days that the members of First Church, Philippi, looked around and thought, “Am I really able to believe in the call of God to this place?”

Paul says in no uncertain terms, YES! “I am confident of this: that the One who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ comes.” Paul encourages the struggling congregation not to give up on that which they’ve received, but instead to hold fast to the promise of God.

He reminds them of the ways that God has been moving in the past, and encourages them to look for God’s hand at work in the present. Furthermore, Paul says that this group of careworn believers can march confidently into an uncertain future knowing of God’s purposes for the Creation.

It was good enough for David. It was Paul’s advice to the folk in Philippi. How’s it working out for you? Are you able to live into, or to lean on the promises of God’s presence and power in your day-to-day life?

I know you well enough to know that many, if not most, of you have had at least one occasion to throw your hands up in the air and say, “Seriously? Are you for real, God? You expect me to believe that you are moving in and through this circumstance? Where are you, God?” How well do you see God’s movement in the world around you? How confident are you that God will see the work in YOU through to completion? And how can you get better at those things?

For generations, God’s people have made use of a spiritual discipline known as examen. Quite simply, this is the practice of setting aside some time – ideally each day – to unplug from the what do I have to do next and when is it supposed to be done by rhythm of life and spend some time reflecting about who and how and where you have been in the day and how and where God might have been present in your day or the moments of your day.

Now, here’s the deal when it comes to examen. The goal is to think objectively enough to see the whole picture, and not to simply obsess about the best or worst five moments of the day. I learned this week about a tool that the National Football League uses that is not available to the ordinary fan. Each game is recorded using a system of cameras called the “All-22”. These films allow the coaches to see the entire field of play for the duration of the game. When you and I watch the Steelers play we are forced by the good people at CBS Sports to see how tightly the quarterback grips the laces or how many fingers of the defensive lineman’s right hand are jammed into the facemask of the running back. On the other hand, the All-22 is designed to show the coach how the entire system functions during each play. That way, the coach can see how the guys who don’t have the ball are behaving away from the play. They have a much broader view of the ebb and flow of the entire contest.

Too often when I stop to think about my day, it’s either to beat myself up for that incredibly stupid thing I did right in front of everyone at 11:27 a.m. and how I’m such a moron for doing it OR to think about the fact that I didn’t get a speeding ticket when I blew through the speed trap so it was a great day after all.

A better approach would be to try to give some thought to the movement of the entire day and see where things went well and where I struggled. Sometimes I’ll ask my wife or a friend to check me on something – I’ll say, “This is how I experienced that… what was your sense?” While I don’t usually have an “All-22” view of myself, it’s helpful to listen to someone I trust and make sure that I’m not being either too hard or too easy on either myself or God.

Of course, another way to make sure that I’m attentive to the presence of God in the world around me is to train my eyes and ears to pick up on that. And for me, one of the best ways to do that is to spend time reading the Bible and being present to God in prayer – because if I can see what it looked like when God was moving in the lives of people like David or Paul, maybe I’ll be better equipped to catch a glimpse of him in mine.

It’s not unlike bird-watching, to be honest. That is to say, I’m working with my granddaughter so that she knows that just about every red bird she sees at my house is a cardinal. The yellow ones are goldfinches. As she gets older, we’ll get a little deeper and talk about the differences between juncos and titmice, and if she really goes crazy, she’ll learn about the 35 varieties of sparrow that can be found in North America. The more she looks, the easier it will be for her to discern what she’s really seeing.

In the same way, I can train myself, through prayer and scripture, to be better able to spot God in action. When I catch a glimpse – even if it’s only momentary – it’s easier to remember and live into the promise.

I began this sermon with a love song about looking for company on a road fraught with difficulty, and I’ll close it with another. This one wasn’t written by a kid from England, but rather one from the Middle East. It’s a song about walking in trust with God towards a future that is almost always unknown but is never uncertain, and it describes the fact that security is possible, even in the midst of the storms.

Christ as the Good Shepherd, image from the 4th century catacombs in Rome

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

One of the things that allowed David to enter into the role of shepherd and prince of Israel is the fact that he never, ever forgot – not while he was afraid as the rapids of life threatened to inundate him; not while he was unsure as to where the path was leading him; not while he was forced to spend time in the valley of the shadow of death; not while he was surrounded by his enemies – he never forgot that he himself had a shepherd and a King. As do I. As do you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (MacMillan, 1998, p. 539)

[2] This chronology is summarized in Leap Over a Wall (Eugene Peterson, Harper-Collins, 1997) p. 137.

Who’s Laughing Now?

 

 Palm Sunday 2017 brought the folks at the Crafton Heights Church together in celebration of Palm Sunday worship.  Our texts included Psalm 2 and Luke 19:28-44.

For your convenience, an audio recording of this sermon as preached on 04/09/17 is available by clicking on the arrow to the left, below.

I’d like to start this message by showing you one of my favorite photos that includes some of my favorite people standing in one of my favorite places in the world. This is the team that has recently returned from an amazing mission to Malawi, Central Africa. That large rock face behind us is known as the Mulanje Massif, and we’re about halfway into a hike that will take us to a delightful little waterfall. There are three things I’d like to tell you about this photo.

I love this bend in the trail because when you come close to the edge, you can see very, very clearly all sorts of places where you’ve already been. When you look back, you can see the path up which we’ve come. Look down into the valley, and the stream and the camp and the road are visible.

Jesus Enters Jerusalem and the Crowds Welcome Him, Pietro Lorenzetti 1320


As we enter Holy Week, and as we continue our Lenten journey, and as we live into what it means to be Christians alive in the USA in the 21st century, we, too, can look back. If we look back far enough, we can catch a glimpse of the Triumphal Entry – Jesus coming into Jerusalem. Wow, that was a day to remember! The waving of the palms, the enthusiasm of the children, the singing – heck, even the protest was kind of fun. Who could forget the so-called “religious leaders” who were so appalled by the things that Jesus said and did? I mean, here was Jesus, receiving and enjoying the praise of the people even as he carried their hopes on his own back, getting ready to enter into the most desolate time of his life.

There’s so much that happened on Palm Sunday, and yet from our vantage point, it’s easy to see that one of the central lessons of this day is simply that God, and not another, is in control. As we hear the echoes of the Hosannas, we can know that nothing – not even the events of that horrible week that was to come – is able to separate this creation from God’s intentions for it.

And yet, if we stand here long enough, we might also be able to hear Jesus weeping on that first Palm Sunday. We overhear his lament at the fact that we too often choose to act in ways that are contrary to the purposes of God, and we follow paths of isolation, estrangement, or violence… and Jesus weeps.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

If we stand here this morning and look a little further back, we might just be able to make out something very far off… Do you see in the events of Palm Sunday a shadow of Psalm 2? This song was written for a worship service in which a king would be crowned. It begins with a nod to the realities of its own day: there is political intrigue and conflict, and some are seeking to harm the Lord’s anointed one. The world, even then, is full of those who would thwart God’s intentions – the old translations say that “the nations rage”.

As we listen to Psalm 2, it’s instructive to note that this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where God’s messiah, King, and Son are mentioned in the same breath. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the early disciples remembered this Psalm as they talked about Jesus in Acts chapter 4. Jesus really became the son, king, and messiah of which the Psalm spoke, and they were able to look back and see that.

And in joining the disciples in reflecting on this Psalm, we can hear a sound that is even more distinct than the weeping of Jesus on Palm Sunday: the laughter of God. The Psalmist pictures the Lord considering the threat of the nations and finding it, well, amusing. As if the nations and their rage could threaten the eternal purposes of God. Please… The encouraging, comforting laughter of YHWH tells us that the universe is all right and that’s God’s care has not and will not fail.

So like those hikers in Africa, we can stand on the path and look back… and it’s good.

But let me tell you something about this photo. When this image was captured, I was about dead. The day was almost unbearably hot. I was irritated at carrying a backpack that seemed to have four people’s stuff in it. And, as much as it pains me to say it, I was out of gas. Every muscle in my body hurt and I was tired and achy and miserable. We took that photo because if we hadn’t stopped, the “Abusa with the big hat” wouldn’t have made it. I was overwhelmed, and so I suggested that we stop and take a moment to look around.

On Palm Sunday, 2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights will do well to pause and look around. Does anyone else feel as though you’re having a hard time? Have you felt this week or last week or sometime recently like it’s been really tough sledding? And I’m not just talking about your kidney stones or your sister-in-law’s job, I’m talking about the big picture. 3000 years ago, the Psalmist said that the nations were raging. 2000 years ago, Jesus walked right into a plot led by the religious leaders.

And this week, scores of innocent people were killed in a gas attack in Syria. Already this month, 43 Ethiopian children have been abducted from their villages by armed gunmen who killed 28 adults in the process. There are senior citizens in our own country who lack basic health care. Children in our neighborhood are going to bed hungry. Relationships are strained or broken. Many of us feel as though we are dwelling in uninterrupted pain or grief or depression. You think that maybe you heard Jesus weeping on Palm Sunday but in reality it was the not-so-stifled cries of the people around you. The nations have not stopped their raging.

We stop now, as we hide out here in worship, because we have to. We are threatened by the magnitude of the evil that we see on a daily basis. We come in and we talk about the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, but so many times that runs counter to our experience. It hurts. People are horrible to each other. If we can possibly hear the laughter of God, we’re not always experiencing it as comfort…there are days when it sounds as though even the Divine One is making a mockery of our very existence. We cry out in the midst of our pain and alienation, “Where are you now, God?”

Oh, we don’t always show it. I mean, look at that photo. I’m hiding behind the group. You can’t hear my wheezing. I look happy enough, but don’t believe it for a moment. Too often the rest of you do the exact same thing… you waltz in here and you’re dying on the inside but you won’t show it for a moment. The nations rage, and we feel it on the inside, even if we can’t show it…

OK, there’s one more thing you need to know about this photo and the place where it was taken: from where we are standing on the mountainside, we can’t see where we are going next. The path at this point disappears into some pretty heavy growth and winds around the side of the mountain. Oh, sure, the people who have been here before will tell you all about the waterfall that lies ahead, but you can’t see it or hear it from here. If you’ve never been there before, you can’t even begin to imagine the beauty of the spot to which we’re headed, or the way that those icy waters will refresh and invigorate even the weariest of muscles. Yet every single person in this photo turned to their right and marched into the forest, even though only three of us had ever been there before.

And truth be told, that’s a good metaphor for a lot of us in church now. We may be here because we’ve always come, or we may have a vague hope that somehow things will work out all right for us. Maybe we trust in the one who invited us into this part of the journey, or we believe that the path wouldn’t have led this far just to stop – I mean, it’s got to lead somewhere, right?

And so we keep walking. We hold on to the hope that Psalm 2 is true. We rely on the fact that the events of Palm Sunday are, in fact, a foretaste of what is to come.

Listen: I wish that I could stand here and tell you how you will experience the laughter of God in your own life. I long to give you the absolute assurance that you will receive healing in your own life; that your child will grow into a healthy, happy, and energetic adulthood; that your job will not be erased in the next sequence of downsizing. I wish I could say all of that for you, and you, and you…

But to be honest, I can’t see that far ahead on the path for you or for me; and, unlike that mountain in Africa, I’ve never been here before.

But what I can say is this: that I am confident of the path, and that I believe the one who called us to walk on it with him. I trust that in a cosmic sense, we are going to arrive at the truth that seems so far off right now.

The people frozen in that photo are in the in-between. They’re not where they started, but they can’t yet imagine how they’ll finish. Similarly, Palm Sunday is between the glory of the incarnation with all of the angels and the shepherds and the wise men and the astounding news of the resurrection… but with the pain of Holy Week on the immediate horizon.

Likewise, the death and resurrection of Jesus itself is between the unspoiled beauty of creation as described in Genesis and the ultimate healing that is put forward in the resurrection of the body and recreation of the world of which we spoke last week.

So, too, are we, right now, pausing to catch our breath, knowing that we are on our way. And since we don’t know what’s ahead, specifically, for any one of us, then for God’s sake let’s do our best to make the journey better for each of us.

Right before this photo was taken, I had set that heavy pack down. After our break, Joe picked up the pack and carried it for me. Our friend Keith walked with the team, and talked in a way that was encouraging and inspiring. Rachael saw that a couple of folks had emptied their water bottles, and she shared from her own.

I know. You’re not going to Malawi – at least not any time soon. But you can do all that stuff, you know. You have it in you to pick up someone else’s load for a while, even if he didn’t ask you to. You can stand next to your friend and tell her that you’re tired, or scared, or unsure. You can share what you have, even when you’re not sure that it will be enough. And you can keep on walking – walk right through the pain and betrayal of the upper room, into the darkness of Good Friday and the cold deadness of Holy Saturday. You can keep walking until you get a glimpse of the sunrise of the resurrection.

Maybe you can’t hear the laughter of God right now. But it’s coming. I promise you, it’s coming. And it is for you. Thanks be to God, it is for you, and for the innocents of Syria and the children of Ethiopia; it is for the One who rode a donkey into Jerusalem and for those who waited with him at his execution. In a real and final sense, the laughter of God is for the last, the lost, the least, the little and the dead. God laughs. And it’s good. Amen.

Trumpet (Trombone) Lessons

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

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

I have a confession to make.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When God Says, “Not Yet”

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On March 5, we wondered what happened right after Saul died… in the years between when David could have assumed the crown and the time it finally happened.  Our texts included II Samuel 3:1-5 as well as Paul’s description of his “thorn in the flesh”, found in II Corinthians 12:6-10

Did you know that the average American spends thirteen hours each year waiting on hold for someone in customer service to pick up the stupid telephone? Six months of your life will be spent waiting at a traffic light. That’s easy compared to the two years you can expect to spend waiting in line at the grocery store, the bank, the gas station, or the movie theater…

Waiting… who likes to wait? Isn’t that about the most frustrating part of your day? And these examples, while certainly unpleasant, are only the day-to-day, small-picture, grindingly-irritating things for which we wait.

The time you spend in line at the bank or watching the calendar pages turn as you wait for your tax refund to arrive is frustrating, to be sure, but we can usually comfort ourselves by knowing that the resolution to our concern or the fulfillment of our desires is at least in sight, if not imminent.   You know what I mean, right? You’re chafed at the fact that the other line is moving faster, but you know that sooner or later the clerk will start scanning your items and you’ll be able to take your groceries and head for home. This kind of waiting is a pain in the neck, but it doesn’t produce a crisis of faith or lead to long-term angst or depression.

But what about the other things for which we wait in life? The “big” waits? What about the couple who is desperately trying to conceive a child, or the young father who’s looking for work? Can you imagine living in a refugee camp, knowing that you’re not home, but not sure whether there ever will be a “home” again? Or the single person who longs for the intimacy of marriage, or the person living with cancer who wonders about the length of the remission she’s been granted… What about that kind of waiting? The kind of uncertainty and hopefulness and despair that can lead you to say “O, please, God, when will it stop… or change… or get better?” The kind of waiting that can lead to deep questions about God, and life, and meaning, and eternity? How well do you deal with that kind of waiting?

Now, while you think on that, let me ask you to picture this scene in your head. You’re on a retreat or a mission trip with a large group. We’ve all agreed to meet at, say, 8 a.m. to get started on our day. You know how it is… some of us are there at 7:45, eager to get a jump on things. A handful come into the room at 7:58. And, because this is our church, let’s assume that another half dozen people show up at 8:05. Can you picture this in your head so far?

How many times is there that one guy who just isn’t there by 8:10? We’re waiting, and we clarify with each other – “we said 8 o’clock, right?” We get a little passive-aggressive and we start rolling our eyes, or conspicuously checking our watches. We sigh – quite loudly. And you want to send someone into the next room to check on him to make sure that he’s aware, but you know he’s there. You can hear him whistling a show tune or maybe working away on his laptop. Finally, he strolls into the room, brushing his teeth, and looks up and says, “Oh, hey guys! What’s up? Oh – wait – did we say 8??? I was sure it was 9! My bad…”

OK, show of hands… how many of you have been in a situation like that, where you’re waiting and waiting and waiting for someone who seems to be pretty clueless and disengaged from the group process?

Now, how many of you have ever been that guy at least once in your life?

The question is… how many times when you’ve been in the midst of some huge and horrific wait have you felt as though God has been acting that way?

Here you are – you’ve got some serious business going on. You need that job, you are dying of loneliness, you can’t stand to see your child struggling with addiction any longer, and you’ve been praying and praying and praying. You have cried out to God, and it seems as if he’s not there, or even worse, as though he’s just messing around with something else? You want to scream at all those athletes and poor students, “Will you shut up about that game you’ve got coming up or that test you didn’t study for? God’s got more important fish to fry!”

I am not aware of the source of this illustration. If you know where credit might be rendered, I’d be grateful to know.

Where is God when you need him?

Where is God while we are waiting, or hoping, or suffering?

Why is it that God sometimes takes so long to get his act together?

Do you remember when we met David? He was just a kid, out minding his own business, taking care of his father’s sheep. Through the prophet Samuel, God calls to this boy – who is maybe fifteen years old – and says, “All right, son: stay on the straight and narrow. One day, you’re going to be king. Not yet, of course, but one day…” And David shrugs and says, “OK, God, I’ll wait…

And then he goes out and kills Goliath… He moves into Saul’s house, and Saul’s son Jonathan becomes a best friend.   He marries Saul’s daughter, and then he gets chased out of Saul’s house. His wife is taken from him. He gets chased out of Israel. His friend dies. For fifteen years, give or take, David is on the run. Finally, Saul dies.

This is it! This is what David’s been waiting for, right? Now he can be the king! And, in fact, he is anointed king… in the tribe of Judah. The other Israelites are holding out for a relative of Saul’s. There’s a power struggle and uncertainty and dis-ease for another seven and a half years.

With the benefit of three thousand years’ hindsight, we can say, “Wow, God really was faithful to David, wasn’t he?” But the reality is that for nearly a quarter of a century, David’s primary experience of God was…not yet. For David and those around him, year after year was spent asking, “Now?” and hearing “Nope.”

I know that nobody here has waited twenty-two years in the hopes of becoming the rightful king of Israel, but I know that you know the pain of waiting or the frustration of unanswered questions. What do you say when God seems silent? How are you supposed to act when it seems as though God has already checked out?

Let me suggest that in some important ways, David can be a model for us in these situations.

The scripture that you heard a few moments ago from II Samuel summarizes seven and a half years of conflict in a single verse, and then goes on to name the six sons that were born to David during this time. What does that suggest about the way that David was behaving during this time of waiting?

– That is not what I meant! –

I’d venture to say that this is one way of saying that David was getting on with his life. He continued to act as though the promise was coming true, even if he couldn’t see it with his own eyes right now. While this behavior is not necessarily the model for family life that we’d like to see in the church in the 21st century, the reality is that even while David is continuing to wait on God, he is looking toward the future that God has promised him.

The other thing that David did during these years after Saul’s death was to continue to seek the Lord. Although it isn’t mentioned in the readings we heard this morning, II Samuel chapter 2 relates the fact that David continued to inquire of the Lord with some regularity. In his public as well as his private life, David appealed to the covenant that God had made, even though the terms of that covenant had not all been fully realized.

Furthermore, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the very experience of waiting in this manner shaped David into the kind of king that he would become. Of course he behaved differently as a forty-year old king than he would have as a fifteen-year old monarch. Some of what he went through shaped him for that which he was to become.

In the same way, those of us who are waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen or for something to end are called to continue to walk in the paths of discipleship. We can hold on to what we have and continue to act as though all of God’s promises are true even on those days when we have a hard time feeling their truth.

I think that’s what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Corinthians. He mentions what he calls his “thorn in the flesh” – some mysterious affliction – that seems to get in the way of his happiness or productivity. We’re not sure exactly what this “thorn” was: some scholars have suggested Paul struggled with depression, or epilepsy, or failing eyesight, or recurrent bouts of pain. We can’t know what it was, because Paul doesn’t tell us. What he does tell us, however, is that what God is doing is more important than what Paul is feeling. Paul senses God’s presence with him saying, “Look, don’t put all your trust in what you can do or what you hope will happen. Trust that my grace is enough for you. Trust in me to hold you up.” Paul does this, and is able to write about finding contentment in Christ.

We are not promised easy answers or short-cut solutions. Those things didn’t show up in David’s life or in Paul’s. It seems to me that the path of faith invites us into all of the messy and sometimes painful places of our lives in the expectation that God will show up at the right time… even if the timing is not what we would wish.

Søren Kierkegaard stressed the importance of the discipline of waiting in faith. He said that many of us are like the student who didn’t like math, but needed a good grade in the course, and so he stole the teacher’s answer sheet before the test. His goal, of course, was to memorize all of the right answers and then get a perfect score. Kierkegaard rightly points out that answers like that are not really answers at all. To truly have the answers, we have to work through the problems.[1]

Your life and mine are full of problems. Some of them are minor irritants, such as choosing the slow line at the Giant Eagle or getting lost in traffic. Some of them are incredibly difficult to bear, such as the loss of a child or the dimming of hopes that were bright. We will not escape the problems. But with the help of God, we can walk into them knowing that these problems will not overwhelm us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and with the company of those around us in the body of Christ, we can work it out. We can wait it out. We can hope it out. God’s grace was sufficient for David and for Paul. It is enough for you and me as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Ben Patterson’s Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent (Intervarsity, 1989) p. 14

The Sting of Death

or much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 12, we sat with him as he lamented the deaths of Saul and Jonathan singing “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1 (included below).   Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in II Corinthians 4:7-12

 

When we left off last week, Achish and his Philistine army were preparing to attack the Israelites and King Saul, while David and his men had been sent home to their place in Philistia, Ziklag. You might remember that David and his militia discover that the place had been ransacked and all of their relatives kidnapped, and David cried out for help from God. I Samuel ends with an account of David’s pursuit of the Amalekite raiders and the story of how families were reunited and David’s reputation was continuing to increase.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

There is, however, a dramatic development recorded at both the end of I Samuel and the beginning of II Samuel: we learn the outcome of the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites. A young man shows up in Ziklag carrying the crown and the royal bracelet: proof that King Saul of Israel is dead. This messenger is eager to demonstrate his loyalty to David, and even goes so far as to say that when he first encountered Saul, the king had been gravely wounded, but was still alive; at the king’s request, the young man ended Saul’s life.

When he first hears the news, David is overcome with grief and emotion. He weeps and fasts, as do the other members in his community.

The next day, he calls the messenger and asks for the story to be repeated. After the young man runs through it, David has him executed.

This is the same David who chose not to kill Saul when he had the chance, even though for years Saul had been trying to kill him… the same David who chose not to kill Nabal, even when Nabal had treated him with contempt. David has shown restraint… until someone dares to raise a hand to the Lord’s anointed. Now he orders the execution of this man who celebrates the death of the one who God had called.

And then, David sings. The song that he writes and performs is called “The Song of the Bow”, and it is a public statement of grief on the occasion of the deaths of Saul and his son, Jonathan. Not only does David compose and sing this tune, he also commands that the entire nation learn it. Listen to “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1:17-27:

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.

How the mighty have fallen!

“Tell it not in Gath,

proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,

"The Song of the Bow", Marc Chagall (1967).

“The Song of the Bow”, Marc Chagall (1967).

lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,

lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

“Mountains of Gilboa,

may you have neither dew nor rain,

may no showers fall on your terraced fields.

For there the shield of the mighty was despised,

the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

“From the blood of the slain,

from the flesh of the mighty,

the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,

the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.

Saul and Jonathan—

in life they were loved and admired,

and in death they were not parted.

They were swifter than eagles,

they were stronger than lions.

“Daughters of Israel,

weep for Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet and finery,

who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!

Jonathan lies slain on your heights.

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;

you were very dear to me.

Your love for me was wonderful,

more wonderful than that of women.

“How the mighty have fallen!

The weapons of war have perished!”

This is a remarkable example of a public lamentation over the intrusiveness of death in our lives. This morning, I’d like us to take a long look at what David is doing in composing and teaching this song to the people of God.

He names what has been lost. Four times in those eleven verses he mentions Saul by name; three times he mentions Jonathan. David, whose very name means “beloved of God”, cries out at the loss of the one he names “beloved”. He laments not just the death of his friend and his surrogate father, but the loss of any number of possible futures. This is a tremendous outpouring of grief not just from an individual, but from and on behalf of a nation.

Have you ever known this kind of grief? I, who probably spend more time with dead and dying people than most of you, have been surprised by it several times. Most dramatically, I remember a trip I was pleased to take through the nation of Egypt. We saw a lot of old things – and, by implication, a lot of death. Tombs and pyramids and catacombs…all kinds of death.

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

But one day we visited the military museum and cemetery at El Alamein. This battle was the culmination of a series of conflicts that were fought across Northern Africa for the second half of 1942.  It was a decisive event for the Allies as it denied Hitler and Mussolini access to the Suez Canal. The thing that took my breath away was row upon row of headstones – each with a name and an age.  Boys who came from Auckland, New Zealand, or Pretoria, South Africa, or Cardiff in Wales or Calcutta, India, or Ontario, Canada…and died at 21 or 23 or 32 in the deserts of North Africa.  There were so many graves… J. V. Griffiths, J. W. McNeely, A. F. Martin, J. Alastair Seabrook, and too many “soldiers known but to God.”

I wept on that day. I wept for these young men, and their families, and the sweethearts or children they may have left… and I wept because we are still building war cemeteries. And here is the truth: I was embarrassed by my tears. In fact, I made the rest of my group wait out in the parking lot because I didn’t want to get in the vehicle while I was crying.

That’s what we do, we Americans. Especially we male Americans. We deny the reality of death. We hold it in. We hide it from ourselves and each other. We refuse to make our grief public, and we don’t know how to enter into someone else’s sadness. Even those of us who claim faith, who talk of eternity and the promise we’ve been given… we don’t know what to say and so we flee death.

death800x800There’s an ancient fable from Iraq that teaches us about the inevitability of death and our fear of it. It seems as though a certain man asked his most trusted servant to go to the market in Bagdad and buy only the finest of food and wine to share with his friends. The servant set out for this task, but returned home in a matter of moments, looking very alarmed and frightened.

“Master, just now in the market I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Please – let me take your horse so I can get away from here. I’ll go to hide at my cousin’s home in Samarra and Death won’t find me there.”

The master thought that was a fine plan, and so sent the servant off on his horse. Later, he went into Bagdad himself, and saw Death at the market. Angrily, he went over and said, “Why did you make such a threatening gesture to my servant?”

Death said, “I didn’t threaten him at all – I was merely surprised to see him here in Bagdad. After all, I have an appointment to meet him in Samarra tonight.”

Grieving Man - Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Grieving Man – Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Don’t we know how that servant felt? Aren’t so many of us unwilling to consider any kind of death, whether it’s our own or someone else’s or some other form of loss or decay?

We avoid pain at all costs, don’t we? There’s an ache, a strain, a sadness, a sting… and we want to take a pill, have a drink, get a shot – anything in order to numb ourselves and avoid the suffering of the moment.

So much of the time, we can’t even acknowledge the impact of the loss, the horror, or the grief that shows up in our lives. Think of all the times we are tempted to gloss over or make light of significant pain and real loss, simply because we don’t know what to say or how to acknowledge the intrusiveness of death or suffering.

A friend’s divorce is finalized… and we say, “OK, wow! Glad that’s over… now, tiger, it’s time to get back out there and make yourself happy!”

That young woman down the street suffers through the death of her child through miscarriage or infant death… and we say, “Hey, that’s too bad… but at least you’re young, and you’ll have another…I have two friends who’ve been given ‘rainbow’ babies…”

The soldier comes back from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he has seen and done the unspeakable (often in our name)… and we pat him on the back, give him a free meal at Applebee’s on Veteran’s Day, and fly really big flags at the Super Bowl…

Your mother, sister, husband, or son dies, and four days after the funeral, people look at you and say, “Hey, how’s it going, huh? Things coming back to normal, I bet?”

No. No, it’s not normal. None of these things is normal, and none of them are easily dismissed. Please, for the love of God, don’t pretend that this kind of loss or death is insignificant.

Here is the truth, beloved: our pretending that we’re going to live forever and that death can’t touch us and that there’s no loss that is deeply interruptive… well, that kind of charade is simply killing us.

isolationThe United States of America is by many measures the most highly developed, materially-blessed, economically advanced places in the world. And yet every year, 3.5% of American adults are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 9% of Americans will suffer from that at some point in their lives.

In the rest of the world, those numbers are between .5% and 1%.[1]

How can this be? Why are we experiencing this kind of anxiety disorder at a rate that is seven to ten times higher than the rest of the world? Are we dying more? Do we face more trauma than do people in other countries?

That’s hard to imagine. By and large, I would suggest that we do not suffer the ways that many in the rest of the world do. So what’s happening?

Could it be that we are victims of our own propensity to deny the reality of pain and death? When grief finds its way into our lives, we shove it deep inside. We hide it. We make it our own – our private possession, deeply personal. We hang onto it, but we are unable to share it, and so it becomes in some ways like Gollum’s ring – it twists and contorts us, and us alone, driving us further from community, further from reality. The ultimate result is that 40 million Americans now meet the clinical criteria for addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs, and a staggering 80 million more are termed “risky substance abusers”.[2] More than 30% of adults in the United States suffer from some form of depression – the second-highest rate in the world.[3]

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

And in contrast to all of this come the words of II Samuel and II Corinthians. Each of our texts for today speak of the importance of naming the reality of the fragility of our lives, of claiming grief as a public reality, of identifying the intrusiveness of loss in our lives, and of trusting God to see us through even when our own vision is failing us.

I know that worshiping together and seeking to act in a way that emphasizes the community we share are not cures for depression or addiction or PTSD.

But I would suggest that learning how to lament – how to come together and name the grief that affects us all at one time or another – is one way of seeking to prevent those afflictions in our lives and communities. We speak to the frustrations and rejections and devastations that we have experienced, and together we neither gloss over the losses we’ve suffered nor allow them to become the things that define us. You are not “the kid whose father died” or “the lady that lost her son” or “the man whose wife left him,” but those things did happen and surely cost you something. They are there, but they are not all that is there. There is more to it than that.

We are, all of us, mortal. And we all, each of us, have an appointment with death (mortis).[4] We dare not deny the power or sting of death – but God forbid that we insist that’s all there is. The gesture of lamentation in community – of sharing grief and loss – helps us to see the bigger picture that God is writing through history, and how our own stories are wrapped up in the bigger drama of God’s working in the world. Each of our losses and all of our pain is in many ways ours alone, but it is ours to share in the presence and gift of community – a community that reminds us of hope and life and healing. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder

[2] http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/policy-dose/2015/06/01/america-is-neglecting-its-addiction-problem

[3] http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/statistics-infographic

[4] Thanks to Eugene Peterson (Leap Over A Wall, HarperCollins 1997) for this bit of insight!