The God Who Sees

Each year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights set aside a weekend for an “All-Church-Retreat”.  This year, rather than have an outside speaker come in, the leadership team set its own program and agenda.  In that context, they asked me to reflect a little bit on my recent Sabbatical and share some insights into the nature, purpose, and advantages of time away, of rest and renewal.  I was glad to be asked, and surprised by where this took me.  My frame of reference was a difficult story: that of Abram and Sarai and the “slave girl” named Hagar.  You can read more about that in Genesis 16.

While this blog often offers a chance to hear the message as preached, due to the constraints of having been on a retreat there is no audio recording for this message available.  

As we start, I’d like to invite you to think about your name.  Take a moment and reflect on this: what name, other than that which is on your birth certificate, have you been called?  Do you have a nickname? Do you have a favorite nickname?

Now, think further about the power of naming… and by this, I mean, who you let call you what.  For example, there were two people in the world who have called me “Davey”.  My paternal grandfather and my High School Gym Teacher, Jay Widdoes. From them, it sounded right.  For everyone else, it is inappropriate. Or LaVerne Yortgis, who ran the diner in the West End, called me sweetheart every time she saw me.  Not many people do. You know the truth: allowing someone to determine what they will call you grants them some power/authority in your life.  You become vulnerable to someone if you allow that person to name you.

Think about the names for God.  There are many in Hebrew:

  • El Shaddai (God Almighty) – shows up 7 times in OT; It can mean that God is complete, satisfies, nourishes God’s people. (When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1))

    El Elyon = “God Most High”

  • El Elyon (God Most High) – this is used 28 times, including 19 in the Psalms – the prayer book of God’s people; it expresses the supreme majesty and sovereignty of God (King Melchizedek of Salem was a priest of God Most High. He brought out some bread and wine and said to Abram: “I bless you in the name of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” (Genesis 14:18-19))
  • YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah = “I Am”) – this is often said to be THE name for the Holy One, used 6519 times in OT. As the promised name of God, it was considered too holy for Hebrews to voice. (Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
    God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14))
  • YHWH Rapha (The Lord who heals) although this title is only used once, it is referred to by function in other places (notably prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah as well as the Psalms). (“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”(Exodus 15:26))
  • Elohim (Creator God, Judge) – this occurs some 2750 times, and emphasizes God’s strength and power.  It is the first name used for God in the Bible (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1))

As you think about these names for the Holy one, is there one that resonates with you? Is there one that I’ve left out that seems better to you? Why do you think that is?  How do you think of God?  What do you call God?

I mention all of this because I was asked to take some time and talk this morning about how time away, time in Sabbatical, and even time in the wilderness equips one to encounter and be refreshed by the Holy.  You know that I myself am fresh from some time away – I’ve been on Sabbatical for three months, and that time has included a lot of rest, a good deal of wilderness, and it was all away.  Now, this may be an indication that I’ve had too much time away – but as I reflect this morning I want to start with an obscure reference… Genesis 16:1-16

Hagar, Andrew Geddes (1842)

The story of Hagar is the story of an outsider.  She is an Egyptian, probably acquired by Abram from the Pharaoh after the embarrassing incident in Genesis 12 wherein Abram and Sarai lied about their relationship.  At that point, Pharaoh attempted to marry Sarai, and then to ease the pain of this confusion he ended up sending the old couple away with a lot of hush money as well as some property – including human property.  Hagar is an outsider.  A slave. A marginalized person.  A victim of human trafficking and abuse.

Her life becomes demonstrably worse after she leaves Egypt and wanders with these old dreamers and schemers, Abram and Sarai.  Ultimately, she is humiliated, forced into unwanted relationship with the old man, becomes pregnant, and then mistreated as an object of derision and scorn.

Look at how she is objectified – she doesn’t even have a name.  In Genesis 16:5, Sarai can only bring herself to refer to the Egyptian as “the slave girl”.  In 16:6, Abram does the same.  To Sarai and Abram, she was not a person.  She was a uterus.  And she became inconvenient.

Finally, when Hagar can’t take it anymore, she runs away.  She is discovered by a messenger of God who calls her by name (16:8).  Note that, beloved: the first person to refer to Hagar by name in this chapter (other than the narrator) is the Lord.  She is then asked two questions:

  • Where have you come from?
  • Where are you going?

“Hagar in the Wilderness” Rivkah M. Walton, Sculptor (2008)

Did you notice that Hagar only answers the first one – “I am running away from the Hell behind me”?  Why doesn’t she answer the question about her future? Because she knows that she has no future.  She is alone in the wilderness, and she is dying.  Maybe she even wants to die.  Maybe she thinks that death is the only option.

And so the Divine One answers the second question for her.  Hagar is told to return to Sarai, and to submit to her – which must have sounded onerous!  How can God be sending her back to the place of mistreatment and pain.  And how can Hagar manage to go back?

She can do so only in the power of the promise that comes next: she is given the word of the covenant from God.  Hagar herself – not a man, not a husband, not an owner – but Hagar, the the runaway slave girl herself…  There are 4 people I can recall who hear the covenant directly from God (Noah, Abram, and Moses).  She hears a prophecy about her son – a son who would be anything BUT servile and meek and abased…a son whose personality would match the feistiness of his mother…  And this unborn son, too, has a name: Ishmael, which means “God hears”.

Ishmael is an answer to prayer; Ishmael is a living breathing demonstration of God’s response to the one who feels abused/abandoned/discarded.  Every time Hagar calls to her son, she will remember that she was heard.  Every time she hears his name spoken by someone else, she is affirmed in her own person and her participation in the promise is reaffirmed.

El Roi = “The God Who Sees”

And that leads to an amazing thing: in 16:13, Hagar names the Lord.  Of all the people in the Bible, only ONE of them ever dared to name God: it wasn’t David, Isaiah, Moses, Abram.  It was this lost, alone, mistreated, abused, outsider woman.  She looked at the One who encountered her, and she said, “You are El Roi.  You are the God who sees.”

I should mention that scholars argue about the translation of v. 13.  There is not a universally accepted “good” rendering of this Hebrew phrase.  I think that Eugene Peterson captures it well:

“She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her,
‘You’re the God who sees me! Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!’”
(Genesis 16:13, MSG)

Beloved, this is, I think, one of the significant gifts of time that we spend in the wilderness and time in Sabbath: we are able to somehow get a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us.

“Hagar” Edmonia Lewis,
Sculptor (1875)

You may know that the past couple of years have contained a number of stressful times for me.  Death has been a constant companion.  I have been called into situations where hope seemed distant, if not altogether absent.  There has been great dimunition and anxiety on several fronts. I have known at least an erosion of support, if not outright betrayal, from some I had thought to be dear friends. And as these things were unfolding, I was given the opportunity to plan a Sabbatical – to get away.  And it included a lot time alone.  I have to say that it was not always warm, rosy, sit in the sunshine with my favorite book kind of time.  There were Car breakdowns…I was chasing airplanes… There were crowds of incredibly needy people in United Nations camps and I spent a lot of time struggling with identity…While I did have a lot of amazing time with people who love me and more importantly with the One who created me, there was ample opportunity for facing the vastness of human need and sinfulness.

And yet, in the midst of it all, I discovered that I think that I like myself.  I was able to get away from the lenses that I perceived others to be using for me and I think that from time to time I could glimpse myself – for a moment – as God might see me.  And it was OK.

Here, in the midst of the desert, in the strength of a promise to someone who the world thought was expendable, worthless, and even sub-human, God reveals a portion of God’s self.  God becomes vulnerable enough to Hagar to be named.  God shows God’s self in a person, in a promise, and in grace.  God sees Hagar, and in being seen, she catches a glimpse of the Divine glory for herself.

In the strength of that revelation, standing on the power of that promise, Hagar is free to return to the Hell of her existence, and look at what she does: she tells her “master” (who will not even acknowledge her own name) what he is to call his son.  She looks at the old man and says, “His name is Ishmael”, and Abram agrees.

Sabbath and rest prepare us for the heavy lifting that is ever and always to come.  Sabbath and rest allow us to cling to the promises we’ve received even as we re-engage in the struggles at hand.  We will get up on Monday and we will return from retreat, knowing that we have been seen, heard, and known.

Sabbath and rest and even time in the wilderness offer an opportunity to reclaim our identity – in a world that longs to strip that from us.

I’d like to close with reading a Psalm that, in my own theological construct, reminds us of who and whose we are every single day.  There are a number of people in this room who heard me read Psalm 139 on the day of their birth.  Listen for the truth, the promise, the affirmation, and the rest as it comes to us from Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message.  In fact, if you are reading this on the internet, let me encourage you to read this part of the message out loud as your own prayer:

God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful— I can’t take it all in!

Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute— you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.

Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them—
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!
And please, God, do away with wickedness for good!
And you murderers—out of here!—
all the men and women who belittle you, God,
infatuated with cheap god-imitations.
See how I hate those who hate you, God,
see how I loathe all this godless arrogance;
I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred.
Your enemies are my enemies!

Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life.

 

Does This Happen Often?

On September 8, 2019 I had the deep joy of being reunited with many of the people from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights following a three-month Sabbatical.  As we gathered to explore the mystery of our connection and the intensity of the storms in which we live, we read from Matthew 8:23-27 and Ephesians 2:19-22.

 

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

My wife and I were out for a quiet evening.  As we waited for our meal to be served, a woman approached the table and when I recognized her, I stood and we embraced.  She began talking, but after a moment she was overwhelmed by the grief in which she walked, and she wept.  We spoke for a few moments, and then she excused herself and our evening continued. A day or two later, we were in the grocery store and I encountered another person and we had a similar exchange. When we got home, Sharon said to me, “Does this happen often?”  I was engrossed in something and I replied, “What? Have the deer been in the garden again?” My bride said, “No – I mean, how often are you out in some public place and someone comes up to you and just starts crying?  That seems odd to me.”

Well, as a matter of fact, it does happen often.

As I return from my time of Sabbatical, let me tell you a few stories. In case you haven’t been around the church very long, I’ll tell you that about 18 months ago I found myself being challenged by the intensity of life in this place.  There were some horrific deaths, significant transitions, as well as some incredibly wonderful occurrences.  The elders and I began to plan for a season in which I might be away for an extended period of time for rest, rejuvenation, and reflection.  We realized that such a time would also result in a potentially painful separation with and disconnection from the day to day life here in the Heights, but we went ahead with the goals of bringing long term healing and strengthening to our shared ministry here.

So after more than a year of planning, I left at the end of May.  And if you’ve read my blog or seen me on Facebook, you know that a lot of wonderful things happened.  If you want me to come over and tell you about amazing adventures through our National Parks, a pilgrimage to Africa, or the world’s best granddaughters, I’ll do that.

But other things happened, too.  You didn’t read about them on the internet.  Not long ago I was with my grandchildren at a public event for families in rural Ohio. I was the only out-of-town guest there; I was also the oldest person present.

I sat on a porch with my toddling granddaughter and one of the other adults came by and placed a young man – maybe about eleven years old – in the seat next to me and instructed him to wait there – he’d be right back.  The boy was flushed, and it appeared he’d been crying. I assumed he’d fallen and needed a band-aid or an ice pack.

As I fixated on my granddaughter, the boy said, “You sure have a nice family.” I nodded in grateful agreement. He continued: “And it’s so big. You have so many grandchildren.” And it occurred to me that he thought that I was the patriarch of this vast clan that had gathered.  I explained that we were all present for an event, and he looked surprised and said, “Oh, well, I don’t know anything about that. I just came here.  I think I just ran away from home.”

I asked him if he’d like to tell me more, and he went on: “I live down the road. It’s just me and my mom, and now my step-dad.  I was outside playing, and I heard them fighting, and my step-dad told my mom that she had to get rid of me.  If she didn’t get rid of me, he said, then he would leave and take all our stuff… I got really scared, because I don’t want my mom to get rid of me.  So I ran as fast as I could up the hill and when I got to the fence I heard all of the laughing and playing from your family – I mean, from these people – and I thought this would be a safe place to catch my breath.”

Let me simply say that was not a conversation I expected to have.  A week earlier, I had been in long line with my older granddaughter at a water obstacle course on the lake.  One of the young adolescents in line ahead of us engaged my granddaughter in conversation, and asked where we were from.  After my reply, I asked her the same question. She mentioned the name of a town about 30 minutes away, and then said, “Well, I’m only living there for another week or so. Then I will be living in…” and she named a town about 90 minutes away.  I said, “Wow, you’re moving before school! That must be exciting!”

The young woman said, “Well, actually, my family is not moving.  Things at home are not really good right now, and, well, you know how dads can be.  My dad… it’s really rough.  Because of him, my mom thinks it’s a good idea for me to go live with my aunt and uncle for a year or two.”

A week before that, I’d been leading trauma healing workshops for children who had fled their homes in South Sudan and were holing up in Ethiopia trying to figure out what was next.  A week before that I had preached in a United Nations camp for displaced persons in South Sudan.

Perhaps you are now seeing what I discovered: that there may have been a design flaw in the Sabbatical Plan.  You see, if I had hoped to remove myself from exposure to pain and tragedy and suffering, then the plan was bound to fail.  Oh, there were a few days when Sharon and I were driving through Montana in our own little RV universe listening to a mix tape – but by and large, we continued to find ourselves in the midst of the storms of life.

Why?

Because that’s where we live.  That’s who we are.  The world is a stormy place, filled with great pain and deep violence.  I know – there is deep beauty and great grace, but there is no place that is removed from the storm.  That’s just where we are.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632

The disciples had been traveling with Jesus – it was the beginning of a great “Kingdom of Heaven” tour.  They’d had some amazing teaching – in fact, Jesus had preached “The Sermon on the Mount.” There had been great healings: a person with leprosy, then the Centurion’s servant, then Peter’s Mother-In-Law.  I mean, things were really looking good.  They decide to cap it all off with a boat ride, and that’s when everything went south in a hurry.  The storm erupts, and these people panic.

In spite of all the power they’d seen and experienced, these first followers of Jesus were convinced that they were going to die.  They look around for their leader, and they discover him fast asleep – while the storm rages on.  They yell at him; “SAVE US! LOOK AT US LORD! WE ARE GOING TO DIE!”  And there’s no record that they actually said this, but it’s clear that the implication was, “We are going to die, and you are there sleeping like a baby.  Do you even care?”

Listen, if I learned one thing in the past three months, it is this: I am more certain than ever that I have never met a person who hasn’t, at one time or another, given voice to that cry: “I’m dying here.  I’m dying.  Do you notice that?  Do you even care?”  If the Sabbatical taught me anything, it’s that people cannot outrun or hide from the storms and the pain of this world.  And the disciples came to know that.

But the disciples also got to know this: that their friend Jesus, in an act that amazed and frightened them, quieted the storm.

And that’s why we’re here, right?  We know we live in a world battered by storms and we’ve come here in the hopes that the One who calmed that storm two thousand years ago will take the time to be attentive to our marriages, our sick children, our mean streets, and our violent world.  We want to believe and we want to hope that Jesus cares about the fact that live in and know far too well fear, pain, loss, and regret.

And because we hope that, we have to pay attention to what Jesus says to his first followers.  He looks at them and he says, “You of little faith…”  It’s one word in the Greek: oligopistoi.  It is not, at first glance, a compliment.

And I want to say, “Now hold on a minute there, Lord.  These are the 12 we’re talking about here.  These are the people who have left everything to follow you. And these are the ones that you are calling oligopistoi?

The Gospels use that word five times.[1]Every single time Jesus says this word in the Bible, he’s talking to his disciples.

Now hear me, Church: Jesus never looks at an outsider, a “sinner”, a leper, a wounded person, an addict, and says dismissively, “look at you, you little faith.  Oligopistoi.”  Never.

The Tempest – Peace, Be Still, Jorge Cocco Santangelo, 2015 Used by permission. See more at https://jorgecocco.com

To the contrary, every single time Jesus utters that word he is looking at the group of people who have, arguably, the MOST faith of anyone else around. That word is reserved in the Gospels for the twelve, which we should take to mean the church.  Us.  It is only used in conversation with those who have demonstrated something of a desire to be in relationship with the Holy but who long for more.  There is something, but it is small and weak and needs to grow.

Oligopistoi.  That is why we are here.  We want to become, like the twelve in the boat or like our sisters and brothers in Ephesus, a community of those who are becoming a dwelling place for the Holy One.

So here’s what we know to be true:

  • We cannot escape the storm
  • There is one who can and does calm storms
  • Until the storm subsides, our only option is to ride it out together.

And this is also true: God equips us to live in a stormy place by giving us a congregation.  In this particular place, at this particular time, we are called to be with and for each other.  In the reading from Matthew, the disciples were in the boat when the storm hit.  Why were they there?  Because they were following Jesus, and that’s where he was.

In Ephesians, Paul tells his friends to stop arguing with each other, to stop aggravating each other, to stop distrusting or marginalizing or wounding each other because, he says, they are being built up into a place where the fulness of God dwells and the power of God is released.  Paul tells this odd assembly in Ephesus that they are becoming an instrument of hope and healing for the pain of the world.

This is also the truth, my friends: while we cannot escape life’s storms, we are given the gift of congregations in which we can grow in our little faith and become stronger as we seek to follow Jesus more closely.

I know this full well: sometimes congregations can stink.  Sometimes, it is really, really hard to be in congregations because, well, because they are made up of people like us.  We hurt each other.  We disappoint ourselves.  We make mistakes.  We blow up. We crash and burn.  We act like, well, oligopistoi.  We are, in our own eyes and often in each other’s, “little faiths”.

And yet the Divine strategy does not appear to have changed. Congregations and the communities that form them are the means by which the Holy is revealed and the healing is unleashed.  This place – these people – by the grace of God, we are brought together in order that we might become, in the words of my young friend from Ohio, a “safe place to catch your breath for a while.”

Here you are, minding your own business, trying to get through your own stuff, and all of a sudden you are thrust into a place of pain and sorrow and weeping.

Does this happen often?  Yes. You know that it does.  And because we know that to be true, let us pledge to join together in the hopes of riding out the storms until we, and those we love, and those whom no one loves, can see and appreciate the complete healing and peace that comes from the One who has promised not to leave us alone in the midst of the chaos.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 18:8, and Luke 12:28.

A Report from South Sudan

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

The pendulum has indeed swung!  A week ago, I was in the midst of frantically helping a group of 13 young pilgrims debrief our very intense and active visit to our friends in the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian’s Synod of Blantyre. In a way, it was an extrovert’s dream – meeting in groups, talking about big ideas, engaging in one-on-one sidebars, and always taking in new experience!  When I waved goodbye to the young people, I set my sights on preparing for an official visit to our partners in the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, on which I would be joined by three Malawian colleagues.  That, too, was an adventure in rich conversation and dreaming about possibilities for ministry in a variety of groups and contexts.  Earlier this week, however, I escorted those brothers to the airport here in Juba and am now settling in for the last phase of my African pilgrimage: traveling in South Sudan and Ethiopia by myself (although within a well-defined and well-equipped web of friends, guides, and mentors).  Before I fully enter that place, however, I’d like to share a bit about the visit in Juba in the hopes that those who are invested in one of these churches or our partnership might be encouraged and challenged.

Our little team arrived at the Juba airport on Saturday morning, and we were enthusiastically greeted by a team of pastors and elders from the SSPEC.  After making sure we’d taken care of all the legal formalities, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we would stay, not at the ECS Episcopal Guest House that had been “home base” on my previous visits, but rather the Aron Hotel. This gracious gesture by our hosts gave us the opportunity to maintain contact with friends at home via wifi and have a great deal of privacy as well as space for meeting as a team.

Rev. Philip welcoming our team at Juba Airport.

Saturday evening’s agenda included a much-longer-than-anticipated gathering with most of the SSPEC Executive Council at the SSPEC Headquarters in Juba.  This was very helpful for our team, as I am the only member of the visiting delegation to have been in South Sudan before.  My friend Abuna  (pastor) Madut gave a brief introduction to the history of the SSPEC.  Most of these Christians have roots in Sudan (“the north”), particularly around Khartoum.  One of the outcomes of the decisive and historic referendum that resulted in South Sudan becoming the world’s youngest nation in 2011 was that these men and thousands upon thousands of others were forced to leave their homes, their ministries, and their positions in the north and take up residence in South Sudan.  It was a mass migration to a place that in many ways (infrastructure and development) was not equipped to handle it.  They left well-built churches and schools and homes to come to a place that didn’t have much of that at all.  As Madut said, “We came empty-handed, but God has provided.”

Circle time with the “elders” of the SSPEC and the CCAP (and one old guy from the PCUSA to boot!).

Elder Daniel added, “When we were in the north, life and faith – it was too easy for us.  Here, we are challenged. I think it is better.”  Abuna James Par Tap, the Moderator of SSPEC, summed it up this way: “We are here. We are OK.  We are doing fine.”

Our conversation that evening covered many things, from updates on Trauma Healing Workshops being conducted in several places to a sense of cooperation with their sister denomination the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan to the idea of leadership training through the Nile Theological College.  These leaders talked to us about the church’s attempts to buy land in various areas throughout the south, so that when the peace is finally realized, they will be in a position to take root and grow.

My Malawian colleagues were very engaged in this discussion, and enthusiastic participants (if you know me at all, you can presume that I, too, was engaged and probably talked more than I should have.  You should just assume that about me in most places…).  Blantyre Synod Moderator Masauko Mbolembole brought up the fact that for some time, there has been discussion about twinning congregations in the CCAP and SSPEC.  He pushed that conversation hard, and pledged that such would happen in the next few months.  This was welcome news, and the South Sudanese were really excited about the prospect of having a church partner on the same continent.  Billy Gama, Convenor for the Partnership Steering Committee, reminded the group of the idea of seconding an SSPEC pastor to Blantyre Synod for a period of 6 months – 1 year.  Again, that was met by nods of assent and affirmation.  As we discussed these and other issues further, Elder Thomas of the SSPEC said, “There’s a new school here.  The PCUSA and the CCAP are older, better developed churches, but SSPEC is coming along.  Let us learn together: how can we benefit each other?  We are a mixture of large, poor congregations and small wealthy ones in both the USA and in Africa.  How do we grow? How do we encourage and include the women and the youth?”  Again, there were deep affirmations of this quest.  As the night fell and we ran out of time, Abuna Madut (while holding a copy of The Writings of Immanuel Kant) said, “It comes back to, as it always does, the question of philosophy.  Here in Africa, we have a philosophy that is called Ubuntu.  When we unite, we succeed.  We are a tripartite partnership.  Surely God is behind this.”  As he said this, I remembered an African proverb that says, “A person is a person through other people.”

Madut and Thomas

It was just about too dark to see when our conversation finally broke up. We didn’t finish, but we had to stop.

Sunday morning was dedicated to sharing congregational life in varied contexts.  The Malawian team was each sent to a congregation in Juba that has expressed a desire to partner with churches in Blantyre.  I was honored to accept an invitation to preach at the United Nations Protection of Civilians Camp #1 (you can see photos from that and in fact hear my sermon by looking at the previous post on this blog).  Worship was followed, in most cases, by meeting with the leadership councils of those congregations and exploring possibilities for partnership.

Sunday evening was a festive occasion as members from several congregations around Juba hosted us for a dinner on the banks of the Nile.  While the seasonal rains drove us indoors, they only dampened our clothes and not our spirits.  We were privileged to be joined by my good friend the Rev. Michael Weller, a PCUSA Mission Co-Worker who is serving in Ethiopia but who has come to Juba to teach an intensive course at the Nile Theological College.  In addition, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Ross, a pastor and professor who has spent a great deal of time in Malawi but is here to join Weller for the course at NTC, was on hand to enjoy this time.  Great food was enjoyed, deep laughter was experienced, and, of course, gifts were exchanged and speeches were made!

Just a few tourists visiting the Nile…

Lydia (Philip’s wife) presents me with a memorable keepsake necklace while Pastor Deng uses an unorthodox photographic technique!

Michael Weller

 

A welcome from Mama Achol!

Monday morning was similarly full: my Malawian brothers and I were accorded an audience with the Honorable Dr. Riek Gai Kok, the Minister of Health for South Sudan.  He told us some of the political history of the country and narrated his own involvement with the independence movement, working with John Garang in the decades leading up to independence. Our conversation was animated and political, and then he surprised us all by expressing a deep and lasting gratitude to the people of Malawi.  He said that in 2009, there were a total of 9 midwives to be identified in all of South Sudan.  Malawi, he said, was the first nation to accept South Sudanese midwives, nurses, anesthesiologists, and clinical officers for advanced training.  Now there are more than 9,000 midwives in this nation of approximately 12 million people.

At the Ministry of Health

We were also glad to visit the Juba campus of the Nile Theological College, where we were welcomed by their Principal, the Rev. Michael Obat.  Once more, the notion of intra-continental collaboration was discussed with great excitement.  Too often, the notion of acquiring an advanced degree is equated with study in Europe or North America – a costly endeavor that sometimes results in “brain drain” as many of the brightest and best students find it easier to remain in their adopted country than to return to their own.  I listened with joy and anticipation as the conversation explored ways in which institutions such as NTC, Zomba Theological College, the University of Blantyre Synod, and even places like the University of Juba or Chancellor College in Malawi might join together in providing education that is affordable and contextualized.

I was further privileged to return to NTC and sit with Rev. Michael for a couple of hours this morning.  We talked about Presbyterian Polity and contextualized worship and theology and dealing with prickly issues in congregations and growing partnerships that are sincere and affirming and characterized by mutuality.  It is my deep prayer that fruit will come from these conversations and the ones that I hope will follow.

Dr. Lanjesi along with Rev. Obat at NTC.

The library at the Juba Campus of NTC.

With that, the “formal” time in South Sudan ended, and I was free to hole up in an apartment being graciously lent to me by PCUSA Mission Co-Workers Lynn and Sharon Kandel, to walk to dinner adventures with Michael and Kenneth, to join those brothers in prayer and sharing, and to reflect on what has been and what is to come. I have discovered that while the news from South Sudan is often discouraging, life in Juba is vibrant and growing.  In fact, I texted my wife that the part of the city in which I’m located reminds me of Cairo – it is loud, noisy, fast, dusty, and busy, busy, busy.  There is much to be done, for sure, and we must continue to join our hearts and minds in prayers for peace – but I can also tell you that this is a different city than the one I visited in 2015.  This time, and indeed this life, is a great gift.  Thanks be to God!

One of the great joys of these few days is a bit of concentrated time with Michael Weller and Ken Ross. While I’ve just met Ken, Michael has been a dear friend of the heart for some years. It is a privilege to be here with him now (“here” being the guest dining room at the Nile Theological College, aka the veranda, aka the front entryway aka the shadiest spot around!).

Preaching in a Place I Wish Did Not Exist

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

On July 20, I was a part of a delegation that included three leaders from the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian and myself (representing Pittsburgh Presbytery of the PCUSA).  In my next post, I’ll talk a little about the overall visit of this small team and the fruit that came from there.  For now, however, I’d like to reflect on my worship experience.

The sign says it all. UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) Welcomes You…

When I visited Juba in 2015, I was asked to preach at a United Nations Protection of Civilians (PoC) Camp.  If you’d like to read that post as background, you can do so by clicking here. Let me simply say that that day was, and remains, the single most powerful worship experience of my entire life. There is no way that I can adequately describe the impact of those hours in my spirit. I am a better person for having been there, for sure. For another description of these camps, how they came into being, and what it might be like for those inside, I’d suggest this article from the Huffington Post.

Simply getting to church in a PoC Camp is no easy feat.  There are a number of checkpoints, and the closer you get to the camp, the military presence and security that the UN provides becomes more and more apparent. Driving toward the camp prior to worship I must have passed six or seven vehicles transporting troops to their posts. As I left I passed a convoy of about five vehicles I’ll call armored personnel carriers.  Upon arriving at the gate of the camp, I was greeted by several soldiers from Rwanda wearing full riot gear and carrying shields.

UN Troops on patrol outside of the UN Camp.

An armored vehicle – one of many I saw encircling the UN Compound.

We wound our way through the camp.  There were some of the lanes that could generously be described as “streets”, although I saw no non-UN vehicles inside the camp.  Other passageways, however, could not even be termed “corridors”.  As I approached the church we turned into a path that was between a number of tarp and stick shelters that was so narrow I could not walk fully facing forward: I had to lead with my right shoulder and turn so that my left was behind me.  It was so narrow that there were places I wondered if I could fit.  To say that the camp was crowded would be a grave understatement indeed.

It was hard to notice how crowded I felt because my ears were assaulted by so many sounds!  There was singing coming from the building I supposed to be the church; there were people crying; there were people shouting and children playing; and there was the constant drone of gasoline powered generators.  Oh, it was sensory overload for this pastor from Pittsburgh!

We entered into the building where worship was to take place, and a large crowd had gathered.  I found out later that the “official” count for the morning was 523, but I have no idea when that count was taken because there were always more and more people entering the worship space.  I might describe the building as a large “Quonset Hut” – it was constructed mainly of metal and it was like being inside a half-pipe.  It was huge!

The worship began, and it was a delight.  I mean, the choirs were singing like nobody’s business.  A few children broke free from their mother’s arms and rushed to greet me. I was struck by the number of pastors present, and came to understand that there are five faith traditions inside the camp who coordinate their worship in that space.  Every six months the leadership changes – but the congregation remains the same.  This morning, it was supposed to be an Anglican service, but a white Presbyterian from America preached.  There were pastors from (I believe) Methodist, Pentecostal, and Baptist traditions there as well.

The men were poring over their bibles as the scripture was read in their own language.

Likewise, the women were diligently following along. The literacy rate seems to be very impressive.

Several of the pastors present to lead worship this morning.

There are things that I hope I never, ever forget from this morning’s worship.  Among them:

  • Although nobody in the congregation appeared to be in a hurry to be anywhere, the pastor in charge of the worship seemed to be quite worried about keeping time. We (the pastors) were sitting in an area behind the pulpit and the communion table, so anyone who spoke or sang had their backs to us.  There was a choir that was enthusiastically launching into the ninth or tenth verse of a chorus, and the pastor got up and went and stood right in front of them and tapped his wristwatch.  They stopped about ten seconds after that…
  • About an hour later in the service, another man got up to speak about something, and it was clear that the pastor wasn’t crazy about what was being said. When this man had gone on for about five minutes, the pastor tried the old “go out and tap my wristwatch” thing.  No effect whatsoever.  He sat next to me fuming for a moment, and then he got out his phone and called an usher/deacon in the front row!  I know that because I watched a man look at his phone, then look at the pastor, and then get up and go to take the microphone from the offending party.  I hope I never complain about a “minute for mission” that lasts four minutes again!
  • There was a dog laying under the communion table that got up and walked out just as I started to preach. I was initially offended, but she came back for the end of my sermon and the benediction.
  • Oh, beloved – there was so much laughter in the worship service. It was the best sound I’ve heard in a while, to hear laughter in that place, amidst all that noise.

While I was preaching, I was momentarily distracted by the appearance of UN Soldiers in full riot gear just outside the back of the building.  That doesn’t usually happen in Crafton Heights.  Then I noticed that there were UN Military Police who had entered the worship space.  I was confused and not a little concerned until I noticed that they were paying attention to the sermon.  And at the end of worship, after the gifts had been exchanged and the benediction offered, this congregation did what every South Sudanese congregation with whom I’ve ever worshiped does: I was the first person out of the building, and then every congregant came out and shook my hand and then extended the line so that at the very end, everyone had greeted everyone else.  And know this, beloved: the UN Soldiers came to shake my hand. One of them asked to take a photo with me.  If you know me, you won’t be surprised that when I tried to thank these women of the UN for the work they’re doing to protect the South Sudanese, I couldn’t because I was weeping.  Oh, how grateful I am!

The congregation greeting me. If you look at the very back of the room on the right side, you’ll see two of the UN police officers, each of whom was among those who came to greet me and the rest of the congregation after worship.

You might wonder what I could possibly say to this congregation.  If you’d like to hear it, there is a very rough recording below.  It’s about 25 minutes, and you hear my preaching and then the Nuer translation.  I preached mainly from I Samuel 7:5-13 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5.  I sought to be an encouragement in that God promises to help us where we are – while we are in between our worst day and our best day.  And I said that the next time I come to South Sudan, I hope to come to this place and see an “Ebenezer” – a sign that once upon a time, the Nuer people in South Sudan needed a place to be protected, but that was a long time ago, and those people have all gone back to their farms and their communities now.

To hear the sermon as preached, please use the player below.  I recorded this for my wife and she suggested that I share it in this format.  I hope you find a word of encouragement here (approximately 23 minutes).

It was a good, good worship, and I wish that you’d have been there.  I hope that my narration of this has helped you get a sense for what it was like.  And please know this: if anything in this post has given even a hint of a suggestion that I do not respect the amazingly resilient people of South Sudan OR the United Nations troops who are staffing this camp, then I have written it poorly.  I am humbled by the grace of my sisters and brothers in the Lord here at the UNMISS camp and I am so grateful for and respectful of the work of the UN in this time and place.  It was truly an honor to be here.

Leaving worship, I was reminded of the stark contrast – the freedom we enjoy in the Lord and the gates wreathed in razor wire. Oh Lord, hear our prayer!

One last photo with some of the worship leaders before departing.

Fossils or Fingerprints?

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

When I checked into the Salt Lake City hotel as our 8-state, 3745 mile road trip came to an end, the young woman said, “Wow, that sounds like an amazing time.  Was this like, a ‘bucket list’ item for you, or what?”

My first thought was, “Hey, kid, how old do I look to you, anyway? Do I LOOK like I’m close to needing to check items off my bucket list?”

But upon reflection, I realized that she was right.  There was a lot about this trip that was “bucket-list-able”.  And I’ve been thinking about the fact that I’ve buried a lot of friends who are younger than I am, and about my own sense of accomplishment at having to made it to age 59 after my mother’s death at age 58.  We mustn’t take these things for granted, friends.

Our trip began and ended in Salt Lake City, Utah (about 8 o’clock on this map). Proceeding as indicated, we visited portions of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming (again), South Dakota (again), Nebraska, Wyoming (again), Colorado, and Utah. Amazing!

Having prefaced this entry with the above, it’s not a little ironic that the last real “stop” on our great adventure was the Dinosaur National Monument, which spans areas in both Colorado and Utah.  We spent the night at a campground on the Green River just a mile or two away from where Andrew Carnegie’s chief fossil collector, Earl Douglass, unearthed an incredible trove of bones belonging to such amazing creatures as the Apatosaurus that is still on display in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.  Between 1909 and 1924, he shipped more than 700,000 tons of bones and other materials back to Pittsburgh until finally, the museum decided that it had all of the Jurassic bones that it needed.

At the Dinosaur National Monument’s Quarry Exhibit.

Here’s the crazy thing: there are still more of them there – just sitting in the ground.  I mean, it’s crazy – walking down the path and seeing a giant bone protruding from the dirt.  Touch it.  Climb on it. We have more…  In fact, the Quarry Exhibit Hall is built right into the side of a hill, and visitors can see, exposed in the dirt, more than 1500 fossils. Walking along the trails of the Monument, we saw not only dinosaur bones, but fossils of other creatures including clams and some prehistoric dolphin-like fish.

The Quarry Exhibit Hall, built into the canyon itself.

Scientists have some theories about why there is such an immense quantity of bones at this particular site.  There were wetlands here at one time, and the thought is that during a time of drought, a large number of these creatures gathered looking for water.  Then an unexpected flood came and many dinosaurs perished at once.  Their bodies were swept to a certain location along the floodplain where they were covered with silt and sand and the process of fossilization began on this “logjam” of dinosaur bones.

The inside of the Exhibit Center contains a rock face displaying hundreds and hundreds of fossils.

You can say it: this is just a couple of old fossils in Utah.

Obviously, the easiest answer to the question “why are there so many bones here?” is this: “because so many animals died here.”  While the dinosaurs obviously didn’t vote for or decide to do this, they got overwhelmed by a flood or stuck in the mud and that was it.  They became fossils.

A dinosaur bone that we noticed on the trail in the Monument.

We knew we’d be seeing bones on this visit, but we were delighted to see something else – something even cooler, to my mind: a vast treasure trove of petroglyphs: etchings on the rock walls of these canyons that have been here for hundreds and probably thousands of years.  As we wandered through the park, we saw dozens of these markings – lizards, dancers, hunters, necklaces, and more.  Many of the sandstone faces of these cliffs are a darker hue on the outside – it’s called “sandstone varnish” – the wind and elements have apparently scorched them a deeper shade.  At some point between 200 AD and 1300 AD a group known as the Fremont People lived in this area.  Using sharpened rocks, they chiseled away at this varnish and left petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) on the walls.  While they are of great beauty and interest in and of themselves, what fascinates me even more is the fact that some of these pieces of art must have taken months or even years to complete.  Which means that someone in that community had the luxury of some free time – that not every second of every day was devoted to the same old grind of hunting and gathering, hunting and gathering.  This also tells me that those who left this art behind were doing more than simply waiting to become fossils themselves – they were leaving fingerprints all over this desert in the hopes that their peers and their children and grandchildren would find the land a little more hospitable, a little more welcoming, and a little more beautiful.

How many different images can you see in this single photo?

 

Many scientists believe that the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives are birds – like this Lark Sparrow that greeted me in the morning.

Fortunately, this is not a dinosaur.

This formation has been named “Turtle Rock” Can you see it?

A panoramic shot of the Green River. our campground is front and center.

So here’s the deal, beloved, as I conclude this part of the sabbatical.  Each of us, sooner or later, has the opportunity to become a fossil. One day, the folks will stand around me in a circle, throw dirt on my face, and then go back to church and eat some cheesy potatoes and ham.  There’s nothing I can do about that – I’m no better off than those bones in the Carnegie Museum in terms of my earthly mortality.

But I can choose to use the time I’ve been given to leave my fingerprints in places that will, I hope and pray, lead to beauty and joy and reflection; I can work to shape the environment so that my child and grandchildren will have more keenly developed senses of awe and wonder because I’ve walked these paths; I can be grateful for those moments of leisure and reflection that I’ve enjoyed.  This is the difference between fossils and fingerprints: a fossil says, essentially, “Well, I made it this far, and then I died.”  Fingerprints say, “While I was here, I did this.  And then I went on to somewhere else, and did something else.”

I am trying to be grateful, and I am trying to remember that I am still on my way.  And I challenge you to be the same.  Think about your own “bucket list” – what is something you can do todaythat will allow you to resist the rush towards fossilization and give you the chance to shape someone’s world with hope or beauty or joy?  Do it.

Since I’m on Sabbatical, and I’ve been thinking and reflecting in a different way, I’m remembering poetry that has shaped me.  One work that has shaped me for several decades – and in fact has been clipped and rides inside my Bible everywhere I go – is by Scott Cairns.  Listen, and remember:

Imperative

The thing to remember is how

tentative all of this really is.

You could wake up dead.

 

Or the woman you love

could decide you’re ugly.

Maybe she’ll finally give up

trying to ignore the way

you floss your teeth as you

watch television.  All I’m saying

is that there are no sure things here.

 

I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,

and she’ll probably keep putting off

any actual decision about your looks.

Could be she’ll be glad your teeth

are so clean.  The morning could

be full of all the love and kindness

you need.  Just don’t go thinking

you deserve any of it.

– from philokalia, ©2002 by Scott Cairns

We ended our travels by sharing dinner with former CHUP organist Alec Chapman and his wife, Rachel. What a joy to reconnect – undeserved – but treasured!

Watch and Hope

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

I started thinking about the idea of a Sabbatical experience two years ago.  I began the work of planning it about 11 months ago.  I got really serious about six months ago, and designed our route, signed the contracts for our RV and began to book campsites.  One of the interesting features about our travel schedule is that it requires us to cross the Continental Divide at least two times. A continental divide is a line of demarcation indicating where water will flow across a continent – it’s a division where the precipitation that falls on one side of the line winds up in one ocean (say, the Pacific Ocean) or another (say, the Atlantic Ocean).  For most of the United States, that divide runs along the crest of the Rocky Mountains.

Which means that back in November when I was planning this route, I drew up a route that would have us ascending the mountains at least twice as we began and will end this sojourn in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I consulted all the best guides; I did my research, and the itinerary I drew up called for us to leave the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of June 26 and drive up and over the crest of the divide and exit the western gate of the park. It made sense.  It was a lot of driving to get from the eastern gate of the Rocky Mountains to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah in one day, but it was only about 300 miles.  I could do it.

Except for the fact that it snowed like crazy in the Rocky Mountains the weekend prior to our arrival. We showed up at the east gate and were informed that the Trail Ridge Road – the only road connecting east and west in the park – was impassable due to a heavy snow accumulation.  This route, rising to 12,183 feet (3713 meters), is the highest continuous paved highway in the USA.

The Trail Ridge Road as it looked on days 1 and 2 of our Rocky Mountain Adventure…

Well, doesn’t that just beat all?  I’m in the tail end of a well-planned and meticulously organized travel plan, and the ONE ROAD I absolutely need is closed.  I stood in line at the Park Ranger’s desk and asked about the likelihood of the road opening up in time for me to make the rest of my journey.  Believe it or not, he seemed unimpressed with my meticulous planning.  Even after I explained that I was The Reverend Dave Carver and I had a tight program to keep, he pretty much said, “Well, let’s keep your eyes on the sign boards and hope.”

All of my plans for this trip had boiled down to whether the weather would clear and the crews would be able to dig out the road.  There was nothing I could do but to watch and hope.

As I did, I thought about a dear friend of mine who is engaged in the fight of her life with a deadly illness. She could tell me something about having plans interrupted by icy blasts and drifts that make progress seem unattainable.  I thought about another friend, whose dreams for the future seemed to disappear when her child died.  I remembered my own condition in the months leading up to this journey – some of the situations over which I have felt powerless to change and yet over which I worried a great deal.  As I considered the foolishness of my complaining about the weather, I was driven to prayer for those whose only options all day are to watch, and hope, and pray.

It was not the spiritual discipline I’d planned for myself this week of Sabbatical, but it was an important and holy work nonetheless.  We stayed in the area of the park that was accessible to us, and then less than 24 hours before I “needed it”, the road was indeed opened.  As silly as that may sound, it gave me hope for those situations that I named above.  I want to sing to my friends, “There is a way through!”  It may seem impassible or impossible now, but sometimes watching and hoping and praying lead us to a new experience of, and gratitude for, the journey.

Some of the drifts seemed to be fifteen feet high – on June 26th!!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not equating my ability to drive a powerful vehicle on a mountain road with someone else’s battle with a deadly illness or the depths of grief.  I’m saying that my circumstances led me to a deeper awareness of the situations in which my friends have found themselves, and for that I’m most grateful.

I made it to the top of the Rockies this morning – it was hard to breathe, and the snow was deep.  As we wandered into a section of tundra atop the mountain, I recalled a poem that has meant a great deal to me in times where I wondered whether my plans were all shot to hell.  It’s called “Resurrection”, and it’s written by Mary Ann Bernard.  It reads as follows:

Long, long, long ago;
Way before this winter’s snow
First fell upon these weathered fields;
I used to sit and watch and feel
And dream of how the spring would be,
When through the winter’s stormy sea
She’d raise her green and growing head,
Her warmth would resurrect the dead.

Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would pass
With winter’s pain, and peace like grass
Would simply grow.  The pain’s not gone.
It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
It cuts so deep and far within.

Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold.  I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.

Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by spring.
Now, I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and from the dark, cold, grime
A flower comes.  It groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins.

Flowers of many types were already bursting through the tundra atop the mountains…

Most of you are reading this in the summertime.  I invite you to think about those of your friends who are snowed under today, and find a way to watch, hope, and pray for them.

 

I’m not the only one who felt good about making it to the top of the Continental Divide today!

Mule Deer are plentiful in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

We saw a number of moose today, including this cow and calf.

The pika is a small mammal about the size of a large chipmunk – it’s called “the farmer of the tundra” for its habit of storing seeds under rocks.

Adams Falls, on the west side of the park.

At Bear Lake, on the eastern side.

Wilson’s Warbler

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

After we had made it over the mountains and down the other side, there was still one threat to my plans: this five foot Prairie Rattlesnake. Now, to be fair, I had a 4,000 pound vehicle, and all he had was a really snazzy rattle and a little venom. We called it a draw and let each other pass…

Is That What You Call It?

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing people older than I talking about going to the church or the funeral home because they wanted to “pay their respects”.  Usually, that phrase was preceded or followed by something like, “It’s the least we can do.”

That phrase was always curious to me.  I knew what it meant to pay for a ticket to see a movie, or to pay the piper when I’d been caught misbehaving, but the idea of “respect” was so amorphous that the entire enterprise seemed so vague to me.  And why would it matter if it was your “least”, anyway?

I was, in many ways, a difficult child.

If you’ve known me long, you know that I’ve matured into a difficult adult.  Which is why I asked my wife to celebrate my 59thbirthday by accompanying me in a rental vehicle down some of the most mind-numbingly jarring dirt roads that Western South Dakota has to offer.  I was looking to pay my respects.

In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to walk with many of our young people on Mission Service trips with the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.  As these pilgrimages have taken place, they’ve affected me deeply; in seeking to help the young people hear stories that are “other”, I find myself listening keenly and eagerly.  In North Carolina we learned of “the Trail of Tears”; in New York we heard from those whose land had been taken from them for the construction of the Kinzua Dam in my own state.  But for years, I’d heard snippets about what happened in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and this Sabbatical gave me the chance to explore.

Here’s a short version: in the late 1800’s, it was clear that the Native Americans were getting put onto smaller and smaller pieces of less and less desirable land all across the nation.  A previous post discusses the events of Little Big Horn/Greasy Grass in 1876.  By the late 1880’s, most of the Lakota/Sioux people were crowded into a tiny percentage of the land that they’d been promised by earlier treaties.  Many of these people began following a prophet called Wokova, who taught a form of worship called “the Ghost Dance”.  This was an entirely peaceful dance, but it was tremendously unnerving to the whites. The local press, along with the military and settlers, began to talk about it as a dance that would lead to an uprising and a slaughter of the whites.

A map showing the land area granted for Native Americans to inhabit from 1492 – 2000.

As the US Army gets more and more nervous, the local Reservation Agent decides that one way to quell any thought of rebellion would be to arrest Chief Sitting Bull and exile him to the Dry Tortugas Islands off Florida. However, when his men go to do this, they wind up killing not only Sitting Bull, but his teenage sons and six other Sioux. Six of the Reservation Police are also killed.

A few days later, Chief Big Foot learns of Sitting Bull’s murder, and decides to turn himself in to the US Army at Fort Bennet.  Before they can get there, however, they are intercepted by the US Army.  At this point, Big Foot is likely dying of pneumonia and is carrying a white flag of truce.  The Seventh Cavalry surrounds his band, and orders them to encamp at the Pine Ridge Reservation.  On December 29, 1890, the cavalry troops, including mounted cannon, surround the Indian encampment.  At dawn that day, the Lakota men are ordered to surrender any weapons – and the camp is searched not only so that guns are taken, but knitting needles, awls, and more. Apparently, one Lakota – a deaf man – doesn’t want to give up the rifle he paid so much for – and in the struggle, a shot rings out.  When that happens, the worst occurs.

The US Army refers to what happened next as “The Battle of Wounded Knee”.  The Lakota call it “The Massacre of Big Foot”. The results are the same: once the big Hotchkiss cannons are employed, within ten minutes most of the Lakota men are killed.  Indians are fleeing every which way.  The US Cavalry hunts them down, chasing people as far as three miles – shooting men, women, children, and even infants at close range.

Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles, Commanding General of the Department of the Missouri, would say,

“Wholesale massacre occurred and I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee.  About two hundred women and children were killed and wounded; women with little children on their backs, and small children powder-burned by the men who killed them being so near as to burn the flesh and clothing with the powder of their guns, and nursing babies with five bullet holes through them…”

Mario Gonzales, a Lakota author and lawyer wrote in 1980,

“What I mean to say about the Laramie Treaty of 1868 is that it was a treaty for the cession of Lakota territory…What I say about the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 is that it was a crime against humanity for which the United States must be indicted.”

I couldn’t do anything about what happened in 1890.  But it was only two years before my grandfather was born.  It’s within the realm of my imagination.  I know, or have known, people who were alive in the 1890s. Whereas most of the “cowboys and Indians” play of my childhood was related to some distant imagining of an impossibly far-off past, 1890 does not seem so terribly remote.

I am saddened by what happened.  I’d change it if I could.  I wish that folks were not rounded up and sent to their death by relentless gunfire, misunderstood cultural beliefs, and simple arrogance.  But, as I’ve mentioned before, it happens.  It happens far too often.

The Wounded Knee Memorial sits in the Lakota Cemetery in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. It is on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

 

So today I went to pay my respects.  It wasn’t the least I could do.  It was ALL I could do.  And as I sat and looked at yet another mass grave, I remembered the words of the prophets:

 

The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.

I will stand at my watch
    and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
    and what answer I am to give to this complaint. (Habakkuk 1 and 2, excerpts)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridebeautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21)

So that’s how I spent my birthday, and my wife has loved me long enough and well enough to follow me into some of these places.  I paid my respects.  It was all I could do.

Except for telling you. If you didn’t know this story, you do now.

There’s a post-script here – and I may invite you to join me in taking a symbolic step of action. Nearly twenty US Soldiers received The Medal of Honor – the highest military award our nation can offer – for their actions on December 29, 1890.  Some of the Lakota people have begun a petition calling for those medals to be rescinded in an effort to not only recognize this atrocity for what it was, but to make sure that those who have received it since are recognized as true heroes.  You can learn more about this petition by clicking here.