How Can This Be?

May 15, 2016 brought God’s people in Crafton Heights the opportunity to celebrate the Day of Pentecost.  Instead of a traditional reading of Acts 2, we participated in the scripture visually by using a resource created by Dan Stevers.  You can watch it, either by using the icon below or pasting this URL into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylrmhT6iGR8. Our second scripture for the morning was Romans 10:8-15

 

When we read Acts 2 in our day and age, it seems quaint, doesn’t it? I mean, while very few of us actually have fluency in another tongue, we are well acquainted with the fact that people use other languages all the time. Who hasn’t heard that chipper voice on the other end of the phone say, “To continue in English, press one; para Español, o prima dos”?
We know that language matters. Again, we see evidence of shoddy translations all the time. For instance, check out these signs from around the world:

Hikers in China must tell great stories about the disembodied foot that stalks the trails...

Hikers in China must tell great stories about the disembodied foot that stalks the trails…

Keep this in mind if you're stuck at an airport in India

Keep this in mind if you’re stuck at an airport in India

I'm pretty sure that the owners of this country lane are opposed to equestrian traffic, but...

I’m pretty sure that the owners of this country lane are opposed to equestrian traffic, but…

As the Captain of Road Prison #36 might say, “What we’ve got here… is a failure to communicate.”

Words are not the only way to communicate, but they are surely among the best, and the most tried and true means of conveying information and intent.

PentecostAnd Acts chapter two is about words, in a manner of speaking. As we read those words with our twenty-first century minds, we are fascinated with the linguistics of the situation on several levels.

First of all, this is the Sunday of the year when you are least likely to volunteer to be the lay reader, because you’re afraid that I’ll stick you with that nasty string of names: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” I know that those are words none of you want to read out loud in public.

And once we get past pronouncing those words, we tend to fall in love with the idea of all those different people speaking in all of those different languages. Have you ever been a part of a Pentecost service of worship where the congregation embraces different languages? Someone will read a verse in, say, Spanish or French, and then usually the pastor will trot out his or her Greek; depending on how resourceful and connected we are, maybe the church will hear some Swahili or Chichewa or Arabic or Mandarin… We love services like that. We are, sometimes, overly impressed with ourselves; we think about how gifted and creative and well-traveled we are; we admire those who can speak other languages and secretly wish that we’d have had the chance to travel a little bit more.

Have you seen services like that? Do you know what I mean?

Listen: none of that happened at the Pentecost about which we read this morning. That is to say, there is no record of the disciples pouring out into the streets and starting to preach, only to have Andrew go over to Matthew and say, “Dude, you speak Amharic? That is so cool!” We don’t see John interrupting his sermon by saying to James, “Since when did you speak Farsi? Give me a break, man!”

Notice this: there is no record of the disciples ever being impressed with their own ability to communicate in another language. Who is impressed? Those who cannot only hear, but who can understand the message.

Think for a moment about what it means to be able to hear something in your own language in a place where you do not expect it at all. I don’t know if you’ve every been in a place where you are the minority, linguistically speaking, but try to either recall from your own experience or imagine from something you’ve seen… What happens when you hear someone speaking your own language?

Years ago, several of us were privileged to visit a small congregation comprised of Seneca People at the Allegany Reservation near Salamanca, New York. We stayed with these Native American people, worked with Bible School, did a little painting, and so on. One night we met some of the tribal elders. Can I tell you how heartbreaking it was to hear these men and women weep as they remembered how the earliest leaders of their church – white missionaries – would beat them as children if they were caught speaking in their native Seneca tongue. “We were taught that our language was dirty,” they recalled. “We were forced to learn only the language of the whites.” Some of them remembered being unable to communicate with their grandparents as a result of this. Language matters.

I had a friend who died a horrible death as a result of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. As she lost her ability to control her muscles, she was increasingly imprisoned in her own body, and when she died I was one of two people in the world to whom she could express her thoughts. On many occasions I got calls to go to the nursing home in the middle of the night because there was something clearly wrong, but nobody could understand her. Language matters.

My neighbor Jessalyn and I were visiting in her back yard and I noticed a man standing in the middle of the street, not moving at all. He looked odd, and out of place. I called to him to see if he needed help or would like a cold drink and in a heavily accented voice he explained, “No, no, no thank you. Three months ago I have moved to your country from Ghana in Africa. Everything is so different here. But I found that if I come to this place, I can hear chickens, and that is the only sound that is anything like the sounds of home. So when I miss my wife and my daughters I like to come here to listen to the chickens. Is that all right? I am lonely, and the chickens, well, they help.”

Do you see? When you hear something in your own language, it means that who you are and who you have grown to be – that it’s understood. It means that I don’t have to translate myself or try to figure out what you really mean – I am understood. When you speak to me in my own language, it means that you know me. You accept me. You validate me. My stories are worth something.

Pentecost: True Spiritual Unity and Fellowship in The Holy Spirit, by Rebecca Brogan (used by permission, more at http://jtbarts.com)

Pentecost: True Spiritual Unity and Fellowship in The Holy Spirit, by Rebecca Brogan (used by permission, more at http://jtbarts.com)

When the visitors to Jerusalem heard the followers of Jesus speaking in all those different languages, they couldn’t believe their ears. “How can this be?” they wondered. “Does this involve me? Am I included?”

You see, usually when I hear people speaking in another language, I automatically assume that it doesn’t involve me. I am excluded. I am not involved. And therefore, whatever they say does not matter to me.

Conversely, when you speak to me in words that I understand, you invite me to a greater level of relationship and maybe even embrace. When you take the time to learn my language, you welcome me and say that my stories matter to you, and you’d like to hear them. When you adapt your ears and your lips to my speech and my hearing, you show something of Christ to me in your welcome and affirmation.

So this week, I sat and I listened to the thousands of voices wondering, “How can this be?”. I thought about all of those communities that were blessed because followers of Jesus were open to the idea and practice of speaking another language, of engaging a different culture, of being open to those with different experiences. And I wondered what that meant to us today. What languages surround this community? And are we open to learning them?

A number of people who walk up and down that street every day connect with a culture that might be summarized by the phrase “Black Lives Matter”. Some are actually connected with the BLM activist movement that has a network and a membership and a webpage, while others are more interested in not only pointing out that there is a disparity in the apparent worth of human life and that disparity correlates to the tone of one’s skin, but in changing that reality.

Others who share that sidewalk throw up their hands and say, “Seriously? Listen, pal – Blue Lives Matter!” And again, some of these friends have joined the activist network, contributed to the Facebook page, and make ample use of their own hashtag in social media, while others simply plead for the public to respect officers of the law as they should.

I could go on… we could talk about groups formed around racial affinity, social causes, cultural heritage, political identity… You know these groups, right? And would you agree that to some extent, each of these groups has its own language? Each group to which we belong chooses vocabulary and structure and seeks to create meaning and purpose for those who ally with the group, right?

Jim Wallis is an activist and preacher who has written a book on racism in the United States that is framed around a simple question: what if white Christians acted more Christian than white?

I have only read excerpts, and I cannot comment on the book, but that question got me thinking about a number of parallel queries:

What if American Christians acted more Christian than American? What if Republican or Democratic Christians acted more Christian than Republican or Democratic? What about Christians who are rich, or black, or liberal, or Penguin fans, or women, or straight, or left-handed or… well, you get the idea… What if we sensed that our primary call, our first identity, our life-shaping affiliation was not political or cultural or racial but spiritual? What would happen if we really, truly, believed that?

I think we’d start learning new languages, is what. I think we’d be moving into a sea of people who think that black lives and blue lives and trans lives and straight lives and unborn children’s lives and Sudanese lives and who knows who elses’ lives matter and that we’d be loving and supporting and listening and pointing to God’s power in such a way as to engender a whole new series of conversations that begin with the phrases, “How can this be? Am I included?”

Many of you will remember the horrific genocide that occurred in the African nation of Rwanda in 1994. In a hundred days, close to a million lives were lost – mostly members of the Tutsi tribe who were brutally murdered by their Hutu neighbors as the world watched.

And maybe you remember that at the time of the genocide, more than 90% of the population of Rwanda claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ. In 1994 Rwanda was regarded as one of the most “Christian” countries in the world… and yet hundreds of thousands of people were hacked to death… by machete-wielding Christians who apparently cared more about being Hutu or Tutsi than they did about following Jesus. The church failed in Rwanda.

And yet, in the southwest corner of the capitol city of Rwanda is an area called Nyamirambo. This community was home to both Tutsi and Hutu, and yet, according to researchers, there were were very few, if any atrocities there during the genocide. Following the devastation, researchers went to this village and asked why? The people there said it was because they were Muslim first, and Rwandan second, and Hutu or Tutsi third. One leader said,   “Because their identity as Muslims is so fundamental, so important to them, that they could not envision killing one another. Their commitment to Allah created their fundamental identity, more important than any tribal or national identity.”[2]

So I repeat my question (or Wallis’ question, if you want to be a stickler): what would happen in our neighborhood if we were more Christian than anything else?

Listen: week after week, we come into this building and we ask God to give us some direction for our lives. “Show us what you want”, we say. “Tell us where you are moving.”

And the only thing I can think is that God is simply shaking his head, saying “Seriously? What do I have to do to get you to want to learn a few new languages?”

When I travel to Malawi, I do my best with Chichewa. And I get it wrong. A lot. But that’s how I try to show the people there that I’m serious about hearing their stories. This Pentecost, I need to remember that my attempts to be multilingual do not require a passport. Just an open heart, and a willingness to step outside to the people with whom God is already engaged, and with whom God is passionately in love… even if they don’t sound, look, act, or think like me. Send me, God. Teach me, God. Use me, God. Help us to be the church that is willing to learn some new languages, God.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] L. Gregory Jones, “Secret of Nyamirambo: A Haven in Rwanda” in The Christian Century, Dec 13, 2005.

Water is Ready (Malawi 2015 #9)

Here in the rural districts in Malawi, the first words that are spoken to me in the morning are generally these: “Abusa? Water is ready.”

I remarked to my wife this morning how in so many ways that simple phrase sums up the gifts of the African partnership for me. You see, while “Water is ready” may be the first sentence spoken to me in the morning, it’s not the first thing that I hear. No, far from it.

Sometimes I am awakened by the call to prayer at a local mosque. More often, the first sound to reach my ears is a rooster’s crow. Fair enough, considering how many of his brethren I’ve put away this week (more on that below). But once I’m conscious, the sound that reaches my ears is that of wood being chopped and a fire being kindled right outside my window. Five minutes after the fire is started, I hear the weight of a heavy pot being placed on the fire as five gallons of water have been hefted from the borehole into our compound. Then I hear another pot, this one of cold water, being taken into the bathing room. Once the water on the fire has boiled, it is taken into the same room, which is essentially a four-foot square with a drain on the floor. There are the buckets of hot and cold water, and a third empty bucket in which to mix them to the optimum temperature. Lastly, there is a pitcher or small pot of some sort.

Our hosts for this week are Pastor Johnson Damalekani and his wife, Charity.

Our hosts for this week are Pastor Johnson Damalekani and his wife, Charity.

And that’s when I hear the magic words: “Abusa? Water is ready.” Then I climb out from under the mosquito netting and enter the bathing room, where I am free to strip and splash myself with water that is exactly right. As I stand erect and dump the steaming pitcher on my head, I wonder, “Would I be that gracious?” Not only that, but know this, beloved: this ritual happens twice a day. It is not only the manner in which I rise, but it is the expectation that frames my bedtime as well. When I demurred and said, “Ah, no, at home I wash only once a day,” I was told, “Yes, Abusa, but you are in Africa now. It is hot. It is dusty. Please, do not make me feel bad for putting you to bed when you are dusty.”

I have learned so much in Africa in the past twenty years. For instance, I’ve discovered that I really like “Stoney” ginger beer. I’m pretty good at telling jokes to an African crowd. I can barter in the market and baptize babies in Chichewa and drive on the opposite side of the road. But the number one thing that I’ve learned is that I am not as graceful and as hospitable as Christ intends me to be. While I end each worship service at Crafton Heights by saying, “honor all people”, I am a real piker in that department when I compare myself to my African sisters and brothers.

When I die, and you get around to putting together those photo collages, I hope that one of them will be of roads I've driven.  Here, I'm behind the wheel of Menes Makuluni's pick up truck, which he graciously lent us when the first two transport options for the day fell through.

When I die, and you get around to putting together those photo collages, I hope that one of them will be of roads I’ve driven. Here, I’m behind the wheel of Menes Makuluni’s pick up truck, which he graciously lent us when the first two transport options for the day fell through.

Below are some images of the day. They are fine photos, I know. But a picture can’t capture the warmth with which a cold bottle of Fanta is offered, or the insistence with which I should take another cup of tea after a long worship service. The smiles you see here are two-dimensional, whereas I have been given the gift of being welcomed and honored. I am forever grateful to my African family for teaching me to greet each new face, each new day, each new challenge, each new situation, as an opportunity to show gratitude and honor and joy.

Maybe the reason I keep coming back is that I’m a slow learner. I know that most of the people who are reading this know me only in the USA, where I am prone to rush and criticize and push far more than is necessary. I hope that you will catch me improving in my ability to serve with honor and grace.

Chances are, I will never, ever be able to knock on your door and softly say, while gently rolling my ‘r’s, “Water is ready.” Yet I hope that somehow in my daily life, someone will say, “Hey, that Pastor Dave – he’s noticed how tired I am; he cares for me.”

If that ever happens, remember where I learned it – in worship and in worshipful presence right here, in the Warm Heart of Africa.

Sharon with the women of the Mpasuka Bible Study, from whom she received the gift of a chitenge fabric.

Sharon with the women of the Mpasuka Bible Study, from whom she received the gift of a chitenge fabric.

Some of the congregation at Naperi Prayer House welcome us, after having waited for two hours for our arrival.

Some of the congregation at Naperi Prayer House welcome us, after having waited for two hours for our arrival.

Gabe preaching up a storm on the importance of being a follower.

Gabe preaching up a storm on the importance of being a follower.

The Saeya family hosted us for lunch today, and they were really interested in the photos I brought along to share.

The Saeya family hosted us for lunch today, and they were really interested in the photos I brought along to share.

Sharon posing with the Munyenye children, whom she taught to play UNO this evening.

Sharon posing with the Munyenyembe children, whom she taught to play UNO this evening after we shared a meal at their home.

They apologized for the condition of their prayer house, and felt badly about the fact that they had unfinished brick, yet the people of the Khole Prayer house adorned the building with bougainvillea and wire decorations. It was just beautiful.

They apologized for the condition of their prayer house, and felt badly about the fact that they had unfinished brick, yet the people of the Khole Prayer house adorned the building with bougainvillea and wire decorations. It was just beautiful.

2015 Malawi #6

If you’ve been following this journey, you know that the weekend was a rigorous exercise in missionary activity – we spent a great deal of time in conversation with our hosts, in meeting and greeting neighbors in churches and prayer houses, and bouncing across some pretty questionable roads in bone-jarring fashion. When I told the team that I said that they looked as if they’d been “rode hard and put away wet”, some of them suggested that I was speaking gibberish and that perhaps I should offer an interpretation in common English. Fine. From The Urban Dictionary:

The way someone looks or feels when they’ve had a hard time of it. From a horseman’s term, when someone has not taken care of a horse after a hard day.

He was all hot and sweaty, he looks like he was rode hard and put away wet.

The fact of the matter is that our team was beat. And when you’re worn out, what’s better than toting fifty pounds of luggage into the bus and riding on more of the same roads for twenty minutes – I mean, four hours? But that’s what we did, with the promise of some rest and restoration in the form of a retreat on the shores of Lake Malawi.

Our team is greeted at Naming'azi Farm Training Centre

Our team is greeted at Naming’azi Farm Training Centre

Before we arrived, though, we made a couple of stops. The scheduled stop was at the Naming’azi Farm Training Centre, a ministry of the Synod of Blantyre. Here, local farmers are invited to receive training in more sustainable and fruitful agricultural techniques. From composting to fruit-tree grafting to animal husbandry practices, the staff at Naming’azi are seeking to provide village farmers with new (or sometimes ancient) tools with which to ply their craft. It was a great opportunity for the group to see the Synod’s engagement, and we were particularly encouraged by the ways in which Naming’azi has partnered with other NGO’s (non-government organizations) to make goats available to local villagers. As we left the farm, Vanessa and I talked about the fact that a hundred and thirty years ago, the missionaries showed up and built churches, schools, and hospitals. My sense is that in many ways, the missionaries of the next fifty years will need to start farms – places where we can learn and re-learn the practice of stewardship of creation and gratitude for life. Perhaps when the Kingdom comes, it will look a little bit like Naming’azi.

Randy and John relaxing at the Farm

Randy and John relaxing at the Farm

Naming'azi Farm sits in the shadow of the Zomba Plateau

Naming’azi Farm sits in the shadow of the Zomba Plateau

One thing that has not changed about Malawi for centuries is the need for fuel to cook the family meals.

One thing that has not changed about Malawi for centuries is the need for fuel to cook the family meals.

Elephants&BoatBecause our trip to the farm took more time than we expected, we made a second stop. We pulled into the Hippo View Lodge at Liwonde for lunch, and although the iconic “river horses” were missing in action, we were treated to a view of a family of elephants stopping by the river for a quick drink. It was a joy to watch the team appreciate these enormous beauties, and I also was delighted to walk up and down the riverbank sharing my binoculars with families who had none. The awe and majesty of nature was clearly on display.

 

We arrived at the Boadzulu Lodge (“a place to call home”) in time for a warm dinner and vibrant devotions (led by Deac).

Gabe enjoys a sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Gabe enjoys a sunrise over Lake Malawi.

I found a pair of Lilac-Breasted Rollers!

I found a pair of Lilac-Breasted Rollers!

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This morning we awoke and traveled to Cape MacLear, where we were privileged to board a couple of small boats and see the amazing diversity of fish in Lake Malawi. One source indicates that Lake Malawi itself has more species of fish than all of the rivers and lakes in North America and Europe combined. A highlight was having the opportunity to watch several African Fish Eagles swoop down and grab their lunch from the water!

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Lake Malawi Cichlids

Lake Malawi Cichlids

Lake Malawi Cichlids

An African Fish Eagle takes his lunch before our eyes.

An African Fish Eagle takes his lunch before our eyes.

Enjoying the island off Cape MacLear.

Sharon enjoying the island off Cape MacLear.

Pastor Angelo and Elder Daniel get a review of the Partnership.

Pastor Angelo and Elder Daniel get a review of the Partnership.

The afternoon was spent relaxing, and quite a few naps were taken. I spent some time with members of the South Sudan delegation, trying to catch them up on 24 years of partnership history and tradition and give them a chance to assess how and where the SSPEC might be appropriately invested in this relationship.

 

 

DancerOur “day off” was completed by a festive meal attended by several representatives from the Mangochi Presbytery. We were then treated to a performance by a group of young people featuring traditional Yao dancing, drumming, and costumes. This was our best chance at spending some “down” time together as we prepare to be separated to our sister congregations on Wednesday. Bananagrams is an international sensation, and several times the Americans got “schooled” by our host, Jatto, whose command of the English language is amazing. It was a blessed day.

I have to say, Sarajane takes no prisoners when it comes to Bananagrams!

I have to say, Sarajane takes no prisoners when it comes to Bananagrams!

Malawi 2015 #5

The story of God’s people is one of being called and being sent. Of being invited in and offered welcome and of being charged to go out and follow where God leads. To ask which takes precedence is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Both are essential to the Christian life. To put it in reverse, one who seeks to be a Christian whilst inhabiting only either the call or the commissioning is attempting to do the impossible.

 

Paul puts it this way in writing to his friends in Rome:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Today was a day of investigating the calling and sending in many ways.

The 3 new pastors are welcomed by the Women's Guild.

The 3 new pastors are welcomed by the Women’s Guild.

We began by sharing in the celebration of the ordination of three young men to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in a three-hour worship service at Mulanje CCAP. In the PC(USA), the Presbyteries typically choose to perform the function of ordinations by means of Administrative Commissions, wherein a token representation of the Presbytery at large comes to a particular congregation to celebrate with the individual who is being ordained. That choice results in an intensely personal and localized experience, which is at once exhilarating and perhaps a little limiting as well. In contrast, the Blantyre Synod ordains by gathering as many members as can come and inviting them to work together to call their new brothers or sisters to the next level of service and discipleship. So rather than a five or six member commission from Presbytery, there were at least 40 pastors in attendance today, plus elder representatives and women’s guild members from at least seven of the Presbyteries in the Synod.

Pastors are typically given bicycles like this as they begin their ministry.  One fortunate fellow today was given a motorcycle with which to move through his parish.

Pastors are typically given bicycles like this as they begin their ministry. One fortunate fellow today was given a motorcycle with which to move through his parish.

 

I was given the honor of preaching at this momentous event, and other members of our team participated in various ways. The word was proclaimed, prayers were offered, and songs were sung in Chichewa, English, and Arabic. Amidst great pomp and not a little bit of ululation, we celebrated the great truth that God, through the Body of Christ, commissions certain persons to certain tasks.

Our team has attracted a great deal of media attention in Malawi this weekend.  I understand that in addition to a few newspaper articles, I've been on Malawian Broadcasting several times.  We hope that this exposure is good for the Synod and the rural churches.

Our team has attracted a great deal of media attention in Malawi this weekend. I understand that in addition to a few newspaper articles, I’ve been on Malawian Broadcasting several times. We hope that this exposure is good for the Synod and the rural churches.

Following the worship, we were treated to a delicious lunch at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Inglis, each of whom has been to Pittsburgh and who were glad to open their home to our team along with an equal number of Malawian guests. Well-fed in both spirit and body, we then set out to follow the call to serve.

Gregg with Mr. and Mrs. Inglis as well as Holiness, a Partnership Committee member

Gregg with Mr. and Mrs. Inglis as well as Holiness, a Partnership Committee member

 

One of the dramatic moments during today's revival meeting.

One of the dramatic moments during today’s revival meeting.

For the second day in a row, we visited the rather remote Gondwa Prayer House, where the Christians and their partners from St. James CCAP and the Synod had organized a religious revival meeting. This was a profoundly moving experience. We were privileged to hear two wonderful sermons preached by Malawian elders to a Malawian audience (they were translated for our benefit). Some of the songs featured dramatic activity, and the preachers themselves enacted some of what they proclaimed. By the end of the rally, a hundred or so adults and an equal number of children came forward for prayer and conversation with members of their own community about what it means to walk with the Lord day to day. As those neighbors engaged in conversation, other members of the community brought forward gifts of fruit and fabric for the members of our team. In this context, it ought to go without saying that there was singing. And dancing. A lot of both, in fact. Throughout the experience, there was an amazing spirit of joyfulness.

Sarah reads the scripture to the crowd at the revival.

Sarajane reads the scripture to the crowd at the revival.

Members of the SSPEC (South Sudan) delegation are leading the celebration.

Members of the SSPEC (South Sudan) delegation are leading the celebration.

And oh, the dancing...

And oh, the dancing…

 

As the sun was setting, we climbed back onto our coaster and sank heavily into the seats – it had been a long day. Paul wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news…” If you were to have asked us at that moment, as we contemplated our shoes and ankles covered with the red Malawian dust, I doubt that any of us would have declared our own feet to be “beautiful.” Yet somehow, in responding to the invitation to be sent into the world and to engage with God’s people in that way, we were surely given the opportunity to behold great beauty.

We returned to Blantyre well after dark, two hours behind schedule (surprise!). We were spent and weary, and as a friend of mine would say, we looked as if we’d been “rode hard and put away wet.”

But we were full, and ready for what tomorrow holds. Thanks be to God!

Did I mention that all of this happened in the shadow of Mt. Mulanje, the 3rd-highest peak in all of Africa?  Beauty indeed!

Did I mention that all of this happened in the shadow of Mt. Mulanje, the 3rd-highest peak in all of Africa? Beauty indeed!

Extravagant Gratitude

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 15 came from John 12:1-8 and focused on the day that Jesus re-visited the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus after he had raised Lazarus from the dead. 

Think for a moment about a person you would say is a friend. A close friend. Think about the things you’ve shared, the things that person has meant to you over the weeks, months, and years. Do you have a picture in your mind of someone you’d call a good friend?

Think about how things are always just so easy with this person – there’s never, ever been a time when things were tense between you, or one of you made a mistake; things have always been simply perfect…

Yes, that’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? A friendship where there’s never any misunderstanding, never any cause to regret something you might have said or done…

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Jesus and Mary were close friends. We know that because John chapter 11 tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus. We see it when later in that same chapter, Jesus becomes aware of Lazarus’ death, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Mary that he breaks down and weeps himself. You know how that is, don’t you? You have a sense of being able to hold it together in a crisis, and then you see a beloved face, and you dissolve in a puddle of emotion.

Jesus loved Mary, and Mary loved Jesus.

But that’s not to say that things were always smooth. In fact, the last conversation that we overhear between these two sounds bitter and almost accusatory: after Lazarus dies, Mary hides from Jesus, and then finally faces him, exclaiming, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” She is sad, she is angry, and she says the first thing that comes to mind.

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Of course, we are not always at our best when we say the first thing that comes to mind, are we? You know how it is to be a part of a conversation that did not end gracefully: you said something to your boss or a coworker; a teacher heard you mouth off; you spoke in anger to one whom you love. Oh, you got out of the room, all right, but now you’ve got to face that one again, and you’re not sure how it’s going to go.

That was Mary’s situation. In John 11, her brother dies, and she does everything but blame it on Jesus. Then he raises her brother from the dead and leaves town. Not long afterward, he comes through Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, and Mary’s going to come face to face with her friend.

This Lent, we’re talking about people who turn back to Jesus – those who encountered him, and then left for some reason, and then have come back into the relationship.

Sometimes, when people meet the Lord, we expect to see some sort of fundamental re-orientation of their lives. Think about Zacchaeus, for instance, or the Roman Centurion or Philip. Each of these men, and dozens more, could walk out of that encounter and say, “You know, I really missed the boat. I mean, I was so wrong. I was so off base. I will change my ways and get my life together.”

That’s not the case for Mary, though. There’s no evidence that Mary was a bad person, or had nasty habits, or was in any way reprobate. She’d had a bad day – her brother died! – and she took it out on Jesus…and now she has to face him.

The reading we had from John shows us how each member of this family re-turns to Jesus following the events of chapter 11. Martha, Lazarus, and Mary each have their own style of reconnecting.

Martha, the practical one, seeks to express her care for Jesus. “Relax, Lord. Being the Rabbi is tough work. Let me worry about dinner. You know, Jesus, you work too hard. Rest.” Martha is smoothing things over by making sure that all the details are well-attended.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Lazarus, the man who was, presumably, supremely glad to see Jesus a week or so ago, is content to simply sit at table with Jesus and soak it all in. He is enjoying the chance for fellowship, teaching, and conversation.

Both Martha’s and Lazarus’ approaches are valid expressions of a heart-felt joy in relationship, but I’d like to focus in on Mary’s response to the renewed presence of Jesus in her home.

She is, above all else, profoundly grateful. This is a woman who is clearly overwhelmed with feelings of thankfulness for all that Jesus has done in raising her brother from the dead and thereby saving Martha and her from a life of poverty and difficulty. In looking for a way to express this gratitude, she goes to his feet and lets down her hair and focuses totally on Jesus – for Mary, there is simply no one else in the room.

Mary not only has feelings of thankfulness – she expresses those feelings with concrete actions. And hers is an act that has significant implications for her – we read that Judas was chafed because the ointment that she spread on Jesus’ feet was worth more than 300 denarii. A single denarius was the usual wage for one day, and so she is, in essence, committing an entire year’s salary to this celebration of gratitude. There is no indication that this is somehow “extra” ointment that she had laying around, or left-over from some other event. She took her best and, in an act of devotion, she poured it out on Jesus.

She was doing this, she thought, as a way to re-engage the Lord and to show him how glad she was that he was still willing to come into her home and life. She was not aware, however, that her act had an even greater implication until Jesus pointed out that this was preparing him for his own death.

And note with me, please, that when Mary does act on her feelings of thanksgiving, she acts in a way that, while incomprehensible to others, is totally authentic to her own life. Mary is not seeking to show up anyone, she’s not trying to get Jesus to like her better – she has no ulterior motives here – just spontaneous, extravagant gratitude.

Stained glass window, Meyer's Studios, Munich 1899

Stained glass window, Meyer’s Studios, Munich 1899

A third thing that I notice about Mary’s action is that her behavior – her choices, her outpouring of gratitude make the whole house a better place to be. The ointment that she uses is called “nard”, and it is an essential oil made from the roots of a plant called spikenard. This oil is intensely aromatic and fragrant, and was used in making perfume, incense, or medicine. While Mary is totally focused on making her own act of gratitude and devotion to Jesus, John points out that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Mary’s act of devotion and thanksgiving was a blessing to the people who were around her.

As we sit back and consider this encounter of one woman’s “re-turn” to Jesus, what are the implications for our lives?

I wonder…when is the last time you slowed down enough just to be grateful to God for who and where you are right now? I know, I know, you are not totally satisfied with your life. There are still some changes you need to make and some goals on your horizon. But seriously, some of you need to be asking yourselves, “How am I still alive right now? Why in the world am I here? How did I pass that class? Who am I that I get to do this, that, or the other thing?

I get it – your life isn’t perfect. But most of us slept last night in some degree of comfort. Most of us have access to food, and we are gathered in the warmth of this fellowship. Aren’t these good things? Do they matter to you? Can you be grateful for something in your life right now?

And if you can (as I hope you are), then how will you respond to that sense of gratitude in your life? How will you act upon the feelings you’ve got? Maybe that’s why you’re here. I get that – some of us came to church this morning just to say “thanks”. And some of us see this act of Mary bringing the nard to Jesus and say, “Yes, of course – I am giving of what I have as a means to demonstrate my joy in Jesus.”

To be honest, that is the only reason for giving that is really comprehensible to me. I know that God can’t love me any more. I know that there’s no way in blue blazes that I am going to be able to do enough to solve one of the world’s problems with what I give…but I am so deeply appreciative of what the Lord has done for me that I don’t really feel as though I have a choice here – I can only respond in generosity as I consider the extravagant blessings in my own life.

So maybe you have a posture of gratitude, and maybe you want to join me in expressing that gratitude in an act of giving. Does our response make the world a better place? Just as the whole house was filled with the aroma of Mary’s nard, are my neighbors better off because I’m grateful to God? Is the way that I treat them or the others around me reflective of the deep sense of gratitude that I owe to our creator? Does your gratitude to Christ spill over so that others are aware or encouraged or enriched?

Another way of asking that same question, I suppose, is this: does the way in which I experience and express my gratitude lead others to become more aware of God’s care in and for their lives, which will lead them, in turn, to a place where they can embrace the savior with gratitude and respond in a way that is authentic to them?

Listen, my friends: Jesus is here, now. He has come to this place, even after I have not always treated him in the way that he deserves to be treated. Today, you and I have the opportunity for a fresh engagement with the Lord of life, a new opportunity for hope and healing.

In view of that, can we resolve to move forward in a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude? And can we decide that our thanksgiving will have practical implications for us and the rest of the world? Can our lives today be anchored in a thanksgiving that is not limited to mere sentiment, but one that blossoms into action that grows into love expressed for the world?

This is a new day, a new season, and new opportunities. Thanks be to God for the chance to respond with joy and gratitude. Amen.

Welcome to Mexico (Texas Mission 2015 #4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, of course, we did a little work.

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

Joe finishes installing the baseboard.

Joe finishes installing the baseboard.

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

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

Mike puts down the primer.

Mike puts down the primer.

Tim offers a lesson to a painter in the making.

Tim offers a lesson to a painter in the making.

Chris and his apprentice add the finishing touches.

Chris and his apprentice add the finishing touches.

The blue room nears completion!

The blue room nears completion!

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

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

The Church on the Move: Philippi

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 18, we visited Philippi, and talked about the ways that Paul and the others took a risk on preaching to those on the margins of that society.  You can read about it in Acts 16

In 1996, a group of people got together and wondered if we could create a reality wherein the poor of the world could be served by giving them a market for their unique handcrafts. We incorporated a little non-profit, called KingdomCome, and began to sell these goods at church bazaars, craft shows, and so on. As the word spread, and as sales grew, it became apparent that schlepping our inventory back and forth from the 3rd floor of the Crafton Heights church wasn’t the best way to accomplish our goal of allowing people to support themselves and their families. We needed to open a storefront.

So we checked out locations all around the city – from Edgewood to Fox Chapel to Southside to Downtown, and eventually settled on a piece of property ten feet wide and a hundred feet deep on the south side of Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. We chose that location because it had these features:

–  A strong retail history with a flair for independent and so-called “destination” shops

–  A lot of foot traffic

–  An upscale neighborhood filled with people who not only shop, but BUY.

It has worked out very well for everyone concerned as that little experiment has become one of the most successful Ten Thousand Villages stores in North America. When a business is looking to expand, it’s all about location, location, location, right?

GreecePosterNow, let’s rewind and back up time a couple of thousand years. The faith movement spawned by the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is growing by leaps and bounds. From its roots in Jerusalem and Galilee, it has spread through the Middle East and up into Asia Minor. While certainly not a traditional business, it is expanding rapidly. One of the leading Apostles, Paul of Tarsus, feels led to explore the as-yet-untapped European market, and makes plans to sail to Greece. Greece – the cradle of Western civilization. Home to Athens, the Parthenon, democracy, and a really good pita, lamb, and cucumber sandwich. Excellent choice, Paul!

Except he doesn’t go to Athens – not right away. The first Christian foray into the continent of Europe takes place in the town of Philippi. OK, Paul, that’s not a bad choice. It’s a Roman Colony, a city founded by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon. There are gold mines nearby; there’s some legacy wealth – a lot of “old money” – around. You could do worse, I suppose.

EarlyChurch3One thing, though, that makes this choice curious is that Paul, who usually preached first to the Jews, chose to go to a town that didn’t even have enough Jewish men to open its own synagogue. Up to this point, although they had begun to admit Gentile believers, the Jewish population made up the largest percentage of the early church.

As a result of that, this particular Sabbath day finds the pre-eminent apostle of the Way of Jesus preaching the Good News for the very first time on European soil…to a small group of women, including some foreigners, who were down at the river doing their laundry.

It is, I believe, a curious way to launch a movement.

Lydia as portrayed by an unknown artist.

Lydia as portrayed by an unknown artist.

One of those present, a woman named Lydia who was apparently a foreign convert to Judaism, is so moved by what she hears and by the power of the Spirit within her that she asks for, and receives, the sacrament of baptism. In fact, not only Lydia herself, but her entire household, including what we believe to be a number of other women as well as slaves and children, is baptized and enters into the Jesus Way. She is bold enough to invite Paul, Luke, and Timothy to stay in her home so that she and her household might be further instructed in living as Jesus would have them live.

Unfortunately, her hospitality is not emblematic of the entire city, however, and Paul and his companions are treated “shamefully” (I Thessalonians 2:2) in Philippi. They are arrested, beaten, and run out of town.

But the church remained. And it appears to have been one of Paul’s favorite congregations. Whenever he speaks of that place, and in his letter to that congregation, he speaks with great warmth and affection. He commends the church that began on the day of Lydia’s baptism for their willingness to participate and share with Paul in the life to which he was called. In fact, this is one of the only churches from which the stubborn and prideful old Apostle was willing to accept financial support – because in some way, they “get” Paul and what he’s about.

We are spending the time between Easter and Pentecost looking at how the early church grew from a disorganized, dispirited group of doubting, betraying, and hesitant followers of Jesus into a movement of apostles and churches that changed the world. Philippi gives us a good example of the apostolic conviction that the church is called to risk itself on “nobodies” every single day – seemingly insignificant people like Lydia and the women of Philippi.

Faithful friends of Jesus, of course, would not be surprised by this. In Luke 4, when Jesus sets out the road map for his own life and ministry, he says that he’s been sent to preach Good News to the poor, to release the captive, and proclaim God’s favor to all. The first disciples themselves were not exactly the “cream of the crop” and so they evidently followed Jesus’ own model of ministry and preached about him to whoever was willing to listen. Which is why, I suppose, they found themselves on the outskirts of town preaching to a group of women and receiving hospitality from people who were clearly on the margins of acceptability.

In fact, that became a common refrain amongst those who were critical of the Jesus movement. A 2nd-century writer named Celsus has the distinction of being the first author to publicly condemn and criticize Christians. In his work The True Word, he rails against this new religion that appealed to “the foolish…slaves, women, and little children” who could be found at “the wooldresser’s shop, or the cobbler’s, or washerwoman’s” place.[1] Celsus is especially indignant that various social classes could come together in Christianity, and is in general appalled at the church’s willingness to extend forgiveness to those who had fallen into sin.[2] In short, Celsus and much of the ancient world believed, Christianity is a religion for pathetic losers – people who ought not to be accepted in refined society.

I’m sad to say that there are many in the church today who have lost touch with the call to live a faith that is so radically inclusive and welcoming of “the other”. A lifetime ago, when I was being trained for youth ministry, I was taught to build my youth group by looking for the popular, successful students and trying to engage them first. If I could get the quarterback and the head cheerleader to come to my youth group, I was told, then the group would grow like crazy. Why? Because if “the cool kids” are doing it, then everyone will want to.

Isn’t that, to some degree, how the church in the USA continues to operate? Isn’t that why we get all excited when a rock star or a pro athlete or a movie star shares the fact that she or he is a Christian? “Oh, yeah, Tom Hanks? Donna Summer? Tim Tebow? Johnny Cash? Bow Wow? Yep. They’re all believers…”

Our adult mission team used a little book called Coffee With Jesus as a part of our devotional reading. One of my favorite comic strips in that volume pokes fun at our fascination with celebrity believers:

Coffee With Jesus, used by permission of the artist.  For more, see www.coffeewithJesus.com

Coffee With Jesus, used by permission of the artist. For more, see http://www.coffeewithJesus.com

You see, that’s one of the reasons that I tend to be a fan of baptizing babies and children before we know who they are going to be. Is little Sam going to grow up to play High School baseball and slam them out of the park like his dad? Or is he going to be a weak-hitting right-center fielder with a mysterious overconfidence in his own baserunning abilities like a certain pastor we know?

God doesn’t care.

Neither should we. In baptizing him today, we claim that Sam is already surrounded by God’s grace. There are no “cool kids” in the Kingdom of God, because the call is for all who will listen!

If we are going to grow from being disciples into being apostles, we have got to be willing to invest ourselves in those who are seen as insignificant. As individuals, as a congregation, and as The Church, we’ve got to claim the fact that the things that unite us in Jesus are more powerful than those that would divide us by race, income, geography, gender, or anything else. We all belong to God every bit as much as little Sam – no more, no less.

That means that where we can, as individuals, we’ve got to support the kinds of one-on-one ministry that exist here. Will we do what we can do to empower the people who volunteer or work at the preschool, the Open Door, or the Youth Group? If we can’t personally volunteer with those vulnerable neighbors, can we create a climate that encourages them?

That means that we’ve got to pledge ourselves to refuse to see people as belonging to a category: when you look at someone, do you think, “Oh, that’s the black kid…the white guy…the drunk…the user…the loser…the stuck-up rich person…”? That kind of labeling has no place in the Christian world.

That means that we’ve got to find ways to celebrate the real love of Jesus with real people. We commit to sharing meals together. To listening to stories. To sharing moments of laughter and friendship on the bus or in the check-out line. We’ve got to risk engagement with the people around us, even when they seem to be “other” than we are.

Do we have to be cautious? You bet we do. But we can’t, in the name of safety or fear, reject other people just because they appear to be different.

And how do we get there?

By remembering, deep within our own sense of self, that we are, well, nobodies ourselves.

I’m not saying that we are all losers and none of us are the cool kids and that Christianity is, as Celsus claimed, a religion for ignorant, weak, uneducated people.

I am saying that we are all people who have been bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft at one time or another. And, it seems to me, the only way that we can move forward is to pray like bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, and bereft people for others who are bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft.

In his book The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell points to this truth. He writes,

I think God must be very old and very tired. Maybe he used to look splendid and fine in his general’s uniform, but no more. He’s been on the march a long time, you know. And look at his rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army. Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He’ll never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on…

If God were more sensible he’d take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to and bring him back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He is going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches….And eve though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God – especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him. And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long…[3]

Paul’s trip to preach to Lydia and a handful of other women by the river in Philippi was not a stroke of genius that was applauded by the head honchos in the church marketing department. In fact, it’s a good thing we didn’t have a marketing department then, because maybe the nobodies in Philippi would never have heard the good news about Jesus. And maybe the nobodies in my neighborhood wouldn’t have, either. But thanks be to God, he gives us a model to follow. We’re not here to celebrate the fact that God loves the rock stars or the celebrities or the athletes. He does, of course, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because he cares for us, and expects that we will show our neighbors his care in our daily lives.

Listen: choosing you and me to live out his love every day may not be the smartest thing God’s ever done, but he didn’t ask us for advice. He’s asking us to do it. Thanks be to God, he’s asking us to do it. Amen.

 

[1] Quoted in Will Willimon’s Interpretation Commentary On The Book of Acts (Atlanta, John Knox, 1988), p. 138.

[2] See Bernhard Pick, “The Attack of Celsus on Christianity” in The MonistVol. 21, No. 2 (APRIL, 1911) (pp. 223-266)http://www.jstor.org/stable/27900311?seq=14

[3] The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images (New York: Seabury Press, 1968), pp. 91-92