2018 Youth Mission #3

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

When I first started leading these trips with kids, we called them “Work Camps”.  We did that, well, because we thought that the most important thing we would do would be to “work”.  And so we bundled up the vans and we headed off to someplace exotic like Slippery Rock, PA or Tennessee or Maryland and we told the kids that they had a duty to work.  We scrubbed, we painted, we dug, we drywalled.  And, every now and then along the way, we studied the Bible, sang some songs, and worked on relationships within our group.

Gradually, though, we came to see that maybe it wasn’t in everyone’s best interest to simply have a bunch of strangers show up in a place, work, and then leave – still as strangers.  We didn’t want to train ourselves to be “helpers” who took time out of our busy schedules to go and be nice to some poor soul who was down on his/her luck and lend a hand because we were so stinking nice.  We have been growing in our ability to see ourselves as partners, who have something to offer in terms of time and energy and relationship, and who are in a position to receive something in terms of knowledge or energy or skills or relationship.  And so we call them “Mission Trips”, because we assume that God is already at work in Slippery Rock, Tennessee, Maryland, or wherever… and it’s our job to get in on what God is already doing and offer who we are.

Wednesday would have been a spectacular “fail” had we been operating under the old “Work Camp” model.  We didn’t do a blessed thing (full truth: Lindsay and McKenna helped Tim and me to install TWO furring strips for drywall….) but it was a phenomenal day.  We took the morning easy, and then we traveled to the other part of the Seneca Reservation – the Allegany territory – and visited the brand-new-not-even-open-to-the-public-yet Tribal Museum and Cultural Center.  We had a private tour with a team of guides and really learned quite a lot of the Seneca story, and are deeply grateful to the folks within the tribe who helped us gain access to this experience.

We took some time off to wander through an Antique Mall in Salamanca, and then headed home to a phenomenal dinner cooked for us by members of the Wright Memorial church. Afterwards, we had an extensive and informational presentation on some of the Seneca experience by Mr. Rick Jemison, who serves as one of 16 Tribal Councilors for the Seneca Nation of Indians.  He brought along a number of items that helped us to grasp some of what these folks have been through, and he and some of the other elders who were here shared very moving personal testimony as to how they have been affected and shaped by both the adversity and the opportunities that life on the reservation has brought to them.  Some of us listened to a wonderful tribute to the Seneca as sung by the late Johnny Cash, entitled “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow.” You can hear that by clicking on the link below…

We ended our day with our typical debriefing session – singing, laughing, looking at photos… and we talked a little about the story of Daniel, who along with his countrymen was kidnapped and removed from his home.  Although Nebuchadnezzar tried to give these young people new identities (new name, new language, new food, etc.), Daniel refused to wear the labels that someone else had put on him.  He maintained that God alone had the right to name and shape and form him.  We talked about the fact that most of us have people who would be more than happy to tell us who we are and what we are about; that people will judge us for our worst mistake or try to tear us apart if we let them – but that each of us can choose to wear the identity that God is offering us as his beloved children.

Here are a few photos… and as always, thanks for the prayers.  Astute observers will note that there is one more participant on the trip: our friend Karlena, who was unable to join us when we departed on Sunday, met us in Salamanca, and we’re the better for it!

Wake up, sunshine! Another day in paradise…

At the Museum and Cultural Center

Listening to a story of the creation from the Seneca perspective – one that emphasizes community and the responsibility of all to participate.

Lacrosse is a game that originated with the Native Americans, and there is an entire display on the nature of that experience.

There were several cases full of items depicting Native Americans in unflattering and untrue ways. We talked about how it must feel to have other people attempt to describe you in words that aren’t true…

Doug is carving our turkey…

Eileen making the fry bread using corn flour, which is traditional here.

Pastor Mary Lee whipping up some mashed potatoes

Rick shows us a wampum belt depicting the treaty between the Seneca and the Whites.

Rick sharing with our group

Some of the items Rick brought to show us.

Youth Mission 2015 Update #3

Making memories.

Paddleball in the surf

Paddleball in the surf

When we come on mission trips with the young people, we try to do a lot of important work.  A large part of that important work involves the labor that the kids invest on behalf of others: most years that involves something like building wheelchair ramps, framing walls, dropping mulch, watching children, or painting buildings.  Some of that important work goes on inside the lives of the young people themselves: we engage in conversations about things that really matter as the kids trust me or another advisor or even each other in reflecting on things that really matter to them.

A couple of veterans show 'em how a wave ought to be ridden.

A couple of veterans show ’em how a wave ought to be ridden.

But one of the most important things that we do when we come on a trip like this is simply making memories.  We try to create a well of shared joy-filled experiences that can sustain the members of the community when they feel alone, scattered, or simply un-joy-filled.  Memories bring a shared story to the group that grows and evolves over time and informs the group identity – and reminds each participant that she or he shares in that identity.  In fact, one of the greatest times in any mission trip or retreat comes when some of the younger people gather around Tim and me or some of the other advisors and ask us to tell them stories about when they were new in youth group, or when their older siblings were in the group.  They are learning the stories and finding their places in the history of the group.

Yeah, we're pretty sure that these were dolphins.  Sure enough that we sent a few kids out to check them out, anyway...

Yeah, we’re pretty sure that these were dolphins. Sure enough that we sent a few kids out to check them out, anyway…

So yesterday, we didn’t do any “real” work on the mission trip.  We drove 90 minutes southeast of Deep Roots to Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes Delaware and we jumped into the Atlantic Ocean.  We swam.  We rode waves.  We played paddleball.  We watched a whole bunch of dorsal fins that we assumed to be dolphins and not sharks.  We gathered shells, we got pummeled by waves, some of us ignored Pastor Dave’s warnings about sunscreen, and we laughed.  And laughed.  And laughed.

We saw a lot of this yesterday.  A lot.

We saw a lot of this yesterday. A lot.

Afterwards, we drove a little further south to the little town of Rehoboth, where we strolled the boardwalk and then ate a little of Delaware’s famous “Grotto Pizza”.  We had a Bible Study and sang on the beach, and then Tim bought us all ice cream.  We didn’t get home until nearly 11 pm.  And we were tired – from not working all day.

Tim led the search party that discovered this horseshoe crab, which was a source of wonderment not only to our group, but dozens of other curious beach-goers.

Tim led the search party that discovered this horseshoe crab, which was a source of wonderment not only to our group, but dozens of other curious beach-goers.

At Grotto Pizza.

At Grotto Pizza.

Today, we’ll be stiff (particularly those of us that are north of 50 years old).  Some of us will be a little touchy as the effects of sunburn become more apparent.  And all of us will be richer for the memories we’ve made.

It is my hope and prayer that these memories will help to sustain the kids and remind them of who (and Whose) they are when questions come in the days ahead.

Devotions on the beach at sunset.

Devotions on the beach at sunset.

The end of a great day. There are lots of memories here.

The end of a great day. There are lots of memories here.

 

Not Who You Thought?

On the day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the saints at Crafton Heights considered the account of Jesus on the mountain as recorded in Mark 9:2-9.  Our other reading came from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.

Sometimes I start the sermon with a joke, or a funny picture. Today, I have a serious theological question that I’d like you to think about. You don’t need to answer this one out loud, but give it some thought: Does Jesus ever change?

Absolute_ImmutabilityThe theological concept here is called “immutability”, and it refers to the notion that if God is truly God, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, forever and ever and ever, then God cannot change. And if Jesus is God, then Jesus cannot change either. So one scholar recently answered my question this way:

According to a broad consensus among the Reformed divines, the second person of the Godhead remains immutable by adding a nature that, while personally united with His own divine nature, does not alter it: the incarnation is to be regarded such that ‘the human mode of being was added to the eternal mode of the Logos by the assumption of the human nature into its personality without altering the latter.’… To suggest that the divine nature could change was to fail to uphold its own distinctive properties, confusing it with the human…[1]

In 1560, the leaders of the Church in Scotland that was to become the Presbyterian Church put it this way:

We acknowledge and confess that this wonderful union between the Godhead and the humanity of Christ Jesus did arise from the eternal and immutable decree of God from which all our salvation springs and depends.[2]

These great theologians were simply trying to get at some of the truth that is found in Scripture:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)

God is no mere human! He doesn’t tell lies or change his mind. (Numbers 23:19, CEV)

 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17, NIV)

So, if you’re taking an examination at seminary or before the Presbytery, the right answer is this: Jesus does not change.

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Except, well, right there in Mark 9, Jesus sure seems to change. He was “transfigured” in front of his disciples. His appearance – his visage, clothing, bearing, and stature – they all change. We know this because it scared the heck out of the disciples, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote it down so that we’d know about it.

And there are other places where it sure looks to us like Jesus is changing. In Mark 8, for instance – and in a lot of other places, to be honest – the disciples, or somebody, comes to Jesus and say, “Hey! You’re the Messiah! You’re from God!” And Jesus’ response is “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.” But in Mark 5, a man comes to him and says, “I know who you are – let me come with you!” And this time Jesus says, “No, you can’t come with me. Go to your home village and tell everyone what’s happened!”

One time, Jesus tells a man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, and another time he allows a woman to pour all kinds of expensive oil on his feet, even while some of his followers are saying, “Wait! Aren’t we supposed to be giving this stuff to the poor?”

And even beyond all that, how can we say that Jesus never changed? I mean, seriously, he was human and divine, right? Which means, presumably, that at one point he was three feet tall and later he was five feet tall. He needed haircuts. He got older. Jesus changed.

You’re not surprised to learn that the theologians have considered all of those cases, and they turn to look at me with patience and sympathy and say, “Well, of course, Dave, those changes were real. But they were changes in Jesus’ method of communication, or changes in his physical expression. It’s not the same thing. When we talk about immutability, we mean that in Jesus Christ, the unchanging purposes of the unchanging God were clearly visible: the grace, mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and holiness of God were made known in Jesus of Nazareth. Those things never change. The person and work of Jesus Christ is fully consistent with the eternal, changeless, omnipotent being.” And then, just because some theologians can be sort of snooty, at least one of them would do a facepalm and say, “For crying out loud, Carver, don’t come and talk to me about Jesus and haircuts. Seriously.”

And I would say, “Fair enough. I accept the immutability of Jesus, and will agree that God’s purposes are eternal and unchanging.”

But that leads me to another question: What if Jesus isn’t who you think he is?

Years ago, I was introduced to a man who was to become a friend to me: Bart Campolo. But because this was the early 1980’s and neither of us had any money and we lived on opposite coasts, we communicated – can you believe this – through the U.S. Mail. Every now and then we would talk on the phone, but mostly we sent letters. Yeah. I’m a dinosaur.

So one fall day in 1988 we were both going to be at a conference in Chicago. Michelle Salinetro was there, and she saw me walk into the room wearing my big old “Dave Carver, Pittsburgh PA” nametag, and extend my hand to “Bart Campolo, Oakland CA” and say, “Hey, Bart, man, it’s good to finally shake your hand.” And Bart Campolo looked at my face, and then at my nametag, and then at my face, and then at my nametag, and he finally said, “You’re Dave Carver? From Pittsburgh? Dude…I always thought you were black…” Ummmmmmm… Not sure what to say to that.

But what if we do that to Jesus? What if when we get a closer look at him – he’s not what we expect him to be?

Jean Vanier lived a life with which many of us can identify. He was born into a very comfortable family and was taught at an early age to strive and to achieve. He served in both the Canadian and British navies and rose through the ranks. When he finished in the navy, he received a doctorate and taught philosophy in Toronto. And then, through an odd twist, he was asked to leave the world of academia and live with people with profound mental and physical disabilities. He said,

I had to change, and change quite radically. When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself… When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing![3]

Can you imagine how disconcerting that would be – to go through most of your life thinking that Jesus was this way and then to discover that, no, Jesus is that way?

But that’s what happened to the disciples on the day of Transfiguration. The Jesus that they thought they knew ended up to be someone else. And that leads me to a couple of observations that might be helpful for 21st-century followers of Jesus.

First, don’t limit Jesus. I don’t know about you, but in recent weeks, the Carvers have finally taken down the last of the Christmas decorations. My wife’s growing collection of nativity scenes has been packed away, and all the little baby Jesus figurines are safe in tissue paper and plastic bins in the basement. Those items have been carefully protected, and I am here to tell you that nothing is going to happen to baby Jesus in my basement in 2015. He’s safe and sound.

The problem with that, of course, is that as long as I keep Jesus safe and sound and hermetically sealed in a Tupperware in the basement, he’s not going to challenge me or change me.

You see, a lot of times, the disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds – they thought that they had Jesus all figured out. They’d seen him at work, they knew his stuff. And so they began to wrap him up and put him in a little box where they thought he belonged. They began to respond, not to the living Lord, but to their image of who or what they thought he was. Jesus was not pleased when this happened…

Don’t limit Jesus, or try to pack him into a little box. He won’t fit. And my second observation is the mirror of that: don’t limit yourself.

You, unlike the one eternal and immutable God, are destined for growth and change. There is nothing about your body that is exactly the same today as it was a week ago.

A few years back, I returned from a trip with the youth group. Sharon took the camera and asked to see some of the photos. Since members of the youth group had taken most of the photos, I was eager to see them, too. We sat on my sofa and we got to one shot that I just couldn’t place. I recognized the playground where the image was taken, and I knew several of the people in the photo. But there in the middle of the scene was an older guy looking away from the camera. All I could see was the top of his head and his shoulders. Before I could say anything, Sharon said, “What are you doing there?” And I said, “I’m not sure. I don’t know who this is.” My bride said, “It’s you!” I said, “It can’t be me. The guy in this photo has a bald spot.” And she said, “Honey, it’s you.” I said, “Seriously? I have a bald spot? And nobody told me?” I had no idea why my head had been so cold. I had changed – but not known it.

You and I change physically. We grow mentally and intellectually. Depending on where we are in our lives, we either accept those things or celebrate them.

What about spiritually? Where are you growing, and how are you changing spiritually?

The person and work and hope of Jesus Christ is eternal and unchanging. I get that. But how is your perspective of that work, and your relationship with that person growing? We ought to be constantly developing as spiritual creatures. If your understanding of God in Christ and the role he plays in your life is the same now as it was when you were four, then you are in trouble.

I accept the scriptures fully – that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That he is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Jesus does not change.

But our ideas about Jesus probably will change, because faith is alive and active and engaging and growing. If we are not able to hear Jesus calling us to some new places every now and then, I fear we are not listening.

This coming week we will observe Ash Wednesday here at Church. The season of Lent begins, and this forty day period, as much as any other season of church life, presents us with an opportunity to engage Jesus and develop our spiritual lives.

I am begging you to do this in the next six or seven weeks. Invite the unchanging Jesus into all of your life. Ask that Christ to show you where he is at work in the world.

I know that for many people, Lent is thought of as a season in which we “give up” something. We deny ourselves some pleasure or treat in the hopes that we might identify more completely with the suffering of Jesus.

And, to tell you the truth, if going without meat or television or Facebook is going to help you learn more about Christ’s suffering, then by all means, go for it.

But let me ask you to do this thing, too. If you are going to “give up” something this Lent, then please “take up” something as well. Read. Pray. Sing. Serve. Write. Walk. Share.

For instance, what if, instead of giving up sweets for Lent, you decided that you were going to bake cookies or bread or pie once a week and share that with your neighbors? What if you made time in your life to be a blessing in a simple, unexpected way?

What if, instead of giving up coffee and making everyone in your workplace or home miserable until Easter, you took fifteen minutes a day to visit with someone – either by phone, in person, or through the mail? What if you adopted a practice that would immerse you more deeply in the lives of people that Jesus loves?

The word “Lent” comes from Old English and Germanic words that mean “lengthening daylight”. Between now and Easter, the days will get longer, the sun will get higher. You may start your garden seeds indoors. In some parts of the State, the trout season will open. Lent is a time of year that is full of newness and growth and life and depth.

It would be an absolute shame if all of that newness and growth and life and depth was found in the natural world, and not in our hearts, spirits, and lives. Jesus doesn’t change. But I will. And by God’s grace, my ability to know, understand, and follow Jesus will, too. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Sumner, Darren, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 45.

[2] The Scots Confession 3.07

[3] Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press 1994, pp. 18, 23).