Has Anyone Seen My Last Nerve

With the church around the world, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the racial tension and civil unrest that has gripped the USA this month.  On July 5 we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and the scriptures included James 1:1-18 and Psalm 46.

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

As I begin, I want to acknowledge the fact that I’ve been absent from the pulpit for two weeks, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunities that the time away afforded me.  I was able to connect in meaningful ways with people who are really important to me; I was able to tend my garden; I was able to disengage.  I am deeply grateful, and want to offer my thanks to my colleague and friend Laura Strauss and to our amazing worship team for putting together a couple of beautiful worship services.  It is so good to have friends!

As we enter a new month, we’re going to begin a series of messages around the theme of faithful living in stressful times.  Perhaps you can relate to this: have there been occasions in the last, say, four months, where you felt as though someone was on your absolute last nerve? Times when you felt as though you just couldn’t make it through?

Less than one year ago, the British telecom called O2 commissioned a survey in which they asked folks in England what they found annoying.  “What gets on your nerves?”, people were asked.  The results were published as a list of “The 40 Most Annoying Things About Modern Life.”  Here are a few of them – and remember, this is less than a year ago:

  • The number one problem people cited: an intermittent or slow wifi connection. That was, according to this survey, the absolute WORST
  • Number two: calls from unknown numbers. “Who are these people and why do they want to talk with me?”
  • Interestingly enough, #35 on this list was “People who won’t answer my calls when I’ve deactivated caller ID”
  • Others on the list included food deliveries that take more than 30 minutes or not enough leg room on the subway or a plane.[1]

Can you believe it? Those were the most frustrating problems people thought about less than a year ago.  I am reminded of the joke that Jerry Seinfeld told decades ago about our priorities:

I’m very impressed with this seedless watermelon product that they have for us. They’ve done it. We now have seedless watermelon. Pretty amazing… How does this work? And what kind of scientists do this type of work? I read this thing was 15 years in development. In the laboratories with gene splicing or, you know, whatever they do there… I mean, other scientists are working on AIDS, cancer, heart disease. These guys are going: “No, I’m going to devote myself to melon. I think that’s much more important.  Sure thousands are dying needlessly but this… that’s gotta stop… I really think we should devote the money to these studies.”[2]

My point is that I am not sure exactly what stresses you are facing right not, but I think that it is safe to say that we are living in a time that is rife with anxiety and stress.  There are many, many things about which to worry in July 2020, and we’re going to talk about the intersection of faith and stress in the weeks to come.

Our guide for this journey will be the book of James.  This is a brief letter that’s tucked into the end of our Bibles, and it has not always received a lot of attention.  Unlike most of the other epistles, James is what we call a “catholic epistle”: meaning that it was not written to any one individual or specific congregation, such as, say, Titus or Romans, but rather to those who had come to believe in the message of Christ and were trying their best to live it out in their varied contexts around the Roman Empire.  The author says that these words are to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion”.  So his letter is for those who grew up as Jews as well as for those who did not; it will be received by the wealthy and the poor, the slave and the free, the employed, the insured, the privileged – and those who lacked those advantages.

Folks inside the church have had a “love-hate” relationship with this letter.  Martin Luther, a 16th century reformer of the church, tried to have this book removed from the Bible.  He called it “an epistle of straw”, and said that it was full of bad theology.  Others however, including your pastor, believe that this letter is filled with practical and pragmatic advice about how to live into the message of Christ.  It’s true that this letter doesn’t tell us much about what Jesus said or did – because the author assumed that the recipients already knew those things.  And while this letter only mentions the name of Jesus twice, I’d suggest that you’d be hard-pressed to find a part of the Bible that sounds more like the Sermon on the Mount than these words.  He’s not talking about Jesus, he’s talking like Jesus.

James, in a 16th century icon

And who is this “he”?  Who is the author of the book of James?  Most scholars have attributed this work to James of Jerusalem, a younger brother of Jesus who rose to prominence in the early church after the death of the Lord.  There are a lot of things I could tell you about James of Jerusalem, but let me simply give you his nickname.  He was known as “Camel Knees”.  He had a reputation for praying for other people, and it is said that his knees were actually hardened and calloused – like a camel’s – as a result of long hours in prayer.

I will encourage you to remember his reputation for humility and love as we hear his words not only in the weeks to come, but today.  The beginning of his letter may be enough to make you throw your hands in the air in frustration.  “Who is this guy?”, you may want to know.  “He is out of touch and delusional!”

Really, friends.  How did you react when you heard verse two: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy”? Seriously?  Isn’t that the biblical equivalent of “Oh, cheer up, pal! Turn that frown upside down!”?

Camel Knees…

An uncritical reading of this text may make it seem as though James is dismissive of pain and trauma in human existence.  I can see how one might hear what he’s written as meaning hard times are only blessings in disguise and people who go through difficulty are really lucky!

And then, if we’re not careful, we’ll read the next few verses as adding insult to injury.  Is he saying that if you don’t pray correctly, and if you don’t have enough of the right kind of faith, then you’re just screwing things up and you don’t have a right to expect anything from God?  “So, you prayed for a friend to recover from illness and it didn’t happen?  Well, you must not have had enough faith.  You’re a lousy pray-er.”

I know that many of you have had that feeling – that there’s a “right way” to believe, or to have faith, or to pray, and you don’t know that way or aren’t good at it.

Let’s walk back from that a little bit.  He does write, “consider it joy”.  What does that mean to you?  How would you define “joy”?  Most of our dictionaries say that word means an emotion of great happiness, or keen pleasure, or elation.  That’s how it’s used in the 2015 Disney/Pixar film Inside Out.  Listen to what the official Disney biography has to say about the character named “Joy”:

Joy’s goal has always been to make sure Riley stays happy.  She is lighthearted, optimistic, and determined to find the fun in every situation.  Joy sees challenges in Riley’s life as opportunities, and the less happy moments as hiccups on the way back to something great.  As long as Riley is happy, so is Joy.[3]

We tend to define joy as happiness and elation.  Yet the biblical understanding, particularly the one associated with the Greek word chara, is much more nuanced than mere happiness.

Joy – chara – is an attitude that people adopt not because of their happiness in their current circumstances, but because they trust that the God we serve is a God who keeps promises.  Viewed in this light, joy is not an emotion that is reflective of how a particular event or incident has made me feel.  Instead, it’s more of a decision that I’ve made not to allow my current situation to define my reality.

The Apostle Paul uses this same word when he is writing to the church in Corinth.  Listen to what he says:

as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.[4]

When James and Paul write that we can be joyful in trials, they are not suggesting that our problems make us happy.  Rather, these men are reminding us that we have the opportunity to make a decision to trust in our Creator and that our current losses do not define who we are.  If we lose sight of what is ultimately and eternally true, then no matter how we might feel in the particular moment, we will be lost.

In the spring of 1982 I had applied for a job working with kids at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  In those pre-GPS days, my 21 year old self and my new bride were given directions to get to this building from the East End.  In addition to crossing the Fort Pitt bridge and finding our way through the West End Circle (which looked totally different before they “improved it” several times in the last forty years), these directions told us to “head north on PA 60”.  We got through the circle and Sharon pointed to a road.  “Route 60 north! There it is!”  I put the car in that lane, and then looked at the compass.  I freaked out.  “No, Sharon, this is wrong.  We are supposed to be going north on route 60.  We are driving due south.”  My wife countered by pointing me to the roadside sign that clearly indicated 60 north.  I had become convinced of something that was not true, and had allowed the momentary misalignment of the compass and the road map to cause me stress.

Oh, by the way… I got the job.

Hear me, beloved: I guarantee that you will feel stress and anxiety in the days to come.  In fact, you might feel that before the end of the day… Heck you might experience it before the end of the sermon (“when is this guy going to shut up? Can’t they bring back the band?  Where’s the worship team?”)

We cannot deny the realities of our present circumstances.  Yes, I am here to tell you that for a couple of hundred yards, Pennsylvania route 60 north travels due south.  That’s true.

The coronavirus is a scary thing, and it’s made worse because we may be in conflict with our neighbors and family and friends as to how we deal with that reality.  It is wearisome.

Our current political climate is at what I would call an unknown level of pain and anger and frustration.

The tension and pain surrounding the American experience of systemic racism and white supremacy contribute to these feelings of anger, guilt, and frustration.

And it’s not like any of these things stand in isolation, right?  Everything is wound together in a web, and this is a time of deep stress and profound anxiety. That is simply the air we are breathing right now.

But the virus, and the political mess, and even the tensions associated with racial injustice do not define who we are, how we are growing, and where we are called to be.

Listen: the fundamental narrative of scripture is that we are in a place that may be less than good, and we are invited to grow and develop and imagine and follow into a new and better place.  Things began in chaos, and God called forth order. We were slaves in Egypt, and God led us out; we were wandering in the desert, and God provided a haven; we were like sheep without a shepherd and God sent us Jesus.  Time and time again we are reminded that the expectation of the faithful life is a willingness to trust that God will keep God’s promises and that we are to do what we can to grow and shape our lives so that they better reflect that eternal Divine Intention tomorrow than they did yesterday.

There’s one other aspect of the Greek word chara that deserves mentioning before I close.  There is often, as there was in the words of Paul, above, a suggestion of gratitude in the character of joy.  In fact, one might actually translate chara as “rejoicefulness” – if that were really a word.  I think that the chara to which we are invited to grow is an ability to reflect on the things that have brought us to where we are and then consider those things around us that point in the right direction even if we can’t fully realize them yet.

Today, as you confront the unrelenting stress of your life in the age of coronavirus and political and racial division, let me invite you to explore that stress with the tool of gratitude.  Don’t be grateful FOR the virus, the hatred, or the pain… but look for ways to see through and past those things to the person you’re supposed to be and the community we are given.

One more story: On the day we buried my mother we arrived home and a freak winter storm had knocked out our power.  I was 30, and my brother and I were angry.  “It’s 1990!”, we said.  “How can it possibly be that there’s no electricity in this house for three hours?”  The next generation up – my mother-in-law – was worried.  “Oh, we have all that food in the freezer.  What will we do if it thaws?”  And my grandmother – my mother’s mother – said simply, “You know, we take so much for granted.  I lived a lot of years without electricity and I guess I haven’t thought lately about how much I depend on it.  It is a gift.”

Nobody in the room was glad that my mother had died, or that the power had gone out.  Yet my grandmother modeled for me a sense of rejoicefulness: a decision to live in a posture of trust and hope, even if the current signs are not all aligned.

This week, let me charge you to seek to be anchored in the reality that God is here and active.  Let me join our brother James in reminding you that God is for us. And let me implore you to look for ways to participate in the life-giving, affirming presence of God, and to offer that hope – in joy – to your neighbors.

[1] https://www.lincolnshirelive.co.uk/news/local-news/40-most-annoying-things-modern-3319253

[2] Comedy Special, “I’m Telling You For the Last Time”.  Transcript from https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2018/01/07/jerry-seinfeld-im-telling-you-for-the-last-time-full-transcript/

[3] https://pixar.fandom.com/wiki/Joy

[4] II Corinthians 6:4-5, 8-10 NRSV

Here is the YouTube Link for the entire worship service.

Being Faithful for the Long Haul in the Exile

With the church around the world, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the racial tension and civil unrest that has gripped the USA this week.  As we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, we do so mindful of the fact that we are a church that was born speaking the languages of the marginalized and oppressed and seeking to be faithful to God’s call to demonstrate the fullness of God’s reign on earth.  Our scriptures for today included Daniel 6:1-23 and Acts 2:1-13.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below.  To see the complete worship service, please use the YouTube link at the end of this blog.

On March 22, our congregation began to gather for worship digitally.  We did the unimaginable: we had Holy Week and Easter without any of you setting foot in the building!  We didn’t know how to do that; and some of us thought we couldn’t do that, but we did.  And since then, we’ve been spending most of our worship time exploring the stories that are found in the first half of the book of Daniel.  We’ve discovered some reminders of the ways that God is present to a people in exile, and we’ve seen vivid examples of courage, fortitude, faith, and love.  Today brings us to the end of that series, and we will conclude our exploration with the story that is probably most familiar to us… The lion’s den.

When we first meet Daniel, he’s a young man – maybe 13-15 years old.  By the time of today’s reading, though, he’s at least 65, and probably closer to 80 years old.  For fifty or sixty years, he’s been continuing to do what he’s always done – he’s being faithful to God, no matter which king reigns in Babylon.  As a teenager, he was in trouble because he didn’t want to contaminate his plate with food that didn’t belong there according to God’s rule, and he was threatened.  His friends were thrown into a fiery furnace.  He faces pressure again and again to worship someone other than the Lord, and he never does so.

Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Briton Riviere (1872)

I am struck by Daniel’s staying power: to be so faithful in such a difficult place for such a long time.  We are frustrated to think that we haven’t been able to eat in our favorite restaurant for three months; when the politician we oppose gets elected we think, “Oh no – four whole years of this!”; we buy a house and think, “30 years of mortgage payments…” and yet Daniel models faith for more than half a century.  Daniel is a man with staying power.  He stood firm.

What was the key to this?  How could he do it?  I would suggest that it was because Daniel knew which laws were ones that could be changed, and which were ones that would never change.  That’s what this story is about.  It’s not a story about Daniel and a bunch of crooked politicians, or Daniel and a gullible king, or even Daniel and the lions.  It’s about God’s laws and the Empire’s laws.  The other rulers saw this when they were trying to get rid of Daniel: “We’ll never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”

I don’t know about you, but when my eye falls across verses 8 and 15 of Daniel 6, and I read about the laws of the Medes and the Persians which can never be changed – well, it sounds sort of quaint to me.  Sort of old-fashioned.  After all, who even knows anything about the Medes and the Persians, whoever they were, let alone their laws?  That sounds really old-timey. “The law that cannot be revoked!” – it sounds like a line from a bad movie.

Except it’s not.  We’ve grown up and lived under and suffered with all kinds of “laws that can never be changed”; We accept them day in and day out.  “A law that cannot be revoked” is a law that is designed to protect privilege and power.  I mean, isn’t that what was happening in Daniel?  Those who were threatened by Daniel’s faithfulness and ascendancy were saying, “As long as this Jew is hanging around, we’re not ‘safe’; we could wind up losing the King’s affection, our positions of glory, and our privilege.”

The laws that can never be changed are those fictions that a society tells itself so that evil can hide behind a statute and what is immoral can cloak itself in legality.

Another way to put it would be to say that the laws that can never be changed are the things that “everybody knows”.  If you think hard enough, you might be able to come up with a few of them:

  • You can’t fight city hall
  • It’s the ‘golden rule’: whoever has the gold makes the rules

You see what I mean? Some of these are actually codes written in a book somewhere, but others come from our lived experience and we accept them as true and as binding.  And these laws that cannot be changed have been around forever.

You remember Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned the amazing phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  He also said, “Slavery is a necessary evil”.  The chattel slavery of human beings was a law that could not be changed in America from 1619 until 1865.  Everybody knew that.

And when the legal cloak of slavery ended, the law came to allow, or even mandate, state-sponsored segregation according to “race”.  The Supreme Court of our nation ruled in 1896 that “separate but equal” was not only possible, but was a law by which we should live.  And that was the official doctrine of the land until 1954 when the same Supreme Court said, “You know what? That’s a law that CAN be changed.”

All of that happened before I was born.  The “law that cannot be changed” under which I’ve lived my entire life is, “If those people  would just follow the rules, then none of this would have happened.”  A situation gets out of hand, and property is damaged or lives are lost, and we fall back on that truth: that a person who suffers injury or death is usually complicit because, well, they weren’t following the rules.  They should have just obeyed, and everything would have been fine.

Am I reaching too far here?  Are these are examples of “laws that cannot be changed”?  Codes of conduct to which society agrees and then implements for generations?

What has changed in my lifetime?  When I was seven years old my mother put me in front of the television and told me to watch the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.  This week, at the age of 59, I’m sitting in front of the television watching people prepare for George Floyd’s funeral.

Are we ever going to learn?

Is anything ever going to change?

The witness of Daniel and the story of Pentecost may provide clues for us who seek to live by faith in a world where privilege is protected and power is maintained through the malicious (and fully legal) use of “laws that cannot be changed.”

I’ll start by saying that we’re not entirely sure how the Festival of Pentecost might have been observed on that day in about 30 AD about which we heard in the reading from Acts.  There were three great festivals for which faithful Jews were expected to journey to Jerusalem.  However, unlike the other two pilgrimage holidays (Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles), Pentecost – the harvest offering – lasted only a single day.

Pentecost, also known as the “Feast of Weeks”, celebrated the beginning of the wheat harvest.  As such, it was a busy time for an agricultural people.  Folk who were trying to be faithful got into town, dropped off their “wave offerings” at the temple, and headed back to the farm.  There were probably no extended welcomes, lavish banquets, or week-long observances.  People came in, did their best to do right in the eyes of the Lord, and left town.

The followers of Jesus happened to be in Jerusalem when the feast of Pentecost took place.  They were not there to make new friends or to change the world.  They were trying to figure out what it meant for them to be a community of faith.  They were hiding in a nondescript place, not wanting to attract attention to themselves – until the Holy Spirit barged into their hideout and it looked like God was trying to burn the place down and they found themselves being sent out and talking to the people nobody cared about in languages that they didn’t think that they knew.

Acts chapter two describes the formation of a new community which was birthed in an act of invitation, engagement, welcome, and inclusivity.   Historians of the first century tell us on numerous occasions that the followers of Jesus were either reviled or revered for their posture toward outsiders and the marginalized.

The Day of Pentecost is a call for the Church in 21st century – for us – to seek to recover that aspect of our congregational DNA and to remember that the call to faithful living, to invitation, engagement, welcome, and attentiveness to those are the margins is one that must be chosen over and over and over again in the long haul.

The church was born speaking the language of the outsider.  Are we still listening for the language of the oppressed?  Are we willing to learn that language? And are we committed to living graciously and hospitably?

I would suggest that a central strategy for the church in 2020 is to embrace the work of antiracism in the name of Jesus.  Now, church, this is the first time I have used this phrase in my eleven weeks of preaching to an iPhone in an empty sanctuary, but I’m glad you’re not here right now.  It’s not that I don’t love you and it’s not that I don’t miss you, but if we had a hundred and fifty people here this morning I guarantee you that I’d have a line of people waiting to talk with me who began the conversation by saying, “Pastor, I’m not a racist, but…” or “You know, I have a friend who is black, and even HE says…” And frankly, I don’t think I could handle too many of those conversations this morning.

It’s not enough to claim a lack of prejudice for myself, or to point to a person of color who can somehow vouch for me.  The church is called to the work of anti-racism – of disassembling structures that prop up the laws that cannot be changed and not only opposing those who spew hate, but becoming people who will not be silent in the midst of hate.

This Pentecost Sunday, this day where we remember the life of a man who lived in exile in a foreign land for nearly a century, the truth is this: an astounding 40% of white Americans do not have a single friend who is a person of color.  Similarly, 25% of nonwhites live effectively surrounded by their own tradition and culture.[1] Are those numbers indicative of your friend group?  I don’t know.  But they are antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what do we DO? How do we engage in the work of antiracism as a means of expressing our faith in Christ during a time of pandemic and isolation and social unrest?  There are a lot of ways, and if you are hearing my voice now, you know how to work the Google Machine and you can find a number of articles or exercises that will fit your interest and ability.  Let me offer a few ideas, though, that might make sense as you continue to dwell in your own quarantine.

You can expand your reading list.  If you have not read anything by someone like James McBride, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Khaled Hosseini, then you should.  Most of you have not lived their experiences, but all of us need to know them.

Similarly, you can enlarge your media consumption so as to include stories of people of color.  Watch the films “Just Mercy”, or “Selma”, or other such movies or television series that will allow you to listen to and internalize the stories of people of color.

Pay attention to the stories that you read to and tell your children and grandchildren.  There are many amazing children’s books that depict the brown child or the outsider as the hero of the story.  Help the children that you love to grow up knowing that people who may not look or think like them can be extraordinary, and that exclusion and hate do not belong as a part of our story.  Some of you are aware of the fact that I have been reading a children’s book on Facebook most days since the middle of March, and there are a lot of stories there to get you started.

And perhaps most importantly, listen to your own inner narrative.  How do you repeat “the laws that cannot be changed” in a way that solidifies your own power or privilege but negates someone else – often in a way that you would not do overtly?  How does your social media use align with the values of the Christ of Pentecost?  To whom do you give your “likes” or your retweets or your attention?  And to whom do you offer a challenge or a correction?  Sometimes, your silence is taken as complicity.

Finally, beloved, remember this: at the end of the day, there are only two laws that cannot be changed, and they were given to us by the One we’re called to worship this day.  “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39, NRSV)

So that’s it.  Today is Pentecost, and more than anything, we’d love to repeat the experience of the first Christians (“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place…”), but we can’t.  Instead, we are challenged to echo the next part of their story – their experience of having been driven out of their building and into the world.

We have not been in the exile as long as Daniel – not by a longshot – but we are weary.  But beloved, for the love of God, do not waste this moment.  In the middle of March, this congregation did what we did not think was possible: we learned how to do church this way.

Today, don’t worry about the fact that you can’t COME to church; instead, think about how you might BE the church in all the ways that matter.  Listen.  Learn.  Love.

Thanks be to God, who invites us to become wider, richer, deeper, wiser, and better than we have ever thought possible.  Amen.

[1] https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/08/08/poll-white-americans-far-less-likely-to-have-friends-of-another-race

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.

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. 

Disorderly Conduct

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.

The Custer National Cemetery in Montana (a place where current and former servicemen are buried).

I suspect that I spend more time in cemeteries than most folks.  Some of that may be occupationally-related.  I’m sure that I go to more funerals than the average American. And if I helped teach you to drive, you will remember that some of the early lessons take place in the graveyard (not only does it give me a great  context to talk about the dangers of inattentive driving, it’s also a pretty safe bet that no pedestrians will get hurt!).  If you were in the Youth Group with me, you might have taken a field trip to the cemetery during conversations about death.

In some way, I like cemeteries.  They are quiet and peaceful places that can offer me the chance to think about what’s important, to re-align my priorities, and to focus on developing a sense of gratitude in life. They are often places of great beauty – there is often elaborate sculpture and, believe it or not, there are fine opportunities for bird-watching on these hallowed grounds.

And yet their quietness and their beauty belies the intrusiveness of death.  I feel that incongruence more in military cemeteries than anywhere else. Young men and women who have died prematurely, violently, and painfully might be startled to find their final resting places to be neat diagonal rows of crisp white markers on a perfectly manicured lawn. You must admit: it’s incongruous to say the least.

On June 18, I had the chance to visit a military cemetery that was stunning in all the ways that it was not neat, crisp, or manicured.  Sharon and I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana.  Many Euro-Americans know this as the site of “Custer’s Last Stand”, while Native Americans remember this place as the Battle of Greasy Grass.  On a couple of miserably hot days in June of 1876, more than 250 solders, translators, and other people related to the army of the United States were killed by an assembly of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.  This was, in many respects, emblematic of the armed conflict between Native Americans and their efforts to defend their way of life (particularly on the Great Plains) and European-Americans and the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” that propelled them/us to take possession of the whole of North America.

To say that it was messy would be an understatement.  For starters, just eight years prior to this event, the US Government had signed a treaty with the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other tribes in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. In fact, Lt. Col. George Custer himself had said in 1869, “I will never harm the Cheyenne again.  I will never point my gun at a Cheyenne again.  I will never kill another Cheyenne.”

But not long after the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, someone discovered gold in the Black Hills, which by treaty belonged to the Indian Nations.  When the cry of “there’s GOLD in them thar hills” went out, thousands of eager and greedy settlers moved into the Indian land in direct violation of the treaty.  To be fair, for a time the US Army tried to keep them out, but, well, you’ve seen Wal-Mart on Black Friday.  It’s what we do.  The Native Americans got tired of these incursions, and so they began making raids on those who infringed on their domain.  There was inter-tribal conflict as well – the Crow, for instance, wanted to get the Cheyenne and the Arapaho off “their” land, and so Crow and Arikara Indians cooperated with Custer and the 7thCavalry.  And, at the end of the day, almost 300 white soldiers and their allies lay dead alongside of 60 – 100 Indian warriors.  Because the Indians were victorious in the battle, they had the opportunity to remove their dead and honor their bodies in traditional ways. Three days after the battle, US troops gained access to the battlefield and hastily buried Custer and his soldiers in shallow graves where they fell.  In 1890, the US Army erected 249 white headstone markers all across the battlefield to show where the soldiers had died, and, in 1999, the National Park Service began to install red granite markers at places where there were known Cheyenne and Lakota casualties.

Stones mark the places where Custer and many of his men were killed

The countryside is strewn with such markers indicating the intrusiveness and disorderliness of death.

My point is this: nobody’s hands were clean.  You can read volumes about what happened, but this is what struck me about the day that George Armstrong Custer clashed with Sitting Bull, Lame White Man, Red Feather, and other Indian warriors: the arrangement of the grave markers is a telling reminder of the fact that death and violence are not neat, never orderly, and by no means beautiful.  The monument along that ridge in Montana reminded me that too often our own conflicts turn deadly when we allow greed and pride to rule the day, when we can’t be trusted to keep our word, and when we want what the other person has more than we respect life.  It was sobering for me to walk amongst those hills and see another, and another, and another death – not manicured, not tidied up – but strewn across a landscape that will forever bear those scars.  I am grateful for the ways that the US Park Rangers helped me to understand some of what had happened in that June so many years ago, and I am also grateful for the way that the design of these memorials themselves helps me to remember not only the disorderly and violent ways that we so often choose, but also the opportunities that each of us has to seek peace and life.

A sculpture marking the memorial to the Plains Indians who fought here.

Wisdom from the past…may it guide our future.

We started the day in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which straddles the border between Wyoming and Montana.

The Canyon is home to a refuge for wild mustangs!

After looking at the water so long, you KNOW we had to get up close and personal!

Crossing the Bighorn Mountain range at an elevation of close to 10,000 feet. Yep, it was cold!

It was a great day for spotting moose, though!

And we saw many, many Prairie Dog “Villages”!

We Were Wrong…Let’s Not Do THAT Again

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.

While walking through the landscape of the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, a sign caught our eyes.  Neither Sharon nor I thought to take a photo of it, but in retrospect it was rather profound in its honesty and humility.  In describing a technique that attempted to control a potential problem with many of the local trees, the sign said simply something like, “This was a mistake.  Many acres of healthy trees were ruined by this mismanagement of our resources.  Park Managers now approach this situation differently and the environment is better for it.”

It struck us as a bit profound: most of the signs and monuments we see are erected in those places where we were right,  or were something great happened, or where some great victory was won.  Who likes to memorialize their mistakes?

I spent the day on June 17 exploring an entire landmark site commemorating one of the most shameful chapters in our nation’s history.  The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center near Powell, Wyoming, is a monument constructed on the location of one of ten “Relocation Centers” built by the United States Government to incarcerate its own citizens during World War II.

Posters like this went up in communities all across the west coast of the USA announcing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans.

A typical anti-Japanese cartoon and a photo of a US Citizen being arrested by the FBI for the crime of having the “wrong” ancestors.

On February 19, 1942 – about a month and a half after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the US into World War II – President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order # 9066.  This led to the forced removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans – at least two-thirds of whom were U.S. Citizens at the time – into what our government called “Relocation Centers” or “Camps”.  A bad political decision fueled by an agenda-driven media that played on public fears meant that United States Citizens were forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast, deprived of their possessions and livelihoods, and forced to live in places like, well, Powell, Wyoming or Topaz, Utah or Jerome, Arkansas…the middle of nowhere.  They were crowded into uninsulated pine barracks covered with tar paper and forced into routines that disrupted their family systems and attempted to shame them for their heritage.

Residents of nearby Cody were reluctant to house what many termed “the yellow peril”.

 

This is not what we usually think of when we talk about “sending a child to camp.”

 

Internees at the camp were assigned rooms based on family size – there were 4, 6, or 8 people in a single room. Each room had a coal burning stove. Latrines were outside (in the Wyoming winters) and meals were taken in common mess halls.

A total of 14,025 people lived at the Heart Mountain site from 1942-1945.  That made this concentration camp the third-largest city in Wyoming.  The citizens who lived there were not allowed to vote in Wyoming – but they were permitted to vote by absentee ballot in the state from which they had been removed! They were deprived of their livelihood, and yet they were subject to the draft.  800 of these men and women served in the US military (some with distinction in all-Japanese units that were deployed in the European Theater); others were translators for the government that accused them of harboring sympathy for the enemy; and 85 protestors refused to comply with the draft.  Many of these were convicted and sent to  federal penitentiaries.  Some of the quotes I read indicated that these men thought “Go ahead – arrest me. I’m already in jail.”  One comment reminded me of Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali’s stance on the war in Viet Nam: an internee at Heart Mountain said, “Why should I go over there and fight for democracy when I haven’t seen it at home?”

In the “Reflection Room” at the Heart Mountain Center there is a photo of the camp’s barracks in front of a barbed wire fence. Visitors are encouraged to write remembrances of their relatives or friends who lived at the camp and post them on replica ID Tags.

When the war ended and the camp closed, each internee received a “free” train ticket and a whopping $25 in cash.  Many of these folks recovered and built healthy lives; but others never recovered from this experience.  In 1988 (yes, more than four decades later), President Ronald Reagan, speaking on behalf of the US Government, apologized for the imprisonment of Japanese Americans and said that it had been a mistake.

One of the things that shocked me as I prepared for this sabbatical was the number of people who, when I mentioned that I hoped to visit Heart Mountain, said something like, “Oh, no, Dave.  We didn’t do anything like that.  That never happened in America.”

One of the Guard Towers that was manned by armed Military Police at all times.

And yet, my friends, it did. Fearmongering politicians emboldened those prone to racial prejudice and manipulated an often-compliant press into paving the way for this travesty of justice so that it seemed right and prudent to too many Americans.

President Roosevelt rightly declared that December 7, 1941 was a date that would “live in infamy”. The attack on Pearl Harbor was cold, calculated, and evil.  We cannot forget that.  And neither can we forget February 19, 1942 and the days that follow – or else we run the risk of repeating that shameful chapter in our history.  Let us, beloved, stand firm in our resolve to ensure that all Americans retain the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let us resolve to be our best selves in all spheres of life.

 

The King of Glory

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered on Sunday March 26 to consider the truth that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We spent some time on the boat with the disciples in the midst of the storm (as recorded in Mark 4:35-41) and remembered the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 24.

It’s 1000 BC in the ancient city of Joppa, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Canaanite children are being tucked into bed, and as they are, they hear stories of the gods of their people.

They may listen to scary stories, such as those having to do with the deity named Moloch. Moloch, they say, demands that the lives of children – particularly first-born children – be offered to him. Those who take their children to be passed through the fire, as it is called, are promised large families and financial security.

Or maybe tonight they’ll hear the story about the battle between Baal, who is said to be the god of the storm, and wind, and rain, and Yamm, the god of the sea and the rivers. Yamm wanted more power, and so he challenged Baal; when he lost, he was cast into the deeps and forced to limit his trouble-making powers there.

Transportation of the Ark of the Covenant Containing the Tablets of the Law, Luigi Ademollo, 1816

About 30 miles away, there are some Israelite children being sung to sleep by their mothers in Jerusalem. Perhaps they are singing one of the Psalms that they’ve sung in worship at the Temple Mount – songs that talk about their God, YHWH.

These kids have heard the stories about Moloch and Baal and Yamm, but they don’t need to be frightened because they know the truth about YHWH. They know that these local deities are no match for the God who has called to them, and in fact compared to YHWH these other so-called gods are nothing. It’s all in the song that their mothers are singing to them tonight: The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world and all those who live in it…

That’s a statement of ownership. If YHWH is the rightful owner of all, then nobody else can be the owner. If God is in control, then anyone else who claims to be is simply lying. Moreover, the song goes on to declare that when YHWH built the world, he built it on top of the waters. YHWH, not Yamm, rules the sea. The power of YHWH, not Baal, is in the heart of the storm.

The song of the faithful that those children may have heard that night three thousand years ago and you surely heard five moments ago goes on to say that YHWH invites all to come and worship – and to come with clean hands and pure hearts (which is to say, having done right by our neighbor and been humble before God). Those who come to the Temple to worship will receive not a spirit of fear, but rather a blessing and deep comfort. And the song ends with an entrance liturgy that declares YHWH as the source of all power and might in the world – YHWH, and no one else, is “The King of Glory.”

Christ and the Storm
Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Now, a thousand years later, we find twelve men who had grown up singing Psalm 24 all their lives sitting in a fishing boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. They’ve been following a Rabbi who has indicated the rather curious intention to go across the Sea to where “they” live – the non-faithful, the ones who are not like us. It’s odd, because this Rabbi and his followers have been attracting large crowds; apparently, though, the teacher from Nazareth wants to leave the throngs behind and venture into the unknown. I’m not so sure that this man’s followers are totally sold on the idea.

To make things worse, they find themselves in the midst of a terrible storm. In fact the word that Mark uses for it, lialaps, is the same word that is used for the “whirlwind” in the Book of Job. These are not gentle showers…

In a panic, these men turn towards the Rabbi – one of the few, incidentally, who is not a professional fisherman – and find him asleep in the boat. They shake him awake, and then he calms the storm before their very eyes.

Now, pay attention to what you’ve heard, and note this: that these men were surprised that Jesus was able to speak into the intensity of the storm. The wind and the waves obey him! Who knew?

Because Jesus calms the storm and then challenges the disciples’ apparent lack of faith, I’m tempted to read this passage as if the disciples are upset with Jesus for not saving them from the storm. That’s not the case.

The disciples never ask Jesus to save them. The reason that they are frustrated is not because he’s not saving them – there is no indication from anyone that they think that’s even a possibility. Listen: are you mad at me because the Steelers didn’t win the Super Bowl last year? Of course not. How could you be angry with me because the Steelers didn’t make it to the big game? I had nothing to do with that – that was totally beyond my control.

In the same way, I think, we can’t presume that the disciples are irritated with Jesus for not stopping the storm. There’s no evidence to support the idea that they think Jesus could even come close to stopping the storm.

But it’s clear that they’re agitated. Why?

What’s the question that they ask? “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

The disciples are angry with Jesus because he is not as afraid as they are. They are running around the boat screaming, “Arrrrrrgh! We’re going to die! We’re all going to die!”, and they are irritated because Jesus is not running around the boat screaming. “What’s wrong with you, Jesus? Can’t you see this?????”

“Of course,” he may have answered. “Of course I see it. And I remember a song that my mom used to sing to me when I was little. She sang a song she learned at the Temple about the One who made the whole earth and established it on the waters; my mother sang about the One to whom every storm is accountable.”

Jesus calms the sea and quiets the storm and in that very moment the disciples are reminded of the truths of Psalm 24. In the same instant, they are brought face to face with the reality that all of the power, majesty, and authority of YHWH is present in and available to Jesus of Nazareth.

We have the advantage of 2000 years of history, as well as the fact that we are sitting on dry seats in a warm building on a balmy day. It might be fairly easy for us to look back at our older brothers, the apostles, and think, “Wow, you guys really missed that one, didn’t you? I mean, sure – Jesus acts with the authority of YHWH. Come on, everybody knows that! Relax. He’s got this.”

But what about when we’re not sitting on dry seats in a warm building on a spring day? What about when we find ourselves in the middle of the whirlwind? I find it hard to believe that there’s a person in this room who hasn’t at one time or another looked heavenward and asked, “Hey! Jesus! Do you see this? Don’t you care that this thing is happening over here?”

And if for some reason you have not yet asked this question, I predict that you will.

Does Jesus care about the particular whirlwind in which you find yourself lost today? I guess it depends on where you think Jesus is. I’ve already noted that think it’s premature to ask the disciples if they believe Jesus can do anything to fix the situation – they do not appear to believe that he even gives a darn. Because, after all, he’s sleeping. He’s not freaking out, the way a “normal” person might.

Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (1913 – 2010)

But pay attention to one thing.

Where is Jesus?

During this whole story, where do we find Jesus?

He’s in the boat, isn’t he?

He may be silent – but do not ever mistake the silence of God for the absence of God.

It’s the same for you and me, you know. I’m telling you friends, Jesus is in your boat. And I don’t care whether it’s been smooth sailing since day one or if you’re currently dealing with an “All hands on deck!” kind of moment. Jesus has not left the boat.

Do not ever, ever presume that simply because Jesus does not share your anxiety about the current circumstances that he does not care about you, or your pain or your fear.

And some will say, “I hear your words, Dave, but I can’t swallow them. I mean, after all. That person’s storm was stilled. Her baby lived. His job was not lost. Their marriage was saved. They made it through the storm, Dave. But didn’t God care about my child, or my job, or my marriage? What’s that Dave? I can’t hear your answer because the storm is too fierce. Are you trying to tell me that God cares about this mess?”

The short answer is, “Yes. Yes he does.”

Why is it that YHWH is not acting in the way that you desire? I do not know. Why does it seem as though Jesus is sawing logs right next to you while your world is being turned upside down? I cannot say for sure. And that breaks my heart.

But this thing I know: He is the King of Glory. The earth belongs to him. And while he may be silent, he is sitting right next to you.

The best and wisest thing that your pastor can tell you in this situation is that if you find yourself in the midst of a storm and Jesus seems to be sleeping right through it, reach out and hang on to him for all you’re worth until he calms the storm.

It’s who he is. It’s what he does.  Thanks be to God!

Watch Your Step

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights marked the fourth Sunday of Advent 2016 by giving some thought to what it means to be a people of peace in a culture that seems riven by conflict.  Our texts included Isaiah 2:1-5 and Luke 1:67-79.

Do you like hockey?

I do. I mean, I really do. I’ve been watching more and more of it in recent months. 20 years ago, you could say that I had a passing interest in the game. That grew to the point where 10 years ago I might have been called a “mild” fan. Now I find myself watching most of the games on TV, and I even go to a few. I love it.

rondaveA couple of months ago I came across a pair of tickets and so my neighbor Ron and I went to see the Penguins take on the Sharks in a rematch of this year’s Stanley Cup finals. Early in the second period, the Sharks scored and that quieted the fans down a bit. Not long after that, it appeared as though Hornqvist put one in for the Penguins, but the replay showed it was a bad goal, and so it was disallowed. And then the Sharks scored again.

By the end of the second period, we were down 2 – 0, and in addition, two of our defensemen were injured and out of the game. During the intermission, Ron turned to me and said, “OK, this is all right. They’ve got a two-goal lead. That’s the most dangerous lead in hockey.”

I looked at Ron as if to say, “Nice try, neighbor. But let’s go get some nachos or something to redeem this evening.”

In the third period, the Penguins scored three times in seven minutes and ended up winning the game. I like hockey – in part, because it’s possible for my team to come back in a big way.

Believe it or not, there’s an Advent connection here.

Today is “peace” Sunday. We’ve talked about the ways that Advent leads us toward hope, love, and joy; today we are considering the notion that peace is reflective of the Lord’s intentions for his people.

advent-candle-flames-1200x450If you have any access to any kind of device that is capable of relaying any information about the world outside of these walls, you will know that this has been a tough week for the team that follows the One who is sometimes called “the Prince of Peace”. Just on my phone – a three inch screen – I’ve seen…

  • the most recent devastation of Aleppo
  • The next steps toward genocide in South Sudan
  • I had a friend call and describe how the house across the street from him had been shot up in a drive-by
  • We saw the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings and heard the verdict in the trial of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in a Charleston church
  • There was a shooting on Barr Avenue – five or six blocks from here – over a parking place
  • Another friend about whom I care deeply received word that a loved one had attempted suicide

Sometimes, I just don’t get it – we come in here and we read these words about swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, but I don’t know, man. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Jesus – I’m a big fan… But when I look around at what’s going on in the world – even in my little corner of it, which is a pretty sweet little corner… it seems like we’re in a really tight spot. This is worse than a 2-goal deficit, if you know what I mean.

I just don’t see how Team Peace can pull this one out. There always seems to be more hatred, more violence, more death. It’s hard. I mean, it’s just really hard some times.

I said I like to watch the hockey games. And at least once a week, I do. But when I watch them, I use the amazing little feature called DVR – that allows me to skip the commercials and, more importantly, the intermissions. I turn on the game at 8 or 8:30 and I watch it straight through.

Usually.

On November 16, the Pens went down to Washington and played the Capitals. It was horrible – they wound up losing 7-1. I can guarantee you that I didn’t watch that whole game. I mean, we fall behind 4 – 0, 5 – 0… it’s time to let my wife have the remote control. I don’t have time to watch that kind of performance.

Why? Why do I give up like that?

There are at least two reasons. First, I give up because I can. Look, it’s a hockey game. If a bunch of well-paid, enormously-talented young men want to spend a couple of hours crashing into each other, loosening teeth and creating bone-jarring collisions long after the outcome has been decided, well, they can be my guests. But I’m not interested in that kind of a “contest.”

And secondly, I stop watching because I’m well aware of the fact that I have no impact on the outcome of the game. I’m a fan. I’m not even in the same city, often. What can I do about it?

But if you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor a bit, I’m not merely a fan of Team Peace. Like you, I’m one of the players. I have a stake in the game, and I have a responsibility toward the other players and the team.

Look at the reading we’ve had from the Old Testament. After Isaiah tells the people what the Lord is going to do, in verse five he looks at his audience and says simply, “so let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

zaechariah-and-elizabeth-with-johnIn Luke 1, the old man Zechariah sings a song we know as the Benedictus. He starts by recounting what God has already done: God has redeemed, raised up, showed mercy, and remembered. The next verse is about what his son, the one we would come to know as John the Baptizer, will do: John will prepare the way for the messiah, and he will tell the people of God’s saving love and forgiveness. And the final refrain describes what is going to happen as a result: the tender mercy of God will come upon us, and it will shine on those who are in the darkness and under the sentence of death, and it will guide our feet in the paths of peace.

In both of these passages the implication is unmistakable: God has acted, God will act, and there is a role or a responsibility for us. There is a path that we must take – the work that is before us is to walk the pathways of peace.

OK, so what does that mean? How do we live in such a way so as to prepare for a reality in which swords and spears are superfluous? How do we live in a way that recognizes the fact that our God is a redeeming, raising up, merciful, remembering God?

It means that we get out there and we live the faith that we talk about. We walk in the light. We move through the shadows. We stay on the path.

And how do we do that? Well, here’s a clue: the paths of peace do not begin and end in this room.

Let’s go back to hockey. What’s the part of the telecast that I hate the most? What’s the reason that I use a DVR to watch the games?

The fact that NHL games have not one, but two intermissions. From where I sit, an intermission is 17 minutes of bad commercials, useless commentary, and talking heads. There is no action at all.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a little like worship – an artificial interruption of real life where a couple of people do a lot of talking, sometimes someone tries to sell you something, and not much appears to be going on. Maybe Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, was right when he said in a 1996 interview, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”[1]

Exactly. This? This is not very efficient.

carlyle-practice-620-thumb-620xauto-357815But listen to this: in the NHL, the intermission does not exist for the spectators or the fans. When that horn sounds and the teams traipse off to their locker rooms, that’s a chance for the players and coaches to get together and see how things are going. They look at who’s hurting. They talk about strategy. I can imagine that someone might come up to Sidney Crosby and say, “Look, #43 has been trying to ride me up the boards all night. What if we faked a breakaway and you gave me a pass a step behind him?” The players and coaches use those 17 minutes to take a breather, to hydrate, to adjust their equipment, and to reflect on what’s working and what’s not.

Nobody connected with the NHL thinks for a minute that intermission is the reason to sell tickets or play the game. But successful teams realize that it is crucial to use these breaks from the action to reflect on where they have been, to correct or adjust strategy, and to choose how to move forward into the time that remains.

And here’s the problem: many churches, Christians, and pastors act like the hour we spend in worship every week is the primary means by which we follow Jesus Christ. And that’s just not true. It’s a load of hooey, in fact.

The path of peace brings you by here now and then – but you’d better be walking in that path 24/7/365.

When I was growing up, I thought that 11 a.m. on Sundays was the time when Christians played the game. I thought that was the most important hour of the week. That worship was where the action was – it was what counted.

I was wrong. This? This is intermission. This is where we all stop our running around and beating ourselves and each other up and we come in here and we catch our breath for a bit. This is a sanctuary – but it’s also a locker room.

And I gotta tell you, team… it looks like we’re getting beaten pretty badly right now. Team Peace is taking it on the chin.

What are we going to do?

We could quit. Forget trying to do anything meaningful about the pain, suffering, and dis-ease around us and focus in on the things that we like. We have great coffee hours. And the kids seem to enjoy each other. Maybe we just re-think where we’re going.

I suppose you could call in the substitutes. Maybe you want to get a new coach? I hope not. I kind of like it here… and besides, no matter what you do with the lower management, the Ownership is not likely to change any time soon, if you know what I mean…

So how do we respond to the fact that we are living in a world that is by many measures more violent and less peaceful?

What if we got ready to take five key young leaders and immerse them in a cross-cultural experience that will not only knock their socks off, but just might screw them up for the rest of their lives in terms of their ability and inclination to fit into a materialistic and violent culture?

What if we took a couple of thousand dollars and bought a new furnace for the Open Door on Friday morning and then hosted a party for 200 neighbors on Friday evening?

The ministry down at the Table, where we offer a hot meal and warm fellowship to dozens of people who need it, seems to be taking off. How about we recruit a few extra folks to staff that?

We could prepare a group of twelve adults to travel to the southern border of this country, where they could learn about issues of poverty, justice, and immigration while helping churches in that area reflect the love of God through the provision of adequate housing…

Do you see what I mean? You don’t come in here because this is the place where you act like a Christian. You come in here because this is the place where we catch our breath; we talk to the team; we listen for some new direction or fresh ideas; we revisit the basics; we share our heaviness and our joy – before heading back out to where the action is.

Come Saturday night (Christmas Eve) we’re not going to stand around and sing old songs and light candles because we think that kind of nonsense actually accomplishes anything in our ongoing battles with addiction or depression or ISIS or materialism or fear or war-mongering or greed or racism…

We engage in those practices because they remind us that at the end of the day, light does shine! Peace will reign. We are not here to offer a little mumbo-jumbo that somehow erases all the pain; we are here in order to be shaped and challenged and refreshed in our attempts to live lives of peace all week long!

So rest this morning, saints. Catch your breath. In a few moments, we’ll have the choir sing a little number. I think you’ll like it – it’s a real toe-tapper.

But that’s not the point. The point is getting you equipped, getting all of us ready to get back out there and continue walking in the paths of peace, even when it seems rough.

God is doing a new thing. Not just now, but tomorrow morning and on Thursday and yes, on Saturday night. Remember that, and move toward that all week.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Interview with TIME Magazine, January 13, 1996

Malawi 2015 #7

SSclappingSarahToday our team learns of one of the realities of partnership as well as conflict. One of our members, our sister Sarah from South Sudan, will have to cut her participation in this journey short and return to South Sudan today. The reason for her departure is that she needs to attend a memorial service for a dear cousin (“more like a brother”). This young man was amongst the thousands of people who “disappeared” during the earliest days of the conflict that began in December 2013. Her family has finally decided that to move forward in their journey towards peace and wholeness, they need to accept the fact that he is gone and punctuate that with a service.

As you can imagine, prayers for Sarah and her family are appreciated; pray also for her disappointed Malawian hosts, and, most of all, for peace to come so that there will be no more “disappearances” in any of our homes.

Most of our team learned of Sarah’s loss at an amazingly informative briefing that the South Sudan delegates led for our team yesterday morning at the lake. We spent well over an hour getting some of the history and context for South Sudan and Sarah’s family’s experience made the horror of the conflict all the more immediate. Gregg Hartung was able to video record the entire presentation and we look forward to making that available to anyone who is interested in the months to come.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

The series continued on July 13 with readings from Habakkuk 1:5-11 and Luke 22:24-30.

To see a live view from this cam, visit http://www.pixcontroller.com/eagles/

To see a live view from this cam, visit http://www.pixcontroller.com/eagles/

This morning at 8:30 a.m., there were 269 people watching one of the most popular webcams in the city of Pittsburgh. Since January, computer users have taken nearly 3.5 million opportunities to visit the bald eagle nest on the Monongahela river in Hays. The eagles’ Facebook page has more than 15,000 “likes”. In recent weeks, when I have put my boat in the water, the most frequent request from visitors has been, “Can we see the eagles?”

We love us some eagles, don’t we?

US-GreatSeal-ObverseOf course, the bald eagle clenching 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other is the national symbol of the USA, but did you know that the eagle is also featured on the flags and crests of dozens of other nations from Albania to Zambia? And, as I mentioned last week, the eagle is the number one mascot for sports teams in American schools.Montenegro.svg Mexico_(reverse) Egypt.svg Albania.svg

 

 

 

And, really, what’s not to like or admire about the bird? Oh, sure, Benjamin Franklin famously charged the bald eagle as being a “bird of bad moral character”[1], but he’s clearly in the minority. Those birds are just amazing.

bald_eagle_hunting_by_Ilovevore1The golden eagle has been clocked in a dive at 120 miles per hour. The eagle’s brain is small – about an inch cubed, but its eyes are the same size as yours – and 3.6 times more powerful. Of course it uses that eyesight to find prey, which it will snatch and grab with its amazingly powerful leg muscles and sharp talons. The razor-sharp beak will pierce the fur of a victim and often snap its neck.

As a hunter, the eagle is ruthless and efficient. In fact, many eagles are hunters from birth: the first hatchling in the nest will often murder the smaller, weaker newborn as the parents look on. Eagles will eat and attack just about anything: their diets are varied by species, but around the world you will find eagles who eat fish, small mammals, birds, wolves, and antelope. The Steller’s sea eagle has the ability to carry fifteen pounds of meat while flying. A 1929 newspaper account told the story of eight-year old Jim Meece, who was picked up and carried two hundred feet by a bald eagle on the hunt.[2] In the course of researching this message, I came across accounts of eagles attacking full-grown humans, hang-gliders, and even airplanes.

There is one other tidbit that will tell you how fierce these birds are. One well-known reference book on raptors includes this passage: “They have at least one singular characteristic. It has been observed that most birds of prey look back over their shoulders before striking prey (or shortly thereafter); predation is after all a two-edged sword. All hawks seem to have this habit, from the smallest kestrel to the largest Ferruginous – but not the Eagles.”[3] That is to say, the eagle is sure that nobody – nobody – is going to mess with it.

The F-15 Eagle

The F-15 Eagle

For those reasons, and more, I’m sure, our most powerful and threatening weapons are called “eagles”. There is the F-15 Eagle fighter plane, one of the most lethal weapons ever employed by the US armed forces (and now exported to many other countries around the world). A single BAe “Sea Eagle” missile is powerful enough to destroy an aircraft carrier. The “Desert Eagle” is one of the world’s most common semi-automatic handguns. The “Gray Eagle” drone can carry deadly Hellfire missiles and stay aloft for more than two days.

Eagles – both biological and mechanical – are remarkable killing machines, and we find that fascinating.

Last week we mentioned that the word that is often translated as “eagle” in our bibles, nesher, probably refers most often to the vulture, rather than the bird of prey we imagine. However, eagles themselves do appear in the bible from time to time, and then, as now, they are most often used as a symbol of Empire.

Our reading from Habakkuk, for instance, describes the Chaldean military force as one filled with “shock and awe”, characterized by might and strength. When the eagle does appear in scripture, it’s not usually good news – in fact, it’s often accompanied by the word “woe”. Eagles are fierce, terrible, punishing forces that are unleashed upon those who are powerless to resist them.

But we love them.

We want to be them.

We long to be the fearless titan at the top of the food chain who doesn’t even look back when striking; who will go where it wants when it wants doing what it wants without interference.

From the Anheuser-Busch logo on our beer cans to the symbol of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle to American Eagle Outfitters to Giant Eagle grocery, we (pardon the pun) flock to this image of power and success and freedom. The way of the eagle is attractive and seductive.

washingFeetIt is a mistake, though, for us to consider that as our identity. Because the way of the eagle, however alluring it may be, is not the way of Jesus. Oh, they tried to make him into an eagle. The Zealots, in particular, sought to make the presence and cause of Jesus into the symbol of their nationalistic pride. Jesus, however, refused to carry that mantle.

He chose to be weak and vulnerable – starting in a stable and finishing on a cross. He called us to measure our power by different standards than does the world.

That’s not to say that Jesus was – or is – powerless, weak, or ineffective. Indeed, I can think of no force greater than that which he embodies and shares – the force that healed the sick, that challenged the mighty, and that opened the grave.

But that is not the power of arms, wings, talons, or weaponry. It is the power of love, service, and vulnerability.

Parents know more about this than most others. What happens when your seventeen year old stays out late and drives the car without permission? You use the power that you have: you throw down the gauntlet and begin to tell that child what he or she will and will not do. If you’re not careful, you get into a spitting contest, as each side in this conflict becomes increasingly entrenched: you ground your son and he goes out anyway; you take the keys and he finds the extra set; you yell “no” and he yells louder.

We know it, we see it all the time – in our own homes, in our neighborhoods, in the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians or along any nation’s borders. Bombs become more powerful. Stones are met with bullets are met with rockets are met with jet fighter strikes. Fences get taller, detention cells get bigger, and the power of ME gets louder and louder.

Martin Luther said that there was such a thing as “right-handed” and “left-handed” power. Right handed power is the kind of power that the eagle uses, the kind of power that we find to be very helpful when pushing a load of barges up the river, or trapping the groundhog that has been tearing up our garden, or pulling a toddler away from busy traffic. But that kind of force is not usually effective relationally. “Because I’m the boss…” is not a great way to build cohesion at work; yelling louder is not usually the best way to “win” an argument, and so on. Left-handed power is intuitive and paradoxical; it is strength that often looks like weakness and force that sometimes sounds like invitation.[4]

Earlier this week I read an account by 20th-century sculptor Barbara Hepworth. In talking about her technique to bring beauty from stone and wood, she said,

Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth

My left hand is my thinking hand. The right is only a motor hand. This holds the hammer. The left hand, the thinking hand, must be relaxed, sensitive. The rhythms of thought pass through the fingers and grip of this hand into the stone. It is also a listening hand. It listens for basic weaknesses of flaws in the stone; for the possibility or imminence of fractures.[5]

WashingSculptureJesus of Nazareth, of course, is the ultimate practitioner of left-handed power. He modeled, and then called for his followers to adopt, the role of the servant. He made himself the vulnerable one. The Lord of all creation died as he forgave us on the cross.

And I can hear you and our world, and you make sense as you cry out: “But that’s foolish! That’s no way to get ahead! That’s no way to get where you want to get! How are you ever going to stop evildoers, teach someone a lesson, or establish the rule of law with that kind of power?”

You won’t, of course – no more than Jesus stopped those who were asserting their power and strength over him. Jean Vanier puts it this way:

Trusting people are vulnerable and can be easily crushed, as Jesus was crushed. A community which trusts in God rather than in the righteousness of its ‘cause’ can always be crushed, but from that crushing will come resurrection. There is a hidden strength in being vulnerable, open and non-violent, in being a people of the resurrection, knowing that we are loved and that God is guiding us, in all our fragility and littleness. We are not a people who think we are better. We are not an elite. We are people who are poor, but who have been drawn together by God and put their trust in God. That is what a kingdom community is about: a community that knows it has been called by God in all its poverty and weakness, and that God is love.[6]

Just to be clear, I love the eagles. If we’re out on the trail or on the river, I’ll show them to you. They are majestic creatures…but they are not helpful to me as a model of faith or behavior. If I seek my identity in the might of the eagle, I am making a terrible mistake. In her consideration of this bird in the book that has inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue hit on one way that the eagle can be a model for those who seek to follow Christ.

She points out that although this ferocious predator has few natural enemies, it was almost wiped out a generation ago by the use of certain chemicals and pesticides. Pittsburgh’s own Rachel Carson was writing about the ways that this avian superpower was vulnerable to forces outside its own control. In the early 1700s, there were more than 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous states. By 1963, the species was on the verge of extinction with only 487 pairs.[7] The immense prowess of this raptor was no match for the factors in the world that proved dangerous to it.

And yet, we chose to act. The environmental movement was launched, we learned about the power and danger of synthetic pesticides, we established sanctuaries and protections for these birds. And the species has rebounded, as you can see while walking the South Side on a clear day.

Debbie Blue writes,
Maybe the eagle is a good national symbol after all. Not because of its capacity to do violence or to fight. Not because it’s such a good, strong killer, but because it shows how when we pulled together we helped bring something back from the brink of extinction. It turns out to be the symbol of what we can do when we work together – the resurrective value of cooperation. Maybe we can do this again.
We nurtured what was vulnerable as a nation and brought something beautiful to life again. I say, let’s embrace the eagle as our symbol after all, to represent not our allegiance to power, but our commitment to hope.[8]

We follow a Rabbi named Jesus who said that the greatest people are those who serve, and that love is stronger than death, and that forgiveness is more powerful than our ability to destroy each other. Together, we saved the bald eagle from being wiped out. What if we chose to use the power of love, service, and humility in bringing reconciliation to South Sudan, or the Middle East, or along our nation’s borders, or in our political discourse, or in our own homes? My prayer is that in my life, and in our lives together, we might be found to be faithful to Christ’s call to serve, to love, and to forgive. For the sake of the world, may it be so. Amen.

 

[1]http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/holidays/2013/11/benjamin_franklin_turkey_symbol_why_he_hated_the_bald_eagle_for_the_great.single.html

[2] http://www.somerset-kentucky.com/features/x962125601/A-Harrowing-Tale-that-Indeed-is-True

[3] Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Migrant Raptors by Sutton, C.; Dunne, P.; Sibley, D. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989).

[4] Robert Farrar Capon discusses the notion of right- and left-handed power eloquently in The Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985).

[5] Quoted at http://www.quotes-famous-artists.org/barbara-hepworth-famous-quotes

[6] From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press, 1992), p. 51.

[7] http://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle/recovery/biologue.html

[8] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013), pp. 102-103.