Let Me Hold That for a Second…

The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on Maundy Thursday (April 9) this year.  We sat with the disciples as Jesus washed their feet in John 13.  We shared the sacrament of Communion and thought about what love looks like and what love does. 

To see the entire worship service, visit the YouTube link below!

If you’ve been around the Crafton Heights Church for a while, you’ll have heard about the Texas Mission Team.  For more than a decade, adults from this congregation have traveled, usually in February, to work in partnership with churches in southern Texas to make the love of Jesus more tangible to our neighbors.  The size of the team has varied – once we sent five men, and another time we had a crew of nearly 30 if you count our colleagues from the John MacMillan church.  And as with all such experiences, the Texas Trip has produced a pool of memories – stories that are told and retold.

Some things happen every year, no matter who is there, and every single participant can point to these as personal memories. For instance, if you’ve ever been to Texas with this church, you have teased someone about birdwatching.  It happens every year.  And you’ve marveled at how good the fresh citrus fruit tastes in Texas in February.  Those are core memories shared by every traveler.

And some things happen once, but are retold enough to make you think that everyone was there.  I’m thinking now of the time that Jon Walker crashed through a window, causing Eddie Schrenker to rename him “Wounded Elk”.

And other things happen enough that you’re not sure if you’ve ever actually seen it, but you know that it’s true.  I would suggest that many of our Texas trip participants know what it feels like to be working away on a project and have Steve Imler come and watch you for a moment, and then sidle up next to you, and then take the tool out of your hand while saying, “Here, let me hold that for a second…”

When Steve does this, you can see the task on which you were working being done properly and quickly.  And then Steve hands you back your tool, and says, “Oh, sorry man, I just saw something…” and he walks away, confident that you were paying attention while he was “holding” your putty knife or hammer, and expecting that the quality of your work will improve as a result.

A lot of people, myself chief among them, are better drywall finishers, carpenters, musicians, parents, and teachers because someone has practiced “the Imler method” in our lives – they stood next to us and showed us how it can be done, and expected us to learn.

That’s exactly what Jesus was doing in John 13.  Perhaps you’ve noticed this, but when the other three Gospels talk about the night before Jesus’ death, they emphasize the significance of the meal that is shared, and they point to the bread and the wine as representative of Jesus’ sacrifice.  John has already made that point back in chapter 6, where he quotes Jesus as saying “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  When John tells the story of the Last Supper, he talks about something else.

First, he sets the stage for us.  Most of us, praise God, do not have to live with the knowledge of which day, which meal, which interaction will be our final one.  We blunder along, ignorant, sometimes afraid and sometimes cocky or overconfident, day after day after day.  Yet John reminds us that Jesus knew.  Because he knew that he was going to die for the world, he also knew that there was no hope in the world to save him.  He knew, and yet he kept on going.[1]

As Texas Pastor Steve Bezner once tweeted, “Sometimes I joke about what I’d do if I had one day left to live. Eat junk, go crazy, etc. Today it hit me: Jesus knew. And he washed feet.”  And I would suggest that in choosing this course of action, Jesus gives us not only a new command but a model for daily living.

I find it noteworthy that Jesus had allowed the meal to begin before he interrupted it with his act of love.  We are presented with a room full of people, reclining at table as would have been customary in that time and place.  As they lounge, there would have only been one place for the legs and feet to be – right in front of everyone else.  And because there was evidently no domestic staff on duty that evening, nobody had taken it upon themselves to perform the humiliating, menial task of washing the feet of those participating in the meal.  Each disciple knew that it should have been done – but nobody thought it was his job to do.  They all thought it was beneath them… until Jesus got up and did it.

Note this, beloved: before Jesus gives a “new command” to “love one another”, he shows us how to do it.  This evening, I’d like to look at two aspects of the demonstration that Jesus offered and invite us to reflect on what that might mean for our own lives in the age of COVID-19.

For starters, there is a call to yield one’s self.  Simon Peter thinks that he is fundamentally OK and therefore he is not willing to accept any service from the Christ.  He stands in opposition to Jesus, and says, essentially, “Look, man, we’re good here.  There’s no reason to get into all of this now, Jesus.  Let’s just let this go…”

To which Jesus replies, effectively, “Come on, Simon – you’ve got to get over yourself.  You need this.  Let me serve you.”

Beloved in the Lord, I am not entirely aware of all of the realities of your present life. But I am utterly convinced that Jesus longs to bring you relief and release, and that he is willing to enter into this very moment with you.  Jesus of Nazareth, the one that is called “Immanuel” – God with us – is seeking to embrace the you that is at the very heart of your being.

And some of my friends have heard this, and they reply by saying, “Oh, look, I know – Jesus is a great guy, all right.  He’s super forgiving, and kind.  I mean, Jesus is the best… It’s just, well, I can’t believe that he’d be willing to bother with me.  I’m just so… I mean, I’m too angry, or I’m too drunk, or I’m too guilty…”

It’s as if some of us might have the chutzpah to say, “I know, Jesus is all right for the normal, run-of-the-mill sinner like you, Dave, but you don’t get it.  I’ve been damaged.  And I’m not in a good place.  You don’t know what you’re talking about…”

Relax.  I’m here to tell you that nothing you’ve done and nowhere you’ve been is going to shock Jesus.  You pretending to be some sort of “untouchable” so that you don’t have to think about the things that Jesus has already forgiven is simply a way for you to avoid confronting the unpleasant aspects of your own story.

And it may be that a few of us have the opposite problem.  We hear Jesus talking about belonging to him and being cleansed and made whole and we say, “You know what?  I’m good, thanks.  There’s nothing to clean here.  You know what? My feet don’t even stink.  But thanks for the offer…”

And I get that.  I mean, you didn’t travel all the same roads that your reprobate sibling or cousin did; you’ve got a clean record, you’re a basically moral person and you’ve worked to keep your side of the street clean. But here’s the deal – not even you can walk all day on these paths that fill our world without getting marked by them.  We are surrounded by brokenness and crap, and it gets on us.  Let us accept the cleansing that is offered and look for a deeper wholeness in Jesus.

In addition to this idea of yielding yourself to the Lord, let me beg you, people of God, to quit worrying about who else is standing in line to be cleaned.  We get so worked up about those who surround us…

  • This guy is almost there, but you know, he’s soft on the Trinity… I’m not sure he can be trusted.
  • Her? Oh, please, be real.  You know she’s not even pro-life, don’t you?  She is on my last nerve.
  • This other person? That one is such a mess that they use “they” to refer to themselves.  Come on, pal, pick a pronoun!  How can I be in the same church with people like that?

As if those behaviors – or any of a million others – are cause to treat someone less than lovingly.  Listen to me, church: Jesus looked Judas in the eyes and then knelt down and washed his feet, and I’m going to claim that we can’t worship together because you belong to a particular political party or have a different view on gender roles than I do?

Give me a break!

Here.  Let me hold that for a second.  Pay attention.  Love one another. Period.

Here’s something that you might not have noticed in the reading for this evening: after Jesus washes their feet and invites them to participate fully in him, he does something that he does only one other time in the entire Gospel of John.  He offers a beatitude.

I know, I know, if you’re a churchy person, you think of the Beatitudes as that list of eight affirmations found in Matthew 5.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the peacemakers… blessed are the meek…” You know this, right?

And if you’re a really churchy person, you’re thinking, “Yes, and when Luke tells that story, he uses four blessings and adds four woes.”

While Jesus uses the word makarios – meaning “blessed” or “happy” a number of times in those other accounts, he uses it exactly twice in the fourth Gospel: here, in verse 17, and after the resurrection, where he commends Thomas for his belief even though he doubts.

The way to makarios – to wholeness, to blessing, to completeness – is through love.  And in this act of service, Jesus shows us what love looks like.  In sitting by each of his friends, holding their feet in his hands and wiping them with a towel, Jesus shows us what love does.

And I know – I get it.  It’s hard to imagine being a disciple two thousand years ago, following a Rabbi through ancient marketplaces, in dusty villages and cow paths, surrounded by hostile enemies and treacherous friends.  We don’t know how we could do that, and this act of love looks, well, a little curious to us.

A month ago, it was hard for any of us to imagine being cooped up at home, watching church on a screen, staying away from work or school or even grandma’s house.  If you’d have asked us on March 9 to give up all of that, we’d have said we didn’t know if we could do it or not.

Beloved, the call of the Gospel is a call to live with the imagination that no matter where you are, no matter who you are, no matter who you are with, and no matter what you or they have done – you can imagine that you can love your neighbor.

We can do that, because he has shown us how.  Let us now, in the realities of this evening, use our imaginations and dream of what love looks like in this new reality.  Thanks be to God for the One who shows us what love is and what love does.  Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Frederick Buechner for helping me to grasp this.  His treatment of this notion in The Faces of Jesus (Stearn/Harper and Row, 1974) pp. 126ff.

What’s Next?

The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on Palm Sunday (April 5) this year.  We considered Luke’s account of the triumphal entry as well as a reading from Habakkuk 2:9-14.  We explored the discipline of lament in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

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

You know, when you think about attending worship on Palm Sunday, you think you know what to expect.  It’s Palm Sunday, after all.  We all know what that means – even people who aren’t all that religious have heard something about Palm Sunday.  We anticipate joining the throngs waving the branches in the air.  Crowds of people flocking to Jesus, social distancing be damned, shouting “Hosanna!” – “Save us now!”.

Do you remember that from the Gospel this morning?  Nope.  No, you don’t.  Call this “Palm Sunday”, do you, when Luke doesn’t say anything about palms, nothing about a city-wide parade, and there’s nary a “Hosanna!” to be heard?  What’s Luke doing with his re-telling of a story that we think we already know?

Now, I’ve got to be honest here.  I chose these scriptures back when I was so naïve as to think that we’d be worshiping in the same room this morning.  And if you had access to my handy-dandy worship planner, you’d see that one of the big things we were hoping for today was to have our confirmation class join the church today, and celebrate Allison’s baptism.  I had a great plan as to how I was going to talk about what it means for our young people, and the rest of us, to be disciples in 2020.

But you’re not here, and the only way I could baptize Allison today is with a squirt gun, and you might be feeling silly sitting on your sofa in your pajamas waving a palm frond.  What can I say to the confirmands, or the rest of you, now?

Friends, let me invite you to listen up.  This is your story.  There is a word for the church in the age of the Coronavirus here.

Luke gives us a litany of faithfulness.  By and large, this is a story about the disciples – the followers of Jesus.

Look at what the disciples do here.  They are the ones who go and get the donkey.  They are the ones who bring it to Jesus.  It’s the disciples who put their own clothes on the donkey, and then they are the ones who put Jesus up on the donkey.  And as the procession winds its way into Jerusalem, it’s the disciples – not a crowd of strangers – who offer all kinds of praise to Jesus.

Sometimes we come into worship and complain about the fickle crowd who chants “Hosanna!” today and “Crucify him!” on Friday.  But Luke doesn’t tell that story.  He focuses on the ones who love Jesus and stuck by him.

We see that they are praising God.  Why?  Luke tells us: “They began to praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen…”  Another translation puts it “all the deeds of power they had seen”.  Do you get that?  The disciples were so overcome by what they had seen Jesus do that they broke out into spontaneous praise.  Great.  So what had they seen Jesus do?  What got them in the praising mood?  If you flip back through Luke, you’ll see that in the pages preceding our reading for today, we are told that Jesus had dinner with Zacchaeus, healed a blind man, challenged a rich man to give everything he had to the poor, blessed the children, and healed ten lepers while paying special attention to a Samaritan.

They praised God for what they had seen Jesus do.  What did he do?  Same stories, reverse order:

  • He healed those with a deadly, wasting, isolating disease that cut them off from their society, and in so doing, he singled out the poorest and most despised among them for acting faithfully.
  • He blessed the nobodies – the children who were insignificant in just about everybody’s eyes.
  • He challenged the wealthy to give freely and to abandon their money and follow him.
  • He healed a blind man – and not just any blind man, but a poor blind man who was a pest – a real pain in the neck to the people around him who were just wishing that he’d shut up and give them a little peace and quiet.
  • He embraced Zacchaeus – a tax collector who was hated by the entire community. He called Zacchaeus to participate in the justice of God’s kingdom – he brought the outsider inside and called him to live in responsible relationships with those around him.

Do you see those things?  Those are “mighty works” and “deeds of power”.  In fact, the Greek word is dunameon– dynamite!  The disciples see Jesus doing all of this and they know what it means and they simply erupt with praise!  It’s wonderful!  It’s crazy!  It’s amazing!

And the religious establishment – the Pharisees – notice that his disciples are all worked up and confront Jesus: “Ah, for the love of Pete, Jesus, get these people under control.  Tell them to shut up!  They are making us nervous, and we’re all going to look bad in front of the Romans.”

Jesus replies by saying, “You know, if the people who follow me, who saw what I have done, who know dynamite when they see it – if they were to be quiet, then the stones would cry out.  Somebody has to notice what’s right in the world!”

And we’d like to do that, wouldn’t we?  Who doesn’t want to get the gang back together and point out all the stuff that’s right? But how do we do that now? In some ways, I’ve come to see Palm Sunday as a sort of a Christian “pep rally”.  Let’s remember that we’ve got a big challenge coming up, team, and our opponent is pretty tough, but if we stick together and stay focused, we’ll come to Easter just fine.

What if we had a “pep rally” and everyone stayed home?  In the midst of a global pandemic, how do I bring myself to care about, much less work toward, the kinds of powerful ministries that Jesus himself embodied in the days leading up to that first Palm Sunday? How can I follow this Jesus today?

Let’s stick with the Gospel, shall we?  Let’s follow Jesus away from the city, and see what he does next.  Luke tells us that he sits outside of Jerusalem and looks down on it and he weeps.

Oh, for Pete’s sake.  Two weeks in a row where the Gospel writers talk to us about a weeping Jesus.  What in the world is going on here?  Is this what dunameon looks like?  I’m not sure that’s going to sell, Jesus…

Jesus sits outside of Jerusalem and he weeps because he knows that the people of God are missing an opportunity.  God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, has visited the city with a promise of peace and wholeness, but Jesus knows that the people will reject that peace and choose violence.  When Jesus is weeping, he is doing so in anticipation of what he knows is coming; by the time Luke writes the Gospel, it’s history.  The leaders of Jerusalem take up arms against Rome in sporadic rebellion until finally open war breaks out and by AD 70 the Romans had had enough and destroy the city and the Temple in which God was to be worshiped.

Some of your bibles might have a heading over this part of the Gospel that reads, “Jesus’ Lament Over Jerusalem”. That’s important, because here Jesus is modeling for his disciples – and for us – an important practice of the life of faith.  Right after Jesus notices all the things that are right, and points to the avenues of power, after he names something that is filled with the potential for love and beauty and hope, he then weeps when it does not come to pass.

Is this not, beloved in Christ, a season of lament? To quote a meme that has been going around social media, isn’t this the Lentiest Lent we’ve ever Lented?  Is this not a time for us to note the ways that our days are not what we thought they would be? If we are honest with ourselves and each other, shouldn’t we weep for that which we’ve lost?

We begin with the obvious: the trip has been canceled, your birthday party was ruined, and it looks like softball season might not even get started.

But if we stay with the idea of lament for a while longer, we’ll see that it gets deeper.  We see jobs that are lost, and marriages that may not have been great a month ago and are under tremendous strain right now.  We know vulnerable people who are close to an edge – a precipice of physical health, or economic well-being, or loneliness, or depression – and we know that this will push people that we love over an edge from which some will not return.

And that’s just the people that we know.  Who has the bandwidth to care about thousands of people crammed into migrant camps along the border, millions who are walking in African villages, or a billion people in India who lack basic medical care and sanitation?

Right now, it seems as though we can’t do a blessed thing.  And we find that disorienting.  And we don’t like it.  As afraid as we may be of the virus, or even death, we are more fearful of this loss of power that we think we have.

That’s why I think that some of us are being, well, stupid.  I know that there are churches who are seeking to be filled this morning, claiming that there is victory over COVID-19 and that their gathering is a bold act of defiance over what they think is an overreaching government, fake news, and a devastating illness. But here’s what I think: I think that churches who want to pack everyone in this morning and people who go for spring break on the beaches and those who refuse to stay at home are not really offering a valiant display of bravery and fearlessness but rather a desperate and vain refusal to acknowledge the brokenness and pain of the world.

Some of us are clinging frantically to the sense of order in our lives because we are unable to acknowledge the pain and disorientation that this pandemic has brought.

One of the most Christ-like things that we can do in this season, beloved, is to join Jesus in lament.  In weeping over the brokenness of the richest nation in the history of nations that cannot, apparently, provide medical care for all of its citizens.  To join in sorrow over the ways that so many of us have worshiped the golden calf of financial success instead of the savior who sought out the last and the lost and the least.  Sometimes being with Jesus means weeping at all the stuff that just isn’t right.

Theologian Joseph Sittler wrote, “Unless the God before whom we sit, and at whom we gaze, and about whom we think – unless that God has the tormented shape of our human existence, he isn’t God enough.”[1]

Jesus left the celebrations on Palm Sunday to enter into a lament about the ways that the world has failed to respond to the Divine gifts of love and peace.  Scattered in our living rooms and on our devices this morning, we do the same thing.  We lament.

But let not our lament lead us into fear, beloved.  Yes, the world is broken.  Yes, the virus is real.  Yes, there is pain all around us and more on the way.  But we dare not respond to those dangers with a fear that incapacitates us, or brings us to despair or a state of being overwhelmed, or to acting like idiots.

Instead, let us respond as disciples always have by seeking to be present and aware, and to look with the eyes of Christ at the world around us.  How do we do that?  I have a few suggestions.

First, let’s take the steps that we know can help.  Let’s remember to wash our hands and continue to practice social distancing.  But let us do these things not as obsessions that are born out of fear, but rather as disciplines that are rooted in love for our neighbor.  Let us be prudent in our actions as a way of sharing with, praying for, and surrounding the vulnerable amongst us, those who provide care for them, and the parents and children of those caregivers, with the love of Jesus.

And let us be aware of what is happening.  You have a moral responsibility to seek out news of what is going on in the world.  But you have an equal responsibility to ensure that you do not obsess over that news.  See what’s happening, and then go into the next part of your day – a day that like every other day is filled with invitation to follow Jesus.

Practice lament in this season.  Give to God your grief over the things that are wrong, the pain that is too real, and the tragedy that every death brings upon us.

And finally, beloved, seek to grow in this Holy Week in your ability to practice empathy.  To be like Jesus – to weep with those who weep, to mourn with those who mourn, and to stand with those who suffer.  How do you do this?  There are a million ways.  Send a card.  Make a call.  Give some of what you have to someone who has less.  Seek new ways of connecting with people. Care for the earth.  Love your neighbor.

Since November, I’ve often given the confirmation class homework assignments.  This week, I want to give you all some homework: read Luke 17 – 22.  Look at the kinds of things that Jesus was up to in his life.  I dare you to be involved in the same kinds of things.  Look at how Jesus spent himself searching for the lost, the left out, and the dead.  Look for some of those folks yourself, and give yourself to them.

I’ve got to warn you, though…when you go looking for the lost, the left out and the dead during Holy Week…you might be surprised.

I’ll see you at the table for the Lord’s Supper on Thursday night.  And I hope to see you next Sunday, too.  Who knows what could happen?  It’s Holy Week.  Amen.

[1] Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Augsberg, 1986), p. 34

Below you will find the Youtube video of our worship service.  I apologize for the quality of the audio – we had an issue with the microphone.  The audio for the sermon in the media player at the top of this post is much clearer (but it’s only the sermon).  All music is streamed courtesy of CCLI license #812431.

2019 Texas Mission #3

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

If you pray, how do you think that God answers prayer?

When do you know that it happens?

Have you ever been around to see it?

Today, we did a lot of work.  More about that in a moment.  I’d like to tell you about the fifteen most significant moments of my day.  If you saw Sunday’s entry to this sequence of updates, you know that in addition to coming to the Rio Grande Valley to do some housing rehabilitation, we came to seek to learn about the experiences of those who are here and those who arrive here each day.  To help us in this we prepared, and asked a lot of friends to prepare, “Respite Kits” for distribution to those who have entered the USA here in Texas and are seeking asylum or permanent residency.  Since we’ve arrived, we’ve been calling folks at the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities in McAllen TX.  They didn’t return our calls, and someone suggested that we should just stop by and drop off the kits.

We arrived at the building and saw long lines snaking out in so many different directions. We took our donations to the side door where we were greeted by a volunteer who said, “Seriously? You have respite kits?  We ran out earlier today.  I didn’t know what we would do, but I told my wife, ‘God will get us some.’  And look, here you are!”  We discovered that the reason that they had not been answering their phones was because in the past 3 days this center has received more than 1500 individuals – mostly women with children.  They are at the center for a day at the most, hoping for a hot meal, a quick shower, a new set of clothes (including shoe laces which are taken from each individual at the detention centers), and a bus ticket to the home of a relative or friend while they await the hearings that will determine their eligibility to stay in the USA.

For me, the emotion was so palpable that I * might * have burst into tears whilst talking to a young mother whose children helped to pack similar bags several states away.  There is so much brokenness, so much that is wounded and wrong in our world. And here we are, with our baggies full of toothpaste and soap.  Talk about “the least of these.”  Sheesh.  I mentioned to someone earlier today that one of my favorite characters is Don Quixote de la Mancha.  I felt as though I were charging at windmills for much of the day.

And we worked – a lot – on the house as well.  And we had an amazing dinner with some good friends from the Valley.  And we enjoyed another hot lunch courtesy of our hosts.  We are overwhelmed with blessings.  I’d say more, but it’s nearly midnight and I’ll be up six hours from now ready to start it all again.  So here are a few photos.

Our Respite Bags having been transferred to the incredibly temporary storage bin at Catholic Charities.

Meeting with Scott, the volunteer at the Respite Center who prayed for supplies and then we showed up…

I’d say Gabe’s back is looking pretty great, thanks be to God!

Beginning the process of laying the new roof (yes, we can see it is raining…)

Bob Walters is an amazing person. That is all.

Just a couple of Daves, doing drywall. Nothing to see here…

Josie takes charge with the drywall gun!

Jessica hanging drywall with patience and precision.

Tina learning to tape drywall.

Amazing dinner with long-time friends in a wonder-filled atmosphere. We are indeed blessed.

2019 Texas Mission #2

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

The first day of a construction/service trip is often slow to get going, as we’ve got to get the lay of the land in terms of the tasks that are in front of us, the tools at our disposal, the personnel we have on hand, and the constraints or opportunities any of those afford to us.  Today it felt as though we launched with lightning speed!

We’ve been invited to help a homeowner recover from some pretty intense flooding that hit this area last year.  This part of Texas is flat – I mean, FLAT. And we are essentially at sea level, even though we are so far inland.  That means that when an area gets hit by a hard, heavy rain, it can take some time for the water to get anywhere. As a result, homes that are built on a slab are at risk of flooding.  Such was the case in the property we went to today.

The remedy for this kind of flooding is to remove the bottom two feet or so of drywall so as to reduce the likelihood of mold or mildew setting in and causing long-term damage to either the home or its inhabitants.  Some of our group spent much of the day measuring and cutting through drywall and trim in order to accomplish this.  The rest of the team was sent up top, to remove the shingles from the roof as we anticipate replacing it later in the week.

It was a great first day of labor, and a better first day of coming together as a team and a community.  There was a lot of laughter and encouragement; some of us (I’m looking at you, Karen!) faced our fears and scaled new heights – literally – in order to work on the roof.  All of us enjoyed a delicious lunch of “Grandma’s sloppy joe” and, my personal favorite, GRAPEFRUIT PIE!  We first had this southern delicacy years ago, and my friend Martha made TWO of these treats for the group, along with a couple of blackberry pies.  If I was on my game, you’d see a picture of us, and these pies, and there would be lots of smiling involved… but the truth is that I was so engaged with visiting, listening to stories, and, well, eating that I didn’t get any.  I’m sorry about that, because those are shots I’d like to have some day, and maybe you’d like to see them.

We are eager to get back out there tomorrow and discover what is waiting for us on site and in our lives.  Until then, we are deeply grateful for the chances we’ve been given to be here and to be together.  Here are a few images from our day…

Starting the day in conversation and prayer with our team and members of the community here who have rallied to support us.

Kayla and Jessica preparing to remove the trim on the lower part of the walls.

Lindsay making sure that the lines are straight and the surface is prepared for the new drywall.

Karen wasn’t sure she could get up on the roof – but once she got there, she was unstoppable!!! (Oh, yeah, Jon, Bob, Tim, and the rest of the crew were there too!).

Clearing the old shingles off the roof was tedious work, and we were glad for the cool (64°) temps.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that the roof was in fundamentally good shape. We didn’t have to replace any of the wood, which was good for everyone!

There was a slight “wardrobe malfunction” as Kayla’s boot – practically new! – blew out. Fortunately, there’s duct tape for that…

Count the Cost

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 16 we heard some of the first words that Jesus spoke to his disciples after accepting Peter’s acclamation of his messiah-ship.  If Jesus is the savior, then what is our response? Our gospel reading was from Mark 8:34-9:1.

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

What Do People Think About Me?, Vasely Polenov (c. 1900)

Last week we picked up in our exploration of Mark’s Gospel by noting that the middle of Chapter 8 is essentially the opening episode in “Season II” of the Jesus story.  We noted that Jesus has taken the group to the farthest reaches of Jewish territory, in the community of Caesarea Philippi along the Lebanese border.  In this remote location, Peter almost hits one out of the park when he acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then loses his footing when he denies Jesus the opportunity to define what “Messiah” and “Savior” mean.

In this way, Peter is actually echoing something that had happened in the last episode of “season I”.  You’ll remember that on their way to Caesarea Philippi the band stopped in a place called Bethsaida.  As they went through, Jesus encountered a blind man and we heard a remarkable story of a two-stage healing.  Jesus touched him, and he could see – but not perfectly.  He reported that human beings looked like trees to him.  It took another touch of the Savior’s hands to bring complete clarity to the man.

I’d like to suggest that last week’s reading in which Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then turns around and needs to be set straight almost right away is an echo of that healing.  Peter could see, but it was imperfect.  Like the sightless man in Bethsaida, he needed the “second touch”.

In our reading for today, Jesus continues to elaborate for Peter and the rest of the group what it will mean to live a life of faithful discipleship. As he first instructed Peter to “Get behind me!” in v. 33, he now uses the same exact word in telling those around him that discipleship is all about following. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  “Follow me” is the same word in Greek as “get behind me.” The life of discipleship is all about perspective – and the Lord is saying that if we define ourselves as his “followers” it can only make sense if we are willing to, well, followhim.

I’d like to suggest that Jesus chose this remote place in Northern Israel to bring forward what might be the hardest part of his teaching on discipleship. He’s starting, not with the crowds that might have adored him in his home town, nor with the masses who were happy to accept a free lunch, but with those hardy folk who had engaged in a long and circuitous route to this town somewhere past the middle of nowhere.

“If you want to get serious,” Jesus said, “You have to talk about discipleship.”  And, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,

The first Christ-suffering which everyone must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world.  It is the death of the old self which is the result of one’s encounter with Christ.  As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death… When Christ calls to us, he bids us come and die.  It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at Christ’s call.[1]

In the first teaching on discipleship after accepting the acclamation of Peter and designating himself “the Son of Man”, Jesus points out that discipleship by its very definition means giving up our ability or perceived need to set the direction, to be in charge, or to “call the shots”.  The beginning of a walk in faith, then, is to yield to God in all things.

We are called let go of our fear.  We are called to seek God’s best in the reality of each new day.  And we are called to a denial of self.

I want to point out here that when Jesus talks about denying oneself, he does not say “deny some things to yourself” (the English majors amongst us will realize that is making the self an indirect object).  If we were to read it that way, we might be tempted to think that there is some real chance that God might be impressed by my ability to “just say no” to sweet treats or fancy cars or front-row seats at the game.

No, he says, “deny yourself.”  The “self” is the direct object.  There are only two objects here – the self and the Christ.  In order to follow the one, I must deny, or leave, or turn away from the other.   Following Jesus means a willingness to relinquish life on my own terms and to stop pursuing my own ends.

I’d like to take advantage of this moment to point out that none of this ought to be a surprise to anyone who has sought to be a disciple of Jesus here in Crafton Heights.  On the day that you were born – some of you, anyway – I read from Psalm 139 and reminded you that you were not an accident of nature nor are you the result of some careful human design.  In that scripture we heard – again – that you were made.  You were made fearfully and wonderfully in the Divine image.  You were given an identity by your Creator.

A central task of the Christian life is discovering what it means to be faithful to God in the context of the image that has been given; I am called to discern, understand, and seek out what it means to be the me who is at this place and this time, and that can be hard work.  But I never, ever have to inventan identity.  I live a life of faith in which I seek to discover how to be the self that God made me to be.

And now, you might be thinking, “All right, Dave, this is interesting – or at least, it’s not deathly boring… But what does it look like in real life? Give us an example.”

I’m glad you asked!  Let me tell you a little bit about a hero named Epaphroditus.  Do you know that I have at least two books on my shelves which claim to be some version of Who’s Who in the Bible– and yet neither one of them mentions this young man who was commended by Paul in Philippians 2.  Listen:

But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me. (Philippians 2:25-30)

I wonder – is there anyone here who has heard of this man before?  I’m here to tell you he is an amazing example of the self-denying, Christ-serving disciple of which Jesus spoke in Mark 8.  Paul has been imprisoned for some time, and the church in Philippi has become concerned for his welfare.  It’s not practical or possible for the entire congregation to go and check on the old Apostle, so Epaphroditus volunteers to go.  He finds Paul in a tough spot, and immediately dives in to try to make life better for Paul.  He does, but in the process he loses his own health and in fact nearly dies.  Through prayer and the care of others, the young man’s health is restored and now Paul is sending him back to the church in Philippi, full of news and encouragement.  And please note that when Paul sends him back he does so with a lot of powerful words: Epaphroditus is an apostle, a fellow worker, a soldier for the Lord.  He proves this, says Paul, because he was willing to serve Jesus even at risk to himself. In fact, Paul chooses to use a word here that is used only this once in the entire Bible: he says that Epaphroditus “risked his life” or “exposed his life” for the sake of the gospel: the word is paraballo.  Can you see how in this little story from his own files, Paul gives us a great description of one who lived into the narrative of Mark 8? That Epaphroditus was more concerned about following Jesus in the service of others than he was about saving his own neck?

That might be interesting enough, but then in the fifth century we find a couple of very curious references to an order of disciples who were called the Parabolani. From what we can tell, this group began as a community of Christ-followers who saw their special mission as being to care for the sick – even at risk to themselves.  The Parabolaniwere so eager to reach out to those on the margins that they walked freely amongst those with deadly and communicative diseases offering the same hope and love and care as Epaphroditus gave to Paul.  Isn’t that awesome?

Yes.  Almost. But something happened.

The longer this small society pursued this mission, the more difficult it became. As they became more well-known, they were revered and honored.  They were admired.  Soon, someone would see one or two of them walking down the street wearing the little emblem of the Parabolaniand a crowd would gather.  “Hey, guys – seriously – thanks for all you do.  We don’t know what we’d do without you.  The world is better because you’re here…”

Along the way, in addition to being respected and admired, some fear crept in.  It may have been well-placed; I mean, if I think you’ve been out treating people with tuberculosis or hepatitis I am not sure that I want you making my tuna salad sandwich…  So eventually the bands of Parabolani created a bit of a stir wherever they showed up.

Maybe you can guess where this is leading.  It didn’t take all that much time for the group that had been established on the basis of selfless and anonymous service to those who were in horrible places to become transformed into a “goon squad” of enforcers sent out by the religious establishment.  The last mention of the Parabolani indicates that the local Bishop had them show up at a council meeting in order to ensure that everything went the way that the Bishop wanted…

Isn’t that the way of things?  We come to Christ, and we seek healing and life and we find hope and we are filled with joy that we didn’t think we could know.  We dive into the life of discipleship – sometimes by means of denying ourselves.  We yield privileges.  We give up what we want for the good of the group and the joy of our neighbor.

And sometimes, when we do this, people notice.  And they mention it.  And the first few times, I protest: “Ah, don’t mention it,” I say.  “It’s nothing.”

But inside, it feels pretty good to be noticed.  In fact, I like it.  I like it so much that I keep on doing those things that show me as kind and compassionate and caring… and I do them in places where you can see me, and where you can affirm me for it.  That kind of affirmation can be like a drug to me, and I crave it.  I start to abuse it.  And before you know it, I’ve left Christ behind me.

You’ve seen it.  The person who started an incredible charity for the homeless is revealed to be living in a mansion that costs millions of dollars.  The youth worker who started out wanting nothing more than to help kids discover the love of Jesus winds up “falling in love” with some fourteen year-old and using that child to fill some perceived need in his life… The so-called “suffering servant” at the church who doesn’t mind doing all of the lowly jobs as long as he gets noticed doing them, credited for taking care of them, and thanked for being so humble and selfless.

Does any of that sound familiar to you?  Because it seems to me like a lot of that is my story over and over again.  This is, for me, the hardest part of discipleship – wanting to want the right things for the right reasons.  Wanting to stay in line behind Jesus, rather than getting out where you can see how good, how noble, how “Christ-like” I am.  For crying out loud, Dave, let them see Jesus – not you!

The path of discipleship may begin with something specific.  Maybe you remember one day when you “asked Jesus to come into your heart”.  Maybe you woke up in a fog, not remembering where you’d been the night before, and you said, “That’s enough.  Starting now, things are going to be different.”

In that way, following Jesus is a lot like any other relationship: it began with a simple act, a specific conversation, a seemingly “chance” meeting. All of our relationships are like that – friendships and marriages and parenting – they all begin with something that is observable.  And yet each of them requires the daily, if not hourly, embrace of a set of behaviors and ideals and commitments.  The life of discipleship requires that we constantly and consistently turn our eyes to the man who went to the cross.

Sitting amidst the symbols of power and wealth in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus looks us in the eyes and says, plainly, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

That does not mean that we quietly walk towards oblivion because we are not important.  Rather, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “…the cross is a sign of what happens when one takes God’s account of reality more seriously than Caesar’s. The cross stands as God’s (and our) eternal no to the powers of death, as well as God’s eternal yes to humanity, God’s remarkable determination not to leave us to our own devices.”[2]

In my discipleship, I am invited and called to live for Jesus in hope and in victory every day, not because of how good, noble, or holy I am or think that I am; but because he knows me, he formed me, he shaped me, and he invited me to follow him into goodness, nobility, and holiness. As a disciple, I’ve just got to remember my place.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1]The Cost of Discipleship, MacMillan paperback 1963, p. 99 (edited for gender inclusivity).

[2]Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony(Abingdon, 1989), p. 47.

2018 Youth Mission #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wake up, sunshine! Another day in paradise…

At the Museum and Cultural Center

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

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

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

Doug is carving our turkey…

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

Pastor Mary Lee whipping up some mashed potatoes

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

Rick sharing with our group

Some of the items Rick brought to show us.

Texas Mission Update 2018 #5

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

Those of you who use Facebook are familiar with the “on this day” feature in which the social media platform reminds you of what you posted on that particular date in previous calendar years.  It’s a lot of fun, and recently, I have adopted the practice of looking at those postings as a way of connecting my current self with the experiences that seemed so important to me in the moment.  This week, in particular, there has been great joy in those posts as so many of our previous mission trips to Texas have fallen in this window of time.  It is a deep blessing to look at friends (from CHUP and from the Rio Grande Valley) who have been a part of shaping my experiences of partnership, service, and mission!

Today is the day on which the 2018 version of this trip shifts from “what we’re doing” to “what we did”.  This will be the closing post from this experience, and it always brings measures of both joy and disappointment.

We started yesterday in a bumpy fashion.  I’ve been leading mission trips for 36 years, and for what I believe to be the first time, I began the day by locking the keys inside the building in which we were staying.  Not only did I lock the keys to the church inside the church, but I locked the key to my van in there as well.  “Frustrated”, “irritated”, even “pissed” are too mild to express the feelings that I was directing toward myself at that moment.  We put everyone else into Gabe’s van and I sat and waited for someone from the church to show up and bail me out.  Unfortunately, it was the pastor – and Friday is his day off – and I rousted him from that to stop by the church for a while.  That was not good.

This is what it looks like as you drive away leaving Pastor Dave fuming at having locked the keys in the building…

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was working their butts off on Carrie’s home and on Melvin and Mary’s place.  Each group felt as though they got to a good stopping point.  Our group finished our time at Carrie’s place by completing the lion’s share of the electrical work and hanging nearly all of the drywall.  Not only that, most of the seams had received two coats of mud.  Meanwhile, the group at Melvin and Mary’s home completed the messy job of replacing a number of rotting soffit and fascia boards, power washing the outside of the home, installing trim, and painting most of the outside as well.

setting a window into place

The group at Carrie’s home

The message in the dust from Caelea reads, “Thank You from Caelea” with some hearts…

Buoyed by this, we took a half day and split into two groups for a little local flavor.  As we prepared to depart the church, we were met with two surprises.  Unfortunately, one of the toilets had overflowed in our absence and we were met with a couple of inches of water in the bathroom.  Mike and I got that sorted out, while the rest of the group embraced the welcome arrival of our friend Roland from south Texas.  We first met Roland on the trip in 2009 or 2010, where he was our work site coordinator.  Since then, we’ve developed a friendship that has been transformative and life-giving.  We’ve worked with him every year since then (save 2018) and he’s brought several groups to Pittsburgh as well.  He joined us for lunch and then accompanied the portion of our team that spent the afternoon taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of Galveston Island.

Reconnecting with Roland!

Dining in Galveston

Beaching it up!

The remainder of our team chose to visit the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, a 45,000 acre parcel of protected wetland that is home to hundreds of species of birds and many other animals as well.  This group braved a very short (3/4 mile) hike through the mosquito infested swamps and then chose to take advantage of the CD-guided audio driving tour through the rest of the facility.

At Brazoria

What could it be?

Oh, I see now!

Here’s mamma!

And one of at least 20 babies!

A flycatcher (too bad she wasn’t interested in mosquitos!)

Every bunny had a great day!

White Tailed Kite

The last of a small herd of wild hogs we encountered.

Everyone had a great time, and then we convened back at the church for our final evening of rest and relaxation prior to our Saturday morning flight.  Before we left the church, we spent a few last moments in the company of the Apostle Paul, reading the familiar words from I Corinthians 13.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poorand give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Our challenge for the day – and all the days ahead – is to ‘liberate’ this passage from its confinement to weddings and seek to apply it to the whole of our lives.  We hope and pray that time spent here in Texas will enable us to become more a people of love in every area of our lives.  We appreciate your prayers and your presence on our journey!

Texas Mission Update 2018 #4

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

Thursday on our Mission Trip we split back into two teams: Gabe’s van heading back to Carrie and Caelea’s home, where they continued to pull wires, install windows, and hang drywall.  My van headed to the community of Hitchcock, where we worked on a home belonging to Melvin and Mary.  They’ve lived in this home for 43 years, and have raised five children here.  “There’s a lot of water,” Melvin said, “but where else can I go? My whole life is here.  I got through Ike, and I got through Harvey.  I don’t know about the next one, though…”

We enjoyed a great dinner (thank you, pizza delivery guy!) and then got into a rousing round of “the name game”, which brought an incredible amount of laughter to our community!

Here are a few photos of our day…

Some folks use a saw. Others make a statement. Some, like Josie, do both.

Talking with Tom, the site coordinator (L), and Carrie, the homeowner.

Lindsay has been Gabe’s apprentice all week!

Jon and Mike team up for some precision wood cuts.

Bonnie works on Mary’s kitchen

Gary working on trim boards for the flooring

Would you trust these folks to replace your soffit? With THAT board?

“Just give us 15 minutes more, Dave, and we’ll finish this side before we stop for the day…”

The “Name Game”…

Our evening discussion included being attentive to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians regarding the need for us to become givers, and to allow others the privilege of giving to us from time to time.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need,so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

Texas Mission Update 2018 #3

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

When we made the arrangements for this mission trip, the good people at The Fuller Center for Housing indicated that most groups like to take Wednesday afternoon off, and many of those groups like to visit the facilities that NASA has here in Houston on those days. We thought that would be a great way to spend the time, and began looking forward to that even as we marched through our first two days on site.

As we completed our work on Tuesday, however, I sensed that there were some conversations between members of our team and local homeowners and volunteers that had really made a deep impact. Tuesday evening, the group decided to forgo the visit to the Space Center in order to work harder on home rehabilitation. There were probably seventeen different reasons for this, but the bottom line is that we’ve been touched by the stories we’ve heard.

Most of our hours have been spent in the home of Carrie and her daughter, Caelea. In fact, with the exception of our incredible tiling team (Lynn and Bonnie), our entire group spent the entire day at this home today. To get a sense of their situation, you might want to see it for yourself.  Click here to see the local news report featuring Carrie and Caelea.

Here are some photos that Carrie shared with us from the time that she was evacuated:

Carrie took this photo of the exterior of her home as she was being evacuated in a boat last August.

The interior of their bathroom during the flood.

Carrie’s driveway the night Harvey was at his worst.

Because we were so deeply touched by her plight and her eagerness to create a new “normal” for herself and her family, it was easy to work through the day. Here are some images of the progress. Look for some of the shots that are similar to the ones Carrie shared with us from the flood situation… and look for hope.

Here’s the home when it’s surrounded by dry(ish) land.

Storm-damaged front windows

New windows!

Jamie has decided that she really likes throwing drywall mud!

Sharing lunch on the site.

“Tim, isn’t that saws-all blade on upside down?”
“Dave, is that how you’re supposed to brace a piece of lumber for sawing?”
And why is the board pink, anyway?
So many questions…

Gabe contines to lead the charge…

Susanna joins the mud brigade!

After our day was complete, we took the time to drive half an hour south to Galveston, where some of our number braved the wind in order to put our toes in the Gulf of Mexico and then all of us enjoyed a meal at the beachfront restaurant called “The Spot”. Another good day!

Crawfish boil? Why, yes, please! I think I shall!

We completed our formal time together with a reading from II Corinthians 5, and discussed Paul’s assertion that the normative task for the Christian is that of reconciliation. Here, it’s easy to see that reconciliation means restoring that which has been damaged as a result of the hurricane and flood. The greater challenge, of course, is to think about how we might be attentive to the ongoing call to be reconcilers in the spheres that we more typically inhabit in Pittsburgh. We welcome your prayers with and for us!

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Texas Mission Update 2018 #2

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

Tuesdays on a mission trip are often good days to get a lot of work done. Typically, Monday allows us to develop a sense of familiarity with the site, the work, and what could be called “the chemistry of the company”. We think we know a little better what to expect and are able to embrace it.

Our second day of the 2018 trip was a minor exception to that rule, mostly because the work on one of our sites had progressed so far on Monday that by mid-day, six of us were ready to transition to a new site. We took our lunch to the folks in Dickinson, and most of us remained to assist them in working on Carrie’s home. This was the site where Gabe’s van went on Monday, and in addition to seven folks from CHUP, there were five from a church in Boston MA and an equal number from a congregation in Silver Spring, MD. Normally, I’d run from a job site where there are nearly 30 people trying to contribute meaningfully, but this afternoon, by and large, it worked out all right. The sprawling ranch house had suffered so much damage in the flood that we were able to find a nook (or, in Mike and Jahn’s case, a closet) in which to work.

Mike emerges from the shadows of his closet…

Prime tasks for the day included continued demolition of damaged areas of the home, preparing the site for window installation, pulling wires and installing other electrical components, and hanging drywall.

Jamie uses a texture sprayer in finishing up the walls.

As the Good Book says, “Let brotherly love continue…”

Jahn said he was just screwing around today. He wasn’t being completely untruthful…

Would you trust these men to work on YOUR house?

One of the highlights of the day was when Carrie and her daughter stopped by to say hello. Josie was able to capture the look on her daughter’s face when she saw her new bedroom. She asked all of us to take a photo with her, and many of the people in our crew were able to spend some good time in informal conversations with mother or daughter. These interactions were so meaningful that they prompted our team to suggest forgoing the scheduled half day for Wednesday and spend additional time on the job site.

This is what it looks like when you lay eyes on what will soon be your “new room” for the first time.

Our crew, along with folks from Massachusetts and Maryland…

Although nearly everyone went to Dickinson, I should point out that two very dedicated women spent the entire day in the smallest room of the house we began on Monday. Lynn and Bonnie were found out to be tile installers of the highest order, and our hosts asked if there was any way we could delegate them to that site for the rest of today and tomorrow. While this created a different kind of experience for these women (being separated from the rest of the herd, so to speak), it also led to a quiet afternoon filled with personal conversation. They also had the opportunity to meet the owner of that home, which was a rich blessing.

Rub-a-dub-dub, two women in a tub…

Our dinner was fajitas with all the fixins and some amazing chocolate and strawberry trifle. Yeah…

We ended our program portion of the day with an opportunity to reflect on the insights of the work and other activities. We debriefed as a group, and the circle was alive with energy as each person sought to express appreciation with and for the opportunities we’ve been given. Some of us struggled with the fact that not everyone was skilled at the tasks required, but most of us came to the end of the day realizing that we’ve been blessed. Our scripture for the evening came from Romans 12:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body,so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Thanks for your prayers!  We’re glad to be connected!