I was walking the 1.5 miles home from my doctor’s appointment this morning, along busy Treat Boulevard, when I came upon a goose and her four goslings. Mama apparently wanted to take the kids out for a walk—water nowhere in sight—and chose to parade down Treat Boulevard. Two lanes of traffic were blocked by motorists either enthralled or frustrated with the slow-motion chase I was on. I tried to herd the birds back onto the sidewalk, but Mama was getting mad at my interference. I even called 911 for traffic help, but the dispatcher said, “We don’t dispatch police officers to help geese.” A kind-hearted gentleman in an SUV figured out a way to herd the gaggle with his truck, and we finally got them safely to a side street. But darn it! I saw them heading in the wrong direction toward danger, and all I could say was “No, no! Follow me! Don’t go that way!” One of the goslings fell down a drainage grate! We—a nearby construction worker and I—managed to rescue the other three before they fell in. But that pitiful squeak five feet down was enough to tug at anybody’s heart. We worked the grate free, lifted it heavily, and the man jumped down in to retrieve the baby. Family reunited and safely ushered out of harm’s way.

Mama was not too happy that someone (me) got so close and was so insistent on changing her route. She sounded a little like me when, before knowing Jesus, I was wayward. Following my own path, fiercely independent and self-satisfied, and not following directions I now know God was giving for my good. Or like C. S. Lewis, who described himself in Surprised by Joy: “the most dejected, reluctant convert in all of England . . . drug into the kingdom kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.” Sometimes we really do not know what is good for us.

Fundamental to our Christian faith is that God is good, and that he wants for us that which is also good. We say God is benevolent, having the desire to benefit us. The Scriptures are full of references to God’s basic good nature. My favorite (excerpts from Psalm 145):

8          The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

9          The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
. . .

13         The Lord is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.

14         The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

15         The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.

16         You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.

17         The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.

I circled all the adjectives describing God’s character in this excerpt, and doing so, I am overwhelmed that this God is looking after me! And yet, I sometimes live with the illusion that it is I who is protecting my little charges, my interests, and my future. When I get mad at God’s interference, I am only revealing how little I know of the Big Picture, which is God’s to know and mine to trust.

 

 

The Lost Keys

January 29, 2014

Somewhere and some time last fall, I lost my car keys and accompanying house key. Thank heaven my church keys were on a separate ring at the time. It happened just about the time I was finding out about my cancer, still in the hub-bub of unpacking from a long vacation, switching purses, re-organizing for “normal” life.  Because I wasn’t driving once treatment started, the car key was not needed; but the house key had sentimental value because it was covered with Stanford logos. A small thing, I know, but I was ticked to have lost it.

For a long time, I said, “It must be around here someplace, and it will turn up,” but I had other fish to fry and concentrated my effort on coping with radiation and chemo. Cancer patients talk about “chemo brain,” a fuzzy headed inability to keep thoughts flowing and retain memory. I don’t think I ever had that condition, except losing my keys gave evidence to the contrary. Whatever. After searching all my pockets, retracing steps, and otherwise turning the house upside down looking for them, I gave up on the keys by Christmas.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Last Friday night, my husband and I decided it was time to start testing hiking muscles, so we made a plan for a couple of modest hikes this past weekend to assess my strength and stamina. The weather here in the Bay Area has been stellar, a balmy 70 degrees most days, unlike our friends just about everywhere else in the icebox called “the winter of 2014.” The trails were anticipated to be dry and dusty—really, summer conditions around here—so I decided to get out my nylon hiking pants, packed away for the season last fall.

You guessed it. As I unfurled the pants, out dropped my car keys onto the floor, their familiar little clatter sounding like music to my ears. I hooted and screamed in delight, relieved that I had been right and they were in a “safe” place all this time. It was a wonderful moment, later shared in phone calls to two friends who had helped me look for them along the way.

So you know now how much I identify with the woman in Jesus’ parable about the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). She focused on her search, scrutinized and swept every corner, and searched high and low for something of value to her. And when she found it, she called together her friends and neighbors to celebrate. Jesus used this ordinary life occurrence to illustrate the joy in heaven when one sinner repents.

To God, we are like the lost coin (or the lost sheep, or the lost son, in the two stories surrounding this one in Luke’s gospel). God searches for us when we go wayward, and all of heaven rejoices when we turn around to be found by him. Our lostness is of great concern to God, and it is worth pondering the lengths he has gone to find us and bring us back where we belong. His search is motivated by love and “ownership,” in the sense that we along with all of God’s creation are his; we belong to God. We are cherished by God, and missed when we assert our independence and walk out of fellowship with him. We are embraced and forgiven as we turn around, leave our errant path, and face the Savior.

The first time I truly repented, I was seventeen and gripped by the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have repented many times since, as God has shown me those areas where I have served myself or mammon instead of him, where I have embraced a habit more tightly than him, where I have asserted my way contrary to his. The great turnaround underway in this season of my life is from busy blindness to contemplative reflection, from feeling driven to called, and from procrastinator to proactive servant. There’s a lot of rejoicing in heaven yet to come, as these reversals—otherwise known as repentance—are built into my life.

So how about you? Are you lost in any area of your life, wandering off the path, distracted into disobedience? Are you asserting independence or self-reliance, rebuffing God’s grace and help? You realize, don’t you, that maintaining such a position is postponing a great party in heaven not to mention the redemption of that part of your life.

I’m really glad I found my keys. I’m even more glad that God found me and has been working his transformation in me all these years. But my joy is miniscule, compared to the ecstatic celebration God is hosting as one of his own repents and returns to the party.

 

Several years ago, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, a parishioner intimated that she was the longest living member of her family at that age. Her vision of her life had not extended past that point, as every single one of her forebears had died early and suddenly or, in one case after a long illness at age 72. Since she did not know what to do with life after 80, and had no inclination to reinvent herself, it appeared to me that she was simply marking time and waiting to die. At the time, she was in perfect health and I confessed to thinking This is going to be painful for other people to watch, because she is squandering a terrific opportunity here for a meaningful and productive season of life.

A comment made often to pastors visiting their elderly members is this: “I don’t know why I am still around.” Those ministering in Christ’s name to a vision-less person—or, to be open-minded about this, a content person, a fulfilled person, or a discouraged person— are called to guide them through life unto death. I see a ministry opportunity focused not so much on the issue with dying as on the issue of living.

Regardless of our age or health status, what we do with the time we have left in this body on this earth is the primary arena of our discipleship. We live in a “now, but not yet” situation: we know as Jesus-followers that we possess eternal life but we are not quite there yet. As long as we possess a perishable body, an early version of human hardware, we cannot function fully within the realm of heaven, running eternal software. Or can we?

Is it not at the core of our faith to reside in the world of the eternal even as we maintain residency in this tent (Paul’s term, 2 Corinthians 5:1-4)? Are we not called to run this race with the vision of the inheritance awaiting us, as the writer of Hebrews so persuasively exhorted us (Hebrews 12)? Did not Jesus persevere through his trial and crucifixion with a vision of joy set before him? What got Jesus over the hurdle of a horrible death was a vision, and that vision enabled him to endure great pain and suffering in the meantime and to fully live the moment until there were no moments left.

Around Christmas time, my thoughts drifted in the direction of how to plan for the rest of my life. The thought struck me, since I am in the dark about my prognosis, that I could have a couple of years left, or I could live to be in my 90s. Would I make different choices now if I knew I had only ____ years to live? Would my priorities shift if I were assured that I had thirty years instead? The question has been teasing me since, but here’s what I have come up with so far.

It just seems wise to make certain preparations for death, and then to live fully each day as if on a thirty-year investment. Concretely, this means that I am giving some thought to “final arrangements,” gathering some ideas for a memorial service, and gearing up to write an obituary (having ranted to my husband about the clichés and overused phrases I read in obits every day). Now would be the time to fill out a Five Wishes document, which spells out to family members and medical providers one’s preferences for end-of-life care, and an Advanced Directive specifically related to medical intervention under certain circumstances. This is the least I can do to make my wishes known and do some of the legwork that will ease passage for my loved ones later.

But then, that’s the end of that subject.

How do I want to live in the meantime? What does it look like to live on a thirty-year investment? I am a planner by temperament and work-style. I currently have at least five major projects envisioned, outlined or mapped, but incomplete on my desk. I operate in a swirl of unfinished business, like Pigpen in Peanuts walking around in a cyclone of dust. What is emerging for me is a desire to order my life in such a way as to start getting some of these projects done. I’ve certainly got thirty years of possibilities ahead of me, and I want to live those experiences, projects, and explorations to the full. And I’d like to finish them if God would allow me time to do so.

This approach is not running away from reality; quite the contrary, I think, it is running toward life and embracing it fully. I most certainly want to live, not as an escape from dying but as preparation for it! Some of my readers may have faced this more squarely and intimately than I am yet able to experience, but living fully until death seems to be the way to die. I can think of no better illustration of this than Roberto Benigni’s character in Life Is Beautiful.

Guido, his wife Dora, and their son Joshua are Jewish citizens sent to a German concentration camp in 1939. Guido, a clown by nature and yet a wise character, interprets what is happening as a game. Joshua has the opportunity to play for points, and if he wins he gets a military tank. By setting up the rules of the game and reinterpreting events as they occur, Guido shields his son from the horrors of what is happening and manages to help his son survive the entire ordeal. Guido, however, makes a critical mistake and is found out. Despite the approaching American liberation of the camp, Guido is led to his execution, but not before glimpsing his son one last time and keeping up the role of game-player for him, right up until the end.

My intent is to live, to live fully and joyfully. Yes, I am going to die. So are you. When? Don’t know, and I don’t need to know. What I need to know, I have in my possession already: a vision of life that is infused with joy, filled with the Spirit, empowered by God’s grace, baited by good questions, and met with insatiable curiosity. I am just going to keep living this life, until God says, “Stop.” Meanwhile, if I ask you, “Why am I still around?” I expect that you will have an answer for me, and it won’t be some insipid platitude, because starting now, you are working on the answer to that very question for yourself. So get to it! Do not wait to die, but live to death, embracing fully both living and dying as stepping stones to eternal life.

 

I have often said that God’s biggest competition in my life was food. Of the seven deadly sins, gluttony has been at the top of the list too many times. So you can imagine how I anticipate the possibility of losing taste while undergoing chemotherapy with Cisplatin. Any medicine with the word “platinum” in the name can’t be good for a foodie like me.

I have been wondering when this taste bud transformation would take place, because it hasn’t yet on Day 9 of treatment. Tonight, I celebrated that fact by enjoying the perfect dinner a friend brought to our table: roasted pork loin with baked pear slices, dilled carrots, mashed potatoes, spinach/strawberry salad, and chocolate chip cookies.

First of all—I hope Karen is reading this—it was a Naegeli kind of meal: full of color, nutrition, fresh vegetables and fruit, lovely seasoning, “the perfect dinner.” But it was the cookies that did me in: homemade, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies with walnuts and real butter. I bit into that aromatic dough and tasted every element of it bursting in my mouth. And I just cried; it was so delicious and good. That one cookie may very well be the highlight of my whole Thanksgiving week.

Have you ever thought about why the Psalmist would exclaim, “O taste and see that the LORD is good! (Ps. 34:8), and “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psa. 119:103). Taste is perhaps the overlooked sense, the fifth, after sight, hearing, touch, and smell. These senses are the means God gave us to take reality in to ourselves, to gather what is actual out there and bring it into our own reality in here. One or more of our senses may be compromised (or enhanced) by illness, disability, or gifting; but there are a total of five to help us keep in touch with that which is outside ourselves. I think of autistic Temple Grandin, who organizes her world visually; blind Ken Medema who captures and communicates his world through sound; Helen Keller, who was finally reached through touch; and four little children enticed by the smell of grandma’s fresh pears on an Illinois summer’s afternoon. I think of Jesus, who gathered the miraculous power of God at a wedding in Cana, during which he changed water into wine that became the best vintage of the day (John 2).

So when Jesus commanded his disciples to “Take, eat, this is my Body given for you,” and “Drink this cup in remembrance of me,” he was inviting us to ingest his very presence. Jesus so wants us to understand that God’s sovereignty out there is a reality in our souls, that bursts out upon our tongue of proclamation and zooms down the spiritual pipeline of digestion and energy conversion. The Holy Spirit urges us to open our mouths, take some of God’s Word, chew it, and meditate and taste the sweetness of life centered on Christ and lived in the Spirit’s power.

In light of the colorless, dim, and disorganized world of this age, governed (only for a time) by the evil one who would diminish our senses so as not to discover God, we must cling to the vibrant beauty around us. This is why, in Christian community, the visual arts are so important. Together we can gaze at a painting by Makoto Fujimura and bleed with God’s compassion. This is why, in Christian community, music is so vital. Together we can sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord and get in touch with the grandeur of heaven like the choirs of Revelation. In Christian community, we practice hospitality as one way to share the aroma and taste of God’s good provision, and why we hug one another at “the kiss of peace” during worship. These are all ways the spiritual reality of God gets from God’s realm into our hearts, part of the blessing God has poured into us by his Holy Spirit.

As we go into the Lord’s Day this weekend— Reformed and Presbyterian as some of my readers are, others as Lutherans, Catholics, and people under the burden of cancer—let us consider what there is to taste and see of God. How is it, on Christ the King Sunday, that we might experience God as Victor over the Beasts that seek to work us woe? In what way can we take in the life of Christ and allow him to overshadow our fears, our discomforts, our deficits, even our disbelief? I am reminded by that chocolate chip cookie that God can break through at the most unexpected moments and shout, “I’m here! See me! Touch me! Hear me! Smell me! Taste me!” And then food, as an example, becomes not an end in itself but more profoundly an invitation to worship the Creator and Sustainer of Life.

 

 

Two weeks ago, I had a Vein Access Port (VAP) surgically installed just below my left front shoulder. Its purpose is to provide reliable access to a central vein for the infusion of chemotherapy. It is imbedded completely under the skin, 11.22.13 VAP imageminimizing infection possibilities and making very efficient use of a durable “drum” pierced by the IV needle every day. And it saves those veins in the arms and hands, which are not always the most comfortable sites for such an intrusion.

You can imagine how important it is to keep my VAP channel clear. At the end of each drug infusion, the VAP is flushed with saline and a bit of Heparin (a blood thinner) to prevent clotting and future problems. A clogged VAP prevents the proper exchange of fluids necessary to get me well: blood draws for testing as well as intravenous infusion of various drugs.

Once again, my imagination carries me to the sort of infusion that is very much a part of the Christian life: the inflow and outflow of the Spirit of God.

First, the Inflow: The God of the Universe dwells in and enjoys the beauty and bounty of all that he has created. He resides in eternal and unlimited grace and power, blessing and provision. God has never needed anything: he has always had enough time (eternity), knowledge (omniscience), power (omnipotence), and self-sustenance (provision) to get along. I love how Dallas Willard described him: “God leads a very interesting life, full of joy.  The abundance of his love and generosity is inseparable from his infinite joy. . . . All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in fullness!” [Divine Conspiracy, 62f, emphasis added]

This joy and beauty and the experience of “heaven” simply cannot stay there—it overflows into our experience! God cannot contain himself! God’s limitless resources (including love and comfort—don’t I know!) cannot be hoarded in a confined space, though they are visible and operational in heaven for sure. But they also spill over into all creation, flowing through Jesus Christ to and into each one of us. “God’s goodness and generosity is lavished upon us, whom he loves!” (Eph 1:6f). This is the inflow of the Holy Spirit: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

In fact, God could paralyze us with the sheer force and power of his bounty, so in wisdom and understanding he dispenses his grace in doses we can handle. This is God’s spiritual VAP in our life, the conduit by which God continually drips his infinite resources into our lives, more than enough for this day and completely adequate for the challenges that face us.

Second, the Outflow:  From the beginning of humanity’s history with God, God expected the blessings he lavished upon us would overflow into the lives of others. This is why it is so critical for us to recognize the abundance of God’s provision! God gives us more than we need in order that it will overflow out of our personal space. This is no mere drip or leak of heavenly blessing, although I think sometimes that is all we ask for from God, just a trickle of his mercy. This very limited view of what God can do is often enough to stop the flow of the Spirit’s gifts and power. We can also clog the lines, so to speak, by hoarding the blessing and failing to see its applicability beyond our own narcissistic sphere. Israel struggled to live into God’s vision given to Abraham, that they would “be blessed to be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Because we do clog the line with attitudes inconsistent with the reality of God’s spiritual blessing, we need a flushing out through confession and a declaration of God’s forgiveness. Each time I finish a chemo treatment, the nurse sends that saline and Heperin into my VAP to clean it out and get it ready for the next time. And so it is in the Christian life, as we are used by God to dispense his love and care to others, we must also submit to his cleansing, keeping the channels open by avoiding a puny faith or hoarding instinct. In the life of the church, we do well to remember this important element of our worship.

Today I am rejoicing that, despite my growing fatigue and need to sleep a lot, there is still enough blessing here to pass along to nurses, fellow patients, companions along the path I am walking today! I hope that you too might discover the vast reservoir available to you, and that you would have the courage and faith to welcome more than a mere trickle of God’s infinite blessing, so that you have plenty to share.

 

Paring Down to Nothing

November 8, 2013

You might appreciate the bond between a woman and her purse. If not, it’s like this: Don’t mess with me, baby. My Bandolini bag has provisions for body, mind, and spirit in the form of water bottle, Zone Bar, mini New Testament, wallet, sunglasses, inhaler, lipstick, last week’s church bulletin, iPhone, pencils and pens, cough drops, car keys, iPad, and lip balm. And that’s just the beginning. I am prepared at any given time to be away from home most of the day with everything I need.

But the current lung adventure has required a new ritual. Almost daily this week, in preparation for one procedure or another, before I leave home I must divest myself of my purse (“all valuables”) and anything on me: earrings, cross pendant necklace, watch, rings (though I can’t get my wedding ring off), sunglasses, and extraneous clothing. As I arrive at the medical office/surgi-center/hospital, the only items I have stashed in my cargo pants are my driver’s license, health insurance card, a VISA card to pay the copay, and my phone. Once I go through that door, though, even those items are relinquished, as well as my own clothes in exchange for the blue and white “gown” (a funny name for such an inelegant garment). And they keep asking me if I am hiding anything else they want: dentures, contact lenses, or hearing aids.

So what do you do when all you’ve got is yourself, in a somewhat strange environment, with lots of time on your hands, nothing to read (and, thankfully, not even TV to watch—this I do not miss) and no props to make you feel at home?

Earlier this week I was tempted to panic, because I had left a John Grisham novel on the kitchen table by mistake. But thankfully, God grabbed me by the scruff of the neck with a big smile and said, “Oh good, let’s just sit together and make our own fun.” And immediately, the previously denied thirst of my soul expressed itself, and for once I was grateful for the quiet and the freedom to talk things over with my Great Physician. It has been during these times that my blog ideas have percolated. [I have enough sermon illustrations to last a year!] Today the conversation required a bit of confession and forgiveness, too, because, frankly, I’m getting tired of paring down to nothing. But the potential for actively listening to God and my neighbor in such a state is undeniable.

Maybe that’s why Jesus sent the disciples out to minister in towns and villages with these instructions: “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff . . .” (Matthew 10:9). He wanted to make sure their faith was placed firmly in Jesus and their dependence upon the Lord would be a real, tangible trust. Jesus hopes we might discover that a person really doesn’t need that much stuff in order to get along in life or to do ministry. Too much stuff gets cumbersome, causes its own worries, and closes us off to relational security available when we sit with our Savior and enjoy life together. Solid faith requires no outward props or provisions to flourish.

We don’t always live like that is true. Our congregations still subliminally believe “if we build it, people will come,” our presbyteries think that possessing property will secure their ministries forever, and church members judge a congregation by the spiffyness of its facility. We come to church toting our cell phones, our lattes, and our crocheting for the back row. By doing this, we are actually coming to worship empty-handed spiritually. Securing ourselves against boredom or hunger actually dulls our senses to the excitement of God’s presence in worship and our spiritual need. If we were to come to the Table without our purses or extra cloak, we would discover our hands are free to grasp the love of God without hindrance and in full trust for his provision.  “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:31f).

The answer is, Yes, he will! God has given everything of his own so that we would have everything we need from his hand. So I am leaving my hands free for awhile in order to be ready to grab God’s hand for stability and receive from him all I need. 

Two unrelated observations today . . .

Lots of Children.

One thing that strikes you as you drive the countryside of both Kenya and Uganda is that there sure are a lot of children around. Schools both public and private, day schools and boarding schools, dot the landscape. You can’t help but notice the kids in their school uniforms walking along the highways and byways, acting as young people do everywhere. After making this observation, when I got home, I looked up the statistics provided by the Central Intelligence Agency, of all places:  Uganda’s median age is 15.5 years (birthrate of 44.5 births/1000 population), and Kenya’s is 18.8 (birthrate of 30/1000 population)! In both countries only between 2 and 2.7% of the population is over the age of 65.[*] So this wasn’t my imagination; there are lots of kids in Uganda and Kenya compared to the United States, where the median age is 37 and the birthrate is 13.66 births/1,000 population.

Our foray to Kampala and deep into rural life focused primarily on ministries and services to kids. Half the population is dependent on the other half for nurture, education, and security, so it’s no wonder there is a crying need for schools and teachers. Perhaps you might have missed one detail in yesterday’s report. There were only about 20 teachers at St. Mbuga Primary schoolStudents of St. Mbuga School  (enrollment 625). Do the math: that’s over 30 kids per class, on average. They’ll survive; I have fond memories of my first grade class of 50 kids (at the height of the Baby Boom) and only one teacher.  

But augment that statistic with the awareness that AIDS is still taking its toll on parents (and their children). At the end of 2009, according to the CIA, about 1.2M Ugandans (adults and children) were HIV/positive or had AIDS, 6.5% of the population. By year-end, 64,000 had died of the disease. Many of the kids benefitting by Raise the Roof, for instance, have lost at least one parent; and we saw street children begging in some of the larger towns along the roads. [I have to say, though, begging was not as prevalent as I expected. But when we did encountered the practice, it was children, not adults, asking for spare change.]

High stakes are involved here: taking care of children and educating them is an essential priority for any culture. If a society does not own that responsibility, and orphaned children grow up abandoned, insecure, angry, in pain, and very possibly exploited, what kind of world will they be building? But I can attest that the ministries we saw in action are offering the kind of love, discipline, security, and education these children need, and it shows in their faces and manners. This is a responsibility the church is owning, big-time, and well it should be. Jesus blessed children and welcomed them as a priority in his ministry, and so should we.

An Amusing Irony, After You Get Over the Shock.

I mentioned two days ago that our Sunday in Kampala got off to a rough start. Here’s what happened. We had a beautiful, spacious room at one of the city’s best hotels, the Imperial Royale. Imperial Royale Hotel, KampalaOnly seven years old, in a nice part of town, the Imperial Royale hosts conventions and meetings. It was deserted on a Saturday, demonstrating its focus on business travelers well in evidence two days later. The hotel has massive internal spaces Imperial Royale, Atrium (none of them is air-conditioned) and a sleek, modern look. Our room (which was air-conditioned) was a lovely retreat and a welcome sight after such a long drive to get into the city. We had dinner and tumbled into bed for a Sabbath rest before my preaching the next morning. I slept through this part, but Andy was awakened at 4:20 a.m. by a pitter-patter of little feet in the ceiling above our room. I became alert (understatement) when, ten minutes later, a 1-square-meter metal ceiling tile came crashing down onto the tile floor in our room’s foyer. Andy sprang out of bed to investigate, found the tile and set it back in place on the ceiling. Took us awhile, but we got back to sleep. An hour later, the same tile crashed onto the floor again. This time, now 5:30 a.m., we resigned ourselves to the new day, left the ceiling panel on the floor, and, as we went down for breakfast, we let the front desk know it needed attention. A half-hour later we returned to our room and thanked the two nice stewards as they completed the task of securing the ceiling tile. We went about our preparations for the day, until Andy exclaimed, “Mary, oh my gosh, come and look!” There on the floor next to his side of the bed was a motionless rat, estimated to be about 2 kg (4½ pounds).

I am not sure I have ever seen a rat before, but this experience was nauseating and upsetting. Americans have a revulsion to rats, which represent to them squalor and contamination. We went straight down to the front desk (do not pass Go, do not collect $200) and told the astonished clerk what had happened. Long story short, they gave us a new room in another wing of the hotel and explained that they had fumigated and trapped the hotel for rats three days before. This one, poisoned, came crashing through the ceiling and probably scurried under our bed until we left for breakfast, and died trying to escape.

Aside from the entertainment value of this story, which is considerable, the irony of the situation was not lost on me. The only place we saw a rat anywhere in our travels was here, in Kampala’s best hotel, a sleek and modern gem giving hospitality to an international clientele. We had visited homes, villages, farmlands, and driven through poverty-stricken areas of both Kenya and Uganda, but in none of those places did we encounter what you would call squalor. (We saw from a distance the great slum city near Nairobi’s center, and I don’t know what we would have encountered there.) People took care of what was theirs, asserted discipline over their space and their possessions, and rats were simply not visible anywhere we went—except here, in Kampala’s finest hotel. To keep the record straight, the staff handled the situation in an exemplary fashion and took good care of us. I point out the irony not to damage a hotel’s reputation, but to observe the possibility that just because something looks good on the outside doesn’t mean there isn’t an unpleasant secret within. Jesus’ indictment against the Pharisees included this accusation: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matt. 23:25f). And so, with this musing and “bringing the Word to life,” I am reminded once again that attention only to appearances and neglect of the spiritual life is a road to ruin. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2). Make it so, O God!


[*] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ke.html

Next stop on our great Africa adventure itinerary was Kakamega, Kenya. Two features drew us to this city in the west:  the Kakamega Forest Nature Reserve, home to many unique birds, and the Kenya office of Village Enterprise. I will cover VE tomorrow, but for this Sabbath, let me share some thoughts evoked by the experience of walking through a rainforest before dawn.

The Kakamega Forest is an equatorial, tropical rainforest of about 250 square kilometers. It used to be the eastern end of a vast forest that stretched uninterrupted all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. But over time, especially in the last 100 years, the human population explosion and clearing for farming and grazing has isolated this Kenyan patch from the greater (and shrinking) whole. It fosters a unique ecosystem and harbors animals and birds rarely seen anywhere else. But the forest’s density (another sign of health) is diminishing; conservation efforts are underway and not fully effective.  

It rains here—a lot—and the red earth is muddy after a storm that starts our visit. As the shower abates, we take a walk through the grounds and gardens of Rondo Retreat Center, our lodging for two nights. Kakamega Rain Forest (Rondo Retreat)Binoculars in hand, we are here to see some of the unique bird species at home under the canopy. But we are disappointed. The forest is too thick! Think of Tolkien’s description of the great Fangorn Forest in The Lord of the Rings, and you get the idea. Sun cannot penetrate to the forest floor. Birds, heard but not seen, can flit about undetected. You somehow know they are there, but you cannot get sight of them for identification. The only way to view birds, from the ground, is to get back onto the road and get a little distance from the trees. But on this day even that effort yields poor results.

The Christian life is often like this experience. The blessings, the consolation of faith in our Savior Jesus Christ, are real, and yet half the time we cannot see them out in the open. It is a matter of faith without sight to know that God is present and active, God surrounds us with his love, and we are known and redeemed by his merciful salvation in Jesus Christ. Those truths are colorful and pervasive, and yet we cannot see them for the forest that envelops us. “Now we see in a glass dimly, but then we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We see leaves rustling in the wind of God’s Spirit, but we do not see the Spirit directly. What we are called upon to cultivate as followers of Jesus is a perspective, a heavenly view of what is real. To illustrate:

We were told that a particularly good way to appreciate the rainforest was to hike up a big hill before dawn in order to see the sun rise over the canopy of trees. Our guide Winston met us at 5:30 a.m. and we walked one mile up the road to a forest trail entry point. We heard the birds wake up; we heard the colobus monkeys give shrill warnings to each other (staking out their territories); and we heard the delicious silence of early morning, as we walked by flashlight. We climbed another 40 minutes to the top of Lirhanda Hill with plenty of time to spare before the sun peeked over the distant horizon. Along the way, we heard avian activity amidst the trees. Winston recognized birdcalls and told us what we were “seeing,” but they didn’t “count” according to our personal rules for checking birds off our list. Another disappointment.

Once we got to the top of the hill, we could see for miles. Above the Rainforest CanopyStretched before our eyes was a dense green blanket of tree cover, and above it a few large birds floating in serene command of the scene. As the rising sun illuminated the treetops to the point of glowing, we recognized an entirely different atmosphere here above the canopy. It was light, airy, and free. C. S. Lewis captured the contrast in the Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair. In the Underworld where the witch reigned, it was dark, stuffy, and confining. She had managed to convince all her minions that there was nothing beyond this bleak reality. Yet, the children of Narnia and their companion the Marshwiggle had dropped into the Underworld from up above, and they knew there was something more to life than this oppressive place. They knew there were sun, and air, and breezes, and vistas up above. Lewis used this image to convey the perspective of faith and hope that is gained by seeing reality from God’s vantagepoint.  And we, tramping through the rainforest, believed Winston—though we could not see proof—that there were amazing birds within a stone’s throw of our path. So we listened and appreciated what we could perceive and trusted that he was right, and that we had “seen” it.

You and I may feel ourselves to be in a dark, discouraging place sometimes. But we are reminded that there is far more going on around us than the eye can see, and God is Lord of it. Sometimes we simply must climb the hill and get above the fray in order to experience the serenity of God’s dominion.

One year at the PCUSA General Assembly, the week had dragged on and we were waiting for a particularly difficult and controversial piece of business to come before the Body. Interminable delays pushed the debate time back, and I was about to lose my marbles. So I pulled out my iPod, stuffed the earbuds into my ears, and cranked up the volume on a Michael Card album called Unveiled Hope. [This 1996 album puts to music all the hymns and songs that appear in the book of Revelation.] I distinctly remember with some amusement the moment when heaven and earth met:  the Presbybabble was a steady undercurrent of words and sentences while, at the same time, a splendid rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy” rushed in waves over the whole scene. At that instant, I saw the sovereignty of God, the insignificance of much of our talk, and the deep need to tap into the glory that is God’s movement over, under, and through us by his Spirit. I almost laughed out loud in delight and still recall this moment when the matters of this world envelop me like a dark forest. Under the canopy we see evidence of God at work if we look for it, and someday we will see from above the canopy the full glory of our Risen Lord and the completion of his purposes for us.

Tomorrow: Village Enterprise and Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Topic: The Now and the Not-Yet of the Kingdom of God
Scripture: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven
Source: Kent Richardson, “A History of First Presbyterian Church, Concord, California,” revised by David Stearns, FPCC website (scroll down to “Service”).

Fourteen years before my arrival as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Concord (California), the congregation had been dealing with a vexing problem. Situated just one block from Concord’s central square, the church had a rear property line in common with the Showcase Theatre. The art deco building faced the city square, and in its heyday was known as the Enean Theatre, a family-friendly movie house easily accessible by all. However, in the 1970s, the building’s owners leased it to another company that renamed it The Showcase and played pornographic movies within. Not only was it a moral bother to have an adult theatre adjacent to the church but a civic embarrassment, particularly as the theatre drew an unsavory crowd. The city plaza soon became a rundown haven for drunks and illicit activities.

For years, the church made several attempts to raise money to buy the theatre. But the price was too high, and their efforts were thwarted. In 1980, through a miracle (according to the elders of the church), the church was able to acquire $800,000 in financing and a down payment, and the owner was willing to come down in price to accept it, and the purchase deal was finally made.

Only one small problem: In the course of making this transaction, it was discovered that The Showcase held an unbreakable lease. So for almost three years, the church was the proud owner of a porn theatre, until that lease expired. The church possessed the deed to the building (“already”), but the devil occupied it (“not yet”), making headlines around the world. [An elder residing in Paris at the time brought home a French newspaper that carried the AP story.]

When the day of liberation finally arrived, the building was gutted and transformed into the Presbyterian Community Center. For several years the church staffed a fitness center and offered exercise classes to the community. By the time I got there in 1997, alternative formats were explored, and the building was ultimately leased to another (non-Presbyterian) church in search of worship space. The whole idea was to expand the real estate footprint of God’s Kingdom and bring light to the city.

And just as the visible presence of the Kingdom of God has a positive impact on a neighborhood or society, so the transformation of this building made a difference in municipal planning. Prior to this transformation, the city had been unable to muster the political and financial energy to renovate its central square, but after the porno theatre disappeared, the city invested over $1 million to completely redevelop Todos Santos Plaza. To this day, it is a very family-friendly place where two weekly Farmers’ Markets and summer concerts are held.

 

I was washing the dishes, listening to our local news radio station, when the news anchor started a phone conversation with Jeff Eckland, a skier who was caught in an avalanche at Kirkwood near Lake Tahoe. The news report had come over the wire services:

Skier is buried in snow 17 minutes
but survives

 KIRKWOOD – A Kirkwood ski area employee survived a brush with death when he was caught up in a snow slide and buried for about 17 minutes, the Alpine County Sheriff’s office said.
Jeff Eckland, 24, of South Lake Tahoe was skiing the resort’s back side Monday when he was swept some 200 feet down the hill and left under 5 feet of snow near some trees.
“We had 45 people on the scene within seven to 10 minutes.  We mobilized our staff very quickly,” Kirkwood Marketing Director Greg Murtha said.
Eckland was skiing with companions in an ungroomed area they hiked to because it is above the runs served by lifts, Murtha said.
Eckland was treated at Barton Memorial Hospital for mild hypothermia and a possible bruised liver, the sheriff’s report said. [Later he was discovered to have suffered a broken back and ribs—MHN.]

146In the KCBS interview, Jeff answered questions from his hospital bed:

 Q: How long can a person survive under the snow?
A: About twenty minutes, breathing calmly and drawing oxygen from the surrounding air-fluffed snow. But then you begin to hyperventilate and the condensation freezes around you, forming an impenetrable shell of ice.

Q: What’s it like—can you move around?
A: No, not at all; you don’t even know if you’re right side up.

 Q: What were you thinking while you waited for help to come?
A:  I was remembering the facts I knew:
• Kirkwood has the greatest snow rescue squad in the state.
• My friend saw me go down and could get help.
• Rescue could be mobilized within three minutes.
• I was helpless to anything for myself, but was in good hands.

rescue dogQ: Could you hear anything, or have any indication that help was on its way?
A: Not a thing. The first indication that help was near was when the rescue dog’s paw hit my head digging in the snow. I didn’t even hear him digging in to reach me.

FAITH is the sum total of knowledge, assent, and trust. Jeff Eckland demonstrated all three, beginning with the knowledge of Kirkwood’s rescue squad, staying calm, and trusting others in his helpless state! Our faith in Jesus Christ begins with a basic knowledge of him, an acknowledgment that he is who he says he is, and trust in him alone for our salvation.