Friday, September 27, 2013

Flood Insurance

The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
-Psalm 29:3-4 (NRSV)

Like most folks who have lived a while, my grandmother had some great stories. She loved to tell them, too - with a twinkle in her eye and a lilt in her voice. Many of them were funny. Some were touching. Some were a little of both. But one of my favorites involved a flood.
    As I remember the story, when she was around 10 a flood wiped out their house in Georgia. What wasn't swept away was ruined by the water and the mud that it left behind -- mud that she said came to above her knees in some places. I remember her saying, three quarters of a century later, that she'd never forget the look on her mother's face as they went back into the house for the first time since they had been forced to leave and found virtually everything they owned destroyed.
    Anyway, after they had been there a little while, poking through the aftermath, my great-grandmother suddenly began looking around, almost panicky. "Gen! Gen!" she said to my grandmother. "Do you see the Bible?" They had a very nice, very expensive Bible, my grandmother explained, that sat on a wooden library stand. It was likely one of the most expensive things they owned, come to think of it, and my great-grandfather always insisted that the Bible be returned to that  stand after anyone read it. After the flood, neither Bible nor stand was in its customary place.
    So they searched for a while, digging through mud and assorted belongings, but had no luck. The Bible and its stand had presumably been swept away.
    I didn't think to ask what caused my grandmother to look up, but finally she did. "Mama, Mama!" she shouted. "I found the Bible!" She pointed to the ceiling, where stuck in the rafters was the Bible -- still on its library stand. Apparently, the rising waters had picked up the stand and its cargo and carried it up as it rose until it lodged in the rafters.
    The Bible, my grandmother always finished, was barely damp. It circulated among her and her sisters for a while. I think my mom might have it now.
    The point practically writes itself, doesn't it?
    Decades later, my grandmother carried that story with her, locked in the most secure vaults of her memory. There was a reason for that. Her health' wasn’t good, really for much of her life. As she aged, she forgot more and more. Toward the very end of her life, on bad days she’d get very confused and agitated. But she held onto that story. One of the last times I saw her, in fact, she told me again, and even added some details I’d never heard before. Maybe so I could tell it better after she was gone?
    She held on to that story because it reminded her that there is something that can't be swept under by a flood, that remains when everything else you've come to depend on is gone. She had to let go of a lot during her lifetime. People she loved. A house she lived in for decades. Independence. Mobility. By the end, the floodwaters of age and disease and time had washed through her life and had taken so much away from her by the time they receded. She had to do a lot of  searching, I think, a lot of poking through mud and wreckage to find whatever was salvageable. But when she raised her eyes, she always saw the one thing that the floodwaters can't touch.
    Oh, we all know why that Bible floated on its stand. We all know the principles of buoyancy that kept it safe from the water. But the story's just a reminder, really, a parable. There's no real permanency in leather and paper and ink, of course. But the psalmist said it well: "The voice of the LORD is over the waters." To him, the sea was the great unknown. A place of unfathomable terror, unknowable mystery. To the pagans around him, the sea was the realm of evil spirits, even a god itself. Monsters lurked in its depths. But even the sea held no terror for the psalmist, because God's voice thundered over it. God commanded it, made it recede to create dry land for human beings to live on. "The LORD sits enthroned over the flood," he went on. When God speaks, even the sea must listen. Even its monsters must be still in reverence for their king. Even its waves must cease and its floods recede. "The LORD gives strength to his people" is the poet's conclusion. "The LORD blesses his people with peace."
    It's hard to have peace when everything you've come to trust in is gone. It's hard to have peace when you're vulnerable, when even your own body begins to fail you. Maybe you know very well how peace eludes you when the floods come and what you know and love and trust and assume is lost. If not, one day you will. One day you'll be shocked to find your world ravaged and nothing left. When you do, I hope you'll turn your eyes upward. Oh, sure, search through the wreckage of what you've known. Save what you can. But then when you're out of hope, look up. What you'll see is that God is still there, that his voice still commands the floods to recede.
     God's word remains: not a dead book of paper and ink, but the living, powerful voice of the living powerful God who still rescues, still delivers, still saves. His voice is not silenced by the things that terrify you; he shouts above their roar and they duck their heads in fear and awe. He's not lost in the cataclysms that take away the things and people we so depend on; he's above those cataclysms, faithful and true. And when even our bodies and minds fail, when our lives are narrowed to a hospital bed or even a casket, he still speaks words of life and hope and promise.
    His voice spoke in the tomb of Jesus, and it will speak in your own tomb as well. You will open your eyes in the one place where everyone is truly alone and find that you never really were. And if not there, then surely not anywhere.
    God's word remains when everything else is gone. Nothing that you have, no one that you know, no dream you dream is lasting enough to support the weight of your faith. When it washes away, you'll be adrift. But God's word is untouched by disaster, unchanged by the shifting shadows of the world. His promises will always stand. However terrifying the floods may be, his voice still rises above them and still they must listen.
    Don't try to live without flood insurance.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Slurry Walls

     “So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you’re doing will not be worthless.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:58 (The Kingdom New Testament)

The National September 11 Memorial Museum, which will open next year at Ground Zero, will no doubt enshrine numerous heroes who gave their all under tremendous pressure to help save lives on that terrible day 12 years ago. Firefighters, police officers, airline passengers who attacked terrorists, regular people on the streets of New York and Washington will no doubt grace the Museums halls.  
     One life-saving hero, though, will quite literally be part of the Museum.
     When Arturo Lamberto Ressi came from Italy in 1967 to work on the World Trade Center, his specialty was retaining walls. The WTC foundations had to extend 70 feet below sea level, and to excavate to that depth a retaining wall would be necessary. So Ressi’s company dug a 70-foot trench, which they filled with slurry (a mixture of water and bentonite) to keep the walls from collapsing. Then they dropped in a giant cage of rebar, and pumped in concrete around the cage to form a wall. The slurry wall created an 11-acre area in which the necessary excavation could take place.
     Mr. Ressi was no doubt pleased with his wall, but when the finished project is the two tallest buildings in the world, no one remembers the concrete slurry wall that made the project possible. Even Mr. Ressi said, before his death in August of this year, “I never thought I would have seen that wall again in my life.”
     And he wouldn’t have, of course. Except for September 11, 2001.
     When the towers collapsed, Mr. Ressi’s wall was subjected to strains he never imagined it would have to endure. But it held. It held, and because it held, millions of gallons of groundwater didn’t come pouring into the foundation. And because of that the PATH tunnels weren’t flooded. And neither were the subway tubes. 
     Imagine how much worse things would have been if the Hudson River had flooded Lower Manhattan hours after the attacks.
     But, 34 years later, Mr. Ressi built a wall no one ever see again, as far as anyone knew. But he took pride in it, and built it as well as he knew how, and when the soaring steel and concrete lay twisted and broken, his wall held. 
     So Mr. Ressi will be in the Museum. But so will his wall. A large section of the wall has been left exposed and incorporated into the design of the huge Foundation Hall. 
     In our world, of course, the work that most everyone can see is the work that’s deemed valuable. We honor the pop stars who dance and sing on stage, not the tradesmen and technicians who build the stages and wire the sound and lights. We glorify the college athletes who compete on fields and courts, not the students who work hard to better themselves and the world around them. We watch every move that royals make, follow celebrities and their scandalously prodigal and profligate lives, and ignore those who operate community centers, shelters, and pantries.  We get caught up in thinking that we’re failures as parents if our kids aren’t the best at everything they do, that we’re failures in our careers if we don’t rise to the top, that we’re failures as spouses  if we don’t live in spotless houses with manicured yards where the sex is always great and the food is always gourmet.
     We’re all flash, no substance. 
     In short, there’s no honor for the slurry wall builders of the world. 
     I’ve felt it. I have good friends who are very successful in the field of professional ministry. They’re sought-after speakers, keynote the biggest lectures, teach at the university level. They lead big churches, are consulted by important people. And, they’re good guys, at least as devoted as I am to the Lord. 
     And, sometimes, on my less admirable days, I wonder, “What do they have that I don’t?”
     The answer of course, is that I have my work to do. And they have theirs. And that’s when things go much better for me. When I remember that. I have work from the Lord to do that no one else has been given. And I have much better days if, instead of worrying about who notices my work, or how to keep score, I just do my best for the Lord. When I build my slurry wall, and know that it matters, because nothing I do for the Lord is in vain.
     It’s not in vain because he knows. If no one else sees my work, he does. If no one else knows the difference it makes, he does. If no one else appreciates my efforts, he does. 
     It’s not in vain because God doesn’t give people insignificant work to do. Sometimes, sure, we waste our time and energy on the insignificant. But that’s because we’re chasing something that has nothing to do with his work in the world. But when we start paying attention to what he’s doing, and to how he wants to use us to get it done, we start discovering how very full our lives can be. And what a difference we can make in our world, and in the lives of the people around us.
     Finally, it’s not in vain because God’s work lasts. It never fades, or crumbles, or decays. God does things that have to do with resurrection, with renewal, with the immutable, imperishable, and immortal. You can’t say that about anything else you’ll ever do in your life. 
     So let’s build our slurry walls. God calls all of us, from time to time, to do things that no one notices or knows about. He calls us to do things that are un-glamorous and unspectacular. Cry and pray with a friend. Hold the hand of someone who’s sick. Feed someone who’s hungry. Read to our kids, cuddle with our spouses, call our parents. Say a word about Jesus to someone who’s lost and hurting.
     It may not seem like much, but know that your work in the Lord is never without worth.  

     But just try to imagine what would happen if we quit doing our jobs.

Friday, September 6, 2013

High Holy Days

   But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
-1 Corinthians 4:3-5 (English Standard Version)

We’re in the part of the year known to the Jewish people as the High Holy Days. The term usually applies to the the 10-day period from Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). (Some Jews also consider the 40 days before Rosh Hashanah as part of the High Holy Days.) The observance calls Jews to a time of soul-searching and repentance. According to tradition, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, and then seals it on Yom Kippur. In between, Jews confess their sins, make amends, and seek forgiveness from God and other people. At the end of Yom Kippur, they hope that they are forgiven.
     At the heart of the High Holy Days are two convictions: that God is the True King, and that he is the True Judge. On Rosh Hashanah, he comes to rule in his peoples’ lives for another year. On Yom Kippur, his judgement is accepted as true and righteous.
     For Christians, both of those convictions should resonate.
     Jesus announced that, in him, God was taking the throne and being crowned King. Never mind that his kingdom looked different than most people would have expected. Never mind that it came into being, not through power or violence, but through Jesus’ own suffering, death, and resurrection. The Jewish leaders asked Jesus if he was the Messiah. The Romans asked if he was King of the Jews. The questions, more or less, were identical. And Jesus’ response in both cases was an unequivocal “Yes.” 
     And because God became King through Jesus, it is Jesus who has the authority and right to judge. Paul told the citizens in Athens that God had “set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed,” and that the proof of this man’s authority was in his resurrection from the dead. He would write later that a day was coming when God would  judge “people’s secrets through Jesus Christ.” 
     God is King. God is Judge. That should resonate with Jews and Christians.
    Funny, then, how we have such trouble with that.
     I saw an article this week in which a young Jewish musician, discussing the High Holy Days, said that the liturgical music of her generation is “really about the energy and the momentum of the entire community together, creating space for people to have their own experience, whatever that is.” Their own experience. Whatever that is. She goes on to talk about her appreciation of the traditional music of the High Holy Days, its emphasis on God as True Judge and giving him “space” and “honor” and “respect”. But it seems that her emphasis on personal experience - whatever that might be for any particular person - is probably more comfortable. 
     For all of us.
     Because letting God be King and Judge won’t allow us to take refuge in “energy” and “the momentum of the entire community together,” and it certainly doesn’t give half a fig for our own experiences, whatever they may be. Those are the mantras of the world we live in, unredeemed people who belong to no one but ourselves and maybe the families and tribes in which we find safety and security and identity. But to take seriously the notion that God is King and Judge is to finally embrace the difficult truth that my experience isn’t the yardstick by which reality is to be measured, and can in fact mask reality in any number of ways. It’s to realize that the verdict of  even an entire community can be wrong.
     It’s the Lord who judges us.
     That can be terrifying, of course. Terrifying to admit that the opinions that I hold of myself, and the opinions of me held by the people I respect most, might not be worth the kilowatts of brain power that it takes to generate them. It’s terrifying to imagine that the Lord judges us because he’s beyond partiality, manipulation, or deception. He won’t be won over by my charming personality, my spotless reputation, my benevolent acts, my most pious prayers. As Paul puts it, be brings “to light what is hidden in darkness” and “discloses the purposes of the heart.” What we obscure, from ourselves and others, he drags into the open. What our family and tribe, so much like us and so partial to us, will overlook, he will point out. 
     But there’s freedom in that too, because so much of what we receive from other people is judgment. Judgment based on how we look, or what we’ve accomplished professionally, degrees held, works published. Unjust judgment pelts us like the fists of an angry mob. But, in Jesus, we can dismiss all that. We can consider human judgment - favorable or unfavorable - to be “a very small thing.” And then we’re free to do that the Lord tells us is right, without courting the approval of - or fearing the derision of - the masses.
     In Jesus, the books are no longer open on us. We don’t have to spend our lives anxiously appeasing God, and in the end have nothing but a hope that he might forgive. We have a promise, the words of Jesus himself: “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” To believe in Jesus is to receive a verdict of “not guilty” from the True King and Judge. 
     Of course, he won’t be fooled by pretend piety. We can use that word “believe” in a way that has no relation to the word Jesus used. As Jesus used it, the word has more to do with trust, with putting all your eggs in his basket, with following in his footsteps no matter where following takes you. It has to do with letting your heart be captured by him, and living your life to accomplish what he wants. 
     It’s letting him be King in your life.
     It’s allowing him to sit in judgment of your every word and action, to evaluate everything you do and are.
     But it’s the way to forgiveness, and life, and freedom from sin and death.
     So let’s join our Jewish friends in welcoming God, the True King and Judge, into our lives. Let’s bow before him in submission, repentance, and sorrow.

     And then let’s rise in the power of grace and forgiveness, in the name of Jesus.