Saturday, August 27, 2011

Stumbling Across God

I’m just back from a speaking engagement in Corydon, Indiana. First of all, boy is that a long honkin’ way! Mile after mile of Indiana Interstate. Whew. I went down last night otherwise I would have had to get up and leave in the wee hours. And in case you don’t know what the wee hours are, they are the hours you ought to be sleeping, not driving.

But secondly, wow. What a beautiful day. Last night I got to see one of those spectacular sunsets, where it looks as though God dipped a brush in the orangey-red colors of the divine palette and flung streaks of that bright color across the blue canvas of the sky. This afternoon as I headed back, it was bright and clear, an invitation to look with wide eyed wonder at the beauty, the intricacy of creation. The fields of wild flowers that grew not because someone planted them, but because that was just where they were supposed to grow. So they did. With wild abandon they grew, not caring if anyone saw them, they burst forth in color because color was what was within them.

At one point on that long stretch of concrete and asphalt, a hawk winged his way across four lanes of traffic. Probably looking for the little field creatures that scurry through the hedgerows alongside that busy highway. But it appeared as if he was passing judgement on the four-wheeled conveyances that were hurrying through this beautiful day seemingly thinking only of the destination. He soared with a glint in those piercing eyes, as if he knew a secret that we have forgotten.

One wonders if Moses was enjoying the scenery as he wandered around on that mountain, following his father-in-law’s sheep. Did he bother to look at the majestic mountain pressing upward into the cloud strewn sky? Did he see the wind carved sandstone sculptures in the rocks that surrounded him? Or was he more worried about what he might step in as he made his way up the mountain, not quite as spryly as the sheep he followed?

Well, at least that bush caught his eye. We can thank God for that. Literally.

Exodus 3:1-15 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." 4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." 5 Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 6 He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." 11 But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" 12 He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."
13 But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" 14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" 15 God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Who knew that on that mountain in the back of beyond, Moses would stumble across God? Not Moses surely. He wasn’t looking. Didn’t want to be found, come to think of it. He was in his self-imposed witness protection program. Hiding out from the authorities back home who had his name plastered across post offices from Cairo to Goshen.

He let his temper get the best of him. Call it righteous indignation if you want, call it an act of justice - protecting one of the downtrodden who was being oppressed. But Pharaoh’s police force called it murder, and even the adopted grandson of the king himself couldn’t get away with murder. So, he ran for his life. Across the desert, he ran with blood dripping from his hands. Or at least it felt like it. His dreams were filled with a nightly re-enactment of his crime of passion. Had to have been. At least for a while. Maybe as the years passed, the hot sun and dry dust eroded his memories enough to honestly forget. Maybe he forgot what he did, where he came from, even who he was. I think that was his goal. This rescued Hebrew baby boy who grew up in the palace of the greatest king in the known world, wanted to forget everything. Except how to follow sheep up a mountain. “That’s all I am,” he thought, “all I’m good for, following sheep through the dusty middle of nowhere. Where nothing happens. Where no one goes.”

Except for God. “Take off your shoes,” the bush said. The bush? Yeah, the bush. The burning but not consumed bush. Burning but not consumed? Maybe that’s what drew him. Maybe after all these years of burning and being consumed, he wanted to see how it was possible for something to burn and yet not be consumed. Maybe it was the promise, maybe it was the hope that caused him to step aside long enough to have his whole life turned upside down and inside out.

“I’ve come to help,” said the bush, or the angel in the bush, or the voice that wasn’t the angel or the bush but seemed to transcend both. “My heart is broken with the pain of my people, so I have come to help. To set them free.” Great, thought Moses, what’s a bush gonna do against the might of a nation like Egypt? “I’ve come to help,” says the voice, “I’m sending you.” Say what, stutters Moses, I just follow sheep. I’m not a hero. “I will be with you,” says the voice as the flames crackle in the silence while Moses chews on this bit of news. And who are you, he ventures, wondering if that not consumed thing applied just to the bush.

As he made his way back across the desert to the land he had abandoned, but this time with a mission, an impossible mission to be sure, but you have to wonder if he rolled that name over in his mind with every sandy step. “I am who I am,” said the voice. “I will be who I will be.” Tell them “I am” sent you. I am will be with you.

He shook his head at the strangeness of the thought. And then a noticed a hawk flying low in front of him. It wheeled and circled and at one point it seemed to have a glint in its piercing eyes, as though it knew at secret he had almost forgotten. Or just been told. And his burden seemed lighter for a moment. He lifted his eyes to the hills and then the sky above, and it seemed his direction was mapped out with orangey-red clouds.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Down by the Riverside

The last time I drove to my parents’ house in Tennessee, I remember the Ohio River which had overflowed its banks to a significant degree. It was quite a sight, almost chilling in a way, as you could tell that there was destruction in its wake. Families were displaced, crops destroyed, devastation on multiple levels and varying degrees. If not right there on US41South, then somewhere else, up and down the river.

It certainly wasn’t the first time the Ohio had overflowed its banks. I’d seen it that high before. My Dad grew up in Memphis, a river town. I remember him telling me of the folks who lived along the Mississippi river, and how they would regularly lose the simple shacks they lived him because of the flooded river that would wash them away in the rainy season. But what amazed me about the story was that these people would return and build, again and again, despite the destruction the river brought. I couldn’t comprehend that. Why not move away, someplace safer, someplace drier? “Well,” dad would explain, “some of these folks were able to make a living on the river, fishing, scavaging, transportation. It wasn’t just destruction that the river brought, it was life too.”

Egypt was a river based nation. They were used to the rhythms of the Nile and were able to make good use of it. It was a source of life. A dangerous source of life to be sure, but a blessing nonetheless. At least until those in power seek to change it from a source of life and place of blessing to a instrument of death and symbol of terror.

Which is exactly what the unnamed Pharaoh tried to do in our scripture for this week.

Exodus 1:8 - 2:10 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?" 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."
2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, "This must be one of the Hebrews' children," she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?" 8 Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Yes." So the girl went and called the child's mother. 9 Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages." So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, "because," she said, "I drew him out of the water."

Throw them in the river. Seems incomprehensible, really. That a leader would be so afraid of these immigrants that they would recommend throwing them in the river. And this was a general edict, did you notice that? He told all his people, whenever you see a Hebrew baby boy, throw it in the river. Appealing to mob action, inflaming prejudice and suspicion. Stirring up the populace with fear mongering and threats.

But let the girls live. Why was that, you wonder? Let the girls live, because they couldn’t do much? Because no one worries about girls? Because, well, because they are girls. Isn’t that enough? No one can be so mean as to kill baby girls, could they?

Actually, I doubt if it was sentiment that caused Pharaoh to spare the girls. It was because he didn’t think them capable of causing him trouble. Which means he wasn’t paying attention, because it was two women who got in the way of his first plan, and it was two women, and one from his own household that caused his ultimate downfall.

Which means that Pharaoh was just off base from the beginning. The river which was a source of life, he wanted to turn into a place of death, and it didn’t work. The women, the midwives who are bringers of life, he wanted to be instruments of death, and it didn’t work. The little girls he didn’t think worth his consideration, stood sentinel over a baby in a basket, floating on the river of life. A river of hope.

Now this doesn’t mean that what God intends for good, human beings can’t turn to evil. Oh, how we wish that were true. But it does mean that if those who fear God, as Shiphrah and Puah did (and no, it doesn’t mean that they were more afraid of what God would do to them that what Pharaoh would do to them - in fact it means that they trusted in God’s power and presence more than in Pharaoh’s power and presence) can work to foil those who would misuse the blessings of God. If they are willing to take the risk. If they are willing to work for life and not for death.

I always thought the song “down by the riverside” was about stopping work. But now I wonder if it is about changing the kind of work you choose to do. Maybe “gonna lay down my sword and shield” and “gonna put on my long white robe” is not really about being in heaven, but choosing to do the work of life and not of death. About making the choice to fear God and not Pharaoh.

Down by the riverside. Ain’t gonna study war no more. Ain’t gonna work from hate no more. Ain’t gonna ... well, you decide. It’s dangerous down by the riverside. But it is where life is. Let’s go.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Runaway Train

Call you up in the middle of the night / Like a firefly without a light / You were there like a slow torch burning / I was a key that could use a little turning / So tired that I couldn't even sleep / So many secrets I couldn't keep / Promised myself I wouldn't weep / One more promise I couldn't keep

I was driving Maddie to her dance lesson last night, and somewhere along the journey the radio played Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train.” (By the way, notice how I get in the information about Maddie and her dancing and me being a good dad? I’m getting good at this extraneous information thing, aren’t I?) I don’t know if you know the song, it’s kind of catchy. Gets in your head anyway. Maddie and I were singing along. At least the words we knew. And then I listened carefully. And got depressed.

Like so many songs these days, there is a fatalism at the heart of the song. Runaway train never going back / Wrong way on a one way track / Seems like I should be getting somewhere / Somehow I'm neither here nor there. That’s the chorus. You can’t help but feel uneasy hearing these words. Like there might be a generation out there ready to give up. Like there might be someone crying out for something of significance.

Can you help me remember how to smile / Make it somehow all seem worthwhile / How on earth did I get so jaded / Life's mystery seems so faded. How on earth indeed. But it isn’t just young people. There are a lot of us who have this feeling of being on a runaway train. This past week has been a roller coaster ride for those who pay attention to the markets. And the race to the 2012 elections heated up with a debate full of name-calling and finger-pointing. The country’s credit status was downgraded. And Tiger Woods missed the cut at the PGA Championship. Runaway train never going back / Wrong way on a one way track / Seems like I should be getting somewhere / Somehow I'm neither here nor there.

Joseph was neither here nor there. For a while anyway. Remember him? Last week we left him in a pit. Well, not exactly. He was in a pit and then he was dragged out and sold into slavery and was on a camel train to Egypt. A runaway train. At least it felt so to him. He was not in control, he was pulled along by forces bigger than he was. And where did he end up? In a good job that he lost, in prison for years, then tossed before Pharaoh and asked to produce, like a performing monkey on leash.

But it turned out well. He was given authority and power and he used it wisely. And now he is second in command over all of Egypt. And his brothers show up, hat in hand, needing a hand out. Needing a government subsidy. The very ones who threw him in a pit because they didn’t have the will to kill him, like they wanted to. Now they are on Joseph’s doorstep inches away despair and destruction. And he kicks them to the curb.

Doesn’t he? Wouldn’t you? This is your chance to get back at all those who hurt you. Your chance to strike back against the runaway train that you were thrown on in that weak moment, in that dark time. Now you’ve got the power, how are you going to use it?

Genesis 45:1-15 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. 4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there-- since there are five more years of famine to come-- so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.' 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

A lot of kissing in this scene! And weeping. Not really what you’d expect in a confrontation of long held grudges and chips on shoulders. In fact, if we are going to be honest, it sounds a little crazy. This forgiveness thing sounds wonderful in the abstract, but almost offensive in reality. Don’t you think they deserved a little more punishment than they got? Don’t you think they should pay for their crimes? How can they get off so easily and we all feel ok with that?

That’s the problem with this runaway train we are on, it makes what is sane sound crazy and what is crazy sound sane. Bought a ticket for a runaway train / Like a madman laughin' at the rain / Little out of touch, little insane / Just easier than dealing with the pain. Wouldn’t getting off the train make more sense? Wouldn’t living by different rules, trusting in a different driver make more sense?

See, that’s what happened to Joseph. He switched trains. From the outside, it looked like the same one. Things out of control, stuff happens to him, he pays for mistakes that weren’t his. But from the inside it all looked different. He was trusting in something different, something bigger than himself and his circumstance. He began to ask a different set of questions. Instead of “why me?” or “why is this happening to me?” he began to ask, what does God require of me now? No matter the depth of the now, no matter the hurt in the now, no matter the injustice of the now. He still could ask, “what does God require of me now?” And then based on the answers he discovered, he followed that track, he rode that train.

He trusted that the train wasn’t a runaway after all. That it had a destination that he couldn’t always see, or understand, or even like all that much. But he was along for the ride. He trusted in the driver. Some of our greatest frustrations come not from the circumstances we are in, but the belief that God should have worked them out in a different way. If only, we say and think and pray, if only.

Call you up in the middle of the night / Like a firefly without a light / You were there like a slow torch burning / I was a key that could use a little turning. What if instead of a love song like so many, we heard this as a prayer song? What if the slow torch burning was God, what if what we were asking for was a little turning, a little direction, enough wisdom to take one more step in the right direction. And then another. And another. “How did you get here” someone asks. “God sent me,” we reply, hoping, trusting that it is true. Because it is.


Saturday, August 6, 2011


Hang on Facebook friends. Don’t assume you know what this is going to be about. Yes, I announced yesterday via Facebook that it was Rhys’ Gotcha Day. Which, for those who aren’t versed in the parlance of adoption, was the anniversary of the day we “gotcha.” August 5 1994, after an anxious nine month wait (yeah, funny isn’t it?), La Donna and I drove to Chicago O’Hare airport to pick up Kim Myung Hoon, a nine month old with bright eyes and a ready smile, and as if by magic turn him into Rhys Edmund Myung-hoon Weber. Who is now nearly 18 years old and somewhat embarrassed to be the center of such attention. Gotcha Day. Every August 5th.

But that isn’t what the Gotcha in our title for today is about. Though, you have to admit it was pretty clever of me to sneak it in one more time up there, right? But I wasn’t thinking of Rhys when I typed the heading for this week’s bible study. Instead I was thinking of the other reason why August 5th is a day of celebration in our family. It is my older brother Hank’s birthday.

Hank was, and still is for that matter, the strong, handsome, athletic one of the family. I hated him. No, just kidding. I never hated him. I was jealous of him. Tried to be like him. Wished I was him from time to time. But never could be, and have learned to live with that. Most of the time.

The truth is we got along pretty well, most of the time. He was a good guy and has become a good man, caring, committed, service minded, an asset to his church and community. But there were moments, usually when I was twisting in his grip, fighting against his muscle and knowing there was no hope of escape unless I could somehow make him laugh; moments when his gotcha was unnerving to say the least. Unnerving. Where did that word come from? It was frustrating, humiliating, painful, embarrassing, and a whole lot more. Any of you who had older siblings know what I mean. Momentary, to be sure, fleeting experiences, a bad taste in the mouth that you can wash away with a thousand better memories. Not the dominant motif of our relationship, by any means, but real. Real enough to make Joseph’s story that much more credible.

There are many dimensions of the Joseph story in the book of Genesis. But the one that leaped out at me this time through was the family dynamic. One preacher once said “show me one well-adjusted family relationship in the bible.” And Jacob and his boys put the fun in dysfunctional, to say the least. Joseph is introduced into the story in such a way as to make you shake your head. Talk about getting off on the wrong foot.

In worship, I’ve decided to read the whole story. Or the whole first part of it anyway. Verses 1-28. Settle in folks, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride! But here, I’ll even shorten the lectionary verses. Long enough, but skipping over some of the ugly detail. You can look it up yourself.

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-14, 18-28 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. ... Now his brothers went to pasture their father's flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." He answered, "Here I am." 14 So he said to him, "Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me." ... 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." 22 Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him"-- that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

So, the story of Joseph begins with him as a tattle-tale. And gets worse from there. It ends with him thrown into a pit. Sold, or stolen (it gets a little vague in the telling), and carted off to Egypt. Now there is a fraternal gotcha that seems extreme to say the least. It is such a messy story that we are tempted to jump ahead to end to see if there is a rainbow after this storm. There is, but that is cheating, it seems to me. And it is cheating because some family stories don’t end well. Some family symphonies don’t resolve in the final chords. So, if we get to an “all’s well that ends well” kind of message what about all the others?

And to add to the problems, the God who has been amazingly present so far and will be again, is absent in this story. No messages in the night, no calls to accountability, no wagging of divine fingers or sending of glittering angels with flaming swords to sort it all out. Just an emptiness and a growing gap between brothers. So, what’s left in this story?

A search for peace? Verse 4 says that the brothers “could not speak peaceably” to Joseph. But then Jacob, winner of the clueless dad of the year, sends Joseph off to “see if it is well with your brothers.” Speaking peaceably and being well are both forms of the word Shalom. There was a constant search for peace. Even when peace eluded them. Even when peace was rejected.

We tend to think that God is where peace reigns. And the end of the story tells us that is true. But this part of the story of Joseph and his brothers tells us that God in the search for peace. Even when it isn’t found. Even when it seems far away. God is in the search, in the effort, in the longing for shalom. That’s what Joseph means much later - years later - when he says to his brothers “what you intended for harm, God intended for good.” (Gen. 50:20) Because God was in the search, in the attempt to find one’s way to shalom. Even when it is not realized in this life, in these relationship, we continue to search. We continue to hope.

Which means, I guess, that even in the midst of our struggles with brothers (or sisters, parents or neighbors), when we are feeling the sting of their gotcha, underneath it all God has a gotcha too. Even in the struggle, God says “I gotcha, never doubt my beloved child, never doubt.”

Happy Gotcha Day, everyday.