1.  The Vocabulary of The Psalms Includes The D-Word


One effective way of learning a new vocabulary word is to use it in a sentence.   That’s one effective way.   And when it comes to the words that we discover in Galatians 5:22—when it comes to the finished fruit of the Spirit—when it comes to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—that method works.  Moreover, when it comes to most of the things that Jesus has said and done, those things recorded in the four gospel stories, a good, coherent sentence clearly leaves a lasting impression.   But, unfortunately, if the word that we’d like to comprehend happens to be “DARKNESS,” and if it happens to be located in the middle of a so-called sentence in one of one hundred and fifty ancient Hebrew Psalms, we might as well forget it.


At first glance, we might suppose DARKNESS to be nothing more and nothing less than the absence of light.   We might suppose that until it greets us like an old friend in a Simon and Garfunkel song.   We might suppose that DARKNESS is no heavy-duty concept until we hear about physicists arm-wrestling over competing theories of “dark matter.”   DARKNESS may appear like a little kid’s worst nightmare—an immature phobia to be outgrown over the years—until we’re frightened out of our wits by Archibald MacLeish and a poem that we wrote at a ripe old age: 

There… hovering over…

There with vast wings across the cancelled skies

There in the sudden blackness the black pall

Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.

So, you see, as vocabulary words go, DARKNESS is probably one of the least cooperative, and one that we’d probably like to avoid.  But it is truly there in the text, beginning in verse eleven:

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”


2.  In Case of Darkness—Say So

What I’d like to highlight this morning from the Psalms in general and from Psalm 139 in particular is that you and I have been given permission to speak.   That may sound obvious at first.   But consider the ways that we often stifle ourselves.   And consider the ways that we allow the DARKNESS of a moment to inhibit others from speaking.


Bob Barker is on the T.V. screen, cavorting with the beautiful models.   He’s asking the contestant if the price of the blender is higher or lower than the one Holly is holding up on cue.  Meanwhile, many miles away from that studio audience, in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital, a man with the ironic name, Ralph Price, is breathing his last breath.   The family has finished consulting with specialists, gathered all around the bedside, but rather than say anything to one another or to him, they watch the show.  


In the case of darkness—say so.   In the case of death, or disease, or depression, or divorce, or drug addiction, or doubt—keep listening for a word that names what we cannot seem to name on our own.  Keep listening to the Psalms.   Say them out loud in the dark and wait!

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”   Jesus, as he quotes Psalm 22, doesn’t just want to think a happy thought as he’s about to die on the cross.   The memory verse he utters isn’t to encourage.  It isn’t to edify.   It’s to put a theological name on the weather that Mark 15:33 describe as a one-hundred percent chance of total darkness.  

3.  God Does Not Just Deliver Us From Darkness, But Goes Into The Darkness Before We Arrive


So, what do you think?   Joel Osteen and other motivational speakers insist on censoring our vocabulary, don’t they?   They insist on keeping things upbeat and positive and light because the assumption is that negative words will somehow conjure up or intensify negative experiences.   The assumption is that God avoids darkness like the plague.   The assumption is that God won’t help unless we’re willing to help ourselves.   The assumption is that we have to please God first with a healthy attitude and good behavior before God will bless us with a decent job and some prosperity.   But, you see, if it’s good news that God intends to ultimately deliver us from the darkness, isn’t it also good news that he already goes there before we arrive?   


There’s a scene in the movie, Shadowlands, in which C.S. Lewis and the son of Joy Greshem sit in the darkness of an old attic.   The boy’s mother has just passed away, and staring at the ordinary wardrobe—the thing that had worked such magic in the story written by C. S. Lewis—Douglas breaks the silence: “It doesn’t work, does it?”   


“No,” says Lewis.

“Jack,” says the boy, “Do you believe in heaven?”

“Yes,” says Lewis.

“I don’t believe in heaven” comes the reply.

“That’s okay,” answers Lewis.

“I sure wish I could see her again…”

“Me too.”


4.   We May Never Get To See The Fruit


The point I’m attempting to make is that conversations like that one are courageously honest, and that God can take it.   If God is God is God, that Mysterious and Sovereign Lord can handle any false idea, any true idea, any correct opinion, any incorrect opinion, any doubt, any question and any darkness.   God can handle the darkest of dark that we can muster.   So go ahead and try.  


Take Psalm 139, verses 19 through 22, for example.   Here we are, near the conclusion of this lofty and soaring scripture, trying to mind our own pious business, and this is what we hear: 

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God…

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” 

I hate them with perfect hatred…”


Now, I believe that I speak for Mary Copas and all the Vacation Bible School leaders, when I say, that we hope that no child at Camp Latah learned how to hate perfectly or even imperfectly.   That’s not necessarily the final “fruit” we’re looking for?  

But what happens when we can’t see the fruit on account of darkness?  But what happens later?   Suppose after a few years of life and death, those children begin to experience thoughts and feelings that we forgot to mention, or that we conveniently avoided, during the first week of August, 2008.  And what are we obligated to say at that point?   That we don’t want to hear anything bad or negative?   That when darkness arises, God bales out?  


In the novel, The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter DeVries, the main character goes from the peak experience of seeing his daughter born to the disorienting experience of watching her die on the very day she would have turned eleven years old.  Don Wanderhope has a caring network of support and a church family who prays for him.   That day, at worship, a kind lady gave him a cake to take to Carol at the hospital.   He forgets the cake, leaving it in the pew, only to retrieve it after his child had died and after trying to drink himself into oblivion.   And so, taking the cake outside, he notices the statue of the crucified Christ hanging over the doorway.  And with every ounce of energy he has left in his body, Don Wanderhope heaves the pastry into the face of God.  

“Then through scalded eyes I seemed to see the hands free themselves of the nails and move slowly toward the soiled face.   Very slowly, very deliberately, with infinite patience, the icing was wiped from the eyes and flung away.  I could see it fall in clumps to the porch steps.   Then the cheeks were wiped down with the same sense of grave and gentle ritual…” (Naming The Silences, p. 26). 



5.   Are You Trying To Flee From God’s Presence at Latah Valley?


Now, at this point, I’d like to back up in Psalm 139, and focus on the question in verse seven:   “Where can I flee from your presence?”   You and I, as we are here, singing songs and offering prayers in this place, may assume that we’re not trying to flee from God’s presence.   We may assume that.   But I’d like to suggest that there’s a profound and radical difference between the image or the idea that we have of God and Who God Actually Is.  


What difference does it make?


Well, one is just a thought in the cerebral cortex, just a sentence we may have learned as a child.


The Other, by contrast, is Someone who stays when the lights go out and when the words fade into oblivion.


One is just a tingling sensation in we may feel at the base of the spine.


The Other is there when our nerve endings are worn out and frayed.   


At Latah Valley, we are counting on the Other, the One for Whom “even darkness is light.”   Amen.



August 3, 2008

1.  We Can Use “Product Placement”

If we’re not looking for it, we’ll miss it.    If we’re just watching a program casually on television, we’ll miss the celebrity, drinking from a can of Coke.   We’ll miss the actor as he waltzes into the room with an Armani suit.   We’ll miss the political pundit as she flips open her Apple computer.   We’ll miss the star athlete as he dons a pair of Nike high-tops.   But rest assured.  These products are there, and then, without really noticing the endorsement, we want those things. too.   Then, ever so subtly, we have been trained to need those things—because in the case of Coke at least it’s the real thing. 


I remember one morning, when Philip had been watching cartoons, a commercial for Lucky Charms came on.   Watching the image of other kids, eating spoonfuls of cereal made him hungry, which motivated him to go to the refrigerator.   Of course, when his mother, who received her Psychology degree in 1985, observed this, she called it to our attention.   We then laughed about how the advertising had found its target audience.  We laughed until the next commercial came on, showing other children, wearing their new backpacks for school.   Sheryl then announced that she would be going to Target, where the backpacks were on sale for $19.99.


It’s called Product Placement.  And rather than condemn the practice out of hand as materialistic or manipulative, what I’d like to propose this morning is that we accept it as the lay of the land.  

I’d like to propose that we accept Product Placement as the standard operating procedure of nearly every warm blooded person in the civilized world, and as per today’s scripture reading, I’d like to propose that we put that stealthy technique to use in communicating the gospel message of Jesus Christ.      


For example, suppose the product, or the fruit, that God would like us to endorse is nothing more and nothing less that the power of the Holy Spirit.   And suppose the difference between that product and other products is that it’s absolutely free and available in abundance.   Let me say that again:  the Holy Spirit is willing and able to produce an abundance of love, joy, peace and patience in the world and in our lives right now.   Moreover, whereas most  people value things according to their scarcity—based upon the idea that there won’t be enough—the challenge we face is to place before everyone we meet the odd and embodied belief that God in Christ Jesus is enough and will always be enough.


2.  What It Means To Sow—Go Public With Abundance

One of my teachers, Walter Brueggemann, told us how he had once arrived early at the gate of an airport terminal.   He loved having the extra time to pray, to grade papers and to think.   But then along came this businessman, who seemed to be running out of time.   He was clearly a mover and a shaker, and he also talked very loudly on his cell phone.

Well, after listening in on one or two high powered transactions, Brueggemann became annoyed with the sound of the guy’s voice.  He then asked the man to please quiet down, to which the man replied, “What!  This is a public space!”    So, agreeing with him, Brueggemann grabbed his Bible, opened it and proceeded to read a few chapters in his biggest, most prophetic, preacher’s voice.   He read for about twenty minutes.   And when the businessman complained, he said, “What!  This is a public space, isn’t it?”  


“The point is this,” says Paul in Second Corinthians, verse six:

The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.   Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”


You see, somehow we’ve got to figure out a way to hold up, and to put on bountiful display, the fruit of God’s Spirit.   I’m not suggesting that we necessarily practice reading the Bible aloud at the airport, but that we look for ways to demonstrate in public what God has given us in abundance.   This is what I think it means to sow.   It means to take what we have at our disposal, what we’ve been given for a moment, or for a day, or for a year, or for a lifetime, and to plant it in the world.   Plant it in the world and let it grow.   Let it bear fruit.


3.  As It Is Written… God Gives

“As it is written, ‘(God) scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.’”


This is the weird thing about the way God gives.  God gives “as it is written.”   God gives in a world of buying and selling, where people are used to bargaining and bickering about the right price.   And yet, if God gives “as it is written,” without bargaining and without bickering, by scattering abroad and by giving to the poor, you and I have to be there to interpret what’s going on. 


“When I was six or seven years old,” writes Annie Dillard,

“I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find.  It was a curious compulsion; sadly I’ve never been seized by it since.   For some reason I always ‘hid’ the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street.  I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk.   Then I would take a piece of chalk, and starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions.   After I learned to write I labeled the arrows:  SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY.   I was greatly excited, during all this arrow drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.”


So how about that compulsion?   I’m not so sure that planting pennies really is a compulsion in same way that buying things is a compulsion, or in the same way that accumulating things is a compulsion.   In fact, another way to interpret what was going on with Annie Dillard in her Pittsburgh neighborhood is that “God loves a cheerful giver.”   God gives in this way, and God has also made us to give in this way.   Not because we should.  Not because we ought to.  But because this is the product that God wants to place in front of people; and it’s a gift.   




4.  Thanks Be To God For Giving That Doesn’t Make Sense

Mark Scandrette wrote a book, called Soul Graffiti, about his family’s decision to move into a run-down section of San Francisco.   He did this even though they could have afforded a better house in a better place.   And yet, by using his resources to live where he lived, Scandrette could place the fruit of the Spirit in full view: 

“As Kate and I were talking, a man on a bicycle stopped in front of us on the sidewalk.  Quickly he handed a ten-dollar bill to another man who, in return, gave him a small bag of crack… ‘I don’t want you doing that,’ I yelled from the top of the stairs…

‘I’m sorry,’ the man on the bike said.  ‘We’ll go somewhere else.’


‘I don’t want you doing that anywhere,’ I said.   ‘That stuff will eventually kill you.’


‘Hey, I said I’m sorry, what else do you want me to do?’ he asked.


‘I want you to get a new kind of life,’ I said sternly…  ‘I believe there is a different kind of life available to you—and I would be glad to help you discover it.  If you want my help, you know where I live.’”  (p. 158).


Now, I don’t know what you think about this kind of sharing.   It doesn’t make a lot of sense.


In fact, it’s kind of like the nun from Ohio, who moved to Brazil.   She could have stayed at home, counting her rosary beads and thanking God, “for his righteousness endures forever.”   But instead she chose to sow that message in the middle of the dwindling Amazon rain forest.   Sister Dorothy Stang died at the age of 73 while she read from the Bible aloud; someone shot her six times on the road, not only because she taught peasant children about Jesus, but because she also taught them there was enough land for everybody, that the loggers and the ranchers didn’t need to buy it all.  

So, you see, that doesn’t make sense, does it?   In the world’s scheme of buying and selling, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.   It doesn’t make a lot of sense to expose your kids to drug deals, going down on the streets of San Francisco, just to connect with the drug dealer.   And it doesn’t make a lot of sense to move from Ohio to Brazil.   And it doesn’t make a lot of sense to start another new church and to meet in a school multi-purpose room, when there is a huge supply of perfectly good churches already up and going.  But “thanks be to God for his indescribable gift,” and thanks be to God for those he inspires to give it again and again.


5.  Latah Valley:  Where We Need To Give

I’ve been wondering about a woman that I met during my last day in New Delhi, India.   We were walking through the markets, buying some souvenirs when she tapped me on the shoulder.   I was a little suspicious because moments prior some guy wanted to sell me a bunch of postcards for a thousand rupees.   When I turned him down, he kept after me for a block, lowering the price with each step.   And yet, with this woman, there was no bargaining.  All I saw in her eyes was this sheer, unapologetic need.   And when she motioned with her hand to her mouth and to the mouth of her infant, I knew what she meant.  I knew what she meant.  


So here’s my question for Latah Valley:   Do you know what this means?   Do you know why we’re here, and why during this week we’ll hang out at the property with a handful of children?  


Some of us are here because we need; we need much more than we can ask for.  Others are here, however, because we give.   That’s what we do; we give.   But sooner or later, you see, it’s all the same.   Sooner or later, we need to give.