Sunday, October 30, 2011

"From the Desert and the Sea" (Psalm 107)

It certainly has been an interesting week.

Last weekend, as you know, I was at our Regional Gathering in San Diego. A couple of things stand out to me as I look back on that event. We celebrated the incredible diversity of our region, something I plan to write about in my next newsletter article. Speaking to those who were gathered, our co-regional minister Don Dewey said that our commitment to being a pro-reconciling, anti-racist church is crucial.

Regarding ministry and church life, Don Dewey said something else that caught my attention. He said that “the needs of our neighbors is what should preoccupy our board meetings.” Think about that for a minute. A church that is not serving its community is a church that is not doing what it is called to do. So it makes sense that the needs of our neighbors is what should preoccupy our board meetings.

Our featured speaker for the day was David Shirey, who was called to start a new church in the middle of the Arizona desert. He shared how, at one church meeting, he mentioned the need to install a bigger, better sign in order to make his congregation more visible in the community. One church member looked at him and said, “I’m the sign for this church. You’re the sign for this church.”

Think about that for a minute.

Coolwater Church, the church David Shirey started, is planning on meeting the needs of its neighbors and being a sign to the community in a unique way. In 2012, they hope to log 2,012 hours of volunteer service to the community. Whether it’s an organized church event, like a neighborhood clean-up or a day feeding the homeless, or members volunteering individually, this congregation that is about the same size as ours hopes to log 2,012 hours of service to the community.

It was a good day last Saturday. It gave me a lot to think about.

And San Diego is a nice town. Not as nice as Long Beach, of course, but still nice. And not as nice as Burbank, my hometown, not too far from here.

As a child, I didn’t expect that many people outside of Burbank cared or were even aware that there was such a town. To me it was just some streets with houses, schools, and a very un-exciting downtown that was anything but beautiful.

As a child, I didn’t really think there was anything all that exciting about southern California. It was just where I lived. But gradually I did learn that this is, in my now mature, unbiased opinion, the best place in the world.

The learning began while I was still a child. I was incredibly curious, and I loved learning about the world, so perhaps it was only natural that I would like watching the evening news. Today I can’t stand watching the news on TV. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve changed or the news shows have changed, but I think they are just awful.

But back then, as a child, the evening news was very exciting.

It must have been an El Niño year when I started watching the news because I remember hearing a lot about mudslides and powerful surf and flash floods. Dr. George Fishbeck was the one who told me about all these things. Remember Dr. George, the TV weatherman? With his bow ties and quirkiness? Last I heard, he’s still around, approaching 90 years old, and likes to volunteer at the L.A. Zoo.

Even when the weather was a little more “normal,” Dr. George was full of excitement. At one time, before he was a weatherforecaster, he was a teacher in New Mexico, and his weather segments were always full of learning. He loved, weather, he loved history, and he loved southern California.

Meanwhile, over at the anchor desk sat Jerry Dunphy, who started every newscast by saying, “From the desert to the sea and to all of southern California, good evening.” That little intro also helped me realize what a special place southern California is. We have deserts. We have the sea. And in between, we have pine-covered mountains, covered with snow in winter; peaceful valleys and canyons; and magnificent cities.

At home I have a book that talks about the native plant communities of southern California, and how unique they are due to our unique climate. Very few places in the world have a climate like ours: warm, dry summers, with almost no rain; mild winters with a mixture of rain and sun. A section of coastal Argentina has a similar climate. The tip of South Africa. The southwest coast of Australia. And the region around the Mediterranean Sea, including the Holy Land.

The Holy Land, in particular, has a somewhat similar combination of deserts, mountains, and sea. There is one passage of scripture that criticizes people whose faith is as fleeting as the clouds of the morning. Most people of the world can’t quite relate to that analogy, but here in southern California, where it’s common for the ocean clouds to come in overnight then disappear by noon, it makes sense.

Now, as beautiful and diverse as a region like this can be, we know that it can also be treacherous, especially for travellers. Deserts can be dry and barren. Mountains can be foreboding. And winter storms can whip the seas up to dangerous heights and send damaging waves crashing against the shore.

Think of the challenges travellers would have faced before modern methods of transportation: Chumash and Gabrieliño Indians in their canoes, paddling out to the Channel Islands. Early explorers like Juan Bautista de Anza, traversing mountains and deserts on foot.

When I look at Psalm 107, all this comes to mind.

Psalm 107 gives thanks to God for safe travel. It was perhaps sung by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to celebrate a festival. They came from the east and the west, from the north and the south. They came across the desert and across the sea.

We learned in particular about those who came across the desert. Apparently it was quite a difficult journey. They “wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town.” They were hungry and thirsty. So “they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them.”

Psalm 107 also mentions those whose journey led them through prison, where they “sat in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons…. But “they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.”

There were also those who had to journey through sickness, so much so that they could not eat, and “drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.”

Then there were those who came by sea, and traveled through stormy wind and tumultuous seas. “Their courage melted away in their calamity; … they were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.”

Then the psalmist calls upon all those who came across the desert or the sea; all those who have passed through sickness and captivity. The psalmist calls upon them all to “thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. God satisfies the thirsty, and fills the hungry. God shatters the prison doors, and cuts in two the bars of iron. God sends out his word which heals, and which delivers from destruction. God quiets the storm, and stills the waves of the sea. God turns a wilderness into pools of water, and dry land into springs of water.”

Most people, at some point in their lives, experience wandering in the desert. Maybe that’s where you are today: wandering, hungry, thirsty, longing for that which will renew your life. Or maybe you are imprisoned by guilt, shame, or an endless pursuit of things that do not satisfy. Maybe you are journeying through sickness – physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual – and find yourself in need of healing. Maybe you are journeying across a stormy sea, with no rest, no peace, just one crashing wave after another.

God is with you.

I heard a song on the radio the other day; I think it’s a couple of years old. One line in the song says, “Savior, please save me again.” The line caught my attention, because I don’t hear people asking very often to be saved again. But we do need a savior who will walk with us, through all the storms, deserts, prisons and seas, to hold our hand, to continually restore to us the wholeness and healing that we long for.

God is that savior. That’s what Psalm 107 celebrates. The people cried to the Lord in their distress, their trouble, and the Lord saved them, delivered them, brought them out of fragmentation and restored them to wholeness.

God knows that life is difficult. When we turn to God, God doesn’t judge us, but instead helps us find that path to healing and wholeness.

As the psalmist says, let all people praise God in the midst of the congregation. Let all people give thanks to the LORD, for God is good, and his love endures forever.

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