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Vol. 80 - No. 12
Dec 2009

WORD FROM THE PASTOR:             

A Mississippi Trip and a Christmas Thought

"Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain..." (Psalm 127:1) 

As I got on the plane to return from our recent mission trip to the Gulf coast, I noticed two things–on my boots was a light coating of mud from the work site, and on my jeans was a light dusting of powdered sugar from the beignets at the Café du Monde in New Orleans. My doubly-soiled apparel pretty much captured the flavor of our trip: hard work for God combined with some fun and fellowship!

Six of us from St. Paul’s worked for Habitat for Humanity near Biloxi, Mississippi, as part of a team sponsored by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. We actually flew into New Orleans, and spent a memorable morning in the Crescent City. A trip to the Café du Monde was followed by a tour in a mule-drawn cart, and then a visit to one of the city’s picturesque cemeteries (where there are no burials–the water table dictates that all internments be done in above-ground crypts). Then we drove to the Biloxi area, where we stayed at a place called Camp Victor. Lights out was at 10 p.m.; we awoke the next morning at 6 a.m. to pack lunch, eat breakfast, and head for the work site. Most Habitat builds involve a single home–but in Mississippi, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, a whole streetfull of houses was being constructed. The St. Paul’s team was split between three different worksites. At one site, where Larry Rath worked, the basic frame of the house had already been constructed; there, the team worked at building the roof. At another site, Claudia Rath and Hilmer and Barbara Johnson installed siding on the house and a shed. At the third site, where Leigh Silveira and I worked, the house was built from the ground up, including installing the flooring and raising the walls. (The construction supervisor for our team was former Miami Dolphins player Irving Spikes). Leigh and Claudia proved adept with nail guns; Larry’s nimble agility was a real asset in constructing the framework of the roof; Hilmer spent a lot of time working on the ladder (as well as documenting the event with numerous pictures); Barbara worked the sabre and chop saws. Me...with limited technical skills, I just kept hammering nail after nail after nail...

A memorable moment in the trip was when we met a family who would be moving into one of the houses. They were there to work (and work they did–"sweat equity" is an important part of the Habitat for Humanity philosophy). They also told us their story. They lost their home in Katrina (as the water kept rising, they had to swim to safety). Their insurance situation was a classic "Catch-22"–they weren’t eligible for flood insurance, because they didn’t live in a designated flood area; but, because their home was destroyed by water, their insurance provider refused to cover the loss of the home. (Eventually they received $16,000, a tiny fraction of the home’s value). Even though the house is no longer there, they still have to pay off the mortgage! Compounding things, the husband was in a car accident shortly after Katrina and sustained a traumatic brain injury. Still, they held on to faith, hope, and determination. Meeting this couple really inspired us in our work.

When the folks at the camp found out that I was a pastor, they asked me to do the devotion the last morning of the work week (you can run, but you can’t hide!) I spoke about something that happened when a St. Paul’s team was working in New Orleans a few years ago (gutting houses, not building them!) I picked up a piece of plywood in a backyard...and underneath was a splendidly beautiful golden salamander. I reminded the group of the life cycle of the salamander–how it comes into the world as a lowly tadpole, but then sprouts legs and is changed into an adult salamander. The salamander, then, is a reminder of transformation. God transforms us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–"God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions" (Ephesians 2:5) And now God was using the work we were doing to transform the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. ( I also noted that one of the hard hats our team wore actually had a drawing of a salamander on it!) So to me, the salamander in that New Orleans backyard was an image of God’s transforming power. To bring home and theme of transformation, we concluded the devotion by singing "Amazing Grace" ("I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.")

The last night in camp, Larry and Leigh drew a mural on the wall to commemorate our participation–a Jesus fish with the verse "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13) We left the camp on Saturday for another afternoon in New Orleans. Grabbing muffalettas (a kind of Italian hero dressed with olive salad) from the Central Grocery , we sat by the river and watched the ships come into port. Several of us stayed in the city a few extra days (which is why my jeans ended up dusted with powdered sugar!)

This mission trip was a big commitment of time and money for those involved (each of whom had to invest at least $350 of their own funds). I thank them for their willingness to do God’s work and for the effective way they represented our congregation and our region to our Southern friends. I also thank Thrivent for their support of the program. Several church members also made generous donations to make the trip possible. (There are photos from the trip on display in church, and a larger selection on the stpaulsamityville.com website).

A final, Christmas related thought about house-building...King David wanted to build a house once...a house for God. The Israelites still worshiped God in a tent, and David didn’t think that was right...God needed a house, a temple. (One could call this the "Habitat for Divinity" program). But God turned around and told David: "You’re not building me a house–I’m building you a house!" David was a bit confused–he already had a fine palace...why should God build him a house? But God was actually making a bit of a pun on the word "house". It doesn’t just mean a building...house can also mean "royal family", dynasty–like the House of Windsor in England, or the House of Habsburg in Austria. God promised David an everlasting dynasty: "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever." (II Samuel 7:17).

Yet within a few centuries, Babylon conquered the Hebrews, and the line of Hebrew kings ceased; the people later fell under the yoke of Persia, the Greeks, the Romans...it looked like the promise of an everlasting kingdom for David had failed. But God’s promises never fail! So an angel appeared to a young maiden in Nazareth–and told her she would bear a child. And the angel said: "The Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David...and of His Kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:32.33) So God’s promise to build a "house" for David was really a promise about Jesus! Jesus is the eternal King whose reign will never end. And what a joy it is to live under His loving rule!

God loves you and so do I!

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