Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 19, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: James 1:17-18
Stacked in the rafters of my garage and on the shelves of my basement and leaning against the bench in my little workshop are pieces of lumber, leftover wood cuts from former projects, scrap that I have saved. I know I'm not the only person who does this. I've been to other people's houses and I've seen their piles of scrap wood. Maybe you do something similar. Maybe it's not wood, maybe it's scraps of fabric or scrap paper or plastic bags from the grocery store. And I don't know how you feel about your scrap, but my feelings about my scrap are divided. On the one hand, every saver of scrap wood knows the deep satisfaction that comes from standing in a pile of saw dust halfway through a project and realizing that you don't have to go to the hardware store to buy another piece of lumber because you have a scrap board saved in the rafters for such a time as this.
But on the other hand, who am I kidding? I'm never going to use that board. I am never going to need it for some project that I won't finish. I have moved that board from three different houses. And it, along with all the other pieces of mismatch scrap lumber that I have around my house, testify to the fact that most of my projects are woefully incomplete and will most likely remain that way. You see, scrap presents us with an all-too-human paradox. The sheer incompleteness of the world and all its people simultaneously fills us with the hope of a finished Saturday morning project and drains us like another Monday morning workday.
In the summer of 2007, my wife, Amy, and I, and some friends traveled to the country of Guatemala. It was a service-immersion trip. In Guatemala, I saw the same paradox in another form of scrap saving. If you've ever traveled to a country like Guatemala, you've seen it, too. Lots and lots of incomplete building projects, half-finished cinder blocks structures, four walls waiting for a roof, a one-story house with spindly steel rods sticking out of the top. Rusty scraps of rebar, hopefully pointed towards some second story that may or may not materialize.
I was talking to my friend Don about this the other day. He had spent some time in Mexico and said that he saw the same thing there. In some places, most of the buildings had the leftover ends of the steel rods sticking out of the tops of the concrete walls, giving the whole neighborhood a feeling of incompleteness. Don and I agreed that from our North American perspective, this initially struck us as shoddy workmanship, derelict building practices, and maybe just lazy. But I got to know a guy from Guatemala, and he gave me another perspective. He explained how difficult it is to get a home loan there and how most people don't have the resources to build a house all at once. And so, they scrape together what they can, build when they can, and in between they wait in expectation. Realizing that they might not live to see the home finished, but it could be for their children.
My friend Don told me about the family that he stayed with in Mexico. They lived in the city, but they had scraped together enough money to buy some property on the outskirts of town. And little by little, over the years, they had built a foundation and some walls, the beginnings of a new home. And on Saturday mornings, they would go out there, mom and dad and the kids, they would pile all on the family motorcycle and drive out to the work site to see the property, to see their in-process home and to tend to the garden that they had planted there. And so, I suppose this is just another form of scrap savings faced with this common human paradox. The incompleteness of the world and all its people and all their plans fills us like a finished Saturday morning project, and drains us like a Monday morning workday.
John McLaughlin felt the same paradox when he was leading service-immersion trips to the Dominican Republic. In an article, John wrote titled, "Unfinished Houses: Building the Kingdom on God's Time," John says that every summer, without fail, someone on the trip asks him, "Why can't we finish this house?" When they realize that they're not going to see the completed fruit of their labors right then and there, they often feel disappointed, like the project was a failure. John explains how many U.S. Americans go on these service trips hoping to gain a sense of accomplishment for themselves. And sadly, this expectation, whether we bring it to a project abroad or to our neighborhoods at home, can take something that was meant to help others and twisted into something that's mostly or even totally about making ourselves feel better.
In the article, John writes about how his own perspective changed over time through many years of leading these service-immersion trips. He's come to see the importance of building, not just structures, but relationships. He's learned that the goal is less about accomplishment and more about accompaniment. Accompanying people, walking with them, talking with them, building with them over years. An incomplete building project is actually a gift, he says. With the rebar protruding from the tops of the walls and the pile of scrap materials in waiting, it reminds us that the deeper unfinished human project, the relational work, is still in process. Swooping in, trying to fix the problem all at once, playing God, doesn't actually help anyone.
Have you noticed how some people use that phrase, "playing God"? In this context I suppose it means swooping in and trying to fix something by sheer force. Or you might hear someone say that a person who tries to do that has a "Messiah complex." It's a curious phrase because the actual Messiah testified to in the Bible, didn't do it that way. In the Bible God and His Messiah are more about accompaniment than about accomplishment detached from relationship. Throughout the Bible God shows us that relationships are at the heart of what it means for God's work to be complete. Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, He didn't swoop in and try to fix the world's problems by force. Yes, He healed people; He performed miraculous signs; He even raised people from the dead. But again and again, He said that this wasn't God's complete work.
For Jesus, who is God's Word in Person, the work is relationships. He said that His goal was always to build up trust between God and humanity, between you and God. Jesus wasn't playing God. He was and is God: God's Word in Person. He didn't swoop in, He walked in and talked and accompanied people on the way. Jesus was comfortable with the long, slow process that spread through conversations, conducted at a rate of about three miles per hour. Jesus embraced this process even as it would lead through His death on a across, to His resurrection from the dead, through the giving of His Spirit to accompany us until the time He visibly returns to raise the dead and complete God's good creation project. Jesus embraces this unfinished process because His goal is to build up your trust in Him, my trust in Him, and to involve us in this work.
This was God's plan from the beginning. You remember that account from Genesis 11, the tower of Babel? It was one of the most disastrous human building projects ever left unfinished. Somebody there said, "Hey, we got all this scrap lying around. Why don't we make bricks and make a name for ourselves, and we can fix things once and for all and be done with it?" It was a shortsighted building project founded on fear, funded by pride—an enormous eyesore of distrust for God and His project. And since completing this project would have been disastrous to their relationship with God and disastrous to their relationships with one another, ending in the disaster of eternal suffering and death, God did swoop in to disrupt it. And every other scrapped, unfinished, incomplete human project you see today is testament to it. But Jesus, crucified and risen, ruling and returning, Jesus fills our Monday morning workday despair with perpetual Easter Sunday possibility.
In the New Testament of the Bible, there's a letter written by a follower of Jesus named James. James calls us to this underestimated Easter hope. He tells us, "Count it all joy when you face trials," when you face setbacks of various kinds, interruptions. He says that the undoing of our plans is actually part of the process. Setbacks are sure to come, James says. As sure as the sun rises with its scorching heat and causes the grass of the field to weather and its flower to fall and the beauty of its appearance to fade away, so also will we fade away in the midst of our pursuits. But James says that we can take joy in these setbacks when we let them build up our trust in God and our dependence on Him.
James blesses us with a new perspective on our incomplete projects. He says that God is taking all of our leftovers, all of our failures, all of our scraps and representing them as gifts, good gifts, perfect gifts, complete gifts. This is what God was teaching the people at the tower of Babel, that the walls we build in fear to fund our pride will always feel incomplete. This is what Jesus was teaching the people who wanted Him only for the miracles He could accomplish, that He came to build trust. This is what John McLaughlin is teaching people on immersion trips to the Dominican Republic, that the perceived problem of an unfinished project can help us discover the hidden gifts in every relationship.
And this is what Don says he's seen as well. Don, the friend I mentioned who stayed with the family with the unfinished house in Mexico, Don Everts is his name. He's the author of the book, The Hopeful Neighborhood. You'll hear from him at the end of this program. In that book, Don draws on these insights about gifts and relationships and encourages us to look at our neighborhoods, the places where we live and serve. And instead of seeing only problems and failed projects, Don helps us discover how God keeps saving all of our scrapped gifts and regifts them with Easter Sunday possibility. Only by faith in Jesus can Christians do this. Because only Jesus truly sets you free from the workday despair of a project that would always be one step forward, two steps back.
Robert Fulghum tells an old story about this freedom that we find in Jesus Christ. The story takes place in France, in the town of Chartres, where one of the great medieval cathedrals still stands today. It was a building project that took over a hundred years to finish.
Long ago, a traveler visited that city to see the great cathedral that was being built there. Arriving at the end of the day, the traveler went to the construction site, just as the workmen were going home. He asked one man covered with dust what he did there. The man said he was a stone mason; he spent his days carving rocks. Another man when asked said that he was a glassblower; he spent his days making slabs of colored glass. Still another said that he was a blacksmith; he spent his days pounding iron. Wandering deeper into the incomplete cathedral, the traveler saw an older woman armed with only a broom sweeping up the scraps from the day's work. "What are you doing?" He asked. The woman paused, leaned on her broom and looked up to the project that she wouldn't live to see finished and said, "Me? I'm building a cathedral to the glory of Almighty God."
Outside my kitchen window there's a bird house made from scrap wood. I derive great joy in watching the tiny family of sparrows that have housed themselves there and have decided to raise their chicks there. They're always coming and going, coming and going like they're caught up in some glorious project that they won't live to see completed. And it doesn't seem to bother them. My son Jude built that bird house with his grandpa out of scrap wood. Jude says he likes working with grandpa because he doesn't just swoop in and do everything for him. "He teaches us how," Jude says. "He doesn't underestimate us."
One day when Jude walked into grandpa's workshop and saw all the piles of unfinished wood and incomplete projects, he said, "Grandpa, why don't you throw away all this scrap?" Grandpa says, "I'm saving it. I got big plans for it." That's just my father.
Why don't we talk to our Father? Dear God, our Father, you have saved not only us, but all our scrapped gifts. By Your Spirit who accompanies us, give us eyes to see them and faith to receive them, that we might join you in Your in-process creation project for our good and to Your glory through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the same Spirit. One God now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for September 19, 2021
Title: Scrapped Gifts
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. And now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm here with Jennifer Prophete. She directs our community programming with Lutheran Hour Ministries. Welcome, Jennifer.
Jennifer Prophete: Thank you so much.
Mike Zeigler: And also joining us is Don Everts, a writer with Lutheran Hour Ministries, the author of the book, The Hopeful Neighborhood. Welcome, Don.
Don Everts: Great to be with both of you.
Mike Zeigler: Jennifer, so last year you helped launch with Lutheran Hour Ministries this project. It's called The Hopeful Neighborhood Project. Who is this for? Who can be involved in this project?
Jennifer: Anyone. It's for people who live in a place, so that's everybody.
Mike Zeigler: Okay, That's everybody.
Jennifer Prophete: And somebody's living close by, which I grew up in a place where that nearest neighbor was a mile away, and I still considered it a neighborhood. So however far that is, I'm sure that you can identify a neighbor, and so this is for you.
Mike Zeigler: Okay. So if you're in a place and you have people in that place, what would be the goal of the project?
Jennifer Prophete: The goal of the project is neighborhood wellbeing. That we want people to get involved in their neighborhoods and make their neighborhoods better, but we don't want them to do it by themselves. So kind of the unstated goal in that is relationship-building with your neighbors to improve neighborhood wellbeing.
Mike Zeigler: The goal would be to just raise the wellbeing of the neighborhood, maybe just a notch, a little bit. What are the steps?
Jennifer Prophete: We've put the steps into kind of three easy to remember things. You discover the gifts, imagine the possibilities, and then pursue the common good.
Mike Zeigler: Well, let's talk about the first one, because that's intriguing. Why start with discover the gifts?
Don Everts: Rather than starting by saying, "What annoys you about the neighborhood?" Rather than starting there, we're starting by saying, "What are the gifts we have?" There's something inherently hopeful about that. And then once you're kind of cataloging, inventorying those, and thinking about them, you're just going to start imagining, "Well, man, you know what we could do given the gifts that we have?" And that's the second step
Mike Zeigler: Don, you have processed a lot of this research that we did in partnership with the Barna Group. What did the research tell us about how Christians are using their gifts today?
Don Everts: A lot. Let me give you two takeaways, a frowny face one and a smiley face. So a frowny face one would be that Christians on average are really focused on spiritual gifts to the exclusion of all the other common gifts or natural gifts that God gives us.
Mike Zeigler: Well, yeah. When Jennifer last week was talking about the gift inventory, I think you said, I immediately thought of spiritual gifts, but then you started talking about artistry skills and finance skills, like, "Okay, so this is a little bit different."
Don Everts: We tend to be narrowly focused on spiritual gifts. And it's important to think about them, right? Paul said, "I don't want you to be uninformed," But we tend to only focus on those. And the other part, a frowny face finding, is that we tend to focus on only one vocation: how to use our God-given gifts in the local church. That tends to take a lot of our attention.
Mike Zeigler: Especially if we have to drive 20 minutes to get there, out of our neighborhood.
Don Everts: Exactly. But some of the really fun findings, so one of the findings we had was that 90 percent of practicing Christians are already using some of their talents, some of their God-given gifts, at their church or through their church. Likewise, 70 percent of practicing Christians strongly want to be able to connect their profession—more of their natural or common gifts—with their service through their church.
So, we found there's a really strong hunger in people to be connecting those dots more, to be mobilized, to use their God-given gifts at or through their church.
Jennifer Prophete: And that's where The Hopeful Neighborhood Project, I think, is really helpful as well, because it doesn't just stop at discovering the gift. Then there's the imagine the possibilities, and pursue the common good.
Mike Zeigler: When I was 18 years old, I was kind of trying to find my direction in life and I joined the military. And it was for a lot of the reasons that you're mentioning because the military gave me an identity, gave me purpose, gave me a mission. It gave me people around whom I could gather and we could march together, literally, in the same direction.
Don Everts: It helped you grow and develop.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. And a lot of the aimlessness that veterans feel that I've talked to is when you get out of the military, you don't have any of that. Something special about this project is it can give you that. You can figure out, "All right, here's what I've been gifted with. Here's what the people around me have been gifted with. How can we march together somewhere in our neighborhood to do something good?"
Jennifer Prophete: Right. And there are people, in a similar way to the military, you didn't choose who else enlisted in the military. In much the same way, you don't choose your neighbors.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, that's good.
Jennifer Prophete: You choose your house, but you don't choose who lives next to you or who's going to move in after you. And so it's a beautiful thing about this project as well, because you can choose your friends. At some level, you choose your co-workers, right? Because you kind of choose the environment or the culture that you're willing to work in, but neighbors are a little bit different. And so I think there's a real beauty in that, then, when you're looking at gifts, because there's such a combination possible, and no two combinations will be the same. No two neighborhoods will have the exact same combination of gifts, but you're bonded together in a way that you didn't choose, which made me think of the military, and I like that.
Mike Zeigler: So there's this treasure, buried treasure, right there in your neighborhood, waiting for you to discover, and that is the gifting of your neighbor and your gifts. I want to get your insights and reflections on this passage from 1 Peter 4. And think of it in light of all that you've learned through these many conversations you've had on the art of neighboring and being in a neighborhood. "If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides so that in all things, God may be praised through Jesus Christ, to Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen"
Don Everts: One historian pointed out that the Christians had, "eloquent behavior." Their words may have been eloquent as well, when they told people about Jesus and why they had hope and why they were sacrificing their lives to love others, but part of what was eloquent, part of what their message was, was their love and their self-sacrificial love. That can actually bring people to a place where they discover Jesus and have faith implanted in them because of how they were compelled by the uncommon kindness that Christians were showing.
Jennifer Prophete: The Hopeful Neighborhood Project is about doing good in your neighborhood and being a good neighbor.
Mike Zeigler: If you wanted to learn more about that, you could go to hopefulneighborhood.org. You could also check out Don's book. It's titled The Hopeful Neighborhood, and that's Don Everts, E-V-E-R-T-S, available wherever books are sold.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Lord of Glory, You Have Brought Us" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)