Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Dam That Could Not Break

from  “The Flame” (Clarks Mills, PA United Methodist Church newsletter)
    Today marks 100 years since the failure of the Austin Dam not far from my hometown. My daughters & I had a chance to visit the ruins a few summers ago. Growing up just about 30 or so miles away, I had vaguely been aware of the September 30, 1911 failure of the dam & the ensuing flood. But I had never stopped to see the remains.

     In 1909, on the wisdom of the latest experts, the dam was deliberately designed backwards from conventional wisdom. The flat side of the dam wall was built to face the water & the dam’s sloped section faced downstream. The idea, supposedly, was that this would provide an even greater strength to the structure. It was claimed that this would be a “dam that could not break.” In fact, when flood survivor Marie Kathern Nuschke wrote her eyewitness account of the event almost 50 years later, she entitled it: The Dam That Could Not Break.

     When people would question the logic and/or the safety of the dam, the engineers & owners (& even other residents) would simply laugh & say things like: “That dam will stand when you all are dead.” Nuschke wrote that there were two people who were adamant in their concerns about the dam, Sarah Willetts & William Nelson. Not only were they summarily dismissed, but most of the community laughed at them as well. And despite their misgivings, they stayed in Austin. Later, when the flood did in fact come, they too were killed.

     As I stood there in the midst of those remains reading names of those who died in this tragedy, I was reminded of how many times such conceit & overconfidence resulted in equally disastrous effects.

     I’m reminded of the arrogance & pride of the builders of the Titanic who claimed that “Even God couldn’t sink this ship.” And yet, sink it did. The lack of concern over the safety of the local residents in Austin reminds me of the stories of the owners of the South Fork Club that disregarded safety warnings & their dam eventually burst & wiped out much of Johnstown, Pa. just two decades earlier in 1889.

    What started as a chance to stretch our legs on a long trip, turned into a time of hearing the Lord speak to me about three things. First, just because experts claim something is safe or “everyone else agrees” with an idea, neither makes it safe nor right. After all, following the crowd and going with the majority assures you of Hell, not Heaven. Secondly, Proverbs 16:18 says “Pride goes before destruction, & haughtiness before a fall.” Unbridled arrogance & pride, especially without compassion, is a disaster just waiting to happen. Third, I sensed a great deal of grief for those two people who had seen the danger & had tried to warn others, & yet did not escape. It reminded me that it’s not enough to know of the danger or even to tell others. We need to also take care of ourselves. Spiritually, it’s the same way. It’s not enough to know that there is a Hell, or even to warn others. If we haven’t accepted Christ & established our own place in eternity, then we won’t escape either.

     Finally, as we left, I stopped at the little bridge that leads into the park and snapped this picture of Freeman Run, the water source the Austin Dam had tried to block to harness the power of the water. Yet without the proper respect & attention to its dangers, this tiny little brook caused the death of dozens. It was a reminder to me of the effect & importance of paying attention to the seemingly little decisions in our lives, for they can have grave consequences later.

     As I drove away from that memorial that day, I found myself comparing my attitudes and decisions to those of the ones behind the disastrous failure of the Austin Dam a hundred years ago. How about you?

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Standing In The Gap

    “Fed up, God decided to get rid of them— and except for Moses, his chosen, he would have. But Moses stood in the gap and deflected God’s anger, prevented it from destroying them utterly.”   
                                           — Psalm 106:23 (The Message)
    “I looked for someone to stand up for me against all this, to repair the defenses of the city, to take a stand for me and stand in the gap to protect this land so I wouldn’t have to destroy it. I couldn’t find anyone. Not one.”     
—Ezekiel 22:30 (The Message)

     Oh God, how many times are we, your chosen people in this day and age, the very ones you’re waiting for so that we can “stand in the gap” to turn away your anger like Moses did? Like you kept wanting someone to do in Ezekiel’s day, and you never did find someone who would?

     Is this the explanation of how it is that you could “change your mind” in the Old Testament stories? I wonder if in every situation where people faced Your judgment, that it was always your intention to grant mercy to them IF someone would simply “stand in the gap” in order to “turn away your anger.” The judgment is deserved, but you’d rather offer grace and mercy and forgiveness… if someone would just intervene and intercede.

     You judged the people in the desert and they deserved to die…but Moses intervened, he stepped in and pleaded desperately for them… and for his sake, you showed them mercy. You didn’t give them what they really deserved….

      You judged the people in Ezekiel’s day and sent Ezekiel with your message and kept waiting for someone on the receiving end of that message to step in and plead for mercy for your people… and no one did… and so the judgment was carried out.

      Today, the world around us clearly has walked away from your ways. If you’re truly a righteous and just God, then You have to judge us… our people, our land, our nation… You’ve sent your warnings. Is the seeming pause we sense just a God-given chance for us, your chosen people, to “stand in the gap” and plead for our friends and neighbors and relatives? To plead for mercy? To pray for forgiveness?

     O God… we modern American Christians are more likely to condemn those around us than we are to be an advocate for them. We see their sin and think “God’ll get you for that!”

     We are SO wrong! Forgive us O God and change our wicked hearts! Give us the compassion and love of Moses that he felt for his friends and neighbors and relatives. Teach us to stand in the gap!

—from Pastor Dayton’s devotions for the Reynoldsville Men of Promise breakfast, March 21, 2007

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Where Were You?


     Country singer Alan Jackson sings a wonderful song that asks a powerful question:  “Where were you when the world stopped turning?” about the events of 9/11/2001.

     Here we are about to face the ten-year anniversary of that horrific day and people will be asked that very same question again: “Where were you when you found out about the terrorist attacks?” Personally, I was in the Patton church office on the phone. The person I called told me about the planes crashingand the terror. We quickly finished talking and I left to watch the news. How about you? Where were you? And what were your initial reactions? Your first thoughts? What did you do next?

Jackson runs through a series of questions asking what people did next: “Did you dust off that Bible at home?” Did you “Open your eyes and hope it never happened, close your eyes and not go to sleep.” Did you turn off the TV violence, give blood, buy a gun, or go home and cling tight to your family…

You know, this ‘singer of country songs’ is really on to something… we each had choices to make following those events. In the book of Job, the Bible teaches that even when our world crashes around us, we still have choices as to how we respond. We couldn’t control what those terrorists did, but we ARE in control of how WE respond… We make the choice of how we deal with fear and terror, uncertainty and anger, just as we’re responsible for our choices in every other situation in our lives.

As this song says, some people did respond by turning for protection by buying a gun. Others responded by wishing the whole thing had never happened, or being overwhelmed by such fear that they couldn’t sleep at night. Some responded by seeking for ways to help, by giving blood or sending money. Where we lived (about an hour from Shanksville where one of the planes went down), there were some that went to our United Methodist Camp Allegheny to serve meals to the officials and investigators. Some did, in fact, turn to God in prayer, at church, and by reading their Bibles.

Even as Christians, we faced those same kinds of choices didnt we? We had to choose who to run to, who to talk to and share our feelings and emotions with, and what to do next. And like everyone else, we immediately felt alone… And that’s where we Christians have our first advantage over others; for we believe in Jesus, who is called “Emmanuel,” which means: “God with is.” (Matthew 1:23). People are again asking “where was God?” The truth is that He was there in the planes, He was there in the towers and in the Pentagon. He was there with YOU when you first heard and then walked through those mind-numbing next few days and weeks. Jesus said “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)

Secondly, our protection in this sin-sick world, is never going to be found in guns or more violence. Even our military attempts at silencing this or that particular terrorist will never be completely successful, but God reminds us that He is our “refuge” and our “strength. He is the “ever-present help” we can turn to in times of trouble and not be afraid. (Psalm 46:1-2)

Third, Jackson’s chorus echoes words of truth we read in the Bible that say “perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18)  and of “faith, hope, and love.” (I Corinthians 13:13) Our fear will give way to peace, even in the worst of circumstances if we can get closer to our God; about whom the Bible says “God is Love” (I John 4:8). Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

As we remember the tenth anniversary of that horrific day, let’s go to Him, get closer to Him, read what His word has to say. Let’s pray and talk with Him and feel His peace. In fact, how about joining us on Sunday, September 11th at 10:45 a.m. when we as a congregation do those very things together as we worship Him!

“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.”

 (II Thessalonians 3:18)

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Civil War, Ku Klux Klan, and anonymity

      In the aftermath of the Civil War, there were some in the south who felt powerless because they had lost and their desired way of life was no longer available to them (i.e. owning slaves and getting to act like the GOD over those slaves). When they lost that, they resorted to going out at night, hiding their identity with white hoods and sheets, and trying to bully the ones they used to be able to intimidate as slaves. They started intimidating and bullying their own neighbors when the neighbor did something to irk them. And people never talked about those things because you never knew who was, or wasn’t, a member of the Ku Klux Klan organization. They just kept the town secrets to themselves for fear that they would be the next one on the receiving end of the intimidation.

     Nowadays, as far as I know, it’s not the KKK that does the bullying. Even in the church, there are the “anonymous” letter writers who hide their identity in order to bully others. And most of the time, the letter recipient is so devastated that they never tell others and so nothing ever changes. And the church of Jesus loses another person that Christ himself died for.

     A friend of mine recently got two anonymous letters telling her what to do and what not to do, even going as far as telling my friend she could no longer attend her church. The authors of these letters apparently are ticked off about something that happened (or didn’t happen) and feel they “just have to” take action to set things right. And so they hid their identity by calling themselves a “Concerned Parish member” and a “regular [church] attendee.”

     As a pastor, I’ve received my share of anonymous letters. And they’re worthless! There’s a reason that newspapers specify that they will not print letters to the editor that aren’t signed. Because if there is something important that needs to happen, people will own up to the idea or the critique and help DO SOMETHING about whatever problem there is. Those who are just ticked off because they don’t get their own way, and know they’d be wrong if they openly confronted someone about their concern, try to be anonymous. Folks, if your beef isn’t worth YOUR name and YOUR time being associated with it, then it’s not worth our time and attention either.

     JESUS taught us, in Matthew 18:15-17, that if we have a problem with someone else WE are to GO TO that person that offended or hurt us… alone and in person. That way, you can hopefully get things worked out and a friendship is maintained. If that person doesn’t respond by making things right, then you get a couple of other people to go with you next time. In my religious tradition, that quite often is either the pastor or the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC). If the person STILL doesn’t make things right, then you treat her or him like you would a common sinner.

     HOWEVER, if YOU remember that YOU are the one who has hurt someone else by your words or your actions, then Jesus explained in Matthew 5: 23-24 that it is up to you to go approach the one you hurt to try to make things right. That doesn’t mean they forgive you (some will, some won’t), but you must do your best to make it right if you want God to bless what you do.

     As Christians, we ARE in a Civil War today. Those who ought to be subjects of the Almighty King (Satan & his demons) have rebelled and refuse to bow their knee to their rightful King and Lord. Furthermore, when Jesus died on the cross, and then was raised from the dead, he defeated Satan completely. JESUS WON THAT WAR!!!

     However, in the same way that the KKK was unwilling to admit defeat and tried to intimidate those who had been made free, so it is with the devil and his hordes of followers. When we are following what Christ taught us, we are dangerous to them and we become targets for the evil tactics of a frustrated, defeated enemy. Since Satan cannot get at God, he sends his remaining demons to try and make life so difficult for the believers that maybe, just maybe, he can get us to give up on church and on God.

     OH, by the way, there is one more concern to take into account for those who would jab and fight from under the cover of anonymity: you are NOT anonymous to God. He sees what you do and knows the evil you intend, whether you burn crosses or send unsigned nasty letters.

     FOR THOSE OF US who know someone who’s been on the receiving end of a bully’s evil efforts, there are a couple things we can do.

     First, PRAY! Pray that God would cover the letter recipient with his love and comfort and grant them the courage and peace they will need to be able to deal with such evil.

     Second, find a way to let that person know how much they ARE loved and how little that bully speaks for the group. Talk, listen, spend time with him or her. (And facebook, twitter, and my space don’t count! The one you are trying to encourage needs to be able to hear the empathy and love as you are with them… online doesn’t allow that and even great thoughts can seem hurtful at times).

     Third, don’t just react to them. I mean, they need to feel loved and connected, but if you and I just get MORE offended and take his (or her) problem on as our own, then we can’t help as much. Usually, it ends up sounding like a gripe session where EVIL is the only topic of discussion and the God of love is left out. (Again, that’s another reason to avoid the online treatment of such an important matter.)

     GOD knows who is a bully and a coward trying to destroy one of his loved ones. Let’s make sure that can NEVER be said about us.

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