Backstory

backstory heading

Lectionary Passages for week of August 12  – 18, 2019

Isaiah 5:1-7   •   Psalm 80:1-19 & 82   •   Jeremiah 23:23-29   •   Hebrews 11:29-12:2   •   Luke 12:49-56

Backstory for worship passages for Sunday, August 18, 2019

Two Prophets (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Jeremiah 23:23-29)

Isaiah compared the leaders, and people, of Judah and Jerusalem to the leaders of Sodom and Gomorrah – they had turned from God. They pretended a ‘holiness facade’ with their religious practices and rituals, along with ‘holy sounding’ deceptive religious talk, in an attempt to cover up their rebellion against God.  Isaiah prophesied about two centuries before the conquer of the Judah.  The unpleasant message of Isaiah was to call the people out of their faith numbness and wickedness – to return to God.  In this Sunday’s passage, Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, shares a ‘love note’ to the people. It is an honest and brutal message in which he reminds the people of all that God has lovingly given to them. It is a blunt note to inform them that God has set them up for success yet they have turned their backs on his gifts placing themselves at risk.

While most of Isaiah’s message was to call the people back to God, the majority of Jeremiah’s message, a century later, was to prepare the people for God’s coming correction.  Jeremiah’s negative sounding confrontational words became increasingly repugnant to the leaders and people. He was hated – they did not want to hear his message.  They began accepting the words coming from the false prophets.  These individuals would say what the leaders and people wanted to hear.  Words of prosperity and riches, words of affirmation and approval. Words of false and deceptive hope.  While God was calling out these false prophets, he was also confronting the people who were eager and quick to accept these pleasant lies.

The Savior (Luke 12:49-46)

The words of Jesus, in Sunday’s passage, are surprisingly blunt and fierce.  Most would describe his words (and also the words of Jeremiah and Isaiah) as apoplectic – indignant, fierce, and full of rage.  Desperate words because Jesus is acting as a passionate father desiring that his children see the truth sooner rather than later.  The cross and end of the physical life of Jesus was fast approaching and he was fully aware of the time crunch; he was preparing the followers for life after the ascension.   Like the words of the prophets, Jesus words, come from a place of love and hope for his followers.

A Reminder of Faith (Hebrews 11:29-12:2)

In our responsive reading this Sunday we are reminded of the faith of our ancestors. The variety of individuals who held on to their faith even when they did not see any hope or rescue.  These faithful individuals stand as a testimony of God’s faithfulness; they serve as witness for us to God’s love and mercy.

Cornelius the Bat

corneliusOne evening, when our kids were younger, we went on an early evening family walk along our favorite path.  The path travels across a tree-lined bridge, through a historic neighborhood where the WPA stamps are still visible on the worn sidewalks, and, finally, to the University campus where wide sidewalks make for unlimited running and horseplay. The only problem with this path are the Oklahoma mosquitos and the occasional bats flying overhead.

While the mosquitos are a constant, the bats are actually a rarity.  Nevertheless, their infrequent appearances do seem to be a bigger bother than the hordes of blood-sucking mosquitos.  I think the reason we have such a disdain for the bats is that they are an unknown. They are the creepy, gross, and unclean.

Every time we went on a walk, any sign of the creepy, gross, and unclean bats would be met with moans of discontent and disapproval.  Regardless of the possibility they were addressing the mosquito issue, we still looked at them with disgust and were fully aware that the bats were out to get us and everything that we held holy.

On this particular walk, on this beautiful spring night, our greatest dread became a reality. Waiting for us as, we approached the bridge under the umbrella of leaf filled tree limbs, was a bat laying in the middle of the path. As we charted a path around the creepy, gross and unclean bat our overly compassionate kids became concerned.  They were soon bending over the bat and even kneeling at a safe distance to determine why this bat was not creeping us out from above.  As they determined the bat was a wounded baby, they insisted we move him off the trail.  We carefully, and respectfully, moved the bat and continued our walk.

Little did Andrea and I know that Pandora’s box had been opened.  The bat was no longer a creepy, gross and unclean creature bent on annihilating our very existence.  The label ‘creepy, gross and unclean’ had been replace with ‘baby’, ’cute’ and ‘in need of our humanity’ labels.

As we continued with our walk and enjoyed the beauty of trees, history, and horseplay little was mentioned about the bat.  We expressed our hated of the mosquitoes but the bat seemed to have been forgotten.

As we approached the bridge on our return home, our youngest, Isaiah, began to run ahead announcing that he was going to go check on Cornelius.  Andrea and I looked at each other wondering who he was talking about. As we called out the question, he yelled back that he had named the baby bat “Cornelius”. I had actually preached on Cornelius that morning and was elated that somebody had heard something that I said.  I had not, however, consider the possibility that a challenge of my dearly held labels would be the takeaway from my own child.

But, labels were being challenged. A feared bat was now a hurting baby with a name. There was no way the bat was going to be put back into the category of creepy, gross, and unclean.  The creepiest, and grossest, and most unclean thing on our favorite walk could no longer be labeled with the easiest and most negative identifier in our arsenal. 

Even though the bat has since disappeared, we continue to remember Cornelius.  We don’t remember him as a frightening and creepy bat, but instead, a hurting part of creation. It was the moment our labels were challenged.  Instead of a label, as it usually happens, a child gave him a name.  No longer ‘Gross, Creepy, and Unclean’, now he was ‘Cornelius’. 

cornelius name tagThis year, as I arrived, once again, at the Cornelius passage, I couldn’t help but remember Cornelius the bat.  It has led me to rethink the true lesson and application of the story of the apostle Peter.  The Father sent a message to Peter which had to be repeated three times before he grasped the meaning. A revelation explaining that there are no creepy, gross, or unclean beings created by God; a message that taught Peter to put away labels. The story details Peter learning something about a man whom he had considered outside of the love of God; a man who was surely gross, creepy, and unclean. Peter soon learned that this man had a name – Cornelius. Putting aside his deeply engrained tendency of sticking labels on people, Peter sat down instead, and shared space with this individual who was no longer creepy, gross, and unclean.  Cornelius now had a name, instead of a label – Peter now had a new friend along with a much richer, and more honest, understanding of God and God’s grace.

 

Our Call to the Marathon

bostonrunner2On Tuesday morning of this week, at 12:18 am, Mary Shertenlieb finished the Boston Marathon over thirteen hours after she began.  Mary had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia five years before and had endured intense treatment suffering two relapses.  Around mile fifteen of the marathon, health concerns required that she return home with her husband.  There, she recouped, took a shower and returned to the marathon to finish miles later. At the finish line on Boston’s Boylston Street stood fans cheering for this, the final runner of the marathon, who had shown them how to run and how to finish.  It was not the way she imagined the marathon to go, or even the day she expected to finish, but she did run and she did finish.

A Marathon for the Kids

As I dropped Andrea off at school on Monday, it was weird.  She was back after two weeks away due to the teacher walk out.  She was ready to be back with, and for, her kids but with a new disillusioned attitude and no remaining hints of political naivety.

teacher walkout 2It was easy for Andrea, and her professional peers, to feel like the previous weeks had been a complete waste.  Ten days gathering in the sun, standing in the Capitol and sitting in legislators’ offices often being treated disrespectfully and unimportant.  They stood on the Capitol grounds as our governor seemed to find every reason to be elsewhere and the Secretary of Education managed to belittle and diminish the entire effort from the isolation of her D.C. office.

It had also been a hopeful ten days, teachers bonding, receiving unforgettable support from parents and our communities, even witnessing an amazing outpouring of encouragement from outside of the state.

Then it seemed to be over; over with basically no progress to be seen.

pablo (57)The teachers had received a pay raise prior to the walkout but felt they could not settle on a note, even though warranted, of self interest.  They stayed out of the classrooms because they knew that their students deserved better. They deserved to have enough educated and certified teachers – not classes of thirty-four kids packed in an inadequately sized room; they deserved a space where there were enough chairs and desks and to not have to sit in folding chairs borrowed from a local church; they deserved up-to-date textbooks and basic supplies not purchased from their teacher’s limited personal income.  They deserved so much more.

Decades ago, Oklahoma decided that public education was not important.  Evangelicals talked about God being ‘taken out of the schools’ while, at the same time, the very hard working and caring teachers hid in the pews praying, and hurting, for their students.  Politicians realized that reducing taxes was a reelection coup and that the ‘unGodly’ schools were an easy target of budgetary reduction.  ProLife became the holy label while the birthed children, along with their education, healthcare, mental health, shelter and food, carelessly became the casualty.

The truth was, and is, that God remained in the schools because the most vulnerable of those created in his image had been abandoned.  Abandoned by those tasked with being a light to the world.

On Monday, as their one success, their raises, was being targeted, the teachers returned to the classrooms anyway.  They returned to prepare their students for required exams and to the very real future that is tough, if not impossible, without adequate knowledge.  A truth that even Christ himself addressed. The teachers returned thinking that they had failed those very students.

They had not failed.

Author Anne Lamott writes that Change is not a sprint but a marathon. Our teachers began a marathon. They, battered and abused, passed the baton on to others so that they could get back to their beloved kids.

On the Sunday in the middle of the walkout I shared with my congregation that I had truly experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit while on the capitol grounds the previous week.  Even though we doubtfully feel it, it is still there and all over the state.  The Spirit is in classrooms, it is in the homes, it will be with the voters prompting them in the upcoming elections.  The Spirit will be everywhere that children are clamoring to climb up on the lap of Jesus. Everywhere that Jesus is saying, “let the little children come unto me!”

The Spirit will continue to be in our state.  In our churches, in our homes, and in our classrooms. Anywhere we are willing to accept, listen and follow, the Spirit will be there.

It’s not over, it is a marathon.  We still have a ways to go.

My Marathon Experience

child backpackAlmost twenty years ago I dropped my oldest child off at Monroe Elementary for a typical day of first grade. I did not know that day would set me off on a marathon.  As he shut the door of the van, I could not help but notice, as my tiny first grader ran in, there were may unrecognized adults exiting the doors of the school.  He had to squeeze through them to get to the building and to his classroom. 

I soon saw the “Vote Here” signs which brought clarity. Our school was a polling station and that these unknown adults were wandering throughout the school after having voted.  While I loved the idea of my kids witnessing democracy in action, I also knew that we live in a world which is not always so idealistic and sometimes very bad persons take advantage of very positive idealistic situations.

This unexpected morning experience set me on personal marathon that would take twenty years. I spoke to the principal about this influx of unknown adults venturing throughout the building, she sent me to the School Administration who sent me to the County Election Board.  The Election Board sent me on a mission to find a better place for the voting.  I ended up at a Mormon Church who agreed to host the voting.  I victoriously returned to the Election Board who informed me that this would be an unacceptable location since the election workers could not drink coffee or smoke at the church building. Not yet willing to give up I went to the election workers who unanimously agreed to abstain from any forbidden vices for voting days.  A return visit to the Election Board led to the revelation that my solution was an unacceptable and would not be implemented.  My final journey was to my mailbox where I found a letter from the Election Board telling me to leave them alone.

I had failed. I quit the marathon. Kind of….

As a result of my efforts, the principal asked me to begin a program for dads at our school called WatchDogs. It was the first WatchDog program in the city and the state. An amazing group of dads in our school took a day off of work each month to patrol the halls and help where needed. Dads that had never regularly been in the school before were now integral parts of the day to day operations.  Their children were proud to have them there and the dads were engaging with their own children in a manner they had never done before. Dads provided security, but more importantly became acquainted with the peers of their children, the teachers and staff of the school, and found that they could be a part of this all important essential element of their community.  The program is now all over our city and state.

Sometimes our marathon take us to places, and makes things happen, that were never in our planned running route.

I also continued my call for more school security and a plethora of areas of concerns.  One of these areas was to campaign to have the school playground off limits during school hours.  It alarmed me to watch as complete strangers were permitted to walk across the campus, through the middle of children, during recess.  I was told that the school was not allowed to restrict such access to members of the community.

Voter IDA couple of months ago, twenty years after I began my marathon, I received a new voter ID card, it was for a new location.  Our public schools have reconfigured all buildings for increased security and voting does not fit into the increased security plan.School sign

On an evening walk, I then cut through the playground of Monroe Elementary.  There I saw a sign that restricted access to the playground during school hours.  I took a picture, stood and stared, and realized that I had crossed a finish line.

As I thought about all it took to get that sign I began to think of all the others who were part of my marathon, a list that included my own mother.  I attended this same elementary school and would pablo (55) walk to school each day.  One year, homeowners of a house on a busy street which was part of my walk, planted new grass and restricted pedestrians from walking on their lawn. This meant children like me, on our way to school, would be walking on the heavily traveled street.  My mom, possibly the original safety marathon runner, went and had a very frustrating talk with the homeowners.  They refused to budge on their restrictions and she refused to quit the marathon. She called the city and did anything else that might lead to an acceptable solution.  Facing defeat at every turn, she revisited the owners of the house several times, who eventually worked with my mom to come up with a safe solution.  She raised her arms in victory and ran under the finish banner and then passed the baton on to someone else which eventually came to me.

marathonA Call to the Marathon

Teachers, your time has not been wasted.  You have run the toughest part of the marathon.  Raise your arms out to pass on the baton.  Pass it to the parents who are now at the capitol, to the voters who will soon cast their ballots for change, to all the other Oklahomans who care about the children, and to those who echo the words of Christ as he said, “Let them come to me!”

It is not about quitting but rather about enlarging the marathon, including others to run with the baton.

To the rest of us, look for the marathon that God has waiting for you. I can’t say what your marathon will be but I can say that it will be about God’s created and His creation. It will be about those created in His image which widens the possibilities to everyone everywhere. It will be about being a demonstration of the actions and life of Christ much more than the words of a preacher.  It will be about love.

Our marathon is what John talks about as Walking in the Light and then later in I John refers to it as Abiding.  The Apostle Paul call it a race.  It is about life, led to reveal God’s love and to live smack dab in the middle of the life Christ has called us to.

It’s a life long marathon.

Let’s run.

Rick

Transitions are Tough

hungry birdsOver the past few months we have had the honor of witnessing the birth of several birds in nests scattered outside our house.  

About two weeks ago, there was an even greater thrill as we happened to be watching as three little birds prepared to leave the nest outside our bedroom window.  We realized this was taking place as they began to take turns flapping their wings while jumping around the nest.  

Then it got interesting. The largest of three walked to the edge and stood there.  Teasing us with many “will he fly off now?” moments.  Finally, he took the leap, and it was truly a leap, straight to the ground with a thud.  The remaining two birds, a bit more hesitant, followed the example, and seemed to have the same failure as their larger sibling.  From what we could see, none of the three succeeded in the art of flight, they all just fell to the hard earth. We were certain that this was the end, they had all failed flying and we would soon be in the bird burial business.

Even in the surety of their failure, we continued to watch, often having to run to windows in different bedrooms.  We saw the squirrels coming closer as if they had been waiting for this moment.  We also knew that there were other, more aggressive and larger, birds witnessing this embarrassment, or, should I say, opportunity, unfolding.

We, in our infinite wisdom, were sure that these little birds we had become intimately attached to, had not been ready to attempt flying and had met their doom.

As we continued to watch, however, we noticed their mom and dad.  Neither was grieving or blaming the other.  Instead, Dad was watching from the highest branch on a bush near the back fence, while mom was standing on the ground, strategically positioned between dad and the babies.  As she stood there you could see her aggressive stance ready to attack the other opportunistic creatures.  One at a time, mom escorted the tiny poor fliers to the bush by our back fence, their new home, where dad received and congratulated each one with the bird equivalent of a high five.  It was not long before all three ‘not yet ready for flight’ birds were back with mom and dad and ready to continue their journey and their training….only now with more privacy, at least from the nosey Anthony family.

I have to be honest however, for the four humans watching, it was a pretty scary process. We gave up hope many times.

Later, as I thought through the experience, I remembered I had been awakened that morning to a very busy, and noisy, mom and dad.  While I had grown accustom to the parents feeding the birds early each morning, this morning, the morning of the kids’ first attempt at flight, mom and dad seemed to be executing the feeding process with a special and intense urgency. The children were receiving an extra portion of breakfast with a veracity that, as to yet, had been unseen. Don’t be fooled, they had always enjoyed feeding time but nothing matching the intensity of this day.  Mom and Dad knew the kids were going to need even more strength and power than ever before.  The kids, for their part, were taking advantage of this preparatory process for an adventure that was far greater, and riskier, than anything the nest had ever offered over the course of their entire lives.

The preparation before, during, and even after, was calculated and amazingly exhausting and emotionally draining.  At least it was to us humans, we were exhausted and spent even after having only experienced it from the spectator seats.  As the five birds disappeared into the bush, we four humans headed to the kitchen to feed ourselves and to prepare for the semi-calculated and amazingly exhausting and emotionally draining adventure of our average day that lay ahead.

I cannot claim to have any real empathy with a mom and dad watching their children take a necessary and deadly leap in order to move ahead in life. 

I can, however, say I watched my oldest child walk up the ramp to enter pre-K at Monroe elementary in August of 1998 and then, not too much later in the day, driving by the school to assure myself that he was not standing in the middle of the busy street (my wife later admitted to having done the same thing).  I actually remember watching, and hating, the transition, as each of my five kids walked the same ramp over the next five years, and driving by later just to make sure they, too, were not standing in the middle of the street.

Then, this year I watched as that same son walked another ramp to receive his college diploma followed by a drive to Stillwater later in the week to enroll my fourth child in her first year of college.  This means that we will be driving her to live in a place that is not our house in less than two months.  In the meantime, we have taken our third child to the airport to fly away to a summer volunteering experience in Hawaii as number two headed to Colorado for her summer job.  Finally,  I have listened each day as our youngest has gotten himself out of bed very early each morning for cross country practice and lawn mowing.

I lay in bed wandering when we transitioned to a time when he no longer needed me to wake him up and take him to practice or work.  I lay in bed wandering when he, our fifth little bird, approached the edge of the nest.

Maybe I do have a little bit of empathy for my dear mom and dad red bird friends that lived for a short time outside my bedroom window.

Paying Attention,

Rick

totalled Toyota VanOh… and we had to say goodbye to our Toyota van on May 4th due to the fact that we were rear ended by a school bus as I was driving Andrea to school (the irony has not gone unnoticed).  Goodbye to the van that each of our children learned to drive in and where almost 300,000 miles of memories took place.  It was tough to see it driven away on the tow truck.


Transitions are tough.

What Do You Have?

oilShe was frustrated and somewhat angry, she was miserable and hopeless, she was at the end of her rope and there, in front of her, was her dead husband’s former boss.  She approached him and said, “My husband gave his all for you, he was your servant, and now he is gone. And, in return for his faithfulness to you, his widow and children, are now penniless and sliding deeper into a pit of despair.”


The boss queried, “What do you need?”

This was an easy yet difficult answer for the woman.  It was easy because the needs were all she had thought about since the loss of her husband.  The question was difficult because she was not sure where to begin.  It didn’t take long, however, for her to respond, “I’m about to lose my children.”

The boss followed with another question, “What do you have?”

This was also an easy yet difficult answer.  Easy because she didn’t have much, difficult because what she did have seemed insignificant and not worthy of being mentioned.

It was also difficult because relinquishing the little that she did have, regardless of how insignificant, was scary.

This is the story of Elisha and the widow documented in II Kings 4.  It is a story of the wife of a servant of Elisha following the death of her husband.  She was being hounded by creditors who were now about to take her children and sell them into slavery.

It is the story of each of us.

The widow was desperate.  She was hopeless.  She was mad.

Just like us.

When Elisha asked “What do you have?”, she replied “nothing, except a jar of oil”.

Oil was a forgettable possession since it seemed so meaningless.  At the same time, it was an essential possession, as was seen in the story of Elijah and a diffent widow. 

It was also forgettable, at least verbally, because giving over control of the only thing we think we have is difficult.  It is our basic humanity to hold on to it with all our might, not trusting anyone to take it away.  It was, and is, difficult because trusting often means things will not go as we hoped or planned.  It means we will give up control.

Ultimately, she handed over the oil.  In return, Elisha pointed out that she had so much more.  She had her children, she had other vessels and she had neighbors who also had vessels. In the end she saved her children, gave the neighbors back their vessels, and gained a security that permitted her to live, work, and survive.

All because she realized what she had and trusted it to one who could meet her need.

What do you have?

The Man in the Moon


moon-half-face-singleLast Friday I spent the night with our college kids at their house on Sherwood Street in Stillwater.  It was not my first time to spend the night on Sherwood although it was been over fifty years since my last stay.  In the early sixties, my grandma Bill moved from the farm into town on Sherwood after my granddad passed away.  Everyone told her that she needed to be off the farm and around people.  She only made it a couple of years before the people proved too close and the solitude of the farm too far. 

Now our three oldest kids are a couple of blocks away from Bill’s former house. 

As I lay in bed, I began remembering nights on Sherwood Street.  I remembered, as a four or five year old, standing in the middle of the street in the dark of the night, with the kids from the neighborhood.  Susan and Mary and others pointed out the man in the moon, which I actually saw and was convinced.  This early sighting caused the excitement over Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 to be fairly redundant. I also remembered my many plans and dreams;  dreams fulfilled and those handed over to those with more passion and better qualifications.  I didn’t become president but I did manage to make one hundred dollars.

More than any of those things, my mind went to the unimaginable dreams that I have lived and experienced. The family I have been blessed with, the friends who have touched my life, the places I have seen…and, of course, the hundred dollars.

Paying Attention,

Rick