One 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’.
This 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.