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

Next Door Blessings

lizard 2Around dusk, I ventured up the street to our neighbor’s house.  They are on vacation and we have been taking care of their lizard, fish, plants, mail, and newspapers.   We go up twice a day to feed the fish, water, collect newspapers and mail, and turn on/off the lizard’s lamp.  The lizard still has crickets hopping around so there is no need to feed him (or her, we don’t know) until he cleans his seven-day-old plate.  We love these neighbors.  I have known the husband since seventh-grade, but have really only had consistent interaction with him over the course of our decade in the neighborhood.  The recent interaction has made me wish I had branched out from my own group of friends in high school.  We love the way they live, the way they raise their kids, the way they have integrated their two different faiths, and the way they make you feel very important with every engagement.

Across the street from them is a retired couple who are also wonderful. They are Jewish.  The husband grew up as the son of a Rabbi.  There is a reason I mention their faith. It is Christmas Cookiepertinent and not just my attempt to convince you that I am open-minded.  In all of my adult years, they are the only neighbors who have ever brought us homemade – and decorated – Christmas cookies.  They frequently ask me about our church and our kids.  They are genuinely interested.

Across the street from us are recent transplants from Britain. They are very kind and respectful and join us in our skepticism of the local television weatherpersons when it comes tornado season.  They take refuge in our tornado shelter and, together, we attempt to estimate which of the broadcasters’ rants need to be taken seriously.  They are very smart. He is a physics professor at the local university. Regardless of actual intellect, however, all they have to do is begin speaking with their British accents and we automatically give them credit for great wisdom and discernment. It is like having sat in the living room with soccer goalMaggie Smith at Highclere Castle wondering for weeks afterwards if you were insulted or complimented.

On one side of our house, we have a neighbor with a huge soccer goal cemented in the front yard.  When we initially moved into our house, they invited our soccer-playing children over to use the net anytime.  I have always appreciated the eye-catching net for use as a landmark when giving directions to our house.  I don’t think the previous owner of our house liked the net, or these neighbors.  She repeatedly called the police when they attempted to cut the limbs from her old and gigantic tree which were resting on their vehicles.  The police would inform her that the neighbors were permitted to cut the limbs which were stretching over their property, but she continued to call and complain anyway.  During the first year living in our home, a devastating ice storm toppled that entire tree, causing a section of the trunk to fall and strategically land on three of their cars.  No insurance lawncovered the damage – ours nor theirs.  They never complained to us and have always been beyond gracious.

On our other side is a retired widow who has taught us the meaning of tenacity and determination.  She is always there to express concern and offer help.  She has admitted that one of her chief goals in life is to make me look bad, her strategy is to spend every day either re-mowing or perfecting her already perfect lawn.  Andrea, and the kids, often ask, “Why can’t our lawn look like that?” as we pull into our garage.  When the other trunk of our tree fell onto our roof, this neighbor climbed the ladder to our steep, and icy, roof to help me place a tarp over the holes caused by the fallen tree.

We are very blessed.

I often fail to recognize and appreciate the blessings we have on our street.  I often fail to look around and pay attention.  I often neglect to fathom these and so many other next door blessings.  I often let every nature of meaningless and trivial distractions keep me from seeing what is right in front of my eyes.

I am determined to pay better attention, I’m determined to see those blessings right next door….beginning today.

Paying Attention,

Rick

Sticking Around

On the morning after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene headed to the grave to anoint the body of Jesus.  She could not get there quick enough; she was beyond grateful for the impact He had made on her life.  He delivered her from demons and the extensive mental and emotional baggage accompanying such a traumatic experience.  He brought peace to a life that had been consistently and constantly at war.  He restored joy and hope, and brought the stability to face the struggles and demons that life would throw at her.  Jesus had delivered Mary, and she was beyond grateful. She was committed.

She arrived at the tomb determined to see Jesus and was shocked to find nothing.  The tomb was empty.

While the disciples witnessed the empty grave and headed home, Mary stuck around.  She was not leaving until she saw Jesus.  She kept looking.  Even though the men had left after seeing all they needed to see, or not see, she stuck around.  Peter and John saw that the grave was empty and therefore they believed that the grave was empty.  That was all they thought there was to see and to believe.  The left satisfied, and somewhat amazed, even though they saw nothing.  Mary needed to see something; Mary had a purpose, a mission.  She needed to see Jesus.  Mary stuck around.

Although he did not realize this truth, John needed to see Jesus.  Jesus had become his closest friend.  Peter was also unaware of his need to see Jesus.  He desperately needed to experience release and forgiveness for the guilt and shame of his triple denial of Christ.  However, both of these men were satisfied with seeing nothing.  They went home.

Not Mary, she was sticking around.

She remained at the tomb.

Even though Mary had also seen nothing, and all hope seemed to be gone, she stuck around.

Eventually Mary saw two angels.  Then she saw Jesus. She didn’t recognize him until he said her name, then she saw what she came to see.  She knew that voice due to the fact that she had been a constant seeker of that voice.  She had experienced the full scope of what it meant to depend upon and know Jesus.  She knew that this was Jesus.  She grabbed hold of him and was not about to let go.

She was sticking around.

Later, when the men finally saw Jesus, He told them to stick around.  To wait until God sent their needed helper, the Holy Spirit.

This time they stuck around.

Paying Attention,

Rick

Canceling Church

trees in snow landscapeI did something yesterday that I would have scoffed at half a decade ago.  I cancelled church.  I sent out the email….

canstockphoto22576949No Worship Gathering Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Sunday, March 1, we will not gather for worship.  Even though I hate the idea of canceling our time together, a drive out to the church building convinced me it is the best decision.  While the main roads are sanded, the side roads, including 60th Ave. NW,  are still slick in most spots.  That combined with predictions of coming sleet confirm that the best place for all of us to be tomorrow morning is at home. Let’s all take a moment of personal worship, 10:30am tomorrow at home, and we will still be having corporate worship, only without the amazing coffee (no comments are welcome regarding my coffee)!   If you know of someone who does not regularly look at their email, give them a call and let them know to not drive out to the church tomorrow….however, do tell them to drive out next Sunday, March 8.

Be Safe,  Rick

In addition to the email, I sent out a text, posted it on the ‘closings’ feed on each local television stations, changed the outgoing phone message and finally put a sign on the church building door.  A great thing about having a small church is that it is easy to feel confident that you have contacted everyone.

For the remainder of my Saturday I lost at high stakes games of Monopoly and Risk with my kids, and called/lectured my kids that are away at college about the value of being safe when considering driving on the icy roads.

The entire day I comfortably rested in my decision to cancel church.

Four years ago I cancelled a Sunday gathering for the first time and it was anguishing.  I refused to make a call on Saturday, even though the weather made it obvious.  On Sunday morning I drove out to the church building at the edge of town to convince myself that canceling was the right decision, and then I paced the floors.  Our music team even showed up at the building before I finally decided, after hearing their harrowing driving experiences, I knew that I had to cancel our worship gathering.   Still, I worried, I worried what our church people would think, if the community would criticize, I worried that other pastors would judge, I worried it would make me look like a wimp.  Finally, my wife pointed out that the people that would still get in their cars and drive on the dangerous roads to the church building were our older folks who did not need to be on the road or sidewalks.

Still, in the years since, I have been hesitant to cancel church.  I watch the news feed to see if other churches are canceling in an attempt to justify my decision.  Still, I pace the floors and anguished over the decision.

This year was different, this year I made a quick decision, largely thanks to Ms. Barbara.

Ms. Barbara is a perfectly behaved senior adult in our church.  She endured a liver transplant and is still around over fifteen years beyond the medical community’s predictions of life expectancy.  She has diabetes, and countless other medical conditions and diagnosis.  She is known to my kids as the woman with the exploding toe; I won’t go into details except to say that the toe is not her only casualty to diabetes.  She is also the most polite and respectful person I have ever known.  She is always perfectly behaved and respectful to all.  I have a difficult time checking in on her because she always wants to know about my family when I am attempting to find out about her.  She is just that type of person.

Actually, she is perfectly behaved until she is a bit doped up in the hospital, especially days within a special hospital procedure.  She has had a lot of special procedures over the years I have been her pastor.  I love visiting Ms. Barbara within the pain medicine time period. During pain medicine time she is the person I always wish I could be.  The person that can say anything and get away with it.

On a hospital ststanwyckay years ago I told her that she was truly a ‘tough old broad’ in the example of Barbara Stanwyck.  She laughed.

On her most recent hospital stay I visited her room on Friday.  I got to her room at a moment of true chaos.  The weather was getting bad just as the meteorologists had predicted, and she had just finished her physical therapy following surgery after a very serious fall.  The nurse was on the phone with Ms. Barbara’s daughter attempting to explain the current situation while trying to get an oxygen count.  During all of this, Ms. Barbara noticed that her IV had come out and something was flowing out of her arm.  Everything was loud and busy.  However, not too busy for Ms. Barbara to yell at me as I walked into the door that I should not be out in this weather and that I need to cancel church for the coming Sunday.

“We have too many old people like me and they do not need to be out on the roads,” she yelled.

I stuck around for the chaos and as I left, after the nurse had loaded warm blankets on Ms. Barbara in an attempt to get an oxygen count, I was lectured again. Even as I was walking out the door she was still yelling that I needed to ‘cancel church.’

She was right and, as I drove away, I knew that I had to cancel our gathering on Sunday.  I had to because it was not about me, snow bridgeit was not about what others would think or how they could judge.  It was, and is, about what is best for the church, the people that are the church.  It was best that we all stayed home.

I didn’t need to pace anymore, I just had to keep my focus on what is right.

Stay Safe and Keep Focused, Rick