Beloved Dust to Dust

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As a little boy, when I would misbehave (notice I said “when” and not “if”), my mother would often call me “a piece of dirt.” Well, she actually called me “a sod.”  For example: “Whenever I said an ugly word she would say, “Why you little sod!  I’ve got a good mind to wash your mouth out with a bar of soap!”

And she was not always angry or even disappointed me when she would call me “dirt.” When (again “when” and not “if”) I played practical jokes on Mom, like that time I drove home from college my freshman year for Thanksgiving and greeted Mama at the front door with a big, fat, smoking cigar in my mouth: “Why you little sod!”

But here’s the thing: Mama always graciously let me know that I was her beloved sod.

What I never thought about though was how accurate Mama really was— physiologically and theologically. In the first creation story of Genesis we read that God formed us “from the dust of the ground and breathed into [our] nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). And in the second creation story we read that we have life “until [we] return to the ground, for out of it [we] were taken; [we] are dust, and to dust, [we] shall return” (Genesis 3:19). The Psalmist also declares that when our breath is taken away we die and return to dust (Psalm 104:29).

Lent is a time of reminding all of us that we are just a bunch of little sods. It is a time of reminding us of our mortality. It is also a time of reminding us that, because of our earthiness, none of us are above reproach. The Apostle Paul asserts that because of our lowliness, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

I often hear people say, “Love the sinner and hate the sin.” I have always had problems with this, for it implies that the sinner is somehow separated from the sin. Sin is understood as specific action that can be avoided instead of an integral part of our earthly DNA.

The Jewish people once believed that sin could be avoided if 613 laws were obeyed. Not only is that a formidable task for any human, I believe Jesus would say that even if one obeyed all 613 laws, they would not be any less of a sinner than the one who broke every one.

I believe this is why Jesus said that those who have lust in their heart are just as sinful as those who commit adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). This is also why the Bible-believing, religious people of Jesus’ day dropped their stones before the woman “caught in the act of adultery” when Jesus said, “Let those without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

The good news is, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, though our sin was serious, in Christ, “grace abounded.” We could not do right by God, so God, through the love revealed in Christ, did right by us.

And one day, when we our lives come to an end and our bodies return to this earth as dust, we have the hope in Christ that we are God’s beloved dust, and God’s grace will continue to abound.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent: the day Christians mark themselves with ashes, or dust, reminding ourselves of our mortality and our sinfulness. We remember that we are dust, but we are God’s beloved dust. We are sods, but we are God’s beloved sods.

Ash Wednesday is important, for it is only until we understand that we are all sods—imperfect, limited sinners saved by grace—that we can begin to live as God has created us to live, by loving others as God loves us: with abundant mercy and boundless grace; forgiving, accepting and including others as God forgives, accepts and includes us.

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The First Mile

mile 2

Matthew 5:38-48 NRSV

These passages that are part of the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most difficult passages to preach in the entire Bible. They are so counter-cultural, so offensive to the common-sense of our American family-value system, that we would just rather ignore them.

But these are the words of Jesus, and they are some of his very first words. So, if we want to call ourselves Christian, we can’t ignore them.

So, to avoid offending too many people, we preachers use a little trickery, a little flimflam, a little smoke and mirrors. We pull this off by talking less about what the passages are saying, and more about what they are not saying. It’s a technique that we preachers often employ to basically ignore what they are actually saying.

For example:

“But if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other also.”

Now, this is not saying that should be pushovers.

“Someone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you!”

This is not saying that we should help those who are perfectly capable of helping themselves.

“Love your enemies.”

Now this is not saying we have to like them!

See how that is done? Preachers get by with this all the time, and their congregations let them, because they are only preaching what we all wished the Sermon on the Mount actually said.

And then, to put the finishing touch on this chicanery, we quickly skip to the end of the passage and point out the last verse: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It is then we say: “You see. None of us can be perfect. Therefore, Jesus really does not expect us to do any of these things. He is just laying out some high ideals—ideals that we can never live up to.”

That’s when we preachers leave the Sermon on the Mount and go off on a tangent about grace and the need to accept Christ as our personal savior because none of us are perfect, and we all fall short of the glory of God.

Now, I believe in grace. I need grace. I am by no means close to being perfect, so grace is my friend. Grace is my hope. Grace is amazing. But here’s the problem with using grace as an excuse to not act on the offensive counter-cultural commands of the Sermon on the Mount, and it is a huge problem— At the end of the sermon, Jesus (as if he knows we will try to use grace as some get-out-of-doing-what-I-say card) says:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!

So, what are we to do with these passages? “Do not resist the evil doer?” Really? Someone slaps us in the face, Jesus really wants us to turn and give them the other cheek to slap? And are we really supposed to give people the very shirts off our backs? Give to everyone who begs of us? Go the second mile? Really?

No, this just can’t be. For it’s directly opposed to almost every value we possess.

We read these words of Jesus, and we have a problem. Let’s face it. We have a big problem.

Now, are you ready for some good news?

Well, you are going to have to wait, because the bad news is still coming.

The truth is: these very difficult and problematic words of Jesus expose an even bigger problem for some of us. I know it does for me. Think about it…

When was the last time that you have taken a stand against an evil, an injustice, and because of that stand, because you stood up and spoke out, the supporters of that evil not only sent you a nasty email, defriended you on facebook, personally confronted you, but physically attacked you by slapping you in the face?

What I am asking is: when was the last time that you even had an opportunity to turn the other cheek?

When was the last time someone who was very cold approached you and knew you well enough to ask you to give them the very coat that you were wearing? —Ask you to to sacrifice warmth so they could be warm? When was the last time that you even had the opportunity to offer someone in need the shirt off your back?

When was the last time that someone with limited mobility or perhaps a disability, whether that disability be physical, mental or spiritual, asked you to walk just one mile on their behalf? When was the last time that you even had the opportunity to go an extra mile? For mile two is impossible without mile one.

When was the last time that someone in great need came to you and begged for you to help them? I am not talking about the person you see holding a sign at an intersection, “Help. Homeless Vet.”  I am talking about someone whose name you knew, someone who knew your name, who felt like they could trust you, coming to you personally, swallowing their pride, and asking you for help?

When was the last time that you even made an enemy? After all, isn’t confrontation something we all like to avoid? Isn’t it better, especially in this day and time to mind our own business, keep our thoughts to ourselves?

Our problem is not that we are unwilling to turn the other cheek. Our problem is that we are so private, so unconcerned about anyone other than ourselves, that we never cause any confrontations.

Our problem is not that we are unwilling to give someone the shirt off our back. Our problem is that we are never around anyone who needs our coat.

Our problem is not that we are unwilling to go the second mile. Our problem is that we lack the empathy to put ourselves in the shoes of another and go one mile.

Our problem is not that we are unwilling to give to needy who personally approach us and beg of us. Our problem is that we do not personally know anyone in need.

Our problem is not that we are unwilling to love our enemies. Our problem is that most of us have never created any. We are so self-absorbed, so afraid of any controversy that might cause us a little pain, we simply never put ourselves out there to make any enemies.

When others are slandering another in our presence, we seldom, if ever, come to the other’s defense. If someone is voicing a position which is obviously against our faith in the Christ who taught us to love all people as we love ourselves, we prefer to keep our mouths shut to avoid any drama.

And if we ever become bold enough to speak out, to take up for another or some gospel principle, if we know we have offended another, we usually go out of our way to always avoid that other.

And because we stay away from them, because we keep our enemies at such a safe distance, we are simply nowhere close enough to them to even think about loving them.

You’ve heard the wisdom of keeping you friends close and you enemies closer.

Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite preachers, tells us why:

You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.

Through the Sermon on the Mount I believe Jesus is urging us to come close enough to others that we will truly be able to see them as children of God, as brothers and sisters. There is no “us” and “them.” There is only “us.” The sun shines, and the rains fall the same on all of us.

Now, here is the good news:

The good news is: You are here! You have put yourself out there. You are not so self-absorbed and selfish that you stayed home this morning. Your self-concern has not crowded out your moral concern.

The good news is that before you go the second mile, you have to go the first mile, and because you are here, in this place, in this community, listening to the difficult words of Jesus, you are well on your way to going that first mile!

The good news is: You are here, and together, as a church, we are going to go places where we will encounter people who are in such need that they may ask for our coats. And we will have opportunities to sacrificially offer them our shirts.

We will get to know people who are so desperate that they may beg of us. And we will have opportunities to selflessly give.

Together, we will speak up, speak out, and stand firm for the gospel of Jesus Christ, for prophetic justice, for the unconditional love of all people. And sadly, because of this, we will make some enemies. We are apt to stir up so much anger in some people that they will not only defriend us on Facebook, send us ugly emails, but they may want to slap us in the face!  But together, because it is impossible to do it alone, together, as part of the household of God, we will not ignore them. We will pray for them. We will learn to love them.

And no we are not perfect, far from it. But we are at least on our way to becoming like the wise who built a house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.

Keeping the Way of the Young Pure

support-process-sc370x200-t1360346453-2Psalm 119:1-9 NRSV

He was a poor, pitiful thing. His mother was in labor for nearly a week before he was finally born. His head, so severely malformed from the length of the labor, worried his parents who took him to several specialists for testing.

When he was five years old, public schools had just integrated. And because his parents thought he might have some special needs, they felt it was best for him to attend a small, private kindergarten. His young teachers didn’t seem to be too alarmed that he was the only one in class who could not speak any intelligible words, telling his parents that they just had to learn a new vocabulary to communicate with him.

“Duh-ee” meant he was “thirsty.” “Uh-ee” met he was “hungry.” And “wuh-ee,” meant he was “sleepy.”

Although his parents considered holding him back for another year of kindergarten, they reluctantly enrolled him in a public school the next year. They also worried about the “colored people” who they believed were still “stirring things up” three years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

His first grade teachers, Mrs. Banks and Mrs. Tomlin, immediately noticed his developmental delay and called a meeting with his parents, the school nurse, and a speech therapist.

The nurse said that it was obvious that the little boy was literally “tongue-tied.”  He was born with extra tissue under his tongue that had attached his tongue to the bottom of his mouth limiting movement. The little fella would need surgery.

Immediately following the procedure, his teachers called his parents to check on him. For you see, teaching was not just their job. It was their passion.

The little boy soon started speech therapy that was fully funded through the school, that he would continue until junior high.

He missed several hours of class a week for speech therapy, but each of his teachers—Mrs. Green in the second grade, Mrs. Price in the third, Mr. Riggs in the fourth, Mrs. Jones in the fifth, and Mrs. Welch in the sixth—would spend extra time with him to make sure he never lagged behind.

And because of their compassionate determination, although he could not speak one intelligible word when he entered the first grade and took speech therapy until the seventh grade, he never failed a grade. In fact, he would graduate from high school as one of the youngest students in his class.

By the time he entered high school, two teachers in particular noticed that years of struggling to speak had left him with a very low self-esteem. Mr. Godfrey, a P.E. teacher and coach, and Mr. Casey, a math teacher, coach, and Scout leader, donated even more of their time offering a basketball camp. They asked the boy to attend.

He loved it! As his skills improved, so did his confidence.

Every camper was encouraged to try out for the JV squad, which the boy did. He made the first but, but failed to make the final cut. A few days later, Mrs. Snowden, his history teacher, who also donated her time after school directing school plays and musicals, asked to speak with him after class.

It was if she noticed that he did not make the basketball team, when she asked him: “Have you ever considered joining the drama club?”

“The shy little boy shook his head and said, “No, but I will.”

While he was in tenth grade, he took Mrs. Snowden’s drama class where he was asked to read various lines of a play. Not only did he have trouble reading with any expression, he constantly struggled to pronounce certain words. Yet, Mrs. Snowden persisted.

In the eleventh-grade, she asked him to audition for a play. And to his surprise, she cast him in one of the lead roles of a western comedy entitled, Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch. His character was Bill Filbert, a very funny, bumbling, fumbling character that stumbled and stuttered his words. I suppose she thought that if he mispronounced anything on stage, the audience will just assume he was “in character.”

Well, something happened to him when he stepped onto that stage for the first time as Bill Filbert. After he recited his first comedic line and heard the audience respond with a roar of laughter, this light suddenly came on. A strange yet euphoric confidence flooded every part of his being, and the young man stole the show; at least that’s how he felt when he returned to school the next day, when all of his teachers sought him out and praised him:

Mr. Corbett, Mrs. Corbett, Mr. Short, Mr. Lewellan, Mrs. Tice, Mr. Newbern, Mrs. Newbern, Mrs. Casey, Mr. Griffiths, Mr. Gregory, Mrs. Acker, Mr. Cowan, Mrs. Cowan, Mr. Williams and many more.

That weekend, he saw teachers from Junior High: Mr. Bohannon, Mrs. Lindsay, Mr. Templeton, and Mrs. Wellons. Each congratulated him on his fine performance.

And you know rest of the story.

The little boy who couldn’t articulate a single word in the first grade now makes his living speaking before a congregation in Enid, Oklahoma. And although he has this almost foreign, southern accent, and still mispronounces a word every now and again, even names of some of the congregants, a few folks keep showing up Sunday after Sunday to listen to speak.

All because public school teachers lived out Psalm 119:9, by guarding my life, keeping my way pure, in other words: clearing the way, offering me an equal opportunity to succeed.

With 176 verses, Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the entire Bible. It uses repetition and the Hebrew Alphabet, two tried and true teaching methods, to teach an important lesson about the importance of “walking in the law of the Lord.”

And what is the law of the Lord?

Well, because we are Christian, we look to Jesus for that answer.

Jesus, who was often called “Teacher,” taught that the entire law of God can be summed up in two laws: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” The Good Teacher, and the prophets before him, also taught that at the heart of it was caring for our most vulnerable neighbors: the least, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and of course, children.

You want to know how a shy, nearly non-verbal child, can grow up to make a living as a public speaker?

Because someone guarded his life, kept his way pure, according to what is at the heart of law of God.

And here’s another question: If at the heart of the law of God is guarding the way of the our most vulnerable neighbors, which includes our young, why are our school teachers among the least paid professionals in our state?

This week this guy told the Super Bowl would make a great sermon illustration.

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said: “Man, I’m talking about Tom Brady! He never gave up! He kept persisting, kept fighting until victory was at hand.”

I replied: “If I am going to talk about the Super Bowl, I am think I am going to ask why our society values professional athletes and the likes of Lady Ga Ga more than we value teachers?

“Something is wrong when entertainers are the highest paid professionals and educators are the lowest paid. Are those who entertain us really worth more to us than those who care for the most vulnerable among us?”

And why do so many seem to be perfectly okay with taking money away from schools who serve every child of every race, creed, color, and class to fund schools that are more segregated and religiously isolated?

Is it possible, that as a whole, we’ve decided to ignore the Word of God. Or, as I suggested last week, we’ve decided to completely replace it with a sweeter version?

The way we value our public school teachers, many who go way beyond what is expected to help give a child a chance, is sin, plain and simple. It is against the very heart of the law of God.

A re-writing of our scripture lesson that might be most appropriate for us today might go like this:

Cursed are those who are guilty for failing to walk in the law of the Lord.

God, you have commanded that your laws be kept diligently, but we have chosen to value entertainers over educators, greed over the gospel, sin over your statutes, and self-interest over equal opportunity.

We are put to shame. Our eyes are blind to your commandments.

Discounting your righteous ordinances, O Lord, we curse you with our injustice.

So what can we expect?

But to curse the way, the future, of our young,

By ignoring them against your word.

What must we do as a church to turn this around, to guard and to make the way pure for our young?

We can continue to support our Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and organizations like Youth and Family Services. We can continue to collect school supplies in August and coats in December. But we can also do more.

Shannon, John and I are a part of a group called Pastors for Oklahoma Kids who suggest the following:

We must recognize that education improvement and reform is necessary…in order to properly fund and resource our teachers, schools, and students. But we should reject the false notion that schools are “failing” or not caring for our students. We [must] urge a halt to the demonization of public schools and to anti-public school rhetoric.

We [must understand] free public education is a moral good [it is at the heart of the law of God], that is vital to [Oklahoma’s] well being and requires adequate investment to ensure thriving communities.

We [must] believe public school children are God’s children who deserve the nurture of a good society, the prospect for a good education and the equal opportunity for a good life.

[As a congregation committed to the principle of the separation of church and state, we must work to] to keep public schools free from coercive pressure to promote any sectarian faith.

We must not allow free public education…[to become] a marketplace of financial gain for the few… [And we must] stand to end to this profiteering of Oklahoma’s most vulnerable.

We [must] resolve to be committed to a just society…to ensure that every child has an opportunity for a good education and that public schools have the resources necessary to provide such an opportunity, achieving the highest standards possible.

[We must] pray for public schools;

[We must] show our support for public schools through worship services that affirm all school-related personnel;

[At the same time we must] advocate for a high wall of separation between church and state that is critical to good public education…

[We must] challenge [all voices, but especially those] religious voices who demonize public education.

And finally, we must spread the word that standing up for our most vulnerable citizens is at the very heart of the supreme law of God, and failing to do so is sin, pure and simple.

And maybe that guy had a point regarding the Super Bowl:

“We need to be like Tom Brady and never give up. We need to keep persisting, keep fighting, until victory is at hand.”


For more information please go to: Pastors for Oklahoma Kids

Being an Artist with One’s Life: Remembering R. Arlen “Whitey” White

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Arlen, or “Whitey,” was a gifted artist. After submitting several paintings, he was immediately accepted into the Art School at Phillips University. After school, he worked for Ray Sears, and later, established his own painting business. Whitey’s special gift, his meticulous attentiveness to detail, the pride that he took in his work, and his kindness and professionalism soon became renowned throughout the area, and he was given the distinct pleasure of painting some of Enid’s most beautiful homes, offices and businesses.

Whitey loved doing new and innovative things with paint. He could mix and match colors brilliantly with the specific purpose of creating something beautiful, or more specifically, taking something and making it more beautiful, completely transforming it.

Many of us here today are the recipients of Whitey’s gift, or we have at least have seen his artistry.

But today, as we thank God for his life, I would like for us to consider his artistic achievement that I believe is much more important than his painting, for it seems clear to me that Arlen used much more than the stroke of a brush to transform this world. Whitey was an artist with his life.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker, author of A Matter of Life and Death suggests being an artist with one’s life means that “you take the material available to you—days and years, relationships, opportunities—and you make something out of them, something with its own integrity and truth, a [beautiful] creation that others can appreciate and be enriched by…the artist, working on the material of his life, thus demonstrates a measure of hope, a deep confidence that this beautiful world can become more beautiful still.”

The good news that we celebrate today is that Whitey was much more than a gifted artist with a brush and some paint. Whitey was a magnificent artist with his life. Whitey used the gifts that God had given him to do his part in transforming the world.

After God, the Supreme Artist, fashioned the good masterpiece called the earth, the Bible teaches us that God formed male and female in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them.

I believe that means the vocation of every man and woman is to create, to fashion, to form, and transform, to be an artist with our very lives, using the resources that have been given to us by the Artisan of the Universe to make this world even more beautiful.

This, I believe this is the way and the truth and the life: the holy purpose for every person.

And as a Christian, I believe, as Whitey believed, that the way, the truth, and the life, our holy purpose can be found through following Jesus.

Not by merely going to church every Sunday worshipping Jesus, not by attending weekly Bible Study studying Jesus, but by following Jesus, by doing the things that he did, by going to the places that Jesus went.

And Jesus was, himself, a painter.

What? You thought he was just a carpenter? Nope. Jesus was a painter.

In fact, Jesus began his very first sermon by painting. With the beautiful words that we call “the Beatitudes,” Jesus painted a portrait of how this world should be completely transformed, making his Father’s creation even more beautiful.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This is how I want you to use your gifts to transform the world, says Jesus: bless those, help those, favor those, love those, who are not only poor financially, but poor spiritually, those who scrapping the bottom of the barrel but are also at the end of their rope, those whose very souls are bankrupt due to the loss of a job, or bad decisions made, or by the stigmatized disease of addiction.

Because Whitey owned his own business, he had the resources available to him to help those who found themselves in desperate need of a job. Because he was a follower of Christ, Whitey blessed so many in this community, perhaps some of you who are here today, who came to him when you were completely broke and broken; or more likely, he came to you. He came to you, not judging you, but showing you a portrait of better, transformed future. Whitey came came to showing you the very kingdom of God.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

         Velma, I know this is a very difficult day for you, but as I told you on Wednesday, the tears that you shed only mean that you are grieving the loss of a beautiful gift to you from God, the gift of someone who was lovingly devoted to you for 67 years. And the only way not to mourn today is to have never received that gift.

So, every time you feel a tear roll down your face, you can thank God for those tears. You can thank God for your grief. With your family, thank God for the gift of God that was your beautiful marriage. And through your gratitude, I believe you and all who are mourning this day will receive comfort.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Jesus says, paint a portrait of the world where the meekest among us always know that they are loved they have a place in this world.

Whitey painted this portrait with his love and deeds to children, his children certainly, but also other children as he enjoyed coaching little league football and supporting high school athletics, hardly ever missing a Plainsman football game.

His heart broke when his only son Rick, who he was always so proud of, passed away. Toni, you were “daddy’s girl.” and you will always cherish the special bond you shared and the many unforgettable memories from your childhood: all of those cross country vacations camping in the Redwood Forest and in our many of our great national parks.

And Whitey painted a portrait where the meek are always blessed as he adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, doing whatever he could do to make every day special, like he did every Christmas playing Santa and artistically wrapping the most beautiful gifts.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.

Whitey painted a portrait of a world where the poor and the poor in spirit are helped, those who mourn are comforted and the meek are blessed, but he also painted a portrait of a world that encouraged personal responsibility.

Arlen’s incredible work ethic grew out of the depression era. He was only nine or ten years-old when he worked riding a bicycle on a paper route to help support his family.

Whitey painted a beautiful portrait of the blessings that come from thirsting to be trustworthy and by hungering to be dependable. And because of this portrait, his life was full. And the lives of those who knew him have been filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Whitey’s portrait of dependability and trustworthiness not only filled the lives of his friends and family, and many customers, it also touched the lives of complete strangers, because in every one of Whitey’s life portraits, the colors of mercy were always present.

One day, while driving to Bass Construction Company, Whitey saw the car in the front of him suddenly swerve, run up on the curb, stopping in some bushes. Whitey drove up beside the car and noticed a man, slumped over. Although he was no EMT and had no CPR training, Whitey jumped out of his car and into in the passenger seat of that man’s car and began administering CPR, until Bob Berry from Bass ran over to help get the man who was having a massive heart attack to the hospital.

Later, the Enid police department presented Whitey with an award for saving that man’s life.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

God, the Supreme Artisan created Arlen, as he created each of us, that we may creatively make this world a better place.

Arlen did this by answering the call to follow Jesus. Arlen was not perfect. No one is. But his motives were pure. With genuine kindness with, purity of heart, Whitey used his gifts to follow the Christ to the best of his ability. The portrait of his life is the example for all of us, each one of us.

Whitey would want me to extend an invitation to each of you here to speak with me anytime after this service about what it means to follow Jesus in this life, to use the gifts that we have been given by God to transform this world with pure colors of mercy, grace and love, and to have the hope that when our painting is completed here, we will see God.

As, now, through the power of resurrection, the Master Artisan beckons Whitey on to a new, transformed life where I believe God and Whitey will continue painting together.

In the very presence of God, I believe he is even more creative than ever before.

There Bob will discover, much to his delight, that the faithful life he lived on this earth was but the primer. It was just the first coat.

As Hoffacker wrote about an artist who was faithful until death: “Now [God’s] gift to him is all the color he needs to make his new life brilliant with praise.”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

And because of this beautiful portrait, a portrait of a transformed Whitey painting colors of praise in the very presence of God, as God’s beloved children, we can have some peace today, a peace that is even beyond our understanding.

And having received that peace today, may each of us, go out from this place, and, like the famous Sherwin Williams’ logo, do what Whitey did, “cover” this world with peace, until that day comes when we are all reunited with him as God’s beloved children. Amen

Alternative Gospel

new-coke

Isaiah 58 NRSV

It’s good times in Atlanta, Georgia today. But times have not always been good. I want to begin this morning with a story from some of the darkest days of what is perhaps Atlanta’s most famous corporation.

Some of you remember when the Coca-Cola Company made the unfortunate decision to change the formula of its flagship soft drink introducing “New Coke” back in 1985.

What prompted the change in formula were these “blind taste tests” that revealed consumers preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi over Coke.

Coke sales were down, so these geniuses went to work and “New Coke” was born to completely replace the original Coke.

It wasn’t long, though, before the public rose up and demanded to bring back the original formula, or what became known as Classic Coke.

And even Bill Cosby (who still had his clout in 1985) and a cartoon named Max Headroom could not prevent one of the largest marketing failures in world history.

I am not sure when this exact thing happened to the original Word of God that was fully revealed by our Lord and announced by the prophets before him, but it happened. It’s like someone, or some group did some sort of blind taste test that revealed that people preferred a faith that had a much sweeter taste. Perhaps it happened in the very beginning, when Adam and Eve chose the sweetness of that forbidden fruit, choosing to live in the creation of their terms, instead of on God’s terms.

So these geniuses went to work, and this brand new faith was born to completely replace the original faith—to make it sweeter, more palatable, more drinkable.

However, unlike New Coke, the general public did not rise up and demand to bring back the original formula, or what we might call “classic faith.” In fact, most seem to prefer the re-imagined, re-engineered, and re-manufactured faith.

So, one might argue that the reformulation of this “new” gospel has been the largest marketing success in world history. It has been so successful in North America that the majority of folks believe that this new sweeter gospel is actually the “classic gospel.”

For example, a recent survey by Bill McKibben reveals that three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” However, that statement is from Benjamin Franklin, a Deist, which means he did not even believe God was working in the world. It is not from the Bible. “God helps those who help themselves” is in fact one of the most unbiblical ideas. It is Jesus who made the dramatic counter-assertion: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But, we prefer Ben Franklin don’t we? Easier to swallow. Taste sweeter. And it doesn’t sound so foolish.

But the Apostle Paul warned us that the wisdom of God is understood as “foolishness” to the world.

But we in the world don’t like to be foolish, do we? So we’ve embraced this new, sweeter, less foolish formula.

We’ve replaced “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” with: “Do unto others as they do unto you.”

We’ve replaced “Turn the other cheek” with: “When somebody hits you, you hit back harder.”

“Love your enemies” has become: “Love the deserving.”

The simple commands to “feed the hungry” and “clothe the naked” have become the more qualified, conditional, yet sweeter commands to: “feed and clothe those who will pray with you, or at least attend a Bible Study or a worship service with you. Feed and clothe others, but give preferential treatment to those who share your faith.”

We’ve replaced “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” with “We must look out for number one.”

“Love keeps no account of wrongdoing” has been replaced with “love the sinner but hate the sin” (and of course everyone knows to hate the sin we just have to keep account of that sin).

“For whosoever welcomes little children welcomes me” has been replaced by “children should be seen and not heard, especially in a worship service.”

“Welcome the stranger” has been replaced with “It’s always best to err on the side of safety.”

We’ve replaced “In Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek” with “Oh, there is most definitely ‘us’ and ‘them’” (and there’s way too many of them).

There is “neither slave nor free” has be replaced with “the free should have the religious liberty to treat others as second-class.”

There is “no longer Male nor Female” and other verses that elevate women like “Wives and husbands should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” has been replaced with “Somebody needs to man up and wear the pants in the family.”

Ashamed of the gospel, we’ve replaced it with something sweeter to the taste, something more popular to the culture, more drinkable to the majority, and less foolish to our friends and family.

And we wonder why the world grows ever darker.

What we need today is for someone to rise up and demand to bring back the original formula, the original faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses and Prophets, the classic, old-time religion of Jesus and the Apostles. This country needs someone to stand up for the the true, indisputable, irrefutable Word of God.

We need someone like Isaiah, the prophet Jesus quoted the most, to stand up and shout out and hold nothing back! We need someone to lift up their voice like a trumpet and announce to the people their rebellion. We need for someone to call it out for the sin that it is. We need someone to tell the God’s honest truth: “The church has been conned. The people have been played. The clergy duped. They have been seduced into accepting an alternative faith, a fake-news that is nothing like the original good news.”

Hear again these words from Isaiah (I am reading from the contemporary Message translation):

They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the the sweeter gospel, it’s more-pleasing church. But when did Jesus ever say, “Worship me, study me?”

He never said that. That’s Alternative Jesus. That’s fake-news Jesus. True Jesus, Original Jesus, Classic Jesus never said, “study me or worship me.” No, he said something much more radical. He said, “follow me.” And not only “follow me,” but “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”

Isaiah continues:

To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring. They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and love having me on their side.

We certainly do, don’t we? We love saying: “one nation under God.” We love singing: “God bless America.” And we love having: “In God We Trust” on our money and the Ten Commandments in our courts.

Isaiah keeps preaching:

But they also complain…

Oh boy, do we complain! We whine in the darkness. We blame, and we scapegoat. It’s us verses them.

So rise up and preach it Isaiah. Stand up! Shout out! Hold nothing back!

Why do we fast and you don’t look our way? Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?

Why is the nation so divided? Why is the church struggling to survive? Why is the world so dark?

Well, here’s why [says the Lord]: The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.

In other words, your worship is more concerned with bringing in money than bringing in the lost. Or as Jesus said, “the house of prayer has become a den of thieves.”

You drive your employees much too hard. [You are against fair wages.]

You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist.

You worship, you attend Sunday School, you might even teach Sunday School, but you gossip, and you tear others down. You go to church, but you say things and do things that do not build up the church.

So the kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground.

Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility?

To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black?

Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like?

This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.

What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad…

With absolutely no strings attached, especially religious strings!

But God, this doesn’t have a sweet taste at all. This is just foolish. We prefer something easier to drink, another formula, a new faith. Might we just remember, study the classic faith? Read about the original covenant? Must we actually do it?

Yet, when we look around at our world, all is so very dark. Everything seems to be headed in the wrong direction. The road before us is so uncertain. Something must change.

Then, don’t just remember this or study this, says the Lord.

Do this, [do this and the good news is:] the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

Do you really want to bring light to the darkness? Then do this:

Get rid of unfair practices… [Get rid of this new gospel created by selfish, sinful minds that send the poor away empty.]

Quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins. Be generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out.

And then your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—firm muscles, strong bones.

You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past.

You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.

The answer to the cries of this world is right here. It is the original covenant. It is the classic faith. It is the true gospel. It is the irrefutable, indisputable Word of God. And we need to rise up and demand to bring it back.

Sewing Love: Remembering Bernice Crandall

bernice-crandall

As a pastor, I have learned along the way that the only words that are truly appropriate for a Christian Eulogy are words that speak to the ways the person whose life is being remembered actually mirrored or imaged God and the good news of the gospel.

Because in the end, when it is all said and done, it really doesn’t matter how much money we made, nor how many businesses we created, nor how many buildings we built.

The only thing that truly matters is that we somehow fulfilled our human vocation, our holy purpose on this earth, that I believe is revealed in the very first chapter of our Bible: “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them” (Genesis 1:27).

In the end, what truly matters is how we as human beings imaged God, mirrored God, thus proclaiming to the world with our lives who our God is, how our God acts, and what our God desires.

When Shannon and I visited with Bernice this past Saturday, the day before she died, her children handed me a tiny slip of paper with words that were read at Bernice and Eugene’s wedding ceremony in 1942 in Fullerton California.

I’ll be loving you, always;

With a love that’s true, always.

When the things you’ve planned,

Need a helping hand,

I will understand, always.

Days may not be fair, always;

That’s when I’ll be there, always.

Not for just an hour,

Not for just a day,

Not for just a year,

But, always.

As her family lovingly gathered around her bedside that day, I had the wonderful opportunity to read those words to Bernice once more and to tell her that as she and Eugene were always there for one another and for their children, God, would always be there for her.

In fact, I said that the Bible often likens the relationship that God has with us to the relationship of a married couple. God loves us with the same personal, intimate, covenantal love that is expressed in the sacred vows of marriage.

And this love is not a mere sentiment. It is more than a feeling. It’s greater than an emotion. Think about it, no where in a marriage ceremony does the minister ever ask the question, “Are you in love with one another?” But always, “Will you love one another?” This love is a commitment, a dedication, a promise, a special covenant to always be there for one another, always, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, not just for an hour, not just for a day, not just for a year, but always.

This is how Bernice’s children will always remember their mother. They will forever be grateful that she was always there for them, for the way that she was always loving them.

When I asked Lavona and Jana to give me an example of how Bernice was always there for them, the first thing that came to their mind is how Bernice, with her own hands and a sewing kit, would make dresses and clothes for them to wear to school and to church.

I think it is a shame that this art of sewing clothes for children is slowly dying out with Bernice’s generation. Because this art, this wonderful act of love, is the very first way that our God demonstrated that for better or worse, God would always be there for God’s children.

Again, in the very first chapters of our Bible, we read that when Adam and Eve heard God walking through the garden at the time of the evening breeze, they hid themselves in the trees, for they realized that they were unclothed before God. All of their sins were exposed. They were ashamed of what they had done, embarrassed of who they had become.

But the good news is, good news that we oftentimes miss when we read this story, although Adam and Eve ate the fruit that was forbidden, although they decided to live in God’ s creation on their terms instead of on God’s terms, although they were naked, all of their sins laid bare, the Lord God, with God’s own hands makes garments of skin for the couple and clothed them.

And of course, like Bernice, God was clothing them with something more than garments. God was clothing them with love. God was covering them with grace. God was clothing them with the promise that although they would have to leave the garden of Eden as the consequence for their sins, God would never leave them. God was clothing them with the dedication that although the days may not be fair always, God would be there for them, always.

And this is the reason that we are able to celebrate today with so much hope, for better or worse, even in a chapel of an old cemetery. This is the reason that even a grieving family who has suddenly lost two sisters can be grateful.

The good news that that even when we have to leave this earth, God is still there for us. God will never leave us nor forsake us.

As the Apostle Paul boldly proclaimed, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And because of this divine truth, this holy truth that Bernice taught us with her life, a chapel in the middle of an old cemetery in Enid, Oklahoma can suddenly begin to feel like a wedding chapel in Fullerton California, full of hope, love and promise.

For through remembering Bernice’s steadfast love and abiding presence, through celebrating the wonderful way that she fulfilled her human vocation my imaging her creator, we are reminded that God will be there always, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and the good news is, that with God, not even death will depart us.

No More Sea: Remembering Barbara Campbell

barabara-campbell

There’s a famous list in the book of Revelation of things that we will not find in heaven. John says that when we all get to heaven there will be no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, and no more pain. And that is good news of us who are grieving today.

However, there is one more thing on John’s famous list that may be even better news. The very first thing which is on John’s famous list of the things we will not find in heaven is the sea. John says, “and the sea was no more.” Sounds rather odd doesn’t it? For even most of us who live in land-locked Oklahoma have a strong affinity for the sea.

To understand why John includes the sea on this famous list, we need to understand a little something about the book of Revelation. Revelation is a letter of hope written to the church in Ephesus while John was imprisoned on the island of Patmos for preaching the Gospel. At this time, the Christian Church in Ephesus was being persecuted by the Roman government. And John loved the people in Ephesus very much and wanted to be with them and help them through their persecution. But he was on an island, and the sea was the great barrier which separated him from the people he loved.

And John says that one day there is going to be no more sea. That means one day there will be no more of anything that will separate us from the people we love.

I believe these words should be especially hopeful for us today. For we live in a world where there are many seas that separate us from our loved ones.

For many of us the sea is distance, like the fourteen years that Kristin lived apart from her family in Texas. Like with John on that island, sometimes the seas that separate us from our loved ones are miles.

However, one of the greatest seas that some of us experience on this earth is what Kristin has called “a devil of a disease.” Alzheimer’s is a great canyon, a wide gulf, that separates us from the people we love, slowly, painfully, certainly.

Part of Kristin’s grief today is her realization that her husband Don and her son Henry never had the opportunity to know Barbara at her best.

However, she is very grateful that she moved back to Enid with them in 2012, when they noticed her health failing. Kristin, I believe, as I am certain you believe, that this opportunity to move back was truly a gift from God to you and to Barbara.

During this time, Henry was Barbara’s light and joy. Although she could barely get around during this past year, she never missed one of his soccer games. Kristin says, that while on occasion, Barbara might have forgotten who she and Stan were, she never forgot Henry. She would knit him blankets, buy him books, and in nearly every photo that Kristin has of the two them, she is beaming!

While John was separated by the sea from the people he loved in Ephesus, John sent them the Book of Revelation to let them know that God was for them, not against them; God was with them, not away from them. For Barbara, I believe Henry was revelation. Henry was light. Henry was a message from heaven letting Barbara know that, in spite of her deep sea of sickness, she was loved by God.

I believe this teaches all of us this important lesson: In spite of the many seas that separate us from our loved ones, we will never be separated by God.

And this is especially hopeful for us today as we are painfully reminded, that for all of us, the greatest sea we experience on this earth is death.

The good news is: Because we can not be separated by the love of God, John says, one day, there will be no more sea. Some day, some how, some way, there is going to be no more of anything that will ever separate us from the ones we love. Although distance, disease and now death have separated us from Barbara, John tells us that it is only for season. It is not forever.

John says that one day there is going to be nothing which will separate us from Barbara’s love that she had for so many, especially as a wife, mother and grandmother.

One day, there will be nothing more to separate us from the twinkle that was always in Barbara’s eyes. There will be nothing to separate us from the love and appreciation that Barbara had for the gift of life; from the Barbara who loved movies, music, the theater and the arts; from the Barbara who loved shopping and spending time with her daughter in New York City; from the Barbara who loved listening to her ham Stan sing and perform; from the Barbara who dancing with her husband. He might have owned the stage, but she owned the dance floor!

One day, John says there will be nothing to separate us from the Barbara who loved going on what was always longer-than-expected hiking trips with the family, and who loved graciously knitting baby blankets for unwed mothers.

Stan says that it was this act of grace, of knitting blankets for these mothers, that perhaps most touches him about Barbara.

Perhaps it is because that when these mothers-to-be perhaps felt judged and separated by family, even by people in the church, Barbara’s blankets were like a revelation, a light, a sign to these mothers that no matter how alone and separated by others they may feel, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

And it is because of this love that John says that one day there is going to be no more sea.

However, until that day comes, we are forced to live with the reality that we live in a world of seas.  A world where there is much that comes between us and those whom we love. I believe it is in these days that we need to cling to the hope that was knitted in each of those baby blankets, that although there is much on this earth that separates us from one another, there is nothing on this earth or in all of creation that can or every will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

I experienced this most fully nearly every time I visited Barbara at Garland Road during these last difficult weeks of her life. I hardly ever walked into her room and found her alone. Stan was always there, faithfully, attentively, lovingly. Always doing whatever he could do to comfort her, to let her know that she was loved and she was not alone.

Kristin calls her parents her role models, an example of how marriage should be. Always there for each other, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death.

When we consider the special relationship that Stan and Barbara shared, I believe we can become especially hopeful we consider that the Hebrew Bible often describes Israel as the bride of God and John in his book of Revelation, describes the people of faith “as a bride adorned for her husband.” God loves us with the same faithful love that Barbara and Stan shared with each other.

As Stan was always there for Barbara, doing all that he could do to let her know she was loved, God will do the same for us. God will do all God can do to remind us everyday through countless revelations, numerous signs, that there is truly nothing in heaven and or on earth that can separate us from the love of God.

We will experience this through the love of our family, and through all of the wonderful memories of this sweet woman. These memories are not only Barbara’s gift to, but I believe they are God’s gift to us.

God will stay with us through God’s holy church and through God’s Holy Spirit. God will stay with us and sustain us until that day comes when we see Barbara again, completely, fully, with no seas of separation between us.

One of Barbara’s favorite writers was Kahlil Gibran. I want to close this service with these beautiful words on death:

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;

And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.

Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.

Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?

Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.