Psalm 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