Open the Gate

This is the talk I gave for tonight’s worship service:

Gracious and Loving Lord, as we come before you today help us focus our minds and hearts upon worshipping you. Be with me, Lord, as I speak so that my words are God-inspired. Be with each of us as we listen so that we hear your message and incorporate it into our daily lives. Create us, Father, as both receivers and transponders, so that your word does not merely reach us, but filters through us to others. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Matthew 28:16-20 — Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. [NIV]

[Monologue, directed toward heaven, given by Amoeba from the midst of the congregation.]

Everything? Everything?!? Are you lolo? Some days I get up in the morning, I can’t remember my own name, and you want me to remember everything you said while you were on this earth? That you said in Greek?!? I got news for you, Jesus ol’ savior ol’ pal, 2000 years have gone by, and there must be 58 translations of your word online, and it’s still all Greek to me.

And what’s this “all nations” business? The way the economy is now, I can’t afford a trip to Pearl City, especially since they jacked up the bus fare. And you want me to go on a world tour?  Look, Lord, go sign up Rona, or Nobuko, or Wayne Cordiero or Amy Grant or one of your other big guns. Leave me out of this.

You know, that’s a pretty common response. It even has a few valid points – and it reminds me of a story you just might find interesting:

I want to tell you about Bill. His childhood was one of poverty, constantly moving, never enough money, or clothes, or food. One day when he was 9 years old it was time to move again. He walked with his mom to the edge of the neighborhood they’d been living in. She told him to wait right there until she came back. Bill sat down on the edge of a metal culvert in the ditch and waited.

He waited for four days.

This happened almost 50 years ago during a time when people didn’t meddle too much in each other’s business. Still, after Bill had sat there for a couple of days a man came out of one of the houses across the street. He asked Bill what he was doing. Bill explained that his mom had said to wait right there, so he was waiting. Toward evening the man came back with food and a jacket.

The next morning he came back with more food. He even stayed to talk awhile and invited Bill to church. Bill was adamant about waiting for his mom. The fourth day the man returned. This time he had a sandwich and a sleeping bag. He told Bill that he didn’t think his mom was coming back. Bill had already figured that out but he didn’t want to admit it. The man told Bill that a church bus would be coming by soon and that he should take the sleeping bag and get on that bus. He said the bus would take him to church camp where he would have plenty of food to eat, a warm, safe place to sleep and plenty of time to think about what he wanted to do next. The man promised to keep an eye out for Bill’s mother.

Bill got on that crowded bus carrying the borrowed sleeping bag and wearing the same clothes he’d had on for four days. Nobody sat with him. In fact, nobody talked to him – but they did talk about him. It was a long bus ride.

It was evening when they arrived at camp. They went into a huge, brightly lit building that had a gigantic fireplace at one end. A fire was burning behind the grate and Bill got as close to it as he could. That’s how he found himself in the front row when the speakers started talking. They told this wonderful story about some guy who loved somebody so much he traded his life for theirs. Bill really wanted to believe in a love like that – but how could he?

Tables were set up and food was brought out. The other kids moved to eat but Bill’s stomach had shrunk over the four days and he was still plenty full from a snack they’d served on the bus. He took the opportunity to climb onto the hearth and sit right in front of the fire. One of the councilors joined him.

Bill had a lot of questions about that Jesus person. The councilor answered them. Bill says that there, in front of that fire, he came to understand that Jesus – who is pure and perfect and wonderful – loved him so much – HIM – Bill – filthy, smelly, unwanted even by his own mother – Jesus loved Bill so much that he died to ensure his life.

Suddenly a fire seemed to be blazing in Bill. He says that moment was the first time he ever recalled feeling total peace and security. Nine years old, homeless – without any prospects at all – yet he knew he was safe and secure in the love of Jesus. The fire kindled in Bill that day has never gone out.

When he returned from camp his mother had still not returned. A church family took Bill in. For once he had steady meals and clean clothes. He went to school on a regular basis, graduated from high school and went on college, eventually becoming a minister. Rev. Bill worked primarily with inner-city youth right there out of the same church that rescued him. He had a comfortable life doing a job he loved. He could have stayed forever. Instead he followed God to Florida, to Texas, to New York — and right into the Bronx during a time when it was an urban war zone. He set about ministering to inner-city children who had been abandoned by their parents and society.

To this day he preaches to drug dealers, prostitutes and their offspring. He’s been knifed a half a dozen times, shot twice and had almost every bone in his face broken by a thrown brick – yet every day he steps right back out onto those streets. He’s had many opportunities to leave. George Bush Senior was so impressed with him that for a time he served on the President’s Advisory Council. Bill said his work there may have helped a few kids in poverty, but it didn’t fulfill his calling. He resigned and returned to the streets.

Bill started his first ministry in Indiana with a little program he wrote himself — a simple way to introduce Jesus into neighborhoods that had never heard of him. He called his program Sidewalk Sunday School and he designed it to take church, via truck, into the ghetto neighborhoods. That program is now a part of Metro-ministries and spans several denominations, as well as the globe – Europe, Australia, Asia, Canada, and the United States.

I worked as a Director of Sidewalk Sunday School in Las Vegas for 6 years. During that time I had the privilege of hearing Rev. Bill Wilson speak. He said the only thing that separates him from the average pew sitter is his willingness to serve. He explained that he is no different than me or you or anybody else here, except that when most of us sing, “I will go Lord if you lead me,” –we really mean it, right up until we get to the gate that stands between our comfort zone and the unknown. That’s where we back up and tell God to go on ahead without us.

In Matthew 28:19 Jesus charges us to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We know this command and most of us truly want to follow it, but we stop at the gate. The enormity of the big, bad world terrifies us.

We need to quit worrying about the “all nations” and start worrying instead about the “Go!” Realistically, are we all called to be Rev. Bill Wilson? No, of course not. Even Rev. Bill Wilson wasn’t called to be Rev. Bill Wilson; God grew him to that point.

All we have to do is open the gate and take one step beyond our comfort zone – just one — what is it Jesus would have you do from right where you are – be it work, school, shopping, the bus stop, wherever — that would speak of your faith to non-believers?

Consider — is it too much for you to think of yourself as the church camp councilor who answered Bill’s questions? Or the bus driver who took him to camp? Or the man who made sure he had a sleeping bag and a spot on the bus? Each of those men is as responsible for beginning Metro-Ministries as Rev. Bill Wilson. They faithfully answered God’s call by reaching out in that one moment to that one person.

From here on out, let’s all be just a little bit more like Rev. Bill. Let’s go therefore and witness wherever we are – and who knows, we might just change a nation.

Pray with me.

Heavenly Father, when we raise our hands and say we will go where you lead us, help us to remember that you put us in our jobs and neighborhoods for a purpose. Open our eyes to those around us in need of our knowledge of you, then open our mouths, Lord, so that we share that knowledge. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Benediction:
As you leave here you will be stepping into your mission field. Open the gate and take that first step.”

The Weekend

Saturday

In the morning, Thom came by with his new camera.  He said he wanted my help, but really, he didn’t.  I showed him the button to turn his flash on and off, and I showed him how to make his macro setting work.  I also showed him where to find the index in his camera manual. [rolls eyes]  Mostly he just showed off his camera.

Thom

Thom taking a photograph of me taking a photograph of him.

After Thom left, I made toasted cheese sandwiches for lunch and got ready to go to the Island Wide Handbell Choir Workshop. I was at the workshop from 12:30 to 4:30 and while I was there I learned how to be an even better ding-a-ling.

After the Handbell Workshop, I made a dash to Safeway for yummies, then I went by Amoeba’s office and collected him, and we went to Kuli’ou’ou Beach Park to join Thom and company at their pretty-darn-regular weekend picnic. We had a lovely time talking and eating and laughing. I am pretty certain Thom has some hilarious photos to share.

These photos are of the park, but I actually took them Friday evening when Amoeba and I walked down to the beach and enjoyed the sunset.

Night Flight

Maunalua Bay Sunset

This photo was taken not too long after the sun began to set. The birds are egrets flying in to find their night roosts.

Sunset Over Paiko Lagoon

Sunet Over Paiko Lagoon

This was among the last photos of the evening, as the sun swiftly sank into the sea.  Paiko Lagoon is part of the bird sanctuary adjacent to Maunalua Bay & Kuli’ou’ou Beach Park.

After dark we enjoyed the gentle ocean breeze and a lively group of ukulele players who exhausted every Hawaiian tune ever written and then regaled the park with Christmas carols.   We especially enjoyed the Elvis impersonator.  No pics of them though, the shade they were in hid them from the camera.

Sunday

Tomorrow morning we have to be to church by 9:00 a.m. because of my Sunday School class.  At 10:00 a.m. I have bell choir rehearsal (yes, more) and at 10:30 the worship service begins.  The beginner’s handbell choir (that’s my group) is playing the prelude.  After church, Amoeba has choir practice.

After choir practice we are going to Gigi’s to meet several other local bloggers and have a lovely lunch.  I think it is very generous of Gigi to plan and host this gathering.  We are very much looking forward to the afternoon.

After Gigi’s party we have to return to church because I am speaking at the 5:00 p.m. service.  If you return to this blog at 5:00 p.m. HST, I have set the message to auto-post, so you can read what I am sharing with the congregation.  (Dr. John, I do believe it is God’s message.  It certainly isn’t what I thought I was planning to write about — this is just what emerged from my keyboard after all the study and prayer — and you probably know even better than I that even though I very carefully wrote this out word-for-word, it may not be exactly what emerges from my mouth tomorrow.)

Finally, after church we will come home and put up Punny Monday — which isn’t half as hard as it’s been the last two times — and then I can have a nice long nap!

So now you all know why you’ve not seem much of me today, and won’t see much of me on Sunday!

From My Sermon

Sunday I spoke in church. I began by introducing myself and giving the people who didn’t know me a little background: I moved here from Las Vegas where I ran a children’s ministry called Sidewalk Sunday School. I was under a lot of pressure from my church to make Sidewalk succeed. Then — since I don’t actually write what I am going to say and only outline, leaving the actual words spontaneous — my sermon went something like this*:

The Gift of Importance

Sidewalk Sunday School had been running for several weeks — at least ten because the day’s lesson was review over our unit on the Ten Commandments. The church people were happy with my leadership and I was feeling pretty good about myself. Then, Friday afternoon a contingency of teachers came to my classroom and told me they and several other teachers were concerned about what I was teaching the children. They said they would be at Sidewalk on Saturday, and if they didn’t like what they saw, they were shutting Sidewalk — they were shutting me — down.

I did not want to lose Sidewalk. I didn’t want to disappoint the children. I didn’t want to disappoint the members of my church. But — most of all — I did not want to lose my feelings of importance. I determined that Sidewalk was going to be perfect. PERFECT!

Saturday morning I drove the volunteers who worked with me nuts. They were incredibly competent wonderful people who had been doing their jobs flawlessly all along. Suddenly there I was questioning, correcting and nagging. “Why did you do that?” “Does that have to be there?” “I need you to work a little faster.” “Check the sound system again. EVERYTHING HAS TO BE PERFECT TODAY!” I was a hair pulling nervous wreck before the teachers even showed up!

Now, at Sidewalk Sunday School when it is time for the worship service, the children don’t get bulletins. We have a huge poster with the scripture verse of the day on it. Since this was review week, we had all ten of the posters with the Ten Commandments. Each poster was designed to look like a stone tablet with the verse chiseled on. I needed ten kids to come up on stage and hold the signs. And I look out at the kids and I see bright, fiery red-hair atop a shining face. Oh, please, not today, Lord!

Now, every school has at least one kid every staff member knows by name. There are only two ways you can get to be that well known. You are either the straight A, perfect child, OR you’re the worst behaved child on campus. Wayne — he of the fiery red hair — had never received an A in his life. And behind him, behind all of the children, stood a semi-circle of teachers with their arms crossed and a “prove it” scowl upon their faces.

I turned to my second in command, Dan, and said, “Help me keep that kid in line, and if he gets too far out, escort him off campus.” So, before beginning the lesson I had already decided I was likely throwing someone out of church.

I began with the words “I need a volunteer” … and Wayne’s hand shot into the air. “Pick me!” He yelled. “Pick me! Pick me!”* He was jerking his arm up and down; waving it back and forth, and literally bouncing on the ground. The children’s “pews” at Sidewalk Sunday School are carpet remnants. We bring them in on the truck every week, take them off and roll them out on the ground for the kids to sit on — or in Wayne’s case — bounce on. “Pick ME!”*

I was not picking Wayne. He was enough of a distraction in the audience. I could just imagine what he would be like on the stage. I ignored him completely and picked someone else — who politely walked to the stage, held the poster and listened quietly while I briefly reviewed that particular lesson and questioned the students about what they’d learned.

Then I asked for another volunteer. “Oh! Oh! Pick me! Pick me!”* Wayne went right back into hyperactive mode. “I wanna do it! Pick me!”*

Again I did not pick Wayne. In fact, I did not pick him several times over — even though his jerking and waving was beginning to grow quite alarming. I quite happily pretended the child did not exist, and the contingency of teachers still stood behind the students, arms crossed, looking grim*.

I was on Commandment Six or Seven when I noted with relief that Wayne was losing steam. I was on Commandment Eight when I noticed that he was perfunctorily raising his hand, but no longer held any anticipation of being chosen. He was a child on the verge of having his heart broken — but if I picked him, he would destroy my entire lesson. I knew it — and chose someone else.

Wayne drooped. His body sagged like a wilting flower and he drew his knees to his chest. I picked another child for Commandment Nine — only one to go and I would have made it through with flying colors — and I looked down at Wayne and could tell my his posture that I was destroying that child. I knew if I picked him he would ruin my lesson, Sidewalk would be shut down, and I would have failed the church — but …

I looked at Wayne and could no longer ignore him. Someone needed to act like an adult and — unfortunately — it was going to have to be me. I called Wayne to come up and hold the poster for the Tenth Commandment. He shot off the carpet, bounded up the stairs, grabbed the poster and jumped up and down.

At this point I am on stage, Dan is on stage, nine other kids with posters are on stage — its a very small stage — and Wayne is bouncing around like a red dot ping pong ball. He’s also talking a mile a minute. “Oh, you picked me! I didn’t think you were ever gonna pick me. You picked me! You picked me!*”

Dan clamped his hands down on Wayne’s shoulders and held the boy’s bounces to three inches or less. The other kids crowded together — away from Wayne’s babbling and jumping. I asked Wayne to hold the sign still and — much to my surprise — he calmed himself some, but then he started babbling!

He asked questions about the truck, about Dan, about the stage … he asked what was for lunch and when were we serving it and how much longer until Sidewalk was over — not soon enough as far as I was concerned — and Dan finally got him to calm so I could end the lesson review. Then we bowed our heads to pray …

“Hey,” Wayne says, “What’s everybody doing? Why’s she the only one who gets to talk? Are we going to do anything besides stand here and hold these stupid signs?” And I was fuming — Dan, still patient — calmed Wayne and I finished the prayer, dismissing him from stage with a huge sigh of relief.

Then it was time for our birthday celebrations. It is tradition that on your first Sidewalk Birthday you receive a Bible. Beverly handed me the list of children celebrating birthdays that day — and there was Wayne’s name. I did not want to give him a Bible. We only had a few Bibles left, they were very expensive, and I wasn’t up for giving one away to a kid who had just been in trouble for destroying library books. The Bible wouldn’t mean a thing to him and he’d probably destroy it, too. But his name was on the list so I had to call him.

Wayne and two other boys came to the stage. I handed them each a book and asked them to bow their heads while I offered the birthday blessing. Wayne complained. “What are we doing now?” “Is that it? All we’re getting is this stupid book?” “Hey, you’re holding on too tight!” “What do you mean ‘be quiet? All I asked was –”

I said a fast AMEN and dismissed the kids to go get their lunches and whatever attendance trinket we were passing out. Wayne shot off the truck and ran toward the food. I thought “good riddance” and seriously hoped to never see him again. I started to clean my work area and pack up the truck.

Usually after Sidewalk I mingle with the kids — talk to them, play with them, answer any questions they may have — but not that day. I was too upset. In fact, I was so upset Dan suggested I leave before all of my volunteers quit. I hopped off the truck and stepped around the back — and there was Wayne.

He was sitting on the pavement behind the truck. Beside him — unopened — was a sack lunch AND his toy. He had the Bible open in his lap and was talking to one of his compatriots in crime. “Do you know what this is?” Wayne said, his voice full of awe.

“A book,” his friend answered dismissively.

“It’s the Bible!” Wayne said. His voice was full of awe. “It’s the Bible and they gave it to me. I asked that man. He said I could KEEP it.”

“They gave you a Bible?” His friend sat down next to him as they reverently turned the pages.

“Yeah,” Wayne said. “They must think I am really something special.”

I backed up so the boys wouldn’t see me, climbed into the truck and sat down and cried. I had planned to teach a super lesson that morning, but instead I ended up learning one. It had just come to me that that child I thought had no value at all, was infinitely precious and important to God — most probably, looked at in the light of my behavior toward him — more important to God at that precise moment than I or all my “good works” came close to being.

Wayne taught me a lesson that I took to every Sidewalk thereafter — and one I thought important enough to share with each of you. Your mission isn’t to successfully carry out the work you do for the church, it is to nurture the people you meet along the way. You are always in the mission field, so react accordingly with your family, your friends and the strangers you meet on the street. Each of them is very important to God.

I’d like to tell you that Wayne instantly turned into a model child and never gave anybody a bit of trouble again — but it isn’t true. Wayne remained irrepressible and impulsive. And those teachers with the crossed arms and the scowls on their faces? They went away and I never heard from them again, good or bad. My panic was for nothing.

Now, as you get up from the pews and leave this church, I want you to remember that everyone you meet — everyone — is part of your mission field. Give them the gift of feeling important, because they are important to God.

*for emphasis I acted out these parts