In Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games characters Katniss and Peeta are District 12′s Tributes in the Games. (For those you haven’t read the book (A) you need to and (B) I promise to keep the spoilers to a minimum.)
The rules have changed and now they can work together as a team to win the games. In one moment sitting in the wilderness of the arena, the two teenagers begin to discuss life back in District 12.
As they recall memories, Katniss remembers her father. A man whose life and death was by the coal mines. A man, who when he sang, “even the birds stop to listen.” Singing not only reminds Katniss of her father, but also how much she misses having him around. Singing was something he taught her how to do and something she recalled while in the wilderness of the arena. Since his death, she has had to grow up and become the leader, supplier, and caretaker of her family. In in the midst of these added responsibilities, Katniss had stopped singing. She reflects:
It strikes me that my own reluctance to sing, my own dismissal of music might not really be that I think it’s a waste of time. It might be because it reminds me too much of my father.
A few weeks ago in worship we sang the hymn, “In the Garden.” I had to stop singing it. It was one of those moments where if there was a rock for me to crawl under, I would. But, there was no rock. It reminded me of Dad. As his grave side service concluded, the bell tower at the cemetery began to “sing” this hymn.
Music was a central piece to my father’s faith. He sang in a group at our church called the Gospel 7 since its beginnings. Still to this day there are certain songs that he sang with this group that when I hear them I pause for a moment because it reminds me of him.
For the longest time I would avoid those songs because the memories were so painful. For example I couldn’t hear “Go, Rest High on that Mountain,” a song originally recorded by Vince Gill that Dad sang in church often, without missing him to the point of being in physical pain. But now, I add songs like “Go, Rest High on that Mountain” to my iPod so that when the music shuffles through to that song and others like it, I remember.
I remember his powerful witness through song. I remember riding in his old Chevy truck listening to cassette tapes of the songs he was learning to sing. I remember sitting in wooden pews listening to him sing during church. And now, instead of bringing pain, the memories bring me comfort and peace.
In a way, with these songs and memories, Dad is always with me.
I’ve been sitting in my office the past few days working on an adult curriculum for our church’s summer Sunday school. Our Summer Sunday School program is called “One Church, One Book.” We’re using Kate DiCamillo’s book Because of Winn-Dixie, which captures the adventures of young Opal and her dog Winn-Dixie in a small town.
As I’m rereading portions of the book and writing this curriculum, I’m remembering my own pets. Especially my last real pet, Lady.
About 11 years ago, I came back to work after a lunch break and noticed that a black lab was wondering around the building. She was thin, so thin. She showed evidence of having just had puppies, though the puppies were no where to be found. She was shy at first, not sure if she could trust me or not. I went inside, found a bowl and poured water in it. I took the bowl outside and set it out for her. A coworker found dog food somewhere in the building and she put that outside too. After we had gone back in, the lab would finally come get some food and water. And she stayed.
At the end of the day, someone told me I should take her home. I wasn’t too sure about that. While outside, the lab came around, now no longer shy or frightened. I thought, well, if she doesn’t get in the car, then it’s settled. I opened the back door of my car and without a word, the lab jumped in and sat down. So, it was settled. She was going home with me.
This was about the time that Dad was staying home from work because of the prostate cancer he was fighting. I took the dog home, much to the surprise of my parents, and quickly said, “We’re not keeping her. Just for a few days, until I can find a home for her.” And, I was just as quick to add, “Don’t name her. Because once we name her, she’s ours.”
I came home from work a few days later, still unable to find a home for the lab, and she is outside on the deck with Dad. A relationship was forming between this dog and my Dad in those few days. Dad had named her “Lady”. The name stayed, and so did Lady.
Lady became a companion for Dad during those long days of staying home when he really wanted to be at work. In the book Because of Winn-Dixie, young Opal reflects on how she just talked and talked to Winn-Dixie and he listened. Dogs are good listeners. I imagine Dad sitting on the back deck petting Lady and talking things out with her. And Lady resting her black head on Dad’s knee giving him advice in the way only a dog can.
Lady was also my listener during that stormy times of my life. We would go on walks through the woods or play fetch in the yard. After Dad died, Lady still hung around. She would sleep by my bed at night. After one stormy night where she got frightened, she slept on the foot of my bed for awhile. She seemed to fill a gap for me. A gap I didn’t realize I had at the time.
Lady died about a year ago. She was a dog with 9 lives, having survived being hit by a car, a really bad cold one summer, and going blind in one eye. But she lived a good life and was a blessing to me . . .and my Dad.
Walls are typically built for protection. Nehemiah, in the Old Testament, lead a huge undertaking in rebuilding the wall around the city of Jerusalem. The Great Wall of China was built to protect dynasties from invasions by surrounding tribes. We build fences around our neighbors to prevent their pets from trampling our lawns. We build emotional walls to protect ourselves from getting hurt by others.
Walls are protective.
Expect when walls are restrictive.
Ray Buckley, in his Lenten study, Hard to Dance with the Devil on Your Back (2010), suggests that we create restrictive walls. These are walls created out of hate, fear, or prejudices. These are walls built out of a great concern for ourselves rather than for others. These are walls built out of pride, envy, or anger.
These walls keep others out based on their skin colors, their ages, economic levels, their sizes, their political preferences, their lifestyles, their denominations, their decisions, and the list could go on.
“The Lord of the Dance,” Buckley writes, “does not live within the walls we create.” Christ does not live in these places, because “the death he died, he died to sin, once for all” (Romans 6:10). The grace and love that Jesus Christ offers is for all. While our walls keep others out, Christ has no such walls. These seemingly “disposable” souls may not be missed by us, but they are missed by Christ. Their voices are missing in the communal praises being lifted high.
Buckley reminds us that in Jesus’ time, children were considered valueless or worthless. “A child,” Buckley writes, “was considered disposable. Literally.” So, Buckley argues, when Jesus welcomes the children to him, he is saying that the disposed or the valueless are important to him. This is what Buckley writes:
“Jesus says, in essence, ‘Give up what you think you deserve and ought to have, and be like one of these.’ We are being asked to be childlike, to give up status, place, and value.”
We are being asked to give up our walls. Take down a couple of bricks and gaze upon the image of God found in that person younger/older than you; get an eye full of the image of God in your neighbor who lives in poor conditions; take a good look at the image of God in that liberal/conservative who drives you nuts; admire the image of God in those who live differently from you. As followers of Christ – as the Church – is it not our place to break down these walls and welcome all into the community of faith?
“Love recognizes no barriers,” Maya Angelou once wrote. “It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be full of hope, than surrounded by a wall.
Last night I finished reading Jim Palmer’s Divine Nobodies. Raised Roman Catholic, Palmer was converted and became a Baptist.
After attending an evangelical seminary, he became a pastor a huge nondenominational mega church. He was a rising star in Christendom, but when he got a divorce, it all went away.
Palmer’s book brings to light the difference between a faith that is just on the surface and a faith that is deeply rooted in a relationship with Jesus.
Palmer shares his faith journey – his faith re-discovery as he shares the stories of everyday common “nobodies.” These “nobodies” are no near being rising stars in Christendom. They are the tire salesman, the swim teacher, and the childhood dog. These “nobodies” live as “little Christs” more so than any big, major “somebody”.
Palmer is an excellent story teller and as he weaves his faith story with the stories of others, he invites you into a greater Story. The Story of the love and grace of Jesus. At the same time, he challenges our “on the surface” faith to really dig deeper – to ask ourselves, “Are we being little Christs on Sundays or every day?”