May 12, 2013

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


Hebrews 11:32 – 12:2

James Barrie, who is best known as the author of Peter Pan, said this:  “God gave us memories so we may have roses in December.”

Mother’s Day is a day of memories.  Today we honor our mothers .  We aren’t all mothers, but we all have mothers.  Or had them.  No, have them!  In our memories our mothers are with us always.  In our memories, even the dreariest day of December is brightened with the beauty of a rose.

The making and the keeping of memories is an important part of life.  Edith Schaeffer wrote the wonderful book, What is a Family?  One of her chapters answers that question by saying, a family is “a museum of memories”.  The task of a family is to build that museum, to create the collections it will display, to make it a place to which we can return as often as we would like.  And also to make it a place from which we can always draw strength and guidance for the journey ahead.

There in a picture is my parents’ house.  I had several chances to look at it this week.  This picture is one of my memories from childhood.  It has on it the saying, “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children.  One is roots; the other wings.”  There’s a connection between the two.  Strong wings often come from deep roots.  Deep roots usually result in strong wings.  Fortunate indeed are those who receive both from their parents.  Deep roots and strong wings.

Part of our root system is those who came before us.  Some of them we knew and remember, others we have only heard about, still others we may not even be aware of, but we cannot escape their influence.

Our text from Hebrews is the concluding paragraph of what is often called the “faith chapter”.  It lists some of the ancestors in our family of faith.  Some, like Abraham, are familiar names.  We know their stories.  Others, like Barak, I don’t think you’ve heard of.  You’ve heard of Barack, but I doubt if you’ve heard of Barak.  Some are stories of triumph — stopping the mouths of lions, quenching raging fires, escaping the edge of the sword.  Others are stories of tragedy — being killed with stones or by a sword, being sawn in two.  All are part of our faith heritage.  Who we are today as believers cannot be understood apart from these men and these women named in Hebrews chapter 11 and throughout the Bible.

They are part of our spiritual root system.  They also make it possible for us to soar with our spiritual wings.  Lives lived long ago live on today.  In us.

Hebrews 11 leads right into Hebrews 12.  There is no chapter break in the original.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  In other words, since we have been so blessed with such deep roots of faith, we can now soar with strong wings of faith.

On this Mother’s Day I’m thinking of my mother.  She’s had a hard week.  Helen’s with her today by the way.  People keep asking how my mother is doing and the truth is she is doing very, very well.

It was such a blessing that my sister, my brother, and I were able to spend a whole week with her.  The first half of the week, we were working frantically to take care of my dad.  The second half of the week we were working frantically to plan his funeral.  It was quite a week.

I remember hearing the Australian evangelist Alan Walker.  He was the Australian counterpart to Billy Graham, but he used more proper English.  He was most reluctant to talk about himself in his sermons and when occasionally he did, he would always introduce it like this:  “If you will forgive a personal reference . . . ”

Well, if you will forgive a personal reference, I’d like to tell you a bit about my dad.  He was born into one of the pioneering families in Central Oregon.  Both sets of his grandparents took advantage of the Homestead Act and settled near what is now Madras well over 100 years ago..

In 1934, when my dad was 10, his dad died.  He had a younger brother and sister.  He had to grow up in a hurry.  He was a World War II veteran.  We’re losing them awfully quickly.  After the war, he finished college, got married and had three wonderful children.  Especially me.

My dad loved electronics.  He could fix anything.  He was hired in a television sales and service shop that ran a small cable television operation on the side.  Cable television got bigger and bigger, and they closed the sales and service shop.  It was a good time to be in that business.  He timed it real well.  And he worked real hard.  My dad was recognized as one of the pioneers of cable television.

He retired when he was about my age and he and my mom had a long, great retirement.  It’s been just in the last 4 or 5 years as his memory started slipping away that things started getting difficult.

Even before he retired, he found time for two of his favorite activities — climbing big mountains and running long distances.  He was really good at both.  And my brother and I got the bug.  My brother went on to become a famous rock climber.  I did not go on to become a famous distance runner, but I sure tried.  Our dad spending all day in an easy chair these last few years has been so out of character for him.  He went from there was nothing he couldn’t do to there was nothing he could do.

My dad was quite a character.  I got my sense of humor from him.  If you like my jokes, my dad gets the credit.  If you don’t like my jokes, blame me, not him.  People didn’t always get his jokes, either.

One I put in his obituary goes back quite a few years.  He wrote a letter to the editor of theBendnewspaper.  They had printed a picture of the Three Sisters mountains, which by the way, was where my family and I shared many, many amazing adventures.  They printed the image of the Three Sisters backwards.  So my dad wrote this letter saying how much he enjoyed looking at that picture on the wall behind his mirror while he shaved.

My dad built for my family a wonderful museum of memories.  Sharing those memories this past week has really been wonderful.  There is something very healing about those memories.  Especially the funny ones.

We had a very strange New Year’s Eve tradition.  I hesitate to tell you about this because then you will know what a strange family we were.  As the clock approached midnight, as the ball was dropping in Time’s Square, my dad, my brother, and I would be wearing running shorts and shoes.  Nothing else.  At the stroke of midnight, as firecrackers were going off throughout our neighborhood, we would go outside.  It would be right around 0 degrees most years.  And we would run a loop that took right down the main street through town.  Whooping and hollering the whole way.

You might ask why in the world we would do such a thing.  Well, at the time it was just fun to be so crazy with a dad who didn’t mind being crazy with us.  But looking back, I can see more clearly what was going on.  My dad was building a memory.  He was adding a display to that museum of memories, that in our family’s case is quite full.  And everyone in my family is quite grateful.

This is the time of the year that some of you are planning your summer vacations.  What you really are doing is planning memories.  You have blocked out some time and decided not to do some important things in order that you will have time for things that may not seem important now, but from the perspective of time will prove to have been wise investments that paid rich dividends.  You won’t remember that week of important work that couldn’t wait.  You will never forget that week of camping or traveling or being crazy together — whatever it is you plan to do.  And of course, memories have a way creating themselves, in spite of what you planned.  Those are the best kind.  And they can’t happen unless you escape your routine and spend some time together.

Some memories you plan.  Some just happen.  Family traditions are one way to be intentional about the building of memories.  Many of our traditions revolve around holidays, birthdays, special days of the year, Mother’s Day.  Without days like these that come whether we’re ready for them or not, we would keep putting off doing those special things that mean so much — cards, gifts, meals, decorations, surprises.  As Edith Schaeffer puts it, “There is something about saying, ‘We always do this’, which helps to keep the years together.

And then there are the memories that just happen.  It’s not on your calendar.  You didn’t plan it all out down to the last detail.  Or maybe you did, and the memorable moment turned out to be something you could not have predicted.  Things happen in our families that, for better or worse will be remembered.  They will stay with us.  Sometimes like a rose in December.  Sometimes like an ice storm in July.  You may have unpleasant memories of your family.  Sacrilegious as it may seem, you may have had a mother you don’t remember fondly.

Our children are going to take with them through life all kinds of unintended memories.  They’ll remember those moments you most wish they would forget.  When you lost control and did something stupid.  When they first discovered that you’re not the perfect person they thought you were.  When they were really counting on you and you let them down.

A huge part of this art of building a museum of memories is dealing creatively with teachable moments that come unexpected and unannounced.  What will you do now?  They are watching.  You just blew it.  Will you apologize?  Will you ask for forgiveness?  A loved one dies.  Will you let your emotions be seen?  Will you call up those memories that you’ve been carrying around, whether they bring laughter or tears?  Someone treats you unfairly.  How will you deal with that?  Something valuable gets broken.  Can you forgive?

One of my clearest memories is talking to my dad on the telephone after I had thrown a baseball through our basement window.  I didn’t mean to.  I was aiming about three inches below the window sill.  But my fastball was a little high and the window shattered.  It was a big window.  My mom told me I would have to tell my dad.  I called him at work.  I told him I had just done something terrible.  I told him what it was.  His first words were, “Is that all?”  I wasn’t expecting that. I’ll never forget that.  That moment is filed in my museum of memories under a sign that reads, “Grace”.

How do we respond at those moments when our response, whatever it is, will be remembered a long, long time?  Some memories we can plan, others we can’t, some are good memories, others are not, but taken together these memories are a big part of who we are today.  They are a big part of our root system that keeps us grounded and, paradoxically, makes it possible for us to fly.

May I share with you my memory of my dad’s last day on earth?  Will you forgive one more personal reference?

We never got that warning that my dad’s death was imminent.  We knew he was dying, but even the medical people were telling us to expect the dying process to take awhile.  He died on Sunday, a week ago.  We had hospice scheduled for Monday.  I was fully expecting that I would have to line up someone else to preach for me today.  I thought we were in for a long haul.

Here’s how it happened.  It was so beautiful.  My mom woke me up at 1 am.  She didn’t like how my dad was struggling to breathe.  So she slept on the couch and I slept with him.  He settled down and seemed to be doing fine.  At 5 am we traded places.  My mom and I went to church together.  My sister was going to stay with my dad and the home health nurse who was coming in at 9 am.  At 9 am the home health nurse called to tell us she was sick and couldn’t come in.  We learned no one was available until 6 pm.  We didn’t like that news one bit.  We had not handled by ourselves the procedures the nurses had taken care of.  But now it was up to us.  We figured it out.  We spent the day taking care of my dad.  Just family.  All three children, one grandchild, and my mom.

We were playing his favorite music.  “Sons of the Pioneers”.  He always liked them.  I played a recording of a concert our oldest, Kelsey sang in about 10 years ago.  The last song begins like this:  “If anybody asks you, where I’m going, where I’m going, soon.  I’m going up a yonder, to be with my Lord.”  I was crying through that whole song.  Then I put on Handel’s “Messiah”.  I heard “For Unto Us a Son is Given”.  I remembered my dad telling me he played that when he got home from the hospital the day I was born.

My brother made sure our dad knew we were all with him.  He was resting so peacefully.  Then I noticed it seemed a little too peaceful.  I put my fingers by his mouth.  I felt for his pulse.  There was nothing.  I looked at my watch.  It was 6 pm.  Right when the home health nurse was scheduled to arrive.  Right when we would no longer have our dad all to ourselves.

We chose not to call the funeral home for awhile.  We were in no hurry.  We got him dressed.  We got him ready.  We all got to kiss him good bye.  We were so lucky.  Every day we shared him we were so lucky, including his last.  My family now has another cherished display in our museum of memories.

Gracious God, our Father, our Mother, you whose perfect love we seek to imitate in our imperfect ways, we ask your blessing upon our families.  We believe that the simple day-to-day happenings in our families have far greater lasting impact that we can even imagine.  O God, may our families be places where you are exalted and where, with your help and your forgiveness, in our stumbling ways, we can grow unto your likeness, until that day that is our last day on this earth, and our first day in heaven, up a yonder, with our Lord.  In his name,  Amen.