Loaves and fishes

Amish friendship breadThe check-in question at staff bible study this week was “When have you been used by God in a way that you didn’t expect?” It’s the kind of question you search your memory banks to find an answer for. I couldn’t jog my memory in that way so instead came up with a story of how God used someone for me in an unexpected way. That was the subject of my blog entitled, “So Jesus walked into church today,” but that is not the subject of this blog!

My co-worker Kelley told the story of her 8-year-old son coming home from school and reporting that his friend only had a sandwich in his lunch and couldn’t they do something about it? As Kelley thought about who this friend was she remembered that he was the tenth child of a mother who had died while pregnant with what would have been her eleventh child. This mom was diagnosed with cancer and opted not to have chemo or radiation so she wouldn’t harm her still enwombed child. The sad ending of this story is that both died; dad and the other ten children are the remainder of this family.

That dad and mom were special in our community because of how they lived out God’s call to love our neighbors as explained in Matthew chapter 25. They created what is now the largest provider of food to families in our community who know what the term “food insecurity” means, Mission For All Nations, now known as Heartland Hope Mission. They feed thousands every month in Omaha, Nebraska.

The irony of the story (as I saw it) was that this little boy whose mother has been gone for five years, does not have enough to eat. But the good news of this story that Kelley shared is that she just stepped into that gap and not only sent her son with lunch to school, but packed an extra one for his friend. Then she discovered that a number of people at this school have stepped up to help all of the siblings who attend this school. The community – the family of God – is sharing their loaves and fishes so that there is enough for all.

The passage we studied that day in staff prayer was John 6:1-14, which is John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000, the only story that all four gospel writers recorded other than the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Two stories so amazing, that all four of these storytellers remembered and retold them.

It is such a familiar story to me and others that we can hardly expect to see something new there, and yet on Tuesday I did, prompted by Kelley’s story and pondering something I have imagined about how it happened that Jesus could feed all those multitudes with five loaves and two fish.

Verse 5: Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”

And then in verse 6 is this part that struck me in a new way:

He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.

He himself knew what he would do…

Of course he knew. He is God after all. 🙂

But we spend a lot of time looking at this miracle and imagining Jesus just taking those loaves and fishes and using his magical miraculous powers to keep a basket of bread and fish from running out as the disciples pass it around to the 5,000 men seated there, and then collecting up the twelve baskets of leftovers. Haven’t you done a lectio divina study of this passage, closed your eyes as it was being read for the third time and pictured the basket with a level of bread that just doesn’t go down? I have. So maybe I’m the only one…

It is a memorable miracle recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which we read – again – on Tuesday.

But right before we read it, Kelley shared that story…

And then Jake, who was leading our study, said that God uses what he has right there in front of him to meet the need – their need, our need – while we are worrying about where we are going to get the food to feed all these people.

“Here, Lord, this little boy has his lunch with him. A couple of small loaves with some fish. Looks like the makings of a sandwich for one. That’s one. You will have to take care of the other 4,999.”

And Jesus looks out there – he himself knew what he would do – and sees…

…his creation. A community of people. 5,000 men (so the account says). What it doesn’t say is (but we always mention it because it makes the miracle that much BIGGER) is that there are women and children, too, maybe 10,000 or 15,000 total. We know there are more than just men because, hey!, there is that one little boy with his sack lunch that Andrew has just offered to Jesus. (We don’t even know if Andrew asked the little boy if he could take it!)

And this is the miracle that I think happened, and go ahead and disagree with me if you want. You can close your eyes and see the story however the Holy Spirit puts it in your mind, but this is my version.

Jesus looks out there and knows what he will do. He sees a community of people, including boys with lunches their mothers packed, and most likely their mothers, too. Mothers who do what needs to be done when their sons go to school with well-packed lunches and their friends have less. Mothers get together to meet the need. And surely if there is one little boy with a well-packed lunch in that crowd of people learning from the master teacher, the Lord of creation, there are hundreds of little boys and little girls and their mothers who know they need to eat so they can learn and work and live.

Jesus – God – uses what he has right there in front of him. He knows what’s there because he made it: US! He gave us what we need: FOOD! He created us to be a community: LIKE WHAT HE GATHERED AROUND HIM.

You’re right. It doesn’t say that in John 6 or Matthew 14 or Mark 6 or Luke 9. It doesn’t indicate how Jesus fed all those people. But like Jake said, he uses what is there to make his kingdom come.

I just love this story. Jana and I have been advocating on hunger and poverty issues for years with Bread for the World and will do so again in June when we head up with hundreds of others on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. We will be mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers asking our government – our WE the PEOPLE – to use what God gave us to feed the hungry multitudes in our midst, in our cities, in our country, in the world.

“My friend has a very small lunch,” said Kelley’s son when he came home from school. The tenth child of the man who created the biggest supplier of food for hungry people in our community, is hungry himself. And God looked out there and saw Kelley and used her and the lunch she made for her son that day when he went to school. And just like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, she told us the story so that we would know.

God uses what is right there in front of him. You and me and our lunches, because it is more than enough for all.

Teaching Chemistry

"Dear Julie, I will miss you so much next year. I have enjoyed having you in chemistry and in my H.R. You are one of the very special students I have ever had at Westside. I wish you the best of everything in the future. Your Chem teacher, Mr. Crampton. Remember the Bartley Bomber."

“Dear Julie, I will miss you so much next year. I have enjoyed having you in chemistry and in my H.R. You are one of the very special students I have ever had at Westside. I wish you the best of everything in the future. Your Chem teacher, Mr. Crampton. Remember the Bartley Bomber.”

Not every teacher can teach chemistry. And not every chemistry teacher has the chemistry to teach. I had a chemistry teacher with both qualities. He made me, a person much more comfortable with nouns and verbs and adjectives, a confirmed non-thinking-especially-in-a-scientific-manner kind of student, actually enjoy and look forward to chemistry class. I understood what was going on! I worked for him and the chemistry team as a lab assistant for two years, following in the footsteps of my much brighter and more scientifically inclined sister Jana. My sister Susan followed me into the same position in the lab.

His name is Ron Crampton.

I have the most wonderful memories of my years in school in District 66 and love it when I come across my teachers on Facebook to let them know the impact they had on my life. Whether in the English department, the German department, math or science, they gave me the desire to always learn; to ask questions; to tell the stories that come from life. I wish every student, past, present and future, could have teachers like I have had.

Working for and learning from Ron was a joy. Those two years in the chem lab as an assistant I worked alongside my best friend, Sharon Uhrich, now Heimes. We ran the water distiller, filling hundreds and hundreds of five-gallon bottles. We mixed solutions. We set up trays for experiments. We typed stencils and then ran off reams and reams of worksheets and exams. We washed billions and billions of beakers and flasks and eye dropper bottles of reagents. We organized and alphabetized chemicals.

We created The Phantom!

Mr. Crampton indulged our every whim in that lab for those two years. As we finished advanced biochemistry in our senior year, he kept us on to monitor test-taking in his other chemistry classes. He trusted us and he laughed with us at our phantom antics.

Crampton OWH articleMr. Crampton was a chemistry teacher who would do anything to get you to understand a concept. Along with Dr. Flub (Louie Niemann) he would make chemistry large group in the auditorium into a production. As Dr. Flub explained the way a nuclear accelerator worked by speeding up atoms so they could crash into each other, knocking nuclei together to release their protons to form new elements, Mr. Crampton, dressed in white lab coat with a toilet plunger in his hands like a knight’s lance, ran at full speed down the aisle and flipped into the orchestra pit, breaking his arm. It was legendary! Chemistry at its finest!

We graduated in 1977, and I still have a clip from the Omaha World-Herald extolling the teaching virtues of this educational virtuoso. Sharon and I added our own headline to the story for our classmates.

Crampton ice cream inviteThis was Ron Crampton. Every semester after the advanced biochem class ended, he would invite those who had taken the class over to his home for a “carbohydrate” party. Dinner was served picnic style by Ron and his wife Meri, and was followed by his own homemade ice cream. Ice cream turned in a hand-cranked freezer was just another way to show us the practical ways chemistry was a part of our lives. Adding salt to water creates an endothermic reaction – one that requires energy for the salt to dissolve in the water. This natural lowering of the temperature in the system, along with the rotation of the freezer, makes ice crystals form in the milk-egg-sugar solution inside the canister, moving it from a liquid form to the tasty frozen treat served in bowls with toppings.

He went on to win multiple awards for his teaching at the local, state and even national levels.

He knocked on my door last night. 38 years after graduating from Westside High School we are still friends. He even came to my wedding in 2002! He tends the gardens at the church two doors north of my house and they are blooming in glory right now in this April spring. Retired from teaching since 2001, he is a master gardener.

He also tends the flower beds at a local historic landmark, the Joslyn Castle. He was there last evening doing his thing and noticed there was an event going on, so being the curious scientific type, he investigated. Inside there was a book-signing going on for a new children’s book, The Oracle’s Fables, about Warren Buffett, our local billionaire. Ron noticed the author’s name was John Prescott, so he continued his investigation and discovered that John is the cousin of his three former lab assistant sisters: Jana, Susan and me. That conversation led to John explaining that our other sister Sally (never served as lab assistant, but he certainly had her as a student) was also a published author, just releasing her second book. (Both of Sally Gerard’s books, Windows in the Loft and Worthy of Love are available on Amazon. Shameless plug. 🙂 )

And that is why Ron was on my doorstep last night. He had come to share his joy at having had such amazing students in his classroom all those years ago. We hugged and laughed. I showed him Jana’s new digs coming to completion in the addition to our house. Just friends. Not teacher and student anymore, just friends.

He has a teaching chemistry. Combine knowledge of a subject and a creative way of imparting it and it creates exothermic, energy-producing, reactions. His classroom antics and inspiration are seen in the lives of his students decades later. Peace and hunger activists. Environmental activists. World travelers. Authors.

Makers and eaters of homemade ice cream.

He signed my senior yearbook under his faculty picture that year. It’s at the top of this post. “I wish you the best in everything in the future,” he wrote 38 years ago.

A wish that has come true, and not because of magic thinking.

A wish come true because of teaching chemistry.

The Politics of Hope

crabapple tree in bloomIt’s started.

Our great American political circus, I mean the presidential campaign season, has started for 2016. Cruz is in! Rubio is in! Hillary is in! (In case you don’t know me, that last one makes me happy. 🙂 )

“I still believe in a place called ‘Hope,'” said the last president named Clinton.

I still believe in that place as well, although I don’t find it in the political circus or any of the performers in that ring, even Hillary.

But I don’t blame politics for that. I just blame what we have let the meaning of that word become.

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary the fifth listed definition of politics is this:

the total complex of relations between people living in society

Total. Complex. Relations. Between people. Living. In society.

It’s what has been modeled for me in the body of Christ – the church – a place that has struggled with politics since its birthday two thousand years ago, and yet still walks on, humbly and imperfectly. With hope.

Its totality: global, existing in its varied parts across the whole planet. I have walked with my brothers and sisters – the eyes and ears and limbs I cannot get along without – in Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Germany, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria. It’s a big family!

It’s complex: orthodox, catholic, reformed, apostolic, evangelical, monotheistic but based on a trinitarian dance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It’s relational: in worship, in creeds, in sacrament – sharing life together with the one who gives us life.

Between people: and among people! Caring for each other in crisis. Praying at the bedside of the dying. Feeding the hungry. Standing with the oppressed and imprisoned. Seeing the value of our human lives as our created made us. High and low, young and old, male and female. Between. Among. Connected.

It’s living: ISIS can’t destroy it (although it is trying); purveyors of the prosperity gospel can’t dilute it and sell it like indulgences (although they try). Its message of the real good news – death is defeated! – puts air in our lungs.

In society: I have seen it care for the least of these in a home for the handicapped in Ludwigsburg, Germany. I have it walked with it among Syrian refugees in camps in Lebanon. I have heard it shouted from displaced Iraqis now in Kurdistan: we may have lost everything, but we still have Jesus! It will not be silenced. It is in the public square and ministering there.

And that is where I find hope in politics. Not in the mud-slinging that is to come as we sort out who our leaders should be, but there in that buried fifth definition from Merriam-Webster.

I find hope in that crabapple tree on our back patio. It’s roots are bound by concrete on all but one side, and yet every year it pushes out those gorgeous pink blossoms which will fall like snow in a week. The blossoms will wither and descend. The tree will hibernate in the fall. And then…BAM! Here they are again.

John 1:14 says the word was made flesh and pitched its tent with us. The complex totality of the word of God moved into the neighborhood, into our society, to live with us.

And hope is here still.