RICK’S BLOG


BARREN by Pastor Ken Rickett

BARREN by Pastor Ken Rickett

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Last week while driving through East Central Indiana into Ohio, I was struck by the barrenness of the landscape. Not only were the trees sporting leafless limbs and the fields still showing the brown stubs of last year’s soybean and corn harvests, but the yards of the homes along our route were starkly lacking the vibrant colors of growing and flowering fauna. Only a few evergreen trees and shrubs dared to show a contrast to their otherwise unappealing, brownish surroundings. Even livestock in pastures were munching on beige-colored dried grass (hay).

However, I saw signs. Only two farmers were riding tractors, harrowing the moist soil, and revealing the promising dark brown fresh soil awaiting the seeds of this year’s crop. And, incredibly, a handful of fields revealed the peeping greenness of winter wheat growing in long, straight rows. But the near freezing temperatures and the gray skies dared me to hope that these signs would not be an aberration to a coming spring.

Barrenness. And promise.

In the mountains of North Carolina, I have fond memories of driving by the blue waters of the small Lake Junaluska located near Waynesville, NC. A Methodist Retreat Center, homes for retired ministers, and other residences line the hillside streets in which there is a view of the reflective waters of the Lake in which sunrises and sunsets could be seen in its breath-taking hues. But on Facebook this morning, I saw a drone photo of a drained, and empty Lake Junaluska. Creeping through the middle of the basin was a narrow creek that had been dammed to create the Lake. The reason for draining the Lake? Over the long years, the Lake had become filled with silt that had been carried into the Lake by heavy rainfalls that washed soil from nearby hillside fields. Consequently, the shallower the Lake depth, the less it could support game fish, or provide food for migrating geese, or permit safe boating. This photo was one of barrenness, with sharp outlines of the old shoreline. Come spring, heavy equipment will dig and haul the silt away.

So with barrenness, there remains promise, hope.

The Bible speaks of barrenness. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was barren, that is, without child, until she had lived long beyond the age to bear children. The promise of God that she would bear a child kept hope alive and brought joy at its fulfillment with the birth of Isaac.

The scriptures also tell us of barrenness due to drought, and barrenness of fishermen who labored all night without catching fish. And in a way, there are passages that portray the poor as barren of necessities, and in need of the generosity of others.

As always, barrenness is met with sheer hope that is sometimes, if not often, fulfilled; and barrenness is often met with the ministry of other people. Either way, God never abandons nor forsakes. Even if death comes in barrenness, God gives what God can only give to His own people, that is the abundant life (zoe) forever…filled with love and joy.

Barrenness. If the truth be told, daily news is mostly about barrenness or approaching barrenness. What else is new? Even the prophets spoke of a barrenness that would befall sinful people. Those in Babylonian exile suffered a great barrenness, feeling cut off from both their native land and their God. At the time that Jesus was born, a great barrenness had arisen in the land because of Greek and Roman rule AND because of a blind spirituality among the people, including many religious leaders.

And in this season of LENT we wrestle with our barrenness. It is not what we give up for Lent that is our priority, rather our priority is to become acutely self-aware and congregationally self-aware of our barrenness….and our need for a hope that raises us up from this barrenness. Only with a keen sense of barrenness can we exclaim with joy on Easter Sunday morning that “Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.” Jesus did not arise on his own; God raised Him from the deepest depths of barrenness…and to be raised from the depths of our barrenness is our hope, our promise, our joy, our true value before God.


PAPER MOONS & CARBOARD SEAS

PAPER MOONS & CARBOARD SEAS

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The lyrics to “IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON” always remind me of when I was a child, I was fascinated by theatrical productions not because of the performances, but because of the sets.  The first time, when I was very young, that I walked backstage and saw the visual tricks used to make the audience believe what they were seeing was real…while knowing it was not. Now, more than ever, and after several years in professional and community theatre, I am fascinated by the craft of theatrical scenic design and execution.

I am currently in the middle of another show, this time my own script and music. Although this show doesn’t have much of a set (other than the beautiful setting of THE ANDERSON MUSEUM OF ART) I am still amazed by the art of “set design” and construction.

To sit in an audience and KNOW, in your mind, that the space you are looking at is simply a box open to the audience, but what you see is a lavish, marble-paneled palace interior, or a forest, or a village green…that kind of “suspension of belief” is a skill and somewhat mysterious gift given to designers who often need to be engineers of sorts as well. The process of making one thing look like another and putting the audience in a frame of mind, sucking them into the story, is still a wonderful experience for me.

When one takes a trip backstage to see the “magic” revealed, the experience can be, as it is for me and some others, an even more fascinating time.  However, for others, the magic is gone once they realize that what they see is not the truth: that brick wall is a façade of a quarter-inch plastic…that tree is made of papier-mâché, as are the solid-looking-weather-worn stones.  The sky?  Material with blue light on it…and the stars, merely electronics.

The  papier-mâché tree wouldn’t stand light rain, much less a storm.  The house has only three sides and is made of cardboard, some would, some paint…no one in their right mind would want to LIVE there.  The stones wouldn’t support a small animal, much less be shelter or foundation for more building.  The set is only a reproduction and real only to the audience…and much of that is in their own minds.

INTEGRITY.  The word describes what is incorruptible, sound and complete.  Integrity is something that truly is, on the inside, what it appears to be on the outside.  If it looks like a tree or a stone, or a brick wall, on the outside…INTEGRITY demands that it BE a tree, or stone, or brick wall on the inside.

A related word, INTEGRAL, suggests completeness, wholeness, and trueness.  It’s root from a practice, in Roman days, of filling in the cracks of poorly made, or not so fine, marble columns with wax so that they would appear more perfect (more “integral”).  Of course, later, the hot sun would melt the wax and the buyer would realize that the “good deal on columns” was a bad deal for his house.

Are you what you appear to be?  Do all of us present an “audience side” to those we want to please or “perform for”?  Sometimes we do.  Being “nice” is not what being a Believer & Follower is all about…being “good” is.  Nice is “façade”, put on for some, but not for others. “Good” implies that at our core we have the Spirit of God burning as a furnace and warming from the inside out.  The scripture warns us that a façade will not stand the test of life…eventually what is TRULY in our hearts will come through.  The papier-mâché of our own stage set will wear quickly away…and if there is nothing but chicken wire and cardboard behind it, our friends will know…worse, we will not have the strength to merely walk through life.

 Let’s build from the inside out…start with a good designer, our Heavenly Father.


ASH WEDNESDAY

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I love traveling.  I love seeing our beautiful world and the people in it. In fact, as wonderful as all the scenery and cultures I’ve experienced are, it’s the people that are most fascinating. I’m an introvert at heart, and I like to sit in the back and see the whole picture, as wide a field as possible.  And when travelling, my favorite thing is find a quiet table, bench, or palm tree…and sit watching people.

We are a fascinating species, all types, all personalities, and yet similar. I, jokingly, like to say that God only has a few “molds” He uses in building us; and so, He uses some over and over. That’s ridiculous, of course, as even the most similar are as different as snowflake crystals or sand on the beach – but it’s a fun game. I watch young parents with their children. Children seem to be the same throughout the world. I watch older couples, helping each other navigate the tours, the shops, and the uneven walkways. Then there are the wealthy, the elegant, the plain, and the boisterous. I see the friendly, and the not-so-friendly, the grumpy, and the funny. It’s always a wonderful collection of sameness & difference.

On this day, ASH WEDNESDAY, I am thinking of the ashes, Palm Sunday, people, and the journey each of us together. Our bodies move toward an end, while our souls grow and finally break through. Where our souls travel, when free of these bodies, is taken on faith. We all have an idea as to what will happen when the soul breaks free, and we argue with each other about it; wasting time that could be used to connect to each other, as Jesus has asked us to do.

As for our bodies, we should all KNOW what is going to happen. And not just bodies, but our lands, our homes, our countries, and our kingdoms. It’s not just faith and religion that teach us about this cycle of beginnings and endings…it is life observed, and history itself. All human things end, whether individual humans or communities of humans, large and small. Hardly anything symbolizes that truth more than ASH WEDNESDAY.

Where do the ashes we use at Central come from? The ashes we use are the ashes of the palms used the prior Palm Sunday; mixed with olive oil which is infused with frankincense and myrrh. Once the palms are burned, ground down and mixed, they are preserved. In fact, at Central, the ashes I’ve used for sixteen years (my Anniversary with Central Christian Church was this past Saturday, February 18th), predate me by two to three ministers at least. I have only added some ashes, but they are combined with ashes from Palm Sundays past. The alabaster jar that holds Central’s ashes also holds the representation of at least three generations of parishioners, pastors, elders, deacons, and stories here in the heart of the heartland…and now, it’s all ash.

The palms that symbolize the crowds in Jerusalem wishing for and welcoming what they imagined was an “earthly” kingdom, are now dust – reminding us that the “earthly” kingdom is not what our King came to inaugurate – HIS Kingdom is “not FROM, or OF, this world”. HIS Kingdom doesn’t turn to ash. But our kingdoms, our countries, our homes, and our bodies…do.

We are all headed in that direction. No matter our diversity, no matter our likeness, we all travel to that location. That knowledge alone should cause us to be treat others with kindness, love, patience, and help. The knowledge of the shared destination of all our lives should cause us to live every moment on this earth, in this body, with intention. But does it?

This isn’t really bad news; it’s the way of life as physical life was created to be – but “Life” (with a capital “L”) isn’t defined by things that turn to ash. “Life”, according to what I believe and teach, transcends nations, communities, and human bodies. I believe our souls will land in new bodies that don’t turn to ash, in a land that always remains green, lush, diverse, and colorful – like the immortal life that will inhabit it with our King, Jesus.

My time at Central, in Anderson, and on this earth will one day be represented in the palm fronds I have burned and mixed with ashes from times before, and pastors who have served and moved on, along with their parishioners.  My soul has already started packing for another trip. The Kingdom of MY King has already been created.

So take the ashes and remember: we are all on the same physical journey, and it might be your responsibility to show (without words, but with action) someone else the way to “a lifeboat.” On the way, offer your hand, your smile, and your love, because Jesus asks you to. Also, as different as we all may be, and no matter where we started – we may not all be “in the same boat”, but we are quite possibly all “in the same storm.”

Every moment has its time.

Every person has their place.

Don’t brush aside either,

Or you may also brush aside

God’s wish for you to either

ENJOY or BE the miracle. 


THE LINEBACKER GROOM

THE LINEBACKER GROOM

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She was a petite, beautiful, blonde girl who fell in love with a college linebacker while in school.  Back at home, in my home church, she asked me (still a high school student) to sing THE LORD’S PRAYER at her wedding.  Although I had done a few weddings already, this was still early on in my “sing for/playing for/presiding over” wedding career, and I was honored.

None of us had met or even seen her fiancé until the day he arrived for the wedding, from his home state of Oklahoma.  It was a Saturday in July, on the desert side of my home state.  It was a sunny one-hundred-and-three degrees…but it was a DRY heat.  The old home sanctuary’s ancient cooling system (I’m not even sure they CALLED it air-conditioning at that point) was not keeping up.  But the sanctuary was beautiful; filled with hundreds upon hundreds of pink and cream roses.

The bride was beautiful, and the groom…?  Well, he can be best described as “the largest object in the room” and easily the biggest man I have ever seen.  The presiding minister was five-ten and had to stand on one of the boxes the youth of the church used for one of their “musicals”, just to be seen by the congregation.

The groom was probably as uncomfortable with his suit as his suit was with him.  And did I say it was hot?

The time came.  The vows and rings had been said and exchanged, and it was time for the prayer.  The Pastor nodded to me, and the pianist began the familiar arpeggio intro to THE LORD’S PRAYER.  I began singing.  Now, this is a song I knew so I could kind of watch the proceedings (which was supposed to be prayer and communion for the couple) while I sang.  What I saw was a groom who started swaying, and then…to the horror of all present…started slowly falling forward, threatening to crush the Pastor.  The bride threw down her bouquet and grabbed her future husband’s tree-trunk arm to keep him up, as effectively as a squirt gun in a forest fire.

The Pastor yelled (yes, more like screamed) “Somebody help!”, while indicating me to keep singing.  BOTH fathers jumped up and ran to intervene, as they got closer, they frantically indicated to the assembly for MORE MEN!

Meanwhile, I’m singing THE LORD’S PRAYER.  Is anyone praying?  It was the strangest underscore to the scene before me that I could imagine.  In the end it took ten average-sized men to gently lower the groom to a sitting position until he came to.

The wedding reception was held (as always, back in the day) in the church’s next-door fellowship hall.  I meandered back for cake, mints, nuts and pink punch.  The first person I saw was the bride’s mother, who came directly to me and said, “She wants you to go get him out of the kitchen, he won’t come out.  She figured you’d be the best one to talk to him.”

Because…? And what?  Remember, I was a MUSICIAN (read: scrawny, non-jock) and this was a southern states linebacker.  Guys like that snap guys like me in tiny pieces, just as a light workout.  I also didn’t know him.  But, with a little prayer and naivete I entered the kitchen.  There I found a man, a few years older than me, as big as the house I grew up in, sitting in the corner…crying.

I went over and said hi, sat by him and introduced myself.
“Nice singing.” He said, “I can’t go out there…I ruined her wedding…everybody’s laughing.”

And this big guy suddenly became a small boy.  I didn’t (and still don’t) have the wisdom of Solomon, Ghandi or Dr. Phil at that point, so I probably said some stupid things.  Thankfully I don’t remember.  What I do remember is that he exited the kitchen to a loving crowd of people, I exited a hero, and I became friends with a really great guy.

Aside from the obvious life lesson: “If you’re going to get married on the hottest day of the year in an un-airconditioned church, be sure to ask the groom if he’s allergic to roses” …

…there is another lesson: “You don’t know someone until you GET TO KNOW them.”

We look on the outside, but God looks on the heart. (I SAMUEL 16:7) I’m prone to label and judge, and my guess is that some of you are also.  This early lesson to me was that the outsides don’t always advertise what’s inside.  And if you label too quickly, you might miss something wonderful. 


THE CHEVY

THE CHEVY

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Years and years ago, when I was but a wee lad of 30 (1988) I took a dream trip to the U.S.S.R. (back when it WAS the U.S.S.R.). I traveled as a composer who, together with a Soviet composer, an American playwright, and a Soviet playwright, wrote a musical to be performed by an acting troupe of High School actors from both the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A. (a local youth theatre from the Pacific Northwest).  We had a truly life-changing time, getting to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway, watching the country go by and ending up in Novosibirsk, Siberia where we rehearsed together and learned from each other.

There were many warm and wonderful people that we met, and many of them were eager to tell us all that THEY knew and loved about America.  This was the age of perestroika and glasnost; the country was much more open and people more willing to be free about their opinions.  There was a genuine friendship and willingness to connect with the Americans.  These people wanted us to know that they admired many things about us and our culture.

One of our hosts showed us photos that she had collected from “grey-market” LIFE magazines: pictures of Presidents past, photos and articles of space exploration, as done by the U.S.  There was the English Teacher, who wanted to always speak English with us, so that she could practice her idioms.

Then there was the 60-something-year-old man in Siberia who, after a dinner at his home (a larger apartment, because he was a high-ranking party member), and a few glasses of vodka, wanted to show us his pride and joy.  We walked outside to the back of the complex where he led us to a series of locked garages (cars were a luxury and there were few of them) where he unlocked the padlock, opened a small door within the garage door, turned on a light and we looked in disbelief at a spotless garage containing a shiny, like-new, baby-blue, American, 1957 Chevy.

Even those of us (like me) who didn’t know much about cars were astounded at several things: it was in pristine condition, inside and out, it was sitting on a large oriental rug…AND IT WAS AN AMERICAN ’57 CHEVY in the middle of Siberia!

I’ve forgotten much of the story, told by him through our interpreter, but remember enough that it was a gift given to him by a German who acquired it from an American soldier.  It was sent to this man (Ivan was his name, I believe) in pieces, which he put together by find photos of the vehicle…which was not easy at that time.  He was a tool and die maker in Siberia, so he fashioned implements he couldn’t find.  His eyes filled with tears when he saw the astonished admiration of the teen-aged boys who looked at every detail…and encouraged them, and us, to go ahead and touch it…he would polish it again tomorrow.

We left a very happy man, tinkering with it in his garage that night.  But before we left, the interpreter with us, my new friend Misha, called me over to the hood of the car and said…”look at this”.  He opened the hood and inside was…nothing.  There was no engine.  Ivan had received some parts of the engine, but not enough yet to rebuild it…partially because the engine parts were so valuable that he used some of them to fix the car that he actually drove.

What we had here was a beautiful vehicle, looking like it hadn’t aged a day since it left the factory in the U.S.A…but its main purpose was all but forgotten.

There are Believers & Followers…and even entire congregations…who are just like that car.  We look good on the outside, and even sparkle with beauty.  But our intended purpose is missing.  This is a person/church without the Breath of God.  The entire PURPOSE of a 1957 Chevy is transportation.  The beautiful design and structure is to cover, protect and enhance the performance of the engine…the purpose is to carry people and things from one place to other.  Somehow in this story the design & structure became a shell…the purpose being lost.  Sometimes the design and structure of a Believer & Follower or a congregation becomes the MOST important thing and POWER (The Holy Spirit/Breath of God) is gone and can’t support the PURPOSE.  So, churches polish the structure and make sure that it’s a beautiful “vehicle” that doesn’t go anywhere.

The lesson?  “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”, let’s surround ourselves with a beautiful structure ONLY after we are assured that the engine is powered by the Breath of God, and tuned to His Word.  Only then can we get the car out of the garage and see the world today, in our Chevrolet! 


CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

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I recently saw an “inspirational” décor piece, in a store, that astounded me. The quote was a scripture, and the red flag for me was the scripture reference…not because I know every scripture reference to every scripture, but I DID know approximately what was happening during this scripture portion. The block of wood, beautifully printed in muted tones, so as to be a subtle reference to the owner’s allegiances in a cozy room somewhere, had this scripture printed on it:

“I will give You all these things if You will fall down and worship me.” Matthew 4:9

Now the first thing that hit me was the seemingly ever-present teaching that it’s “all about me”, in other words, if I am a Believer & Follower I will get a bunch of good stuff. First, Jesus doesn’t teach that, and neither does He teach that you or I are the only members of the Kingdom. But what struck me was the scripture reference itself; something was amiss.

I looked on my handy iPhone Bible, sure enough, some important information and context were missing…enough to make this piece of “Christian art” laughable. I was right when I thought this passage was in the middle of the “temptations” of Jesus following His baptism. Where does this passage take place? On a very high mountain. Who is speaking? Satan. And to whom is he speaking? Jesus. The irony of seeing this in a consumer marketplace was overwhelming.

However, once you analyze it, it’s not funny anymore. It IS a good lesson about “context” and pulling phrases or words OUT of context and then reading or hearing something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than what was intended. In the study of scripture especially, this is called PROOF TEXTING – proof text: (noun) a singular Scriptural passage produced as proof for an entire theological doctrine, belief, or principle.

Pulling scripture out of context is recognized by almost everyone as an error someone else is guilty of it, but unfortunately tolerated by almost everyone when used to fashion THEIR OWN argument, view, or doctrine. It is a difficult thing to avoid because there are so many quotable and singular verses that say much in few words. It’s difficult not to ignore the verses around and just focus on the one that sounds best to you. Worse, when one has a particular viewpoint they are trying to argue, or a particular part of their own personal or corporate theology and doctrine they are trying to promote, it seems that quoting scripture without context can be quite useful to substantiate any and every view. That practice of “proof texting” has been used to form entire theologies and doctrines…for hundreds of years!

Don’t ignore CONTEXT – The three questions we, as Believers & Followers, must ask of every scripture we read are these:
WHO is speaking?
TO WHOM are they speaking?
WHAT IS THE CONTEXT in time and place?
Only then can a student of the Scripture get closer to what the original intended audience heard, THEN we can know the core of what God says to all places and times. If one doesn’t understand which festival was being observed when Jesus shouted out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink!” (John 7:37) and why that would be controversial at that specific time and place, then they do not get the REAL and FULL meaning of the phrase. It is just like the words, “keep away from children” on the aspirin bottle…if you don’t know the context, it’s just plain funny…AND SAYS SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.

When we look for “feel good” passages of scripture that promise “health & wealth” we ignore the COMMUNITY of THE KINGDOM – for the sake of individual, and sub-group arguments. Since the 1970’s our religion has turned very egocentric at the expense of community. Ours is not a Faith that is practiced theoretically or individually, it is a Faith that is exercised through action-love to others; that is how we are to be identified in the world, and how we will be judged at the end of this age. 

“Judas went out and hanged himself.” (Matthew 25:7) is rarely a verse anyone pulls out of context and builds an entire theology around, and for good reason…it is not necessarily about us, it is information, as many other scriptures are, as well. For those who believe that EVERY verse speaks to EVERY person of EVERY time and place, this may be a matter of semantics, or it may be a difficult hurdle to jump. Much of the scripture was written for specific people, specific needs, at a specific time…there may be a problem of relevancy to every word in the scripture today, or in any other time. But in the center of every scripture (within context) is a Kingdom Principle.

Why do the folks in my congregation wear clothes manufactured with blended fabric, even though the law of the Old Testament specifically commands us differently? Because:

  1. we don’t live according to the law, we live by the grace of God in Jesus, and
  2. that law doesn’t apply to us…and when we Believe & Follow Jesus we fulfill all law.

Every verse does not speak to every person in every time and place, but the core principles of those verses do carry a common thread and Kingdom principle that speak to all at every time.  The verse about Judas isn’t a command for me or anyone else to do likewise, but in the context of the story there is a lesson about the desolate nature of turning away from the grace that is God.

Out of context scriptures can ignore wholeness. The main reason it is dangerous is because it looks at scripture as if it were a bunch of little pieces, unconnected from other little pieces, instead of seeing each verse, each chapter, and each book as part of the whole. Why do reasonable Believers & Followers think that slavery is a bad concept for humans who love God? Is it because there is a specific verse that says so? No, it’s because when one reads/studies THE WHOLE OF SCRIPTURE and gets to know God OFF THE PAGE as well, one clearly sees that everything points to a Truth that says “people are not to be owned by others”. This leads to another flaw of IGNORING WHOLENESS, “the scripture is the best commentary on itself.” When one verse or odd collection of various out-of-context verses sit next to THE WHOLE of Scripture and God do they align? If not, it’s most probably not the scripture that’s in the wrong…it is most probably lack of study, poor translation, or resistance of the reader to “re-search” and be open to a different reading than they may want or know.

Scripture out of context sometimes ignores priorities. The WHOLE of Scripture points in one direction…to the person of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus is the point, Jesus is the hub, Jesus is the paradigm through which ALL of scripture has to be seen…or the rest of scripture makes no sense. His words and actions have priority. It makes sense that if the book is ABOUT HIM then His ideas and His theology take precedent over all the rest.

I have watched good friends divide over some national issues and have read many arguments that use Scripture passages (or U.S. Constitution passages) out of context (on both sides). This is perhaps the most important point: the disturbing word here is “USED”. The Scripture is not to be USED by anyone as an instrument of attack, especially for their own agenda. Pulling verses out of the scripture to make them fit what one wishes to be truth and then calling it God’s truth because all the words came from scripture is like me cutting a Picasso up into one hundred pieces and gluing the pieces back together haphazardly and still calling it a Picasso.

When “re-searching” the scripture remember to ask:

WHO is speaking?
TO WHOM are they speaking?
WHERE & WHEN is this taking place?

Our prime objective is TO KNOW GOD AND THE ONE HE SENT (John 17:3) But…all the Bible Study in the world does not override empathy, compassion, and plain old LOVE. No scripture verse has dominance over the continual message of Jesus: LOVE EACH OTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU – in other words, YOU LOVE ME BY LOVING EACH OTHER: friend, family and foe…even “to the least of those.”


A BALLAD OF WONDER by Pastor Ken Rickett

A BALLAD OF WONDER by Pastor Ken Rickett

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Note: This story is based on an article by Dr. John Hood “Local Tie to Classic song ‘I Wonder As I Wander’ in the newspaper Cherokee Scout, published December 27, 2023.

John Jacob Niles born 1892 in Kentucky got his first job in the Burroughs Adding Machine Company in 1910, selling the hand-cranked novelty to customers. With an ear for music, he was always engaged in his hobby of discovering folk songs that he heard. World War I broke out in Europe during the year 1917, and Niles enlisted in the US Army Air Services and fought in France where he was wounded. He began his study of music there and upon returning to the States, he enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and became a singer on stage and radio.

His hobby, his passion, of seeking old folk songs led him to take several trips in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. One such trip in the summer of 1933 led him to Murphy, the county seat of Cherokee County, NC (my home county). While there, a drama was unfolding as a poor family (surname Morgan), camped on the town square for some time and police, in response to complaints, insisted that they leave. Being revivalists, Preacher Morgan stated that he lacked the money to feed and clothe his family, nor could he afford the gas to drive his ramshackle vehicle out of town. So, what happened next? A little platform had been attached to their car, and a girl, Annie Morgan, stepped out and began to sing. Niles states that her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she needed a good bath. Her ash-blond hair hung in long skeins. Yet, she was beautiful, and she could sing. She smiled as she sang, singing a single line of a song.

Niles quickly jotted down the notes and gave the girl seven quarters and she repeated the fragments of the song seven times. Now, Niles had the raw materials for what he believed to be an old ballad from Scotland. In the morning the Morgan family was gone…to where, nobody knows. But John Jacob Niles was mesmerized by the haunting notes sang by the girl.

Ninety years ago on December 19, 1933, after hearing the notes earlier that summer from little Annie Morgan, John Jacob Niles was at the John C. Campbell Folk School that straddles both Cherokee and Clay Counties, North Carolina. He sang:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

How Jesus the Saviour came for to die

For poor on’ry people like you and I

I wonder as I wander out under the sky 

There’s a mystery here regarding the word “on ‘ry” because some people add another “r” and it becomes “or’ n ‘ry” and phonetically it sounds like “ordinary”. Which is it? “On ‘ry” could mean “ornery” or “cantankerous”. However, an old northern English or Scotch pronunciation of “ordinary” was “or ‘n ‘ry” in everyday dialect, the word may have sounded like “or ‘ry.” However, Niles needed two syllables, not three to fit the tune. In the North Carolina mountains, largely settled by the Scotch-Irish, it seems as if “on ry” was said with a sense of pride in being ordinary folks and it was said of those persons perceived as being arrogant or stubborn or hard-headed.

When Annie Morgan sang for Niles that summer, just after the police had asked them to move, can’t you see her express amazement that God would become flesh in Jesus so that ‘poor on ‘ry people” (ornery) people like her family would find redemption?

I can! 

I wonder as I wander…in awe…..about this marvelous grace!


PATTERN & CHANGE

PATTERN & CHANGE

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Along with the normal work-related things in January, I am also doing some music writing/composing. One thing I strive for, in the music I am writing, is to “establish a pattern” (drawing the listener’s ear into a comfort zone) and then break that pattern (keeping the listener’s ear interested and wanting more). Breaking the pattern is sometimes good (getting the listener to notice things) and sometimes it isn’t (causing confusion and leaving the listener lost). Too much “pattern” and the listener stops listening. Too much breaking of the pattern and the listener is frustrated…and stops listening. 

It’s sometimes that way with life. We all have our “favorite burner” on the stove, our “favorite seat” in church, or “favorite side of the sanctuary to sit in”.  We have patterns and habits that we have established for ourselves, and sometimes we go through those patterns mindlessly unless something changes. The danger of “religion” is the setting of patterns without the “breaking” of patterns every-once-in-a-while. Tradition/Ritual/Patterns are comforting. They can also lull us to mindless action. 

In that context, I’m noticing my mind waking up a bit this month. I’m having to establish new patterns (or break the usual ones, depending on how you see it) as I work in a different place, eat in different places than usual, and even worship in a different place, (one where I am a visitor and not the Pastor). Every once in a while I need to be jolted out of the pattern I have set, so that I see things differently.

This last Sunday was away from Central and at my Florida congregation. I didn’t arrive early to open doors, turn on lights, and pray a “Prayer Circle” around the sanctuary (as is my habit/pattern every other Sunday morning). No, this Sunday I arrived just in time to hear the Prelude. Usually (for some unknown reason locked in my DNA) I will sit in the back of the left section of any theatre, church service, or gathering. Again, I’m not sure why, but I’ve always done that. THIS Sunday I thought to myself, “my right eye is half blind, and I have hearing loss in my right ear – so why am I sitting on the left…I should sit on the right.” There were also no openings in the back of the sanctuary, where I would’ve preferred, so I sat in the middle of the room.

A remarkable, and simple, thing happened – I saw and heard more than I usually would. Now, I can hear you say “Of course you did, your left eye and ear can see and hear better than your right.” But I had never thought of that, I had simply done what I always do, despite the fact it made less sense.

And there is a lesson in life as well as composing. Break the pattern for a reason, don’t just break a pattern for the sake of change. When I stopped and THOUGHT about my usual method of “choosing where I would sit in a sanctuary” I realized that part of what I did didn’t fit with who I am NOW. Suddenly I saw and heard from a different angle, literally. And it was better.

“Old habits die hard.” As Benjamin Franklin penned (although the phrase may have been older than him). And sometimes habits, as comfortable as they are, keep us from seeing and hearing things as we should.

There is a danger in too much of the usual pattern as much as there is a danger with too much change. There needs to be a balance. Just as a composer needs to capture the ear with a balance of “pattern” and “breaking of pattern” to keep the listener progressing through the song – our lives need a good balance of “pattern” and “surprise”.

Jesus had “habits”; He rose early to get away from it all and seek quiet time with His Father. He taught in “patterns” so the disciples and the people would listen and be comfortable. But He also left Himself open to every moment and person that presented themselves to Him – never allowing His established “routine/pattern” take precedent over “the moment”. Remember, it was when He was on His way to raise Jairus’ daughter that the woman touched the fringe of His prayer shawl – that was the “breaking of a pattern” for both her AND Him.

There are some patterns we need to establish; not only finding time with God alone, but directing ALL of our inner dialogue/thoughts to Him. We should establish a regularity of giving; ourselves, our time, our gifts, and yes, our money. But like Jesus, we need to be aware that the comfort of our established habits and patterns can lull us into mindlessness, and we should be open at all times for what the Spirit presents us with – “…every moment has its time, every person has their place…”

And so for me, at least here in Florida, I am now sitting on the right-hand side of the sanctuary – basking in a more clear-sighted view, and a fuller sound that comes from “changing a pattern” every-once-in-a-while.


THE OLD LONG TIME AGO by Pastor Ken Rickett

Should old acquaintance be forgot since the Days of Old Long time ago” is one translation in English of the Scottish lyrics penned by poet Robert Burns of Scotland. The poem depicts a couple of men, likely childhood friends, meeting together in a pub after years of being distant. This gap in their relationship is not intentional, rather, it is because, for each of them, life has taken them on their own path. Perhaps a chance encounter at a pub, they desire to chat with each other. So, each orders a drink and each “takes a cup of kindness for auld lang syne,” with memories of the days of long ago. One senses the emotion of joy in re-uniting, but the stronger emotion is one of wistful regret because of the years when “old acquaintances were forgotten.”

In August 2017, I was back in my hometown of Andrews, North Carolina because the total eclipse of the sun was centered directly over the small town. People came from everywhere, including some from foreign countries. The main street of town was closed, and vendors, bounce houses, kiddie rides, food kiosks, etc. lined the streets. When wandering around, by chance, I heard someone call my name. It was an old high school classmate, and she and I hugged. Both of us had just bought a cold drink, and the conversation went as one would expect…” I haven’t seen you in ages! (What a delight!) …. ”Do you have a family?”…”where are you living now?” …what have you been doing (i.e., what profession or career have you been engaged?”). 

All too quickly, by the time we had sipped our drinks down, she had to get back to the booth in which she was a volunteer and I needed to find my wandering family. I have a distinct memory, after we parted, of recalling this old poem of Robert Burns entitled “Auld Lang Syne.” Before the day was out, I had met 4 or 5 of my old classmates (out of a class of 74 people) and delight was experienced in meeting them, but the wistful thoughts of “Old Acquaintances of Long Ago” came to my mind unbidden.

“Auld Lang Syne” speaks volumes about “chronos” (Greek) time; that is, the measurement of time in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, etc. One minister, in a sermon I heard, said “time keeps everything from happening at once.” Because time exists, we have a lifespan, time to rear a family, time to earn a living, time to rest, time to engage in hobbies, time to worship, time to form friendships, time to pursue our dreams (and in so doing, some relationships slide into “old acquaintances), etc. As relentless as the tide breaks against the shore, time, too, is relentless, stopping for no one.

With “chronos” time passing so methodically (tick-tock, tick-tock, etc.), if the truth be told, it is not time itself that shapes our lives, but the choices that we make at various points in time. Case in point: at the close of my senior year in college, I applied for one of the eleven scholarships to for a two-year master’s degree for teaching the deaf, I got a letter saying that I was the 12th in line, and if any of the eleven persons who got the scholarships were to drop out, I would be the next selection. Then, I got an offer from the high school in which I did my student teaching to take a position with them for the next fall. The Social Services department of my home county asked if I would consider a job with them. A letter came saying that I had been accepted at the Southeastern Seminary. I chose to attend the Seminary and the choice I made at that point in time has shaped my life and my career. Without that choice, odds are high that my path may have never crossed with Central Christian Church of Anderson, IN. In “Auld Lang Syne” the two men meeting in a pub after “all these years apart”, were men who made choices at various points in their lives, and in time, their relationship became merely that of an “auld acquaintance.

Over the years Auld Lang Syne has become the song that welcomes the new year when the ball falls at midnight on Times Square as December 31 becomes January 1st. However, the emphasis of this song is not on time gone by and renewal of old times and relationships.

A cup of kindness yet says it all. Kindness toward old friends and acquaintances, and kindness toward oneself. 2024 will be a year in which a cup of kindness should be served in every home, in every community gathering, every national institution, every international summit… 

And Jesus took the cup (of kindness) and blessed it, declaring that sin is forgiven.


THE ODD & UNUSUAL CHRISTMAS STORY by Pastor Ken Rickett

A BLOG by pastor Ken Rickett

Luke 2:15-18

And it came to pass after the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go into Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told to them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 

When my brother and I were old enough (about 12 years old or so) and brave enough to venture into the mountain forests behind our house, we must have walked a considerable distance following a creek flowing from the peaks of the mountains along an old gravel road beside the creek. It was early December and through the bare,

leafless trees, we spied an old cabin through the trees. Summoning our bravest efforts, we walked to the cabin and then looked inside it as the front door had fallen off. Parts of the roof revealed the sky above as some wood shingles had fallen off of this one-room abode and the remaining three or four pieces of furniture were unsalvageable. There was never any electricity to that cabin and a single fireplace spoke of the only source of winter heat. Once home, we told our grandmother what we had discovered, only to quickly realize that she knew all about that cabin. And naturally, a story or two awaited the eager ears of my brother and me. 

My grandmother began, “There was an older man who lived alone in that cabin; his wife had died relatively young and he was determined to stay in his ‘home’ in spite of the effort of his grown offspring to entice him to live with them as these children now lived out of town.”

So, for several years, at Christmastime, my grandmother would send her children, mostly teenagers at that time, to his cabin a couple of days before Christmas with food, candies, and a gift or two that he could use. One year, after these things were delivered to the old man at the cabin, my grandmother’s children were going to search for a Christmas tree in the woods, and therefore they had a hatchet with them.

After the items were delivered, the old man stepped outside the cabin, and just a few yards away was a perfectly shaped holly tree about 6 feet high, and absolutely loaded with red berries (holly trees are native to the southern mountains). My mother (the youngest of the children) commented on the holly tree, saying, ‘that would make an interesting Christmas tree. Before anyone else realized what was going on, the old man grabbed the hatchet out of the hands of my uncle (my mother’s brother) and swiftly cut down the holly tree in one swipe at the base of the tree. When told that he should not have cut down his pretty tree, the old man said,
“Take it, consider it a gift from me to you.”
And then my grandmother continued, “They came home with this lovely holly tree and its red berries, and we all decided that no other decorations were needed, and we all felt that it was indeed our favorite Christmas tree ever!”

A holly Christmas tree! How odd and unusual!

For centuries at Christmastime both homes and churches decked the halls with boughs of holly. Thorny holly leaves, according to legend, symbolized the crown of thorns placed around Jesus’ head while he was crucified on the cross. The red berries represent the blood that flowed from the pierced side of Jesus. In Germany the holly tree is known as “Christ’ Thorn” but with a caveat: in the spring, the tiny, white blooms of the holly tree symbolize purity and wholeness.

Being evergreen, the holly leaves boldly points to eternal life, the hope that Christians share in expectation and faith that we, too, shall be raised in a resurrection as was Jesus and be united with Him for eternity. Ancient Celtics had the practice of placing thorny holly leaves and branches all around their doors and windows so the thorns would capture any evil spirits trying to enter the house. Incredibly, the Celtics believed the woodland fairies would find shelter from the cold by hiding among the stiffer, evergreen holly leaves; hence, holly is also associated with hospitality and welcome to the stranger.

AH! These Celtic practices speak of the sentiment that I have always attached to Christmas. Through Jesus I live in a safe haven, and in a place where strangers are welcome! That speaks to the joy that this one solitary life, Jesus, crucified and resurrected, brings to my heart and soul! 

And so a truth remains: in spite of all the lovely Christmases we remember, they seem to blend in with all the others but. . . occasionally there is a narrative, a story, that once again stirs the imagination with Christmas wonder and awe!

A holly Christmas tree! Can you imagine that?