On Sunday, June 3, 2012 we celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the founding The Open Door, our congregation’s outreach ministry to young people in this community. I was asked to preach a message that would allow us to explore what God has done and open us to what God might be doing next. Our texts included I Samuel 3:1 – 4:1 and Revelation 3:20-22.
For a quarter of a century, I’ve found myself involved in conversations that have involved well-meaning acquaintances who have asked, “Dave, what is The Open Door?”
I have often replied by saying, “Well, it’s a former theater that is a youth center…” Yet as was pointed out in this month’s Church Newsletter, the property at 12 Stratmore Street has been the Open Door longer than it’s been anything else – an A & P Grocery Store, a nickelodeon, a ballet theater and studio. More than that, though, our friend Brian Zeisloft would remind us that the Open Door is not necessarily a place – he taught us to speak of The Open Door Youth Outreach – reflecting the fact that the Open Door is more than geography.
So what is it? I think that from now on, I’m going to say that The Open Door is an acorn farm. I stole that phrase from my first real mentor in ministry, a former pastor here at Crafton Heights named Rick Sweeney. Once, I was complaining about how slowly things move in church, and he said, “Dave, you have to remember that we’re acorn farming here. It takes time.” And he was right, of course. If you came up to my house this afternoon, you could eat a snap pea that I planted less than two months ago. It takes an oak tree anywhere from twenty to fifty years before it produces its first acorn. An acorn farmer is someone who is learning to take the long view and see the big picture.
This morning’s scripture is about an acorn farmer named Eli. You know, the Bible is full of unlikely heroes, but by any account, Eli is an odd person to celebrate. He was a priest of God, but apparently not a very good one. While he had some measure of the Spirit in him, he was apparently pretty lazy. He and his family had a reputation for being greedy. Under Eli’s watch, the spiritual care of the people of God suffered terribly. His sons were simply jerks – and that’s using the nicest word I can think of to use in church. In Eli’s time, and perhaps as a result of Eli’s difficulties, “the word of the Lord” was rare. People could not see what God was doing, or where God was at work. I’m not saying all of that is Eli’s doing, but he’s got to take a lot of the blame for the situation. In fact, the last time we encounter Eli in the scripture is in I Samuel 4, where the 98-year-old priest is described as being fat, blind, and extremely limited in his ability to get around – and he falls off his seat, breaks his neck, and dies.
Eli is, to say the least, an unlikely hero.
Samuel Reading to Eli the Judgments of God Upon Eli’s House, by John Singleton Copely (1780)
But he did this: he taught a kid named Samuel how to hear the Word of the Lord. I know, you heard it – he didn’t get it right on the first try. But he did it. And he taught Samuel how to speak the truth of the Lord – even when that truth was painful or costly. And even though his own sons were arrogant and lazy and evil, somehow Eli taught Samuel to be trustworthy.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that Samuel was “all that and a bag of chips”! No, Samuel could be abrasive and obstinate; he sure had a short fuse! Samuel grew to be what some people might call a “curmudgeon”. But through Samuel, as you have heard, God’s word was heard from Dan to Beersheba – the entire length and breadth of the country.
But more than that: through Samuel, a kid named David received God’s word and promises. This kid, the youngest of a large family, grew up thinking that maybe he could be something special. And, as you may already know, David became the greatest king Israel ever knew.
Yes, he was a murderer and adulterer, among other things. But there’s no denying that David pointed to God’s saving grace better than anyone else in town. So much so that Jesus is often called “the Son of David”.
So, if you’re keeping track at home, we started with a fat, lazy, blind old man who led us to a short-tempered, grouchy prophet. That prophet, in turn, mentored a narcissistic and adulterous shepherd turned warrior turned king and somehow, through all of this, the world changes. Not just individuals, but because of these individuals and their relationships with each other and other people, there is a significant generational change. Reality is altered.
You need to know this: that the world is a profoundly different place because of that conversation that Eli and Samuel had in I Samuel chapter 3 and because of Eli’s ability to stay with Samuel over the long haul. Whatever else he might have been, Eli was an acorn farmer. He did what he could with what he had, and the next generation of faith was richer because of it.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a man who asked me an unusual question. He had been invited to a birthday party for a toddler, and he said, “What should I get for this kid?”
Yeah, that’s a pretty good strategy. When you need to know what to bring to your favorite 1 or 2 year old, ask this 52 year-old guy who hates shopping, is down on consumerism, and can be really irritating if you get him started on the materialistic bent of American society.
So I channeled my “inner Samuel” and gave a grouchy, if prophetic, reply. I said something along the lines of this:
Do you want to do something for that kid? I mean something really nice, really thoughtful, that will change his life forever? I’ll tell you what to do. You love his mother…
When that baby’s mother is just a kid herself and her dad walks out on the family, then you go to the dance recital and cheer her on and tell her she’s beautiful. When she’s 14 and she is longing for significance and to know that she matters, you call her on her birthday and tell her that you are so proud of her. When she is 16 and convinced that most adults, especially her mother, are complete idiots, stay close to her. When she is ready for college, help her with her essays, and make sure she gets them in on time. When she calls home drunk and miserable because she had a fight with her boyfriend, then pray with her. Go to her wedding. Ask about her life. Shape her, and allow her to shape you. You want to do something for her kid? How about you do that for his mother! Because if you are able to love his mother and his father when they are 8, 10, or 14 years old, they’ll be better parents when they are 28 or 30. And that little baby will have a better chance in the world because of what you did decades ago.
When my rant was complete, I was met with a rather blank stare, and my conversation partner meekly replied, “Um, well, I was sort of thinking of a gift certificate to that ‘Build-a-Bear’ place.”
Yeah, sure, you could do that, too, I suppose. If you want to grow snap peas. But if you wanted to grow acorns, you’ve got to show up a lot earlier in the day and stay a lot longer.
Listen: Brian is right in saying that The Open Door is not a place. It’s not a program. I’m not even sure that The Open Door is an outreach. At its best, the Open Door is a space where imperfect people meet other imperfect people in the hopes that amidst all our bungling, the Word of the Lord might be heard in our lives and in our world.
Twenty-five years ago, I was the Director of the Open Door for about a minute and a half. I have been followed by Ed Hartmann, Dave Brown, Dennis Piper, Debbie Weinheimer, Stephanie Maier, Brian Zeisloft, Adam Robinson, Jason Dix, and a thousand volunteers. These people have made a lot of mistakes. We’ve shown a lot of arrogance and impatience and attitude. But they’ve also shown a lot of heart and a lot of vision. And most importantly, perhaps, there have been a lot of dance recital and ball games attended; hundreds of retreats have been led; essays have been coached, late night phone calls have been exchanged, pizza has been eaten, teenage drama has occurred, bail has been paid, money has been lent, and talks have been had.
In short, you’ve had a nice little acorn farm going for the last quarter of a century. Each and every person on that list, and the hundreds I cannot name, has offered something in the hopes that we can help to raise new generations who are better able to hear the Word of the Lord than we are. And I know that is true. One of the privileges that longevity has given to me is the ability to take such amazing delight in watching young people who had very difficult family experiences two or three decades ago becoming amazingly wonderful parents and spouses. Do you see: the Open Door is a place where cycles can get broken and hope can flourish.
And because you’ve given me this microphone, I’d like to take a moment of personal privilege and reflect on two photos that get at what I’m trying to say this morning. Neither of them was taken at 12 Stratmore Street, but both of them have everything to do with growing acorns.
The first photo is from a youth mission trip in 1999 to Buffalo, New York. It is one of my favorite pictures in the whole world because it shows my friend Jessica playing Frisbee in the park. Six years after this photo was taken, Jessica died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The body that is shown here so free and energetic had failed her, and she was only able to move her eyes when she died.
It’s important for me to have this photo, not simply to remember Jessica, but to remember that not every decision, not every plan, not every life turns out the way I think it should. In the last 25 years, I’ve done way too many funerals for people who are younger than me. Babies and kids who have been afflicted by a cruel illness or struck by a car or maybe made some bad choices that led to their own deaths. But this I know: that even when the absolute worst happens, we have the privilege of making sure that nobody has to die alone and that people understand that no tragedy, no mistake, no sin, is so grave as to separate any of us from God’s love for us. Life on the acorn farm means that we hold on to the best that we can see for as long as we can and then we point to the best for eternity for as long as we are able. And the only way to do that is together.
And the second photo is one that was taken about a year after the Open Door opened. That’s little Timmy Salinetro getting ready for a nap in one of his favorite places. And church, let me tell you something: When that photo was taken, I was about to break. I was under a doctor’s care for depression, The Open Door was facing financial difficulty, there were racial tensions in Crafton Heights and instability in the pastoral leadership of this church. Little Timmy is getting ready to take a nap, and I’m a mess.
But we stayed with it. People came, and people left. The ministry of The Open Door got stronger. You hung in there. We practiced listening for the Word of the Lord. And now, a quarter of a century later, the world is changing. Not only is little Timmy a teacher, he’s able to connect with kids far better than I ever dreamt I could. He is a mentor and a guide and is shaping a generation that is yet to come. And it’s not just Timmy. Jennifer is a principal. Stacy is a doctor. All around the world there are young people who have discovered something important about themselves and the world and their God because of the time that they have spent in this web of relationships. Artists and filmmakers and lawyers and construction workers and teachers and bankers and fathers and grandmothers and students and nurses and farmers and missionaries and people of vision and faith and heart and generosity of spirit…they were here. And not only were they here, but they are better able to talk about big ideas, they are more apt to dream big dreams, and they are more likely to help this community hear the Word of the Lord than you or I were at their ages.
One of the things that I’ve noticed about The Open Door is that it seems as though things happen in spurts or waves. There will be a good number of young people who come to a great point in their lives, and then the situation will change for a while and some of the numbers will drop. After a couple of years, we see new leadership rising amongst those we serve.
The Bowthorpe Oak tree in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England
It’s the same with oak trees. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible for a tree, even strong, healthy one, to produce a strong crop of acorns every year. Most oaks bear some each year, and produce a “bumper crop” ever fourth or fifth year. But there’s no hurry – because the tree isn’t going anywhere. A tree that begins producing at 20 or 25 will continue until well past 100 years. In fact, the Bowthorpe Oak, in England, has been around for more than a thousand years. With deep roots and healthy structure, we can count on both trees and The Open Door to continue to produce the seeds of change.
What is The Open Door? One answer that we’ve given in the past is this: The Open Door is a place where children whom God loves can meet people who love God. And that works. For 25 years, that’s what has happened.
There’s one question I’ve been asked more than any other about The Open Door: for a quarter of a century, I’ve been met on the street or on the phone or via text with this query: “is the Open Door open?” When someone asks this, what they really want to know is whether there will be dodgeball tonight, or Cross Trainers, or whatever. That’s not my favorite question, because sometimes it is open and sometimes it’s not.
Maybe a better question is this: Is The Open Door alive? Is it bearing fruit? Praise God that for 25 years, the answer to that query has been “yes”. Thanks be to God, yes. Yes it is. Amen.