This is a story that was passed along to us after my dad died. This is how it came to us:
Two of my sisters, my two young nephews, my mother and I had traveled east to the town north of Boston which was my dad’s hometown. My sister, Sarah, especially wanted to go so her boys could meet our dad’s younger brother. For they carry few if any memories of their grandfather and she wanted to give them this picture of a piece of their own history.
So we sat on the deck on a warm summer’s night and Uncle Rod told stories. It turns out both he and my dad shared a flare for the dramatic for this is how this story began,
“Tommy always had the heart of a lion. Sometimes more than what was good for him.”
From there he went on to share a childhood memory from when my dad would have been twelve and Rod would have been ten. It seemed there was a playground bully who made it a habit of terrorizing younger children.
Now if you remember my dad you will recall that he was not a large man. He played football in high school, but at 150 pounds he was the smallest player on the roster. Yet, he loved the game and apparently he played without fear so he always played. If he was 150 pounds at 18, just imagine how much smaller he must have been in the 6th grade.
Although he never shared this particular story, when we were children my dad would tell us about some of the playground skirmishes he had been involved in when he was young. His stepdad’s work had them moving into new schools regularly and there was always a new pecking order to find one’s place in and apparently he was never one to back down from a fight… although it’s hard to imagine he ever went looking for one. Perhaps this shaped in him some of his fearlessness, some of that ‘lion’s heart’ his brother remembered. I like to think the story I’m about to tell came from something deeper though… some sense of right and wrong and the courage to stand up for those most vulnerable who need protection.
Now as I said, we didn’t hear this story until long after he died. Although I do remember him on the phone with his brother one time, laughing over old memories and saying, “I wonder what ever happened to Dick O’Keefe.”
Dick O’Keefe seems like a good name for a playground bully, don’t you think? My Uncle Rod remembered Dick as a big kid — looming over my dad in both height and weight.
And so the story went: One day when Dick O’Keefe decided to go after a first grader, apparently my dad had had enough. So he stepped between the bully and the 6-year-old and told him to pick on someone his own size. And Dick O’Keefe went after him instead.
My dad didn’t win the fight that day. Uncle Rod remembers joining him in the boy’s room after recess and helping him clean the blood off his face. He didn’t win the fight that day, but his little brother remembered his ’lion’s heart’ 70 years later and passed that story onto his great-nephews, his brother Tom’s grandsons.
The Gospel that is ours to share this week-end speaks of picking up our crosses as we follow after Jesus. This command, this invitation, has always seemed to me to be best understood as sacrifice not for its own sake, not for our own sakes, but for the sake of others. If we understand Jesus to be not only our gift, but also our mentor and model, it must be so, don’t you suppose? We are to pick up our crosses always especially for the small, the vulnerable, the helpless. People like first graders on the playground being terrorized by a bully three times their size.
Oh, I know this is probably easier for 12 year olds…. Unless you’re twelve years old. I do expect there is ever more at stake for us as we grow older, when there is seemingly more to lose and less to gain by giving up, giving away, taking on the suffering of others. But in the end, I do wonder if anything else really matters. Indeed, in the end, I hope I will be remembered as having the ‘heart of a lion’ — not for my own sake, but for the sake of this world God so loves — this world full of six-year-olds of all sorts and types for whom my stepping in the path of a bully —- whatever form that bully may take — may just make all the difference.
And you know, almost as an afterthought that summer’s night my Uncle Rod told us that somehow Dick O’ Keefe didn’t wield the same power on the playground after that. Even though he won that particular battle, he seemed less inclined to go looking for a fight again —- perhaps because one with the ‘heart of a lion’ picked up his 12-year-old’s cross and allowed himself to be beaten so a six-year-old wouldn’t be.
- When you hear Jesus say we are to pick up our cross and go after him, what does that mean to you?
- How does cross-bearing look different in the life of a 12-year-old than your own? What is alike?
- Can you think of a time when another has taken on suffering or pain in your behalf? Can you recall a time when you were called to that in behalf of another?
- Keep your eyes open in the days to come for examples of ‘cross-bearing’ —- those that catch your attention in your own life and those you see in the larger world. How are they like or unlike Jesus’ sacrifice for us?
- Spend some time thinking deeply about Jesus’ sacrifice for us. What does it mean to you?