Blessed!

 Meditation on Luke 6:17-26

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Pastor Karen Crawford

Feb. 20, 2022

Click here for livestreamed service: https://fb.watch/bkQDKh90hs/

   I had been invited to speak at a luncheon for retired pastors in our presbytery. This was Oct. 2019— during my first year in Coshocton. The gathering was at the First Presbyterian Church in Uhrichsville, where the presbytery office is now. Matt Skolnik, our general presbyter, had invited me to speak.

     The only problem was, the retired pastors didn’t know I was coming. One of the retired pastors told me, right after we were introduced, that they never had a speaker before. They didn’t need a speaker. I think, if she could have, she would have sent me back home to Coshocton. But I stayed, anyway, and had a nice lunch.

    I don’t remember any of the other retired pastors I met that day, except for one gentle man—who didn’t really belong there at all. He was about 90 years young—and FAR from retired. He sat next to me, welcomed me with a big smile, and spent the next hour or two trying to get to know me better. Shy would never be a word that anyone would use to describe the Rev. Don Bartow.

      Don was retired from parish ministry when he got to do what he had always longed to do. He is the founder of “The Total Living Center.” It was truly an act of faith—the whole ministry—right from the beginning. He bought an old church building in Canton to set up this new kind of helping place where people in need could get, if not all the help they needed, pretty darn close to it. It operates completely on donations. It isn’t a homeless shelter, but it is a place of refuge; the doors are open every day to people who feel tossed about in the storms of their lives. The full title of the center discloses its mission, “A Bridge of Healing and Compassion in Canton.” Here’s Don in front of TLC:   

   TLC offers free meals, free groceries, free medical care, free laundromat, free haircuts—counseling, mentoring, and friendship. The support allows families and individuals to focus on their personal growth, family health, and stability while having basic needs met on a consistent basis. TLC’s chapel offers worship, healing services, and evangelism events.  Don, I would find out in my conversation that day, wrote numerous books on healing and prayer.  He appeared on national Christian television and radio shows: the 700 Club, the PTL Club, Trinity Broadcasting Network, and 100 Huntley Street. In 1984, Don traveled to Washington D.C. to open the US Congress with prayer. In July 1991, he was designated Pastor Emeritus of Canton Westminster Presbyterian Church, after serving as pastor for 25 years.

    I drove home feeling encouraged in my ministry that day, because of Don.

    Within a week, a package arrived for me in the mail. Don had sent me information about the Total Living Center—and a hard copy of his novel called, “The Gospel According to Mary, Mother of Jesus.”   The book is written in the form of a letter from Mary, when she is old, writing to her son, Joses, telling the story of her life as Jesus’ mother.

    I felt blessed to have Don as a friend and co-laborer for the Kingdom.

    The Sermon on the Plain, the Beatitudes of Luke, is our gospel reading today.   This passage in Luke, read in conversation with the Psalm and Jeremiah reading, is about putting our trust in God and having faith and courage to live out the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus reveals to his disciples long ago—and to us now, living in the 21st century.

     The word that stands out to me in our gospel reading is the word translated:  BLESSED. This doesn’t mean Jesus is invoking a blessing on those he is describing. And it doesn’t mean some kind of future wish list—when the poor, hungry, grieving, and persecuted followers of Jesus are rewarded for certain faithful behaviors. It’s easy to misread these familiar verses to mean blessed are the people who do X because they will receive Y.

      The word Blessed refers to a quality of spirituality that is already present, even if the Kingdom of God can only be glimpsed by faith. The word translated “Blessed” (makarios) may be better understood as “happy.”   Happy are you who are poor, now! (Jesus is saying.) For yours is the kingdom of God. The kingdom belongs to you!  Happy are you who are hungry now, because you know you will be filled. Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh. Happy are you who are persecuted for my sake, because you TRUST in the Lord!

     Amy Zeitlow, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Illinois, offers this interpretation.  “The Sermon on the Plain invites us into the tension of living the cross-shaped life. As Jesus comes down the mountain to the plain, the disciples gather to receive instruction for their new role as apostles  and the crowds clamor around Jesus to see his power reflected back into their lives. Jesus sees in them all a people in need of both blessing and challenge.” 

      We find comfort in the Beatitudes when we are the ones struggling with poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we would admit the woes are for us, too. We are in both categories—we who are both saints and sinners—as Martin Luther used to say.  “We cannot avoid the woes, those places we’d like to ignore or imagine don’t exist,” Amy says.

     While the cross is still a distance away in Luke 6, Amy says,  “Jesus’ preaching already invites listeners into the rhythms of death and resurrection. Conviction and awareness of sin and death are balanced with Jesus’ promise of new life, blessing, and hope. Ultimately, a cross-shaped life leads to love.”

      Love of God and neighbor.   

      It was a God thing—my going to that luncheon on Oct. 2019.

      It was about encouragement. And stirring up a passion in me for compassionate ministry that I would share with you today. I wish that I could have known him longer. For Don went home to be with the Lord on Feb. 8, or, as his obituary says: Don “received his eternal reward.” He was 93.

      I dug out Don’s book yesterday, after he was mentioned briefly in our presbytery meeting. His Celebration of Life service was yesterday at 2 in the chapel of the Total Living Center in Canton.

     I opened the inside cover of his book to find a note from the author.

   “Hi Karen, Blessings to you and yours. I am sending my book with the hope that you will send me a copy of yours when it is published. O.K.  Don Bartow—Oct. 29, 2019.”  My eyes filled with tears because I had forgotten what he had said to me that day—when I did give my little speech, typed on my IPAD. He told me I was a good writer and that I needed to write a book.

     Because I wish all of you could have known Don, I will share a little more of his story. I pray that his life of service will inspire us to do more acts of kindness and love.

    Don knew poverty as a child but didn’t know he was poor. He always felt loved. He was the son of a coal miner, growing up near Shawnee, Ohio, with 10 siblings.

    “He found the Lord at 10-years old when a church opened near his home. It was then he felt a calling from the Lord to be a pastor. He is survived by his wife of 72-years, Mary, his daughter, Beckie Cisler, his son, Dennis, 5 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

     “He was the first member of his family to attend college. When he got to college, he found out he had bad eye-sight and obtained his first pair of eyeglasses.

     “Although small in stature (he often said that he had to be kind to everyone because of his size), he was a giant for Christ. He “would light up every room he entered. Countless individuals and families, whether at his office, or in their homes, or in the hospital or at a funeral home, or in day-to-day encounters with people, were deeply consoled by his presence and words of comfort, and most of all, his prayers.”

    Friends, I regret, now, that I never visited The Total Living Center and that I never talked about it with you before—and that I didn’t offer my support, in some way, for this wonderful, local ministry. I am wondering if our congregation or individuals here might also like to support this ministry in some way?

    Don would have been pleased to know his conversation with me in October 2019 would result in our offering our support and prayers for what had been his passion and dream, but only realized in his “retirement”  when he bought a church and the Total Living Center was born.

   If Don could speak with us today in person, I know he would smile and encourage us all to be faithful—and do God’s will. The Bible verse that was his compass and comfort throughout his life was 1 John 2:17, “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” 

    He would have said of his long, wonderful life, knowing Jesus and doing ministry in his name,

“I trusted the Lord. I was blessed.”

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for the words of Christ your Son teaching us how we should live in this in-between time—as we wait for His return and seek to glimpse and reveal the Kingdom of God through our own love and service. And Lord, we pray that you would continue to bless and provide for the ministry of The Total Living Center—so that more people will come to know your help and healing, your love and forgiveness, and experience health for their spirit, body, and soul. Help us to be truly grateful for our salvation and your promise to use us to build your kingdom. Teach us how to live out our faith in the present—to know your will and obey courageously. Stir our hearts now to creative, compassionate ministry so that someday, like the Rev. Don Bartow, we can look back on our wonderful lives, knowing Jesus and doing ministry for his sake. So we can say, “I trusted the Lord. I was blessed.” Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Rory, a standard poodle.

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