Friday, January 30, 2015

Hiding from Shadows

We’re on the threshold of Groundhog’s Day, aren't we?  That great feast day in the lives of the early church.  Groundhog’s Day.  Isn't it?  You've heard the story of the Sunday School teacher who was testing her charges on the events of Jesus life.  And not having great success.  She would ask about his teachings, she would ask about the miracles he performed, about the events of his life.  And nothing.  They sat and stared at her.  Like they had never heard of such a person.  Like she was speaking in a foreign tongue.  She began to panic and head to the easy stuff.  Christmas, what happened at Christmas?  They didn't know or wouldn't tell.  Tears were building in her eyes.  She asked about Easter.  Surely someone knew something about Easter, what happened on that great and glorious day.  Silence.  Until finally, one little girl raised her timid hand.  

The teacher almost leapt at her in hope, “yes, Mandy, you know about Easter, don’t you?”  Mandy nodded.  “That was the day,” she whispered, “the morning when after the terrible day of the cross, when Jesus hung there and died, for us he died, they say.”  “Yes,” teacher smiled a bright and beaming smile, “yes, that’s right.  But what happened that Easter morning, Mandy.”  Mandy’s brow furrowed, “The sun rose that day, after a dark night, and the stone in front of the tomb rolled away as though pushed by angels.”  Tears were forming in the teachers eyes and she encouraged Mandy to finish her story.  “And then,” she said, in awe and wonder, “Jesus stepped out of the tomb.”  “Yes, Mandy, yes!”  “And he saw his shadow and ran back inside and we had six more weeks of winter!”

Scared of a shadow.  And our own shadow at that.  The shadow of our inadequacies, the shadow of our failures, the shadow of our doubts and our fears.  Shadows doesn't seem adequate to describe them.  They are more substantial than that.  More like a burden that we bear.  More like a wound we carry.  They are there to weigh us down, to call us up short, to remind us that those dreams we dream are way out of our reach after all.  Six more weeks of winter are the least of our problems.

Exodus 3:11-12   But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"  12 He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain." 
Just a taste of the whole story.  Actually Moses’ shadow is much more extensive than this one verse complaint.  But we would have had to read the rest of the chapter and part of the next one to get the whole sad story.  Pastor Mike Slaughter in “Dare to Dream” calls them Moses’ big buts.  We’ve got a dream, a God-sized dream, but our big buts get in the way.  

“But Moses said to God.”  In the next chapter and a bit Moses has five buts that get in the way.  This is just the first.  But in some ways it is the most all encompassing.  “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”  Who am I?  Who do I think I am?  I’m nothing, I’m nobody.  The biggest but of all.  Who am I?  Many of us are stricken with this sense of self doubt, that no matter what we have accomplished in our lives, we just don’t have what it takes to do the task that is before us.  Who am I?

Truth is sometimes this but comes from within, from our own doubts and fears.  But it also often from outside, from folks around us.  From enemies and friends alike.  The who do you think you are crowd, the ones who have us pegged, who pigeon-hole us, who tell us that we ought not have ideas above our station, who ... Well, you get the idea.  Sometimes our doubt are self-generated, other times they are planted there like bad seeds that grow into choking weeds until they become our identity.  Who am I?  Who did this, an enemy masquerading as a friend or a family member perhaps.  An enemy who stole our sense of self, our ability to hope.  Who am I?

Moses’ first but was a doozy, that’s for sure, but it wasn't his last one.  The next one is in the very next verse.  But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"  (3:13) Moses felt like he needed an identity to bring to the people.  Maybe to pass a test, maybe to be a reminder.  It had been so long, four hundred years of slavery, they probably forgot.  Moses needed to establish credentials, he needed his secret decoder ring, his shiny gold badge to flip out and prove he was who he said he was.  “Who’s am I?”  That was the question he was asking, that was the but that held him back.

Well, that one doesn't really fit us, does it?  We don’t worry about names and credentials.  Do we?  No, we don’t.  Except when we say, but I don’t know enough.  I’m not spiritual enough.  I am not familiar enough with God to tell anyone about a life of faith.  When I know more, when I’m more familiar, then maybe, but not now.  Who am I?

God deals with that in a surprising way, but that’s a story for another time.  Here we are looking at Moses and his buts.  But number three is found in chapter four: “Then Moses answered, "But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, 'The LORD did not appear to you.'" (4:1) Ah, my favorite but of all.  “What if it doesn't work?”  A worst case scenario-ists dream.   What if it all falls apart?  What if nothing we try makes any difference?  What if the problem is too big or the inertia too great, what if the change is too threatening?  What if no one cares, if no one sees the advantage to freedom and prefers their slavery or their ignorance?  What if it doesn't work?

God’s answer to that but is next weeks lesson, so lets move on to but number four.  This one is the most reasonable but of all.  “But Moses said to the LORD, "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."  (4:10) But, Lord, I don’t have what it takes.  We all know that it takes special gifts to do big important jobs.  If just anyone could do them, then anyone would do them.  I’m just ... me.  I’m not good enough, not smart enough, and doggone it, people don’t like me!  By the way, there is nothing in here about a stutter, no speech impediment.  Just isn't given to flowery speech, just doesn't think fast on his feet, just thinks of the witty reply an hour later after everyone has left.  But not glib enough to do this job, to convince the ruler of a nation to release those who have been captive for four hundred years.  I just don’t have it.

God says, who’s in charge of giving it?  Who’s in charge of making sure you have what you need?  Huh, me that’s who!  Now get out there and do the job!  Moses has one more but.  It’s the whiny one.  But he said, "O my Lord, please send someone else."  (4:13) No more excuses, no more reasons why he can’t do it.  Just a plain old “I don’t wanna!”  Send somebody else.  It’s too much, too scary, too painful, too lonely.

I could win all those hide and seek games if I wanted to, tucked away under the bush on the church lawn at twilight.  The problem is I didn't want to.  Once I got under there, I couldn't stand or sit or lie down.  You had to squat and clutch the trunk of the bush to keep from toppling over and landing in the prickly branches and worse, being found.  So, I held on, confident in my hiding place, watching them pass by all night long without finding me.  Until I heard the cry to come in free.  I had won.  So, I went to move out from under the bush, but I couldn't.  I had lost all the feeling in my legs, worse, it felt like my hip had popped out of joint and was now throbbing like I had been hit by a truck.  After a panicked few moments where I didn't know what to do, I managed to pry my fingers off the sticky bark and fall through the prickly branches and drag my unresponsive legs out from under the bush.  I lay on the cool wet grass crying in the dark, sure I was lost and alone and broken forever.  I’d never walk again, spend the rest of my days in a wheelchair, or worse simply expire there on the lawn in front of the church. Send somebody else.  Let me hide here in the dark, scared of my shadow, of my failure, of my pain.  I don’t want to play any more.  

I thought I would die there that night.  Until my brother came and told me I wasn't going to die, but that I’d better get home before mom gets mad.  God got mad at Moses and all his whining, but he still let his brother come and rescue him.  And in the end, that’s the best way to face the shadows, holding on to a brother or a sister in the faith, and dreaming God’s dream together.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Stumbling Across God in the Back of Beyond

Where do you go to hide?  What an odd question with which to begin this week’s bible study.  Hide?  Who’s hiding?  I mean maybe as a kid we would hide, hide and seek.  It was a fun game.  When I was a kid I was really good at hide and seek.  We used to play in the yard of the church that my dad served.  It was a neighborhood church, which I now know was a small church, but at the time it seemed big enough for me.  There wasn't much yard, but there was enough to play and real good game of hide and seek.  

We would start in the twilight, just as the street lights were turning on and you were beginning to have to strain to see clearly.  Whoever was “it” would sit on the church steps and cover their face and we would scatter around the building and alleyway behind and our house across the street.  I loved to hide, and was pretty good at it.  Because I lived at the church I knew all the hiding places, inside and outside.  My favorite was in the bushes near the front door of the church.  They were low, landscape bushes that looked like they brushed the ground, leaving no room for hiders.  But I knew that if you got down on your belly and scooted under the low and prickly branches, you could find a little chamber inside next to the thin trunk of the bush.  It wasn't very big, not big enough to stand, or sit, or even kneel.  You kinda had to squat, bent over and clutching the trunk, trying to slow your breathing enough so that when the searchers walked past, they didn't hear your panting breath from underneath the impenetrable bush.  I was never found when I hid in that bush.  Could stay there for hours, it seemed like secure that no matter what no one would find me.  And I would win!

There aren't many games you can win by hiding, And yet it seems a common survival trait for many of us.  “What are you talking about?” you might be saying.  “I don’t have to hide from anyone!”  And you’re probably right.  You don’t hide, in a hide and seek kind of way.  But when was the last time you were really yourself with someone?  When the secret thoughts of your heart were shared in a public gathering?  When you told stories of who you used to be and who you wanted to be and who you had become?  When was the time you felt known?  And loved even though?

Being known isn't all that it’s cracked up to be.  Sometimes it is better to just keep your head down and keep moving forward.  Away.  Out of the picture.  Away from where you are known, where you can start over without carrying all the past that only gets in the way.  You want to go where nobody knows you name.  Right Moses?

Ah, Moses, our hero who hasn't been very heroic.  Our savior who had to run for his life.  You know his story, right?  Baby in a basket, survives his own birth by the skin of his teeth and the disobedience of some righteous women.  Rescued by a princess, raise in a palace, afforded all the advantages of the privileged class, except for a way to deal with the pesky sense of justice that inhabits his DNA and the growing realization that his status is built on the backs of those who suffer to serve him. And one day all these forces at war within him rise up and he strikes out in anger, killing a wielder of violence and oppressor of the weak.  But rather than hailed as a rescuer, he is feared as a perpetrator of an unjust system, and he realizes he only dealt with a symptom and hasn't eradicated a disease, he only damaged a cog in a vast machine that spins on laying waste to any in the way.  And worst of all he now realizes that he doesn't belong anywhere, among the ruling class whose clothes adorn his back he is a renegade, an outsider who no longer is fit to walk the gilded hallways; and among the slave class whose blood pumps through his veins he is the worst kind of oppressor, one who kills in anger.  So he does the only thing he can do, he runs.  And runs and runs and runs.  For forty years he runs and hides.  He makes some kind of life, hidden away from himself, from his past, from his heritage.  And he is content, out there in the back of beyond.  Until one day.

Exodus 3:1-6  Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.  3 Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up."  4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am."  5 Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."  6 He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.  

Did you catch that?  He led his flock beyond the wilderness.  Beyond.  Actually the Hebrew says behind.  He went out behind the wilderness.  The wilderness is the “there be dragons” kind of place.  The edge, the outer limits, the danger zone.  And Moses, still trying to hide led his flock behind the wilderness.  Pay no attention to that man behind the wilderness.  That was the message he was sending.  Leave me alone.  I mean how far does a guy have to go before everyone leaves him the heck alone?  Behind the wilderness.  The back of beyond.  Far enough?

God shows up.  In the back of your beyond, God shows up.  In the place you went to hide from the world or just yourself, your history and your vulnerabilities, your blind spots and your habits that you swear you could stop at any time.  But hiding is safer, hiding means you don’t have to change anything.  Hiding means you don’t have to put with people who claim to love you but always telling you lighten up or calm down or get help or get out.  You’re happy with yourself out there in the back of beyond.  Who’s going to find you behind the wilderness?

God shows up.  So, what exactly did the bush look like?  A flame of fire, it says, but it wasn't burning.  A trick of the light, a sunset glowing through the branches of that bush in the back of beyond?  Who knows?  It caught his attention, Moses turned aside.  That means he set aside that which he thought was most important and went to see what God had in store.  He put his own plans and his own dreams aside long enough to see what his life might be like if he dreamed God’s dream.  Moses turned aside and found himself on holy ground.

Wait a minute, you’re thinking, he didn't know it was God.  He didn't know he was about to be called the deliverer.  He just saw something shiny, a trick of the light, an unexplained phenomenon.  That’s all.  Good job, grasshopper, you took the pebble from my hand.  He didn't know.  But knowing doesn't matter.  Openness does.  Certainty isn't a requirement for participating in God’s dream.  Willingness is.  

The ground wasn't holy because there was bush burning in it.  It wasn't even holy because there was an angel there.  Angels show up in all kinds of places, can’t get too excited about that.  No, it is holy because God shows up in the back of beyond.  God shows up behind the wilderness, just where you thought God would never go.  Truth is we should always walk around barefoot because any ground is holy ground because God is with us always, even to the end of the age.   

And God hands out a dream to Moses.  It was a dream that was woven into his bones.  It was a dream that he was made to dream.  It was a dream that drove him to act in such a way that got him exiled from home for forty years.  But that was when he was trying to work the dream on his own.  The dream of freedom, the dream of an end to slavery and oppression.  Now, he was partnered with God.  

“We've got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life– longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  And I’m so happy, tonight; I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  

The last speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ever gave.  “I just want to do God’s will.”  I just want to dream God’s dream, because I've been to the mountaintop, the back of beyond, behind the wilderness and God was there.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Born to Fly

Never been a big fan of country music.  Sorry to those who love all things Country.  Yet, despite all her upbringing and indoctrination, my daughter has chosen to go her own way and become a bona fide country music fan.  When we drive back and forth to college she will often find a country station and because I indulge her way too much - just ask her mom who still hasn’t forgiven me for the New Year’s Eve New York City trip - I let her listen.  But she doesn’t just listen, she sings along, knowing most of the words to most of the songs.  All of which troubles me to no end.

What troubles me the most is that sometimes I find myself enjoying it.  Man, I hate it when that happens.  I am quite content in my prejudice most of the time, frankly.  Happy with the choices I’ve made, the preferences I hold.  But darn it, some of “that kind of thing” is good, catchy, singable, memorable, even, dare I say it, moving.

My daddy, he is grounded like the oak tree / My momma, she is as steady as the sun / Oh you know I love my folks, but I keep starin' down the road / Just lookin' for my one chance to run //  Hey 'cause I will soar away like the blackbird / I will blow in the wind like a seed / I will plant my heart in the garden of my dreams / And I will grow up where I want, wild and free

That’s Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly.”  And its about dreams.  Following dreams.  About the itch to stretch one’s wings and just go, where the wind blows, where the Spirit wills.  OK, maybe I’m reading into it.  But we are dreaming here at Aldersgate this Epiphany season.  Dreaming of what might be.  Dreaming of what God would have us do and be.  Trying to wrap our arms around our Big Hairy Audacious God-purpose (BHAG). 

Some wonder if we even need such a thing.  Maybe it was good for Jacob and his stairway dream, or Moses and his burning bush (a preview of coming attractions - stay tuned to this channel for more!), but for most of us it sounds a bit presumptuous to assume that we can even participate in changing the world.  And maybe it is presumptuous, maybe we ought to reign it in a little bit.  After all, Paul tells us in Romans 12:3 that we should not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, but to think with sober judgement.  And who among us would think we could eradicate poverty in Africa, or wipe out prejudice, or end bullying or whatever other BHAG might come into our minds when we aren’t thinking soberly.  

Maybe it is the scale that is daunting us.  Maybe we’ve been taught not to think so highly, as Paul says.  Lower our expectations.  Slow down there sparky.  Do get any ideas, ideas above your station.  Just stay close to your roots, where you began.  My daddy, he is grounded like the oak tree / My momma, she is as steady as the sun / Oh you know I love my folks, but I keep starin' down the road / Just lookin' for my one chance to run // Oh how do you wait for Heaven? / And who has that much time? / And how do you keep your feet on the ground? / When you know that you were born, you were born, yeah / You were born to fly

Maybe we were born to fly.  Not to think small thoughts, not to do just enough to keep our heads above water, but to actually fly.  The second chapter of Pastor Mike Slaughter’s book Dare to Dream is titled “Discovering your birthright.”  What were we made for?  

Ephesians 4:11-13  The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,  12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 

Who are you?  That’s one of the questions this process is designed to answer.  Who are you really?  What is within you, what gifts do you have?  And even more importantly what are you leaning toward?  I know, that’s an odd way of saying it.  But I don’t know how to describe it any better.  What are you leaning toward?  What draws you?  In what gravitational pull are you caught?  

Paul likes to talk about lists.  He’s got them all over the place.  Good stuff and bad stuff, helpful stuff and stuff to avoid, traits and aspects, fruit and body parts.  You want a list, go see Paul, he’ll fix you up with one.  But this one here in Ephesians is a little different.  Paul talks about gifts elsewhere (See Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 - Hmm 12?!?)  But this list is all about leadership.  It is all about community, about binding together, about growing and maturing so that we can all be one.  A couple of verses earlier in the chapter we have a sevenfold “one” passage.  We’re all about unity in this chapter.  All about sharing together.  All about living for and through one another.  Not in a sense of dependency, but in a mutual love and respect, challenging one another to live up to our full potential, acknowledging that we are better together than we are separately.  

Now, some argue that Paul didn’t write this list, or this letter.  In fact the argument goes the purpose of this letter, or at least this part of this letter was to institutionalize the church.  What we have here, some argue, is nothing less than an administrative flow chart for the early church.  Apostles above prophets who supervised evangelists who oversaw pastors and teachers.  Pastors and teachers, goes the argument, is not two roles but two dimensions of one role.  Which makes sense really.  In any administrative flow chart the lower you get on the hierarchy the more responsibilities each position is responsible for.  Pastors-slash-teachers did the nitty gritty day to day stuff, while the apostles got all the glory.  

Of course, some of us think this is - how shall we say it - hooey.  To assume such a level of organization to the fledgling church seems a bit of a reach, and to claim a hierarchical structure to an egalitarian movement also seems to miss the deeper point.  Don’t misunderstand, there were leaders and followers, there were authority figures even in the early church.  But the authority was an authority of the Spirit not of the office.  Leaders were those who evidenced the life of Christ at work within them.  They were the ones who glowed with the Presence of the Spirit.  They were the ones who listened to the call of the Spirit and dreamed the dreams.  They were the ones who we born to fly.

But what about us?  What if we were born to fly?  We don’t have the genetic prerequisite, we don’t have the heritage or the upbringing?  We aren’t of the right tribe?  What of us?  God can make children of Abraham out of the stones.  I heard that somewhere.  In this context that means we were all born to fly.  We were all born to fly.  To be all that God intended.  That we all have what it takes to be a leader, an apostle who embodies the presence of Christ in their whole lives, a prophet who has learned to see better than anyone else, to see God at work, to see the consequences of living without God, an evangelist who is so in love with the story that they can’t help but tell it in compelling ways every chance they get and tell it with wonder and hope and with joy, a pastor who’s whole heart is given over to caring for those who are struggling to find their feet on the path to God and who stoop to give a hand up to any and all who have fallen no matter how many times they stumble, or a teacher who wants to help anyone and everyone come to understanding of the workings of the Spirit in the world.  These aren’t offices of the institutional church no matter what we have done with them.  They are aspects of the body of Christ, they are manifestations of all of us, each of us, as we seek to be the community that we are called to be.  We don’t run for these offices, we let them be born in us by the Spirit.  These are acts of passion, not jobs to be done.  

Did you notice that word until in verse 13?  Until.  That means that what matters is not the office, not the job, not the role, but the body.  Until all of us - not some of us, a few of us - until all of us take wing and fly.  We are born to fly.  Why wait until Heaven?  Sara Evans is right, why wait?  Why stay on the ground, limited vision, limited hope, when we are born to fly?  Heaven is here, right here.  Let’s fly.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Have a Dream

I know I’m early with the title reference.  I know that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is still a week away.  However, Selma was released this weekend and I heard an interview with lead actor David Oyelowo where he said that God told him he would play MLK in a major movie.  But he said to God, I’m British and it won’t happen and God said, just wait.

I know we are early with a reference to what was one of the greatest speeches/sermons in Civil Rights History.  But we are talking about dreams this week.  And there isn’t a bigger dream still hanging out there in front of all of us than the one the Dr. King shared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  A dream of equality, of an end to racism and prejudice.  A dream of a country that lives more by kingdom values than by the fears of an unsettled society.  An unrealized dream for many.  Well for all, to be honest, though it feels like many of us are living a realized dream.  But this kind of dream isn’t fulfilled for any until it is fulfilled for all.  

That’s why I messed with the title for this piece.  I know that if I started with “I Have a Dream” then everyone would have known what I meant.  But I didn’t want this to be about me and my dream.  I wanted it to be about my dream and your dream and all the dreams that surround us.  So, I went with “Have a Dream” instead.  Which I liked because while it had the reference that I wanted, it also sounded like I was dream peddler.  Standing on the street corner with my booth and my patter, asking folks if they wanted to have a dream.  I would be handing them out.  One to a customer.  But enough for all.  Have a dream.

I have just closed my eyes again / Climbed aboard the dream weaver train / Driver take away my worries of today / And leave tomorrow behind // Ooh dream weaver / I believe you can get me through the night / Ooh dream weaver / I believe we can reach the morning light

Ahem.  Excuse my channeling Gary Wright there for a moment.  Dream Weaver was popular the year I graduated from high school.  Since we’re all about dreams.  Dream peddler, dream weaver.  But not the same.  Sorry, Gary.  But Dream Weaver is about escape.  Fly me high and through the starry skies / Or maybe to an astral plane / Cross the highways of fantasy / Help me to forget today's pain.  

The dream peddler’s dreams aren’t about escape.  They are the opposite of escape.  They are about something more real than reality!  Realer reality?  Hmm.  While I sort out this linguistic conundrum, let me reveal the dream peddler’s secret identity.

Genesis 28:10-22  Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.  11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  13 And the LORD stood beside him and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring;  14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."  16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!"  17 And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."  18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.  20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear,  21 so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God,  22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you." 

But you knew that didn’t you?  You knew that what dreams may come don’t come from us, but from beyond us.  Above us.  Jacob didn’t go looking for a dream.  He was running for his life.  You knew that.  He had stolen his brother’s birthright and hightailed it out of town at his mother’s suggestion.  So, now exhausted and frightened he lay down to sleep on a stone for a pillow and got a dream.  

Now stop and think about that one for a minute.  Jacob.  Who’s name means trickster.  Who cheated his brother, tricked his father, and even in our story for today ends up trying to strike a deal with God (read the last few verses with your church voice turned off - what a piece of work!).  Yeah, Jacob, gets a dream.  And what a dream.  A dream with God at the top.  A dream of Presence and blessing.  A dream of the future and of today.  A dream that cleans up the mess of his yesterday.  And you thought you were too much of a mess for God to bother with?  You thought you were too broken, too empty, too ... bad for God’s purposes?  If there is any reason why Jacob is so prominent in the bible, it has to be that he’s there to show us that no one - and by no one we mean abso-freaking-lutely no one - is outside the redemptive grace of God.  God’s got a dream for the likes of Jacob.  God’s got a dream for the likes of you.

Have a Dream.  But be warned.  Even though there is a first person singular pronoun in the original phrase - I have a dream - this is not a personal dream.  Or rather this is not a dream that is kept to the person.  This is a dream about changing the world.  The world.  Not a little corner of it.  The world.

Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr. had no intention of sharing that dream that day?  He had another presentation prepared.  Another, some historians say, scholarly - almost pedantic - message to deliver to lay down the argument as to why racism is not healthy for us as a nation.  But when he stood to speak, Mahalia Jackson was sharing the steps there with him and said to him as he passed, “tell us your dream, Martin.”  So, he set aside the speech and gave the sermon.  He set aside the essay and shared the poem.  “I have a dream,” he declared, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

The dream wasn’t just his, it was, it is ours.  Dreams like these aren’t meant to be kept secret.  Aren’t meant to be locked away in our hearts and pondered.  They are to be shared.  They are to drive us to get up and do, to go out and change the world.

We start a new series this weekend at Aldersgate.  Jumping on the January resolutions and self-help bandwagon, it is title “Getting Control of Your Life.”  Based on the book, Dare to Dream by Pastor Mike Slaughter from Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio, it is about grabbing hold of God-sized dream that will reshape us as individuals and as the community of faith that we are called to be.  

The hook in the title is that the only way for us to get control of our lives is by surrendering control.  The only way for us to wake up to the reality God has in store for us is to dream of worlds that aren’t yet and then live as though they were the most real thing we know.  Really real reality.

OK, I never fixed my linguistic problem.  But that’s ok.  I have a dream.  A dream with God at the top.  And now I’m a dream peddler.  Have a dream.

Surely the Lord is in this place.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Bring a Torch

I may never write again.  Well, that’s obviously not true because here I am writing.  Let me try again.  I may never write anything of value again.  Anything worth reading.  Anything that makes any sense to anyone, or inspires, or challenges, or uplifts, or informs.  All the things that this space was conceived to do.  I just may be done.  And now you are wondering whether it is worth your time to struggle through reading this.  I know I am wondering whether continuing to write is worth my time.  Sorry about that.  No, really, I am sorry.

This cheerful beginning to 2015 is what we in the business call a dark night of the soul.  Others of a more psychological bent might call it post holiday blues, or just plain old depression.  But on this rainy Saturday, with the sun a no show at least so far, it just feels dark and uncertain to me. The rug has been pulled out from underneath, the certainties seem less certain, the future so much more shrouded in mystery than they were even a few days ago.  Assuredly more doubt than a week ago when we sang about the hopes and fears of all the years being met in a town called Bethlehem.  When we sang of angels and glory and silent nights and greeting a child born this happy morning.  When we sang of light, all is calm, all is bright, we sang, radiant beams from thy holy face, we sang, there’s a star in the sky, and the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing.  Ah, maybe that’s it, I’m not beautiful enough in my darkness.

It’s Epiphany Sunday.  Epiphany is about light, about seeing the light, about following the light, about showing the light.  Epi - phanos – the light shows forth.  Or more literally - to the light, or from the light, or by the light, dang those Greek prepositions anyway.  But light is the core of this season.  The symbols of the Epiphany are the Wise Men who followed the star all the way from the east - which is bible talk for a strange and remote place; and the baptism of Jesus which ends with the heavens opening and the Spirit descending and a voice of declaration and acceptance, “You are my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.”

What I wouldn’t give for a word like that.  For a star to follow. For a baby to kneel before.  For something clear. Obvious, unmistakable, does God still use burning bushes?  Two by fours?  I don’t know.  But I know who does.  When you need a dose of confidence it is usually best to turn to Paul.  Certainty just radiates from that guy.  

Ephesians 3:1-12  This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles--  2 for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you,  3 and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words,  4 a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.  5 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:  6 that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power.  8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,  9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;  10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.  11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,  12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. 

Even in prison he knows what he is about.  Howe does that work exactly?  Oh, I know, he has written elsewhere of his struggles, but they never seem to make him lose his grip on this thing he has found.

This thing, forgive my precise theological language here.  This thing he has found that sustains him, that drives him that makes him the force that he was in planting the church.  We wouldn’t be who we are today if he wasn’t who he was back then.  Or maybe better, if it wasn’t for this thing he has found.
So, what was it, this thing?  There are two words that he uses to talk about this thing that he has found in the passage for this week.  The first is mystery.  I get that.  I understand that.  Or rather I understand that I don’t understand, that it is something beyond understanding.  I’m comfortable with that.  Too much of our faith comes across as cold rationality.  As mechanistic, push this button here and get that output there, say these prayers and get that answer, attend this many worship services and get my life rearranged, give this much money to mission and receive blessings a thousandfold.  Or it seems consumer oriented with its ubiquitous question what’s in it for me?  

Mystery makes sense to me.  There’s an I don’t know quality to faith.  I don’t know but there is something here, something in my life with Christ that isn’t there without him.  But I’m hard pressed to define it in terms that satisfy most folks.  Something in loving like Christ loves that seems so right even when it hurts so much you want to change your address to an inaccessible cave in an unapproachable country.  There is something profound in leaning in to life when death seems to win every single time.  Something.  Mystery.

Except if you look closer, look again, Paul explains it.  It’s not a mystery for Paul, at least in the sense that we want to use the word.  See there, in verse six he explains it: “that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”  That’s it?  That’s the mystery?  Everybody is in?  No one is excluded from access to God, that’s the big mystery that God knew from the beginning but only now has revealed to everyone?  Jesus Christ!  

Sorry, tone is important here.  The mystery is revealed in Jesus Christ.  Through him, in him by him all are included.  Even those who think they aren’t.  Even those who can’t feel it anymore.  Even those who frankly don’t want it.  But they are included, they are worthy of love.  Ours and God’s.  Or ours because of God’s, God’s love is already there.  That’s grace.

Which is also the second word that Paul uses to describe this thing he has - grace.  OK, to be fair there are other words that he uses elsewhere, like gospel, like mission, like Spirit, like the Christ who lives in me.  But in this passage it is mystery and it is grace.  “God’s grace was given to me by the working of his power.”(v.7) We think of receiving grace like a blessing, like a gift, like an acceptance or a welcome we didn’t deserve, like a forgiveness that we haven’t earned.  But Paul sees grace as that which moves him to speak, to teach, to love, to risk his life for this mystery revealed.  “[T]his grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things...”  (v.8-9).  Grace is the light he brings.

In looking through the Christmas hymns we love to sing, I discovered that with a few notable exceptions, they don’t mention light.  Angels, babies, joy, faith, peace, all kinds of things are mentioned in those hymns, but not light - very much anyway.  It is as though the proclamation is of a birth, of a presence that comes into the darkness, into your darkness, and there is no guarantee you’ll see it.  You just have to trust that it is there.  You aren’t alone in your darkness, the mystery is there.  You aren’t alone in your darkness, the grace is there.  You just have to believe enough to put one foot in front of another.  Until you can catch your breath again and believe in love.  How long do we walk in darkness?  I don’t know.  Maybe our whole lives.  Maybe just right now.

And maybe, there will be a time when you feel able to bring your own light.  We don’t sing that song in church, do we.  But it was in my mind today.  Bring a torch, Jeannette, Isabelle.  Did you know there was a comma in there?  It isn’t about one person, it is about two.  Jeanette and Isabelle, two milk maids, the story goes, who stumbled across a baby in their darkness and together went to get a light.  Two servants.  Together.  

Bring a torch.