Grasping Hold of the Vision

Grasping Hold of the Vision

IMG_7702“Where there is no vision, a people perish,” says the wisdom writer of the Biblical book of Proverbs to a son. (Proverbs 29:18a). The writer knew that vision drives our focus. When we invest in what we hope to accomplish – our energy, time and finances are directed that way. To have a vision on a personal level is to invest ourselves in something larger than ourselves. God gives us visions and dreams to follow. Much of the meaning and purpose God intends for our lives comes from committing ourselves to those visions. Which is not to say that every vision is easy to reconcile with our current situation. Our lives may require a radical reshaping if we are to prepare ourselves to follow. There may be an addiction to work through or schooling to get before we can embrace the journey God is leading us on.

I like what Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

I was thirty-five, divorced, with seven children when the Call to Ministry hit me hard. It wasn’t that God hadn’t tired before that. From the time I was a teenager I felt a pull to go into the ministry. The years of college and seminary simply seemed too much. At intermittent times along the way, I continued to feel a sense of call to Ordained Ministry. But always there were complicating factors that easily convinced me that this was an impossibility.

I was, of course, only finding excuses not to pursue the call that God had set in my heart. Fortunately, God is not put off by our procrastination or our running away. God’s persistent call continues to follow us throughout our lives. And when we finally listen, it is amazing how God opens hearts to our need. What seems an impossibility becomes a path laid out for the future. Whatever dream it is that God is planting in your heart, may you be gifted with the courage to follow and the faith to trust God to take you into that tomorrow.

In a Multitude of Choices, Choosing the God of Life

A multitude of choices confront us each day. God calls us into service, but so many other voices make their claim on us as well. Whom and what have we really given our life to?

What is it that gets our attention?
Whose advice do we follow?
When we have to make a choice, what gets cut out? What stays in?
What are we committed to and how do we prioritize those commitments?
If all of our possessions were lost, what of value would be left for us?
What do our credit cards and checking account say of our values?
What do our politics say about our faith?
Does the living word of God, live in us to the extent that we place a priority on the words of Jesus?

The people of Israel had reached the edge of the Promised Land . . . that land which God had said, “flowed with milk and honey.” A land promised to the Israelites, when they were still enslaved in Egypt. Now was a moment of decision. Who would they be in that new land? Moses was gone. It was up to Joshua to lead the people into the land of promise. Forty years in the wilderness had shown Joshua a fickle side of their nature, when it came to following God. So, Joshua gathered the people of Israel. He reminded them that they were the people of promise, but warned them not to pretend to follow the Lord. It would be through this wandering people that God, would be made known to the world. Were they ready to accept their calling? Then Joshua demanded, “Choose you this day whom you will serve, God or some other . . .but for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15

Joshua and his family knew that they could not live without God. They were acutely aware that in God were the answers to life and death. God was their source of hope and promise. Always, there would be false god’s beckoning. Popular culture would challenge their belief in a God of justice and mercy. Care for the orphan, widow and immigrant would be mocked and scorned. Enticements would encourage them to forsake God, but their decision was made. They would serve the Lord. They would not let any false gods usurp God’s place.

Centuries have passed since that long ago day, yet each of us faces that same decision which Joshua and his family did. Our life is written of such choices. “Choose you this day whom you will serve, God or some other . . .” Joshua 24:15

Looking at your life, your beliefs and your values, how close do they match the call of God? What do your Facebook postings say of your values? Today is a good day, to reexamine both faith and values. Have you fallen for some false god or have you chosen the God of life and promise.

The answer lies in each of our hearts and minds.

A Trip to the Headwaters of the Mississippi

Walking Across the Mississippi

Mississippi Headwaters

I just spent a few days with friends and some family at Lake Itasca State Park. Surrounded by trees, lakes and of course, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, it is truly a beautiful place. Here a small stream, coming out of Lake Itasca, makes its way through ten states on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. At the headwaters, people of all sizes walk across the Mississippi on rocks.

Down river, some of my family is planted along the Mississippi’s path. When I looked at that small creek, I thought of how the water would flow past Minnesota’s Twin Cities where I live, and on down to Winona where my daughter’s family lives now. The water continues to run past another daughter and her family in La Crosse Wisconsin as it continues to move towards the gulf. I wonder at the reality that something so small can become so mighty. By the time it reaches the homes of my daughters the Mississippi has widened and deepened. River boats and barges work the river. Yet, the water which is moved by mighty currents, had it’s start where I stood.

I’ve felt a pull to the river since I first drove along Hwy 61. With eagles soaring overhead and the crisp blue sky reflecting on the water, I am enamored by the Mississippi’s beauty. Through seasons of spring green and autumn colors, I marvel and revel in its contrast. In winter, there is a place of open water where the Chippewa River merges into the Mississippi. Even on sub zero days, eagles can feed and find shelter.

I’m reminded of God’s providence and care. The psalmist says of God: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young.” Psalm 84:3. God’s providence includes all of creation – even us. Some days I need to be reminded of this truth.

An Apology for a Former President

New York Times Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, recently offered an apology on behalf of the media to former President Jimmy Carter. Carter only served one term as president. It was a time of rapid inflation. World oil production was cut back because of the Iranian revolution leading to shortages, long lines at gas stations and high prices. The media never really took to Carter. His Southern background wasn’t a mix for Washington insiders. Jokes about peanuts were frequent. His presidency was covered by the media in a way that indicated that the Georgia peanut farmer, belonged back home on the farm.

But life for Carter since the presidency, has been an amazing story of living life with significance and meaning. Nicholas Kristof ended his July 9, 2015 apology to Jimmy Carter saying, “We in the snooty media world owe him an apology.” He pointed out that this former president has improved the lives of more people, in more places in the world than any other recent president.

From the time I first heard that former President Jimmy Carter led a Bible Study at his home church in Plains Georgia, it was on my bucket list of things to do. Which is how I found myself in that little church on a Sunday morning in June of 2012. Then, age 87, the former president was just back from monitoring the election in Egypt.

I discovered that Jimmy Carter exudes joy when he shares his deep faith. The day I visited, his Bible Study was based on the book of Matthew, that section where Jesus’s disciples ask him how to pray. Jesus in turn taught his disciples the prayer we know of as the Lord’s Prayer. Carter said he believes that when Jesus told his disciples to pray the words. “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus was asking them and us to envision the world God wants for us. “It certainly,” he said, “would be one of peace.” Then he told us what he has come to believe, that “peace cannot come apart from forgiveness.”

Carter said that the years of his presidency were those when he prayed most fervently with the most emotion because he felt an obligation to the American people to not make a mistake. Given political realities, we could argue about the success of his presidency, but I’ve always admired the way he chose to live after he left the white house.

Instead of sitting back and resting on some quite significant accomplishments in life, he decided to take that segment of life left to him and do whatever he could to make the world a better place. He created the Carter Center with it’s mission to “Wage peace, fight disease, and build hope.” He has frequently been invited to monitor elections around the world, to insure the integrity of those elections

He left us the day I visited with these words, “Our prayer should be to find out where we fit into the universe.” I think that last piece is one that is a lifetime quest. Where does God want us to fit into the universe? How does God want us to serve in this stage of each of our lives?

The Long Arm of God

My father never knew his father or did he ever really know a father’s love. When my grandfather walked away, he didn’t know that his sons would carry an empty spot in their hearts for him. One the fullness of years could not remove. He left home on the day of my father’s birth, leaving behind my grandmother and three small children. This grandfather has always been something of an enigma for his grandchildren. We’ve puzzled over his life, tried to fit pieces together and to make sense of who he was. I don’t think my grandmother ever stopped loving him. As a rather impertinent nine-year-old, I once mentioned to her that if they hadn’t gotten divorced, they would have been married fifty years. In her acknowledgment that “Yes, they would have,” tears sprang to her eyes and a deep countenance of sadness was written on her face.

One of my uncles remembered his father as a likeable person. Another carried so much pain, he would refuse to talk about him. My grandfather’s major flaw was that he was a compulsive gambler. According to family lore, he had gone through all of my grandmother’s inheritance. There were hard words spoken. The year was 1918 and a deadly flu was racing around the world. A priest was sent for, my newborn father was baptized and then my grandfather left his home forever. My grandmother was devastated. Three weeks later she caught the flu and nearly died. But, she was a strong woman, who took what life threw her and did what she could with it. Her courage was born of her faith. Eventually a divorce would end her marriage, and cause her to be excommunicated from the church of her childhood. A stinging pain would remain with her as she embraced another faith tradition.

I don’t know if anyone realized at first how permanent my grandfather’s absence would be. The family heard about him occasionally, as someone bumped into him in the Twin Cities, a very distant place in that time and era. To my knowledge, no one ever received a telegraph or letter from him. He died of smallpox, a lonely, broken man six years later. At his death, neither those who were working with him nor lived with him were aware he was the father of three sons. I doubt he believed that anyone cared about him or for him when death came. His life has always been something of a cautionary tale, of what can happen when an addiction takes over a life. I suspect that my grandfather was quite ashamed of the mess he’d made of his life. I imagine deep regrets for his lost sons and his inability to know them.

My faith tells me that he and they, all of us are held in the loving arms of God, who never forsakes us or leaves us. I’ve always felt sad when I’ve heard a person say they couldn’t believe anyone – even, or especially God – could love them. The scripture points to a different reality. The psalmist says of God, “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:9-10) There really is no place where God is not. God waits for us, chases after us and celebrates each returning child. While we are still running fast and furiously away, God’s hand is hovering over us, anticipating the moment we will realize that God has been there, with us, all the time.

Millennials and the Faith Community

It seems like everywhere I’ve been in recent weeks, the question of why young people aren’t joining the church, comes up in conversation. A clergy colleague’s son asks her, “Why should I join an institution that practices intolerance?” One friend, who does some volunteer work with college students says, “Young people think the church has corrupted the faith.” Pew Research, out with their latest study on religious trends, interviewed 35,000 people. They found that younger people, of all Christian backgrounds, are leaving the church and no longer claiming Christian as a part of who they are. Increasingly Millennials give themselves the title of “none” when asked their religious background.

Much of the media has not been helpful in sharing the positive in Christian faith and life. I bounce between frustration that the media doesn’t pick up on the good those faith communities are doing, and being painfully aware of the dysfunction which too often exists in churches. As faith communities we have a lot to answer for. But, I think the problem is deeper than that. Our world has so many more choices than when I was a young parent. Social media has redefined how we relate to one another. Skeptics have a larger forum. Fewer of the older generation have known how to pass on an authentic faith to their children. We put our priorities on other aspects of our children’s well being instead of growing their faith. The church and the older generation has made a mess, a very big mess of communicating the love of God to a new generation.

Yet there are other times when the church is alive and well. Increasing numbers of churches sends mission teams out to pick up after a tornado or when a hurricane strikes an area. We make health kits, send school supplies to third world nations, and build health clinics. Homeless people are fed and housed in churches, while advocating for resources to get people off of the streets. Church people staff local food banks and give generously of their resources to human need.

Still, I worry about the younger generation’s alienation from the church. I fear for their lostness and lack of trust in the God who loves them unconditionally. I fear for children who grow up without a knowledge of God. What no survey or poll can account for though, is the tug of God in a person’s heart. God has a way of finding lost children and calling us to God’s self. What is of God, will endure. The form and shape of Christianity may change in the years ahead, but nothing will hold back God’s truth. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union didn’t quench the yearning to know God. That same seed, planted in the human spirit, will exist till the end of time. Every now and then God reminds me that if God can get through my stubborn heart and mind, God can certainly get through to those I love and care about.

Childhood Lessons On The Environment

My parents taught their children with parables – not the Biblical variety, but those homespun truths which grab wisdom by the tail. If something needed fixing, we’d hear “A stitch in time saves nine. ” My sister was often the recipient of “Don’t’ cut off your nose to spite your face, ” every time she and her friend got into an argument and stopped talking to each other. When we were about to short change a project we were working on, my mother would tell us, “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” Both parents were especially fond of letting us know not to “count our chickens before they’re hatched.”

My parents were the first naturalists I knew. They cared about the environment and taught each of us to care also. I learned from them about our interconnected world. In the rural area I grew up in, nature’s lessons were all around us. During the dry years our neighbor’s crops died in the field, and the lake that supported our fishing resort dropped to unhealthy levels. From an early age I learned how I used or misused the earth mattered. They taught us of the interconnected nature of earth and all of earth’s creatures.

Later I would hear more of the Biblical worldview of earth and God’s concern for the planet we live on. The Bible tells us that the earth belongs to God and everything in it. The Genesis account of creation calls upon us to be stewards of the creation. The gospel of John has this poignant word, “For God so loved the World.”

I’m puzzled by the political divide over care of our environment which we encounter today. Until recent years Christians were united in a concern for the earth and its creatures. We worked together for laws that limited pollution and cleaned up our lakes and rivers. I’m not sure when our collective wisdom changed, or how the environment got mixed into creation theologies as if one believed God created the heavens and the earth, one couldn’t believe that the earth was in danger.

I don’t know how this happened, but I yearn for that time of yesterday, when words like Global Warming and Climate Change were not political fireballs, but words that pushed us, regardless of political affiliation, into action. I yearn for the time when we so love God with our mind, heart, soul and strength, that we invest ourselves in all the ways we can to make a difference for the generations who follow us.