Dreams

This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:

“In the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit
on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.
I’ll set wonders in the sky above
and signs on the earth below,

Who cannot love a text like this one?  Anytime in the church year is a good time for dreaming, and any scripture is a good landscape for dreams and hopes – yet, I think on Pentecost this is particularly so. 

And who doesn’t love a dream?  I remember not long ago I watched a video of the speech given on August 28, 1963 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – his famous “I Have A Dream” speech – and the beginning of it was obviously something he had written down and taken a great amount of time to craft and it was very good – but it was after he had already been talking for a while when he seemed to go off script – stopped reading off the page and just started talking about the dream of freedom he had for his children and the generations to come.  Even watching just a recording of that speech, fifty years after he first spoke those words, I could feel the electricity and energy of that moment.  It has been written that right before his speech shifted course, Mahalia Jackson had cried out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” And so he did – and as he did it captured the imagination and the hope of everyone who heard it.  In the wake of that speech, King was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine for 1963, and in 1964, he was the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Who doesn’t love a dream?  We must have them.  What is life without them?  We need the dance of possibility, the song of hope, the whisper of challenge within dreams.  Gloria Steinem wrote, “If our dreams weren’t already real within us, we could not even dream them.”  The great C.S. Lewis said, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” And don’t forget the poet Henry David Thoreau who said, Do not lose hold of your dreams or aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live.

I think I have your attention.  There is something inside us that needs to have dreams and desires in order to feel alive.  We understand the language of dreams because we are human beings and not robots or machines.  We are created of blood and bone and flesh and the Spirit of the living God – and thus we were created to be dreamers.

I like to tell the story of a classmate of mine from kindergarten through high school – her name is Karen.  She grew up just down the road from me outside our little hometown in Minnesota.  Karen was quiet, but well-liked.  She was active in many activities, liked to draw and play piano.  Somewhere along the way Karen started saying she was going to be an astronaut.  She said it in a matter-of-fact way – like I said I thought I’d become a pastor, and our friend Jamie wanted to own a restaurant.  We all had our dreams and our teachers and parents encouraged each of us and there was never any doubt that we would become those things we dreamed about.  So the wonderful thing was that none of us were surprised when our dreams came true – when Jamie opened her restaurant and when I was ordained and when Karen finally went up on the space shuttle – there was no surprise for any of us. There was happiness, but we had believed in our dreams all along – that was a gift our teachers and parents gave us.  That sense that with hard work and a good attitude, eventually dreams came true.

But the thing that is perplexing to me is that it seems like we treat dreams as something that are only for the young.  As if once we get to a certain age, that dreams become not a sign of good things – like strength and aspiration and hope and persistence, but rather of foolishness and wishful thinking.  And yet, in our scripture for today it clearly says that your young men will see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.  We were not meant to quit dreaming.  We were not meant to just have one dream and once that comes true, call it quits – rather, the dreams within each of us have a holy and certain reason for being there. Far from foolish, far from wishful thinking – we are quite simply, given dreams in order to keep working to make them a reality.

It’s true in life and it is true in work and it is true in the church.

In his book, the 4-hour work week, Timothy Ferris tells a story about a man named Hans who tried paragliding for the first time in Rio de Janeiro.  He describes how Hans ran and stepped off a jagged rock toward 3,000 feet of nothing, holding his breath, he wondered if he would pass out he was so scared – and then he realized he was floating through the air.  He said he left his fear behind on that mountain top and life was different after that.  That moment happened on a Sunday and on Monday Hans returned to work at his law office in California and handed in his three-week notice.  For the last ten years he had faced his alarm clock with the same dread – he would think, “I have to do this for the next 35-40 years?” 

But he said he realized something while he was paragliding – that risks weren’t that scary once you took them.  His colleagues told him what he expected to hear – he was throwing it all away.  He was an attorney on his way to the top – what more did he want?

Hans didn’t know exactly what he wanted but he had tasted it in that moment when he faced his fears and flew.  On the other hand, he did know what bored him to tears, and he was done with it.  No more passing days as the living dead, no more dinners where his colleagues compared cars.  It was over.

Immediately, a strange shift began to happen – Hans felt, for the first time in a long time, at peace with himself and what he was doing.  He had always been terrified of plane turbulence, as if he might die with the best inside of him, but now he could fly through a violent storm sleeping like a baby.  Strange indeed.

More than a year later, he was still getting unsolicited job offers from law firms, but by then he had started his own surf-adventure company based in Brazil.  He spent a lot of time relaxing under palm trees and treating clients to the best time of their lives.

He smiles as he thinks to himself, “Is this what I was so afraid of?”

A popular fortune cookie saying reads, “Many a false step was made by standing still.” 

I wonder what dreams are sitting out there in those pews today. What hopes and aspirations you hold.  Is it a journey you have been wanting to make?  Is it the novel you have been trying to write?  Is it the classes you wish you could take, the business you wanted to start, the long race you wanted to run, is it project you are certain would be a blessing to the church, the community – and you feel like you might just be the one with the gifts and passion to lead it?  If it is a dream that sticks with you, a thought that you cannot shake, a tapping on your shoulder that won’t go away – there’s a name for that – and it’s more than a dream – it’s a calling.  And the only way to deal with a calling is to listen and answer “yes.”  Well, that or ignore it and grow ulcers and probably grow depressed – but I would go with the answering yes.    As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”

And while the lessons of remembering the genius and power of our dreams is important for each of us personally, we must remember them as a church as well.  Our church, as most churches, was built on the hopes and dreams of the first settlers who longed for a church home and they planned and they built and lo, there was a church. 

But sometimes churches stop dreaming about possibilities.  Is it because worries become more pressing than dreams?  Or is it because we don’t want to get our hopes up?  Or is it because we don’t really believe God’s promise to always be with us whenever we move forward in faith?  Or is it just plain fear?

Friends, this Pentecost day and always – Jesus has more in mind for us than fear. God has a dream for us – a dream that is realized as the Holy Spirit works through us just as it did through the first disciples when they were empowered to share the good news.  God has a dream for us that we will not be content to remain the same but to grow and evolve and keep finding new ways to love and serve him with our every life and breath.  God has a dream for us – that we will be brave and true, not timid and fearful.  That we will work for justice and peace, even and especially when it is hard.  God has a dream for us – that we not only want to share this faith with the generations that follow us, but that we will pray for this Holy spirit to burn in their hearts and give them absolute fire of will to serve Jesus with all their days.  Do not lose heart, because God has a dream for us – for you – and as the apostle wrote – I am sure that the God who began the good work within you will keep right on helping you grow in his grace until his task within you is finally finished on that day when Jesus Christ returns.  In his name we pray.  Amen.

I Didn’t Know

stroller boys

 

 

You have me still

You have me

You have me

You have my heart completely.

            – Gungor

Jesse was sick last night.  It was the awful throwing-up-every-half-hour kind of sickness.  He cried because his stomach hurt so badly and he hated the vomiting.  Sweet child.  I kept thinking back to when he had RSV as a baby and how helpless I felt and how scared I was for him , but then also feeling like I am so dang lucky because these kids have been so healthy overall.  I am deeply thankful for that.  Please keep them safe, dear Lord…all of them, not just mine.

A power ranger sits on my desk.  It was probably Jesse who left it here the last time he played games on my office computer. I hardly pay any attention anymore to the toys left scattered around my church and my home, they have become the background of my life.

I remember visiting a friend with two young children before I had any of my own and I was startled by the assault to my senses while I was there – the house was rarely quiet, there was the faint smell of diapers always drifting through the air, and I was dismayed at the inconveniences: of having to pluck toys out of the bathtub before I could take a shower, of needing to wait for my friend to breastfeed her youngest before we could take off and go shopping and exploring, of how the needs of her children were so obviously greater than her need to visit with me and catch up on the things that we used to spend hours discussing.  Her world had shifted and I knew she was very content with those shifts.

I couldn’t imagine wanting any of those changes.  I loved my quiet house and life.  I loved my little challenges I gave myself – training for a marathon, writing some articles, working on my Doctor of Ministry degree.  I liked things in my time and I had a sense that children would blow up the world as I knew it.

Of course, they have.  Entirely.

I read an article recently that a mother carries cells of her children within her forever and also cells of the mother who gave birth to her.  There’s something so deeply comforting about knowing that physically my dear mother is knit into the fabric of me.  And just as I suspected, there is some very real part of me that is buried with her in the cold Minnesota ground.   No wonder we feel losses so completely.  A part of us is not figuratively dying when a loved one dies, rather a part of us has actually died.

It’s a vast thought…and sad enough to leave me huddled under a blanket in the corner forever.

Until I remember there is a living part of me, still.  And these beautiful sons are here – children I did not expect nor even have the wisdom to wish for very long yet God blessed me in spite of myself.  God saw fit to let me be their mom and to let me understand joy and true love in the best way possible.

I didn’t know, my dear boys, I didn’t know!  I would have been searching for you from the moment I began breathing if I had known how you would cast the world into the loveliest light of all.  I promise you, I live for what is still living – in me and in you.  I do not live for this grief although it covers much of me still.

Dreaming…

I try very hard to not get excited about things too quickly.  I like to have a good balance between hoping for the future and living in the present.  But lately I’m having a difficult time not thinking about opportunities and possibilities.  You know how it is when the perfect thing comes along at just the right time?  You know how it is when something more than you ever thought possible seems like it might soon be sitting right on your own doorstep?  It’s like that.  Yeah.

So I’m deciding to revel in what might be.  To thank God that I am reminded so often of God’s faithfulness – in exciting moments, and in the difficult ones, too.  The last few months have been a lot of both kinds of times.  But I have a feeling these are all the birthing pains of something amazing on the way.  Freaking Amazing.

 

Moving Day

I drove up and saw the moving truck was already parked in the driveway.  She had enlisted help from me and three others – all friends in the community.  She is a pastor, too – which means there were many boxes of books, plenty of religious art, scads of paperwork from this seminar and that continuing education class. She already moved her cats to the new apartment yesterday.

She is a single pastor, which I think may have to be the loneliest thing in the world.  I was one for a few years, before sweet Chad came along.  I can’t count how immensely thankful I am for my tiny little family particularly when I am feeling on the edges, alienated by whatever community God has called me to.  My husband and sons help me weather the inevitable storms that come with my work and they help me remember I’m not just Pastor Ruth.  They keep me real and happy.

I did a paper many years ago on Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first ordained woman in the United States.  She was an ordained pastor for only a few years before she left the ministry.  She was single when she served at her first call in a small community in Upstate New York.  I read letters she wrote to a friend in which she talked about how hard the long winters were.  It isn’t hard for me to imagine how it was for her because my first call was also in Upstate New York and I had a couple winters there alone in a parsonage.  So silently the snow drifted up against the brick walls of my house.  So surely I felt the winter would never end.  Kind families invited me over for Thanksgiving and Christmas but I never really belonged.  I was called to love them and I did.  There were many lovely people in that church and some, a few, deeply awful ones, too.  When I called the parking lot gossipers and the hateful council members on their crap, I knew it would shortly be time for me to go.  And I did.  I wept to leave that wonderful/horrible church, but I chose to go and I had a new call waiting for me across the country.  It took me a few years to recover from my first call, but I was able to do that.

My friend didn’t choose to leave her call.  Her church decided to let her go and so now it is very abruptly time to pack up her cats and books and papers and go.  God called her there and now she is left to figure out why it was only for such a short time and what is she supposed to learn from it?  It’s hard enough to leave everything and follow God’s call.  Then infinitely harder when that call seems to just evaporate into thin air and without warning.

I know all the old sayings – “God has a plan” and “you never know all the lives you touch even if it is just a short time” and of course there is a part of me that believes those things.  However, as the years unfold and I meet more and more dear clergy who are hurt and abandoned by their churches, it is difficult to not get disheartened.  Most lay people will never understand the kind of sacrifice that goes into being a pastor. Yes, I know that every job is hard and requires sacrifice, however there are few careers where one’s work bleeds so fully into the rest of life. There is no way to be a half-hearted minister.  You simply must love your congregation and when you love them, it is so easy to get hurt by them.  You simply must pick up your life and go to where the call is, yet usually that means leaving behind every friend and everything familiar.  Sometimes it works out fine and great, good connections are made and it becomes home.  Sometimes, though, you are packing up a moving van after just a couple years in a place, wondering what the heck happened, and dreaming about whether or not it is possible to use that Masters of Divinity degree for any sort of gainful employment in the secular world.

We stuffed the last boxes and bits of lawn furniture into the remaining crevices of the moving truck and shut the door.  By now she is probably unloading its’ contents into her new place. She has already asked that some of us, her pastor friends, might come and help her do a blessing of her apartment after she has settled in.  Of course we will.  We know well that our homes dearly need God’s blessing to ward off the hard things that come with what we do.  Go away isolation.  Go away depression.  Go away spiritual confusion and endless longing for God and wondering if we really are serving God in the best possible way through the vessel of the church.  The same church that sometimes welcomes us warmly with potlucks and coffee cakes, and then sometimes spits us out.

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The Bell Tolled 91 Times

The church bell tolled ninety-one times this afternoon as we brought her out to the cemetery.  The wind swept like a brush through the grass and picked up bits of dust, carrying it far off over the cedars and live oaks.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I said and sprinkled the sand over her coffin.  I drew the indentation of a cross and watched granules slip into the grave below. I stepped aside as we silently observed the flag folded and presented.  She had been a Navy Nurse. The gun salute sounded.  The trumpet haunted in echo.

I thought of my mother and my father, their bones resting so far away.  I saw the man with the cane let his tears fall onto his jacket. We prayed an ancient prayer and headed back toward the church, still keeping watch over her dead all these years.