Who believes in the best for you?

This is the fourth in my series of "How Do We Live in These Days?" series. If you missed last week's conversation about privilege, you can read it here. 

We all need to keep a few really good friends around for the long haul  . . . especially if we want to spend the months of our lives engaged in work that matters. 

People who we've fought hard with, thinking this might be the end of things but it wasn't. People who've heard us swear, cry big tears and maybe drink more than we should. Maybe these are people who agree with us politically right now or maybe they don't (all the better if they don't for it's so good to learn from those in whom we disagree but still respect!)

In my life, these people are those who know what makes me anxious without explanation. These are the people who know I need a care package in the mail before I could hope for one. These are the people I know I could call with a crisis in the wee hours of the morning. They'd be on the next flight out.

They not only want the best for me, but believe in the best for me.

A couple months ago, we celebrated the baptism of our daughter in a special ceremony led several of our closest pastor friends in our house.

It's a lovely story (as to how a ordained Baptist minister decided to baptize her child!) for another day. But for now, I can tell you this: baby girl's baptism was a great reminder to me that I need all the sister friends, mother friends, father friends, daughter friends, couple friends, midwife friends, and so on in my life.  My daughter needs them too.  People who believe in you literally change your life.

And to give her our faith is to give her our community. 

This week was my birthday. To some people birthdays are just another day in the calendar or an excuse to eat cake, I am not one of those people (though I love a good cookie cake). I love the concept of birthdays a celebration. Not in a self-centered “All about me” way, but as a time to re-group, reflect and gather people close that I love.  I can't end the day without touching base with all the loves in my life (even if they forgot it was my birthday!). It just makes me happy. I would not have made it to the ripe age of 37 without team Elizabeth going strong.

They are the ones who've pushed me to articulate my dreams even when I've been to scared to do so.

They are the ones I've come crawling back to when failure has crippled my courage.

They are the ones who've held up my head so I could see past my tears. 

So this week, I move forward in this new year, grateful for those who see me better than I often see myself.

I'm relying on the Divine gifts of strength in community to show up for the challenges of the year to come. And thankful that I'm not alone in this mess called life. Nobody can do it alone.

Who believes in you? Find them. Treasure them. Tell them that you love them. Your life will be all the better for the community that surrounds you. This is my testimony for today.

When I started seventh grade, I was in club that asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. We were told to write our answers down on a piece of paper and keep it somewhere where we'd see it again in several years.

I recently found it again all these years later and I bet you'll be surprised as to what it said. . . .

I wanted to be a lawyer.

Who knew where that came from? Other than maybe I saw my future in leadership and study and being a lawyer was all I knew that women could do. 

I also wanted to be married, have lots of kids and live in a place near palm trees.

In some ways life has turned out like I hoped and in other ways it simply has not.

But isn't this the way  life is for all of us?

Who really became what they'd thought they'd be when they were 7, 12 or 17?

We can set out at the beginning of our life to be or do something in particular only to find ourselves 15, 20 or 30 years later holding something different.

Personally, I've always fought against this norm. When I set my mind out to do something, I really want to follow through with it even if the goal is not in my best interest.

But lately I've been thinking about the folly of all of this. Not that it is wasted energy to make plans or to have a plan. Not that we shouldn't strive toward fixing big problems.

Yet, the stupid part is how much mental, emotional and spiritual energy we all seem to exert toward PARTICULAR plans.

We wrap our heads around some vision for our lives and then want to settle for nothing less even if our plans make us miserable.

I was sitting with a group of girlfriends over lunch recently and the transcript of the conversation would lead a bystander to believe that each one around the table was in charge of their own lives. Or at least each had the ability to control their life circumstances based on their intellect, determination and perseverance. Each made these declarative statements:

I'll be pregnant in a year.

I'll have a new job in a city closer to family in six months.

I'll be starting my doctorate in the fall.

While all of these things were beautiful and wonderful goals, I couldn't help but think the entire time, what hubris we human beings are capable of!

There is NO way to guarantee that anything we want to happen in our lives will.

If you asked me 10 years ago if this is where my life would land me in 2014, I would have shook my head. I am most certainly not living the life I planned to live. In many ways my life is so much better than I ever imagined. And in other ways it is much worse.

So, this is my life motto: goodbye 5, 10 or 15 life plans. I can hardly predict or plan what is going to happen in the next 6 months! (Much less even a year in advance) so why obsess over what is to come? 

And while this way of living goes against every bit of my type A nature, I am learning to accept it. This season of life has forced me to accept it in this strange land. I must make peace with it.

Because really, who am I? Just a grain of sand in the larger universe. I believe in a Creator that is complete mystery. Who am I really to know what I want or I need? Who am I to ever predict what comes next?

All I know to do is wake up every morning and keep living, hoping that as I do-- that the particular path for what is next becomes clear. And when in doubt, I also go back to this my favorite prayer by Thomas Merton. Because really in the end, life is not about us anyway.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Today I'm hoping for you as I'm hoping for me that in due time, all will be well. All matter of things shall be well.

God’s Dreams for Us
Genesis 28: 10-19, Ephesians 2:14-21
Watonga Indian Baptist Church
Watonga, OK

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you were confused, without direction or without prospects on the horizon for a better future?

Maybe such was a time in your life when you lost a job, fell into a conflict with a family member, or even didn’t know where your next meal came from?

Maybe it was a time when a beloved family member died? Or when one of your children was terribly sick?

Or maybe even when someone sought to speak authoritatively to you without any concern for your best interest?

I bet we could all say yes to this question—that sometime in our life, if not right now we’ve reached moments when all we wanted to do was sit in the floor and cry or just run away from everything familiar to us or even drown our sorrows in too much sleep or alcohol—because life has just felt that bad.

God, it has seemed has not been present in our lives in a way that speaks to our heart. We feel alone, abandoned, and are wandering aimlessly through our days.

So with all of this true, I tell you, you’ll like the main character in our Old Testament story today: Jacob. Jacob as we meet him in Genesis 28, is not the exalted son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, the great patriarchs of the people of Israel. He’s not in a place of greatness simply because of who his family is or because he got a huge inheritance of wealth.

No, rather, we find Jacob down and out. We find that he’s was forced to leave his land, his home, his family and we find him as verse 11 tells us in “no particular place.”

We find that Jacob is no the run without real plans for the future, alone, and without any creature comfort for protection.

In fact, if we read earlier in the story, we know that Jacob is on the hit list of his brother Esau. After Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, tricked her husband into giving Jacob, her younger son the blessing usually reserved for the oldest son, Jacob’s brother Esau is angry.

Esau says he wants Jacob dead. Rebekah, being the smart woman that she is (I know like so many of the women in this room this morning) creates a plan whereby Jacob’s father thinks it is in the best interest of Jacob to send him away for a while. (The excuse being that he needed to find a wife in the region of the country where Rebekah’s people are from).

So, with father Isaac on board with the “go find a wife in another region” plan, Jacob is sent away. No one asked Jacob if he wanted to go. He was told to go.

But, while some young adults might have loved this plan, we don’t get the idea from Jacob that he’s too excited about it. For, we know he’s never been away from home before. He’s never been on a route to the destination of Hebron before. This journey out into the great unknown was full of a lot of firsts.

But, even though from the outside this just seems like a secular story about a family drama—God is still present.

God had not forgotten the promise He’d made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham.

God had not forgotten about Jacob.

God had not forgotten his love for Jacob.

So, as Jacob takes shelter for the night in what I can imagine was an open field (not much shelter really at all) laying his head on a rock for a pillow, scripture tells us that God speaks to him.

Not as God had done before through a voice or through the presence of messengers, but through a dream.

And in this dream, scripture tells us that Jacob sees a stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching toward heaven.

As an aside it’s this juncture in scripture is where the song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” comes from. Anyone ever sang or heard of this song before? I had to look up the words—all I knew was the first line. But if you look them us too, beware: it really has nothing to do with this story.

But it wasn’t really a ladder Jacob sees. More like a ramp. For a popular part of the religious culture of Jacob’s time was the idea of ziggurats—artificial mountains built as shrines, shrines that connected things of on the earth to higher things of heaven.

We aren’t told that Jacob gets access to heaven on this ramp. Instead it serves as a sign that God comes to dwell with Jacob—to be with him where he was. Right there in the middle of nowhere.

It was an image of God saying to Jacob—“Look, you are not alone. I am with you, even here in this remote place.”

But even more than this, I believe, God is inviting Jacob to see the world as God views it, to dream alongside God.

In verse 13, my Bible reads—“there above it (meaning the ladder) stood the Lord” but many translations of this verse actually read, “There beside him.” I really want to lean into the second interpretation—that as God begins to speak directly to Jacob he is not standing over him, but standing beside him—coming close to his heart.

And saying these words: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out like the west and the east, to the north and to the south. All people on earth will be blessed.”

What powerful words! Not only was God saying to Jacob in his moment of crisis: “I see you!” but God was also making unconditional promises to him about the future of his people.

“I’m going to bless you,” God says, “No matter what. No matter how much you screw up. No matter how far you stray from me. No matter how people treat you. Or how lost you feel. I’m going to bless you.”

It was an invitation for Jacob to come and see the world as God already saw it—full of possibility, full of promise, full of hope, even when the circumstances of Jacob’s life seemed like nothing good could possibility come from them.

This past week, Kevin, my husband and I spent several days meeting with, assisting with feeding programs and shoe distributions for children in Guatemala. All of this was part of Kevin’s work for an organization based out of Oklahoma City called Feed The Children and I was just along for the ride.

One of my favorite communities we visited was in the region of Guatemala known as San Antonio Polopa among a traditional Mayan culture. Though the community struggles with having enough provisions of food and clean water and proper supplies for their children to go to school with and had every reason to shun us as “outsiders” Kevin and I, along with the rest of the team from Feed The Children were overwhelmed by the kind welcome we received. I even got a Mayan makeover while I was there, with traditional dress given to me and put on me (I can show you pictures after the service if you are interested).

But, as Kevin spoke to this group before we all ate together, as he had done many times before with different groups, he said something that struck me (especially as I had this passage of scripture on my mind). Kevin told the group of mothers and children gathered around us: “We are here today to stand in solidarity with you. Though we come from a different country, a different culture and from a different background, there is one thing we hold in common. And that is all parents want the same thing for their children. All parents want a better life for their children than they had themselves.”

And the Mayan mothers seemed to agree, as maybe the mothers in this room here in Watonga agree too. It’s only natural as Parents to dream big for your children.

You want your children to grow up and succeed at whatever they do—having better days than you ever experienced, making more money than you ever did, and living in a more comfortable living space than you. It’s part of what makes us human, to have this desire.

But, what about God, have you ever thought about what God dreams for you?

If we say that God is our Heavenly Father or Heavenly Mother . . . if we believe that God in heaven is the great Parent of us all, then what are God’s dreams for us? When God thinks about our future, what comes to God’s mind?

Taking our cues from Jacob this morning, we see that there are no limits to what God has planned for our future.

Consider again with me the language of verse 14 of Genesis chapter 28.

The LORD said to Jacob, “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”

Being called “dust” doesn’t sound too bad does it? Dust is everywhere. Dust is a part of all places. Dust is the very essence of life.

But, there’s more. One Biblical commentator on this passage calls our attention to the fact that the original Hebrew word for dust was not just an generic word for dust, rather it was more like the English word “topsoil.”

Topsoil, as we know from our gardening is the best kind of soil. It’s the soil that is full of the nutrients. It’s the soil that ensures the crops’ success. It’s the soil full of the rich ingredients that the plants need within them to help them grow strong and tall. And with out the topsoil our hopes of a rich harvest are ruined.

Thus, God is telling Jacob in speaking of topsoil: “I have a dream for you. My dream is not just that you’ll have a good home. Or, that you’ll have kids one day of your own. Or that happiness will find you more than sadness does. But, rather, my dream is that you’ll be a life-restoring, life-giving pillar wherever you go. That your community will be blessed because of YOU bringing MY presence to it., the riches gift of all.”

I believe this is exactly what the apostle Paul is talking about when he writes to the church at Ephesus about God’s dreams for their lives. Saying that he prays regularly for the Ephesians, “That Christ may dwell in [their] hearts through faith. And [Paul] prays that [they] being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with the saints, to grasp how wide and long, and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

Paul wants them to know that God’s dreams for the people of this world are in fact so big that we could not even wrap our minds around them if we tried. Why? Because we serve a God, as Paul writes that is “able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask for or imagine.”

Unimaginable dreams—that’s bigger than any of us know how to speak about!

I tell you today that is hard to keep dreaming like this. It’s hard to dream at all sometimes. It’s hard to dream the more that life has beaten us down, shredded our attempted contributions to pieces. It’s hard to dream when all we want to do is throw up our hands in disbelief of the suffering that has found us in this life.

But we are called to keep dreaming, nonetheless.

The poet Langston Hughes that I like very much says this about dreams: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is broken winged bird that can’t fly.”

As people of faith, as people who are in relationship with the God of all living things, we can’t give up hope. We can’t give up dreaming. We have to allow room in our hearts to received God’s unexpected surprises of dreams in our sleep, of visions in the daytime, of words of instruction from wise ones in our community.

I am so glad I serve a God who has a plan for me, along with every living creature on this earth.

I’m so glad I serve a God who wants a brighter future not only for the children but for all of us older ones as well.

I’m so glad I serve a God who helps give me vision when I feel lost, alone or without the courage to keep dreaming anew.

I’m so glad God’s dream for all of us flow out of great love-- love that is wider and longer and higher and deeper than I could ever conceive on my own.

Let’s us pledge together again on this day to invite the power of the Holy to teach us to dream anew.

Let’s dream together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us dream together as children of father Jacob.

Let us on this special day of family celebration thank God that God’s dream for us our families are not over. But with God with us, the best is yet to be!

AMEN

In our consumer driven everything culture, we often treat reading as just another thing to conquer, to finish, to master. In seminary, we marked our progress by how many textbook were on our shelves. Colleagues ask me at conferences, "How many books have you read lately?" Congregants ask me: "What books can you teach us more about?" I've often fallen into the trap of reading just to be done with something or just to teach something.  And then, that is it. I cast the book aside.

Not all words written down on a page are meant to be treasured (fluff beach reading, for example). However, sometimes words do hold lasting power. And just need us to pick them up again to find the gems.

I've found myself doing a lot of re-reading lately instead of picking up new texts. Books can be like old friends, coming back into our lives to provide comfort or simply reminding us who we are. And I think this is true of fiction and non-fiction alike.

Several years ago, I picked up at a fall DC library book sale a copy of Renita J. Weems's memoir, Listening for God: A Minister's Journey Through Silence and Doubt. How surprized I was to find this book! Though I was not going through a season of doubt at the time, the title sucked me in. Seemed like an honest text (I'm always looking for these) worth the dollar price tag (what a steal!).

I was familar with the author's name. Weems, a preacher, scholar and formerly a professor at Vanderbilt University, also wrote, Battered Love which I read in my Women, Theology and the Church class at Duke Divinity.

That September, I remember speed reading through it, feeling so happy as if I'd found a long-lost soul sister. Weems, coming out of a conservative tradition that didn't necessarily affirm her gifts for ministry, writes about her struggle to stay connected to spiritual wisdom, even as her well ran dry and her faith shifted. After finishing it, I was quick to recommend it to friends (as I usually do when a treasure is found) and put it on my shelf again in the "has read section." I didn't touch it for years.

However, in picking it up again this summer, I've read slower. I've stopped myself to process some of her nuggets of truth in short chunks. I haven't rushed. And, yesterday, I came across this reflection about the meaning of dreams which was perfectly instructive to my life right now. I keep having the most vivid dreams in color and in details that I can actually recount in the morning. And, I hoped for some wisdom to begin to make sense of them. And so how perfect that Weems wrote:

Wherever dreams come from, and I don't pretend to know where that is, it's a place within each of us, down within our souls, a place that won't take no, shut up, not now, you again? for an answer. It's a place that demands our attention and resolves to get it, whether with laughter or terror. It's a place within which insists that we remember the lives we have lived, says Frederic Beuchner. It calls us to remember memories emotions, remember moments, remember things we've tried furiously to avoid or to forget. Dreams beckon us into a still room within us where it is safe to remember where our journeys have brought us. It's safe because it is safe because it's a place where we can face our fears, anger, and dread and see them for what they were and are: feelings that needn't last forever. It is safe because no one , God is has access to that room, save you and God. And there in that room filled with our greatest anxieties, God meets us and beckons, "Come, it is time to be healed."

Each time a dream has enough current in it to awaken us, God is speaking to us through some chamber within us, beckoning us to come in. It's time. It's time to remember. It's time to lighten up. It's time to sort through. It's time to heal. It's time to let go. It's time to learn how to laugh at ourselves.

Thank you Renita Weems. I'm thinking more about some recent dreams of mine as I ponder your words, hoping that as you say they might lead to more healing in me and others too.

You see, sometimes, reading can be the gift that keeps on giving.

Change is inevitable, growth is intentional –Colin Wilson

Such was one of the quotes we discussed together as a small group gathered at the Brunson's home on Tuesday night last week. Gathered together in the spirit of stewardship season as our theme is "An Intentional Life" we talked about the ways that we've each been both intentional in our life practices . . . and not.

As we sat around the long dinning room table and shared with one another stories from our own journeys, I could help but think about a theme that has been present in several of my conversations both in and outside the church lately. "Does life get better than this?" people muse with me. "Or, must I simply resolve that this is all there is?"

Every time I've heard this question raised, a part of me has cringed on the inside because of what it says about hope. To be moving in life without hope-- to believe the pain we feel in the present and the countless ways our lives have not turned out like we'd planned is the essence of life-- seems to be giving up too soon.

I often hear people saying similar things about our church. We'll never be this or that . . .  and it makes my heart hurt every time I hear it because it means folks are giving up dreaming thinking that what they see in front of them is ALL there is.

On Saturday morning, a group of us gathered ironically around the same table (thank you Brunsons again!). This time it was the church council planning retreat. We set our dreams first of what we'd like to see happen in the church in 2012 and then took a step back and said to each other we are going to be intentional to do this activity and lay aside the rest for later.

It was a freeing exercise I believe for all of us. Freeing because it allowed us to move in hope and not feel overwhelmed. While there are a lot of really GOOD things that all of us want to do (and usually it is the dreaming types that are in leadership positions in the first place), we simply can't do it all and keep going as a congregation. Putting our best foot forward often means taking a two steps back and those two steps really aren't so bad.

So, as our group drafted our 2012 intentions in areas of worship, fellowship and mission activities, we said to each other as church leaders that our little and mighty congregation is full of hope. And it is hope that we keep on keeping on and move forward.