The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17–21 NRSV)
Dreaming God’s Dream
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the magnitude of God’s playing field when he preaches for the first time in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth.
At first, all the people speak well of him. They marvel that a kid from their very own neighborhood is speaking so eloquently in the synagogue. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask each other, amazed at his words. It’s like they can barely restrain themselves from pinching his cheeks.
But Jesus doesn’t give them the kind of congratulatory sermon they are looking for, doesn’t assure them that God is on their side and their side only. Instead he reminds them of an old story of the prophet Elijah, who ministered to the widow in Zarephath, and Elijah’s protégé Elisha, who cleansed Naaman the Syrian from leprosy (vv. 25–27).
Those stories sound sweet and harmless to us today, but in Jesus’ time they had an edge: those were examples of God helping foreigners. Jesus notes that even though there were plenty of starving widows in Israel in Elijah’s day, the widow God called Elijah to save was an outsider. God was dreaming bigger than just one nation. God was dreaming for the entire human race.
This is why the mood of Jesus’ crowd swiftly goes from admiring to adversarial when he reminds them of these stories. Jesus isn’t just playing lip service to God’s dream for the world. He actually expects them to expand their own vision, and then do something about it! So the same people who were cooing over him moments before now haul him out of the synagogue and try to throw him off a cliff. That’s how threatened they feel by Jesus’ message of releasing the captives and letting the oppressed go free—not just for the people of Israel, but for everyone.
Oy vey. God’s dream is so large! How can God expect any of us to take on all the issues Jesus lays out in Nazareth? Solving poverty, releasing the captives, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed? I grow tired just listing the categories.
The way we live God’s dream is not to take on every single issue that God considers important. Rather, we get deeply in touch with what stirs our soul, then devote our life energies to doing that soul-stirring work.
While the human soul pays attention to things like paychecks, it needs and desires far more significant things than money. Once the soul is assured of the basic survival of the physical body that hosts it, it quickly turns to other matters: the need to give and receive love, grace, and forgiveness, the need to belong in community with others, and the need to serve a cause that transcends mere physical survival. If these needs happen to be met through our vocation, we can work incredibly hard and never feel like we have been working at all. We may lie awake at night dreaming about ways to do our work better for no other reason than that such dreams give us pleasure. Yet if the soul’s needs aren’t being met, then we can work a tenth as hard and the only thing we’ll dream about with respect to our work is how to do less of it.
The Essence of Ministry
In Washington State I know two brothers who own a car repair shop called Simba’s Automotive. Since I was a young child on up to the present day, these brothers have been treating automobiles—and their drivers—with such a high level of care and respect that you practically want your car to be sick just so you can experience the “Simba’s Way.” Yelp reviews show people still raving about their business after all these years. One reviewer said she’d brought her car into Simba’s for one problem only to discover that they’d fixed another problem also—and for free. “It just needed to be done,” they explained. That’s Simba’s!
Years ago, a friend of mine asked one of the owners what made their business tick. He responded, “My brother and I are Muslim. We treat every automobile as if Muhammad himself were to drive away in it.”
These two brothers were living God’s dream, not merely their own—much like Jesus suggested in recounting stories of helping outsiders. Yet living God’s dream meant their souls were ablaze with passion—and compassion—as well.
To me, this is the essence of ministry. Ministry isn’t about who wears the robes, but who lives the life. You can be a minister without ever preaching Jesus—or Muhammad—to the recipients of your labors. You simply need to treat them as if they are the embodiment of your Lord. When Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people you do to me,” he meant it! (Matthew 25:40)
We see this sometimes in the healing professions. Someone who has found their “sweet spot” or calling in the healthcare industry need not ever preach Jesus to their patients to be deeply involved in Christian ministry. They practice a quieter gospel. By treating their patients with the same respect and dignity as Jesus, they not only live within God’s dream, but make God’s dream a reality.
So for instance, a cardiac surgeon who treats her patients as she would treat Jesus does not view them merely as patients, but as people. They are not defined by their condition any more than Jesus would be if he had heart disease. And if Jesus were entering her hospital, she would not simply be concerned with the level of care he received in her office, but how the whole hospital treated him. She might not even stop there, especially since her soul was attached to both her work and to Jesus. If her patient were truly Jesus, she might ask how the healthcare system as a whole was treating him. If the answer was “poorly,” she might be moved to do something about it.
I once announced from the pulpit that my church was setting a goal that every person who sought to find their “sweet spot” or “calling” in life should be given the tools to find it right there, in the church community. And once they found that channel through which their love and energy might be offered to the world, we as a church pledged to come alongside them to help them reflect theologically on what it meant to treat the recipients of their labors as if they were Jesus himself. Once we partnered with our members in this way, we would consider them to be real ministers—not ordained ministers who preached Jesus, but Ministers of the Quiet Gospel who were modeling “Simba’s Way.”
At the time I made this announcement, I challenged us to set a rather audacious goal: that within five years 200 of our members would serve as commissioned ministers of Countryside Community Church in the area of their “sweet spot,” or would be undergoing the process to become one. They would not be ministers in the “normal” sense, but Ministers of Cardiac Surgery, Ministers of Auto Mechanics, Ministers of Grandparenting … Ministers of whatever their “sweet spot” was.
At the time, I had no idea how we were going to pull this off. Or rather, I had plenty of ideas, but the available pastoral staff was too limited to truly create a program that could accomplish it all.
Well, a funny thing happens when you seek to live within God’s dream rather than making God live within yours. God isn’t limited by your intelligence and imagination. God isn’t even limited by your perception of the available resources. Simply put, God is able to be a more creative participant in helping you fulfill God’s dream than you can ever imagine. Dreaming God’s dream also engages you with others who are trying to dream God’s dream as well.
Enter Bangor Theological Seminary, a UCC school in Maine that has served our country as a seminary for 200 years. Due to many “deep shifts” going on in the world of theological education in recent decades, BTS chose to cease operations as a seminary a few years ago. Yet just because they closed their doors to students didn’t mean that they ceased trying to live within God’s dream. They re-formed themselves as “The BTS Center” and continued to ask how they could be of service to God in our country, specifically in the area of Christian ministry.
As a result of their dreaming, they proposed a partnership with our church, giving Countryside a financial grant that enabled us to hire a full-time “Pastor of Lay Ministries.” This person’s entire job has been to help our members find their “sweet spot” and reflect on the various ways they can treat the recipients of their labor as if they are Jesus himself through their vocation or avocation.
And our church was just the beginning. The Center desires to spread as far as possible a new model for ministry that understands laypeople as having callings that are as critical for the fulfillment of God’s dream on earth as any ordained clergy person. Laypeople are on the front lines of the in-breaking of God’s Realm, not merely in the backseat. They are not content simply to proclaim God’s dream; they go out and live it. Their ministry, in fact, goes a long way to fulfilling the dream Jesus proclaimed in the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1–13 NRSV)
Convergence v. Divergence
A human soul that is focused on God’s dream works like a converging lens, which is a piece of glass that has been milled in such a way that its focal point is beyond itself. At its focal point, all the light comes together, producing significantly more energy than if the light is diffused. In this respect, a converging lens serves as a helpful metaphor for the “sweet spot” of the human soul.
The opposite of a converging lens is a diverging one. A diverging lens works like a soul whose focus is not beyond itself but has gotten stuck somewhere else. A diverging lens takes light coming in and throws it out in all different directions, diffusing the power of the light. When you feel like you are spread too thin, it’s not necessarily because you have no energy, but because your energies are diffused. They’re going off in a hundred different directions and very little is being illuminated.
As Christians who wish to live within God’s dream, we need to become more like the converging lens, our energies focused beyond ourselves. Discovering God’s dream takes time and a certain amount of intentionality, so we make space for that in the second stage of our process: hovering. In the realm of spiritual discernment, hovering is called “soul searching.” It is the practice of looking within yourself to find whatever energies, desires, and passions you have that may be aligned with your Calling or “sweet spot” and orienting them in this direction—clearing blockages and adjusting focus. If we were lens crafters, hovering would be the process of grinding and polishing the glass to achieve its proper focus.
Hovering is what Jesus did for forty days in the wilderness before preaching the sermon in Nazareth we encountered in the last sermon. That sermon represents Jesus’ own “sweet spot” or the piece of God’s dream that he was called to live out: “to bring good news to the poor … proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
We “overhear” Jesus’ internal hovering when we read of his temptations by the devil. In Hebrew, the devil is called the satan, which means Adversary or Accuser. In the wilderness, the Adversary tried to throw off Jesus’ focus by shifting it in a direction that was other than his “sweet spot.” This would have been no easy task for the adversary of Jesus. After all, the Adversary couldn’t just pull out any old temptation that might fool the rest of us. The Adversary would have to tempt Jesus with good, not evil—and not just any good, but the wrong good.
For Jesus to be tempted, the Adversary would have to take one of Jesus’ great loves, something Jesus had already experienced as good and right, and get him to elevate that love unnaturally. It would have to become the convergence point of all his passions. In other words, the Adversary wasn’t trying to create overt evil, but a misdirected focus, sending all of Jesus’ energies to the wrong place.
The Adversary pulled out three of Jesus’ great loves—feeding the hungry, working for justice, and gathering a community of committed disciples. None of these loves was evil, and Jesus acted on each of them during his ministry. The Adversary simply tried to focus all of Jesus’ energies toward any one of them, thereby orienting Jesus’ energies away from his “sweet spot,” or calling.
“Turn stones into bread, Jesus! You know you want to feed the world.”
“I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world! You know you long for God to be the world’s true leader.”
“Show the world evidence that you are the Messiah! You know you want the world to hear your voice and follow God.”
While all of these temptations represented a part of Jesus’ call, none of them represented his entire call. While any of these things would be high enough callings to last a lifetime for the rest of us, none of them was high enough to bring all of Jesus’ energies into focus. His great love of feeding the hungry, creating justice, and gathering a community of believers were meant to serve a higher purpose, not be served by the rest of his energies. Discerning all this didn’t come easily for Jesus. Like the rest of us, he had to “hover.” He had to explore a wide variety of ways to work out his sense of call until he found the particular way of being in the world that brought all his energies into a single, white-hot point of focus.
On a much lower level, and over a much longer period of time, this is what happened to me as I gradually grew into my unique sense of calling as a minister. My calling into ministry came to me by complete surprise, after spending my first eighteen years thinking about any profession but ministry. But looking back from where I am now, I can see clearly that my call enlivened each of the major interests I had in life before then. For instance, I had a deep enough love of visual imagery that at one point I had wanted to be a professional photographer. I had a deep enough love of ancient history that I had once thought of becoming an archaeologist. I had a deep enough love of science and innovation that I had once aspired to be an inventor. I had a deep enough love of bridge-building between people that my classmates tended to seek me out as a mediator. And I had a deep enough love of God’s earth that I was preparing to study the science of solar energy just before sensing the call into ministry.
What confirmed—and keeps confirming—my sense of calling to the ministry is the way my particular ministry has brought together all of these deep loves and passions (and several more) into focus in a single vocation. I am not simply a “generic” minister. I am a minister who, like an archaeologist, loves to dig up the ancient past and glean its wisdom for the present. Like a photographer, I include visual imagery in my preaching; like an inventor, I enjoy experimenting with new and better ways of aligning our faith with our everyday lives. And like a solar energy research scientist and a mediator, I am particularly interested in the ways faith can help reconcile us with the earth and with people of other faiths.
Can you see how serving as a minister has brought all these deep but disparate interests and passions into a distinctive focus? This is how anyone’s sense of call works, no matter what the vocation, or avocation.
For most of us, the hovering process doesn’t happen overnight. Few people in this world have a “road to Damascus” experience in which God zaps us in some highly dramatic way with a sure knowledge of what our path should be. Even a forty-day retreat in the wilderness like Jesus did is unlikely to reveal what our sweet spot is. (And who can take off for forty days of desert solitude, anyway?)
Rather, the hovering process involves a conscious listening to your own life, which will reveal to you what your sweet spot is. The writer and poet Frederick Buechner says that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What is your deep gladness? What do you do that makes you feel most alive, most yourself? It might be making music, or it might be baking pie. Maybe you lose track of time when you’re delighting in figuring out how to fix a friend’s computer, or maybe you feel most alive standing in front of a classroom.
It may be several things, which is a blessing. Discerning among them is where Buechner’s second component comes in: Where does your gladness intersect with the world’s hunger? Where are your gifts most needed? Attending to the world’s hunger doesn’t mean you have to abandon your own joy or become a people-pleaser. It just means that you actively look for ways to make a difference using those gifts that bring you joy.
Hovering is a process of trial and error, so don’t feel badly about your mistakes or dwell upon the “error” part. You may think you’re called to one area, for example, only to realize later that you were motivated more by prestige or pleasing your parents than you were by paying attention to your own gladness and the world’s hunger. Don’t fret about the dips and valleys of the hovering process, because every apparent failure is in fact teaching you something valuable: “Nope, that wasn’t my sweet spot!”
So trust in the process. You can find your convergence point, then hover over all your life loves, adjusting their focus until they all work in concert with each other at your particular “sweet spot”—that part of God’s dream that only you are called to fulfill.
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
“After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’
“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
“And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
“Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
“But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return, I would have received what was my own with interest.
“So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 25:14–30 NRSV)
A parishioner once sent me an email about the previous Sunday’s service. She confessed up front that she had hemmed and hawed over whether to send it, but finally felt strongly enough about it to take the risk, not knowing how I would react.
No, she wasn’t sending a complaint. (Why did you assume it was? J) She wrote me that for some reason she had “seen” my father from time to time during her morning meditations. She didn’t know my father, though she’d seen some pictures of him that I’d posted on Facebook after his death. At one point this woman had her eyes closed in prayer but “saw” my father come up behind me and place a lei of flowers around my neck. In her vision he then did that with other people who were sitting by my side, moving behind each person and placing leis around their necks as well.
What struck me about this note was not just its content but its timing. I didn’t see it until well after she sent it because I’d been travelling. Throughout the whole trip, I had felt an unusually strong sense of closeness to my father, like he was right beside me, coaching me like he used to do. The whole idea of the trip was to strategize ways for laypeople to devote their vocations to God, which was modeled on a daily basis by my father. Once on the trip, I remarked to a friend, “It just feels like my father is here.”
It wasn’t until I returned home that I found the parishioner’s email. She had overcome her nerves and sent it at the exact time I was flying to Maine. She had been willing to take a risk, and I was blessed because of it.
Partnership, Not A Private Affair
When we dare to dream God’s dream and hover over that dream to discern what we specifically are being called to do, then we are always called to take a risk. Risking is not so much the next baby step in the process as a gigantic leap of faith.
In John 14:13-14, Jesus tells his followers, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Many people discount Jesus’ promise of help because they’ve tried asking for something and have been disappointed. They’ve asked for the job promotion, or the dream home, or God’s help in saving a relationship. They’ve begged for healing, or to be spared from some evil they saw squarely coming for them. And what they prayed for never came to pass.
If you happen to be one of those people, consider that Jesus’ promise was not to give us whatever we want. It was to give us what we ask for in Jesus’ name. This means far more than simply invoking the simple word “Jesus” or “Christ.” In Jesus’ day, asking for something in the name of another meant asking for something that corresponded with the will and intention of that person—in conformance with that person’s basic essence and energy.
To ask for something in the name of Christ means to request something that is in accordance with God’s will for your life and for the world. Since God respects our free will, anything we ask of God that would supersede the will of another person is off the table. So is anything that might appear good but would cause great harm to ourselves or another person.
Praying for something is a risk. But at some point we have to take a step in faith, trusting that if we’ve done our work properly, we will be powerfully assisted. If we should either fail to discern God’s will properly, or abuse our free will to thwart the will of God, we can also be assured that God’s view of the playing field is much larger than our own. There is always another way forward for those who stay open to seeking it.
This is one of the great advantages to being a person of faith. It’s not that God loves you any more than a person without faith, or that God is less willing to help a non-believer. The advantage for someone who has true faith (as opposed to blind faith) is that they are going to be more willing to take risks to follow the deep intuitions God sends. They see their lives as a partnership with God, not merely as a private affair.
The relationship between faith and risk is one of the things Jesus seems to be trying to teach us in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14–30. Let’s take a closer look at this oft-misunderstood parable.
Blessed Are the Risk-Takers
A talent was a unit of money in Jesus’ day. A talent in Jesus’ day was a unit of money worth 6,000 days’ wages of a laborer. Taking Nebraska’s minimum wage of $9 per hour as a baseline for a day laborer and assuming an eight-hour work day, a single talent in today’s dollars would be worth approximately $432,000. So this was no small amount of money for the master to be throwing around with his servants receiving between one and five talents.
On the surface, Jesus’ parable makes God look like a greedy tyrant who compels us to take risks to increase God’s resources lest we be thrown into the outer darkness. That’s what happens to the guy who plays it safe by burying his talent in the ground. Bear in mind that this third servant hadn’t lost the master’s money, and certainly hadn’t squandered it like the Prodigal Son or the Dishonest Steward in Jesus’ other parables. No, he’d simply preserved the principal intact for his master’s return. No gain, but no loss either. It hardly seems fair!
Part of our confusion comes from the fact that the parable isn’t really about the use of money. It’s about how we use … use what? What is the coin of God’s realm?
Put A Halo On It
Troy Bronsink offers a helpful suggestion in his book, Drawn In. He recommends that when we try to discern the will and activity of God in our world we “put a halo on it.” That is, we try to look out at the world through the eyes of God, as if God is actively involved in helping to manifest God’s dream for the world. Sometimes the simple act of envisioning a halo—the sacred symbol of holiness—floating over something we feel is important for the fulfillment of God’s dream serves as a way of adjusting or focusing our prayer energies, or our creative thoughts, in a way that helps the dream become reality.
Instead of the three servants in our parable being given vast amounts of money, imagine they get copious amounts of GRACE.
The first two servants not only receive grace, but take risks with the grace they’ve received. How do you take a risk on grace? You bestow grace by being generous with people in a way that exceeds what they have justly earned or could rightly expect. Or, you refrain from punishing people or taking something away from them when you have every right to. The reason why GRACE can be risky is because it is meant to provoke transformation—to turn people into gracious individuals who give grace as they have received it. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes people who receive grace just take advantage of you. Therefore, if you want to multiply the grace you yourself have received (God’s investment), you’ve got to constantly be taking risks with it to make up for the fact that not all risks are rewarded.
Turning to the third servant: He receives liberal amounts of God’s grace, but never risks it on anyone. He’s never generous toward the undeserving, nor does he turn the other cheek when someone offends him. This third servant who buries God’s grace in the ground has no interest in living within God’s dream. He expects God to live within his dream. For this man, it is impossible for God to be God, for he expects God to play within his boundaries, by his rules, and to act according to his own limited understanding of how the world should work.
Because the man isn’t generous himself, he can’t accept that God would be generous. He believes God to be a harsh judge, and he acts in fear. The master effectively responds, “That’s the biggest bunch of cockamamie I’ve ever heard.” God doesn’t need to throw this man into the outer darkness. He’s already there! Neither receiving nor giving grace, the third servant has locked himself out of the party God’s trying to throw.
The only way out of stagnation and darkness is to take a risk. The coin of God’s realm is grace—and his enduring commitment to you. You just have to trust in it. We have assurance that if we keep turning our struggles over to God, God has more endurance even than we do. It is God’s will to find a way.
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. (Acts 16:6–10 NRSV)
History is littered with examples of entrepreneurial endeavors gone horribly wrong for lack of one vital piece. The difference between success and failure often can be traced back to the fourth stage of the creative process: Listening.
As we’ll find this week, the difference between a life path that takes us somewhere and one that goes nowhere often has little to do with a failure to Dream, Hover, or Risk, but failure to Listen once we’ve found our path and begun walking it. The path is never a straight line. You will almost always stray from it if you assume that you can move straight from Point A to Point B.
More on the spiritual path in a moment. First, let’s talk cars.
The Curious Case of the Edsel
One of the more famous examples where a manufacturer did a great job Dreaming, Hovering, and Risking but utterly failed for lack of Listening is the creation of the Edsel automobile in the late 1950s. In fact, the term Edsel is now synonymous with the real-life market failure of a predicted “perfect” product or idea.
Henry Ford dreamed big when it came to the Edsel, imagining a whole new line of automobiles with four different models and eighteen different trim levels. Ford
had “hovered” over the dream like no other company had before, sinking enormous money into market research to determine exactly what the American public wanted in a car.
Then they merged those ideas into a workable prototype. In their words, the Edsel incorporated “more YOU ideas” than any other automobile. After Dreaming and Hovering, Ford took an enormous Risk on its dream car, building state-of-the-art production facilities and lining up a cross-country network of dealers that would exclusively sell the Edsel line. The whole time, the public never had a chance to see the Edsel. The car even arrived at the dealership under wraps until the first public unveiling.
All told, Ford took a $400 million risk developing the Edsel and bringing it to market. That’s well over $4 billion in today’s dollars. And right up to the moment it hit showroom floors, Ford had no idea what a flop it would be.
The public found Edsel’s “unique styling” uniquely hideous. The most memorable design feature of the Edsel, its front grille, resembled a horse collar in many people’s eyes, or worse: a toilet seat!
Customers found some of the car’s fancy new technology to be a nuisance as well—even a
danger. The Teletouch pushbutton automatic transmission selector, for instance, was located at the center of the steering column where the horn had traditionally been, meaning that many drivers inadvertently shifted gears when they went to sound the horn.
These are just a couple on a long list of mistakes that would likely have been avoided had Ford moved from Risk to Listening rather than Risk to Production. That is, once Ford had committed to producing the Edsel, a commitment to Listening would have suggested they test their prototype on actual potential customers rather than showing it only to marketing executives and sales people. Three years after the first Edsel appeared in showrooms, Ford discontinued the line, having concluded that its losses were draining the company dry.
Ford’s experience with the Edsel reveals a strikingly uncomfortable parallel with the spiritual life. What led to Ford’s failure was its overconfidence that it had already figured out what the public wanted through its intensive market research. Likewise, people of faith often run into trouble when they think they’ve heard “the word of The Lord” and stop listening after that—to other people and to God.
Think of all the people you have known or encountered who have taken what by all appearances is a wrong path, even a harmful one. Yet they “stay the course” due to their unwavering certainty that God has revealed their path to them. The mere suggestion that they reconsider where they are going or what they are doing sounds to their ears like temptation to disobey God’s will.
Sometimes such people may very well be following God’s will and we are the ones who need to wake up to reality. But one of the surer signs that people are out of touch with God’s will is that they are absolutely certain they are following it.
It’s not that God doesn’t want us to be confident in the direction we’re called to follow. It’s just that our path through life is never a straight one. It’s not meant to be. In essence, the spiritual geography we negotiate through life is like a meandering river that finds the path of least resistance to the distant sea. Continual listening—sensing the flow—is crucial to the spiritual path. When every step forward puts you into new terrain, you must be attentive to where your life is trying to flow through that terrain lest you miss a crucial turn and your life starts resembling water flowing uphill!
Going with “The Flow”
All of these ideas about listening and flow find concrete expression in the life of the apostle Paul. Paul was deeply committed to Dreaming God’s dream for the world, Hovering until he found his place within that dream, and Risking everything he had to follow where he was called. But unlike the Ford Motor Company, Paul knew that even when you’ve done your homework and committed to a course of action, you cannot stop listening. In fact, you must listen more carefully than ever. There’s a big difference between where you think the flow is taking you and where it’s really going to go.
In Acts 16, for instance, we find Paul and a close companion named Silas in the midst of Paul’s second missionary journey. They have been travelling to some places Paul’s been before (and was nearly killed in, by the way): Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium. In Lystra, Paul and Silas take on another travelling companion named Timothy. Then, they head straight for Ephesus in Asia Minor … or so they think. Little do they know, but the relatively straightforward journey from Iconium to Ephesus will morph into a journey thousands of miles further and a couple years longer than they had originally been led to believe.
On the surface of things, it looks like Paul has more certainty about what the Holy Spirit is telling him than you and I do. “Go here,” God says, and Paul goes; “don’t go there,” and Paul refrains. But something very different is going on, and it has a lot to do with you and me and our meandering journey through life.
Paul’s course changed three times during his travels across ancient Anatolia. But who kept setting the course that needed to be changed? Who set the course toward Ephesus, for instance? Who set a course toward Bithynia? The Holy Spirit.
Paul was not the kind of person who embarked on any journey without a sense of call by the Holy Spirit, which Paul often referred to as “the Spirit of Jesus.” Paul had seen too much evidence that God actively communicates with humanity and desires relationship with us. There was no way he would make grand decisions about where he would preach the gospel of Jesus without consulting with “the Spirit of Jesus.”
I suggest there are three things Paul knew about following the Spirit that we all would do well to set to memory—as they will all come in handy, over and over.
- Paul knew that the Holy Spirit normally speaks to us about our present, not our future. When Paul sensed the Holy Spirit calling him to move in a certain direction, he may have thought the destination would be Ephesus because that was the direction in which he was called to move. Sometimes, though, you can’t even see the turnoff you must take until you’ve travelled down the path awhile.
- Paul knew that it’s not always wrong to stop doing things you previously felt a calling to do (that matched the essential flow of your life). It is especially appropriate if your new sense of call builds upon what you have been doing before. Many people—especially religious people—feel reticent to change their direction, or change a belief, if they feel God had originally revealed it. They feel guilty, like they’re letting God down or rejecting God entirely. Yet certain directions or beliefs serve as stepping stones to better ones, or at least ones that are more appropriate to our present situation.
- Paul knew that we are not all alone when it comes to the difficult process of discerning the flow of our lives and where the Spirit is calling us. Paul rarely travelled alone. This wasn’t just for safety’s sake, or to combat the loneliness of the road. Paul knew that the Spirit’s voice often comes to us through others, or is confirmed in us by others (whether or not they agree with us!). The Holy Spirit doesn’t shout with billboards or neon signs, so we all need spiritual companions to help us discern the flow of our lives.
Curiously in this regard, Paul’s decision to go to Greece (Macedonia) was probably the result of a conversation with a new travelling companion that he, Silas, and Timothy first met in Troas. While the companion’s name isn’t mentioned in the passage, you can figure out who that companion was if you LISTEN carefully to the following verses:
When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
Did you note the change in language from “they” to “we”? “We” includes the writer of the Book of Acts. The author of Acts was Luke, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke. Yes, Paul and his two companions met Luke in Troas.
Luke would become the most important friend and companion Paul ever had. Luke would author two of the most foundational writings of the New Testament. As a physician, Luke probably also helped keep Paul alive through his many physical challenges as well. And Luke was likely the one who originally suggested that Paul and his companions go to Greece—a suggestion that was confirmed by the Holy Spirit in Paul’s dream.
It’s really rather amazing, isn’t it—all that transpired as a result of a “chance” meeting with Luke in Troas? In order for that meeting to take place at all, Paul had to keep listening long after he had felt the Spirit’s call in a certain direction. He had to make major adjustments to his course twice before they would meet.
In the end, our lives are no different than Paul’s. The Spirit calls to us just as frequently (and as softly) as it did to Paul. The only real difference between Paul and us is the degree to which Paul continued Listening long after he was sure his life was headed in the right direction. Too often, we tend to stop listening. The other difference is the degree to which Paul was willing to take a risk and change course in response to the Spirit’s flow.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? (1 Corinthians 12:12–19 NRSV)
In the Can
Before I entered the ministry, I was a Quality Assurance Manager in the seafood industry. I was a “fisher of fish” before I was a “fisher of people,” so to speak. Looking back on that time, I learned a number of important lessons about life—including life with God—that I never picked up in seminary. One of those lessons pertains to this week’s passage from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.
In the spring of 1988, four months before Melanie’s and my wedding in Seattle, I was in Valdez, Alaska, helping to oversee the construction of a brand-new salmon cannery for Peter Pan Seafoods. The shell for the building had been completed the previous summer. Now we were outfitting the plant with fish bins, an “H & G line” (“heading and gutting”), a Quality Assurance lab, and the canning line itself.
A salmon canning line is rather complicated, with multiple steps and moving parts. Production happens at the rate of 225 cans per minute. Needless to say, the canning line has to work with a high degree of precision or you can have a massive jam and mess on your hands!
To build the canning line, we brought in the Continental Can Company from Chicago. They were the experts. They had engineers who had designed canning lines all over Alaska, not to mention countless canning lines for various fruits and vegetables across the U.S. Continental not only made the canning lines, but the cans themselves, so everything worked together seamlessly.
I watched the Continental Can folks assembling the line with eager interest. They worked hard and fast, as the beginning of the salmon season was swiftly approaching. When everything was assembled, checked, and double-checked, they ran a test run of cans through the process. And ka-bam! There was a major jam-up, with cans flying in all directions. They made some adjustments, restarted the line, and ka-bam! There was another jam in the exact same spot. I needn’t bore you with everything that transpired, but that canning line didn’t actually get a can of salmon to the end of the line without a problem for over a week. And even when the first cans did finally make it to the end, they were all dented. Finally, after working night and day, with numerous calls to the Chicago office, the line worked as it was designed.
I learned an important lesson watching this canning line come together. We didn’t have all these problems because the Continental Can engineers and machinists were stupid. They were all highly trained and seasoned experts in the field. Our problems came from the fact that it is impossible to design on paper something as complex as a salmon-canning line. You can’t know how it’s going to work until you’ve got actual salmon to put in the can. The lesson I learned was that sometimes the process that moves us forward in life is not “Ready. Aim. Fire!” but “Ready. Fire! Aim.” It is easier to steer something when it’s already in motion. Sometimes you’ve got to get a process going before you can refine it enough to work smoothly. You start, observe what happens, make adjustments, observe some more, make more modifications, and so on until you’ve got it right.
In our series thus far, we have explored the processes of Dreaming, Hovering, Risking, and Listening. This week, we’re looking at the fifth stage: Reintegrating. Applying this process to the canning line experience, you could say that the Dream was to build a canning line. Hovering was the process of actually designing it in Chicago. Risking was assembling the line and flipping the switch. Listening was the process of receiving information based on what actually happened. (Ka-bam!) Reintegrating was the process of taking the information we received from our actual experience and making adjustments until the Dream became reality. Ready. Fire! Aim.
Churches work a lot like canning lines. A church is little more than a community of people who have come together to live God’s Dream for themselves and for God’s world. We spend a lot of time Hovering—discerning God’s specific call for our lives as individuals and as a community of faith. (Yes, churches have callings just as people do.) Then in community we take risks to follow the path we find ourselves on. As with canning lines, however, we soon find that there is a major difference between theory and reality once we have Risked ourselves in following a call.
Despite the best-laid plans and the most careful discernment, church jam-ups are inevitable. Things don’t go as planned. Feelings get hurt. Egos get bruised. Factions form. And people start looking for where to assign blame. Gone unchecked, a church will start balkanizing. Gossip flows freely among the factions. And because the factions are only talking to each other, everyone begins to claim, “Everyone I talk to says X, Y, or Z.” The factions become more certain that they are right and others are wrong. Pretty soon, no one is listening to other viewpoints. They’re just trying to ram through whatever agenda their group feels is “right” so that their side can “win.” And if their agenda isn’t followed to the letter, they feel like they’ve lost.
This is exactly the state of affairs in Corinth when Paul wrote to the church he had founded there. Paul had founded the Corinthian church during his second missionary Journey—the meandering road we talked about last week. During the two years he spent there, the new community thrived and grew strong. Paul had helped them dream God’s Dream for themselves and for the world. He had helped them discern God’s calling for their church—the specific ways that they could help heal the hurts of the world. He had set them moving down their path. Then he left.
And all hell broke loose. Literally!
Theory didn’t match lived experience. (It never does.) Jams happened. Factions began growing. Before long, some church members were proclaiming themselves to be “followers of Paul.” Others were “followers of Apollos” (another Christian missionary). Others were “followers of Peter.”
In the midst of this mess, Paul asks, “Isn’t anyone a follower of Jesus?”
Paul reminds his Corinthian community that being a follower of Jesus is a lot like being part of a body. A head doesn’t serve itself. It serves the body. A foot doesn’t serve the foot, or even the leg. It serves the body. Each part of the body is important. Each has a unique role to play. And each is going to experience the life of the body a little differently.
This analogy becomes critical when a church actually takes risks to follow God’s Dream and then discovers that the theory doesn’t match their reality. Inevitably, the church will stumble around a bit, like the Corinthians did. And inevitably, people will interpret that stumbling as a sign that the church is failing in its mission. But exactly the opposite is happening. Any church that takes its calling to live God’s Dream in the world will necessarily stumble around because it is following God’s Dream. Ready. Fire! Aim.
If, as an individual, I were to literally take a step forward on a particular path and discover that I have set my foot down on a slippery slope rather than solid ground, I need to use my whole body—not just part of it—to correct my course. My eyes will begin actively scouting where my next step should be. My arms will join the effort to correct my balance. My leg and foot will move in response to where my eyes and my brain determine is a safe landing spot. It all needs to work together. You do nothing but fall on your backside if each part of the body is only working for itself and not the good of the whole.
Paul encourages the Corinthian congregation to remember the whole. The body they are a part of isn’t just any body. It’s the body of Christ. So, he effectively says, as you stumble around your path, it does not matter who is right and who is wrong. You are now living for a relationship, not merely yourselves. Therefore there can be no winners and losers. There can be no “my way or the highway.” There can be no “I don’t care about the youth of the church, or I don’t care about the elderly.” No “Let’s do away with the jazz service because I don’t like jazz, or the classical service because I don’t like classical.”
There is only, “I care about the youth because Christ cares about the youth, and the elderly because Christ cares for them as well. While I don’t care for jazz (or classical), I care that we all find a way to worship God the in most whole-hearted and full-blooded way we can.” A major part of the Reintegrating step is remembering that we don’t base our assessment of how well the church is living God’s Dream on the fact that it stumbles around fairly regularly. We base our assessment on how well we act—and react—as a body when the going gets tough, as it always does when we are taking risks in response to God’s Dream.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8–11 NRSV)
The Ten Commandments
If you are like me and have a poor memory—especially when it comes to following commandments—you may take comfort in knowing that in the Torah God is said to have created a “cheat sheet” of sorts. God narrowed all the commandments down to just ten, from which the rest of the Bible’s more than 600 commandments flow.
So here’s an interesting question: How many of the Ten Commandments can you remember? Before moving on, take a moment to fill in the blanks below.
If you came up short on this list, you may take comfort (of sorts) from the fact that most people can’t name all ten. Years ago when I was living in Scottsdale, a reporter from the Scottsdale Tribune asked a number of clergy and laypeople to name the Ten Commandments. The laypeople averaged just four or five. Even the clergy averaged just seven or eight! Here they are:
- You shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not make for yourself a carved image.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, your neighbor’s wife, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
Of the above list, the first five are understood in our tradition to be the basic ways we act on our love for God, while the second five have to do with how we act on our love for our neighbor. Taken together, they explore how we respond to God’s love for us, which embraces us before we ever embrace God.
What I find curious about this list is that, in modern America, only nine of the Ten Commandments are commonly considered true commandments. In practice, at least one is considered purely optional—a mere suggestion, if you will. I’m talking about #4: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”
The fourth commandment is special, because it is the only one in the list that takes the time to explain that God himself keeps the Sabbath. We aren’t told that God refrains from committing adultery, or from murder; we aren’t instructed that by obeying any other commandment we are following God’s example. The Sabbath commandment is unique in that respect. God kept the Sabbath, and by extension, so should we.
Not many Americans tend to observe this one, but we need to if we’re going to live into the full promise of our creation. So far in this series we’ve talked about Dreaming, Hovering, Risking, Listening, and Reintegrating, which are all vital parts of our creative process when God is calling us to something new. In this last week, we explore something that is just as critical but is frequently overlooked in our culture of hurry and worry: Resting.
Six Days You Shall Labor
In the nineteenth century, a number of southern and midwestern states passed so-called “blue laws” in an attempt to enforce Sabbath-keeping. Many of these laws were actually designed as a way of targeting various groups that the majority culture didn’t find acceptable, like Jews and Seventh-day Adventists who observe the Sabbath on Saturday, not Sunday. They also sought, of course, to restrict certain activities that were thought to be unbecoming of Sabbath observance. Around a dozen states still prohibit the selling or trading of alcohol on Sunday, and a few also forbid the sale of cars.
By and large, however, while America may slow down a bit on weekends, few of us treat any single day of the week with the reverence the Bible intended. No day is dedicated in its entirety to connecting with an unhurried God. On Sunday we may pause for an hour or two at church, but then we’re off to the races again. No wonder our lives are so full of busyness and Red Bull is consumed like soda.
Curiously, many of us appeal to Jesus’ example to justify our disregard for Sabbath-keeping. Didn’t Jesus say that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath”? We seem to take this as license to do anything we please on the Sabbath because God made it for us. Yet this was hardly Jesus’ point! The only thing about Sabbath-keeping that Jesus sought to do away with was all the petty legalism that surrounded it in his day—legalism that doesn’t exist today among most American Christians.
In Jesus’ time, Sabbath-keeping had more to do with rule-keeping than connecting with an unhurried God. The rules crept in through “the fence”—not a literal fence but a figurative one the rabbis sought to build around each of God’s laws. Building a “fence around a particular law” meant that you created a series of requirements that were even stricter than the law itself so that if you broke one of the added requirements you were not at risk of breaking the actual law itself. If this sounds strange or unnecessary to you, consider that we do it all the time with our kids. If we don’t want our children to be burned by a hot stove, we tell them not to come anywhere near the stove. This way, if they venture a foot nearer than we’d told them, they’re still safe.
The original intent behind Sabbath-keeping was simple: it was a time for being and not doing. And while much has changed from Jesus’ culture to our own, the intent of the Sabbath remains the same. You disconnect from your daily busyness in order to reconnect with God, your family, your neighbor, and the earth. This dis-connection and re-connection ensures that each week we all have a chance to glimpse the forest from the trees—to step out of the fray, pull back a bit; to sense life’s seasonality and start flowing with it rather than against it. It also ensures that none of us succumbs to the notion that the world revolves around us and what we do. Instead, we are anchored in the reality that the world can (and does) operate just fine without our constant meddling. Taking this Sabbath sensibility into the rest of the week, we are freed from our own self-importance.
Praying and Playing
So for 24 hours you’re commanded to do just two things: you pray and you play. That’s the basic principle! You are to rest, reflect, give thanks to God, and have fun. Isn’t it strange that we have such a hard time with this commandment?
Who would guess today that God puts such a high value on having fun? Given all the uptight and overworked Christians in the world, you’d think that God was a Grumpy Gus—a severe taskmaster whose greatest joy is to see us suffer under a heavy yoke of arbitrarily imposed rules. All of the Ten Commandments, actually, are meant to connect us with a God who derives great joy from God’s creations.
But according to the Ten Commandments, resting on the Sabbath is just as important as the rules we tend to give more weight to, like not committing murder or adultery. Have you ever noticed how there is no differentiation or weighting given to the Ten Commandments? There is no order of priority, no relative importance ascribed to one versus another. What this should tell us is that each commandment protects us equally from misery. Each prevents us from tearing ourselves apart through trying to serve competing loves. If you think that failure to keep the Sabbath could not possibly do damage equivalent to murder, you may want to consider whom an excessively busy person is killing, starting with themselves. And you may want to consider the damage being done right now to the world’s most vulnerable people through our excessive need to produce and consume. Not only do we turn a blind eye to the world’s sweat shops, but a clear majority of scientists now tell us we’re changing the earth itself, turning vast regions that had once been fertile into arid deserts.
To put it bluntly, you can break the Sabbath all you want and you will not find God coming after you with a hammer or lightning bolt. In fact, you may go for a long time without experiencing anything but satisfaction and happiness. But after a while, you’ll find yourself on a collision course with your own seductions. Your heart begins to believe that you are defined by what you do, produce, and consume. Before long, the weight of the world feels like it’s on your shoulders. You begin to get lost in the trees and lose a sense of the beauty and majesty of the forest.
To put it even more bluntly: Each week that you fail to set aside a full day for playing and praying, you essentially send out a signal to God, the Universe, and Life itself that you consider yourself and what you’re doing to be more important than God and what God is doing. And since the Commandment is ultimately about accepting God’s love and blessing, not mere rule-following, you are also sending a signal that you don’t really care to receive the blessings God intends for you. Is this the message you want to send?
Ignoring the Sabbath impairs your ability to follow all the other steps in this creative process of Dreaming, Hovering, Risking, Listening, and Reintegrating. When you’re burned out, you can’t dream even small dreams, let alone God’s life-changing dreams. You can barely tread water and keep up with the status quo. Loving and honoring the Sabbath helps you dream bigger, hear the Spirit’s call, and develop the energy reserves you need for taking risks. It gives you patience for deep listening and also fixing your mistakes as they happen.
Just because we’re at the end of our six steps doesn’t mean you can skip the last one. That’s because the process is circular, not linear. As a child of God, formed in God’s image, you are always called to create and to expand your vision of what is possible. Once you reach the sixth step in this process and catch your breath through Resting on the Sabbath, you turn right around and start Dreaming again. Because God’s dreams never end, and neither should yours.
 Some traditions number the Ten Commandments differently depending on whether the preface to the commandments is considered a commandment itself: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”