Sunday, June 18, 2006

God at Dusk

Asbury First United Methodist Church
Valedictory Series #4

Text: Exodus 30

All of us are better when we are loved. In closing, these four weeks, we have announced the gifts of God for the people of God. The gift of God at night is faith. A two point sermon: faith is a walk in the dark. The gift of God at dawn is calling. A three point sermon: your calling is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. The gift of God at noon is work. A six point sermon: the fun in life is in planting and fishing, stewardship and evangelism. The gift of God at dusk is word. We live by the word of God. (By extrapolation this should be a twelve point sermon, but it is only eight. Fear not.)! A word of valediction in transition. A vesper hymn of love. A word of love. All of us are better when we are loved (BWL). Which reminds me of a story…
1. Word

I remember the account, historical and hysterical, of the preacher who was about to move from one pulpit to another. His community arranged to recognize him at a chicken dinner.

(Chickens have paid dearly for our love of fellowship and our native frugality in the Methodist church. They seem to be the right bird at the right price somehow.)

The local florist agreed, free of charge, to provide a table bouquet. The preacher wanted to thank every single member and friend. Thank you. And every single group—choir, class, study group, all. Thank you. And especially every group leader, the real shepherds in church. Thank you. After the remaining florid comments, the bouquet was presented to the preacher and his family. All were amazed to read its banner: “Rest in Peace”. The preacher reddened, and then laughed, and then said something about the next appointment needing resurrection. The florist was mortified, but readily and joyfully forgiven. The festivities proceeded along their clumsy way, as such things have a wont to do.

Our local florist, however, was sullen and would not be comforted. The preacher asked him again to let it go, but like Rachel weeping for her children, the florist would not be consoled. At last he confessed the reason. “Rest in Peace” he could easily live with at the ministerial recognition. But he had to admit the other bouquet had been sent to the graveyard where a group was gathering for burial, a floral piece meant to honor the deceased. And he could only imagine their disappointment and shock when they opened that arrangement and read its banner: “we hope you will be happy in your new location”.

The gift of God at dusk is a word, a valediction in transition, a valediction in transition. All of us are better when we are loved.

2. Biblical Valediction

The Bible is a long chain of valedictions in transition.

It is the gracious humanity of the Holy Scripture, its divine grace that is, which of course makes space for valedictory words. Listen again to Jacob, that dear old man, as he bids farewell to a host of progeny, ill fed, unlead, widely spread, nearly dead. Then listen to his favorite son—such a burden to be the favorite son—Joseph, as he bids farewell, as he says, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”. Is it an accident that M ML King, the last night of his life, quoted Moses, on the last night of Moses’ life? The words, the valediction from Mt. Nebo? Look out on the land of milk and honey, says Moses, Moses, the man of stone and commandment and prophecy and courage, who too bids adieu. What about blind Samuel, dear old man, warning against kings and those who want kings, that dear old man as he says goodbye? Are not the books of the prophets, all, at the last, a last will and testament, and a collection of how they would have their words remembered? Hosea—God loves. Amos—God makes just. Jeremiah—God reigns. Micah—God sees. It is as if, before these great people of faith must finally leave the world stage, they want with Hamlet to name their demons, their hurts, their truth, and their faith, especially their faith.

Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. Eli, Eli, lama sabach thani. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. It is finished. We remember the last words best.

From an early age we learn the importance of valediction. At odds with mom and dad, the eight year old decides to run away. He speaks his last word. He packs his suit case, and dons his cap. Out the door he goes at dusk. The family cat watches and purrs. Parents watch through the blinds. He sits under the lamppost, and night falls. And after a respectable time, he comes back inside, closes the door. His parents know better than to say anything. They wait, reading the paper and smoking the pipe. The cat purrs, and rubs a long brown tail against the boy’s legs. The boy has grown. Having said a real good bye in life, he is ready now to say a real hello to life! With the maturity of someone who has now said farewell, and survived it, he says, to show his adulthood, “Well, it’s good to be back….I see you still have the same old cat.”

All of us are better when we are…

3. The Voice from Mount Nebo

The valediction in transition—that Mosaic valedictory trajectory---from Moses on Mount Nebo reminds us of “a sense of dynamism of reality in the hands of a future creating God” (Brueggeman).

In our first sermon, July 9, 1995, we announced the same good news, “God keeps God’s promises”. Though their fulfillment is yet incomplete, though their fullness is yet more at hand than in hand, though we see now in a mirror dimly—the God of divine promises lives!

You may think it presumptuous to read about Mount Nebo in the closing service. “Who does he think he is, Moses?” Well, I refer to Woody Allen, who visited East Avenue earlier this spring. Allen who told us, “90% of life is showing up” (Good to remember on Sunday mornings…). Allen who wondered, “How do I find happiness and meaning in a finite world given my waste and shirt size?” Diane Keaton listens to him raving and citing Torah, and says, “Who do you think you are, God?” Allen responds, “Well, I have to model myself after somebody…”

Of course, there is only one Moses. There is one Moses and we are not him. Yet we know his experience, at dusk, of leaving at the river’s edge, leaving at the edge of something new—unforeseen, exciting, happy.

Two of the finest church organists in America during the late twentieth century had the same last name, shared the same post office address, and both lived, together, in Rochester, New York. They lived on the same suburban street, nestled in the leaves and furrows of the upstate lake region. In fact, they lived in the same house. As husband and wife, it seemed the right thing to do.

David Craighead brought his wife Marian, in the last month of her life, to sit one last time on her organ bench. It was a mortal struggle for her to make it from home to church, this last time, a trip that she had made with relative ease, hundreds of times, since 1960. The Austin organ had been refurbished, at her direction and with her supervision and on her approval. Before she died she wanted to sit at the bench and assess the work. They came in the afternoon of Ash Wednesday, 1996. Few words were spoken in the hour visit. She sat and looked and touched. She did not play. At last, with a lifted eyebrow, she summoned her husband to take her home. Home. As we left, in the deepest of pain that one loving human can have at the imminent departure of another, and in some tears, David said, “Watching her there…So hard…It is like Moses on Nebo…She can see the land ahead, but it will not be hers to enjoy…Like Moses, on Mount Nebo…” One heard that afternoon a distinctively faithful, distinctively loving, Christian way of speaking, the Biblical narrative summoned without preparation or pretense, to give voice and response to the day’s own trouble.

All of us are better when…

4. Moses’ Word

In Deuteronomy, Moses offers three speeches, at the edge of the river Jordan. Here his voice is remembered to carefully reinterpret the past. The Moses of Mt Nebo is bringing a word of challenge and change.

A community needs one leader for the journey, another for the arrival; one for the wilderness, another for the promise. One for the travel to the new space, another to inhabit and settle the new space.

Are you picking up what I am putting down?

Deuteronomy replaces holiness with compassion. Truth without love is brutality. Love without truth is sentimentality. You need both, both holiness and compassion. But the Bible, and the communities of faith it undergirds, lean toward compassion. James Sanders (once of Rochester) defined the ‘monotheizing tendency’ of the Old Testament. We might define an ‘agapetizing tendency’—a listing toward compassion—in the whole of Scripture. And its place of demarcation is the end of Deuteronomy.

Genesis to Numbers wants purity. Deuteronomy affirms justice. The former wants tidiness, the later righteousness. The first wants holiness, the second compassion. The Bible lives this tension, as does our church. Both are important, both are Biblical, both are part of faith. Remember, though, that at Mt Nebo, the concern for levitical purity, pronounced from Genesis to Numbers, gives way to the Deuternomist’s concern for justice.

Salvation is not only a state of mind—salvation is a state of affairs.

So for thirty chapters (see how easy you have it, thirty minutes not thirty chapters) Moses reminds the people about those shackled in debt, about those shackled by unfettered public authority, about those shackled by poverty.

5. A Village Green

It is Moses’ later view, the second law view, that evokes a vision of a village green (our church’s vision), a place where all things lastingly good, spiritually enriching, religiously excellent from across Monroe county, converge. We have the center of the green nearly done. A decade from now, or two, we may own the block from East to University, and 1010 to Granger. Then we could live the dream. We would walk in peace and joy along the Village Green of life. Here, take a moment. It is dusk. We leave the sanctuary. We walk through the spacious, open welcome area. Then (for this is only a start), we tour the expanded grounds of our ministry. At every turn, in this dream, there is a lamp lit. Look: just here is a new United Methodist conference office, for a combined upstate conference. Look: just here is a pastoral counseling center which specializes in the needs of women, created and guided by a retired pastor. Look: just here you find a lamp lit on the porch of an Urban Retreat Center, spiritually led by a spirited minister committed to this cause. (And each of these projects tithes from their own budget back to the mother church that created them, thus providing the possibility of further growth. They learned to do so, over time, from the Storehouse, Dining Center, Nursery School, Daycare and others, who were inspired to do so by this sermon! Hey, why not really dream?) Look: just here there is the lamp of the porch of the county wide Wesley Foundation, a center for student ministry. Look: just here a lamp is lit over the door of a Hemispheric Hispanic ministry Center, from Emmanuel to Amor Fe y Vida. Our lamp leads us further: just here you find a religious drama center, k-12, and an elder care program, and…..

All of us come marked, BWL: “better when loved”. Good when made. Better when loved. Best when shared. All of us are better…

6. Gospel Valediction

But there is a gospel valediction that is rooted in the biblical word.

We remember the last words best. Every spring we hear our Senior youth intone their valedictions. We remember what they say.

Martin Luther King, we remember, last said, “I have been to the mountain top and seen the promised land”.

Douglass Macarthur told the houses of congress, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”.

Or Nathan Hale, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country”.

At church camp, and at great revivals both, in Methodism it is Wesley’s dying sentence that is preached: “The best of all is God is with us.”

Amadeus Mozart, at the end, with Solieri taking down his every whispered note—who could forget it?

Why, after thousands of pages, and a lifetime of writing, does Aquinas’ last self-deprecation remain: “all my work, before Grace, is so much straw”?

Did I neglect the greatest of historical valedictions? What would Lincoln’s Second Inaugural sound like today?

With malice toward none—including as he did those who have done us physical harm, and who pray in different ways to the One God.

With charity for all—male and female, poorer and richer, religious and unreligious, gay and straight, black and white.

With firmness in the right—that combination of charity and magnanimity that seeks first to understand, and then to be understood.

Let us to do all to achieve a just and lasting peace, for ourselves, and for all the nations.

7. Word at Dusk

We remember words at dusk.

We returned from four months in Switzerland in late summer of 1978. We arrived too late to attend the funeral of our sister in law, a twenty something red haired mother and husband, our MYF treasurer. At birth, you are old enough to die, we know, yet…

The family, widower, and toddler son went up into the Adirondacks to lick wounds following the funeral. We met them there. A hot summer night, corn and steak, a family in grief, at dusk. At dinner, something clicked and the little boy realized, maybe, what had happened. A little guy. He shrieked, he howled, he would not be consoled. No sermon can ever live beyond earshot of his crying at the summer table…Mom…At last Dad scooped him up and went down to the lake in the redolent sunset, a mountain cool dusk, with the woods and all creation groaning at the boy’s howling. Dad put him between his legs and rowed the old boat. The son’s heart howl and the dad’s feathering of the oars made a strange evening duet. A cry, feather the oars. A shout, feather the oars. A shriek, feather the oars. Until at last, the little boy fell asleep, his first night as a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…

There is no explaining such tragedy. Our faith gives us not the capacity to understand, but the power to withstand such hurt. Love is stronger than death. Last summer we say that boy, now, himself, a thirty something husband and father. Laughing, smiling, carrying his mother’s voice and charm into the unforeseen tomorrow. Thirty years later, and the word of love at dusk. He made it. There is no explaining the tragedy. Yet we can acclaim the salvation known in the love of God Love lifted. A dad’s love, in the boat. A family’s love, Christmas to Christmas. A community’s memory and love, graduation to graduation. And at every dusk, and through every howling cry, still, by mystery, a divine love, a love that outlasts death.

It is this primal word, this hymn to love, that is sung out in the benediction, and valediction of 1 John. We can all together confess how hard it is, day to day, to let love be our aim, to love and to what we will, to let love be genuine, to love one another, to love our enemies, to watch over one another in love, to let God’s love be completed in us…

All of us are…

8. Dusk

Four summers ago my sons and I sat, toward dusk, in Yankee stadium. New York and Los Angeles were playing, slow motion, moving toward a dull game end. We were driving home that night, to the cottage, and then on the next day to Rochester to participate in Berta Holden’s funeral. Her exemplary Christian life of worship, of education and of care, was very much on our minds. In a way, a life like hers is the goal. Discipleship in worship, education and care? Here is an example…

What we are all driving toward, you could say. A game at dusk, a drive at dusk, toward worship at dusk. About 9pm, in the middle of the sixth inning, we headed for the car, the game having apparently gotten about as interesting as it was going to get. We crossed the George Washington bridge at 9:30, and, expecting the game was about over, tuned in to the radio for the final score.

What a different experience we were given that evening! To our astonishment, the game really began in the eighth inning. We had road and dark and each other and a voice to tell the story. And that was all. A voice at dusk. The game went 16 innings. Four hours after we had crossed the bridge, and just as we arrived at Bradley Brook, the game at last ended. But all through that late evening, over Pennsylvania Mountain, Susquehanna River, Binghamton valley, and that glorious drive up route 26—the prettiest in the state—we heard the word. Oddly, it was the perfect way to follow the game.

It is the word, the word of God, that sustains us on the journey at dusk. Steel Magnolia said, “accessorize—it’s the only thing that separates us from the animal kingdom”. We say, “speak—speech alone makes us human.” More, we say, “preach—it is the word at dusk that carries us forward—the word of blessing, valediction, promise, hope”. If this is not worth doing, what is? One does not live by bread alone, but by the word—the word of God.

Now we Hill’s are leaving the great stadium, Asbury First. It would be a mistake to think that things are about as far along as they can get. The seventh inning stretch is a long way from home. Who knows what God has in store for this extra inning game? Who knows what sacrifice bunt you may provide, what strike out you may throw, what late night homer you may crunch, what double play you may execute? I tell you, this is going to be more than a nine inning game! You have extra innings in store! You have the thrill of an open future! And as Hebrews reminds, you have a heavenly cloud of witnesses, hanging on every call, cheering every hit, hearts dropping with every out and soaring with every run! You have a new pitcher on the mound, that noted southpaw Susan Shafer! You have Lubba at bat, and Olson on deck—and Duane Prill in the hole! And out there in midfield, there is somebody—who is it? It’s too dark to see right now---somebody warming up in the bullpen!

And out there, in Red Sox land, you have some fellow travelers, who left the game early, thinking it was time to go, and listening in by radio (and by internet and newsletter and telephone), as dusk falls. The night, and the road, and each other, and voice and word--this is all we have. But believe me, those of us listening in are with you. When you scrape your leg on a slide, we hurt. When you duck a fast ball, we get angry. When you are called out on strikes, especially that last one, low and outside if I ever saw a pitch, we feel indignant. And when the sweet spot of the bat puts the ball over the fence, we just shout and sing and soar!

All of us are better when we are loved…

All of us are better…

All of us…


Sunday, June 11, 2006

God at Noon

Asbury First United Methodist Church
Valedictory Series #3

Text: Romans 8: 22-27

Along the Genesee River, our fellow Christians at the Abbey of the Genesee offer prayers at 2am, 6am, 11am and 6pm. They pray to God at night, at dawn, at noon, and at dusk. We do too, in our own ways, trying to receive the grace to leave aside the troubles of accumulation for the fairer fields of the sacred. We live to face sacred moments. To cling to faith and face the dark is to face a sacred moment, at night. To discern a calling and face the future is to face a sacred moment, at dawn. To work steadily and face the heat of the midday sun is to face a sacred moment, at noon. To sing a vesper song, at dusk, and to face partial parting is to face a sacred moment, at dusk.

Midday is one such moment. At the Abbey these prayers are known as sext prayers, that is, sixth hour prayers. Six hours after dawn. In the heat of the day. In the full sunlight of work.

With all creation they, and we, as the Apostle teaches, await redemption. Here Paul is offering his mature thought about life, work, groaning, struggle, hope, patience, weakness, sighs, and Spirit.

He wrote earlier, “When I was a child I thought like a child, I acted like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man I gave up childish ways.” What a remarkable verse! Mr. justication by faith himself, Mr. God is not mocked himself, Mr. by grace ye are saved himself, Mr. I have been crucified with Christ himself—Paul, right here in the Bible, plain as noonday sun indicates that he may just now and then, here and there, once in a while, he may have learned from his experience. He grew. He changed. He matured. He learned. What he thought at dawn, he rethought at noon. Go figure. Wouldn’t you love to know what he thought as a child that he gave up as an adult?

At the midday we pause to pray and rest. Here are six midday thoughts and prayers for Asbury First into the future.

A. Asbury First United Methodist Church is a wonderful, gracious and loving church, truly a delightful community in which to serve.

Architecture, Music, Pulpit, Missions, Adult Classes, Local Outreach, Pastoral Care, Endowment, Worship, Organ, Teak Room, Office…and People! Asbury First includes features that compare favorably to the best anywhere in American Methodism…

Its pulpit and preaching…Its nave and organs…Its music…Its liturgy and pastoral care…Its local missions…Its teak room and pastor’s office…Its endowment…Its Christmas and Easter services…Its campus…Its spiritual liberality…Its people!

B.Our theology of preaching and practice begins in grace and ends in freedom.

For over a decade you have listened for, and so given birth to, the announcement of good news of grace and freedom.

Said Gospel has been spoken in a traditional sermon of 22 minutes.

Its interpretation has scoured the several continents of the whole Bible: the gospels, Paul, John, the Apocalypse, the Prophets, some stories of the Law, some proverbs and ways of wisdom.

Your preached gospel, born in the longsuffering of presence and listening, has scoured the Scripture. We name its good: freedom and grace. A Methodist freedom to resist a purpose driven life. A Wesleyan grace to resist the certainties of an atheistic scientism. Saving grace, healthy freedom, both of which allow you to be confident even when you cannot be certain. Who needs faith if you already know all? Who needs faith if you are already that certain? If you are, already that certain that is, who needs the life of faith? Or prayer? Or friends? Or community? Or others? Or memory? Or hope?

No, you affirm that older, thinner, more Biblical inkling of glory, that confidence that is faith. Not arrogance, confidence. Not blind faith, confidence. Not bullheadedness, confidence. Not certainty, confidence. The confidence born of obedience, “the obedience of faith” of which Paul writes in Romans (as tasty an oxymoron as one can chew).

C. The bright sunlight of opportunity for the next decade here shines out on an open meadow of robust stewardship, focused on tithing.

How do people learn stewardship? I wish I could say that the 26 stewardship Sunday sermons I have preached since 1979 have changed the world of giving. They have not. These practical guides only work when your heart is in it. When your heart is in it. How does that happen? That only happens when your heart is changed, warmed, healed. How does that happen? Usually it happens in a very humble way. It happens when you are ready to let it happen, and it happens then when you hear something. A word. Oh I do not discount the example that others set that makes us think and act, but we only come in earshot of such examples when our heart is changed. And that change comes, whenever it does, when we wake up to how much we have been given. As in this story from my friend Doug Mullins:

Belinda was a single parent, trying to take care of herself and raise five-year old Ryan. She was single because her husband had left her. One evening Belinda tucked Ryan into bed and was reading a book to him. He interrupted her to ask if she had bought that book for him. “Yes” she said. He then inquired if she had also bought the bed in which he slept. Again the answer was “yes”. Had she the bought the house they called home? Yes, she had. And what about the new sweater he liked so much? “Yes”, she said, she had bought that too. He thought about how good she had been to him, supplying his needs, and he finally said, “Mommy, get my piggy bank. There are seven pennies in it. Take them and get something you really want for you.” As is so often the case, we have much to learn from our children. Ryan realized that everything he had was a gift from his mother. His response was to offer her his seven cents, everything he had. Our relationship to God is just like Ryan’s relationship to his mother. Everything we have is a gift from God. Ryan offered his mother seven cents. It was not much, but it was all he had.

D. Now we need to suspend our efforts at reconstructive engagement with our beloved denomination, and aim rather at peaceful coexistence.

The Troy Conference (Albany) lost 17% of its worshipping attendance in one year, last year. This was the largest loss in the denomination for that year.

The Wyoming Conference (Binghamton) lost 5% of its actual membership in one year, two years ago. This was the largest loss in the denomination for that year.

The North Central Conference (Syracuse) had a membership of 150,000 when I was ordained there in 1979. Today its membership is under 75,000.

The Western New York Conference (Buffalo) has a membership of 55,000, a membership smaller than many single districts in the rest of the United Methodist Church.

The New Jersey Conference had a membership of more than 200,000 in 1970. Today its membership is under 100,000.

What kind of organization accepts this sort of collapse with no accountability admitted by or demanded from its leadership?

E. In short, ministry is preaching the gospel and loving the people (especially the least—children, the last—the poor, the lost—the isolated).

1. The interruptions are the work.

2. The nominations report is the most important thing you do each year.

3. It is the one-on-one conversations that matter most.

4. No secrets, no surprises, no subversion.

5. When you put your gift on the altar, don’t look back.

6. What you do speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you say.

7. You only have what you can give away.

8. The rubber band only stretches so far before it breaks.

9. Preach what you know.

10. Don’t inhale. (That is, remember that ministry is service).

F. Asbury First, by the way, has grown 25% in the last decade, and is poised to do the same in the next.

Membership has moved from 2009 to 2315, endowment from $2M to $6M, worship services and attendance from 2/558 to 4/731, lay participation from 40% to 60%, assessed building values to (with new build) $25M+; program development (musical ensembles, adult classes, educational offerings, mission offerings, church program offerings, and other) has had similar increases as has total revenue: calendar 2005 (endowment income, capital campaign income, annual plan income, special giving income) is approximately 3x that of 1995 ($1M, $3M).

Sunday, June 04, 2006

God at Dawn

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Valedictory Series #2

Text: Acts 2:1-21


I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment ‘when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’, but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

So Marilynn Robinson finishes Gilead. At dawn, with an aching heart, a full chest weight of the sense of …the unnameable. Radiant. Good. Wonderful. Song. Joy.

Have you forgotten the love you had at first? When did breathing become such an ordinary thing to your mind? And prayer? Have you begun with the spirit to end with the flesh? Has the vocation, the sense of self and soul that is the real marrow of Pentecost given way to drift, ennui, languid doldrums?

Wake up! It is morning! Dawn is breaking! Come Pentecost…

In our Scripture lesson today, Luke is surely reminding his church, and reminding us, of the love we had at first. Every single one has a tongue of fire given, that makes effective connection with others. Every one is called, has a vocation, a measure of spirit.

Jacob finally won his name at dawn: Israel, he who wrestles with God.

David wrote of dawn as the feeling of a groom after the wedding night.

The disciples enter the tomb at dawn.

John ends with breakfast at dawn, and a catch of 153 numbered fish.

For some, this call has been a call to the ministry.

The sermon today is an unapologetic, unabashed, direct appeal to you to consider whether, come Pentecost, you are meant to preach. Has a flame got your tongue? Were you meant to be in ministry?

Two dozen women and men have been called and sent into the ministry through you in the last 10 years.

They heard the wind of Pentecost, and the call at dawn. Early some morning, and no they were not drunk, at least not most of them, they heard something, and heeded.

Would that all God’s people were prophets

Prepare for a profession that does not yet fully exist…

Where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need…

Where your deep sadness meets the world’s deep greed…

How shall they hear without a preacher?...

Let your life shine…

Be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for the human race…

Who told you who you was?

If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he didn’t get there by himself…

Prepare to depart this life ‘in the friendship of Christ’…

Some read RM Miller on E Tittle, some R Lischer on small church ministry, some Bernanos and the life of a country priest, some Hempton on Methodism, some BB Taylor on the preaching life, some R Hill on ministry in the Northeast, some P Palmer on calling.…

Pentecost is God at dawn. This morning is the morning of tongues of fire, of firey tongues, of speech that burns, heals, warms, enflames, inspires.

How shall we rightly admire the prairie dawn? How shall we sense whether, and how, we are called? How do you know what you are called to be and do?

Things that really matter are ultimately relational, whether that relationship is with others, with self, or with God. Our friends give us ourselves. Our instincts give us ourselves. Our sense of presence gives us ourselves.

1. Close Relationships

Here is one account, one testimony, no worse nor better than any other.

We learned to love Jesus in the simple rhythms of the ordinary. We learned to love Jesus in the pause before meals, with grace in his name. We learned to love Jesus singing hymns to Him, in church, at camp, in the car. We learned to love Jesus as we read about his life in the Bible. We learned to love Jesus by celebrating his birth in snowy December, and his destiny in snow melting April. We learned to love Jesus by seeing older people love him, really love him, with their hands, and their money and their time and most especially with their choices, and within that, with their choices about things not to say, not to be, not to do. We learned to love Jesus like we learned to speak English, one lisp at a time, one dangling preposition at a time, one new word at a time. The music of Jesus played the accompaniment to all of the growth and decay of life around us. There was no wall of separation, neither artificial, nor sacramental, nor communal, between our life and his. His was our life, and our life was his.

This sounds romantic, but it is not meant to be. Conflict, envy, hurt, gossip, anger, misjudgment, unfairness, tragedy, hatred, fear, abuse, neglect, betrayal, addiction, and loneliness sat around the table too—around the kitchen table, around the picnic table, around the coffee table, around the communion table.

Still there was a closeness in the Christ who raised us—a pine needle Adirondack Christ, with the dawn scent of the forest primeval, a sunlit Finger Lake Christ, a blue collar Erie Canal Christ, a blizzard Christ, an autumn peak Christ, a high summer Christ, a Christ with mud on Easter shoes. You could say that we were more Gospel people than Letter people, more Peter than Paul, more good Samaritan than justification by faith, more Methodist than Presbyterian. There was no forced or feigned distance between Jesus and us, between his life and our own.

He was with us in school. Our teachers attended church, and when they scolded us for talking or not wearing our eyeglasses, Jesus walked past us and smiled.

He was with us at home. Our parents entertained college students, all then of just one gender, with sandwiches and pickles. The men stood when their hostess entered the room. They wore ties. Jesus sampled the pickles, with us.

He was with us in the summer. He felt the glow of a warm campfire on a cool mountain night. When the ministers worried whether there was too much kissing, too much holding hands, Jesus worried too, and then you could see him, almost, holding a young couple as they held each other.

He was with us when we grew up and became teenagers ourselves.

He was with us when all hell broke loose. When older boys, or younger men, went off in pressed uniforms to someplace on a map we had seen in school. When some came home, and when some partly came home, and when some did not come home, He wept.

He was with us in college, at marriage, in studies, at work.

You go with your friends. So if your friends go off to college, you may too. If they enlist, you may too. If they take a job in the south, you may too. It is a natural thing.

If people you know and love go into the ministry, you may too. If you respect somebody who is in the ministry, you may be inclined to preach. If your parents, with pride, have the pastor to Sunday dinner, you might think about taking that seat, and holding that fork, and intoning that prayer. If you grow up with Rev. Jones, and sense he is a real human being, you might try to become one such yourself. If the kind of people who are your kind of people enter Christian service, you might, too. And if your mother, father, grandparents, spiritual aunts and uncles, and a boyfriend or two study for the ministry, you may too.

Trust your experience. Honor your instincts. Listen to your heart.

Your relationships are crucial, crucial in the dawning of a sense of vocation.

In eighth grade the choir director, Ruth Tubbs, commented on the resonance in my speaking voice, following the usual desultory youth service. In college, the chaplain, Jim Leslie, took seriously my interest and gave advice. At church camp, Lou Broadbent and Jim Legro showed me you could be a minister and still be a real young man with heart and life. At home both parents somehow said just enough without saying too much. After college, Bob Homer gave me two churches, and checked in on me and checked up on me. It takes a long time to grow a preacher. Relationships hold the key.

Hold that thought. You might want to continue to dance with the one who brung you. For as crucial as our relations and relationships are at vocational dawn, they are more significant, even as the sun begins to rise.

2. Work Relationships

So now you are beginning to work, to hold a job. What counts in your work relationships? Can you honestly list what is meaningful and what is not about what you do? There are clues here, terribly important ones. Do not, do not enslave yourself to something that diseases your soul.

It is Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class that gives me hope about the future of the culture, the church, and the ministry. He surveyed people about what they want in work—a kind of white collar Studs Turkel. Regarding work, he found, the question ‘what?’ is often secondary to the question, ‘with whom?’ People prefer the hair salon to the machine shop, for relational reasons. Hear his report on surveys of what people most want in work:

I. Responsibility: Being able to contribute and have impact. . .Knowing that ones work makes a difference. . .Being seriously challenged.

II. Flexibility: A flexible schedule and a flexible work environment. . .The ability to shape one’s own work to some degree.

III. Stability: A stable work environment and a relatively secure job. . .Not lifetime security with mind-numbing sameness, but not a daily diet of chaos and uncertainty either.

IV. Compensation: Especially base pay and core benefits. . .Money you can count on.

V. Growth: Personal and professional development. . .The chance to learn and grow. . .To expand one’s horizons.

…cut new ground…feel at home…be creative…design your own work space…define your own role…have peer recognition…enjoy a work\life balance…

Now hear the good news! The ministry gets A+ in four of these five. There is no greater challenge or responsibility than shepherding souls. No one has more daily flexibility in determining one’s use of time. As an itinerant preacher you are guaranteed a pulpit—somewhere. Reading a book a day, or the equivalent, is a guarantee of personal growth. Responsibility! Flexibility! Stability! Growth!

The culture around us is starting itself to move away from the rank materialism of an earlier time. The deep sorrow we have at the suicide of the church meets the deep falsehood of our culture, here. It is false that an ever bigger mortgage will make you happier. It is false that several credit cards to the maximum will bring joy. It is false that accumulation of things will bring peace. It is false that $100,000 of college debt is a doorway to nirvana.

So, we get a D in compensation. This is a real issue, particularly for those acculturated to see the bottom line as the measure of worth. It is no accident that the church struggles to attract young, heterosexual, middle class, white males. We must do what other generations have done, and make this an opportunity for heroic living. You learn the value of a dollar. You learn to make every opportunity count. You learn the danger of debt. You learn the power of giving. You learn the shrewdness of frugality. You learn to hike, hard with a heavy backpack. See it as a physical challenge, like a 7 mile run in the winter, at 10 degrees. Add a little snow. And some wind. Yes…

Growing segments of the population work for challenge, enjoyment, to do good, to make a contribution, and to learn. Such motivations will eventually eclipse compensation as the most important motives for work … People on their death beds never wish they had spent more time in the office. (Robert Fogel)

3. A Relationship with God

A longing deeper than the relationships of belonging in family, and the relationships of meaning, in work, exploded from human hearts on Pentecost. This dawn day of spirit! This dawn day of fire! This dawn day of translation, interpretation, preaching, ecumenism! This dawn day of world Christianity! This dawn day of the church! This early morning dawn day! A deeper longing burst forth on Pentecost. Theirs, and ours, is a deeper longing, a longing for a relationship with God.

St. Augustine of Hippo at long last found himself, his soul, and his true vocation, by finding a personal relationship to God. Yes, Augustine entered the ministry. He became priest and bishop in North Africa about 400ad. He wrote 500 letters, 200 sermons, 2 great books. In an age, like yours, of intercultural conflict, Augustine made sense of faith’s highest vision…the city of God. In a culture, like yours, that wore the nametag of Christianity without fully understanding its meaning, Augustine celebrated…the grace of God. In a political climate, like ours, that honored highly individualized freedom and the power to choose, Augustine praised God’s freedom to choose, and acclaimed…the freedom of God. In a highly sexualized age, like ours, Augustine colorfully confessed his own wandering, his own mistakes, which, he attested, did test but did not exhaust the …patience of God. In a religious climate, like ours, which buffeted a truly biblical belief, Augustine praised his maker, and so reminded the church of the proper…praise of God. His Confessions—perhaps part of your summer reading—his great autobiography, is a prayer—for the city of God, by the grace of God, in the freedom of God, to the patience of God, as the praise of God. Augustine found a relationship with God and was ordained. And vice versa.

It may be that the only way God has to relate to some of us, to get our attention, to mute our pride, to kindle our affection, is to get us into the ministry. Baptism and confirmation suffice for most. But for the real hard cases—the guy who wrote the book on pride, the gal whose picture is alongside the dictionary definition of sloth, the one who embodies real falsehood—like us, like Augustine….like you?...God keeps ordination in reserve.

Long ye for God? Preach. Preach until you believe it, then preach because you believe it. Long ye for God? Preach.

At dawn, God called. Some answered…

et tui?

Thirty years ago today I preached my first sermon, in New Hope, New York. It does not take long to go from being a young turk to becoming an old turkey. Who will come along to take our places?

Think about it…