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Reaching To The Far Shore

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on May 9, 2010.

Acts 16:9-15

Even when we’re doing the will of God, we live in “in-between” times. Life, we discover, is not so much an uninterrupted continuum as much as it is a series of single moments strung together like pearls on a string. Each moment stands on its own, both connected and disconnected to the ones before and after it, separate and linked at the same time. Our choices are like the box of crayons before we place them in the heat of the sun, each color distinct on its own merit, not melted into one sticky color blob.

We can be actively doing the work of God, confident we are in the right place doing the right things, feeling led by God, but without warning a new direction may arise that appears as though there’s a break from the past. And with that, we may sense an altogether new path rising before us as the result of chance or whim, causing us to leave the now of the moment to follow an altogether new path toward a new future. Our lives can turn on a dime in those moments and we may sense the shifting of God’s wind now blowing in a fresh and new direction.

Paul and Barnabas decided to undertake a reunion tour revisiting all the cities they had previously preached in across the region. They agreed upon this plan. But before they could pack their bags, they got into a heated argument over the questionable work of a young disciple named John Mark. Paul and Barnabas got into such disagreement over his youthful mistakes they couldn’t share the path together and the planned reunion tour fractured. Barnabas took John Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas as his new partner and they took the tour anyway.

 

Jungian writer Robert Johnson would call these “the slender threads” upon which the stories of our lives are woven. He writes, “It all began with the crash of a car against a brick wall and the small knee of an eleven-year old boy caught in between.”[1] Johnson was that boy and that one experience sets his life in a new direction from that moment forward. The threads of his life were slender, not thick, because our lives turn on the smallest of things, often the minutiae of life unnoticed in the shadow of the larger events dominating our story.

 

But out of these slender threads, a new story is woven. It’s a story no one saw coming. Neither of them wanted to go separate paths, but these two strong-willed men parted ways, each seeking the will of God, neither of whom were willing to bend on this “one little thing.”

 

The lesson from Acts is an object lesson of “in-between time” decision making in the life of the greatest missionary who ever lived, the Apostle Paul. He decided to go east. They agreed to this plan. There was nothing wrong with the decision – except the Lord blocked him twice; we may surmise a closed door is an answer; not a final answer, but an answer all the same.

 

Paul had a vision, and we recognize that alone could be risky. But then came an intriguing open door. They moved through, believing God was leading them. Their spirit was everything here. It was not arrogance or self-seeking. There they met Lydia … a new story that would not have begun had these slender threads of change altered their paths.

 

On their separate ways, Paul had a dream that changed the trajectory of his life and of those around him. In his dream, he heard “the Macedonian call” from a man with no identity given other than he was known in the dream to be “a Macedonian” who called out to Paul to cross over from Asia to Europe.

 

I can’t help but read this story in light of what I read a few weeks ago from Robert Parham, Executive Director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, in his observations about the big Baptist gathering two weeks in Callaway Gardens of all the major leaders of various Baptist entities known loosely as “the Fellowship.” At the meeting, leaders of all the major Baptist groups were there from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to the various smaller bodies, most of whom we partner and support as our contribution to the larger whole of Baptist life.

 

At the meeting, Dr. Parham drew upon an ancient Chinese proverb that helped frame how we choose to embrace harsh times: “When the wind changes direction, there are those who build walls and those who build windmills.”[2] Robert pointed out the obvious, that the wind in this proverb is metaphor for change.

 

The Callaway Gardens gathering was called because we’re approaching the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the group to which we’ve attached our lives called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The CBF was birthed out of a desperate desire of like-minded Baptists like us who organized a new family of Baptists we called from our earliest days together as “the Fellowship.” A spirit of adventure guided us then just as that same spirit guided the Apostle Paul as he traveled about the cities of Asia Minor (known now as Turkey).

 

The winds of change had blown across the years of the 70’s until the summer of 1979 when from a skybox overlooking the activities below, fundamentalist Baptists began an assault upon the mighty Southern Baptist Convention – our mother denomination. A small cadre of conservative Baptist leaders determined through the use of raw political maneuvering, it was possible to seize control of the convention. They used fear-mongering and crass political innuendoes to threaten the very principles upon which Baptist had been formed. Their plan was simple but bold. They determined they would win every Presidential election over the span of a decade, and by controlling the appointment process of the various boards controlling the Baptist world, they would effectively take over every organizational structure worth having within ten years. Moderate Baptists, or what my friend Tim Willis would label, the “refugees of fundamentalism,” finally retreated from this toxic and contentious theological struggle to create the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

 

But the clarity of that moment two decades ago has given way to a new time with challenges unknown in our present time. O sure, they were days of excitement in the struggle to create something with meaning, but now the long days of building an organization that will last has settled in and we’re struggling more now than back then.

 

The great lesson from the desert was that the manna the children of Israel ate fresh every day couldn’t be bread saved for another day. It had the shelf life of just a day’s worth of bread. So it was obvious they could later pray with sincerity of the wisdom asking God to “give me this day my daily bread.”

 

Dr. Parham spoke eloquently about the challenge of asking ourselves whether in the struggle we’ve built walls or erected windmills to deal with the changes we’re facing.

 

He notes that, “wall-builders seal themselves off. They resist change. They retreat from constructive engagement. (Wall builders) maintain the organizational status quo as a wall of surrender and do the same unworkable things … The greatest challenge facing goodwill Baptists is to move decisively away from the tradition of wall-building, the temptation of wall-building, (and) the timidity of wall-building.”

 

When the winds of change blow, it’s better to build windmills than walls. “Windmills respond to change. Windmills are productive. Windmills harness the winds of change. Windmills turn wind into power. As a symbol, windmills signal that we are a responsive people, not a reactive people. Windmills suggest that we are an innovative people, not stale saints more concerned about burying the dead than living into the wind.”[3]

 

The question of walls and windmills would seem to have meaning here. Perhaps we’ve invested enough time thinking about the past and its glorious days. Perhaps longing for a reunion tour of past victories has sounded like the right thing for the future when the slender threads are leading us in new directions yet to be explored.

 

We must risk the power of our dreams, willing to let them interrupt the current narratives so we might dream a new dream. We cling lightly but with gratitude to God for our past, seeing it as “the work of God among us” for those days. But we must also seek to hear the Macedonian call knowing God may be calling us to a new future.

 

We must choose to live in hope … hope that God will be with us in the present in the same strength as in the past … hope that we are still being led by God’s Spirit.

 

Poet Seamus Heaney eloquently put it this way …

 

Human beings suffer,

they torture one another,

they get hurt and get hard.

History says, Don’t hope

on this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

the longed for tidal wave

of justice can rise up,

and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a sea-change

on the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles

and cures and healing wells.[4]

 

 

[1] Robert A. Johnson, with Jerry M. Ruhl, Balancing Heaven and Earth, A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1998

[2] Robert Parham, “CBF’s Future: Walls or Windmills?” from an essay published on the website of the Baptist Center for Ethics, www.ethicsdaily.com, 4/30/10

[3] Parham, Ibid

[4] Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy, a Version Sophocles’ Philoctetes, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991