There are Many Dreams Still…

I too have a dream.   I have many.   High on that list is that I dream that I was more articulate.   I wish I could figure out how to take all these thoughts, dreams, and visions in my mind, and have the proper skill to have them take form on paper.    Sadly, the pulpit is not often the best place to build that writing skill.

As a pastor, all of my sermons are done in manuscript form.   I spend a great deal of time each week (roughly 15 hours) crafting a message, and a large portion of this time is spent perfecting it.   I not only choose my words very deliberately, I practice their delivery exhaustively.   I have come to see this act as detrimental to my overall writing prowess.

If you were to see my manuscripts you would see several things;   lots of commas, even more ellipsis’s, and lots and lots of white space.    Unfortunately, things like white space and comma’s become tools of delivery rather than punctuation.   When I see commas I pause and white spaces become intentional times of silence for impact.     I massacre spelling to insure that I pronounce the word correctly (this is especially  important when faced with those biblical pronounciation atrocities such as Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel – Oiy.), and put caps and color marks all over the page.

As a result I spend a great deal of time, in my day to day life trying to deal with my tendencies to incorporate them into my day to day conversations.   This has also been a challenge with my blog, as you so often see (count the commas!).   I guess this exercise helps to work through that challenge.

Not all pastors have this problem.   This became very clear to me this morning as I was scanning the blogs I following over my first cup of coffee and as I read several awesome posts this morning on Martin Luther King, Jr.

(A couple of this morning’s favorites include Pastor Becca Clark a UMC Minister from Montpelier Vermont and David Henson’s, a postulant for priesthood in the Episcopal Church)

If I was to make you a list of people I look to as role models or heroes, King’s name would be on that list.   Alongside such great and impactful souls such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Jonathan Daniels you would find Rev. King’s name.   He is a man, whose fingerprint on this country, the church, and me personally is immense, and I respect his work and his legacy greatly.

When I was 18 or 19 years old, I first stumbled upon King’s letter from a Birmingham AL jail. When I read through his defense of his nonviolent protests for civil rights, I was almost as if I was compelled to investigate this man further.    I ended up reading countless books on him and his life.  It was not long before I found myself possessing a deep respect for the man he was.  Two decades after his actual death, I was angry about how such an impactful life could be snubbed out do to the hate of one man.  I imagined how things would be different if he wasn’t on that Motel balcony when he was.

Although I respect the man immensely, King was far from perfect.  He was a flawed husband, a flawed father, and made his share of mistakes.    As a matter of fact that is part of the reason I call him my hero.    Martin Luther King, Jr.  despite his flaws and imperfections was able to stand up and make a difference.   He reminds me that I can be flawed and make my share of mistakes and God can still use me to make a change.   God doesn’t want perfect people, he wants you and I.  If one marginalized, black preacher was able to leave such a legacy, it’s hard to imagine what can be done by each of us, if we are just as determined and just as focused. 

As I begin this special message directed at the legacy of MLK, I ask that you grant me a bit of latitude. 

It was originally a story designed to be delivered directly to the children of the church, and in it I have taken a great many liberties.   This message is built on the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, and I’ve added a bit of imagination to it.   Know that if you opened up your Bibles and found Joshua chapters 5 and 6, you wouldn’t see some of what I am going to tell you.   Although, I have added some thoughts and words to Joshua in this moment, I do believe that it could have happened this way.   

You need to remember, what I told the children of the church, that not everyone does.

That disclaimer aside – and slipping into my more child friendly voice –  we know that Joshua was a great military leader.   He was brave, strong and he knew how to lead an army.   He was trained in directing troops, and riding horses, and using his sword.   He was one of the most respected soldiers within the whole nation of Israel.

I imagine one of the greatest challenges for Joshua was to be a general when he didn’t have a homeland.    In addition to being a soldier, Joshua was part of the Exodus, where our Jewish ancestors fled out of Egypt under the care and leadership of a man named Moses.   During this time in the desert with Moses, Joshua became his second hand man.

I don’t think anyone expected that they would remain in that desert as long as they did.   They wandered for over 40 years.   Many people were born in the desert and never knew what it were like to be slaves, and all they knew was a life of wandering without a home.    Many died in the desert on that journey, Even Moses passed away just prior to their arrival at the land promised by God.

Upon Moses’ death, Joshua became leader of the rag tag group of wanderers.   Can you imagine the incredible honor he must have felt to finally lead God’s people to their destination?    In the end, Joshua knew it wasn’t going to be easy.    There were large armies that were determined not to allow them in.   They had different Gods, and wanted to stop the Israelites at all cost?

It wasn’t long before they arrived at a city called Jericho.   Jericho was a great and strong city, surrounded on all sides by a massive wall – like you would see at a castle – that kept people out.  Along the top of the wall, there were likely hundreds if not thousands of soldiers, with arrows and weapons trained on the ground below should anyone try to storm the city. Joshua must have looked at that city and seen an incredible wall in the way of his people finding a home.

In the wee hours of the night before the battle, Joshua snuck away to survey the scene and to inspect his army’s preparations for morning’s battle. 

All by himself he walked around the city.   He saw his archers with their bows and arrows ready to fire at a moment’s notice.   He saw the horseman, with their strong horses ready to make a mad dash towards the walls.    He saw his foot soldiers with shields and swords, and even battering rams which would be used to crush holes in the great walls.    

Although there were many soldiers and so many weapons, I imagine Joshua looked up at those walls and felt a strong sense of anxiety.   Joshua likely saw taking the city as requiring a great and extended battle where many of his men would lose their lives.   I imagine that he fought some degree of doubt.  

Did he have enough men?   Where they in the right place?   Did they have the right plan?   I am sure that there was some part of Joshua that was ready to run.   He knew in his gut the battle would likely take weeks or even months, and in the end, did he think he could take the city?   I imagine there was a great deal of doubt.

As he was preparing to head back to his tent, he stopped closed his eyes and said a prayer.

As soon as he did, a great white light filled the sky, but strangely only Joshua could see it.   In the light he saw what looked like a soldier, and Joshua immediately drew his weapon and confronted the mysterious soldier.

“Are you one of my men?” Joshua asked.

“No, I am a captain of the Lord”.  Joshua knew at once that he was in the presence of an angel and immediately fell to his knees when the angel spoke.  Some people believe that the angel that appeared to Joshua was actually Jesus, and although I don’t know about that it must have been quite a sight.

While on his knees, the angel changed Joshua’s battle plans.

Tomorrow morning, the angel told him, he was to rise, gather his troop and walk around the walls of the city in complete silence, not saying a word.

When you returned to the start, call it a day, and only when they heard the blast of the Ram’s horn should they break their silence.

As you can imagine this was not want Joshua wanted to do, and he probably argued with that angel, but in the end…  Arguing with an Angel is like arguing with your parents, you never win.   Eventually Joshua must have agreed and headed back to tell his troops of this wonderful new plan.

I try to imagine what his rough and tough soldiers would have thought?

I wonder if Joshua told them an angel had given them new instructions, or did he keep his mouth shut hoping others wouldn’t think he was crazy?

I wondered how long he argued with the angel, and doubted himself, before he realized it was a calling from God?

If he was anything like me it would have taken years.   I don’t think it did for Joshua, for the next morning his troops assembled.

Together exactly as instructed they circled the city without saying and word, and when done they returned to their camp.

They did this the next day, and the next, and the next, for six whole days.   The people in the city and even his soldiers must have thought he was crazy.

But on the seventh day, when they made their circle around the city, they finally heard the ram’s blast.

In unison, and some believe saying the same thing, they yelled out and were no longer silent.     The combined voice was so great, that the walls started to tremble, and within a few moments, they crumbled to the ground.

They had made their way into the city, and soon won control of it.  When they were done they celebrated and worshipped God for their success.

To be honest, when I first heard this story it confused me a bit.  

I didn’t understand why it happened or why it happened as it did.   It wasn’t until a few years ago that someone explained it in light of the story of a man, whose birthday we celebrate and remember today; Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK was a black preacher who believed that everyone should be treated with love and respect, and given the same opportunities regardless of the color of your skin.  

Sadly, not everyone believed that.  Many were raised to believe that if you were born with a different skin color you needed to live and be treated differently.   It wasn’t that all of them were mean or bad, many just didn’t know any better.  They lived in a time when this belief was commonplace.   Changing their minds was never going to be easy.

Not knowing any better is sometimes called ignorance.   

Truth be told, we are all ignorant of things from time to time.   I am ignorant on how to play guitar, ride a unicycle or on how to speak Spanish for example.   It’s okay to not know everything.   What is not okay is to be unwilling to learn when the times start challenging you to think differently.   When things we believe no longer make sense in light of our understanding, experience and reason, we are  called to rethink what we think we know.

Many people did just that when it came to equality.   There were others that chose instead to build some giant walls around their lives, just like the walls of Jericho.  They were unwilling, or unbelieving, or just plain afraid.

Martin Luther King believed that he had to do something about those walls.   Because of his great love for Jesus, he couldn’t be silent.   At first MLK considered breaking down those walls like a soldier using force, but his faith in Jesus told them there had to be a better way.  He chose a path of gentleness and non violence.

I imagine – like Joshua – he argued with himself if this was really the best way, or whether it was really God’s will.   I imagine that he struggled with his calling and his decision for a while.

So what did MLK do?   He acted just like those early Jews and he marched.  He marched and marched and marched around those walls.   When the time finally came to speak up, he had a million voices around him.    There was no other option for those walls to start to shake and come crashing down.

Today, when I think about Martin Luther King, Jr. I think about Joshua.

I think that God even today calls each of us to a promised land.    God calls us to a place where there is no injustice, hate, or war.    We are called to a place where love, hope, and joy will always take the lead.   We are called to a promised land where an eye for an eye is replaced with a hand, and with love.

We are called, but we are far from finding that place.

Unfortunately, many people are still building walls.   They don’t understand, are unwilling, they don’t believe, or are just plain afraid.    In the end they build walls in response to those hesitations, and pray that no one makes it through.  I even hear words that ring painfully clear of that 1960’s debate in the pews of 2012.

Too often there are those that are not only building walls around their own lives they are building them around the church itself.   In the end, this should be as heartbreaking today as it was fifty years ago.    On the way home from church yesterday, my 13 year old daughter (beautiful and intelligent in ways words would never do justice), reminded me of a quote when we were trying to explain the significance of MLK to my 10 year old.

She said:  “Those who are ignorant of history are bound to repeat it!…  Looks like many want to as well.”    Out of the mouth of babes.

On this, the celebration of MLK, Jr’s birthday, It may seem like things will never change, but instead we will just continue to find fresh people to discriminate against.   It may seem as if you can’t make a difference, but the Story of Joshua at Jericho and the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. remind us that with some patience, and trust in one another, and in God, all things are possible.

I hope to one day be able to put to words –elegantly and correctly – the true impact this man has had on the church, this country, and my life.    Maybe if I keep practicing I will find a way.   In the meantime, I will remember. For remembering MLK, reminds us that with patience and trust will one day live in a nation where our children will not be judged by the color of their skin – or the nation of their birth, the status of their papers, or who they chose to love – but by the content of their character.

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