Following my message last week, someone wrote, “You always leave me with more questions than answers. I can’t wait to see where you are taking us.” People have been saying that to me in one way or another for a long time. After one of my sermons years ago, someone who was obviously frustrated came up to me and said, “So what’s the bottom line?” She wanted a neat conclusion, a clear take-home point, something specific to do, a definitive road map through the way ahead.
We do need a clear, compelling vision of where we’re going. “Write the vision; make it plain,” the prophet Habakkuk wrote. And if it seems long in coming, wait for it; it will surely come in its own time (Hab. 2:2-3). If we don’t have such a vision, there’s trouble in store for us. According to the King James Bible, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).
Dozens of other translations all say about the same thing. “When there’s no vision, the people get out of control” (CEB). “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint” (ESV). “Without guidance from God, law and order disappear” (CEV). “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint” (NIV). “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV). “When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild” (NLT).
After reading a couple of dozen variations or more, I’ve come up with my own version: Any human association – society, nation, religious tradition, or congregation – that is not shaped and disciplined by a clear vision of God’s will in its daily life eventually collapses and disappears.
Looking at what’s happening in our nation today, some people wonder if this is what the process looks like when a society without a defining godly vision collapses and disappears. Some people wonder if that’s what’s happening to the established Christian church in the Western world, or to The United Methodist Church in particular.
I’m not ready to go that far, but there’s truth in the warning. We need a clear, compelling vision as individuals – think of the popularity of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life, for example – and we need a vision as a nation, as a Christian denomination, as a congregation. But it must be the right vision, an authentic vision, and to be authentic, it must have at least these two qualities.
First, the vision that sustains our life must be our own. It cannot be a vision from the past. It cannot be adopted from a program or an expert consultant or a favorite pastor. It can’t be adopted from anyone else’s experience, not even the record of those experiences we find in the Bible. It must be a vision hammered out in the demanding laboratory of our ongoing encounter with the living God.
There’s a story of a young man who visits a wise hermit and asks, “Why is it that some who seek God are zealous at the beginning but leave after a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful to the quest for a lifetime?”
The hermit responded, “One day my dog and I were sitting here quietly when suddenly a rabbit ran in front of us. My dog jumped up, barking loudly, and took off after that rabbit. Soon other dogs joined the chase, attracted by his barking. But gradually, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the pursuit, discouraged and frustrated. Only my dog continued to pursue the rabbit.”
The young man was confused and asked what that had to do with the quest for God. The hermit replied, “The other dogs fell away from the chase because they had not seen the rabbit.” They were only attracted by the barking of the first dog. But once you see the rabbit, you never give up the quest. Seeing the rabbit, not following the commotion, is what keeps us in our quest for God.
It won’t do to follow someone else’s vision or pursue someone else’s version of salvation. We’ve got to discover our own authentic vision, then roll up our sleeves and “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” knowing that God is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
Naomi Shihab Nye wrote about crafting a poem, but she could have been writing about crafting a vision, so I’ve changed her word “poem” to “vision.”
You can’t order a [vision] like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate. . . .
[Visions] hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.*
What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find our vision. The vision that sustains our life must be our own, and together we have to do the hard work of finding it.
The second necessary quality of an authentic, life-sustaining vision is that it must be focused beyond ourselves. When Israel was contemplating Isaiah’s vision of release from captivity in Babylon and return to their homeland, the prophet heard this word from God: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).
And Jesus’ disciples, as they prepared to lay hold of the new life that was theirs in the resurrection, heard Jesus say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . .” (Matt. 28:19). Not “go be my disciples” but “go make disciples” of others. Carry into the world and share with others the light of the gospel so that the good news may reach to the end of the earth. We don’t much like the E-word these days, but every Christian is commissioned at baptism to be an evangelist, to share with others the good news that God’s reign on earth has begun, to show them what that looks like in practical ways, and to invite them to live as if that good news is true (cf. Mark 1:14-15) because it is true.
What does that look like for you? What is your vision, the vision of this congregation, of where we’re going, of what it looks like to live what Jesus offered, more and better life than you ever dreamed of (John 10:10 The Message)? Visions hide. How do we live in a way that lets us find them? How do we start chasing the rabbit instead of someone else’s report about having seen the rabbit? ▪