Monday, April 30, 2007

“Wildfires of the Spirit: Becoming Prophets, Visionaries, and Dreamers”

Baccalaureate sermon, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College on Sunday, April 29, 2007 at the Goshen College Church-Chapel


Scripture reading:
Acts 2: 1-17  1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all
together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams


Wildfires of the Spirit: Becoming Prophets, Visionaries, and Dreamers”
By President James E. Brenneman

I believe in each and every one of you, the Class of 2007. Congratulations to all of you.  As a first-year, I have been made to feel very much at home here.  Thank you.

I want to keep this simple this morning:  I believe each and every one of you is invited to be prophets, visionaries, and dreamers. You become so by the power of God’s Spirit hovering like fire over you.  Let me speak first to the source of your power and then of your calling to become prophets, visionaries and dreamers.

First, the fiery source.  William Butler Yeats, the Nobel Prize winner in Literature, once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  He was paraphrasing Plutarch who much earlier said, “[The human] mind is not a vessel to be filled, but rather a fire to be kindled.”  If we at Goshen College have done our work well, this sanctuary this morning is full of minds on fire — and appropriately so.

Fire, wind, air and water are said to be the four great elements of life described so by the ancients.  Of course, Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and humorist, begs to differ declaring that the four building blocks of the universe are really fire, water, gravel and vinyl.  Be that as it may, he still recognizes the significance of fire as a powerful symbol of life.

Fire has always been viewed as one of the physical manifestations of the gods.  Some 25 ancient deities are linked to fire.  The discovery and mastery of fire is viewed as a great intellectual leap forward in human progress and civilization.  Today, we conjugate the name of the Greek fire-god Prometheus to describe a creative, daringly original, intelligent person as Promethean.

In Holy Scripture, God’s presence is often symbolized by fire. In the book of Exodus, God calls Moses from out of a burning bush (3:2).  Now, a number of years ago, I visited St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai (Egypt) and there in the courtyard was a bush purporting to be the very same “burning bush” of Exodus fame.  In an irony of ironies, behind this bush in the corner there was, of all things, a fire-extinguisher!  Irreverent as it was, I couldn’t let this photo op pass me by.  So I now have a picture of me — in case it ever comes out on the Web — in a long monastic robe holding a fire extinguisher pointed at the burning bush.  It’s good they didn’t have fire extinguishers back then. Who knows what Moses would have done?

In Scripture, though, God leads the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert by a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:24; Nu. 9:15-16; 14:14).  God appears on Mt. Sinai in fire and smoke when he gave the great law to Moses (Exodus 19:18; 24:17; Deut. 4:11-36; 5:4-26, etc.) and also in many other places in Scripture (1 Kgs. 18:24, 38; 1 Chron. 21:26; 2 Chron. 7:1,2,3).  Fire was also used symbolically in Israel's worship to represent God's constant presence with Israel (Lev. 6:12-13).

How fitting then that the planning team of this Baccalaureate service — faculty, students and staff — chose the altogether fiery episode of the Pentecost as the Scripture that encapsulates their hopes for each of you this morning and at this important point of your lives.  I completely concur.

The image in this account is that of a violent wind breaking up the Pillar of Fire from Exodus – God’s fiery presence — into a thousand pieces over the heads of those present “from every nation under the sun.”  Later, the Apostle Peter gets up to explain the whole thing and does so by referencing the prophet Joel’s claim that at some future time God’s spirit would be poured out upon “all flesh.”  Sons and daughters would prophesy, young people would see visions and older adults would dream dreams.  Even male and female slaves would receive this fiery blessing. The language of experience described here is interchangeable really.  There is an amazing democratizing egalitarian spiritual revolution described here.  Would-be prophets, visionaries and dreamers of every conceivable category of human beings, without reference to their social status, their gender, or age, are all included in this imaginative construal.  In other words, pretty much everyone in this room this morning:  students, faculty, young people, moms, dads, grandparents, relatives, people of differing cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds are all included.  All of us are invited to be filled with the Promethean wildfires of God’s Spirit.

All of us are invited and empowered to become prophets and visionaries and dreamers of a future not yet here, but still imagined; especially, I think, those of you crossing the threshold from being undergraduates to newly minted graduates.  Are your prophetic, visionary, and dreaming powers of imagination intact?  I hope so.

British anthropologist, cyberneticist, linguist, and early systems theorist Gregory Bateson — and if you don’t know him for his scholarship, you would know who he married, Margaret Mead — argued that “The world comes to be how it is imagined.”  Prophets, visionaries and dreamers are often the first in a line of change agents who imagine a world different than and sometimes counter to the dominant point of view around them. No matter what the reality is or feels to be, they often evoke an alternative awareness, a new way of looking at reality.  They are thought leaders in the world of thoughts. At Goshen College we hope we have prepared you well to be thought leaders in a world in much need of new ways of thinking and acting.

You are the prophets, the visionaries, the dreamers who open our mind's eye and our imagination, our intuitive vision and invite us to squint with you into the future.  Such a future can’t be predicted, it must be imagined.  Albert Einstein said once of his greatest discoveries, “imagination is better than knowledge!”  He thought imagination set the right course to empirical discovery/proof.  He argued that a lab technician can run the stats and do the experiments, but the best scientists must imagine new paradigms, see new patterns to jump-start new discoveries.

Jesus was no Einstein, but he was a prophet, a visionary and a dreamer.  Jesus spoke primarily in imaginative parables. He wasn't out so much to state doctrine or abstract truths or ideal principles so much as to create, to invent, and to construct new ways of imagining and living. Jesus assumed actions would follow his words. Jesus, as would Einstein, invites us to stretch our minds around new ideas, new possibilities, new dreams.  “Once stretched,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “our mind never returns to its original shape.”

The rock star Bono, prophet, visionary and dreamer, imagines a world, for example, without A.I.D.S.; a world in which poverty is overcome; a world in which God’s mercy and love and grace extends from the horn of Africa to every nook and corner of the world. At the Presidential Prayer breakfast last year, Bono was the guest speaker.  He issued a clarion call for fellow Christians and others to work to abolish A.I.D.S. and poverty in the world.  His message was simple. Tithe 1 percent of our tax dollars, of our corporate profits and of our our incomes to eradicate A.I.D.S. and the overwhelming debt of the world’s poorest nations. He called it the “One Campaign,” which has spread like wildfire across campuses and universities and businesses and governments all over the world.  Such imagination requires hard work and much commitment.

June Jordon; she was a prophet, visionary and dreamer. She wrote poetry during the civil rights movement.  She offered hope to weary travelers on the road to racial reconciliation by helping them imagine a future without racial prejudice, to look beyond their trying and hard circumstance of the moment.

I was looking at the ceiling/ and then I saw the sky
I was miserable and aching/ at the way the news kept breaking,
    I was looking at the ceiling/ and then I saw the sky.
   I felt broken into compromise/ with nothing left to hope or prize,
    I was looking at the ceiling/ and then I saw the sky.

Are we looking beyond the ceiling to the sky?

Nolan Dishongh is a prophet, visionary and dreamer who looks past the ceilings in his classroom each day and sees the sky of possibility. He’s a teacher at Alice Johnson Junior High School outside of Houston. His classes are filled with rough and tumble kids from single-parent homes, many of them with little or no motivation for achievement.  For much of his teaching career his kids predictably dropped out of school.

Several years ago, he let his imagination loose for a bit and thought of a new way to possibly motivate his students.  At the beginning of the school year, he tried an experiment. He asked his students to lay their head on their desks and think about their mothers.  “Think her holding you in her arms, caressing, loving you. Think how much she loved you even before you were born. Think how happy she was when you took your first steps.  How proud she was when you first said `Mama.’”  After a bit, Mr. Dishongh asks them to take five deep breaths as if these were their last.  And then he asked them: “What memory do you want to leave of yourself with your mother? Is it a memory she will be proud of or one which might cause her pain the rest of her life?”

Are we surprised at the outcome? Not really!  Mr. Dishongh's students have consistently gone on to have one of the highest success rates in the school system for competing for wonderful scholarships in college.  Mr. Dishongh simply believed that if a child can imagine, even for a moment, life a little bit differently than when they entered his class room, they will start acting on the new image of who they perceive themselves to be — an image that would make any mother proud!  Make your moms and dads and your loved ones and all of us proud, graduates.

Finally, a story is told of a traveler visiting the French town of Chartres to see the great church that was being built there. Arriving at the end of the day, the traveler went to the site where the workmen were leaving for home. He asked one man, covered with dust, what he did there.  The man replied that he was a stonemason who spent his day carving rocks. He stopped and asked another man, “What do you do?” He said he was a glass blower who spent his days making slabs of colored glass. Another said he was a blacksmith who pounded iron for a living.

Then the traveler met an older janitor woman, sweeping up the stone chips and wood shavings and glass shards from the day’s work.  He asked her, “What are you doing?”  And the woman paused, she leaned on her broom, and looked up toward the high arches of this great building, and replied, “Me? I'm building a cathedral for the Glory of Almighty God.”  (p.74-75, Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It).  What an imagination!

As you go out into the world as teachers, as business professionals, as rock stars, as doctors, as nurses, as poets, pastors, artists, farmers, politicians, glassblowers, and janitors and any other vocation – may your minds always be kindled by the wild fire of the Holy Spirit. You’re the prophets, visionaries and dreamers of tomorrow.  Fire up your imagination and dream a better future for us all.  Imagine a future not yet contemplated by any one of us.  And if actions almost always follow imagination, and they do, then surely you will have helped to build a better world for the glory of Almighty God.  Amen.

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