Imagining Who(se) We Are

Acts 4:1-12 We are celebrating OPC's Sixtieth Anniversary at the end of May.  And in anticipation of that, we're spending the next few weeks talking about Who We Are and Whose We Are - not only about our own character as a congregation or as individuals, but about the one who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Last week we talked about celebrating those moments of transformation we have experienced or hope to experience, and how that tends to be what draws us closer to God.

This week, we're talking about imagination; getting a sense of what that transformation might look like. In the Presbyterian Church, all who are ordained, whether that be as a minister or as an elder or as a deacon, make promises as part of that ordination process. And one of those is that we promise to serve the church with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. There is that commitment that congregational leaders make, that among everything else, we will be open to God's imagination and hope for this community. And when we claim these lessons of Scripture as our own, when we take them seriously, we know that we are created in the image of God.

Whenever I think of imagination, I always turn to dreams. There are the dreams of Scripture, whereby God speaks to God's people in ways that they would not otherwise hear. And I think dreams can be a key for us, as people of faith, to begin to see ourselves the way God sees us.

I don't know how many of you remember your dreams; from time to time, I do, and they always seem to be the recurring ones. There's the one where I show up to take a final for a class I haven't attended all semester; that one still haunts me! And since going into ministry, I also have these stress dreams about church. The other night, in fact, I had a dream that I was sitting on the third row of the church, wearing shorts and a t-shirt and a baseball hat. Worship was proceeding just fine; and then the next hymn was announced, number 526, called "Alabama Pilaster." And as the congregation stood to sing, I remember wondering if I would have enough time to go out and put on my robe during the singing of the hymn; and the thing that really distressed me in the dream was whether or not I would have time to make my hair look right, once I took off the baseball hat.

A few months ago, I heard a hilarious story about dreams and sleepwalking by comedian Mike Birbiglia on the show This American Life (if you click here and fastforward to about nine minutes into the show, you'll catch Birbiglia's story), which I won't share here, but encourage you to listen to.

I've always been fascinated by dreams and their meaning and purpose in our lives. And I was reading an article the other day about daydreaming, and how it serves a crucial creative purpose. Daydreaming begins to happen in our lives when we are fairly young, when we move from externally verbalizing every single thought to beginning to have some of those thoughts internally. And studies have been done to demonstrate how helpful and healthy daydreaming can be to our creative process and to our problem-solving process.

Now I know that there's no reference to dreams or daydreams in our lessons today; the title, therefore, may be a bit of a stretch. But I do think that what our story represents is nothing less of a total transformation in Peter's life, and that, knowing the way Peter acted just a few months prior to this lesson, it would take incredible imagination to see him in this situation.

Peter and John have, as we read last week, healed a man who has been crippled from birth. The man immediately begins rejoicing and praising God and this gives Peter an opportunity to tell everyone about Jesus, the one in whose name this healing was done. In the lesson today, Peter and John are arrested, and end up appearing before Annas and Caiaphas (he's the one with the killer baritone in Jesus Christ Superstar). It was not that long ago that Peter would deny ever knowing Jesus, fearing he might be arrested just like him. Now here he is, a completely transformed individual, changed by the impossible knowledge that this Jesus was raised from the dead, standing before these same imposing figures who cowed him into silence not long ago, and he is telling them boldly about that same Jesus.

There is one detail to this story that may be crucial: Peter is "filled with the Holy Spirit." That same creating breath that blew across the waters of creation; that same Spirit that descended in a dove to rest on the baptized Jesus, the same Spirit that Jesus promised to send to be with his disciples, it is that Spirit, I am sure, which is the channel of Peter's transformation into a newly bold preacher of the gospel.

It is the Spirit which instills us with the creativity and imagination we need to see what God sees. For some of us, we may need to be asleep so that we can get out of the way and let God work within us. For others of us, it might simply mean sitting still long enough to daydream, to meditate, to give room for the Holy Spirit to move within us, giving nudge to that imagination that says something about who we are, maybe if we're not quite yet.

What do you imagine? What is it in your own life that might be in need of transformation? Is there something that a still small voice is saying to you? Are you distressed about something that you can drown out in the daytime, but haunts you at night? Can you sit still long enough to invite God's Spirit in to stir up the waters and restore your soul?

And what about for OPC as a community? I'd welcome any thoughts in the comments below.

For a couple of years now I have been listening to your hopes and dreams for this church, for your imagination writ large. And there is a tension in what I hear. On the one hand, I hear a deep desire to move beyond the status quo. And on the other hand, there is a fear that a larger community would mean losing what makes this community special. Or to put it another way, "We want a church membership that's about twice the size it is now where we are a close-knit family and all know each other." It's a tension that can't be resolved, perhaps.

For those of you who have been involved here for a long time, you have let me know how often the subject of "church growth" has been brought up, so often, in fact, that you begin to doubt the reality of it as a possibility. And even as we see signs of growth, you wonder if it's "for real" this time.

I think the economic crisis has impacted the church in a way that has brought us to an important moment. And I will put it pretty starkly: can we afford a building as large as this for a congregation our size? Are we living in a house that we can't afford? Do we need to downsize?

Friends, I'm only one person, but I think the answer is a steady no. I really do believe that this community of faith is unique. And the longer I'm here and the more conversations I'm involved in, the more that character comes more and more into focus. It boils down to two nodes, in my mind:

First, we are a community of inclusion. We are a community of this community. We are not a church of a particular political or theological stripe. There is a diversity of views here that I treasure, and it is a diversity that I think we are learning to live into more fully, loving one another even when we might disagree about the issues of the day. We are an intergenerational community. Our Handbell Choir is a perfect example of that; our programs do not segregate based on age, as much of the world does. And we are Presbyterian, and yet so much more. I cherish my own Presbyterian roots; and yet, I have been shaped and moved by the beauty of Orthodox and Episcopal liturgy; I have been convicted and challenged by the conviction of evangelical witness; and I see that in our congregation.

The second node is that we see this community of Brookhaven, and perhaps even the world, as our congregation. We are not simply a congregation of and for our members to the exclusion of everyone else. We see the ministries of this church - whether it is the Preschool or the Food Pantry or Thornwell Children's Home or Mar Elias College in Israel - not as things "we" do for "them," but rather as a natural extension of our response to God's grace and those moments of transformation in our own lives.

To link it all back to the lesson in Acts, this is a broken world, crippled for many years past; ours is not to give it silver or gold; ours is to offer the healing hand of Jesus Christ so that the world might know that he is the firm cornerstone on which we stand. Can you imagine?