Rev. Tony Clark
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
Every day we speed by billboards and signs large enough to read from speeding BART trains or as we zoom by on the highway. This is what God is talking about in our passage from Habakkuk today. God tells Habakkuk, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it,” or in our modern language, “Write it big enough so that you can see it from 5 lanes of speeding traffic on the I-80.
So my question back is “What is the vision? God, could you make it a bit plainer so that I can actually see it before I write it?”
How is your vision? Are you still seeing 20/20, or is there a decrease in your eyesight? Or do you suffer from macular degeneration, cataracts, detached retinas, myopia, astigmatism, glaucoma?
But how is your vision? Can you see 2020, the year 2020, or do you have macular degeneration or myopia of the future? How is your crystal ball; can you see what 2020 will bring?
Having clear vision of the future, or being clairvoyant, is a rare gift, yet I am asking each of us to practice it. I am asking each of us to discern what God is calling us to, as individuals and also as a community. I am asking each of us to get in touch with that inner eye that sees, not in the way the eye sees, but with the vision of the soul, The vision of God’s future, a time and place where God waits for us to arrive, a time when justice reigns.
The first step in creating that future is to name what it looks like today. Does that future look the same as it does today? Perhaps. Or perhaps the future, the year 2020, is a bit different. In 2020, merely 7 years from now, Many of us in this room may have left or died by then, leaving holes of grief and chores undone and wisdom untapped. Yet there may also be new faces, for we cannot predict who will soon be looking for a church like Arlington Community Church UCC.
But how do we know? None of us, as far as I know, has a crystal ball. I have not heard that any of us is truly clairvoyant. I wouldn’t doubt that someone out there is, I just haven’t heard about it yet. If you are, then let me know—seriously—I’d love to talk with you.
The discernment of the future is difficult. I know here at ACC there have been at least 3 discernment processes in the last 15 years, and we are tired of talking about a vision of what we might become, and then having no action taken on that discernment process. When I arrived 3 years ago, I was given the last of those processes, which had discerned 5 priorities—
- To hire a pastor who … will … shepherd us while we adapt to change.—You got me.
- To deepen our spiritual lives.
- To offer ministries for all adults addressing social, physical and spiritual welfare
- To offer ministries for children, teens, young adults, and families fostering dialogue and understanding.
- Continue ACC’s legacy commitment to social justice ministries.
Some of these priorities were glimpses into a future we wanted for ourselves—naming a feeling that we were missing something, and that if we set our priorities on what was missing then we might create the future. We saw that, compared to 20 or 30 years ago, we had lost families and children, and we felt that our spiritual lives were bereft, adrift, or lost. The only vision of a future was based on a past that we knew, a past that included robust children’s ministries and spiritual practices.
But God’s future is not based on our past, no matter how robust. The past is not the direct link to the future; there is something that comes between the past and the future, and that is the present. Although our present situation rises directly out of the past, the future does not rise directly out of the past. The future rises directly out of our present, not our former situation, but our current situation.
The task for discernment, the task for any prophet, the task for finding God’s vision is not to discern the future, but to discern the present. We know what the past was, and it guides us in knowing how we got here. The future we cannot fully know, so the only thing we can find out is what our present is.
Therefore, I want to shift a little bit away from trying to discern the future, and turn instead toward really seeing the present. Who are we? What do we have? What of this do we want to gift to the future?
Look around at your pew mates, at your fellow worshippers. What is our average age? How is our collective eyesight? What blessings do we have to offer?
As I’ve been formulating a plan that I’m calling Vision 2020—giving us a vision of 7 years from now, I asked, “What blessings do we have to offer right now?” And the answers I found were, “A beautiful building that has been well-cared for, and now needs some help to truly be a gift to the future. Also, we are Beautiful, loyal people, who have deep individual spirituality, and wonderful gifts of creativity and caring. And although a few Children and Families are present, their needs are very different than most of the rest of us in this room, who have limited energy to work with very active children. We are also a congregation that is both diminishing in numbers and aging.”
Similarly, the questions we held before Church Council as we looked at revising the By-Laws—“Who are we, and how are we able to bless and gift our present ministry? How could the By-Laws reflect who we are?” Clearly we needed to reduce the numbers on our Boards and Committees, since we were asking every member to serve on multiple Boards. Also, the title of Senior Minister seemed a bit anachronistic, since we don’t have associate ministers any more.
So what is the vision we have of Arlington Community Church UCC right now? We are no longer the congregation that wrestled publicly with the issue of amnesty for draft dodgers in the 1970s. We are no longer the congregation that filled the basement with kids on Sunday mornings. We are no longer the congregation that worshipped 200 people every Sunday. We are us. This is who we are—retired, retiring, actively aging, expressing an adult faith, and delighting in children when they are present. We are the people of God, here in this place, today. We are alive, vibrant, creative, caring, and courageous.
We are a congregation who can now leave a legacy to future people arriving at these doors. What will that legacy be? Well, for one thing, that legacy will be based on who we are now. It will be based on our current financial status individually and as a congregation, and the stewardship of this building. The legacy will include our passion for justice. It will include our love of being together. It will include our love of the arts. And all of this grows out of who we are, who God know us to be. God calls us not to be anything other than we are. God calls us to write the Vision on the tablet so that people careening by on the Arlington Avenue can see who we are at a glance.
So who are we? A congregation that loves being in this place, a community of faith centered in this community. We love that in our past this was the Community Center for Kensington and that has carried into our present when the building is still being used for parties and education and girl scout troops. We love that our concern for each other and our world is manifest in our open prayer time. We love that we offer an open table so that all might come to communion, and we love that the past decisions to house nursery schools in our building has continued to our present, so that we still have a touchstone to children in our midst. The past has definitely shaped us to what we are today.
And we are also an Open and Affirming—or ONA– church. When we took that designation it meant that we are open to and affirming of leadership from lesbians and gays; yet, ONA as a national designation has expanded to include bisexual and transgendered people. How does that fit into our vision, the vision we are writing on the walls so that people driving by can see it?
And we are also a church that is 3 miles from one of the largest consortiums of seminaries in our nation, one of which is perhaps the most progressive seminary that our denomination supports—Pacific School of Religion. By location, if nothing else, we are called to be a teaching congregation, naming people’s call for ministry, and helping to shape future progressive leaders of our church. Many of these students who are LGBT, see us, an ONA church, as a place to do their internships and learn how to be ministers in a friendly caring place. So, is that who we are?
Who and What we are today will shape our future together. So who are we today? What blessing do we have today to offer as gift to the future? What legacy can we leave?
What vision will we write on a billboard so that all who speed by on the Arlington will see it?
God, you say, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” Guide us in our task to see what that vision is, not the vision of the past, and not the dim, veiled vision of the future, but the vision of who we are called to be today. As we discern who we are, God, call us to live deeply, passionately and compassionately into your Vision of who we are.