Akwasi Frimpong grew up in a one-room house in Kumasi, Ghana. As a boy, he dreamed of being an athlete, but life was extremely hard for him and his eight siblings. Eventually, he left Ghana with his mother for the Netherlands, where he worked very hard to become an athlete, training in three different sports, studying Dutch and holding down two jobs, including selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. This year he finally achieved his dream of becoming an Olympic athlete in the sport of skeleton (as only the second athlete from Ghana to compete in the Winter Games). His helmet features the drawing of a rabbit escaping from the jaws of a lion, a symbol of his victory over hardship.[i]
Frimpong came in last in his sport at the Olympics this year, but captured the hearts of people around the world with the little dance he did to celebrate achieving his dream. In a recent interview, Frimpong summed up the whole experience, “I came in last,” he said, “but the most important thing is that I won the hearts of the people.”[ii]
Dennis Byrd was an up-and-coming defensive superstar for the New York Jets, who was expected to help turn the Jets around. But on November 29, 1992, when the Jets were playing the Chiefs, Byrd was about to sack the quarterback when he collided with a teammate. His spinal cord snapped.
He awoke in the middle of the night at Lenox Hospital in a halo brace, not knowing where he was, why he couldn’t move, and what was happening. Suddenly, he went from dreaming of making it to the Pro Bowl to hoping that someday he could once more hold his daughter in his arms.
From a worldly perspective, Byrd was no longer able to reach his potential. But in God’s eyes, Byrd was capable of more than sacking quarterbacks. As the world watched and listened, Byrd told the media that Christ was his source of comfort and strength during his time of tragedy. The doctors said Byrd would likely never walk again, but Byrd said that with God’s help, he would.
On opening day of the 1993 football season, less than a year after his spinal-cord injury, Dennis Byrd walked to the middle of the Meadowlands Stadium while 75,000 fans cheered. The miracle in Byrd’s life is not that he broke his neck and walked again. The miracle is that the injury that destroyed his career did not destroy his life.”[iii]
The great Scottish Olympian and Christian missionary to China, Eric Liddell (who died in a Japanese internment camp in 1945) wrote, “Circumstances may appear to wreck our live and God’s plans, but God is not helpless among the ruins. Our broken lives are not lost or useless. God comes in and takes the calamity and uses it victoriously, working out his wonderful plan of love.”
When we baptize a child we remind ourselves, once again, of the covenant which binds us to one another and to God as God’s precious children. Of course, along with the birth of a child, come all the hopeful and high-minded dreams of the parents for that child.
Yet, we believe that God’s dream for each of us surpasses even the most loving parent’s magnanimous aspirations for their child. In the act of baptism we dedicate that child to God; give him or her over to God’s purposes; entrust him or her to God’s dream. And then we promise to do all that we can to help that child discover that divine dream through a lifelong journey of faith.
Remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah, to a people in exile, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart.” [29:13ff]
In his book, Simply Christian, highly respected conservative scholar and Anglican Bishop, N. T. Wright, explains that Christianity, which emerges out of prophetic Judaism, is about God’s plan to redeem the world. The yearning for justice, for mercy, for elemental fairness, is not something that has to be taught, says Wright. For it is the voice of God in every human heart. He writes:
“The point of following Jesus isn’t simply so that we can be sure of going to a better place when we die. Our future beyond death is enormously important, but the nature of Christian hope is that it plays back into the present life. We’re called, here and now, to be instruments of God’s new creation, the world-put-to-rights, which has already been launched in Jesus, and of which Jesus’ followers are supposed to be not only its beneficiaries but also agents.”
Of course, it’s not easy for those of us living in this complex and compromised world to believe that we are an integral part of God’s plan, God’s dream for this world. But then, that’s always been the case.
When God first told Abram and Sarai about God’s dream for their lives – to make of them a great nation whose descendants were as numerous as the stars – their initial reaction was literally to laugh it off. “You’ve got to be joking, right?”
“Is anything too wonderful for God?” God’s messenger replies.
In fact, whenever God calls someone into the divine dream, the first response is generally seems to be incredulity.
The voice of God came to Jeremiah, asking him to be God’s spokesman, to tell Israel what they were supposed to do. “I’m just a kid,” says Jeremiah. God replied that he would be with him all the way, would tell him what to say, give him whatever he needed to get the job done. Jeremiah became a great prophet, in spite of his youth and inexperience.
Then there was Moses, hiding out in the land of Midian, taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep. A bush on the mountainside bursts into flame and a Voice tells Moses that the cries of God’s people in captivity have been heard. And guess who was going to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go? “You’re can’t be talking about me,” Moses protested. “I . . . I stutter. Pharaoh won’t listen to a nobody like me!” You know the rest of the story.
And a young woman, merely a girl really, living in a grimy little out of the way town called Nazareth, was visited by a man in a white robe who told her that God, once again, had heard the cries of his people. “I’m here to bring you good news, Mary. You are going to have a baby and he will save God’s people.”
“How can this be?” she asks in confusion and fear.
“Nothing is impossible for God,” said the angel.
“Well, I don’t understand it,” confesses Mary. But then surrenders, “but here I am, willing to be part of God’s purposes.”
Then there was George. George had never got much past high school, although he loved to read, was a regular at Bible study. But he was shocked when the pastor asked him to lead the newly formed Young Adult Class on Sunday mornings. “Me?” George asked in disbelief. “I don’t know. I’m getting kind of old. I mean, they’re all so smart,” he protested, “they’d probably laugh me right out of the room.” But the pastor persisted, so George took a deep breath and agreed to teach the class. Today, George’s Bible study, which the young adults who flock to his class affectionately call `Bible – By George,’ is one of the bright spots in that congregation’s life.
And there’s Addie. In mid-life, out of nowhere, she was stricken by a rare and debilitating disease. Over a period of mere months she went from being a very active woman to paralyzed and bedridden. Addie remembers praying one day, “God, I’m terrified by what the future may hold for me. Help me to find a way to still serve you, in spite of my infirmity.”
Today Addie serves her church by doing one of the few activities she is still able to do; talking on the telephone. She can’t walk, run, or even move around her house, but she can make phone calls. So now, before every church meeting, members get a reminder from Addie. When someone is sick, that person receives daily calls from Addie. Every older person in the congregation who is confined to home, gets a morning call from Addie. Even though Addie found herself on a different path than she ever thought she would journey, God is still calling her to be part of his divine purpose.[iv]
“Next to faith,” confessed the great Reformer Martin Luther, “this is the highest art—to be content with the calling in which God has placed you. I have not learned it yet.”
And I must confess, I feel as though am still learning it as well. Yet, all any of us can do is to try to be open to God’s voice calling us amid the clamor of the world.
A few years ago, when Diane and I lived in Davenport, Iowa, we were doing our Saturday morning routine of getting breakfast and coffee at Starbuck’s drive-through. As we drove home, on east 39th street past Davenport Memorial Cemetery, we couldn’t help but notice that sitting up there on the hillside, bundled up against 40+ mile an hour winds, were three very forlorn looking figures; two young black women with a small child sheltered between them. Around them were several large and small plastic garbage bags apparently filled with clothing and various other items.
As we drove past, I mumbled to Diane, “Huh . . . I wonder what that’s about?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It looks pretty sad though.”
We drove on the down the hill to the stop sign at Eastern Avenue. And we just sat there for a few minutes, in silence, staring out the windshield…listening to a still, small inner voice.
Finally Diane said, “Tom, what are you thinking?”
“Oh…Nuts,” says I.
I turned around in the dog kennel parking lot and headed back up the hill towards the cemetery. We pulled up to the curb across from the where the three were sitting, rolled down the window, and I called out, “So, what’s the story?”
One of the young women told me that they were moving to another part of town, but didn’t have a ride to get there. They were at a bus stop, but the city bus kept passing them up, claiming they had too much stuff with them. I put the car in park, got out, and helped them load up their stuff.
“Bless you. Bless you,” one of the young women kept saying.
As we drove over to their new residence – which, as it turned out was not all that far from the church I was serving – she told me of hearing routine gun fire from the apartment complex they had lived in. And the fact that she was afraid to let her two year old daughter play outside. She called her cousin, who was waiting at the new apartment, to let him know that they were on their way. When her cousin apparently asked from the other end of the line, who they had finally found a ride with, catching my eye in the rearview mirror this young woman said happily, “God gave us a ride. God gave us a ride.”
Once we had gotten to their new destination, as her cousin and I were unloading their worldly goods from the trunk of my car, he was sort of looking me over quizzically.
I said, “I’m a lot shorter than you thought God would be, right?”
“And whiter,” he added.
Obviously, none of us are God. But any of us – all of us together – can be part of God’s dream to impart compassion, grace and hope into this world.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
[iii] May, Steve, from “Sermonnotes,” Preaching Today, 2016.
[iv] Willimon, William, “The Promise, The Journey,” Pulpit Resource, 1995.