Sometimes our lives get off course in startling ways. We find ourselves saying or doing things that are so outside of our character that we don’t even recognize ourselves. But, more often than not, our lives drift off course just a little. At least, that’s how it seems to work for me. I sail along smoothly. Everything is going well. And I drift little by little. Most of the time, the drift is so subtle that I don’t even realize it. It often takes making a big mistake or having a powerful experience for me to realize that I’m no longer on track with how God wants me to live.
When I was a freshman in college, my life had been in a slow drift for a couple of years. I was a good student. I had my faith in Christ. But, I was lonely and depressed. I was struggling to fit into a community where I was one of the only Christians. And, I was having the typical growing pains of becoming an adult and preparing to launch into the world. Little by little, I drifted until I found myself in a giant mess. When I went off to college, I realized how far off track I was, but I still had a giant mess to clean up. Messes are like that. Even when you decide to stop making a mess, you still have to clean up the mess you’ve already made.
On one particular weekend, the weight of the pain I was carrying was crushing me. I stepped outside of my dorm room to give my roommate some space, and I sat on the floor in the hallway. Right about that time, a young woman I didn’t recognize came walking down my hall. She saw me as she walked past, and then she suddenly turned around. She locked eyes with me and she said, “I know that look, and if I’m not mistaken, I’ve been where you are before.” It turns out, my RA had left town for the weekend, and this young woman was on call for her while she was away.
She sat down next to me in the hallway and shared her story. It was just like mine. We both cried and she hugged me. Then she said words I’ll never forget, “April, remember what the prophet Isaiah said to the weary people? ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’ (Isaiah 43:19). Everything feels like a desert right now. You feel forgotten. You feel parched and desolate. God is going to send water. You will have streams in the desert again.”
Some people talk about having “near death experiences.” They survive something and it makes them see everything in a whole new light. In that college hallway, I had a “new life experience.” I saw things more clearly. I realized God’s love for me. I saw how far off course I had strayed, but I also saw a way to get back on track. I needed to make some changes. I had a lot of work to do. But God had never stopped loving me through all of it. And God was right there promising to do a new thing, if only I would allow the streams into my dry and desolate heart.
This morning we are continuing our series “Scrapbooking Our Faith.” We’ve looked at stories from our faith family tree, and we’ve imagined ourselves making a scrapbook page for each one. In the story of Elijah and the still, small voice, we imagined scrapbooking a musical rest onto the page. Silence and listening are two powerful things in our spiritual toolbox. They help us push the noise and chaos of life away and listen to what God is whispering. We looked at the story of Elijah and Elisha as Elijah is taken up into heaven, and we used the symbol of a height chart on a door frame to remind us that God calls us to empower others to step into their gifts as they grow. Last week, Jeff shared with us the story of Naaman and the way we might resist God’s call because it pushes up against our biases. Perhaps we would put a picture of a river on the scrapbook page to help us remember the way we might resist God’s leading.
This week, we are learning from the visions of the prophet Amos. Amos was not your typical prophet. He came from a life as a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees when God called him to prophesy a message of destruction to King Jeroboam II. A reluctant prophet from a humble background, Amos was faithful to God’s call, even though it angered the king, who preferred to hear only good things about his reign.
Amos sees three visions from God. The first vision took place after the “king’s mowings.” The king had harvested his share and the main, later crop was growing. In the vision, locusts appeared and devoured everything. Amos recognized this vision as a prophecy of destruction, and he pleaded with God not to do it. He said, “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small?” And God relented. In the second vision, God called forth a shower of fire. The fire consumed the deep and was beginning to consume the land. Again, Amos pleaded with God to spare the people, and God relented.
The third vision was different from the previous two. In this vision, the Lord interacts with Amos. In the vision, the Lord is standing near a wall built with a plumb line. The Lord is holding a plumb line in his hand. The Lord asks Amos what he sees, and Amos responds that he sees a plumb line. God gives Amos the rest of the prophecy, and this time Amos does not plead for God to spare the people. But, why?
A plumb line is a cord with a weighted plumb bob attached to the end. Because of the weight at the bottom, the cord will hang perfectly straight. This implement helps builders determine if what they are building or hanging is perpendicular, or if it is leaning just a little bit.
Have you ever tried to build a tower with blocks, or books, or really any other item? What happens when the tower starts to lean a little? Do you take the time to adjust everything to make it straight again, or do you keep on building to see what will happen? If you don’t take the time to make the whole tower straight and sturdy, it won’t stand. Eventually it will collapse. I think this is why Amos doesn’t argue with God after seeing the third vision. He realizes that the people of Israel have gone so far off course that they need to be recalibrated. They need to rebuild on a sturdy foundation. They need to return to who they are in God before they can build again.
Henri Nouwen is one of my favorite theologians and thinkers, although I hesitate to call him a thinker. He was a smart and deeply intellectual man, but he was more of a feeler than a heady academic. When I read this quote from him, it stopped me in my tracks:
“At issue here is the question: “To whom do I belong? God or to the world?” Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.
“As long as I keep running about asking: “Do you love me? Do you really love me?” I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with “ifs.” The world says: “Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.” There are endless “ifs” hidden in the world’s love. These “ifs” enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain “hooked” to the world-trying, failing,and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.”
At this time, King Jeroboam II had set up two main places for worshiping the God of Israel: one at Bethel and one at Dan. At these worship centers, people worship the God of Israel by name, but they used images like the golden calf. Amos takes the prophecy of destruction to Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, and Amaziah is furious. He sends to King Jeroboam and tells him that Amos has harsh words about what will happen to Israel and to the king himself. Rather than listen to Amos and repent, rather than doing the hard work of measuring his reign over Israel with the plumb line of God’s direction, King Jeroboam tells Amos to go away. He sends this word to Amos through Amaziah the priest, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (v. 12-13).
If we were going to make a scrapbook page for this story, we might use an image like a level. Levels show if things are…level, or if they need to be adjusted. On my scrapbook page, I might place an image of some of the houses in Galena, Illinois. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Galena, but it is a very hilly town. It is part of what’s called the “driftless zone” of the United States, which is an area that was never covered by ice during the ice age. Because of the lack of scraping ice covering the surface of Galena in ancient history, the town is built around steep hills. While Jeff and I were in Galena for our 20th anniversary, we noticed that many of the homes are level with themselves, but they are not straight compared to the ground. It’s like the builder took a chunk out of the hill to create a flat place for each home to be built. If the builder had relied on his eyes, the building wouldn’t have been straight and it wouldn’t have stood.
This story of Amos’s visions reminds us of the importance of checking our lives against God’s call. Are we relying on our own sense of direction, or are we pausing to listen for God? Are we making a habit of reading Scripture and allowing Scripture to challenge and change us? Are we allowing the Holy Spirit to be the plumb line in our lives? I can’t help but wonder how this chapter of Amos would’ve gone had the king done the hard work of hearing that he had gone astray. What would’ve happened if he had listened to Amos and repented and asked God to help him change course? Maybe they could’ve rebuilt on the foundation of the Lord and spared themselves the judgment. But as it was, King Jeroboam and Amaziah the priest preferred their creaturely comforts. They didn’t want to change and treat the poor with justice. They didn’t want to give up the wealth they had gained by exploiting the people. They didn’t want to right the ship. The only choice was to tear the whole thing down and start over.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, started small groups called “classes” that met for learning and for accountability. Wesley had a list of 22 questions he used with these groups to help them examine themselves. He had them ask questions like:
1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
3. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
If you’re interested in the whole list of 22 questions, you can find them HERE. Wesley thought it was so important to ask ourselves questions to make sure we are staying on the right track that he made this a regular practice with the groups he preached to.
This week, consider the image of the plumb line, or of the level, and invite God to correct you and bring you back onto the right path. What we hear from God and learn about ourselves may not always be the easiest to hear, but we’ve got two choices: push the truth away like King Jeroboam did, or allow ourselves to be brought back into alignment with God.
May today be a “New Life Experience,” a moment in which you see things anew and desire for God to change you. May the Holy Spirit form and shape us – each individually, and as a church – so that we might transform our community with the love of Jesus. May it be so, and may it begin within each of us.