A Ladder to Heaven: God's Dreams and Our Own

November 1st, 2010
This article is featured in the Calling & Career (Nov/Dec/Jan 2010-11) issue of Circuit Rider

Jacob came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. – Genesis 28: 11-12


I met Marcello when I was twenty-three years old. We were in the Amazonian lowlands of Bolivia, improving a Methodist Church, taking floor bricks, knocking mortar off, hauling in dirt to raise the frequently-flooded floor level, and recycling the bricks into a new, higher floor.

The wife of the pastor departed daily with a basket of bread, cheese, and fruit. We asked about her daily errand. “I go to feed the lepers,” she said. “Come with me tomorrow.”

The next day we followed her through the dense growth to a clearing. There we saw a open shed with people on old cots along the three walls. One man sat up, threw his legs over the side of the cot, brought an old cigar box up with his gnarled hands, took out a harmonica, raised it to his mouth and began to play, “Bienvenidos, mis amigos Christianos, bienvenidos a mi casa.” Welcome, Christian friends. Welcome to my home.

We were transfixed. Each day after, we visited, listened with amazement, and asked him, “How are you so joyful?”

Marcello answered, “Oh, young friends, as I slept one night Jesus appeared to me in a dream and said, ‘Marcello, you are my child. Use who you are and be happy.”

“Can we bring you anything?” we asked.

“Yes, glasses,” Marcello answered. When we puzzled over this, he helped us understand that he wanted not eyeglasses nor drinking glasses but binoculars. “I want them,” he said, “so that I can see farther than my cot.”

A framed picture of Marcello has companioned me for thirty-five years. His wisdom—use who you are, be happy, see farther than your cot—echoes as I seek with the Cabinet to make missional appointments for clergy.

A Ladder Heaven-High

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. . .I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. . . -- Genesis 28:15

The ladder was heaven-high from the shed where Marcello rested upon a broken cot, just as Jacob dreamed of a ladder as he slept with his head upon a stone. Ministry leaders know other ladders: ladders of advancement, measures of success, compensation levels, scopes of responsibility, spans of oversight and authority. The ladders beckon, “Come this way!”

God calls in dreams and visions as we sleep with stones for pillows. God spoke to Jacob in an arid, desolate, dry, dangerous place. God is with us also, where we are, even if that place does not seem to hold much promise.

Focusing on our stony piece of earth, we can miss the heaven-high ladder. The tempter whispers, “Other places are better. Other compensation is higher. Other congregations are more prestigious. Other locations are more desirable.” Across the history of our church, whisperings of the tempter have been internalized.

In American Saint, the remarkable new biography of Francis Asbury, John Wigger describes Asbury tying his horse near the door so that he could ride quickly away to escape protests after reading the appointments of the clergy. Even now, appointment season can bring feelings of great expectation and bitter disappointment. We try to work our way up to a larger or more vibrant church, to a better salary or location, always hoping that each new appointment will be better than our present one.

The chief fallacy or, more appropriately, the great sin in this approach is the unholy disregard for the presence of God in this place in which we find ourselves. The direct result is inattention, depression, resentment, and escapism in clergy and in congregations.

Every church has grounding in time and place, a context, a history, a soul. Clergy do great harm to themselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically through lack of presence. Laity are discouraged by the psychic and spiritual absence of clergy who are appointed to love and lead them.

In modern parlance, this is our first gift: showing up. When Mr. Wesley said “The world is my parish,” his intent was clear: wherever in the world we are, that is our parish. Attentive leaders see this fruit from their ministry of full presence: individuals grow in attentiveness to God, and churches grow corporately in their attentiveness to God in their midst. This is the day the Lord has made. This day, this appointment, this church, this work, this person, this moment.

This Awesome Place

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  Genesis 28:16-17

We are all dreamers; yet, this is a challenging and recalcitrant world. We will find ourselves in constricted spaces and may feel forced toward a ladder antithetical to our dream. Self-awareness is essential in keeping the dream alive. Is our vision restricted by personal expectation or expansive in the grand purpose of God? It will take honesty to name before God and one another our frustrations and hurts as well as our hopes. It will take perseverance to keep moving onward, walking by faith in uncharted territory. Servant spirits are required for leadership in every place, visible or invisible, obscured or prominent.

A staff-parish member looked at the one being appointed as his pastor and said simply and honestly, “We need you.” My heart filled with joy to be in a witness to this moment. The economy of The United Methodist Church is not the match of idyllic places and perfect pastors. Clergy hope for appointments that are good news when, ironically, clergy are charged to be good news to the places to which they are sent. We are apostles, bearing good news rather than going to it. We are servants, sent to the places that need us.

Bishops and district superintendents can be servant leaders who find ways to create supportive spiritual community among clergy. Older clergy can be leaders in this brave, faithful, ancient-new, more excellent way of leading in Christ’s ministry. Clergy culture can reorient away from personal agenda toward the high calling of evangelists and missionaries, preachers and teachers, shepherds and prophets. Young clergy can be placed and nurtured in their areas of giftedness from the very start of their ministry.

In Mississippi, young clergy with demonstrated effectiveness are being appointed with decreasing regard to salary level to places where their gifts are essential for the mission of the church. Rather than being considered at the end of each appointment cycle, returning seminarians are appointed first—after careful assessment of their gifts and experience, and careful consideration of missional places that offer proximate support of colleagues and mentors.

We sense that the soul of our Annual Conference is inextricably bound with support of young leaders, both clergy and lay. We live out this conviction by identifying and nurturing young people who may consider a call to ministry. A Conference Task Force on Calling pulls together the work of Youth Ministry, Campus Ministry, Camping Ministry, The Board of Ordained Ministry, and the Cabinet in vocational discernment. United Methodist Campus Ministries are in place on twenty-seven campuses—every university and community college in the state.

We are intentional about including young adults and valuing their contributions to the life of the church. District Superintendents seek young adults to serve as Equalizing Members of the Annual Conference with the goal of lowering the average age of lay and clergy membership by a decade. Dr. Aubrey Lucas, Mississippi Conference Lay Leader, 2004-2008 challenged the Annual Conference Session, “We need a lay leader half my age!” It was his delight to mentor a new Conference Lay Leader, 36-year old Tim Crisler, during the quadrennial transition in 2008.

Counter-expectations continue, of course, to be present among us. As with all Jacobs and all God’s sojourners, stone pillows are sometimes hard under dreaming heads. Softer pillows entice, but it is upon stone pillows that we rest and wait and watch, trusting God’s providence and power.

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