Opening Talk – The Gathering 2015

There are times when people ask what the theme of the conference is and without exception I tell them there never is an intentional theme.  We have no idea what the conference will be when we start thinking about next year. But sometimes a theme emerges that is totally unplanned and we are all surprised.

Yet, this may be the first time in many years I have seen something ahead of time – but only a short while ago did I realize it.  I was looking at the speakers and noticed there is a pattern in some of their lives.

I met Kay Warren and Lynne Hybels through their husbands, Rick and Bill.  At the time both men were young pioneers in the megachurch movement.  Bill was at Willowcreek and Rick at Saddleback.  Lynne and Kay were in the background for the most part. But, in 2003 Kay read an article about 12 million children orphaned by AIDS in Africa.  That realization changed her life and even the direction of Saddleback.  For Lynne, the change came a little earlier but it was just as significant for her and, later, for Willow.  Gary Haugen, our luncheon speaker, was a human rights attorney for the Department of Justice and in that role saw the results of the Rwandan genocide.  That turned his life in a different direction and in 1997 he founded International Justice Mission.  Kellie Haddock’s life crashed down around her in 2004 with the loss of her husband in an automobile accident.  We’ll be with people this week-end whose lives took a new path early on and others after the age of 50. We will meet people whose unplanned circumstances have altered them in ways they could not have imagined. Some of them are speaking and some of them are here as participants.

In all of their lives there is a theme and that theme is change and how we respond to it.

It could be change that comes suddenly and unannounced out of the blue or change that may have been simmering for years until one day it boils over.  Change that comes from maturity and preparation or a sudden flash of inspiration or revelation.  Change that comes from circumstances over which we have no control but find ourselves suddenly with a choice.  We are standing – like it or not – at a fork in the road. It’s different for everyone now just as it was in Scripture.

For Abraham it was the call to move.

For Jacob it was after resisting and God giving him a limp for the rest of his life.

For Gideon it was intimidating.

For Joshua it was after years of preparation.

For Jeremiah it was not a choice.

For Esther it was the acceptance of a responsibility.

For each it was different and it will be for you as well.

You remember the final question of the angels when Jesus ascended into heaven in Acts? “Why are you standing there?” Why are you still in the same place? Why are you not on your way?

It’s still a valid question for us this evening. What is keeping you from being on your way? Where in our lives are we, like the disciples, still gazing on what used to be? Are we still looking for God to restore something that he wants to replace?

The angels always asked the hard questions, didn’t they? Almost to the point of being insensitive. But they weren’t at all. They simply could see just one step ahead. “Woman, why are you crying?” They saw Jesus when she did not. “Men, why are you standing?” They saw Pentecost when the disciples did not.

We are never finished.  There is always something ahead around the bend that we cannot predict and that bend may be this week-end for a number of you.  For some, it may be the moment when you realize a change has been simmering for years. For some, it may surprise you completely and come from a direction you could never have known or expected.  For some, it may be the acceptance of a responsibility you might not have chosen but it is yours and you know it.  I don’t know what it is but I do know some of you are going to be affected this week-end in ways I may never hear or read about.  Perhaps it will be private but for others it will set you on a course as public as Lynne, Gary, Kay and Kellie.  It’s what Malcolm Gladwell called the “tipping point” or “that magic moment when an idea…crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.” People are like that sometimes – not just ideas.  Maybe that’s what this week-end will be for you.  A tipping point where something said or seen will push you in just the right place and take you on the journey around the bend.

The author Wendell says it this way. “If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line – starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.”

You probably are familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Fellowship of the Ring” and I want to close with this thought.

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say”

You are on a road and it is about to join some larger way where many paths and errands meet.  This has been our experience over the years at The Gathering.  You may have stepped outside your comfort zone to be here this week-end but I know whatever comes and wherever the road leads that underneath are the everlasting arms.

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