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Seeing Visions, Dreaming Dreams

June 5, 2017

“Seeing Visions, Dreaming Dreams” Joel 2:23-32, Acts 2:1-21 © 6.4.17 Pentecost A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was an event so rare, even unprecedented, that not even the oldest among them could remember anything like it. Each member of every living generation knew they had witnessed history; they would share the tale as a cautionary lesson with those yet to be born. Such a crisis might be averted in the future if everyone would honor their commitment to the Lord.

The devastating locust plague and drought that had prompted such reflection were now over, and the people looked forward to better days. Yahweh promised abundant rain, plentiful food, and a bright future, free of the shame that had marked the community.

But that wasn’t all. A great revolution was coming, a time when old cultic barriers would come down, priestly orders would be obsolete, and everyone from greatest to least, regardless of gender or age, would be filled with the enlivening breath of God. Dreams and visions, the means of direct access to the very mind and heart of Yahweh, would be the common experience of young and old; prophecy, the sharing of the word of God, would be the task and privilege of men and women alike. The restoration of land and crops was expected to be paralleled by a blossoming of vital spirituality in everyone. The crisis would be followed by jubilation, then awakening.

Joel’s tale of turning and revival from the 5th century BC was for living generations in his day and for those yet to come; it formed their memory and inspired their hope. It can do much the same for us. This ancient text seems remarkably relevant to our own time, and especially today as we focus on two generations of youth and young adults in the reception of confirmands, the recognition of a high school graduate, and the welcoming of a rising college senior to start the summer music series.

No, our crisis is not swarms of grasshoppers eating everything in sight nor do we interpret events as God’s judgment on national sin. And we no longer find the idea of an inclusive community particularly novel, even if not fully realized. That’s because we are heirs of Pentecost and other movements of the Spirit since.

But the pattern of history identified by Neil Howe and the late William Strauss in 1997 can be easily overlaid on the Joel story. In broad outline, the two sociologists observed that over the course of a long human life of about 80-90 years, a society goes through four cycles, called “turnings.” One writer has described the eras in simple terms: “[T]he ‘First Turning’ is an upbeat era of strengthening institutions. The ‘Second Turning’ is an awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the old order comes under attack. The ‘Third Turning’ is an unraveling — a time when individualism is strengthened and institutions are weakened. The ‘Fourth Turning’ is a crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval — the old order is toppled and a new one put in its place”

In a recent article, Neil Howe commented: “Just as a Second Turning reshapes our inner world (of values, culture and religion), a Fourth Turning reshapes our outer world (of politics, economy and empire)” ( The United States entered such a turning in 2008, with the coming of the next First Turning expected around 2030. Howe continues: “Our paradigm suggests that current trends will deepen as we move toward the halfway point.

“Further adverse events, possibly another financial crisis or a major armed conflict, will galvanize public opinion and mobilize leaders to take more decisive action. Rising regionalism and nationalism around the world could lead to the fragmentation of major political entities…and the outbreak of hostilities….” About that last, Howe makes what he calls a “sobering observation” that every Fourth Turning has seen a total war.

Four generational archetypes parallel the four turnings. During each era, a new generation is born, and the three already in place move to new challenges commensurate with their gifts and collective personality. The two generations we focus on today are Hero and Artist, the Millennials and the Homelanders, respectively. The other two archetypes, by the way, are Prophet and Nomad, which in our day are Boomers and Gen-X. Staci and Maggie are Heroes, Millennials. So are Eli and Makenzie, along with Matthew and Ruby, whom we will receive later in the summer. These four are among the last born of their generation, which ended in 2004. Will and Sara, along with Mesa, who was also in the confirmation class, are first wave Artists, Homelanders, to use Strauss and Howe’s term. They’re also known as “Generation Z” which started being born in 2005. The other living Hero group is the WWII G.I., with the youngest now at 93. The other Artists are the Silents, born between 1925 and the early 1940s. (They’re called that because the primary ethos of the generation was “sit down, shut up, and do what you’re told.”)

Strauss and Howe offer helpful descriptions of the archetypes:

Artist generations are born during a great war or other historical crisis, a time when great worldly perils boil off the complexity of life, and public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice prevail. Artists grow up overprotected by adults preoccupied with the crisis, come of age as the sensitive young adults of a post-crisis world, break free as indecisive midlife leaders during a spiritual awakening, and age into empathic post-awakening elders. By virtue of this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their quiet years of rising adulthood and their midlife years of flexible, consensus-building leadership. Their principle endowments are often in the domain of pluralism, expertise and due process. Their best-known historical leaders …have been sensitive and complex social technicians, advocates of fair play and the politics of inclusion.”

Hero generations are born after a spiritual awakening, during a time of individual pragmatism, self-reliance, laissez faire, and national (or sectional or ethnic) chauvinism. Heroes grow up as increasingly protected post-awakening children, come of age as the heroic young team-workers of a historical crisis, demonstrate hubris as energetic mid-lifers, and emerge as powerful elders attacked by another awakening. By virtue of this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their collective coming-of-age triumphs and their hubristic elder achievements. Their principle endowments are often in the domain of community, affluence, and technology. Their best-known historical leaders… have been vigorous and rational institution builders. In midlife, all have been aggressive advocates of economic prosperity and public optimism, and all have maintained a reputation for civic energy and competence to the very ends of their lives” (

Given their placement in history, growing up and being educated during this Fourth Turning, these youth and young adults who receive our attention today will have challenges and opportunities in the broader sphere which will require their contribution of time and expertise, whatever their personal and private concerns may be. In the terms of the text, they are called by God to see visions in their youth and dream dreams as they mature.

Of course, there are narrow visions that benefit only a few, and there are broad, generous visions that embrace even a whole planet. So, too, with dreams. Sharon Daloz Parks speaks of “worthy dreams,” which she encourages along with “big questions.” Such aspirations contrast sharply with small and selfish goals whose fulfillment does not contribute anything to the common good.

It will be up to these youth and young adults and their peers of the Hero and Artist generations to use their gifts, as their predecessors in history have, to help see us all through this crisis, this Fourth Turning, until the times turn again. What might they work for? Years ago, a colleague in Alabama addressed young and old and set out a biblical vision, a godly dream: “Young people, what are your visions? Old people, what are your dreams? Do you have a vision of a world ruled by justice and not by what will increase the GNP? Do you have a dream of a society where it is more important that the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered than that the merchants of war be sated to the full? Do you have a vision of a time when every person will be respected and valued not because of race or creed or wealth or education but because of his or her creation in the image of God? Do you have a dream of a day when there will be peace among the nations and when no one will have to live in fear? The promise of the Spirit is that all this is coming and all of this shall be. The Spirit calls us to claim the vision and own the dream” (Tom Duncan, Shades Valley Presbyterian Church newsletter, 1993).

These youth and young adults can and will lead us all in the turning dance, as the Shaker tune has it: “When true simplicity is gained/To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,/To turn, turn will be our delight,/Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”

From First Turning to Fourth, from high to awakening to unraveling to crisis and around again, God is with us, giving his Spirit, calling his people. As the folk hymn “Canticle of the Turning” assures us, it is God “who is turning the world around.”


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