August 2009

Joy…is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking). _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Earlier this month I was out in the back yard cutting the grass. Suddenly all around me there were dragonflies, darting, circling, dipping. I had never seen so many, merely the odd one here and there, and always in the front yard. The photo I feature here, by my wife Susan, is of one such insect that was basking in the sun and stayed still long enough on our front walk for the picture to be taken. dragonfly

I was so impressed with the sight of so many of these beautiful insects that I decided to try to find out if they meant anything special to cultures ancient and (post)modern. What I discovered was fascinating.

In ancient Japan, the presence of dragonflies meant a good rice harvest; they were also believed to bring good luck in battle. In paintings, they represented new life and joy. They continue to be symbols of courage, strength, and happiness in contemporary Japan.

Native American cultures also saw the insect as a symbol of life, featuring it on their ceremonial pottery. One story tells of a dragonfly made of corn and straw that came to life as a messenger of the gods and saved the people in a time of drought and famine.

Other and more modern interpretations focus on the dragonfly as an old and adaptive insect or as an inhabitant of two realms, namely, air and water. So, according to this way of thinking, if you have the dragonfly as your totem (spirit guide, patronus), you may be emotional and passionate in early years, but gain more balance and control in maturity. The insects are also associated with creative imagination and our calling to reflect the light of the divine image in us. They stand for the power to gain vision, to change and grow.

Whatever they may mean, they were a gift from God to me that particular day. The sight of them filled with me with joy, hope, and excitement. They came unbidden and unexpected, and I only saw them once more, the next day. But that’s how the gifts of God are. He grants what we need for the moment, whether a marvelous sight or extraordinary boldness, strength to keep going or sudden insight into a difficult problem. Indeed, he is as gloriously unpredictable as the flight of a darting dragonfly reflecting the light of the sun.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham 



He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is” (Albert Schweitzer).

…their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).


Recently CNN/HLN reported that Bob Dylan was stopped last month by police after someone called the authorities to report a “suspicious” man who might be a prowler. Apparently, Dylan, clad in a jacket with the hood up, was taking a walk in the rain before a performance and was looking in the windows of vacant houses for sale. The 24 year-old police officer who questioned him recognized his name when he gave it, but Dylan had no ID to prove who he was. The young woman only believed the legendary singer was who he claimed to be when they drove to his tour bus and everyone testified to his identity (see

It seems incredible to me that someone would look at that face we have been seeing since the ‘60s and not know it belonged to Bob Dylan. But then, the disciples failed to recognize Jesus on several occasions. Even Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener on Easter Day (John 20:14,15).

If you’re wondering why I’m spending time on a story about Bob Dylan, it’s because I see in it some clues about the difficulties people may have recognizing Jesus for who he is. It also helps us understand how the Church might better carry out the task of helping the world believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be.

First, Dylan was in a hood, mysterious and, to the caller, “suspicious.” Christ was once shrouded in mystery (“veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” as the hymn says). But now the mystery has been revealed (Romans 16:25,26; Ephesians 1:9 and elsewhere), and we are to make it known. Yet I wonder if we in the Church do not keep Christ hidden behind our jargon and ritual and most of all, by our inaction. The way people see the face of Christ is in our faces, feel his touch is through our touch, experience his welcome is through our welcome. If Christ is unknown, it is because we have stayed behind our walls, whether of stone or of fear, keeping him hidden. And when we have ventured out, we have not “lowered our hoods,” as it were, in order that the world may see the shining glory of Christ in us. Yet such revelation is precisely our calling. As the Scripture says: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Second, the young woman who questioned the rock star had little experience with him. She knew his name, but that was it. Given her generation, probably she was not particularly familiar with “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Positively 4th St.” If she had watched “Battlestar Galactica” on TV, she would have heard “All Along the Watchtower” several times, but may not have known it was written by Dylan. I doubt if she had seen a concert by, or read an article about, the singer.

What experience have our neighbors had with us as believers? Are we out and about, visible, involved, always available and helping when some need presents itself or there is some way we can contribute to the good of the community? And how is our public involvement perceived? The Church is to be the visible demonstration of what God intends for all humankind, the presence of Christ. Does our behavior lead others to think that Jesus was intolerant, judgmental, prejudiced, narrow, hurtful, and concerned with institutional maintenance and rules above all? Or do we reveal what our Lord was really like, the Jesus to whom the Scriptures testify—winsome; caring; concerned with the vulnerable and the marginalized; impatient with injustice and self-righteousness but helpful to those who admitted their need; and most of all, willing to give himself even for those who hated him? Encountering us, will people say "I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” (Gandhi)? Or will their experience of Christ through us be positve and winning, a true reflection of our Savior?

Finally, the police officer eventually believed Dylan was who he claimed to be when those traveling with him bore witness to his identity. Of course, that is the key task of the Church: to bear witness. “And you shall be my witnesses,” commanded and promised Jesus (Acts 1:8). If we keep quiet, if our lives are not authentic representations of our Lord’s life, then he will remain as one unknown.

But God forbid that should happen. Let us tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Let us live as faithful disciples, truly following the Way (Acts 9:2).

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

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This post is dedicated to my niece Page and nephew Julian, both of whom begin college this month, and to all in the Class of 2013.

"The future of ‘mainline’ Christianity in North America, as well as the future of the university, will be profoundly affected by the way in which Christians, among others, relate to the intellectual project of the West at this crucial juncture in its history (postmodernity)”—(Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith).


This Sunday, August 16th, is Higher Education Sunday across the Presbyterian Church (USA). In this post, I want to offer some practical suggestions for observing the day, my “three R’s” for campus ministry.

First, ritual. Holy Communion and Baptism are both sorely neglected in the PC(USA), despite the call in our standards for frequent Communion (Book of Order W-2.4009) and for remembering the grace of God at work in Baptism (W-2.3009). Yet both sacraments can be a tremendous resource of strength, encouragement, and community building for college students, faculty, and staff. So I long for the day when each congregation located in a university or college town provides a weekly opportunity for receiving Holy Communion. And I would be thrilled if those same congregations would emphasize the call and the comfort of God in Baptism somehow in those same services and in every time of worship. One great way to do this is to offer an ancient/future or a contemporary service on a Sunday or Wednesday evening for students and others. In those times, the community can remember Baptism in some creative way upon entering the sanctuary, then later celebrate together as all come to the Table.

Second, reminders. Let us remember that God is already on campus; we don’t “take” him there nor do we need to “take back” the campus for God. None of us possesses God. The highest heaven cannot contain him; how much less the church, the university, any human construct or institution (see 1 Kings 8:27)! God is already at work on campus in the lives of his people there and by the Spirit in ways both hidden and open in the institution itself. Our task is to discern where and how God is acting and join him!

Let us also recall that our college students are the Church now. Well-meaning people often speak of them as “the future of the Church,” and I try to hear the words of support of campus ministry in such comments. But too often ministry in higher education is seen as a way to grow congregations or ensure new blood for leadership tomorrow. I am firmly convinced that God will not honor such viewpoints. He will give success when we begin to see college students as valuable in their own right, for their ideas, their leadership, and ther commitment now, and give them meaningful opportunities to serve and to bear witness.

We need also to pay attention to faculty and staff. They are living out their baptismal vocation in the college and university. These faithful people are seeking to serve our Lord through their engagement with ideas, their guidance of students, their help with procedures and problems, and in so many other ways. In any celebration of higher education ministry, they need to be remembered. Perhaps they could be commissioned in worship at the start of the school year for their work. (See the Book of Occasional Services.)

Finally, resources. Let me simply point you to some helpful websites, then give a few suggestions about ways individuals can remember college students. To find out more about PC(USA) collegiate ministries, go to and also to (Presbyterian Association for Collegiate and Higher Education Ministries; some of the resources on this site reguire registration, but that’s free). For a wonderful resource for progressive young adult Christians, visit and click on “Dream, Think, Be, Do.” Note that this curriculum piece costs about $300. Finally, if you are in a community college town, check out, a well-established and respected franchise program that promotes listening among generations.

Or how about these simple ideas? Recruit one or a few interested people in your congregation to keep in touch with students, faculty, and staff, doing things like remembering birthdays or other anniversaries (a parent’s death, for example), sending exam snack bags, and keeping up by Facebook. Establish a program linking students with older folk in the church who can be a local resource for them. And finally, pray for students, faculty, and staff and all who minister with and to them.

I trust these ideas will be helpful to you as you celebrate Higher Education Sunday. It’s my fervent hope and prayer that our Church can recover its vision for ministry in higher education. And that begins with you and me. May God bless our efforts!

© 2009 Tom Cheatham


I’ll be taking a break for at least the next two weeks.

Thanks for reading.