To Dream or not to Dream
"Operator! Give me the number for 911!"
"Stupidity got us into this mess, and stupidity will get us out."
Two shining examples of the wit and wisdom of Homer J Simpson. At the risk of never again being taken seriously, I confess that The Simpsons is one of my all time favourite television programmes.
In one episode Homer and Marge accompany Lisa and Bart to an audition. Both children are unsuccessful, and as the family dejectedly makes its way home, Homer offers them the wisdom of his life experience: "Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: Never try."
As usual, recognisable human foibles are reflected in Homer's oafish approach to life. If we let ourselves have dreams, we open ourselves to pain and disappointment. To avoid pain, don't dream, don't hope, don't try.
Yet we know that Homer is wrong. We have to try. To eschew dreaming is to sentence ourselves to confinement within the walls of today's realities. We need to dream to nurture hope and sustain our striving for possibilities that transcend today.
And the Bible, with its overarching salvation, historical and eschatological themes, encourages God's people to dream. Prophetic images of the lion lying down with the lamb, Jesus' declaration that the kingdom of God is at hand, apocalyptic visions of an end to death, pain and mourning -- all invite us to understand and share God's dream for creation.
While death, pain and mourning meanwhile remain our lot, we therefore find ourselves with a dilemma: to dream or not to dream -- to accept the joy-sorrow package of cherishing dreams, or the safe grey sanctuary of denying them?
The dilemma is magnified for some by a conviction that God characteristically requires his people to sacrifice their hearts' deepest desires. A Homer-like articulation of this philosophy might go something like this, "Have your dreams, but never talk about them out loud. If you do, God will hear you and make you give them up." This unfortunate attribute of God as dream-stealer corresponds to his other role as nightmare-fulfiller: "Never ask God not to send you to a place you don't want to go. If you do, that's exactly where he'll send you."
We might joke about it, but I have a feeling that many of us do actually expect our deepest desires to be treated this way by God. I want to say clearly -- I believe that God is neither dream-stealer, nor nightmare-fulfiller! At the same time, God is not guaranteed dream-fulfiller or nightmare-preventer either. All of these are distorted and inadequate understandings of God.
hat can we say positively about God's relationship to us and our dreams and desires? If God is a dreamer who invites us to share his dreams for creation, does that leave room for our own dreaming? Absolutely! As people made in the image of God, we cannot be fully human without hopes and dreams.
Does that mean we must accept the pain of broken dreams, rather than following Homer's strategy of avoidance? I'm afraid so. And it occurs to me that this is another way in which we share God's own experience. Scripture alludes to the distress that God feels as his hopes and longings for this world are shattered.1
What can we learn from the way in which God handles repeated disappointment? To indulge an irreverent scenario for a moment, I can hardly imagine God saying to Jesus as he faced rejection and the cross, "Well Son, you did your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try."
God chooses rather to endure the grief and loss of disappointed hopes, and then to pursue the 'big picture' dream in resurrected form. This is a motif that connects the biblical narrative from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane and beyond, encompassing along the way major episodes such as the Flood, the Wilderness sojourn, the days of the Judges, the days of the Kings, and the Exile.
I have a conviction that every dream that forms in our hearts in some way contains fragments of God's own dream. Yet we are limited in our capacity to sift out those fragments from our dreams as a whole. We have no choice but to hold onto our dreams as they are. The challenge is to hold them lightly, trusting that God sees a bigger picture than we do and has purposes only of love.
There is an invitation to do what is very hard for us to do -- to hold on and at the same time be willing to let go! Not because God is inherently a dream-stealer, but because aspects of our dream may not fit with God's great dream, and because even God must dream with openness to the pain of disappointment.
o ground these reflections, let me finish with three observations about what happens in practice when people face a 'letting go' of cherished dreams.
The first is that a dream we surrender may in fact end up being fulfilled, in God's time and God's way. John's Gospel tells us that when Lazarus fell sick, his sisters Mary and Martha thought immediately of their friend Jesus and sent word to him, hoping that he would come speedily and heal their brother. Jesus did not come, Lazarus died, and his sisters' hopes died with him. "If you had been here Lord, our brother would not have died."
In his own time Jesus did come. He wept with them in their grief and loss. Then he fulfilled their hopes by raising Lazarus. There was a big picture that Mary and Martha could not have seen: "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory."2
Sometimes that's how it is. We face the death of a dream, for whatever reason. We let it go. We do not understand. We grieve. And then miraculously there is a resurrection.
I think of a friend who had a life dream of missionary service and spent three years in training, only to be blocked from going to the field by health problems. Just when he had begun to accept the reality of this loss, the way opened, and his service there continues. God is mysterious and sovereign.
The second kind of experience that comes to mind is the letting go of a dream that is not resurrected, but unexpectedly exchanged for another. King David lived in a beautiful palace built of the finest cedar wood, and it troubled him that the ark of God's covenant was housed in a simple tent. He dreamed of building a temple, a house for God that would bring glory to him. God's answer was no.
Yet God gave back to David an even bigger vision. "You are not going to build me a house," said God, "your son will. But I am going to build you a house - I am going to establish your household, your family line, to be kings on the throne of Judah for ever!" David had to surrender his own dream, but in exchange God gave back to him something beyond his dreams.
I remember someone much wiser than Homer Simpson saying many years ago, "The good may often be the enemy of the best." For us, the dream we have seems the best, and to surrender it is painful. This perspective invites us to hold our dreams lightly in the knowledge that they may merely be good, rather than best, as seen from the perspective of God's love.
Finally, I find that there are times when a dream that dies is neither resurrected, nor exchanged for another. It appears simply to die -- a seed that falls into the ground but bears no visible fruit. There were places Paul longed to go and preach the gospel, but his life ended before he could reach them. In Romans he writes of the "great sorrow and unceasing anguish" of his heart because his dream that his own people might know Jesus as their Messiah remained largely unfulfilled.3
I think of a fellow student during my time at Bible College who was alive only because of a marvellous experience of healing some years earlier. After her studies she moved on to a strategic role in ministry. Within three years, however, her illness returned and this time there was no healing. Her emerging ministry was cut short, her family was bereft.
Around the same time another graduate of Bible College, a highly gifted young African, returned to an expectant church in his home country, only to be tragically killed in a motorbike accident. Miscarried dreams. Impenetrable mystery.
o dream or not to dream? Experiences like those in the last category may cause us to doubt the worth of dreaming, even when our dreams are of doing great things for God. My conviction is rather that we must continue to dream. For in as much as our hopes and longings are partial reflections of God's own dream, even their surrender releases a seed that in time -- maybe not our time -- must bear fruit.
"God give us strength. Strength to hold on, and strength to let go. Amen."4
1. For example Genesis 6:6; 1 Samuel 11:15, 35; Isaiah 5:1-7; Ezekiel 6:9; Hosea 11:1-4; Luke 13:34.
2. John 11:4, 21.
3. Romans 9:1-5.
4. Michael Leunig, Common Prayer Collection (North Blackburn: CollinsDove, 1993).
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