Sunday, January 14, 2018

Dreaming God's Dream, Part III: Reclaiming the Dream—Baptismal Renewal

Did you know that God was a passionate dreamer too?  Here’s a good synopsis of God’s dream:

The aim of God in human history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at the very center of the community as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant—see Ephesians 2:19-22; 3:10.[1]

While God’s dream of walking with humanity dates all the way back to the creation stories of Genesis 1–2, and continues all the way to the new heaven and new Earth described in Revelation 21, the incarnation marks a specific manifestation that dream.  God has always wanted to be with God’s people.  Previous attempts have fallen short of what God dreamed of achieving, so God takes a dramatic step.  Through the birth of Jesus, God literally becomes one of us. God, the Author, becomes part of the Story. And God does so in a most unexpected way: as a helpless baby born in a manger.   The Creator experiences what it is like to be one of the created and is fully dependent on humans for his upbringing.  Through this experience, God gains full solidarity with humanity—and with all of creation. 

Jesus continues the dream of his Father.  He dreamed of a world where God was King, where what God desires becomes reality.  He dreamed of a world “put to rights”, one where original glory of creation is restored.  Such a world didn’t exist when Jesus lived, but he had a vision of what could be that motivated everything he said and did while he was alive.  Jesus inspired others to dream with him; they followed him and shared his dream with others as they went.  Eventually God’s vision came into conflict with Rome’s vision of reality.  After all, if God is King, then that means Caesar isn’t.  And in that conflict, there was never much doubt who would "win".  Ultimately Jesus was willing to die on a cross so that God’s dream might live on.

Baptism became an outward symbol for someone to publicly acknowledge that they too dreamed God’s dream.  John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, and down through the centuries, those who follow Jesus have been baptized.       

The world doesn't like dreamers all that much; they inconvenience and threaten the comfortable status quo.  (Rulers and authorities tend to rely on that status quo remaining in place.)  Just as they did with Barnum and King, the world will challenge and question dreamers every chance they get.  And if you are audacious enough to claim you dream God's dream, the world will really rage against you, calling you names and doing whatever it takes to silence you.  (Ask any Prophet about that one—including Jesus himself.) 

We remember our baptism, and we are thankful.
We reaffirm God's dream at work within us.
Perhaps this is why, every year, typically during the second week of January, many Christians reaffirm our dream with a liturgy of baptismal renewal.   It is an acknowledgment that while we need not be re-baptized again each year, we do need frequent renewal to sustain our continuing—sometimes grueling—spiritual and physical journey.  We are invited to come to the fountain, and dip our thirsty selves in its refreshing waters, and remind ourselves of the dream that is already alive in us: the dream of God’s Kingdom coming on Earth as it is in heaven.  

So we come full-circle, returning to where this series of posts began.  I came up with a modified lyric to "A Million Dreams" that I thought summarizes well what we reaffirm or reclaim in baptismal renewal.  Maybe we could call it our Dreamer's Declaration...

They can say, they can say that we are crazy.
They can say, they can say we’ve lost our mind.
We don’t care, we don’t care if they say we're crazy.
Come and pray for a world we help design.

Cause every night and every day.
The Word of God shows us the Way.
The dream of God is keeping us awake.

We think of how this world will be.
When the vision becomes reality.
A million prayers is what its gonna take.
Each dreaming dreams of the world God’s gonna make.

[1] From the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Dream God's Dream, Part II: Sustaining the Dream—Doing the Work of Christmas

The thing about dreams is that they are fleeting—and unpredictable.  We wake up in the morning and wonder if that really happened—and if so, what does it mean?  Consider the case of Jacob’s dream at Bethel—see Genesis 28:10-22. If you recall the story, Jacob arrived at Bethel destitute, trying to escape his brother Esau’s wrath after Jacob essentially tricked him into giving away his birthright.  He has fled the wilderness with literally just the clothes on his back.  The text says that he had only a stone for a pillow.  That couldn’t have been the best conditions for REM sleep. Yet, during that sleepless night, Jacob has an ecstatic vision of angels ascending and descending a “ladder” from heaven, and experiences an epiphany that God had been with him all along—he just hadn’t realized it.  
Jacob at Bethel—Genesis 28:10-22

But despite his powerful vison, the next morning when Jacob wakes up, although he may have been changed by what happened that night, the world around him hasn’t changed appreciably.  And, as if to add insult to injury, his body now aches from sleeping on the cold ground all night. 

It has occurred to me that the Christmas and Advent season we’ve just finished can be a bit like Jacob’s dream at Bethel: a beautiful, but all too brief vision of a world that does not yet exist in full.  For about a month, we are flooded with images from Scripture of God’s realm connecting with our own, of things becoming on Earth like they already are in heaven.  The liturgy chosen during this season is meant to remind us not only that Christ came and was born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, but that Christ is also here in our world today, and that Christ will come again in the future to rule as King.  It’s like a dream come true!

We perpetuate the Christmas dream in our homes and churches as we adorn them with beautiful lights and decorations in December to brighten the darkest days of the year. But sooner or later, it is time to “wake up” and “get back to normalcy”. This week, Laurie and I have been taking down our Christmas decorations. Most of them are now put away in bins in the basement, where the cat will sleep upon them until the season comes ‘round again. Once the tree is gone, there is always a stark empty space where it has stood for nearly a month—and needles appearing until August to remind us.  The lights that twinkled so beautifully are now gone. Coming downstairs to the family room on the first few days after the decorations are removed is a harsh reentry to reality.  

As the literal glow of Christmas fades, we might experience solidarity with Jacob, as he woke up after having such a vivid dream to greet the same bleak landslcape that existed when he went to sleep the night before.  Jacob put up a stone altar in that place and worshipped God. How will we respond?

In his poem, “Now the Work of Christmas Begins”, African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, beautifully proposes an answer.  He says:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Inevitably, we come to that moment when we wake up and realize the Christmas season is over for another year.  With all the lights and adornment stripped away, cold, harsh reality sets in: as warm and wonderful as the past month has been for us, the world around us hasn’t changed a great deal since late November.  While Christmas doesn’t change the world, hopefully it changes us… and then we go forth to change the world.  External decorations fade but what is in our heart is eternal.  The dream of God (which Jesus often called the Kingdom of God) is within us, and our job is to do the “work of Christmas” in the places we go and the spaces we dwell, and to “infect” others we meet with our dream—as Barnum did with his wife Charity.  If we do that we will most certainly keep the Christmas dream alive throughout the year—and for the rest of our lives.

Next:  Reclaiming the Dream—Baptismal Renewal

Friday, January 12, 2018

Dreaming God's Dream, Part I: Proclaiming Your Dream—Which of the Million Dreams is Yours?

Have you ever had a dream?  I don’t just mean random neurons firing at night that you may or may not remember in the morning.  No, I mean something vivid that you passionately believe in, which currently doesn’t exist in the world, but you want to help come true.  Have you gone public with your vision? How did people react?  I have a hunch there are probably lots of unspoken dreams among us that never get shared, because we fear what others will think of us if we say them out loud.  I know that's true for me…  

This week, we celebrate the birth of one such dreamer.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a world where racism was eradicated.  He passionately pursued his dream, even giving his life for it.  He inspired others to dream the same dream and carry it on.  Today the dream has come true in part. We’ve come a long way since Dr. King went public with his famous "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963—but we are all too frequently reminded that racism still exists in our nation and our world.  Our own President just recently made remarks regarding the suitability of citizens of some countries to immigrate to the U.S. that certainly seemed to have racist overtures—not the first time he has made these kind of statements.  It’s up to dreamers like you and me to keep pursuing King's dream until its fullness is realized and no person is ever judged by the color of their skin, but solely by the content of their character.

Over the Holidays, my family saw the movie The Greatest Showman.  It tells the story of P. T. Barnum’s creation of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, and the lives of its star attractions.  While it has been rightly criticized for presenting a less than historically accurate picture of these events (ignoring racism and exploitation of the circus participants), I have to admit that it was still an entertaining film. The musical score draws you in.  We are still humming and singing the songs in our home.  

My personal favorite was “A Million Dreams”.  Like Dr. King, P. T. Barnum wanted to create the world of his dreams.  In his case, it was a magical world that would entertain the masses, and give them an escape from their normal grim day-to-day reality in New York City.  When he shared his dream publicly, however, family and friends scoffed at him.  What a silly dream to have, the critics said, calling it “humbug”, a “circus”—which ironically inspired the name that Barnum chose for his show. The dreamer was undeterred however; he simply went about trying to design the world of his vision.  

They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy.
They can say, they can say we've lost our minds.
I don't care, I don't care if they call us crazy.
Runaway to a world that we design

Every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake

I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it's gonna take
A million dreams for the world we're gonna make.

I teared up a bit when I heard this chorus the first time in the theater.  I don’t get emotional that often, although when I do it’s often music that does it.  I’ve learned to pay attention to that strange catch in my throat, and what God may be trying to say to me in those moments. 

I think this scene is evocative because it speaks to very human experience of dreaming.   We all dream—although I personally don’t tend to remember many of my dreams. Though they’ve certainly done lots of research, scientists aren’t sure why we dream.   Google reports that opinions about the meaning of dreams have varied and shifted through time and culture.  Today, many endorse the Freudian theory of dreams—that dreams reveal insight into hidden desires and emotions. Other prominent theories are that dreams assist in memory formation, problem solving, or are simply a product of random neurons firing.

So, in that general sense, everybody dreams.  But it seems the type of dream King and P.T. Barnum had was a special kind of dream that maybe not everybody experiences—or at least they don’t have the courage to say them out loud.  You might call it a vision of a world that does not yet exist.  The scene with "A Million Dreams" begins with young Barnum singing to young Charity (who later becomes his wife), but by the time the song gets to the second chorus, it is older Barnum that is singing.  That suggests to me that this is a recurring, life-consuming dream for Barnum.  Since he was a small child, he has been possessed by a compelling vision that propels him forward to do all he can to create the world of his dreams.  Charity, now grown up, joins in on the bridge of the song, and the final chorus, which says to me that this kind of dream is contagious—in a good way.  A passionate dream will draw others in to carry on the dream long after the original dreamer is gone.  Charity is “infected” just from being around Barnum; she now wants to be part of her husband’s dream too.

So bringing this back to where I began:  Do you have a dream today?  I think we all do, but some of us haven't figured out how to fully articulate ours yet—and I include myself on this list.  If you do know your dream, consider yourself fortunate.  Now go live it out...  

The next question is:  Have you gone public with your dream? If not, what do you think holds you back from either dreaming, or saying it out loud?  It's usually some type of fear of what others will think if we say what we are thinking or praying out loud.  Ask God to help you discern your dreams, get past your fears, and grant you courage to proclaim them to the world.  

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we subconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.Nelson Mandela

If you are looking for hints where to start tracking down your dreams, here are a few thoughts I've learned over the years from various sources and personal experience.

God's dream for you is usually found where your deepest desires and the world's great needs meet. 

The needs of the world are obvious—overwhelming even.  Just check the latest news, and you'll find plenty of needs to address.  

Figuring out your deepest desire and where God calls you to get involved to make a difference requires more discernment.  

This is where you have to get more personal. and askWhat makes you come alive? Stay with the question until you get an answer.  Pester God with your prayer. What gets you on the edge of your seat when you talk about it?  Follow that trail,  because that's usually where those somewhat elusive passionate dreams that people like Barnum, and King—and Jesus—had.  And what our world needs now, more than ever, is deep dreamers—people that are alert and oriented to how things really are in the world (which is sometimes not great, if we're honest) but who are undeterred by the current reality and able to see as if "through a mirror dimly" what the world has the potential of becoming.  God looks for people determined to do their utmost to use their God-given gifts to make a positive difference in this world.