Do you consider yourself to be a dreamer? By dreamer here, I do not simply mean one who engages in the literal dreams of nighttime sleep. I also mean the figurative dreaming that some people seem to be particularly gifted to do. As I see it, a dreamer is a person with a particularly vivid imagination who pays attention the strange things that other people do not see; who considers possibilities that other people tend to overlook; and who generates ideas that other people often dismiss as unrealistic and untenable. A dreamer is a sort of visionary who glimpses reality with a lens far different than the one formed by a desire to perpetuate a comfortable status quo.
Based upon that definition, would you consider yourself to be a dreamer?
I don’t know if I am a dreamer any longer or not, but I think that I started out as one. In fact, I spent a good portion of my childhood dreaming up imaginary scenarios for myself in which to play. Many of those imaginary scenarios were based upon my favorite television shows. One day, I would pretend to be Matt Dillon, the heroic marshal from “Gunsmoke.” But just when I had my holster and cowboy hat in place, I would pause to read a comic book, and then I wouldn’t want to be a cowboy anymore. I’d want to be Batman. So I’d take off the holster and put on my Batman mask. But as soon as I fastened my utility belt, an episode of “Star Trek” would appear on the television, and then I wouldn’t want to be Batman any longer. I’d want to be captain James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise.
A good portion of my childhood was spent in this playful schizophrenia, moving quickly and effortlessly from one imaginative context to another, one character to another. It was in the midst of one of those imaginative contexts that I came to the dinner table one evening wearing a black vest and a plastic futuristic pistol at my side. My mother said to me, “Who are you supposed to be tonight?”
“Well,” I said, “if you must know, I’m Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon. It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” To which my mother responded with these exact words: “Eric, how in the world did you become such a dreamer?”
Children make for good dreamers. Children dream more imaginatively than anyone else. But, sadly, we tend to grow out of our capacity for imaginative dreaming as we age, don’t we? We allow ourselves to do that, I think, because we know very well that the world can be hard on adult dreamers. Adult dreamers are looked upon as impractical and irrelevant. Sometimes they are seen as a threat because they see things differently than other people. Sometimes we even go so far as to kill our adult dreamers because we want so desperately to be rid of them and their strange ideas.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a dreamer. He dreamed of a world of racial equality in which people would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. He was killed for that dream.
People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom were dreamers. During the Second World War, they dared to dream of a Germany that would stand against the evils perpetuated by the Nazi regime. Corrie Ten Boom was imprisoned in a concentration camp for her dream. Bonhoeffer was hanged for his.
In the Old Testament, Joseph was a dreamer. He was a young man who was prone to peculiar visions of an alternative but divinely preferred future into which his family and the people of Israel were moving. But his brothers hated him for his dreaming. They saw his dreaming an effort on Joseph’s part to claim dominion over them. And so, one day, the brothers ambushed Joseph, threw him into a pit, and then sold him to some travelers who took him as a slave into Egypt.
Joseph’s story reminds us that the human penchant for dismissing dreamers is nothing new. It was happening even in Old Testament times, even in the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even then, the world could be hard on dreamers. Even then, dreamers like Joseph often found themselves violently dismissed because people wanted so desperately to be rid of them and their strange and threatening ideas.
There was another dreamer. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. He dared to dream of a kingdom in which prostitutes were valued as much as the temple priests; a kingdom in which the face of God could be discerned in the faces of the poor, the broken, and the marginalized; a kingdom in which rebirth and transformation were doorways into the salvation of God. Where did that dream lead him? It led him to a rugged cross where he bled and died for the sake of the world.
Dreamers often have important things to say, things that other people will never dare to say. But the world can be painfully inhospitable to dreamers. Sometimes we even nail our adult dreamers to a cross because we want so desperately to remove them from the conversation.
I was once a part of a church that had a dreamer in it. Her name was Olivia, and she was notorious for her dreams and visions and her willingness to talk about them amidst a congregation that had grown impatient with her impracticality and her penchant for mystical metaphors. One day at a Bible study, Olivia spoke up. “I had a dream last night,” she said.
“OK, Olivia, tell us about your dream.” (That was what I SAID, but what I THOUGHT was this: “Olivia, we only have a half hour left in this Bible study, and we don’t have time to waste on your nonsensical dreams, which I’m sure have nothing at all to do with the subject matter of our study.”)
“Well,” she said, “in the dream, hundreds of children of all different colors were standing outside our church building, pounding on the doors to get inside. But inside the church, all of us were dancing to music that was so loud that we couldn’t hear the pounding. The children were pounding on the doors to get inside, and we weren’t listening to their cries.”
“When I woke up after the dream,” Olivia said, “my pillow was wet with tears.”
“OK, Olivia, thanks for that.” (Thinking to myself, “Can I please get back to my lesson plan now?”)
In my mind, you see, I had already dismissed Olivia. As quickly as Joseph’s brothers had dismissed him in the Old Testament, so did I dismiss Olivia because her dreams and visions were an inconvenience to me.
The very next day, two youth in the community committed suicide independently. One was 19 the other was 17. Both of them were alienated from their family, and neither one of them had a connection to a church. As soon as I heard the news, I thought about Olivia’s dream—a dream about children pounding on the doors of the church, crying to get inside and not being heard.
I thought to myself in that moment, “It’s time for me to listen to the dreamer more attentively, because she’s seeing the things of God.”