Wednesday, August 23, 2006

God in Our Dreams?

Over the weekend, I had a discussion about dreams with a few of my family members. We giggled about the embarrassing ones; we marveled at the magical ones; we shuddered at the scary ones. For the most part, however, we talked about the sheer absurdity of them. We also agreed that one of the most amazing aspects of the dream world was how "real" it feels, especially when the dream triggers authentic emotion responses such as fear, joy and sorrow. Emotions, however, can only go so far; people still don't often grant dreams significant authority as communicators of meaning or truth. In fact, many people enjoy dreams precisely because they are so mysterious and illogical. Dreams can be brief little blips of magic to interrupt the boringness of the woken world. They are not often thought of as a way to experience reality, but a means to escape it.

It's common for people shrug off dreams as fascinating but ultimately insignificant. Sure, the mystics and dream analysis enthusiasts fiddle around with their interpretations and theories, but messages of real truth and meaning? People generally assume you have to be conscious to receive those. Christians, too, can have a pretty casual attitude towards the spiritual significance of dreams, despite the fact that the Bible is filled with stories of them serving an enlightening or prophetic purpose. Jacob's moon-lit ladder to the sky, Joseph's bowing cornstalks, Pharaoh's carnivorous cows---dreams are vital parts of these biblical stories, bridging the gap between humanity and holiness.

Biblical dreams and visions often contain messages that, if communicated otherwise, might have gone unheeded. A classic example is the role of dreams in the story of Christ's birth; both Mary and Joseph's communicate with the angel Gabriel by way of a dream or vision, which are catalysts for their eventual journey to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph's willingness to obey their dreams demonstrate the authority ascribed to the medium. People didn't just think of dreams as a meaningless fluttering of thought and imagination. When biblical figures have a dream or a vision, they pay attention; they listen and, if they are faithful, they humbly obey.

Christians who want dismiss dreams as a spiritual device "of the past" need only to read stories about today's Persecuted Church to see that, for many believers, they are very much present. While researching for an upcoming newsletter article on Christians in Ethiopia, I've found numerous conversion testimonies that hinge on a dream experience. An April 2006 newsletter article about East Africa states that "in Islamic areas, it is not uncommon for God to get people's attention through dreams." The article then describes the dreams that Hajj Mohammed, an Ethiopian believer, to Christ. His dream consisted of two parts. One was Jesus "show[ing] his love for Mohammed" and the other was God "revea[ling] the reality of his judgment." After these apparitions, Mohammed stopped his plan to kill a Christian evangelist and gave his life to Christ, similar to the way that Paul's anti-Christian mission was halted after a holy vision on the road to Damascus.

Although I have certainly had many memorable, vivid and even spiritual dreams, I have to admit that I've never exactly had one that I would aptly classify as a "religious experience"---at least, not in the sense that it contained a concrete religious message. When comparing my experience to that of believers in Ethiopia, I can't help but think that this might be connected to the differences in our spiritual environments. One major (and obvious) difference is that I live, and have always lived, in a Christian home and a non-restricted country. Now, I'm not saying that it is impossible for dreams to have a major role in the faith life of non-persecuted Christians; I've known people that profess to "hearing" God's message or call through dreams and visions. I am, however, supporting the idea that God might uses dreams differently in areas of Christian persecution than he does in other areas. I think that they He could more frequently use them as a direct spiritual medium, and with good reason. For one, dreams are viewed as extremely important and religiously meaningful in the religion of Islam. Thus, believers might be more "open" to them and more willing to obey their call for conversion. Dreams are also a wholly private, undetectable mode of communication. They allow God to make a kind of holy "whisper" in a non-believer's ear that has the spiritual impact of a heavenly roar. Thus, dreams like Mohammed's are a simultaneously terrifying and comforting message from God, but they are always powerful.

So how do Christians who don't quite consider dreams as part of their faith life begin to understand the role of them within the Persecuted Church? Do see them as yet another example of how the "typical" religious experiences of Western or non-persecuted believers differs from those belonging to the "culture" of Christian persecution? Or maybe we just acknowledge them as a possible medium for God's truth and word-meaningful, yes, but not necessarily in our personal spiritual walk.

I think it's alright to have so many questions about reconciling dreams with the Christian faith. In fact, I think it's very appropriate. Dreams are, by nature, baffling and mysterious. So why shouldn't we have questions and hold different beliefs? It's inevitable. No matter what your beliefs are, however, I think that its important to acknowledge dreams as, at the very least, potential mediums for God's message. Even converts who have never seen a vision or believers who have never "heard" God speak to them in a dream try not to dismiss the stories because they seem too "mysterious" or "weird." Sure, skepticism has its place, but trying to restrict God's behavior according to what's "typical" is a dangerous move. Gods ways are not are own. Not all dreams are necessarily from God, but every part of our lives belongs to Him, and so has the potential to be used by Him.

Dreams are evidence that God does not always operate according to our own expectations and conventions. In a way, the "strangeness" is one of the most comforting things about dreams. After all, isn't it amazing to think that God has the potential to startle even our sleeping mind with his message of grace and salvation? Don't stories such as Mohammed's prove that God is ever-present? Dreams can be powerful reminders that God is in eternal control, working even the seemingly nonsensical and often mystifying reality of our dreams toward his glory and will. So, as in many parts of our life, maybe all God requires us to do is to be still, pay attention and leave ourselves open to Him.

1 comment:

Glenn Penner said...

Thanks for taking on a challenging and potentially controversial subject but one that needs to be addresses when taking about people coming to Christ in restricted nations