And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28-29)
Well, I know that much of the time these days I certainly feel like an old man. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that God might speak to me through a dream or two. Seriously, it has happened to me before, even back when I was indubitably a young man (in my twenties), though I will admit that it doesn’t happen often.
Usually I can tell when a dream seems to be God trying to get something through my thick skull rather than the effect of a stressed subconscious (or an overindulgence of pizza). There are two keys:
- I actually remember the whole dream when I wake up. For the most part, when I become conscious I forget what I was dreaming except for a snippet or two (the same with nightmares, and thank Heaven for that). It’s rare that I’ll recall upon awakening what I’ve dreamt, so when I do, I pay attention.
- Upon regaining consciousness, I immediately realize what the dream was supposed to convey. Often it takes the form of a passage from the Bible; sometimes it’s just a clear statement in my head.
Why am I bringing all this up? You guessed it — because of a dream I had Friday morning.
In my dream, I was pushing myself into this large crack in a rock, leading to a hollow in it. I don’t know why I was doing this, other than I felt it was where I was supposed to be. The rock’s color and texture was very distinctive — a sort of phosphorescent yellow shading to orange in spots, kind of like the rocks in the movie Wall-E. The crack was barely wide enough for me to fit through while prone, and the hollow in the rock had only enough room for me to spread out in while lying on my stomach; you could never have gotten a second adult in there. I could see through the crack to the sunshine outside, but the rock itself seemed to glow like it was lit inside with electric light. I felt very claustrophobic in there, and was beginning to get panicky, wondering if I could get back out again. (I’m feeling that panic rising again even as I type this; it was a very visceral experience.) From the inside, the crack didn’t seem big enough to get my head back through, let alone my body.
At the same time, though, I knew I was in a dream — and in fact, seemed to recall that I’d had this dream dozens of times before. (I’m not sure if I have — recall that I don’t usually remember my dreams.) I know that sounds awfully meta, but you’ll have to take my word for it.
So I’m inside this rock, feeling trapped and starting to freak out, looking through that fissure to the sunlight outside and wondering how (if?) I was going to get out of there. And suddenly this feeling of purposeful anger welled up in me, as if to say, “you don’t have to be in this rock, you don’t need to put up with this.” I then saw the rock from the outside as I burst through the top of it in a sort of Iron Man/Mr. Incredible-type move — standing up through the solid stone, spraying chunks of it everywhere, flexing muscles I don’t have and creating my own exit.
The second I did that, the rock disappeared and I was standing in the middle of a field, a fenced field like a grazing pasture but with the fences mostly far away. I had my arms raised in the air, not flexing them in triumph but canted toward the sky as if in worship. The sky was mostly dark, though I could still see clearly, and full of thunderclouds from horizon to horizon. As I stood there, the first raindrops began to fall …
… and that’s when I woke up. It took me a few minutes to sort myself out — that claustrophobic feeling kept coming back, and I had to repeatedly drive it off with the memory of me going Tony Stark on that rock. By the time I got my head settled, I was sitting up in bed. And the meaning of it hit me as clearly as a ray of sunshine.
For over a decade — and especially for the last three years or so — I’ve been trying to figure out my place in the church, with little success. There is no shortage of people in the church who are willing to tell you what they think your place should be, or what you should be doing with yourself in regard to it. (Often the place is below them, and the activity is supporting theirs.) Very little of it has rung true. On Wednesday and Thursday, I’d had separate experiences with people from two different congregations where I’d felt pressured to conform to their expectations for me, regardless of where God might be calling me. (As a side note, neither were affiliated with God’s Throne Baptist, a visit to which I wrote about earlier today. I’m leaving out the names of both those who pressed me and the congregations with which they work, though, for obvious reasons.)
Those two events were not notable in my experience; I could chronicle dozens, perhaps hundreds of times that has happened to me in 21-plus years in Christ. But it rarely helps me to discover what God wants me to do. And since He’s the judge of all the earth, who has redeemed me from an eternal death sentence and made me His possession … well, then His is the only vote that counts. However, that fact never seems to stop people from creating new molds (or hauling out old ones) for me to be re-cast in.
In that light, what the Holy Spirit seemed to be saying to me was, “I haven’t called you to conform yourself to their plans for you. I haven’t called you to squeeze yourself between whatever rock and hard place they’ve set up, whether they intended to or not. It is for freedom that Christ has set you free, child! Your Father has made you to live in green pastures; to see by the natural light of His sun, not the glowing fakery of man’s creations; to spread your arms into the open sky, not be cramped in the tiny spaces of human systems. To freely send your worship up, and to experience what I send down, like abundant rain upon the crops in spring. I’ve called you to far better things than those controlling folks with their closed minds can ever imagine — but you need to break out of that mold to experience them.”
Whether I’d realized it or not — and I guess I hadn’t, not fully — this “professional outsider” was still trying to find a space to fit in on the inside of the hyper-organized, super-stratified, by-nature-restrictive system of American institutional Christianity. It wasn’t working for me ten years ago, and it hasn’t been working recently either. But I’d always held out hope that someday, somewhere, I’d find a prefab slot that I could comfortably plug into for life. Now I see what God has been trying to tell me, maybe for my whole life: it’s not gonna happen, so don’t expect it will.
I won’t be abandoning the faith — I’m like Peter in John 6, recognizing the difficulty in following Jesus, but still saying, “Where else could we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.” I won’t be condemning those still able to find places within the traditional congregational system — they are my family and I love them, even though my place in His body is a little different. I won’t “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” talked about in Hebrews, though my method of obeying that command of Scripture may seem strange to many. And occasionally I’ll be dropping in on a formal meeting at a church building, albeit without the expectation of “settling down” there. But my days as a passive parishioner of parochial prerogative are O-V-E-R over. It has become clear to me that it’s not where God wants me to be. And like the disciples before the Sanhedrin, I must obey God rather than man.
Because Jesus is my Lord. I have to follow Him wherever I believe He’s taking me, no matter how strange it seems to me, no matter how strange it seems to anyone else. And if that offends you … well, that offends you. But as Martin Luther said to the institutions of the church in his day, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” And my conscience convicts me that I’m not supposed to be in institutional Christianity anymore.
So, it’s been real, but … I gotta go.
... so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:12-14)