Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25
If I were to describe to you in one sentence someone whom you do not know, and simply told you, “he’s a real dreamer…,” I suspect you would have a rather dubious impression of this person. Or if I would tell about a plan that “someone had just dreamed up,” that would probably sound like a scheme or something quite naïve, but probably not a plan in which you would put much stock. We are prone to put stock in what has empirical validity: what we can quantify or dissect or anchor in “concrete reality.” But my hunch is that for most all of us, there is another level or a deeper way of knowing, a subconscious channel of meaning or leading that flows into our soul to which we at least sometimes pay attention and should attend to more: how God’s revelation comes to us (or, more importantly, how God’s revelation has come to you and is coming to you now, in this season of your life). I would say that this story of Joseph should catch our curiosity about the mystery and reality of God’s revelation. I’ll give you several snapshots from the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew
• We hear that Mary discovers she is pregnant… not by Joseph and not by another man… but by the Holy Spirit… which would seem a bit of a stretch. We know that what Mary tells Jesus is simply to repeat what had been said to her. By whom? An angel. (Let’s say if a young woman came to any of us here and told us a similar story about being touched by an angel, it would probably give us some pause. But Joseph, we hear, is a just and honorable man and though the Law gives him every reason to publicly denounce Mary’s rather obvious and disgraceful “fornication,” if for no other reason than to save his own good name, he elects to “dismiss Mary quietly.” (Something quite beautiful here about his respecting her dignity… even with this concocted story she is telling.) And then – here’s my point – something happens. Joseph dreams. He is told in his dream not to be afraid, not to leave Mary, that this is a good and blessed thing of God that actually has happened to Mary, and that they indeed should be married. That revelation came in a dream, and Joseph staked his life (and Mary’s life, and Jesus’ life) on a dream. [i]
• The next snapshot early in Matthew’s gospel concerns the wisemen, these astrologers who live “in the east.” Something compels them to be looking for this long-predicted Messiah. And how do they end up finding this Christ child, this Messiah? A star. They follow a star. (Do you follow stars? If someone asked you why you, say, bought a particular piece of real estate and you answered, “star.” “I followed a star.” Yikes. People would probably begin politely stepping away from you.) Back to the wisemen. They follow a star to the Christ child and bring their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And on leaving they are warned to return home by another way because King Herod is on the prowl. How are they warned? A dream, which they believe and follow. [ii] A star. Then a dream.
• Third snapshot. Once these wisemen leave, now Joseph is given a similar warning about King Herod, who is searching for this child to destroy him. Joseph is told to flee to Egypt for safety. “Go now!” And Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and they flee. How was Joseph warned? A dream, which he believed. [iii] He believes the dream.
• Fourth snapshot. This threatening King Herod dies. Joseph learns about it and is told that it is now safe to return to the land of Israel . Which he does. How is he told this? A dream, which he believes. [iv] He believes the dream.
• Fifth snapshot. Joseph and the family no sooner return home than Joseph learns that Herod’s son and successor, Archelaus, is an equal threat. Joseph is once again warned and he goes away with his family to the district of Galilee. How is he warned? In a dream, which he believes. [v]
If I were to ask you, “Do you believe your dreams?” This is what you would say. Here’s my hunch. First of all, many of you would say, “I don’t dream.” Now our friends, the neurologists, will actually tell us that we all do dream, and a fair amount… to which you would say, many of you, “Well, maybe so, but I don’t remember my dreams.” Point taken. Nonetheless, I would surmise that for most all of us, there are “subconscious” ways of knowing that we actually recognize and trust, ways of knowing that elude empirical explanation. There are ways of knowing that have informed how we have made significant decisions in life. I’m not saying that any one of us has never made a mistake in judgment; but I am saying that for most all of us here, there is a kind of “discernable guidance” that taps into the depths of our soul that is quite personal and quite trustworthy and which is a significant part of our life history. Dreams, visions, hunches, intuitions, coincidences, impressions that form a tapestry of for us. Maybe difficult to talk about, perhaps even embarrassing sometimes, but undeniable and very real.
I shared a conversation with someone in recent days who was facing a very significant decision in life. The stakes were quite high, they told me. And they didn’t know how they were going to be able to make the decision. And how should they be praying? How would they know what to do, they asked me? Well, I told them I didn’t know. But I was aware that this person had lived enough years to have had to make major decisions before. And, because of what I knew of their life, I knew that some of these decisions were undeniably good decisions. And so I asked them, “How did you know before?” When they had made a decision about getting married, about pursuing a particular vocation, about living in a particular place, how did they know what to do? What did they look for? Was there anything that these significant life experiences had in common in terms of the “tools of discernment” that they had used. Well, they had never before thought about “tools of discernment.” It wasn’t that formal or structured, they said. It wasn’t even that conscious. But there was something there, they recognized. And they began to reflect out loud, and for the first time, how it is they recognized God’s leading in their life. This was not “hard science.” But, they acknowledged, there was a deep knowing, and they knew the landscape and the signs, and they trusted it. For this person, the points of God’s guidance, these “tools for discernment,” were all in the categories of dreams, visions, hunches, intuitions, coincidences, impressions….
If we were to tabulate the Bible, the amount of the scriptural text given over to the report of dreams, and visions, and prophecies, and angelic visitations, and other indirect references to God’s mysterious and yet undeniable leading of people (like with the wisemen being guided by a star), we would find these phenomena comprise approximately one-third of the Bible. [vi] Dreams, and visions, and prophecies, and angelic visitations, and other indirect references to God’s mysterious and yet undeniable guidance: one-third of the Bible. These ways of knowing, recorded in the scriptures, are not insignificant. And yet I would say this is quite countercultural for most of us who live in the western world. I would say there may be a great gift for us here in re-appropriating God’s revelation to us now. I could call it an early Christmas gift. Several things come to mind.
For some of us, I think there is a real grace in our reclaiming what we may have unlearned. I suspect for many of us, somewhere along the way of our formation into adulthood, we tacitly embraced a kind of apotheosis of reason – what we can rationally quantify, compute, defend, explain, adjudicate, is always the way and always the best.. I think it is largely the way we “do our business” in the western world. (It’s not how artists function.) But I would say it is how we’ve been trained to navigate in life in the modern western world. I’m not “down” on the use of reason or “hard science.” That would be silly. I’m simply saying that it’s not enough. Life is deeper than that, which is something we knew innately as children. As children we have other ways of knowing that we adults are prone to discount as “imaginary worlds,” and yet to children, this is very real. I would say that what we witness in children is this God-given capacity to know, to see, to hear, to dream, to realize, to imagine, to play, to understand in ways that for most adults defy rational explanation but which reflect and inform the goings on of the deep heart and gives witness to a God-given capacity to know on many levels. I would say that for so many of us in western world, we have unlearned some deeper ways of knowing, seeing, hearing, dreaming. I recall a story told by t he eminent psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung, who centered most of his work on dreams. Jung spoke of a conversation he had with a chief of the Pueblo Indians named Ochwiah Biano. Jung asked the chief’s opinion of the white people and was told that it was not a very high one. White people, said Ochwiah Biano, seem always upset, always looking for something, with the result that their faces are covered with worry. He added that white people must be crazy because they think with their heads, and it is well known that only crazy people do that. Jung asked in surprise how the Indian thought, to which Ochwiah Biano replied that, naturally, he thought with his heart.
So that is one thing. To do some reflecting on how you have known, in the past. Stretch back to your childhood, if you can. In ways which may be beyond rational explanation, what has helped you get to this point in your life, given the navigations and decisions that you’ve had to make. Dreams, visions, hunches, intuitions, coincidences, impressions…. What are the tools of discernment implanted in the ground of your being on which you can more intentionally draw. (For some of you, it might actually be quite helpful to put a pad of paper beside your bed and be more attentive in the night’s sleep to what is being mirrored in your soul.)
A second thing that comes to mind in terms of our being more attentive to God’s revelation is to ground what you sense as God’s revelation in some other point of revelation you can trust. If the revelation is in the form of a dream, to ask God for another confirming dream. If the revelation is in a line of poetry or a passage of scripture that emerges out of our memory, does this have a kind of integrity/integration? Is there a sense of continuity in this with who you are or where you are or what you are, or where you thought we were headed… or is this “revelation” just coming out of left field? If it’s “left field,” then perhaps best to wait. Wait for a bridge to be built in your soul maybe in the form of another word or thought or memory that creates a kind of continuity with where you’ve been and where you are and where you thought you were headed. For some of us, we’ve learned how important it is to share our own sense of revelation with someone else whom we can trust. Self-deception is such a slippery slope. Not long ago I was sharing my own sense of a revelation from God with one of my brothers, who knows me well. He listened carefully. And then he said to me, “Well, that’s certainly convenient…” and he went on to remind me of why this couldn’t be so. Quite. Rather humbling; very helpful. Share your sense of revelation with someone who says their prayers, who knows you well, and whom you trust. There’s a wonderful phrase in the Book of Proverbs: “Iron sharpens iron and so one person sharpens the wits of another.” [vii] Look for a confirmation of God’s revelation.
Thirdly, take heart. If you find yourself praying for God’s guidance, God is guiding you already. The desire itself is a seed of revelation. God has caught your attention. In those moments, perhaps your prayer is not, “Where are you, God?” God is already there in the question or your sense of need. Perhaps your prayer would be, “What are you trying to show me, gracious God?” And you know how it is that you’ve come to know things in this life… which is no mystery to God who, as the psalmist says, has created your inmost parts and from whom nothing is hidden. [viii] The gift is not a package deal from God but a personal relationship with God.
And then, lastly, do what you want. Do what you most deeply want. God, who knows you and loves you, created you with a will. You are not a robot. You are not a clone. When it comes to the gift of God’s guidance, it’s not a “package deal”; it’s a personal gift that comes out of your own history. Get in touch with your deepest desires. Look for them to be confirmed. And then do what you want, to God’s glory. I often times will pray, when I’m moving in a particular direction, to ask for God to close a door or turn off the light or change something that I would clearly recognize… otherwise I move freely and desirously in this certain direction, and, I pray, to God’s glory. Do what you want. To use an “angelic metaphor,” I might call this “winging it” in God’s presence. And, if you were to ask me, will you always get it right, well I might not be the best person to ask, because I haven’t and I don’t. But I do desire it, as would you. To desire to be attentive and faithful to the myriad ways of God Emmanuel, God with us, directing us, impressing us, guiding us, alluring us, loving us into that place we see as our eternal home. On such matters Thomas Merton offered a comforting prayer which rings true to me, and I share with you:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” [ix]
What is God revealing to you now, in this season of your life? What’s your sense?
[i] Matthew 1:18-25.
[ii] Matthew 2:7-12.
[iii] Matthew 2:13-15.
[iv] Matthew 2:19-21.
[v] Matthew 2:22.
[vi] Paul Meier and Robert Wise in their book, Windows of the Soul; A Look at Dreams and Their Meanings..
[vii] Proverbs 27:17.
[viii] See Psalm 139.
[ix] Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude.
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