The Construction of Utopias
One of the seductions that continues to bedevil Christian obedience is the construction of utopias, whether in fact or fantasy, ideal places where we can live the good and blessed and righteous life without inhibition or interference. The imagining and attempted construction of utopias is an old habit of our kind. Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches. It never comes to anything but grief. Meanwhile that place we actually are is dismissed or demeaned as inadequate for serious living to the glory of God. But utopia is literally “no-place.” We can only live our lives in actual place, not imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned places.
A favorite story of mine, one that has held me fast to my place several times, is of Gregory of Nyssa who lived in Cappadocia (a region in modern Turkey) in the fourth century. His older brother, a bishop, arranged for him to be appointed bishop of the small and obscure and unimportant town of Nyssa (a.d. 371) Gregory objected; he didn’t want to be stuck in such an out-of-the-way place. But his brother told him that he didn’t want Gregory to obtain distinction from his church but rather to confer distinction upon it. Gregory went to where he was placed and stayed there. His lifetime of work in that place, a backwater community, continues to be a major invigorating influence in the Christian church worldwide.
The Death of a Dream
A few years ago, I met Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales. It was sort of surreal hearing the voice of Bob the Tomato in nonanimated form, but Phil is as likable as the characters he created. Phil started out with loose change and a God-idea called Big Idea, Inc. The company sold more than fifty million videos and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, but it all ended with one lawsuit.
As Phil himself said, “Fourteen years’ worth of work flashed before my eyes — the characters, the songs, the impact, the letters from kids all over the world. It all flashed before my eyes, then it all vanished.” Big Idea declared bankruptcy, and the dream died a painful death.
That’s when Phil heard a sermon that saved his soul. If God gives you a dream, and the dream comes to life and God shows up in it, and then the dream dies, it may be that God wants to see what is more important to you — the dream or him.
The American Dream Today
The term “American Dream” was first used by James Truslow Adams in 1931 in his book The Epic of America. There he described it as “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.” But I’ve discovered that like many things in life, definitions change. A more current description of the American Dream is “an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity.”
I asked my blog readers for their own perspective on the term and got dozens of responses, such as this one from Kim Frey: Our grandparents probably viewed it as the ability to get out of poverty, to provide for loved ones, and to have a comfortable home, getting a strong basic education, having a good work ethic, and being content with what you have. . . . I think the idea of the American Dream has become much more materialistic in the past few decades . . . “Bigger, better, faster, and more” has defined it recently.
A Dream of Immanuel
When he was a young boy, twelfth-century church leader Bernard of Clairvaux fell asleep outside a church while waiting to go in for a Christmas Eve service. In his sleep he had a dream, a kind of vision, in which he saw very clearly and distinctly how the Son of God, having espoused human nature, became a little child in his mother’s womb. In that act he came to see how God’s heavenly majesty was mingled with sweet humility.
This vision so filled young Bernard’s heart with comfort and jubilation that throughout his life he kept a vivid memory of it. What was it that filled his heart with joy? It was nothing other than the fact that God chose to be with us: Immanuel. Out of love Jesus was conceived, and out of love he chose to die. There is something in us that God finds lovable. It is certainly not our sanctity, nor is it our fidelity. When I look at my own baseness, my incredible ability to sin at a moment’s notice, I wonder what God sees in me.
Fathers and Faith
In his book The Case for Grace, pastor and author Lee Strobel describes a dream he had as a child after having a significant argument with his father. Strobel does what most of us would do at that age: resolve to work harder, perform better, and get into his father’s good “graces.” The dream that followed demonstrates, even at an early age, that grace would inevitably seep into Strobel’s life, and that the performance treadmill he had learned as a child would never get him where we wanted to be:
One evening when I was about twelve, my father and I clashed over something. I walked away feeling shame and guilt, and I went to bed vowing to try to behave better, to be more obedient, to somehow make myself more acceptable to my dad. I can’t recall the details of what caused our conflict that evening, but what happened next is still vivid in my mind fifty years later.
I dreamed I was making myself a sandwich in the kitchen when a luminous angel suddenly appeared and started telling me about how wonderful and glorious heaven is. I listened for a while, then said matter-of-factly, “I’m going there” — meaning, of course, at the end of my life. The angel’s reply stunned me. “How do you know?” How do I know?
What kind of question is that? “Well, uh, I’ve tried to be a good kid,” I stammered. “I’ve tried to do what my parents say. I’ve tried to behave. I’ve been to church.” Said the angel, “That doesn’t matter.” Now I was staggered. How could it not matter — all my efforts to be compliant, to be dutiful, to live up to the demands of my parents and teachers. Panic rose in me.
Words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. The angel let me stew for a few moments. Then he said, “Someday you’ll understand.” Instantly, he was gone — and I woke up in a sweat. It’s the only dream I remember from my childhood. Periodically through the years it would come to mind, and yet I would always shake it off. It was just a dream.
Tell Them About the Dream Martin!
Most of us in the United States know the famous “I have a Dream” speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the Lincoln Memorial as part of the 1963 March on Washington. On a sweltering, humid day in the nation’s capital, some 250,000 people came to hear King speak on the cause of civil rights and the fight for equality and justice for African Americans. What most of us don’t know is that that the “dream” part of the speech almost never happened, in fact, should not have happened. It was not a part of the prepared remarks for that day, but inspiration came in the form of a gospel singer named Mahalia Jackson.
As King inched towards the climax of his speech, he seemed to hesitate, perhaps unsure of whether his prepared remarks were as inspiring as he had hoped. At that moment, the great civil rights leader heard a voice behind him. “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” Mahalia Jackson shouted. At that point, Clarence Jones, one of Dr. King’s advisors leaned over to the person next to him and said, “These people out there, they don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.”
The rest, as we now know, is history. Dr. King had been testing out this “dream” section of his speech at previous events, and when he took Mahalia Jackson’s advice, he put into words the longings of a generation to experience equality and justice for all. He described the power of the gospel to create reconciliation where there had previously been hostility and tension.
I love this little insight into one of the most important moments in American history, not because it lessens King’s impact and genius, but rather, enlarges it. It also speaks to the genius and boldness of Mahalia Jackson, willing, in one of the biggest moments of her life and Dr. King’s, to speak up with a great idea. How wonderful for King not to scoff or ignore her, but to listen, pause and realize that she was right, that now it was time to tell them about the dream.
Stuart Strachan Jr. source material https://www.vox.com/2016/1/18/10785882/martin-luther-king-dream-mahalia-jackson and other articles