Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. –Sigmund Freud
I guess Freud would have had a thing or two to say to Nebuchadnezzar’s advisers.
During John Prince’s message from Daniel 2:1-11 on Sunday, I was struck by the means God used to goad John into returning to school to pursue a ministry degree. I, too, found my way to Bible College by way of dreams.
Key to my own story was the fact that, subsequent to my first stint in college, I was very much (and often) on record as categorically averring that I would sooner shoot myself in the head than to return to school. This assertion was just as often followed up by the observation, “And I mean that quite literally.”
I had plenty of opportunity to make that assertion, too, as ten years elapsed while God not so gently put the goad to my flanks. And over that decade I was often assailed in my dreams with variations of “Oh, my God! I’m going to fail!” panic.
One recurring variation was that I had somehow snuck out of college with a degree while actually being two credits short of graduation. Most of the time, the dream found me on my third or fourth attempt to pass an English Lit class with Professor Vaughn that I had somehow or other just forgotten to attend in previous years. Soon I would be found out as a fraud, and have my degree revoked.
Another was waking up on the morning of finals only to discover that I hadn’t been to class for six weeks and had no hope of passing the exam.
Yet another, of course, was the typical wandering-across-campus-without-pants-on scenario, and only discovering the fact when arriving at class. The abecedarian has no clothes, as it were.
I abhorred school, and terror pursued me into the night long after I had closed my eyes in slumber.
By the time I was 30 years old, I had been active in community theatre for several years, acting, directing, and producing. One late-winter day, Melanie Calderwood invited me to participate in a Good Friday service at her church, where they were staging a drama as part of the program. I trusted Melanie’s judgment implicitly (for good reason), so I accepted instantly. Only later did I find out I’d accepted the starring role as St. Peter… in his decidedly pre-sainthood days. The setting of the play was the night of Jesus’ crucifixion as Peter is suicidally wracked by guilt and failure. While I held it together during rehearsals, the performance nearly wrecked me emotionally. There is method, and there is madness. I sobbed uncontrollably backstage after the performance, and was wrung out for days afterward.
The experience did, however, completely revolutionize my thinking about the power of the dramatic arts in connection with discipleship. I decided on a new course in ministry.
This had a funny effect on my dreams. Soon after I responded to my calling, I again had a classic school-anxiety dream. It started familiarly, with me sitting at my desk cramming for a final I knew I would fail, threatening to expose me as a charlatan.
But then there was a knock on my door. The dream changed. I even thought, in the dream, “Well, that’s different.” I arose and went to the door.
Two gentlemen stood there, and if Men in Black had been released yet I would have said that they looked like the boys from MiB. Instead, I thought they looked like a cross between LDS missionaries and The Blues Brothers. “May I help you?” I asked.
“We represent your supporters,” the more talkative of the two replied. Instantly, I knew who this meant. God, and his buddies. “Oh, crap!” thought I.
“It is our job to monitor your progress, and it has come to our attention,” the wordsmith continued, “that you are in danger of failing your exams.” The abruptness of his statement communicated plenty. There are consequences, said the silence.
“Oh, I can explain,” I immediately said, while my dreaming mind thought, “What am I talking about?”
My dream-self filled in the blanks: “I have recently committed myself to drama ministry. So I haven’t been to class because I am instead pursing my calling.” My dreaming mind was caught completely offguard. “Isn’t that interesting?” I mused. “I didn’t know real life could interfere with dreams.”
The Buzzcuts in Blue were caught offguard as well. They retreated to a safe distance to confer. After they appeared to consult with some unseen presence for a moment, they returned.
“Your supporters want you to know that they are fully behind this decision. You needn’t bother yourself with exams.” And the gentlemen walked out of my dream. Never to return. That was pretty much the end of school-anxiety dreams.
That didn’t stop my worst fears, however, from running afoul of my calling as I worked deeper into drama ministry. The two words there–drama, and ministry–carried with them something of an assertion of expertise: training in drama, and training in ministry. If I didn’t want to be a fraud–if I wanted to be a fully-clad thespian, to again employ the allusion–I needed to address issues of training and preparation.
Clearly, I was going to have to make a choice. I was either going to have to get serious about drama training, or ministry training. I couldn’t do both at the same time, especially not while also continuing my day job. But of what use would the drama degree be if I didn’t know what I was doing in ministry? When a representative from Puget Sound Christian College visited the church to talk about an adult-oriented degree completion program that met just one night a week, seeds of a plan were planted in my fertile but resistant brain. I gritted my teeth. Hadn’t my dream confirmed that more schooling was unnecessary? I chafed at the thought, and “kicked at the goads,” to borrow the words that Jesus used with Saul on the road to Damascus.
Not long after, on a March night in 1994, Dave Stark and I were discussing the nature of fear, and the nature of faith. “True love casts out fear,” the Apostle John wrote. But what kind of fears? was the crux of our debate. Just the small ones? Or the big ones, too? Dave and I discussed our fears, tiny and huge. I again volunteered that my biggest fear was returning to school, and again offered to shoot myself instead. Dave advised against it.
When all was said and done, I don’t think Dave necessarily agreed with me; but my own conclusion was this: God is love, and he didn’t send Jesus to die so that the Spirit could help us with small things. In pure love, he suffered so that the Spirit could remake us from the ground up–transform us by the renewing of our minds. And that meant Big Things. Confronting and overcoming our greatest fears.
I will note that I came to this conclusion over a long period of discipleship. But come to it I did, and that night I also concluded that my path was clear: I was returning to school by enrolling in PSCC’s SAIL program, pursuing a degree in ministry.
Not only did I not shoot myself (thank you, Dave, for the sage advice), I had the most remarkable dream that night.
I was once gain enrolled in college. For the first time ever, though, my dream registrar had matriculated me at some lush east-coast brick-and-ivy league school. Instead of living in a dorm, I lived in a country boarding house on an actual working farm, and ate meals at the table with Farmer John himself. His lovely daughter served the meals.
The walk to school was leisurely and lovely, down country lanes lined with stately trees glowing in the morning light. Pastures segregated by stone walls undulated over the hills. Goats and cattle quietly grazed.
The campus itself was on the outskirts of a small, sleepy, provincial town–probably somewhere near Gettysburg or the like. The student body numbered in the mere hundreds, and were all industrious and relentlessly pleasant. Learning was a joy for all.
At the end of my idyllic days, I returned languidly home at the golden hour down the same country lanes. The scene was so bucolic that goats floated over the pastures, bleating contentedly.
Yes, you read that right. The goats floated over the pastures.
And then I would return the Pfieffer boarding house for a sumptuous home-cooked dinner served by the farmer’s daughter.
Yes, that Michelle.
Did I mention this was an exceedingly pleasant dream?
Needless to say, I took this dream as a divine affirmation. Any choice that literally transforms your nightmares into dreams, especially a choice made in the service of God, can’t be far wrong.
The next three years were equally transformative, as I completed degrees in Bible and ministry, retired from my first career in engineering, served and trained an incredible team of thespians, and grew spiritually by leaps and bounds. (I was also blessed to work in ministry with my best friend, and we became engaged. Jenn and I married in 1999; but that is three for four different stories.)
The interpretation of dreams is a dicey proposition. Knowing what someone else’s dream is before you’ve even heard it, as Daniel did, is even more spectacular!
But we needn’t be afraid of the miraculous, or the divine. The Old Testament speaks prophetically of the gift of dreams, and the Apostles affirmed those prophecies. But do tread cautiously while in dreamland. Discernment and the counsel of the Wise are required.
Keep your eyes peeled for Michelle Pfieffer. And remember: sometimes a floating goat is just a floating goat.