A Community of nuns was shrinking in numbers. They were growing older together; younger women were not coming forward to join them. They were really just waiting for the inevitable demise. And then they elected a new Mother Superior, and before long, visitors started to come regularly, young women came as Enquirers and some entered the Novitiate and soon the Convent was burgeoning with vitality. As numbers swelled, the singing in choir took on new life, the elderly nuns became full of new zest and hope and the whole Community experienced a resurrection.
One of the regular visitors who had watched this sudden quickening and was intrigued, said to the Mother Superior, ‘How do you account for this amazing turn around, the sudden blossoming of what was really a dying community?’ And the Mother Superior replied quietly, ‘I just dreamed of what could be’.
All new movements and ventures begin with a dream of what could be –
Livingstone dreamed of finding the source of the Nile; Scott of being the first to reach the South Pole;
As children we probably had all manner of dreams of what could be when we were ‘grown up’ – and that dreaming was important. Often our dreams, in sleep or daydreams, put us in touch with our deepest desires. As we grew up they began to point the direction our lives might take. For some, there may have been dreams of a future where they would experience the love they sadly lacked in their present life; for others their dreams might have been of daring and adventure that would stretch their courage and take them well out of their comfort zones; others may have dreamt of excelling as high achievers in everything they attempted; others may have dreamed of peace and trust which sustained them in the neglect, abuse or violence of a barely tolerable home life. All dreams of longing.
Billy Elliott cherished a dream which seemed utterly improbable – but his dream led him to forge ahead with it against the pressure of unsympathetic parents, until the dream became a reality.
Dreams of longing, whether asleep or awake, are often a yearning for something which, for us seem improbable, yet we hope one day to see fulfilled. And the difference between dreaming prayer and mere wishful thinking is that the latter, wishful thinking, can be a form of escapism from reality, a dead end; whereas dreaming prayer has a life of its own and can grow and grow in us till eventually it is the end – the reality. It springs from a sanctified imagination; it becomes such an inner pressure that it ceases to be just dream and moves into the realm of possibilities and from possibilities to fulfilment. We begin to act on our dreams, or they on us. For in dreaming prayer we are listening to God’s desires, anticipating God’s activity in his world, more aware of God’s purposes. Dreaming his dreams after him. It is another fragile grace – this dreaming prayer - for imagination by itself is not enough. It is not always a true guide. It has to be imagination inspired by God, as a sanctified instrument entrusted to us. Fragile but strong enough to withstand the winds of scepticism and mockery.
The most famous dreaming prayer of our time was of course that of Martin Luther King – a prophetic dreamer.
He didn’t just dream and preach about what could be, he did everything within his power to bring it to birth, to realise the possibilities he had glimpsed. He even gave his life for the ultimate fulfilment of his vision. He never lived to see Barack Obama standing before that vast sea of faces in January 2009 when he was sworn in as the first non-white President of the United States of America, but Jesse Jackson, a contemporary of MLK, who had shared his dream, stood watching the outcome of where it had led, with tears streaming down his face, as black and white rejoiced together..
‘I have a dream’, said MLK, ‘that one day - on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’
‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’
I have a dream today.
Just two extracts from what was a vast and daring dream – a seemingly impossible one so ingrained was the colour bar in the USA.
The next President of America may enter into the White House as the result of all manner of ambitious dreams - of reform, of backing by powerful people, of achievement accompanied by a smiling charisma, and ‘acceptable’ attitude to the Bible etc: but none will surpass the amazing and overwhelming way that what started as the dreaming prayer of one man, and for which so many in his wake spoke out, fought for its fulfilment and even died for it, reached its zenith, its point of breakthrough in that moment of the inauguration of Barack Obama.
What kind of dreaming have we done that maybe has led to action and change – albeit on a much smaller canvas?
Yet who can calculate how much God can do through our dreaming prayers, our longings, and our vision of what could be? How has our co-operation with the Spirit’s promptings in the grace of a sanctified imagination, created channels for change, for the breaking down of hostilities and prejudice in all manner of situations? Are there any areas in our life at present where we dream of what could be – ways which could further the Kingdom of God on earth? For dreaming prayer rubs off on us, we are not just passive pipelines, we ourselves can be changed. Think how some of the Biblical characters who recognised the importance of dreams were changed by them. Jacob at the brook Jabbok slept and saw a ladder with angels ascending and descending to the spot where he lay - and woke up a changed man. Others experienced life-changing effects of their dreaming – Joseph in the OT and Joseph in the NT, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra and Nehemiah, to name a few. And our Scripture reading today spoke of young men dreaming dreams and old men seeing visions.
I had an irrational dislike of my History Mistress at school and therefore had no interest in her subject. Then one night, in a dream, I saw her in a totally different way - as a kind, rather vulnerable, warm hearted and hospitable human being and overnight my whole attitude changed. I saw how horrible I had been. I was smitten with shame to think how unresponsive and difficult I must have been, for education, if it is to be education, only happens when there is a kind of flashpoint of communication between teacher and pupil, a mutuality of offering and response. I don’t know what she made of the sudden reversal in my
behaviour towards her – all I know is that the dream changed me...and I also won the History prize for that year!
Our profoundest example of one whose dreaming prayer became his all-absorbing passion is of course Jesus. He dreamed of the Kingdom of God and what could be if only people recognised that God was establishing his Kingship again, renewing his Covenant with his people; working hiddenly to bring heaven upon earth. He spoke of the Kingdom frequently, he described it through parables, and called to follow him those who had heard him share his dream, as he spoke to the crowds, and had felt it resonating with an inner longing of their own. Men and women who caught the vision, glimpsed its possibilities and consequently forsook their normal way of life to help him bring to birth this dream and make it a reality. Jesus’ desire was that the Kingdom of God which he was inaugurating would be marked by the fulfilment of OT prophecies of healing, forgiveness, freedom from oppression and celebration. He spent lonely nights in prayer absorbed, I am sure, at times, in his dreaming prayer – a dreaming that was implanted by God and shared with his followers who understood only in part...and the dream goes on for us to share. The kingdom is among us but there is a greater fulfilment yet to come. And of course, the Kingdom was quite literally Christ’s passion, for the fulfilment of his dreaming prayer was so subversive, it was bound to involve suffering and sacrifice as it had done for the Suffering Servant on whom he reflected so much.
Every time we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, we are entering a little more into the dreaming prayer of Christ.
In our silence we may like to think of others who, in following Jesus’ dreaming prayer of what could be, have changed the course of human history.
Dreaming prayer is never something we initiate or engineer. It is God who plants his dream within us which this poem of Charles Peguy describes so graphically. You can read it in full in your service books later if you wish. He wrote:
And the Lord said...
I myself dream a dream within you
Good dreams come from me you know,
So be content
It is my dream you dream
My house you build
My caring you witness
My love you share
So let’s dream on and pray with confidence