A Message from Alan B. Ward…

Keeping the Christmas Dream Alive

Have you ever had a dream? I don't just mean random neurons firing at night that you may or may not remember in the morning. No, I mean something vivid that you passionately believe in, which currently doesn't exist in the world, but you want to help come true. Have you gone public with your vision? How did people react? I have a hunch that there are probably lots of unspoken dreams among us that never get shared, because we fear what others will think of us if we say them out loud. I know that is true for me...

Over the Holidays, my family saw the movie The Greatest Showman. It tells the story of P. T. Barnum's creation of Barnum and Bailey's Circus, and the lives of its star attractions. While it has been rightly criticized for presenting a less than historically accurate picture of these events, it was still an entertaining film. The musical score was quite good. My favorite song was "A Million Dreams". I teared up a bit when I heard the chorus.

Every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it's gonna take
A million dreams for the world we're gonna make.

I don't get emotional that often, although when I do it's often music that does it. I've learned to pay attention to that strange catch in my throat, and what God may be trying to say to me in those moments.

I think this scene is evocative because it speaks to very human experience of dreaming. We all dream-although I personally don't tend to remember many of my dreams. Though they've certainly done lots of research, scientists aren't sure why we dream. Google reports that opinions about the meaning of dreams have varied and shifted through time and culture. Today, many endorse the Freudian theory of dreams-that dreams reveal insight into hidden desires and emotions. Other prominent theories are that dreams assist in memory formation, problem solving, or are simply a product of random neurons firing.

So, in that general sense, everybody dreams. But it seems the type of dream P.T. Barnum had was a special kind of dream that maybe not everybody experiences-or at least they don't have the courage to say them out loud. You might call it a vision of a world that does not yet exist. The scene begins with young Barnum singing, but by the time the song gets to the second chorus, it is older Barnum that is singing. That suggests to me that this is a recurring, life-consuming dream for Barnum. Since he was a small child, he has been possessed by a compelling vision that propels him forward to do all he can to create the world of his dreams. Barnum's wife Charity joins in on the bridge of the song, and final chorus, which says to me that this kind of dream is contagious-in a good way. A passionate dream will draw others in to carry on the dream long after the original dreamer is gone. Charity is "infected" just from being around Barnum; she now wants to be part of her husband's dream too.

P. T. Barnum wanted to create a magical world to entertain the masses, to give them an escape from their normal grim day-to-day reality in New York City. When he shared his dream publicly, however, family and friends scoffed at him. What a silly dream to have, the critics said, calling it "humbug", a "circus"-which ironically inspired the name that Barnum chose for his show. The dreamer was undeterred; he simply went about trying to design the world of his vision.

They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy.
They can say, they can say we've lost our minds.
I don't care, I don't care if they call us crazy.
Runaway to a world that we design

I have a dream! This week, we celebrate this week the birth of another passionate dreamer. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a vision of a world that did not exist, which he went public with when he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in 1963. His vision was of a world where racism was no more. King was not popular in some circles for going public with his ideas, but, like Barnum, he did not let his critics deter him. He passionately pursued making his dream a reality, ultimately giving his life for the cause, and inspiring others to carry on the dream. While we've certainly made substantial progress since 1963, even today we still struggle to see King's dream of people being judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, fully realized in our world.


Did you know that God was a passionate dreamer too? Here's a good synopsis of God's dream:

The aim of God in human history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at the very center of the community as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant-see Ephesians 2:19-22; 3:10.

While God's dream of walking with humanity dates all the way back to the creation stories of Genesis 1-2, and continues all the way to the new heaven and new Earth described in Revelation 21, the incarnation marks a specific manifestation that dream-let's call it the Christmas dream. God has always wanted to be with God's people. Previous attempts have fallen short of what God dreamed of achieving, so God takes a dramatic step. Through the birth of Jesus, God literally becomes one of us. God, the Author, becomes part of the Story. And God does so in a most unexpected way: as a helpless baby born in a manger. The Creator experiences what it is like to be one of the created and is fully dependent on humans for his upbringing. Through this experience, God gains full solidarity with humanity-and with all of creation.

The thing about dreams is that they are fleeting-and unpredictable. We wake up in the morning and wonder if that really happened-and if so, what does it mean? Consider the case of Jacob's dream at Bethel-see Genesis 28:10-22. If you recall the story, Jacob arrived at Bethel destitute, trying to escape his brother Esau's wrath after Jacob essentially tricked him into giving away his birthright. He has fled the wilderness with literally just the clothes on his back. The text says that he had only a stone for a pillow. That couldn't have been the best conditions for REM sleep. Yet, during that sleepless night, Jacob has an ecstatic vision of angels as-cending and descending a "ladder" from heaven, and experiences an epiphany that God had been with him all along-he just hadn't realized it.

But despite his powerful vison, the next morning when Jacob wakes up, although he may have been changed by what happened that night, the world around him hasn't changed appreciably. And, as if to add insult to injury, his body now aches from sleeping on the cold ground all night.

It has occurred to me that the Christmas and Advent season we've just finished can be a bit like Jacob's dream at Bethel: a beautiful, but all too brief vision of a world that does not yet exist in full. For about a month, we are flooded with images from Scripture of God's realm connecting with our own, of things becoming on Earth like they already are in heaven. The liturgy chosen during this season is meant to remind us not only that Christ came and was born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, but that Christ is also here in our world today, and that Christ will come again in the future to rule as King. It's like a dream come true!

We perpetuate the Christmas dream in our homes and churches as we adorn them with beautiful lights and decorations in December to brighten the darkest days of the year. But sooner or later, it is time to "wake up" and "get back to normalcy". Over the past few days, Laurie and I have been taking down the Christmas decorations. Most of them are now put away in bins in the basement, where the cat will sleep upon them until the season comes 'round again. Once the tree is gone, there is always a stark empty space where it has stood for nearly a month-and needles appearing until August to remind us. The lights that twinkled so beautifully are now gone. Coming downstairs to the family room on the first few days after the decorations are removed is a harsh reentry to reality.

As the literal glow of Christmas fades, we might experience solidarity with Jacob, as he woke up after having such a vivid dream to greet the same bleak landscape that existed when he went to sleep the night before. Jacob put up a stone altar in that place and worshipped God. How will we respond?

In his poem, "Now the Work of Christmas Begins", African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, beautifully proposes an answer. He says:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.

Inevitably, we come to that moment when we wake up to and realize the Christmas season is over for another year. With all the lights and adornment stripped away, cold, harsh reality sets in: as warm and wonderful as the past month has been for us, the world around us hasn't changed a great deal since late November. While Christmas doesn't change the world, hopefully it changes us... and then we go forth to change the world. External decorations fade but what is in the human heart is eternal. The dream of God (or the Kingdom of God) is within us, and our job is to do the "work of Christmas" in the places we go and the spaces we dwell. If we do that we will keep the Christmas dream alive throughout the year-and for the rest of our lives