Last week I had my 69th birthday and, as usual, I had some interesting dreams the night before. In fact, I have always been a dreamer: my wife can attest to the variety and hilarity of them and always tries to find their deeper meaning, just as Freud could undoubtedly analyze my parental conflicts and sexual repressions. I have passed on this gift of dreaming to my daughter and other family members. The night before my birthday I dreamed I was back in PNG (I am often there) and that I was at a particular meeting house and that a orientation video was being shown. Only instead of sitting down watching it, we were outside of a rectangular room looking through louvered glass windows. But I had to leave the meeting and return to our house, and in doing so I had no shoes on and was walking through thick mud (mud and bad roads often come into my dreams) and a deep clear river near our house made it impossible for me to continue. So I retraced my steps and found myself inside the house, helping to clean it because the previous occupants had left it a mess. And so it goes: dreams of this sort are disconnected, bear some resemblance to what has happened in life, but are largely surreal and impossible.
Are you a dreamer?
But it is not this kind of dream that I have in mind, nor am I talking about idle daydreaming. What I want to consider is the kind of dream that Joel referred to when he said that “old men” would have them, or as we might say today in contemporary generation-neutral p.c. language, “the elderly disadvantaged.” In fact, as the NETBible says, “Elders here refers not necessarily to men advanced in years, but to leaders within the community.”
Joel put it this way: 2:28 After all of this [the locust plague and the call for repentance] I will pour out my Spirit [“This passage in the book of Joel plays an important role in the apostolic explanation of the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2:17-21”] on all kinds of people. [“Heb “all flesh.” As a term for humanity, “flesh” suggests the weakness and fragility of human beings as opposed to God who is ‘spirit.’”] Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your elderly will dream dreams; your young men will see revelatory visions.
2:29 Even on male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
So, even if “elderly” in Joel refers to leaders as well as old men, I still fit the category: at least up until 3 months ago when I was a Vice President (and therefore of course a leader). However, I have not noticed any significant difference in my dreams since I vacated the office of “leader.”
But again, it is the dreams that I want to concentrate upon, not the eldership. Old men as leaders, young people, as future leaders, should all have dreams of the future. In fact, without them there is probably a general lack of motivation and a spirit of apathy—a spirit of the age. We live in a time of despair in the future, yet at the same time our society has a tremendous faith in what science and technology will accomplish. Advances in medical technology in particular hold out a magic carrot for the future: babies will be born perfect, even prescribed according to the genetic tuning of their parents or surrogate parents; terrible diseases will be overcome by drugs and genetic engineering; the feeble will be eliminated painlessly; utopia will reign. These too are dreams, but not God’s. Suffering is a part of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Instead we are told to consider ourselves pilgrims and strangers in this present world, not bypassing the necessities of life, nor ignoring the enjoyment of the life we live, but being clearly oriented such that, as one writer put it, “we are citizens of a heavenly city,” or as Augustine called it, “the city of God.”
Only with this perspective can we truly dream. Only by recognizing that God is supreme and supremely in charge, can we have confidence to dream about the future. In this context, I would like to encourage you to dream: what would you like to see God accomplish, perhaps using you?
Paul had dreams and revelations, Peter had a vision that changed the direction of his ministry and work, John had revealed to him startling images of the future, so perhaps we should not be so startled when God reveals himself in this way. Such insights often come during prayer and meditation. Often, of course, they are more mundane: we do some reading and research and God brings the hopes and dreams to our attention.
Several years ago I was at a conference in Brisbane, Australia. I was rooming with Alphaeus Zobole, a translator from the Solomon Islands. I was to give the devotional that day and I gave it on the notion of “dreams and visions,” citing some great dreamers (or visionaries, if you don’t like that term) like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Later that day, when Alphaeus and I went out for a walk, I asked him, “What is your dream, your vision, for the Solomons and your people?” He didn’t really have much in mind—whatever God wanted and brought to pass, but he certainly did not want to be presumptuous. However, he must have thought about it more, because the next day when he gave the devotional he had a great vision in mind for his people. And since then he has seen some wonderful things happen among them. He went back to his island, initiated classes in Bible and Greek, formed a translation committee that has continued even as he is now completing his PhD in Biblical studies (he had done an MA here in the MABEL program).
But you have to have a vision and you can’t be afraid of it or be disappointed in it. Things will not work out exactly how we wish, because it is our vision and God integrates our vision into a larger plan, which we don’t see clearly at present (someday we will).
When Joice and I joined Wycliffe and SIL some 45 years ago we were of course young and our vision was to translate the New Testament for some group of people. Gradually, we saw that vision fulfilled, but other aspects of it were not. The people with whom we worked did not drop all of their worldly pursuits, any more than we do in our own society. To this day they don’t sit around reading the Bible, any more than citizens of Duncanville do. Nor do the East Kewa people have the NT, a project that we began in 1958.
I want this chapel to be a personal reflection and hopefully a time of challenge to all of you, regardless of your age and despite the paucity or abundance of your dreams. To do this I am going to relate some stories about my own dreams, note some other dreamers, some very famous, and finally close with a dream of my own for the future.
Dream with me
I grew up in the rural area of Appalachia, Pennsylvania, where there were no street signs and only the natives knew when you left one community and arrived at the next. My community was Bloomingdale, near Sweet Valley and Broadway, all small struggling farming communities. Like many rural boys, my dream was to play professional baseball, be a Stan Musial or a Ted Williams. So I devoted myself to playing and practicing baseball. I had a dream: be a player or at the very least a coach. But it never happened. I was converted in my last year in H.S. and my whole perspective changed. For some odd reason (I was not brought up in a Christian family) I wanted to be a missionary. I believe the influence was from a young country preacher who also wanted to be (and later became) a missionary.
Two things stand out: a dream will motivate you and other people’s dreams will influence you.
In college I met and fell in love with the woman I eventually married. Love is a great motivating force and a natural environment for dreaming. Some of you look like you are in that state now, although it may simply be that you are hungry or tired.
Now I had someone to dream with: we would become missionaries, we would follow the leading of God to wherever, we would do…. It was time to dream again. At first our dream was not Bible translation—we knew little about it. But through friends and circumstances we found ourselves studying at SIL after and during our honeymoon. A little later we went to Mexico for “jungle camp,” more studies and, finally, an assignment to what was then known as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. By then, of course, our dream was to translate the NT for a group. Our dream was to live in a remote area, learn the language, etc… you know the script, and to some extent it was fulfilled, although there were many detours along the way.
A dream that any married couple has is to have children. We had two, not without difficulty ( a tubal pregnancy along the way) and as the children grew they were encouraged to have their own dreams as well. What did they want to do in life? (A difficult question for a teenager who is not sure what he or she wants to do after lunch.) And young people do develop dreams. All of you who are here have them. A dream, in the sense I am using it, is a vision of what you see and expect in the future. It may seem impossible, but if you pursue it in prayer you will learn more about God and his purposes through that dream.
To take the matter of family a bit further: now we dream for our grandchildren: that they will marry spouses who love God and who are committed to following him, even in disappointment and sorrow; that they will have a heart for the poor and needy, that they will encourage the fainthearted (and aren’t we all at times?).
When one of our dreams was accomplished—the publication of the West Kewa NT—we moved to a different role, one of administration and training. I wasn’t long in the position when I had a dream of a supporting group of Papua New Guinea Christian men and women to provide input into the Bible translation work of SIL. A number of SIL people had the same dream and in 1973 an Advisory Council was formed. Later it became the Bible Translation Association of PNG and today it has over 30 language programs. My dream was to involve PNG men and women, so I hired a man who was trained as an administrative assistant and then later headed up BTA for several years. But visions and dreams are never easily accomplished. To get to know more PNG people, we invited Christians from around the country to come to the SIL center and hold their Christian Easter Camps, an invitation that went on for over 20 years. During their meetings—on Easter Sunday–members of SIL were encouraged to invite the students of the country, the future leaders, into their homes. That was how we got to know a number of the present Christian leaders in PNG.
That was a vision that some of us had and it worked for a long time, but for many reasons it is not working now. One reason is that new people come on the scene and assume responsibilities and may have different dreams and visions. And, further, dreams lead sometimes to philosophical clashes of tactics and strategy. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark to Cyprus with himself and Paul, but Paul didn’t, so they parted ways for the time being and Paul took Silas.
In 1979 we returned to PNG with an invitation from the director who had a dream to begin an official national training course. We were to work with some colleagues in setting up a course that would train nationals to do translation and we were to do it in cooperation with BTA. But the administration were not together on the issue and we got caught in the middle of a political and philosophical issue. In the process one of our best friends spoke out in the conference floor against the plan. That would have been fine, but it is difficult to divorce plans from people. You may be able to hate sin but love the sinner, but arguing against a project or plan and not its leader is very difficult. One man’s dream is another’s nightmare.
The disciples had a dream that Jesus would free them from the tyranny of the Romans and that a new kingdom would be initiated with them. On one day he was proclaimed the next ruler of Jerusalem, a few days later he was carried to a tomb. In his short life on earth, however, he not only inspired many people, he also taught them to look beyond themselves and to pray, knowing that the Spirit of the living God would aid them. “Dream dreams [actually, ‘take a look at the harvest fields’],” he seemed to say, “but let them be fortified with faith and prayer.”
Most often, in all likelihood, my dreams have not been built that way. In many instances I am not sure how they have come, although in a few instances I am quite sure.
Some consequences of dreaming
My dream for GIAL was not in isolation—others had this dream as well. But at the time of its inception I was in a place where I could make a plea for its existence and aid it in its development. And my dream (which I wrote out—it helps to do this and then reflect later on it) was that the school would become accredited and attracting scholars and staff from around the world. That has not yet happened and it can only happen by prayer and sacrificial giving and work.
During our period of work directing the SPSIL some of us had a dream that the school might be accredited. Now, thanks to the hard work of many people, it is accredited by the National Training Board of Australia to grant (a graduate studies diploma) and it has been instrumental in helping a sister school receive recognition as well.
A couple of lessons on this and other dreams: sometimes you may be in the right position to help initiate or make a dream come true. If you are, ask God to use you in the position and to give you wisdom to attempt or support the dream.
It follows that you may also end up in a place or a position that you use to block someone else’s dream. You may have the power to ruin another person’s dream. Martin Luther King did not live to see his dream—he was assassinated. Many of God’s special people that we read of in the Bible did not see their dream fulfilled. None of the people that the author of Hebrews mentions in Hebrews chapter 11 received what God had promised, yet they all received God’s approval. The approval of God was based on the faith that the people exercised in carrying out God’s plan. Perhaps some of them did not even realize that they were a part of God’s plan at the time. Certainly wandering over deserts and mountains and hiding in caves and holes in the ground must not have seemed (at the time) as a very fulfilling part of God’s plan. Some of them had undoubtedly dreamed great things, yet they did not receive the prize or reward at the end of the course that they had been given to travel.
But dreams need people to accomplish and pursue them, so let’s look at a few.
Some more dreamers
Let’s consider a few people who had great dreams and then I will close with one of my own.
- Let’s go back in history, to the years of 354 to 430 A.D. It was the time when St. Augustine lived. Despite the dissolution of the Roman Empire he wanted the fallen empire to light the way to another civilization, Christendom. Malcolm Muggeridge, from who I draw the next several examples, in his book A Third Testament, recounts it this way: “Augustine was fifty-six years and in Carthage when, in the year 410, someone came and told him that Rome had been sacked….” ‘Don’t lose heart, barothers,’ he told them, ‘there will be an end to every earthly kingdom, and if this is actually the end now, God sees.’ Even so, he continued to nourish the hope, as people do when great disasters loom, that somehow it wouldn’t happen.” (p.17)
- Blaise Pascal was a brilliant scientist who lived from 1623 to 1662. He warned people the consequences of living without God. His notes, called Pensées, have, as Muggeridge puts it, “enchanted, infuriated, uplifted, depressed, enlightened, mystified, but always enthralled countless readers from generation to generation and are today as sparkling as when they were written and, if anything, more relevant.” (p.38)
- William Blake, who lived from 1557 to 1827, was a poet and artist. Although a romantic poet, he lived to “abominate the spirit of romanticism and all the license and disorder it involved.” (p.45) He foresaw the doom that would befall societies if they believed that they could shape their own destinies. In his own case, he said “that to him death would be no more than moving from one room to another, and so it proved to be.” (p.69) He died singing in his bed—dreaming perhaps.
- Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was an eccentric Danish philosopher, “one of the oddest prophets ever,” as Muggeridge (p. 70) puts it. He and Marx were two key voices of the 20th century. Marx’s trust in science to change history has largely failed, Kierkegaard’s sense of God’s presence led him to see that with only mass communication to shape one’s hopes and formulate values, then the public and daily press would be so opposed to Christianity that only a life with God would offer hope. He diagnosed “with uncanny precision the ills that would befall a materialistic culture…[that insisted] that men could live by bread alone….”
- Fyodor Dostoevsky lived from 1821 to 1881 was not just a great writer, but was a great storyteller as well—which interests me greatly. (I am reading The Brothers Karamazov right now.) Dostoevsky spent part of his live in Siberia and he suffered much. Muggeridge notes that “Dostoevsky was a God-possessed man if there ever was one, as is clear in everything he wrote and in every character he created. All his life he was questing for God, and found Him—if indeed he ever did other than fitfully—only at the end of his days…”
- The writings of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) are more familiar to Christians. He insisted “that Christianity was not just a religion but a way of life.” (p.123) Tolstoy was incredibly perceptive, noting that the rich and the educated were the ones who so despaired of life; the peasants, who had little and knew little had peace with themselves. He noted that the difference was their faith, so he sought that faith himself. Tolstoy was a pilgrim, an imperfect one, but one who saw that imperfect natures can be redeemed. As Muggeridge noted (in 1976), “Throughout its existence the Soviet state has sought to abolish the Christian religion, using for the purpose its total control of whatever influences the minds and lives of its citizens. Yet as it turns out, all its efforts have been frustrated by the irresistible presentation of Christ and his teachings in Tolstoy’s writings, which continue to be avidly read by his countrymen.” (p.145)
- The name Dietrich Bonhoeffer is better know to us. He was executed in 1945 at the age of 39 for conspiring to kill Hitler. As a Lutheran pastor he courageously contacted resistance movements and used his position to counteract the lethargy and complicity of many in the Lutheran church. Again Muggeridge: “What lives on in the memory of a man who died, not on behalf of freedom or democracy or a steadily rising Gross National Product, nor for any of the twentieth century’s counterfeit hopes and desires, but on behalf of a Cross on which another man died two thousand years before….There can never be any other victory or any other hope.” (p. 169)
- Cameron Townsend dreamed that the Bibleless tribes (as he called them) would all have God’s word. Although he saw some of his dream completed, he did something far more valuable and lasting in terms of it: he passed his dream on to many other people. That is why some of you are here today.
- Kenneth Pike had a dream: he wanted SIL to develop and encourage linguists, to have competent consultants; he wanted members to study, attend professional meetings, write papers. He saw only a part of what he wanted, yet again he trained scores of others to follow on in his steps.
Note: Malcolm Muggeridge. 1976 [revised 1983]. A third testament. NY: The Plough Publishing House.
Does dreaming matter?
In the light of all these famous dreamers, we might wonder how what we do matters. We are ordinary people who, for the most part, will live, in some sense, ordinary lives. But we can take our courage from this “huge crown of witnesses to the life of faith.” (Heb.12.1) And perhaps, with prayer and faith, God will give us a dream. Let me close with one that I believe God has given to me—others are not so sure.
I am dreaming that we in SIL and others in places of responsibility (other missions, governments, agencies) will not neglect the small and endangered languages of the world. In PNG alone there are around 233 languages that have less than 500 speakers. Many of these people have access to the Scriptures in another language, but not their own. And yet they re-tell the Bible message and stories in their own language—at least that is what I think.
My dream is that the storytellers in these small language groups—and there are always story tellers—will learn how to retell Bible stories in a culturally appropriate and effective way, using drama, music and other talents to enhance the stories. They will retell the Bible stories as naturally and dramatically as they tell their own cultural stories. (My dream is also, incidentally, that we will document these unique languages.)
The retold stories will be made immediately relevant because not only will background and implied information be included within the story, such that applications to cultural problems and situations will result. People will understand that the Bible is relevant—it will not simply to be heard or read, it will also be applied. And the images that are formed with the stories will be cultural ones.
And herein lies a rub: we so often do not apply the Scriptures ourselves to our own lives. We trust in technology almost as much as in Christ, even perhaps in some cases, more. We demand security and good health even as we realize that this world is a temporary location. So we who proclaim the Message must learn to live it. Only then can our dreams have some reality linked with them.
The practicality of dreaming
Many years ago I was challenged by the words of Gandhi to E. Stanley Jones (Gandhi:portrait of a friend, Abbingdon Press, 1948). In response to a question by Jones asking how Christianity could be made more indigenous to the national life of India, Gandhi replied: “First, I would suggest that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make your working force, for love is essential to Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religious more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (pp. 51-52)
Jones was dreaming of a Christian India, Gandhi was dreaming of an India that lived like Christ. Bold and purposeful dreams take people to enact them.
Victor E. Frankl (Man’s search for meaning, Pocket Books, 1959), a Jewish psychiatrist who spent years in Nazi concentration camps, noted that a peculiarity of man is that he can only live meaningfully by looking into the future. Prisoners who lost the potential of the future lost the will to live and with that loss they lost their spiritual hold. “Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis….Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out to the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving….He simply gave up. There he remained, lying in his own excreta, and nothing bothered him any more.” (p.95).
Sometimes we may feel that we have so much to do that we cannot even dream. But Frankl reminds us that mental health is based on a degree of tension between what has already been achieved and on what one still ought to accomplish, “or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent to the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.” (p.127)
In conclusion, it seems obvious to me that everyone should have a dream. In faith we should pray and pursue that dream. It should of course be Biblical, extending to the needs of the world and answering those needs through the power of the Gospel.
But dreaming is taking chances. I don’t know if my dream will happen. There is already some opposition, friendly fire, perhaps, but it is deadly. I may believe with all my heart—as I happen to—that the dream of reaching small language groups through a strategy of storytelling is the best and right one, but I could be wrong.
Nevertheless, because I have some inkling that God may be directing me (and most often that is all I get), it seems best to follow it, rather than ignore it.
Lord God, Grant us the wisdom to be discerning about what we hear actually from you on the one hand and what we think we hear from you on the other; help us have peace and forgiveness when the criticisms from others come, even if they are our colleagues; grant us the love and restraint we need to exemplify the nature of your Son, supplied to us by the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is now 15 years since I wrote this piece and gave it at a GIAL school function and I have had some “dreams” in the meantime. In the very year I completed the essay, for example, we went back to PNG to assist in the revision of the West Kewa NT. The main translator for that work was a man called Wopa Eka, from the village of Usa. He had a burden for the revision of the NT and had contacted us some years earlier. He had dreams for his people and worked hard to accomplish them.
Our dream was to return to PNG and we wondered if it would be possible. At that time Joice was 70, enjoying her job and our Texas grandchildren, and wondered how we could feasibly return. At that point, my dream might not have been hers but we returned in 2002 to work with Wopa.
Our dream to see the WK NT revised was accomplished by means of three separate trips to PNG and then working by Internet with Wopa on revisions and so on. In the middle of 2004 the NT was dedicated and Wopa immediately began working on the OT. His dream and ours was to see the whole Bible in WK. I wrote up a story of Wopa called “Good Morning Jesus”—The story of Wopa Eka, Translator and Friend and it was published in 2013. My dream was that the book would be used by the Bible Translation of PNG, who published the book. to encourage other national translators. That dream has not happened. Wopa died in May of 2013 and the work has progressed slowly since that time. However, the dream is still there.
Rose Poto (now Lomba) also had a dream: she wanted to see the New Testament translated and published in East Kewa. She became acquainted with Wopa and us and began to crusade for the translation. Our dream was realized by means of a transfer from WK to EK using both computer technology and a wide range of EK men and women who revised the work. The dream came true in a dedication at Kagua in July of 2005.
We still dream that the New Testaments will be distributed and used widely and that the OT will be translated and published. Our part now is to pray and contribute financially as we are able. And, of course, we continue to dream about the Kewa people and PNG.
April 2002 and April 2017