Visionary Dreamers: Be Warned

January 27, 2015

“Without a vision, the people perish”—a truism we live by. We are marinated in biblical, historical and current visions of reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, liberation. Recently, on MLK day, once again we blew on the embers of the Dream. In our leading, teaching and preaching we keep painting pictures of what could be, plus the audacity to call them “dreams of God.”

But there is a “shadow” side to this light. And greater the visionary dream, greater is the “shadow.” Let me explain.

It was 1972, an autumn day, bright sun above, Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance with a gentle breeze near as breath. Sitting on a bench I was taking in the beauty . . . and sadness, too. Two months’ prior I had resigned as pastor with no vocational place to go. I simply was unable to sustain beyond five years my first major attempt as pastor. I had hit a wall. Something had to give. So our family of six retreated to the mountains, piecing together a “living,” while granting ourselves a year to re-group. It felt like a divorce with most friends and family not knowing what to say.

Sitting on the bench that day, with adequate emotional distance, I began to ponder—what happened? My eyes landed on these non-inclusive, yet searing words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who  fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. . . . He acts as the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

“Is that what happened?” I whispered. Some “lights” were coming on. Did I “fashion a visionary ideal” for our congregation and expect us to reach it? The Bonhoeffer downward spiral sure felt familiar. As things didn’t happen as envisioned, first I blamed the church, and in time blamed myself. In his words: “ . . . first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.” This startling awareness, though over forty years old, remains vivid, a memory still full of color and feeling. I think my soul journey started at that point. I was beginning to see the difference between clinging to a vision and having a vision. Clinging is idolatry.

I came from seminary fresh with an ideal of what church ought to be. I set about to lead this D.C. area Baptist congregation in that direction. It was 1967, soon a period of more assassinations, rising black power consciousness, the activism for fair housing, the Poor People’s Campaign and, most of all, the height of the Vietnam War that took many of our husbands and fathers away for a year at a time. It was a turbulent season for families and nation. From feeling located in the center of this vortex, the opportunities reverberated through our little congregation wanting to be a pastoral, prophetic presence in it all.

The congregation was partner in my dreaming. At least, the leaders were. I was a young man entering a young, seven year old congregation ripe for large visions of what could be. We were a co-dependent pair—the church and me—rightly excited by the challenges, but also, I came to see, ripe for the seduction of lofty self-ideals. Together we were eager to become a “unique, special” witness amid social, political disarray.

Of course, my ending at this church was not that simple or singular. My resignation was many layered, as all of them are. But that day something shifted. Bonhoeffer’s sharp insight lanced the boil of my church-ideal and self-ideal as pastor. Since then I have been alert to that visionary side of me. It’s a gift I cherish. I like my capacity to see the big picture, discern possibilities and hold curiosity about what can be. But it’s a danger, as well, to be attached to the dream, to fuel it with intensity, to allow it to yank me from the present ambiguities, and to choose an abstract vision over the tangled intricacies of what’s before me.

I hear an “amen” in a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. I found it recently in my friend’s (Ken Sehested) prayer&politiks website:

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Active love is labor and fortitude.”

Bonhoeffer had to shout to get my attention. Clearly he is not against dreaming. He, for sure, was a dreamer, creating an alternative residential seminary, plus visioning a church free of anti-Semitism. In fact, for his vision he was executed. Maybe he was shouting at himself along with avid dreamers like me who are prone to love the “what could be” more than “what is.”