I was young then, in my first year of seminary. That year we were assigned to teaching parishes where we would get our first taste of pastoral ministry…just a little preaching, teaching, and visiting. It was mine to call upon an older couple in the congregation who, after, treating me to cookies and milk (I didn’t drink coffee then either) proceeded to try to get acquainted. I don’t recall her name now, but I do remember the look on her face as she leaned in and asked, “How did you know you were “called?”” I hesitated for a moment, sensing my answer would be less than satisfactory for this call had been a slow shaping one for me. She jumped into the silence and said, “Did you have a dream?” And then she went on to tell me the story of someone she knew who had such a dream and immediately dropped everything to head off to seminary.
It did not seem that there was either space or openness for me to speak my truth then, for my own sense of “call” had finally made itself known in a sore throat which would not go away. Fall allergies, perhaps, but I recall how it lifted and left me as soon as I submitted to what I sensed was mine to do and quit graduate school in a far away city and headed home for the time being before I would start Summer Greek a few months later.
And yet it is so that dreams can and do matter. I have had dreams where I have sensed the presence of loved ones — once in a cool early October breeze waking me in the night. I have had dreams where it is clear my worries and anxieties are working themselves out as I sleep: for one too long stretch of time as a 6 year old night after night I would wake with a start having fallen once again out my second floor window in a nightmare which would not let go. And yes, I can recall finally calling it a night when I was in college, only to wake the next morning with the words of a term paper suddenly in place in my mind and ready to be written down. Oh, it is so, it seems to me, that as we dream we work out what challenges us when we are awake. This must have been the case with Joseph so long ago. Only what a dream was his to have!
Indeed, one can’t help but wonder how many hours he had already spent at his carpenter’s bench, silently mulling over his options in his mind. Or how many nights sleep eluded him as he found himself torn between what would have been justified and what would have been kind. Perhaps it is so that he thought he knew and loved and trusted Mary, but her story would make anyone at least a little incredulous. And if Joseph couldn’t quite bring himself to believe her, it is likely his initial reaction was tinged by hurt, betrayal, and anger, don’t you think?
And so maybe it took exactly this kind of nocturnal encounter with an angel for Joseph to understand. For him to work out in the night what had been dogging him day and night. Clearly when Matthew passed this story along, he understood that a holy messenger was needed to bring Joseph along — to help him hear a call which, no doubt, had been working itself out in his consciousness for a while now. For, as we know, while Mary was needed to bear Jesus to the world, in that time and place, without Joseph it would have been nearly impossible for this holy child to have a chance, much less any kind of hearing in the world.
I don’t know about you, but the sort of dream Joseph had is not one I myself have known. And yet the call is still the same — to each and all of us — don’t you think?
- To err on the side of mercy?
- To give deeply of ourselves even to those to whom we may not be immediately obligated?
- To live our faith in otherwise ordinary times and places — always listening for God’s leading, as Joseph did not once but twice that we hear about?
- And to do it all knowing that as apparently was the case with Joseph, we may not live to see the story’s end, but we can live knowing it matters still. That quite likely the world is changed in large ways and small by the faithfulness of ordinary people like Joseph. Like you. Like me.
Oh, unlike Joseph, we may never have an angel appear to us in the night, but God’s messengers are still ours to hear and to heed. And maybe, just maybe, we do still get hints of that as we sleep as our days, our hopes, our fears work themselves out in our dreams. What do you think?
- Have you ever had a dream like Joseph’s? Have you ever known the voice of God speaking to you as you slept? How about when you were awake? How was that for you? How were you changed by it?
- What ‘ordinary,’ ‘everyday’ things have you been called to do which, as with Joseph, likely changed the course of history?
- Joseph’s choice was between ‘justice’ and ‘mercy,’ don’t you think? How have you been called to make that same choice? How did the story end for you?