Forget Following Your Dreams

Follow your dream. Write your story. Live an epic life.

I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it.

This has long been the fodder of daytime talk shows and popular self-help books, but when did Christians start talking like this? When did we create conferences, ministries and enterprises out of teaching people to discover their dreams and craft their lives in the pursuit of them?

This was not how the people of God used to make sense of their lives and of their purpose.

Nehemiah sat and wept when he heard the condition of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah said the word of the Lord was like fire shut up in his bones.
Jesus was moved by compassion.
Paul was constrained by the love of Christ.

Not one of these were peering into their heart, tapping into their dreams and longings, and then projecting them outward into a plan for action.

Was Augustine following his dream when he gave up his career for a life in service of the church? What soul-searching, script-writing technique was Francis engaging in when he renounced his wealth and devoted himself to rebuild the church? Was Cranmer pursuing his passion when he refused to recant his convictions before being executed? Whose dream was Hudson Taylor chasing when he sailed to China?

‘Dream’, of course, can be a slippery word. What do we mean by ‘dream’?

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream…but if you listen to the content of that dream— and pay attention to his life as a whole— it was more like a prophetic imagination, a vision of a world not yet visible, of a Kingdom still arriving. It didn’t arise out of a restless boredom from spending too many hours in a cubicle. His ‘dream’ was not anything like the thing to which our use of the word refers. I can’t help but wonder if the ‘dream’ rhetoric in our day isn’t just overly self-conscious and semi-public angst-filled musings.

Vision’ is not much better. Hijacked by a corporate culture fixated on maximizing every opportunity, ‘vision’ can be overly goal-oriented and results-driven.

Passion’ gets closer, mostly because its roots are in the notion of suffering, particularly suffering for the sake of another. After all, whenever we begin with ourselves, we are off on the wrong foot. Purpose is often discovered in service of another.

A word that is missing in our day, a word that brings to bear a whole set of virtues largely absent from the ‘dream’ rhetoric, is burden. Burden implies a weight, a weight that someone else placed upon you. Burden is not what you asked for but what is being asked of you. Burden is not thought up or dreamed up. Burden burns.

The rhetoric of dreams has helped us find the courage to take risks. That’s a good thing. But risk-taking in itself is not a virtue. No one, from Aristotle to Aquinas, would have seen it as one. Taking a risk is implicated in virtue if the telos— the goal— of that risk was virtuous. If one joined a battle to defend a vulnerable village and it involved taking a risk, the goal was virtuous, therefore the act was virtuous. But to make risk-taking in itself a virtue is lunacy.

So while the rhetoric of dreams may have led us to find our courage, there are other virtues we need. We need to recover the virtues of faithfulness— even in the mundane; we need the virtue of selflessness, so that we can sacrifice and serve. These virtues help us not only to create but also to preserve, not only to start but also to stay. Such virtues do not arise from the current rhetoric of dreams; they are the result of surrendering to a burden.

My prayer for you is not that you will have big dreams; it is not even that you will take the risk to follow your dreams; and it is certainly not that all your dreams will come true.

My prayer for you is that you will be gripped by a holy burden, that there will be a fire of the Spirit raging within your bones, that you will be moved by compassion. Dreams can make fools who rush into action; burdens make prophets who weep and fast and pray.

My prayer is that you will not make heroes out of dreamers, but that you will contemplate the saints who lived and died under the weight of a holy burden.

May you never set out to find your life; may you always be led to lose it.

On Saints and Celebrities

Today is All Saints’ Day.

I used to never think of it that way. It was just the day that Starbucks brings out their red cups.

Besides, I, like most Evangelicals, am a little uncomfortable with the idea of saints. After all, nobody’s perfect, right?

Right.

But here’s the thing: we can’t help but look for people to inspire us, to show us what it looks like to follow Jesus and embrace His Kingdom here and now.

So much has been written about our obsession with Christian celebrities. I’ve contributed to that conversation (with an article in Relevant). But one of the things that has not been said enough is that the way to correct an unhealthy obsession is to look for the healthy desire at its root. The way to heal a distored desire is not to kill it but let it be rightly ordered. Jonathan Edwards, drawing on St. Augustine, said as much in his work on ‘religious affections.’

So, what does it look like to have our desire for a role model– for faithful men and women to remember and honor and inspire us–  rightly ordered?

This, I think, is where the notion of saints comes in. You see, there are a few differences between saints and celebrities.

  • Saints can’t be canonized until they’re dead so we can look back over their life as a whole. Christian celebrities can be made through savvy self-branding and high-cost PR firms.
  • Saints are often admired for what they did not have in this world– their lack of riches, of fame, of acceptance by the world. In fact, the first ‘saints’ were martyrs. The Church began to recognize and honor them around the turn of the second century. Celebrities, though, are often admired for what they have in this world– their large churches, their fame (christened as ‘influence’), their best-selling books or CDs, and perhaps even their houses and cars.
  • Saints are ones whose deep ‘interior life’ with Jesus was often kept secret until others discovered it after their death. Celebrities are those who want to leverage intimacy with Jesus for popularity with others.

The list could go on. But I think you get the point: no, saints weren’t perfect; but they are better images– icons– for our rightly ordered desire to see how a human is to live out the Jesus kind of life.

The Faith did not begin with us. There are others who have come along this Way. We can learn from them. We can follow them. We can thank God for them.

So, here’s to remembering the saints. Here’s to praying that we would be broken of our obsession with celeberities, of our addiction to ‘influence’, and turn to the quiet hidden life of faithful obediece to Christ. May we seek credibility— the mark of a life that is worth trusting– and not popularity.

Let renown come if it does. But let our lives point to Christ– crucified and risen.

Just as it was with the lives of the saints.