Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Visions and dreams

The Story from the Book of Acts found in this week's lesson holds an important tradition, the significance of visions and dreams to the people of God over time and through the ages. I also admit, that my inner feminist critic is sparked a bit by this particular example of the tradition. As the story is written, we hear
"there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 
One would assume that upon arrival at Philippi, Paul would start looking for someone who looked like the man in his vision. Well, at least I assumed that as I read the text. However, as the story continues within this short passage we observe that according to Luke (the author of Acts as well as the Gospel of Luke), Paul actually took the following course of action upon his arrival.
"On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there."

Now I have read this passage annually, if not once, multiple times, over the course of my Christian life, which now spans 44 years. Until this year, I never really gave much time to questioning who the characters were in the story. I figured that "the man" in the vision was actually the image of a living Macedonian male. I also didn't catch the irony of the following event; Paul encounters women, not men, as his first audience for proclamation to the Macedonian community.  So this year as I began to look at the text again this question arose in my mind:

Q. Would Paul have responded to the plea of the Macedonian if it had been a woman in his vision, instead of a man?

No, I don't have an answer to that question.

Instead I have another thought, another possibility to the representation of the person in the dream.
Perhaps, in fact, Paul felt that the man was truly the LORD calling Paul directly to aid in the spreading of the Gospel to the region of Macedonia.

And this takes me on a bit of a tangent, rather than to directly address the story of Lydia, because there is a significant issue for the present age that should not be overlooked during the month of National Awareness of Mental Health .

Visions and dreams are powerful motivators among spiritual people. At one time people who experienced visions and dreams were considered special spiritual guides of the community. Once upon a time...

But not so much any more.

Now, people who tell other people that they have had visions are considered quite seriously to have a mental illness. Women have always been especially subject to diagnoses of mental instability if they openly discussed having received visions. In her 2003 Madleva Lecture on Spirituality, Sidney Callahan thoughtfully examines this issue. Her monograph*, Women Who Hear Voices: The Challenge of Religious Experience is on my highly recommended reading list. She writes from her position as a Psychologist and Christian Ethicist. Her monologue nuances the differences between religious experience and pathology.  She sums her agenda in this way.
"My personal agenda in taking on this intellectual challenge is twofold. While respecting the scientific validity of modern psychiatry, social psychology and cognitive science, I would like to be able to demonstrate that the general and automatic suspiciousness of women's religious experiences as illusionary and inauthentic is mistaken. I contend that there is growing evidence that human beings are innately religious, innately capable of intense religious experience and that this is normal and positive psychological capacity. While cases of mental illness can exhibit religious themes and content, authentic religious experiences exist and further the flourishing of humankind." (41, )
Imagine if Julian of Norwich were simply viewed as mentally ill all those years of her life as an anchoress. If her writings about her understanding of the appearings would have been tossed aside as the drivel of a madwoman we would be stripped of such great words of consolation as "all will be well" would be lost to us and the scores of men and women who sought her counsel would never have seen in her the gifts she possessed for the edification of the Church.

Sorry, just a bit of pondering.

Back to the text..

This interaction of engagement, proclamation, acceptance of the word, baptism, and conversion set an important pattern for the missionary work of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was however a pattern that had to be adjusted to recognize new cultural conditions.

Women's missionary societies were formed in many denominations, including the Protestant Episcopal Church of America. Methodist and Presbyterian women formed their own organizations as well for one purpose, to fund women who felt called to evangelistic endeavors to women in foreign lands. The Missionary movements recognized the cultural barriers of Men connecting with Women in traditional cultures, especially those of Islamic tradition. Women on the other hand would be free in move among women and from those interactions they would be free to share the gospel message.

Lydia, a powerful and resourceful woman of her community, brought her household into the body of Christ then and serves now as a model for women in the Church for stewardship and mentoring of others into the fullness of Christ.

We cannot see the alternate history that would have evolved if two things occurred instead;
1. Paul not responding in faith to the vision that sent him to Macedonia.
or going but then 
2. Paul refused to speak with the women, denying their innate worth and worthiness to learn about the Lord Jesus Christ, instead focusing on find the "man".

Nor will we ever know how diminished the Church would be today if the account of this conversion were not contained within the Christian Traditions and Scriptures.

I find only this question worth spending some time in reflection and prayer:

What if all men today treated all women with the same dignity and worth as Paul did Lydia, regardless of their wealth, and stature in the community as power-brokers. How then might the Kingdom of God grow into the fullness of God's Dream for us?

What if?

*Paulist Press, 2003

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