God calls us through dreams, interrupts our lives through visions, and we learn through apocalypse to see more, hear more, and imagine more into a future where we make more space in our reality for the divine. – Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, Virginia Theological Seminary
“It’s been a really good year for the Old Testament,” said Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams as she introduced her McClendon Scholar webinar Saturday March 20. With the experiences over the past year of pandemic and confronting the realities of racism in this country, we are in a place of disorientation, she said, and these ancient scriptures “can help us understand what we do when the world as we know it goes away.”
Our stories resonate – with stories of wilderness, of Noah’s flood, of Israel’s exile. The stories form a kind of virtual reality. We can “try on different personalities, complaining with the Israelites in the desert, experimenting with theo-politics with Israel’s kings. But these alternative realities are not a monolith, she said. On Saturday, she reflected on three: dreams, visions, and apocalypse.
Sharing Sacred Encounters
She started with a look at Psalm 126, which begins “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” This is a pilgrimage Psalm, composed to sing on the way to Jerusalem. This dream is a memory of the past, of a time that God made things right. It “evokes the memory of a feeling when God showed up.”
Dreams function as important literary devices in the Old Testament. Jacob’s dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending in Genesis 28 confirms that Jacob will carry God’s promise forward. And it does more: Jacob’s encounter is not on a mountain, not where he or the ancients would have expected an encounter with God. The good news for us? “Sacred encounters can take place in the most unlikely of places.”
Fentress-Williams explored how dreams function in the story of Joseph in detail, showing how dreams don’t belong to just one person. Joseph accurately interprets Pharoah’s dreams, and saves the nation (and his own family), from famine. “Our dreams are not just for us, but we must invest in other people’s dreams,” she said.
In another dream story, young Samuel hears God calling, but needs Eli to help him understand. This story is not only about God calling Samuel, but about God calling on Eli , an old priest with mistakes in his past, to invest in the dreams of others. The story shows us that “God can use what we get wrong and what we get right,” she said, and helps us consider when it is time to “stop building our own storehouses and invest in someone else’s future.”
Visions as Touchstones
With a vision or visitation, God’s realm enters our own reality. After reading Isaiah’s call narrative from Isaiah 6:1-8, Fentress-Williams pointed out how the words paint a picture of an alternate reality – seraphs with six wings – reminding Isaiah that “he is earthly and this is not.” Prophetic calls are often visual, she said, as if God has to both show us and tell us.
And, just as dreams are not for one person alone, Isaiah’s vision is not for him alone. As a prophet, he must struggle to find language to communicate God’s vision, but with this work, Isaiah helps his people get through, and the vision reminds us that what happens on this earth is only a part of the entire picture. “The vision is Isaiah’s touchstone, … and the vision is shared with us so that it can be our touchstone as well.”
A Glimpse of God’s Realm
Apocalyptic literature also reminds us that our current reality is not the only possibility. This literature comes out of persecuted communities, communities whose experience of their worldly reality is so painful that they develop a dual consciousness. “There is no room to exist in this world, and so the space where they exist is in this other realm,” she said.
The term apocalypse means to reveal or uncover, and these narratives reveal this other realm of God. These communities are also interested in stories that point to a time when God will make things right. When we read them, we should remember the dynamics of power in our own worlds, she said. And these narratives also “remind us that God’s realm is real, revealing things to us that we all need to remember about what it means to be people of God. “
After a Q&A with Rev. Heather Shortlidge, Fentress-Williams concluded by reading Psalm 126:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
You can see the full video, including a question and answer Session, on this video recording.