In seminary, we learned about all kinds of amazing things. We studied biblical languages, we explored spiritual disciples, and we learned about theology. We practiced preaching and Scripture reading, and we memorized portions of Scripture and the great prayer of thanksgiving for communion.
Of course, seminary couldn’t teach everything. Ministry is personal, practical, and situational. But, seminary provided many of the basic tools I have needed to fall back on time and again as I’ve served as a pastor in a local church.
But, there’s one thing I never learned about in seminary that I’ve experienced several times over the last nine years. And, every time I’ve talked about it with other members of the clergy, I’ve found solidarity.
“Oh, yes, I’ve had those, too!”
Stress dreams about preaching and leading worship.
They almost always happen on Saturday night, and they almost always start the same way for me. I’m scheduled to preach, and it’s always in a building I’ve never seen before. I’m running late, and the main doors are locked. Other times I can’t even find the main doors. I can hear people chattering. I can hear people singing familiar hymns. I hear over a loud speaker that people are waiting for me. I’m running up and down hallways, opening and closing doors, and breaking into a sweat because I know I’ll never make it.
Usually I never find the sanctuary, worship is over, and the people all went home. Occasionally, I find the sanctuary, but I’ve lost my sermon notes and I’m a floundering mess. One time I was supposed to serve communion, but there was no bread, and the chalice was empty. Always, I wake up breathless and sweating and thankful that it was all just a crazy dream.
This last Saturday night, I had another stress dream about preaching, but it wasn’t even a Sunday I was going to preach. I hadn’t been wrestling with the text. I hadn’t been agonizing over just the right thing to say. In fact, I hadn’t really even thought about it at all.
In this crazy stress dream, I was a pastor of a church that was attached to a college. I was in the sanctuary at the beginning of the dream, but had to leave to find something. While I was gone, I got hopelessly lost, and I could hear people talking about how church was going to be over, and they never even got to hear anything from the Bible. I was running and stressing and flinging open every door I could find, only to be frustrated to find yet another closet or empty room.
I looked at the clock, and realized church service was supposed to be ending. I gave up and walked through the door right in front of me.
I found myself in the sanctuary. Almost everyone was gone, but there was a group of people sitting toward the front of the sanctuary. They looked exhausted, hopeless, and rejected by life. I didn’t have a microphone. There were no musicians. I didn’t have a sermon manuscript. So, I walked down the center aisle and sat down on the top step of the chancel.
I’m not sure how I knew it, but one of the men in the congregation had recently been released from prison. Another looked ill. A woman had been crying. And they were all smashed so close together in the chairs (even though there was plenty of room in other aisles) that it looked terribly uncomfortable.
Suddenly, I started preaching, but it was strange. I was both preacher and listener. And, these words came out of my mouth, but they were not my own words:
Luke 15 teaches us three times who God is. God leaves the flock to find one lost sheep. He cleans the house to find one misplaced coin. And he abandons all dignity to welcome home the wayward child.
I want to walk down that dusty path. I want to come home. Even though it feels like a walk of shame and I question my worth and think I’ve so tarnished the family name that I no longer deserve it, God says, “Forget all that. Forget the shame. Forget all the voices saying you are worthless, hopeless, and pointless. You are my child, and nothing you can do will change that.”
And the man who had recently been released from prison looked up and yelled out, “I want to call out, ‘Daddy!’ and hear God say, ‘Welcome home, Son!'” Everyone was weeping, but it was like the happy tears at a great family reunion.
I woke up breathless, and with tears in my eyes, but, for far different reasons than those after my usual preaching stress dreams.
We may be rejected by life, but we’re never rejected by God. We are God’s beloved children, and nothing can change that.