This post is the second of six posts about making our way to Birmingham, Alabama to attend Beeson Divinity School.
The Bible is full of words people have received from the Lord. We read of Abraham for example. The Scriptures record a very brief account of this man’s life yet we often assume that we are familiar with its entirety. Ironically, we are introduced to Abraham in his old age. He was seventy-five years old when he received a word from the Lord in Genesis 12. It isn’t until some years later, well after he obeyed the first word, that he would be told that Sarah will give birth to his son (Gen. 18:9). We know very little of the anguish and doubt Abraham experienced in the interims between words.
To submit to the Scriptures is, in a sense, to enter the Scriptures, to find yourself there somehow. It is not uncommon to find yourself where you aren’t. This happens with David when Samuel confronts him about his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12). In Samuel’s parable, David empathized with the poor man whose lamb was stolen and became enraged at the injustice. However, the rich man who stole the lamb was actually who represented David. The life of discipleship is a constant learning where we fit into God’s narrative. It is always safer to look into the past and reconsider how we’ve placed ourselves into that story to see if we got it right. In 2001, I had a rare experience, not unlike the experiences of Abraham and others in the Bible. My experience was profoundly existential, meaning it did not concern the entirety of a nation; it was a word from the Lord concerning my own discipleship. Fifteen years later I look back and believe more now than I did then that a word from the Lord is exactly what I had received. In a staggering exercise of pretension, I will relay those words below.
In the year the great towers fell, in the eleventh month, I was lying on my bed after sunrise and heard a voice say, “Sleep.” As I slept, I hear three words from the Lord spoken in three visions.
The First Word
Behold, I was sitting opposite an opponent in a game of chess when he made an illegal move, supposing me to be ignorant of the game. In confidence, I challenged the move. Feigning his own ignorance, my opponent backed down without an argument. The word spoken was, “You know the rules.”
The Second Word
Behold, I looked and found myself in a thick forest, running from enemies far behind. I knew myself to be betraying an army to join the enemy on the opposite side of the battlefield. I had been fighting for a nation to which I did not belong. In fleeing to that nation’s enemy, I was running to a place of safety and refuge. When I arrived, I was received and sheltered. The word spoken was, “You have been fighting for the wrong side.”
The Third Word
Behold, I looked and stood at the edge of a great bridge. I heard a voice say, “Cross this bridge three times in the same direction.” As I crossed, I approached a yellow rope hanging from the steel frame above and promptly batted it out of the way. This happened three times. On the third crossing and after batting the rope, I turned south, my vehicle turned into a boat, and I sped down a great river in freedom.
After sunrise in the eleventh month in the year the great towers fell, I awoke from the visions. And pondered their meaning.
I record all of this in such a pretentious way because I find a striking resemblance in my own experience with that of characters throughout the Scriptures. My dreams have always been vivid and I’ve always been curious whether they hold any meanings. This particular morning, however, I awoke with a strong sense that not only did these dreams mean something, they were communicating something from somewhere outside of me. Honestly, I did not take this very seriously; such an idea sounded as crazy to me then as it probably does to you now. It wasn’t until I relayed them weeks later to a friend who convinced me otherwise that I reconsidered the possibility. A little background might be helpful to understand the interpretations that came later.
In September of 2001, I had fulfilled a contract working on an animated feature film in Dallas, Texas. As I considered my options to continue in the new and exciting field of computer animation the Twin Towers were attacked. At that point, I had planned on moving the New York to live with my sister. The possibility of working with Nickelodeon in one of the greatest cities in the world kept me from L.A. and filled me with desire. When the towers fell, the glamor of this option fell with them. At the time I had the dreams, I was at a loss for direction.
The truth is, though, I was starving. I was emaciated. I was baptized in 1992 and moved from Georgia to Oklahoma the following year. My high school years were a spiritual desert devoid of church attendance and fellowship. Although I did join a church in Dallas after moving there for art school in 1997, I would classify myself as a nominal Christian. It wasn’t until a significant break-up in 1999 that I knew I was in spiritual trouble. In the spring following my graduation from the Art Institute I joined the crew of DNA Productions, which was just beginning production on Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. I began as a production assistant, which means I put desks together for the animators. Because I wanted desperately to be an animator, this was a humble position. As animation began on the project, animators were hired from all over the country. It was a low-budget film so most of the animators were new to the field and had little experience. The first animator on the scene who had any credentials was Kirby. Kirby had come from Will Venton Studios (of the California Raisin fame) and had been animating M&Ms commercials. He was a hotshot. When I was promoted to a menial desk position in the animation department, Kirby became somewhat of a nemesis to me. Animators would send me an email when they had completed a shot. I needed certain information from each animator about each shot and Kirby never complied. He may have been a hot shot to everyone else but he was a pain in my neck.
I ended up in a reluctant conversation with Kirby at the coffee pot one day. I was shocked to discover that he had taught Bible at a private Christian high school in Tennessee. Within minutes, my heart softened and I had gained something my heart had longed for since I left my church in Georgia: a Christian friend. Over the following months, I got to know Kirby’s wife and children. On Tuesday mornings, we would sit in his living room floor, eat Chick-fil-a biscuits, and study the Bible. The Lord provided in one friend a feast I had missed for nearly eight years. Those Bible studies made the Scriptures come alive to me and Kirby’s friendship restored a self-worth I had lost (if I ever had it). Incidentally, it was during one of these Bible studies that we both heard about the towers falling. That day at the studio, all eyes were on the news. Cartoons weren’t as important as they were the day before.
This event caused everyone I know to question what was really important. Had I not had my friend Kirby to help me through this process, I’m sure I would have ended up in despondency. I began to question whether New York was the right move for me and Kirby began to paint an alternative in my heart (a gift unique to Kirby). Kirby had graduated from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee years prior and had maintained many of the friendships forged during his college years. He began to imagine a life for me there. It was a rich life of fellowship, ministry, and peace. My heart swelled and he convinced me to visit Jackson with him for Thanksgiving of that year. It was during the weeks leading up to that visit that I had my dreams. This is the context that the words I had received came to me. As he and I made our way to Jackson that Thanksgiving, I shared my dreams with him. He took them more seriously than I did. Over the course of that trip, I would come to take them seriously as well. Here is the meaning of the dreams as I understand them now and I as understood them then.
The Interpretation of the First Word
The first dream was short and simple but the meaning meant a great deal to me. Confidence is not a luxury I’ve enjoyed in life, at least not in my early adulthood. To be confident enough to correct another on the rules of chess is beyond what I would ever imagine for myself. The dream had nothing to do with chess, but everything to do with the faith. While my discipleship was spotty, I did possess more than I had imagined. I knew the rules. That is, I knew the basics of the faith. Not only this, but I needed to imagine that I could appropriate the faith publicly, to an opponent for instance. The word to me was that I knew the rules. I did not have to pretend like I didn’t, which was a significant problem for me in my nominal Christianity. To fit into the world, you cannot oppose it. If you know the faith is opposed to the world, you have to pretend like it isn’t to make friends with the world. This leads to the interpretation of the second word.
The Interpretation of the Second Word
I had found myself between two battle fronts, running from one to join the other. Quite obviously, I had been trying desperately to make friends with the world. The more I did this, the more disparaged I became. I was willing to compromise greatly, but I knew the rules, and my compromises had their limits. Sex, drugs, and alcohol, the trifecta of youthful sins, I would not engage in. For every party attended, every social engagement joined, for every relationship pursued, I would inevitably find myself on the outside looking in. I was a sheep astray. I was on the wrong side. I knew the world’s enemy was actually my ally and the longer I resisted the Church, the more desperate my situation was. In my dream, I was fleeing the world and finally running into the arms of the Church.
The Interpretation of the Third Word
The previous words were general words. I could have heard those words and remained on the same general trajectory in life. I might have remained in my career and simply appropriated my faith to a much greater extent. This would have changed my life for sure, but not to the degree that the third word did. The first two words were words of condition: they told me who I was and where I belonged in quite abstract terms. The third word was a command. The third word required my obedience. For a good while, I thought the bridge could have been any bridge. The river could have been any river. However, the bridge that came to mind every time I imagined it was the only bridge of its kind I have seen: the I-40 bridge over the Mississippi River. The reason this particular bridge was fresh on my mind was that I had just crossed it to visit my dad in Atlanta prior to having the dream. In other words, I had crossed this bridge from west to east. It was on my trip to Jackson that Thanksgiving that I relayed my dreams to Kirby. We had taken the same route over the Mississippi, crossing from west to east a second time. During this trip, I befriended many of Kirby’s college friends who had taken a great interest in me. I immediately felt like I had arrived at home. As I ventured back on to I-40 to return to Jackson, with Switchfoot’s “I Dare You To Move” blaring on the stereo, I resolved to put my career on hold and spend the next season of life among these new friends. My heart was overflowing with joy and it occurred to me that were I to follow through with this plan, I would be completing a third crossing of the Mississippi from west to east thereby fulfilling obedience to the command in the dream: cross this bridge three times from the same direction. Doing so would be to flee into the arms of the church and free me to appropriate the faith I had never had the confidence to appropriate.
A quick word on the golden rope may be worth noting. This was a strange detail that I was beginning to write off as a bit of nonsense. However, when I returned to my apartment in Dallas and began to prepare for my move, one night in my living room, another word came to me. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Why it was not more obvious, I don’t know. Two years prior to all of this I had graduated from the Art Institute of Dallas. As is my wont each quarter I was convinced I had failed all of my classes. Without fail, each quarter I was surprised to receive all As and Bs. This is a phenomenon. How could I be so convinced of my own failure when the reality was much to the contrary! No matter how many times this had happened, I was convinced each quarter would be a different story. Quarter after quarter this happened. I told you, confidence has not been a luxury I’ve enjoyed. To top this phenomenon off, I made it to graduation. Despite the high marks, I sat at our rehearsal convinced that I had gotten there by the skin of my teeth. As the administrators carried on about details of the ceremony, something was uttered about a list of names. It was a list of students graduating with honors. Upon hearing this, my attention was turned off and I began thinking about other things. I faintly heard a familiar sound from the stage. It sounded like someone had said my name. I looked around at my peers hoping to see a face I knew to confirm that I heard that wrong. I had actually heard it right. Somehow, my name was on the list of those graduating with honors. I stumbled across my row and fell into the line of recipients. When I made it to the front, I was handed a little yellow rope that was to be worn over my shoulders to indicate to everyone that I had graduated “with honors.”
There in my lonely living room that night, it was as if the Lord had spoken to me. “The yellow rope is to remind you that you are far more capable than you suppose. I did not see you through the Art Institute to be an animator. Follow me and remember that I am leading you every step of the way. Remember the rope when you begin to doubt that I will accomplish in you what I intend.” As I finally cleaned my face of the snot from all of the crying, this word confirmed all that the others had already said. “Get out of thy country to a land I will show you.” On January 12, 2002, I crossed the Mississippi from west to east a third and final time. Somewhere buried in a box in a trailer was a yellow rope to remind me that I had no idea the goodness God had in store for me.
There is much more to this story but I share it because once again I am faced with the ridiculous idea that the Almighty God is concerned enough with little me to speak words. Of course, I cannot convince you that this has indeed happened any more than Abraham or Noah could convince his friends and family that they, too, had heard words from the Almighty. Yes, the caveat is that it is as if the Lord spoke to me. That is, I can only hear these words with the ears of faith. How ordinary! How disappointing! That may be the response from anyone who reads the above. My hope is not so much to convince you that I have actually received a word from the Lord thereby justifying some otherwise irresponsible decisions, but to explain to you that the greatest blessings in my life have not been the result of following conventional wisdom. Instead, the greatest blessings in my life have come from making the greatest (and most ridiculous) leaps of faith that have been presented to me. I am not saying that wisdom is dispensable. On the contrary, it is profoundly valuable. What I am saying is that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10). Put differently, wisdom is subject to God, not the other way around. When God speaks something that defies “conventional” wisdom, it must be supposed that His authority is greater than hers. Conventional wisdom says old women and virgins do not have babies. God’s wisdom says to build an ark.
My hope is to obey these words if and when they come. It is by seeing others obey such words that the Scriptures seem less fanciful. It is when I see others groping in the dark for God and hearing how he startled them by groping back that I am encouraged to likewise grope (Acts 17:27). Here I am, nearly fifteen years after I arrived in Jackson, still groping, praying, asking, seeking, knocking. Was it all in my head? Was it all a mistake? Is anyone really there to hear me? Why do I keep praying for the same things?
And then an email landed in my inbox. God, indeed, startled me and our hands touched.