I was in my senior year of seminary in 2002 when I had a dream in which I saw a driftwood cross so finely crafted that it drew me closer until I could examine it carefully. It was both beautiful and sorely beaten by the elements. I had to climb a ladder to remove it from where it hung above the door of a church. I took it down and turned it in my hands to fully examine all the words carved into the crossbeam. The words were intertwined like grapevine, such that I had to turn the cross to see them all. Together, they spelled out two verses: one from the bible, and another from singer, songwriter, Bob Dylan, who just won the Nobel Prize for literature — the only musician to date to do so.
The verses on this cross I envisioned read: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) and “Come in she said, I’ll give ya … shelter from the storm.” (Bob Dylan, Shelter From The Storm, ©1974)
As the dream continued, I saw that the church whose doorway held this cross was a beach community near an ocean. The people who came through the doors of that church were most certainly weary and heavy-burdened, though I did not know why.
Ten years later, in 2013, I began my 3rd call as a pastor at the church I had seen in my dream. The cross imprinted in my mind from that vision was not actually in this church, but the doorway itself was the same, and the people I came to love who came through that door were clearly weary and heavy-burdened. Melbourne Beach was hit hard by two back-to-back hurricanes in 2004. The sanctuary and fellowship halls of Grace Lutheran Church and preschool were destroyed; it took years for the community to rebuild this sacred space as well as their individual homes.
The toll of their effort was written on their faces as I got to know them and evident in their quiet voices as they tentatively told the story. They spoke as if even describing the extent of the destruction caused them pain. Overtime I began to understand that some of their quirks — an obsession with never running out of ice, for example, was a kind of PTSD from living for weeks with no refrigeration and no air conditioning and insufficient garbage pick-up. I was also humbled by witnessing their abiding gratitude for the paradise in which they lived. Not a person in that community seemed to take their environment for granted. They lived every day fully aware that alongside the natural beauty of their environment was the knowledge that another hurricane could trigger their trauma and steal their sense of safety at any time.
This past summer, I moved from that community to take a call in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When I told my mother, she reminded me that when my firstborn son, now 27, was still in a stroller, she and I had been at the Ann Arbor Art Fair together, and I had said to her, “I’m going to live in this town someday.”
Fourteen years ago, when I had the vision of that cross, I had no idea I would come to serve and love a people who were recovering emotionally from Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which had not yet happened when I had the dream. I also did not know that Hurricane Matthew would loom large as their worst nightmare almost immediately after I left them.
And so last week, as we all watched the increasingly dire reports of Hurricane Matthew’s travels, I found myself strangely straddled between two communities: the one that I had just left, and the one I was just coming to –both of which my spirit had somehow forecast that I would be connected to in meaningful ways.
I am happy to report that the town of Melbourne Beach weathered Matthew well. Friends there who feared a loss of jobs and homes report that the damage is mostly cosmetic; the structures of their homes and the church held strong. The children I came to love returned to school this week. The clean-up is doable and has begun with thanksgiving. There is a palpable sense of relief.
I am also happy to read that Bob Dylan is being honored in such a meaningful way for his life’s work of poetic storytelling that inspired generations in its imagery, its truth-telling, and its resistance to providing the easy answer to complex issues. Possibly my favorite Dylan tune is Hurricane, which tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer wrongly-convicted and imprisoned. Dylan wrote the song after visiting Carter in prison. It is interesting to me that Dylan’s initial response after visiting Carter was not inspiration or composition, but silence. But when he emerged from that silence, the song he wrote played a role in Carter’s eventual release by increasing public awareness and financially supporting his defense.
I have not been able to write for many weeks. Inspiration is not something one can will, and this blog is too personal for me to treat it as an item on a to-do list. The transition from one community I loved to another one I feel called to love was an experience that demanded silence.
But today, when I heard about Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, a sense of relief broke open within me. It was as if this honor bestowed upon him freed me to create again. Bob Dylan is so much more than a musician. He is more than a mystic who channels imagery into memorable poetry. He is more than a spiritual brother who has struggled with temptations and failed relationships and fame. He is an artist who was not afraid to write what was given to him, to name injustices in song, and to try to effect change through lyrical storytelling that would fan the flame within those who had been silenced.
Bob Dylan, first and foremost, is a storyteller. And without ever having met him, our stories are tangled up in the way they witness to the tragedy and the hope all around us and the depth of emotion present in complicated situations in which unlikely people find themselves struggling together.
I am thankful to God Almighty that the people of Melbourne Beach were not pushed all the way back to the weary state in which I first found them.
I am thankful to God for songwriters and poets like Bob Dylan, whose art inspires generations and haunts us with both beauty and truth.
I am thankful to the people I’ve met thus far in and around my new home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A home in which I feel free to fully tell my story. It is a story of people in many places with holy experiences that we can neither explain or deny. It is a story I tell to witness to the way God continues to call life out of death, in the lives of both ordinary people and genuine rock stars.
“Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.”