For God does speak—now one way, now another— though no one perceives it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings, to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride, to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword. Job 33:14-18 (NIV)
I woke at 2:30 this morning out of a deep sleep and disturbing dream. Like most dreams it was surreal and strange. A thread of storyline was wound loosely around snatches of scenes and emotions. Terrorists were after me. I could trust no one and spent much of my time hiding and trying to avoid those who I knew were enemies bent on my death. I found myself entering what appeared to be a pre-game meeting with the Judson University men’s basketball team when I realized that the room was set to explode. I ran for the door and was barely outside when the bomb went off. Suddenly I was in the custody of two or three of the terrorists and they were dragging me away. I struggled from their grasp and ran for my life. I turned a corner and found that a large contingent of people from my alma mater had arrived (basketball fans, presumably?) and were getting off a bus. If I could just reach them I would be safe, but everything was moving in agonizing slow motion.
I’m not sure what to make of all that. Perhaps it was simply the effect of some bad pepperoni from my pizza the other night.
My local community of Jesus followers has been exploring the subject of dreams and visions of late, beginning with a look at the dreams, visions, and visitations surrounding the Christmas story. There were a lot of them when you think about it:
Zechariah (John the Baptist’s dad), had a vision in which the angel told him his barren wife was pregnant.
Mary had a visitation telling her she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit with the Messiah.
Joseph had a dream telling him not to put Mary away, but to marry her.
The shepherds were visited by the angelic host telling them of Jesus’ birth.
The Magi were warned in a dream to go home and avoid Herod.
Simeon had received a vision that he would not die before he had seen the Christ.
Joseph was warned in a dream to flee with his family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous wrath.
I have no doubt that God speaks to people in dreams, in visions, and in visitations. It happens time and time again throughout God’s story. Elihu makes a point of it in his words to Job in today’s chapter. God can and does speak to people through dreams. I believe it a gross mistake to deny this, to close myself off to the truth of it, or harden my heart against the possibility that God might speak to me in such a way.
By the same token, I don’t believe that God speaks to all people through all dreams. A dream may be spiritually significant, inspired by Holy Spirit. A dream may be the surreal by-product of memories, thoughts, and emotions inspired by bad pepperoni. I tend to think that the latter is a common reality, while the former is more the exception than the rule. When signs and wonders become common, everyday occurrences they cease being wonders.
Today, I’m thinking about the wonder of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and the role that dreams, visions, and visitations played in this most momentous of events in human history. I’m thinking about my own life journey in which wondrous events of divine design seem to happen on prescribed occasions for specific purpose. They are interspersed by long periods of mundane, daily toil. I’m thinking about finding and maintaining healthy balance and perspective in all of this. I don’t ever want to be guilty of chasing after obscure, hidden meaning in my dreams while ignoring the plain truth presented clearly in God’s Message.
By the way, I’m also thinking about the Judson University men’s basketball team who blew up in my dream last night. Sorry guys. I’m not a prophet, and I really don’t think that was from God. Blame the pepperoni. Go Eagles!
“Jump back!” Here’s a little blast back to the 1980’s. This is a picture of me sitting in Prof. Satre’s office at Judson College. Gotta love the turned up Izod collar (back when Izod and Lacoste were one) and the Members Only jacket.
“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but they have not gained the victory over me.” Psalm 129:2 (NIV)
Part of the conversation over the dinner table last night was focused on people whose attitudes and behaviors ruin our day. I thought about that discussion into the evening last night and have been thinking about it here in the early morning hours. The truth is, I have a choice in my own attitude and in how I respond to others. Woe unto me when someone’s negative attitude, hurtful words or actions injure my own spirit and attitude, for I have given them the power to do so. I have allowed it. I have surrendered myself to them rather than choosing to rise above it.
Over the past month or so there has been a lot of attention in the media to the passing of Nelson Mandela and of the annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The more I learn about these men, and I have much to learn, the greater respect I have for them. I am impressed by those who face true oppression in life (not the farcical daily annoyances I dramatically mistake for oppression), yet doggedly choose to maintain a positive spirit and refuse to give in to negativity, despair, hopelessness, or vengeance.
The past few weeks a fellow alumnus of my alma mater, Judson University, has been unjustly languishing in a Philippine prison. I met Tom Randall when I was a student at Judson and he made regular visits to the campus to speak in chapel about his missionary work. Tom is a passionate Jesus follower and has sacrificed himself to do great things for the poor and orphans of the Philippines. When you do great things, you will inevitably face strong (and often unjust) opposition. A few weeks ago, Tom was wrongfully accused and incarcerated in Manila. He is in ill health. This past Sunday, I had a chance to watch the video at the top of this post. One of Tom’s best friends shares the story of Tom’s imprisonment and the amazing way God can turn oppression into a powerful force for good. It’s well worth your time today to watch it.
Tom Randall’s story, Nelson Mandela’s story, and MLK’s story all provide me with needed perspective this morning. Today, I’m choosing to shrug off the minor annoyances of others and the negativity around me. I will not give myself over. Rather than surrendering my mind and spirit to antagonistic people and circumstance, I’m choosing to surrender my mind and spirit to God, who empowers me to soar.
Meanwhile, the boy Samuel served the Lord by assisting Eli. Now in those days messages from the Lord were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon.
One night Eli, who was almost blind by now, had gone to bed. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God. Suddenly the Lord called out, “Samuel!”
“Yes?” Samuel replied. “What is it?” 5 He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?” 1 Samuel 3:1-5a (NLT)
I have rarely told the story of the beginning of my spiritual journey. Like Samuel, I was called by God as a young man and after sharing the story with my friend Kevin for the first time this past year, he challenged me to share it in a blog post. I have been waiting for the right time. This morning as I read about God’s calling of young Samuel and see the loose parallel, I think that this is the time. Be prepared. This will be a longer post than usual.
I was raised in a nice little neighborhood Methodist church. I like to joke that despite all that I was taught in the Methodist church, I still believed in God. Like a lot of kids in the junior high or middle school age, I experienced the crisis of trying to figure out who I was in the world. I had been “confirmed” in church at the age of 13 and my parents let me know that after being confirmed I was allowed to decide for myself whether I wanted to attend church or not. I believed in God at this point. I mentally accepted the basic tenets of the Christian faith. In retrospect, however, I didn’t have a relationship with the God in whom I said I believed.
After confirmation I stopped going to church for a while. I was a good kid. I enjoyed my junior high years, but over a short period of time there grew within me a nagging confusion about life and what it all meant. I felt depressed and sunk into full blown teen angst. Realizing that I had not been to church regularly for a while I decided to return, wondering if that might not be part of the answer. I got involved in my youth group and started to feel better about things.
In February 1981, a girl in my youth group invited me to make an hour long trip to Marshalltown with her and her dad on a Friday night to hear some guy speak. She was a senior, I was a freshman, and I had a bit of a crush on her – so of course I said “yes.” There was another friend from church going and it sounded better than anything else I might be doing on that Friday night. The speaker was part of a weekend conference at a church there Marshalltown. I listened to this guy talk about God in a way I had never, ever heard before. He spoke about faith being a living relationship with God which was something very different from the simple mental acquiescence to certain spiritual truths that I had always considered “my faith.” Jesus spoke of the eyes of your heart being opened to see the truth clearly, and that night I experienced it personally. The eyes of my heart were opened for the first time. I committed my life to following Jesus. I asked Him to come into my heart to start a personal relationship together. There was a subtle, but substantial shift in my soul. I knew I would never be the same, which has proven true to this day.
My sister, Jody, is two years older than me. Upon arriving back home late that night I shared with her what had happened to me and pretty much demanded that she go with us the following night. She did, and that night I could tell that the eyes of her heart were being opened too. At the end of the service an invitation was given to any who wanted to start a relationship with Jesus and follow Him. She went forward to pray and I was left sitting in the pew praying. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting about 4-5 pews back on the stage right side of the stage right section of pews.
At this point, let me explain that I don’t claim to have spiritual dreams and visions all the time. God may work that way with others, but I have only heard God speak to me clearly on a handful of occasions in 35 years (that’s another blog post, for another day). That cold Saturday night in February was the first time. As I sat in the pew praying, I suddenly felt like I was dreaming in deep REM sleep. In the dream I was sitting in the pew right where I was, but as I looked up toward the front of the church I saw myself standing on the platform speaking just like the guy whom we’d listened to the past two nights. “You are going to proclaim My Word,” a voice said to me. I knew it was God’s voice. Here I was, a young kid in Iowa, hearing God’s voice just like the boy Samuel heard in the temple in today’s chapter.
That was it. Dream over. I was back in my pew watching my sister praying to start her own relationship with Jesus. But, I knew what I saw and heard. It sounded so crazy at the time, but I knew that it was real. That night I went home and told my parents that God had called to me that night. Mom was folding clothes on the family room floor. Dad was laying on the couch. They were watching television. I think they must have wanted to check my pockets for hallucinogens.
“Okay God,” I remember praying shortly thereafter. “If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to open the doors for it to happen, because I don’t know what to do.” I began reading and studying the Bible voraciously. A few weeks later, an adult approached me at church.
“In April, we’re having a youth service,” she said. “We were wondering if you would agree to be one of the youth to share the sermon that morning.”
About eight weeks after God called to me in a dream, I preached my first message.
The following summer my parents, having seen a very distinct change in my sister and me, reaffirmed their own faith in Jesus. As a family we decided to leave our little neighborhood church and start attending another church a few blocks away. This church had a large youth group and also had a youth “Gospel Team” (think “Glee” for Christians). My sister decided to join the Gospel Team and early that fall there was a kick off concert at the church. The Gospel Team Director pulled me aside the week before the concert and asked me if I’d be willing to share my story during the concert. I agreed and during a break in the concert I shared the story about how I decided to become a follower of Jesus.
After the concert, the director sought me out. “I think you’ve got a gift,” he said. “I’m wondering if you’d be interested in joining our team. In a few weeks we’ll start going out every Sunday night to do concerts in different churches around the state. I’d like you to consider going with us and giving a message at each concert.”
And so, less than a year after hearing God’s call to proclaim His Word I was travelling around the state every week doing just that. My Gospel Team experience led to other opportunities to speak in churches, camps, and other groups. But, the story doesn’t end there.
I attended Judson College (now University) for four years where God continued to give me opportunities to speak and to teach. I was even the campus Student Chaplain for a year. As I prepared to graduate, I wondered what I was going to do and thought I might pursue full-time pastoral ministry, but I was newly married and didn’t really want to rack up more debt with grad school. Youth Ministry is a common first step breaking into pastoral ministry, so I began applying for positions as a youth pastor.
There was one youth ministry position open that I desperately wanted, but had little chance of getting. It was a large church with a large youth group and a solid reputation. I figured that without a seminary degree and with no experience there was no way I would even be considered for the job, but I sent in my resume anyway. A few weeks later I received a phone call and a subsequent phone interview, but shortly after the interview I received the polite “thanks, but no thanks,” letter from the search committee. I continued to pursue other options.
Weeks went by and I was no further in figuring out what I was going to do after school. I interviewed and was accepted into the Master’s program in acting at the University of Iowa (ironically, my 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success blog post is now a fixture on their department’s homepage). However, that didn’t seem like the right avenue for me any more than going to seminary. Either option would only add to my debt load and my young wife was less than thrilled with the idea of having to continue working full time to support us.
Then, out of the blue, the Chairman of the search committee for the youth pastor position I figured I would never get called me. “We’ve been praying a lot as a committee,” he said, “And the Holy Spirit keeps bringing you back into our conversation. It’s kind of crazy, but we believe we’re supposed to invite you for another interview.” And so I interviewed again. Quickly, I was asked to visit the church for a weekend round of interviews culminating in me giving the message in the Sunday morning worship service and being voted on by the congregation.
And so, I visited the church the following weekend. I breezed through the interviews. On Sunday morning I stood up on the platform to proclaim God’s Word. Incidentally, it was the same platform I had seen in my dream seven years earlier when God called me. I was interviewing for a position in the very church in Marshalltown where my faith journey following Jesus began and where I heard God’s call. The dream like vision I had been given of standing on the platform in that church was literally fulfilled.
Samuel’s story is one in a long string of examples of God calling and using the young, the weak, and the least to accomplish His purposes. My own story has caused this truth to resonate deep within me. Every person who enters into a relationship with Jesus and is a part of the body of Christ has been spiritually gifted to accomplish God’s divine purpose. This is true no matter the age, social status, gender, background, experience, history, pedigree, or educational level. You don’t need a degree, a certificate, or a stamp of approval from the board of your local church. Using the gifts you’ve been given to serve God and others is part of the daily journey of any Jesus follower.
I have a confession to make. I was a theatre major in college (yes, complete with the snooty but appropriate “re” spelling). I’ll wait for you to stop snickering. Judson University (it was Judson College when I attended), the small liberal arts college outside of Chicago labeled the major course of studies as “Communication Arts” which is what I tend to put on resumes and bios because I realize that “theatre major” tends to elicit thoughts such as “Do you want fries with that?”
When I chose my major, I had no pipe dreams about becoming a professional actor. I did it because more than one wise adult had advised me that my actual major in college would have less impact on my eventual job search than having the actual degree. “Study what you love” I was told, “not what you think will get you a job.” I listened for once and chose theatre because I’d done it all through my secondary education, I had relative success doing it, and because I simply loved being a part of it. Fortunately, my parents gave me absolutely no grief about my choice (unlike most of my fellow majors. Thanks mom & dad!)
Fast forward 25 years and, like many people, I am no where near the waypoint on life’s road I envisioned I’d be back in college. Almost 20 years as a business consultant and now a business owner with a modestly successful track record in my business and blogging, I realize how much being a theatre major set me on the road towards success.
Here are 10 ways being a theatre major helped me succeed:
Improvisation. The great thing about the stage is that when it’s live and you’re up in front of that audience anything can, and does, happen. Dropped lines, missed entrances, or malfunctioning props require you to improvise while maintaining your cool. Theatre taught me how to focus, think quickly and make do while giving the impression that you’ve got it all under control. It’s served me well when clients, airlines, coworkers, or technology wreak unexpected havoc at the worst possible moment.
Project Management. A stage production is basically a business project. You have teams of people making up one team working to successfully accomplish a task on time, on budget in such a way that you earn the applause and an occasional standing ovation. Being taught to stand at the helm of a theatrical production was a project management practicum.
Working with a Limited Budget. Everybody who has worked on stage knows that it’s not the road to fortune. Most plays (especially small college shows) are produced on a shoestring budget. This forces you to be imaginative, do more with less and find creative ways to get the results you want without spending money. Ask any corporate manager and they’ll tell you that this pretty much describes their job. Mine too.
Dealing with Very Different Human Beings. The theatrical community is a mash-up of interesting characters. It always has been. From fringe to freakish to frappucino sipping socialites and everything in between, you’re going to encounter the most amazing and stimulating cross-section of humanity when you work in theatre. In my business career I have the unique and challenging task of walking in the CEO’s office in the morning to present our findings in an executive summary presentation and to receive a high level grilling. I will then spend the afternoon presenting the same data to overworked, underpaid, cynical front-line employees and get a very different grilling. Theatre taught me how to appreciate, understand and effectively communicate with a widely diverse group of human beings.
Understanding the Human Condition. Most people have the mistaken impression that acting is all about pretending and being “fake” in front of others. What I learned as a theatre major was that good actors learn the human condition intimately through observation and painfully detailed introspection. The better you understand that human being you are portraying from the inside out, the better and more authentic your performance is going to be. In my business I am constantly using the same general methods to understand my clients, their customers as well as myself and my co-workers. I believe that having a better understanding of myself and others has ultimately made me a better (though far from perfect) employee, consultant, employer, and ultimately friend. I didn’t learn methods of observing and understanding others in Macro Econ, I learned it in Acting I & Acting II.
Doing Whatever Needs to Be Done. When you’re a theatre major at a small liberal arts college there is little room for specializing within your field. You have to learn to do it all. Light design, sound engineering, acting, directing, producing, marketing, PR, set design, set construction, ticket sales, budgeting, customer service, ushering, make-up, and costuming are all things I had to do as part of my college career. Within our merry band of theatre majors we all had to learn every piece of a production because at some point we would be required to do what needed to be done. I learned that I can capably do just about anything that I need to do. I may not love it and I may not be gifted or excellent at it, but give me a task and I’ll figure it out. I now work for a small consulting firm that requires me to do a wide range of tasks. The experience, can-do attitude and indomitable spirit I learned in the theatre have been essential to success.
Hard work. I remember creating a tree for one of our college shows. We had no idea how we were going to do it, but we made an amazing life-like tree that emerged from the stage and looked as if it disappeared into the ceiling above the theatre. My team mates and I cut out each and every leaf and individually hot-glued them to the branches of the tree. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of them glued on while standing precariously on a rickety ladder high enough above the stage that it would make an OSHA inspector soil his boxers. Sleepless nights, burnt fingers and a few brushes with tragedy were needed to get that tree done. But, we got it done. It was fabulous. And a few days later we tore it down, threw it out, and got ready for the next production. C’est la vie. In business I have periods of time with unbelievable workloads in which there are sleepless nights, seemingly endless days and tireless work on projects that will be presented and then will be over. The report will be archived and I’m onto the next project. C’est la vie. I learned all about that as a theatre major.
Making Difficult Choices. You’ve got four parts and twenty four schoolmates who auditioned. Some of them are your best friends and fellow theatre majors. Do you choose the unexperienced jock because he’s best for the part or the friend and fellow theatre major who you fear will never talk to you again if you don’t cast him? My senior project was supposed to be performed outside in the amphitheater but the weather was cold, windy and miserable. Do I choose to stick with the plan because it’s what my actors are comfortable with and it’s what we’ve rehearsed and it will only stress out the cast and crew to change the venue at the last-minute? Or, do I choose to think about the audience who will be more comfortable and might actually pay attention and appreciate the performance if they are inside away from the cold, the wind and possible rain? [I changed the venue]. Any business person will tell you that difficult decisions must sometimes be made. The higher the position the harder the decisions and the more people those decisions affect. Being a theatre major gave me a taste of what I would have to digest in my business career.
Presentation Skills. Okay, it’s a no brainer but any corporate employee can tell you horror stories of having to endure long training sessions or corporate presentations by boring, unprepared, incompetent or just plain awful presenters. From what I’ve experienced, individuals who can stand up confidently in front of a group of people and capably, effectively communicate their message while even being motivating and a little entertaining are among the rarest individuals in the business world. Being a theatre major helped me be one of them.
Doing the Best You Can With What You’ve Got. Over the years I’ve told countless front line service reps that this is rule #1 of customer service. You do the best you can with what you’ve got to work with. I remember an Acting I class in college in which a pair of students got up to present a scene they’d prepared. They presented the scene on a bare stage with no lighting, make-up, costumes, props or set pieces. It was just two students acting out the script. It was one of those magic moments that happen with live theatre. The rest of the class was transfixed and pulled into the moment, reacting with surprising emotion to what they witnessed. You don’t need Broadway theatrics to create a magical theatrical moment on stage. You don’t even need a stage. The same is true of customer service. You don’t always need the latest technology, the best system, or the greatest whiz-bang doo-dads. A capable CSR doing the best they can and serving a customer with courtesy, empathy, friendliness and a commitment to resolve can and does win customer satisfaction and loyalty.
I’m proud to be an alumnus of Judson University. I’m really saddened that the school’s theatre program waned for a while and am encouraged that it shows signs of life once more. What I have learned I’ve tried to pass on to my own children. Study what you love. Follow your passion. It will serve you well wherever life’s road takes you.
Tom Vander Well graduated from Judson University earning a B.A. degree in Communications Arts with an emphasis in Speech/Theatre in 1988. He is currently President and CEO of Intelligentics, a market research and QA firm specializing in customer satisfaction research and call quality assessment (e.g. “your call may be monitored to ensure quality service”) where Tom has worked for 25 years. Tom found himself “waiting for Guffman” for over ten years and he served as President of Union Street Players, the award-winning community theatre in Pella, Iowa from 2005-2017. During that tenure he served as producer, director, actor and writer. He has also performed for Central College, the Pella Opera House, and the Pella Shakespeare Company. His play Ham Buns and Potato Saladwas presented at the Missouri Playwrights Workshop at the University of Missouri and an April 2014 premiere in Pella has been followed with subsequent area productions. His play Letters from Pella was presented at an international academic conference honoring Hendrik P. Scholte in 2018 and will be published in a subsequent academic journal with content from the conference.
Wendy and I have been trying to get to Michigan for the past few years to see our friends there. Wendy’s former roomie and bridesmaid, Jodi, and her husband Judd live just outside of Grand Rapids. Judd pastors a church there. One of my best friends and best man, Dave, and his wife Maria live in Grand Rapids and teach at Grand Valley State.
So, Wendy and I spent the better part of a dreary, cool, rainy week in Michigan. We didn’t mind, too much. The colors were beautiful and our hosts were warm and inviting. Grand Rapids is in the middle of a big public art contest/celebration called ArtPrize, so we spent a lot of time wandering Grand Rapids and viewing a small sample of the thousands of works of art on display around the city. I also took Wendy out on a date; We had dinner at the New Holland Brewing Company in Holland, MI followed by a performance of the River North Dance Company out of Chicago who were performing at the Knickerbocker Theatre as part of Hope College’s Great Performance Series. We had tickets to see RNDC in Des Moines a few years ago but the performance was cancelled. When I saw their name on the marquee in downtown Holland I figured it was a moment of synchronicity and jumped at the opportunity to take Wendy. It was a wonderful performance.
We spent two days with Judd & Jodi and their kids Jayla and Jax. We then spent a couple of nights with Dave and Maria. It was great to sit and visit with friends we don’t get to see very often. This morning we got in the car and headed to Judson where I’m helping emcee a big tribute event for some of my alma mater’s long time professors.
It’s been a nice week, but we’re both looking forward to the return home tomorrow!