MORE THAN A DREAM
This article was first published in the Banner of Truth magazine as an editorial by Maurice Roberts. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the Trust which has recently published a collection of these editorials in a book entitled, The Christian’s High Calling.
It is in similar format to a previous book. The Thought of God. Both of these books are of deep spiritual value and are warmly commended to our readers. This article is one of the more unusual in the collection but is very vivid in its sad commentary on the suffering of so many godly believers in churches which have long drifted from the high standards of a past godliness. Editor.
I was carried back in my dream to the olden days, and I was set down outside a church built of rough stone and surrounded by a graveyard. It was service time, for as I stood at the church door the simple people of that place were wending their way to the house of God, summoned by a bell. Old men and women, those in the prime of life and their children with them, walked quietly along in groups. Their modest dress and restrained conversation showed their respect for the Sabbath and betrayed the fact that they were preparing their minds for the worship of God before they entered the house of worship.
When the church was full I was taken in my dream inside and caused to sit unobserved in a seat near the front. No ornament disfigured the building. I saw no stained glass figures, no cross, no altar, no superstitious symbol. The wooden pews were neatly shaped, the walls bare, the ceiling rafters strong and rugged, like the worshippers themselves. A gallery at the back, like the ground floor, was filled with people silently waiting for the service to begin.
Suddenly the bell ceased and with scarcely a pause a side door opened and a group of venerable elders moved forward to take their places in the seat beneath the pulpit. Last of all came the minister. He was an old man dressed in black and with white hair. His back stooped a little and his walk was slow and uneven. The eyes of all were on him as he mounted the pulpit steps and opened the book from which God’s praise was to be sung by all the congregation. As I looked at the old preacher I saw there was a mixture of sternness and gentleness written in the lines of his face. He opened the little book of spiritual songs with fingers which seemed as if they stroked each familiar page affectionately. I later saw that, when he came to read the large Book before him on the pulpit cushion, he turned each leaf with love, as a man might turn the pages of a volume made of gold.
When the selected song was announced and partly read over by the preacher, the congregation commenced singing the praises of the God who sits above upon His throne. At first it sounded like the voices of men. But as the sacred psalmody proceeded I was aware that a glory began to fill the house. In my dream I remember looking up as the singing died away and I saw what I am sure had not been there before – shining beings above the heads of the worshippers and, higher still, as
if it were a great shadow of the very throne itself. When I saw this, I felt I knew not what of awe and calm reverence. I am sure that others felt it too because I noticed a change came over the people, especially the older ones, who no doubt had had experience of these things in the past. Several hid their faces in their hands. But even so I saw that they could not hide the tears in their eyes. It was a holy time.
Next, the preacher prayed. His words were not affected but plain, natural and full of scriptural thought. He addressed God as one who is accustomed to the work of conversing with the Eternal. Each measured sentence carried with it some lofty thought of the divine greatness, as if he would enjoy the very thought of God to the utmost of his power. Each subsequent petition craved a vast measure of grace, pardon and support for all his people.
In my dream I glimpsed the fall of satanic powers as he prayed and I thought I saw in vision the dawning of that bright day when the church of Christ is all made up and the state of glory come in. His ‘Amen’ was so solid and resounding that I thought the distant heavens above thundered with their echoing approval. The people’s hearts too had been in that prayer for I perceived that not a few of them sat down with the beauty of holiness on their faces.
When the readings of the preacher from the great Book were finished and all the earlier singing concluded, I saw that he rose to preach his sermon and the people settled to listen to him as those who are about to hear a messenger from God. A solemn hush came upon all the congregation as he announced his text and proceeded to bring forth things old and new out of the Scriptures. I myself listened to the man’s voice as earnestly as if he had been an angel, for he seemed to glow as he warmed to his theme. Indeed, his frail form grew strong again as he got into his subject and his hoary hairs shone about his dear head as he declared his Master’s message. About half an hour into his sermon the preacher paused to look around him, especially on the young, and he had to draw out his handkerchief because his eyes were now streaming with tears of pity and fatherly love. I thought his heart would break at the thought that even one of his hearers might fail to meet him in the heavenly kingdom above.
It was at this point that I had my attention drawn to a young man seated not far from me. I had noticed him before because he seemed to be out of his element in that place. He wore a fine suit of clothes and obviously felt proud of his appearance. From time to time he had looked down at his watch like someone eager to be out of the sanctuary and back in the world. I had seen him out of the corner of my eye with pity. But I had not paid any very special attention to him till now, when the preacher started to weep over the souls of those who were careless. Then a wondrous change came over the youth. As when a spark from the blacksmith’s forge flies out at random and catches alight in a heap of dry straw, so some sentence of the preacher’s must have burned into
his young heart with a mysterious power. In an instant the youth’s countenance was altered. He was riveted by the preacher. He forgot himself and all this world. Instead he saw himself dangling over a lake of everlasting fire and felt the first dreadful gnawings of the worm which will forever devour the consciences of the godless in another world.
When the sermon was over this youth lifted up his head from his knees. For all the rest of the time since the change began in him, he had it hidden as low as it could go. When I saw it again it appeared to me to be the face of a new man. I never in all my life saw a more chastened expression on any man and I knew that he had felt the peace which all those feel who abide under the shadow of the throne.
The service being ended with a benediction, the venerable preacher came slowly down from his pulpit and the elders rose in respect and each man grasped his hand before he left to return to his room. And so the people quietly went out, some with a heavenly shine on their faces, and some with their heads bowed low for fear of grieving the majestic Being whose house they had been privileged to sit in.
As for me, I did not know whether I had been out of the body or in the body. But my heart burned in me as I rose, all unnoticed, to go out after them all. I tried, as I left, to discover what church this had been where I had so sat and worshipped. But it was more than I could do to find this out. I supposed though that it might have been in some Puritan place years ago, or in New England amongst its early pilgrims. Or was it in the Wales that once was … or in some Scottish glen? I partly think it did not matter where I was on earth because it had been a meeting with eternal things. I recall that when I got outside, the sky was blue and the sun was hot above me. And when I thought of God I wept aloud for very happiness.
Now I had this dream some time ago and I had not expected to tell it to any man, but I tell it now because I recently had the dream all over again, as I must now explain.
In my second dream I stood outside the church I saw before. It was a Sabbath and there came along the street, now finely paved and very broad, that same young man whose spiritual alteration I have told about. But now the youth was grown old and slow. He walked with difficulty on a stick and in his face there was some similarity to the venerable preacher through whose sermon he had come to love heavenly things. At the church gate he stopped and drew out a key to enter the building where his fathers once worshipped God. There were no crowds to fill the house of prayer any more. Neglect and poverty could be seen on every hand. To tell the truth, he was the only man alive who would take any care of the place where once great worship had been offered up. But wars and human fickleness had changed society since his youth. Death had carried his forefathers to the grave. Alone
this aged saint would every week open the house of worship for love of God and man.
In my dream I followed the man inside and heard him sigh as he looked on every hand and muttered ‘Ichabod’ as if to those who had once been fellow worshippers with him then. Not twenty persons gathered for the service that was held in that place once in the month and which happened to fall on this day. As for me, I was caused to sit where I had sat in my first dream and it was so very different I could have wept till my eyes were dim. But as I waited for the service to begin I saw a young man, light and trivial, walk up the pulpit steps and his face bore a foolish smile which contrasted incongruously with the face of the old preacher whom I had seen in my earlier dream. No shining beings came in with us as we sang, nor did we sense the shadow of the throne above us as we listened to this new kind of sermon making. For all that I can remember, there was little else in the sermon other than dull comments and a few unprepared remarks which raised a momentary laugh. A few did laugh, especially of the most ignorant persons present. But I observed that such laughter only produced a painful look on the old elder’s face. But this he hid as best he could. He hoped the best of all, and clearly thought that he should not appear uncheerful to the young who, he said often to himself, have never known the glories of past days. After the service was over I saw that he did not speak severely to the novice preacher but took from his inside pocket a volume of choice theology, which he asked the young man kindly to receive as a gift and urged upon him the importance of secret prayer.
There being no one else to close up the building but the old man, he waited till the little gathering of people had all gone and then, with as much care as if it were a palace, he checked every door and finally locked the stout iron gate. He did not, as I expected, make straight for home but picked his way through the old gravestones till he came to the monument which marked the place where his own beloved minister had been laid to rest many years ago. Here he took off his hat and laid his stick against the stone. With difficulty he got down upon his knees, and I saw that he must have done this often because the grass of that spot was worn down with his constant kneeling in prayer. Above his head the sky was blue and the sun shone down warm and bright.
I wish it were permitted to me to tell you all that I heard and all that I felt as the old saint poured out his prayer to the Eternal, for I heard every word in my dream but I may not repeat it all now. But so much I may tell. When this man lifted up his soul I heard him groaning to the God of his fathers. One phrase he repeated as if his dear heart would crack:
‘Return, return, return, O how long?’ He wrestled in his praying as if with an angel.
Indeed, I verily believed an angel would appear, so loudly did he cry out and so deeply did he groan.
His praying done, the old man rose unsteadily to his feet and reached for his stick and for his hat so as to go home. And as he turned to go I heard and saw a thing which, I am certain, he was not aware of. But I, being in my dream, both saw and heard it clearly. In the distant heavens came the gentle roll of thunder and on the far horizon appeared again the presence of the shining beings I had seen in my first dream. Then -awesome to relate – across all that land appeared the shadow of the throne of Him who lives forever and who answers prayer.
Whether the old man knew it or not I cannot say, but I saw that there would be a new morning for that church, so long neglected and decayed. Even as I looked to the far horizon I saw a glimpse of the glory which was to come in God’s wise time.
And when I awoke I knew it was more than a dream.