It was a normal early summer evening, cicadas chirping as dusk settled over my neighborhood. I would graduate from high school in one week, and after that I would start packing for college and whatever lay beyond. For the past ten years I had spent every summer in the wilderness of northern Wisconsin, first at a summer camp and then on increasingly rustic expeditions into Michigan, Minnesota, and Canada. Just the previous summer I had canoed and hiked 250 miles on a remote river accessible only by helicopter in many places. It was my greatest joy to travel in the woods with a small group of companions, forging lasting friendships over hardtack, capsized canoes, bald eagle sightings, and late nights around the fire.
On that summer evening before graduating from high school, I eagerly anticipated returning to the woods for one last trip before starting college, and I planned to begin leading trips myself in the coming summers. These dreams mixed pleasantly with the cooling breeze as I started on my after-dinner bike ride to the local elementary school playground. I enjoyed swinging on the empty swing set there and thinking about the future. Even as an 18-year-old on the brink of adulthood, I loved jumping off the swings like a kid, feeling my stomach lurch as the force of my pumping legs launched me high into the air. I pretended I was a champion long jumper—a title that had eluded me in high school for largely genetic reasons. As I flew through the air, I would reach as far forward as I could, landing with a gentle crunch in the gravel like my childhood heroes Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“One last jump,” I thought, “and then I’ll ride home and help Mom plan my graduation party.” I centered myself on the flexible black seat and pushed off, moving my legs back and forth in rhythm with the swing. Pretty soon I was flying high. Only this time I knew as soon as I let go of the swing’s chains that something wasn’t right. My shirt had caught on the bottom rung of the chain, so when I jumped, ten feet off the ground, I lost my bearings. This happened because my body twisted when the shirt snagged and momentarily held onto the chain. Instead of the graceful arc and landing I normally made, legs and arms extended, I flailed through the air, landing with a loud thud on the ground—a loud thud and an inaudible snap, as the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my right knee tore in two.
What followed was hobbling across the stage to receive my diploma, and eventually surgery, physical therapy, a morphine drip, an infected incision, and a resolve so strong that I did actually go on a wilderness trip at the end of that summer. I still found the same camaraderie and joy in the woods, but I was not the able-bodied, optimistic leader of the pack that I wanted to be. I was slow, hiking in a heavy brace. A badly sprained ankle on the second day of the trip led me perpetually to the rear of the group and eventually unable to participate in these trips at all. My dream was broken.
Joseph had a dream as well: he was engaged to be married, and then he found out that his fiancée was pregnant. Knowing he wasn’t the father, he was likely heartbroken. But being humble and gracious, Joseph “did not want to disgrace Mary publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly” (Matthew 1:19b, NLT). What happened next, however, caused yet another change of plans: an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph would be the child’s earthly father, and he and Mary were to name him Jesus, which in Hebrew means “deliverer.”
In some versions of the Bible, this part of the Christmas story is captioned “Joseph Accepts Jesus as His Son.” Joseph’s dream was broken at first. Beyond Mary’s apparent unfaithfulness, Joseph was probably not planning on raising the savior of the world. With God’s help, though, he came to accept this new calling. We aren’t told if at times Joseph wished his life had turned out as he had planned—perhaps raising a family quietly with his beloved Mary. Instead they were saddled with God incarnate questioning their parenting (see the story of the boy Jesus staying behind in the temple for three days and then saying his parents shouldn’t be worried by his absence). Joseph was also slowly thrust into the public eye as Jesus’ ministry expanded, and the earthly father eventually watched as the divine son was cruelly murdered on a cross. And yet, Joseph accepted Jesus as his son. An often difficult choice, but one that he made with God’s help.
In my own life, my injuries healed, but not perfectly. To this day I cannot be as active as I want to be, and I will likely face arthritis as I get older. But when my wilderness dreams crumbled, God led me on a different path. Instead of leading trips in the summers, I participated in an internship program where I met a golf-playing, wine-sipping intellectual who became the love of my life. I assure you I never would have met him on a remote hiking trail in the woods. We have four wonderful children whom I now consider to be the students I lead on paths where they need guidance and care. I do look around wistfully sometimes, especially on days when my husband and I argue and my kids’ personalities don’t exactly sparkle. I imagine myself with a pack on my back, friends by my side, and knees and ankles without scars. Sometimes I still want that broken, impossible dream, and I wonder where God is. Then I look around, take in the beauty of my new path, and realize that God is on it with me even though it’s not the way I would have chosen.
Do you have a broken dream? Where is God in the midst of it?