We must bring the Now to now

Image result for valentine on a melting glacier

I suspect Valentine was a wizened elder, 
old and comfortable in his ways and position, 
when the authorities made their new law 
and thrust him into his new, secret obedience to Love. 

He once handed off his cross to the younger ones. 
But it quickly came around the track to him again. 
He was no longer the future but the now — 
the eternal now he knew so well beckoned him Home. 

And he brought that Home to his home. 
He brought that Now to now. 
He lived Eternally in the face of the powers 
who pretend to have the power of death. 

I know my Valentine is a wizened elder, 
old and comfortable in her ways and position. 
Yet the authorities still make their laws 
and thrust the young into choices which question all their love. 

What will You have us do with this baton we see, 
coming quickly to us across the melting glaciers 
in an age of lies when the evil go free 
and the machines bind the hearts and minds of the children? 

We must bring our Home to our home 
and bring our Now to now, 
and love Eternally in the face of the powers — 
prove they do not have the power of death 
over those who listen to the Spirit’s voice and follow. 

Beginning steps toward feeling beloved

you are my beloved son

“There are many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. These voices say, “Go out and prove that you are worth something.” Soon after Jesus had heard the voice calling him the Beloved, he was led to the desert to hear those other voices. They told him to prove that he was worth love in being successful, popular, and powerful.

—  Henri Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son

I have recommended Nouwen’s book many times over the years, especially to many people who struggle to see themselves as the beloved of God. You might sum up their struggle something like this: “That quote seems great but impossible. I haven’t earned it. My discomfort is related to the luxury of it. I am unworthy of something for which I did not work. I’m not saying that in regard to my salvation. I know I cannot work for that. I feel it in regard to the favor.  To declare victory over my need to work for the favor of God seems premature.”

Every human, regardless of their outward struggle in this unjust and unpredictable world, has an inner struggle with being loved – by others, by God and by themselves, usually in that order. I think the end of the struggle often begins with accepting love from another. And many people see accepting God’s love as a logical possibility as a result of human love. The problem with real liberation usually comes with loving ourselves — such love may seem unseemly or downright impossible, given all we know about ourselves.

The sound of genuineness

We may love others like the Lord loves us long before we love ourselves that way. Our first steps into love may be more faking it than making it. But such steps of love are better than no steps.  In Howard Thurman’s famous commencement address to Spelman College in 1980 he said:

You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.

It is good to be at the beck and call of your mates, your friends and your church. But it is best to answer their call from the genuine, the “I am” of you, the image of God in you, the spiritual gift in you, the conviction of the Holy Spirit in you.

It is good to listen to God’s voice, saving you in the word and work of Jesus, drawing and pushing you toward fullness. But it is best to respond genuinely, not just as an obedient child, but as a friend and partner, a lover.

Nouwen makes a point of reminding us that Jesus went into the wilderness to face the inner voices which told him he was not the one God named Beloved.  He needed that time and space because it takes contemplation to overcome the resistance we feel to genuine self love like God loves us. When I meet people for spiritual direction, their freedom often comes by telling the story of their inner journey. They often see how their past has trapped them and begin to imagine a future path to fullness.

Hate may be a surprising prelude to beloved

We sometimes think our present path is so despicable or hopeless we have a hard time imagining a future of living as God’s beloved, collaborating with our acceptance into the Family. In Jesus and the Disinherited, my favorite reread of 2020, Thurman says,

Hatred, in the mind and spirit of the disinherited, is born out of great bitterness, a bitterness that is made possible by sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality, giving to the individual in whom this is happening a radical and fundamental basis for self-realization…From within the intensity of their necessity, they declare their right to exist, despite the judgment of the environment. Hatred makes this sort of profound contribution to the life of the disinherited, because it establishes a dimension of self-realization hammered out of the raw materials of injustice.

I think Thurman would be fine if you related to this truth even if you are not descended from American slaves who still have a lot of glory to hammer out of the raw materials of injustice. It could easily be said that the best elements of Christianity unique to America is their ongoing work. You may or may not share their injustice, but you undoubtedly feel your own share.

I hope we are careful with one another as we help each other navigate to the self love which is often a final hurdle before freedom — the “love your neighbor as yourself” love that means you are beloved enough to love. Hatred of others and even oneself may be a beginning point for some people, but it is a self-defeating end point.

“Hate has no boundaries, and behaviors such as hypervigilance, suspicion, negativity, resentment, and bitterness will eventually spill over into other relationships,” even our relationship with God (see Adensanya). Eventually we need to forgive “the other,” God and ourselves. That’s moving toward “genuine.” Most of us won’t be able to meet such a demand at the beginning of our journey; there is hurt under that hate. We’ll need to be seen and heard, hopefully by a loving other, certainly by God and usually, finally, by ourselves.

Last week Gwen and I watched American Skin, which could serve as a parable for much of what I am trying to say.

The movie is a story in which hate propels an action against injustice, and in which people struggle to find forgiveness instead of vengeance, mutuality instead of constant warfare. It provides scant hope that the system is going to become less violent any time soon. But it beautifully shows how individuals and small groups, like your church, can experience another way. I think hating the “Great Other” of American racism makes sense. But I know loving God and loving my neighbor as myself makes more.

Devalued people devalue others. More tragically, they devalue themselves. They listen to the voices of condemnation and destruction that tell them they must fight for the right to be beloved. Each of us is on a journey toward liberation from that hell of violence with which we often collaborate. If some hater scares us, maybe we should light a candle of hope in their honor. Maybe that tiny spark of self-realization in their hate will grow into glory under God’s loving care. I think such an act of love might meet the definition of what Thurman calls “genuine.”

If we are tired of running into the same victimization that has plagued us for what seems like forever, maybe we can see that fatigue as the last gasp of control before we give up our struggle to be proven worthy and trust in God’s name for us. If we have experienced the love of others and understand the love of God on our behalf in Jesus but still run into our self-condemnation, maybe we can see that experience as a sign we are very close to more of the freedom we crave — at least we see and hear ourselves! Now we can turn into another step of trusting the One who calls each of us, “My beloved child,” and love that child ourselves.

Take the time: Grow in the good soil of God’s garden

“All liberating growth takes time.” That’s what Paul Tournier, the Swiss physician and counselor, taught us in one of his many great books, Creative Suffering (1981).

Most of my clients initially see this truth as bad news. One reason is they are paying for therapy, so  a long road to liberation could cost them a lot of money! But the main reason the long process is hard to endure is they can taste the first fruit of freedom and they want it all right now. They regret their time lost on immaturity. It feels like bad news to be reminded it takes time to heal; it takes time to learn and install new habits. I often describe the process of growing into our fullness as creating new “ruts” in the brain as we climb out of the old ones. Both adding the new and filling in the old takes time. This video explains the science of the process.

It is always the right time to grow

The fact that it takes time to experience liberation is actually good news, I think. Whenever I am growing, I am right on time! I may feel like I am late, but I am never too early! If we can let go of our linear, progress-dominated, capitalism-inspired sense of success, the time spent on liberation can come to feel like growth. It can feel free, like growing is our top priority, just like we see in plants as they move from seedling to plant, to flower, to fruit. They have nothing to do but grow.

The Apostle Paul reinforces how we have been restored to our natural growth process in Ephesians 4 when he describes how the gifts of the Holy Spirit we all contribute build up the body of Christ. The Spirit keeps moving in us

until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ…We must grow up in every way into him who is the head. (NRSV)

It feels good to be at home as the “plants” we are, growing in the soil of God’s love. That sense of innate capacity for becoming more is a taste of eternity. I’m fine if it takes as long as it takes.  Becoming whole can take as long as I live to complete – I have eternal life! It is not a defeat or an imposition to need maturity! It is a joy that comes with our birthright as the children of God to grow into fullness. Even if it is a struggle to change, growing is a good suffering.

VIDA E MORTE DE JESUS MAFA
Jesus, Gardener of the New Creation

Rut-making prayer

God calls us and coaxes us into our potential in many ways. I know of several men who recently had amazing dreams that convinced them they are loved and worthy. During the day they are prone to proving themselves and working extra hard to be successful and to be valued as a result, they hope. But during the silence of their sleep, their defenses weaken and God meets them. They are always trying to figure out how to get their dreamlife into their schedule!

God, the Healer, meets us in our spiritual awareness but also in the ordinary awareness that often dominates our consciousness and our schedule. That ordinary awareness forms ruts in our brain, the familiar pathways we began learning as infants. But we have a spiritual awareness that leads us in deeper ways that often feel miraculous.  As we intentionally become silent (or listen to our dreams) our receptivity opens us to face the unknown places we have yet to visit in Christ, both in God and in ourselves. It takes time! It is also daunting because it is sometimes frightening to leave our familiar neural pathways, to “unknow” our past and move into new territory in the Spirit, which feels like a place of “unknowing.”

I appreciate how Cynthia Bourgeault explores the process of maturing in her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (2004) as she is quoting Thomas Keating’s book Intimacy with God (1996).

Beginning in infancy (or even before) each of us, in response to our perceived threats to our well-being, develops a false self: a set of protective behaviors driven at root by a sense of need and lack. The essence of the false self is driven, addictive energy, consisting of tremendous emotional investment in compensatory ”emotional programmes for happiness,” as Keating calls them…

It is the false self we bring to the spiritual journey, our “true self” lies buried beneath the accretions and defenses. In all of us there is a huge amount of healing that has to take place before our deep and authentic quest for union with God – which requires tremendous courage and inner presence to sustain – escapes the gravitational pull of our psychological woundedness and self-justification. This, in essence constitutes the spiritual journey.

All liberating growth takes time. Jesus has replanted us in the good soil of his “garden.” We don’t need to fret if we discover we are a seedling. We can enjoy the growing. We are planted in grace, after all. That is enough in itself.

I think the “garden” where our true self grows is accessed best through contemplative prayer. If you want to grow faster, spend more time in silence, listening and feeling your way into your rightful place as the beloved of God. Our false self may flourish in the family, job and religion. But that false self withers in prayer, since is it the nature of contemplative prayer to dissolve it.

I mentioned three books today, any one of them would help you mature. I hope we all grow deeper ruts in which our true selves can flow by cooperating with the Great Healer. Jesus will lead us through the pain of transformation and the joy of growing – no matter how long it takes. We have time.

Take care of the common good: Meritocracy is a sham

I am going to end up at the stop sign above in a minute. But I am going to start by listening in as the elites have a belated chat about ethics.

Some academics are talking about the “meritocracy” — the idea that people rise and should rise to the optimum level of their value in the system. That is supposedly how things work in a capitalist democracy from being accepted to college to being promoted on the job.

What became of the common good?

The debate about whether meritocracy is a real thing (or moral if it is) mainly comes down to assessing what people think freedom means. Americans have a long infatuation with the idea that freedom means individual autonomy, just “doing your own thing” [Theme song] as long as you “do no harm.” But they waking up to the reality that such freedom is directly related to the lack of solidarity in American society. It has occurred to many people (long about when the Capitol was being stormed, perhaps) that a society with no shared ideals or mutual affection isn’t the happy place they once assumed it would be. If people think freedom means independence at any cost rather than a sense of worth and connection that allow for self-determination, we are in trouble. And we are in trouble.

I was there for the cultural revolution of the 1960s that spawned identity politics. I decided to follow Jesus so I have endured the increasing hostility to religion since then. I became untraditional, so I had to note how I added to the general contempt for tradition. I’ve lamented the market deregulation that created a whole layer of entrepreneur cowboys and megarich predators (I admit learning a lot from them). All these factors, combined with Reagonomics (which beget Trumponomics), legitimated greed, widened inequality and encouraged Americans to forget their collective identity. And all this development was certainly a shot at Jesus, who had been tempering the godless instincts of the country all along.

So I am happy I ran into Marty Moss-Coane interviewing Michael J. Sandel about his new book: The Tyranny of Merit: What Became of the Common Good?. I always love it when elitists catch up with Jesus. The gist of the book is in his Ted Talk video below. But here it is in a few sentences.

We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favor of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the American credo that “you can make it if you try.” The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fueled populist protest and extreme polarization, and led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens–leaving us morally unprepared to face the profound challenges of our time.

If Sandel were speaking as a Jesus-follower his book would be great preaching. He’s focusing on truths which much of the church has forgotten along with much of the society. But these truths have been in the Bible all along.

You have value as yourself

You are not what you produce or whatever fame or notoriety you achieve. You are not worth what your bank account or economic rung on the long climb up the stratospheric ladder toward the 1% might imply.

My clients need to be instructed never to look up “celebrity worth” on Google. Otherwise they might find out that Mark Wahlberg is worth $300 million while they can’t afford a new phone. Moreso, they need a constant push to turn away from the voices in their heads that accuse them of being of no value. Christians, especially would do well to consider it a sin to feel unworthy of the Lord’s free gift of life and grace, as if Jesus were stupid to die for them.

You do your work for the common good

Dr. King famously said the refuse workers in Memphis were just as important as doctors in the prevention of disease. Our newly-named “essential workers” are not paid like they are essential but we are at least recognizing that the whole ship goes down if they don’t make it float. We all help build whatever there is, or we are in the process of tearing it down.

In the church, that must be one of the top ten pieces of truth that make us the salt of the earth. The gifts of the Spirit are given for the common good and every part of the body of Christ is indispensably worthwhile. We need each other.

You did not get where you are because you deserve it.

When we are all autonomous, we are each condemned to make it on our own. Many of my clients are so condemned. Their parents did not want to bother their uniqueness by influencing them too much or even parenting them. They come to me as free-range children. Or their parents made it plain that it was crucial that they live up to their potential and rise to the top like the cream of the crop they are: “You can make it if you just believe and keep trying.” Now they are failures or fakers to the core.  How many TV ads tell us we need some shampoo or Cadillac because we deserve it? Most of us know that is not true, but we go with it anyway because that is common sense to Americans.

In the church many people let the elite run the place because that’s what’s supposed to happen. Sometimes they feel unworthy to speak — won’t talk to the pastor because “They are probably too busy.” Or they won’t get involved because it would take them too much time to be important and they can leave it to someone better suited. So even in the new, pluralistic, untraditional churches (like Circle of Hope) the idea of meritocracy organizes us and people feel the need to honor success.

I’m not saying there is no value in monitoring whether we meet our goals; I’m just saying we must not monitor them in service to shame or fear based on some strange sense born in the godless “economy.” Anything we might call success is a gift of God like everything else; and any goodness I enact is just a fraction of who I might become in Christ.

Our better angels

The other day I was nearly hit in the crosswalk while I was on the last leg of my please-get-me-out-of-the-house walk (I’ll be looking like Marky Mark in no time!). After I was not hit, it hit me. Abraham Lincoln has been quoted to death recently for a good reason. Just like Lincoln, Joe Biden is talking about the common good all the time. Barack Obama liked to talk about the rule of law. Donald Trump liked to talk about Donald Trump. But Biden is a breath of fresh air to me because he thinks Americans can build something together and take care of each other.

If Biden is wrong, that’s the right way to be wrong. He even has the Chinese talking about our mutual “better angels.” The reason you stop at the stop sign isn’t because the police are going to catch you if you don’t or because you need to dominate the intersection instead of those other losers. Stopping is always a nod to the common good right there in the middle. We all pass through it and leave it safe and sound — or wreck it (and squash me!). Stop signs assume people are decent enough to stop at them. I may run a few of them before I am done. But I dare not forget that such an act runs over the common good when I do.

The meritocracy, while being a sham in reality, has a thin layer of logic to it covering a core of self-condemnation waiting to be realized. The Apostle Paul realized the great merit he had achieved as a law-keeping Jew had no value; it was his partnership with Jesus that made him someone. Any merit we have will eternally start there. Any difference we make will start with acting out our common love in Christ for the common good.

Active imagination can deepen your life: A four step process

L’atmosphère Météorologie by Camille Flammarion, ca. 1888

Most of us could use a tool (or twelve) to deepen our spiritual awareness. What I mean by “spiritual awareness” is the ability we all have to experience the Spirit of God. If you don’t relate to God personally, then I mean your ability to experience the “numinous,” the outside-my-understanding events that stay with us throughout our lives, even after we’ve tried to explain them away. You may have been ordered to repress or deny that capacity for a variety of reasons. For instance, one genius-of-a-friend reported for med school at Jefferson U. and was quickly told his faith had no place in the upper realms of research for which he was headed. The order to squash his spiritual awareness was direct and not implied! You may have been squashed too!

So most of us could use a tool to help us deepen our spiritual awareness. We’ve all got it, but we have a lot of reasons we have not been using it. Active imagination is such a tool (much like dream work last week). The idea is fairly easy to understand, since it relates to the fantasies that regularly run through our head. We may entertain or dismiss our fantasies, but most of us rarely take their energy seriously, try to harness it, or learn from that common experience of what is going on inside.

According to Robert A Johns in Inner Work:

Active imagination is a dialogue that you enter into with the different parts of yourself that live in the unconscious. In some ways it is similar to dreaming, except that you are fully awake and conscious during the experience. This, in fact, is what gives this technique its distinctive quality. Instead of going into a dream, you go into your imagination while you are awake. You allow images to rise up out of the unconscious, and they come to on the level of imagination just as they would come to you if you were asleep.

Active imagination is a common experience in the Bible

Before you Christians get nervous about being self-centered and lost in a perpetual search for elusive meanings in your inner world, let me remind you that people with the most active of imaginations wrote the Bible. At least that is what Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) told Krista Tippet that time during On Being. If you cannot ponder metaphor, or cannot see yourself in the Bible, or cannot imagine how the Spirit of God is relating to the part of you that is also beyond your ordinary awareness, you might be religious but you’ll be a dissatisfied Jesus follower. Our imagination is a beautiful part of us and is a doorway into the deep realms of the Spirit into which God calls us in Jesus. And let’s not forget God calls all sort of people who don’t know Jesus, too, who begin their journey by knowing their own capacity to be aware of spiritual things.

And before I get to my very-abridged summary of Johnson’s steps to practicing active imagination in service to our growth, let me add a couple of warnings. On the one hand, most of us will probably have a tough time getting the process of active imagination going. We’ve been “ordered” to repress it, after all, by secular and religious authorities. It may take some experimenting. On the other hand, and this is a real warning, some of us might go too far, get lost in the realm of purposeless fantasy and have trouble getting back to the here and now. If you suspect that is likely to be you, enter into the process holding the hand of Jesus and definitely holding the hand of a therapist or friend who can bring you back if you get lost. I compare this necessity to the rope people tied to the high priest when he went into the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple so they could pull him out if he got lost somehow, or died. The legend of that practice is not true; there is no evidence people really did that. But you get the idea. Active imagination needs to stay tethered to an real-time purpose, or it is something else.

Many of us are familiar with Ignatius of Loyola and his teaching on entering the Bible story as an active participant, especially when it comes to records about Jesus. Active imagination is a similar kind of exercise, only the context is not outside us but in us. We are entering into the interesting interchanges happening within us, walking and talking with the persons we find in our unconscious, confronting and arguing, making friends and probably fighting. We consciously participate in the drama of our imagination. You can see this is not passive fantasy, like worrying, or like repeating negative messages. We are acting as that observing and relating “I” we all are, getting to know all the territory of our unconscious, and so deepening communication among all the parts of us.

Four steps

Robert A. Johnson has some fascinating examples of active imagination in his book. They are all examples of personifying some content from the unconscious that arises to the surface, putting it into image form so one can dialogue and deal with it. For instance, when you have stomped off from a heated argument and sit sulking somewhere, you might turn to the anger, which likely comes from someplace deep, and ask it who it is. You might find some lonely child, or some power-hungry tyrant, or some confused priest. You wouldn’t judge them before you got to know them, just see who is there and honor their right to be you.

Here are the four steps. Like when we were talking about dreams, the explanations are abbreviated, but I hope they whet your appetite and give you and idea of what you might try. You might even read Johnson’s book.

Step One: Invite the unconscious

Invite the inner persons to start the dialogue. Take your mind off the external world and focus on your imagination and wait to see who shows up. When you let yourself rest in Christ, you might find yourself in what I call my “inner landscape” where my encounters often take place. Be patient and stay alert. If something comes up, don’t judge, just go with it. If it feels productive, hang with it. If it is just a fantasy, or you are not ready for it, move on.

Step Two: The dialogue

A helpful dialogue with personified images from your unconscious is very much like a healthy conversation with anyone. You demonstrate a willingness to listen and actively do that. This is best done with a journal. As I was in the process of writing this post I had a very useful time of active imagination in which I managed to turn into a feeling, ask who it was and listen. But when I went back to it this morning, it was a hazy memory. Writing out the main things being said and experienced helps to make the most of the process.

Sometimes we’ll have an argument and that might be when we are really getting somewhere. However it works out, a problem will be revealed, different viewpoints will be noted and a response of some kind will come. This could take a few minutes or days or even years.

Step Three: The Values

This step is important for everyone and especially for Jesus followers who are no longer alone and usurping God’s place. Johnson says:

Once the imaginative process is launched, once the primordial forces are invited to come up to the surface and be heard, some limits have to be set. It is the conscious ego, guided by a sense of ethics, that must set limits in order to protect the imaginative process from becoming inhuman or destructive or going off into extremes. (Inner Work)

Hold out for what is good. Don’t let one energy take over at the expense of the others. Nurture what serves human life, practical needs and healthy relationships. Do it all in Christ.

Step Four: The Rituals

We always want to incarnate our active imagination so it gets out of the abstract and gets connected to the earthbound. When we have an insight or a resolution, we do something to make it concrete. My active imagination often makes me feel better, but it is best when I do better. Remember not to act out some fantasy or project some inner conflict on someone else. We’re talking about integrating the essence, the meaning, the principle we have derived into our practical life.

I hope this brief intro (or reminder) encourages you to do some inner work this week. The world needs deep people. Plus, this activity is great for times of stress and confusion. We can gain a lot of confidence for what we need to do on the outside when we are in less turmoil inside.

Dreams can deepen your life — 4 steps to understanding them

Spanish woman asleep on the train.

Dreams are a handy, important doorway into our unconscious process. During the pandemic many people have been sleeping more. As a result they are remembering their dreams more, too.

Most people don’t typically remember their dreams. Living through the coronavirus pandemic might be changing that due to heightened isolation and stress, influencing the content of dreams and allowing some dreamers to remember more of them. For one, anxiety and lack of activity decrease sleep quality. Frequent awakenings, also called parasomnias, are associated with increased dream recall. Latent emotions and memories from the previous day can also influence the content of dreams and one’s emotional response within the dream itself. (National Geographic)

Some of these dreams are as frightening as the pandemic and as anxiety-provoking as societal and economic changes that have accompanied it. But all of them are instructive and help us use our wakeful times to learn about ourselves and grow deeper in grace.

Inner Work provides a useful approach

Robert A. Johnson

I think I have been remembering more of my dreams because I decided to do so. I have often gone to bed and told myself, even prayed, to remember a useful dream. This month I read a new book that deepened my capacity to explore my inner life in this way. The book is by one of my favorite authors: Robert A. Johnson’s Inner Work. I recommended it to a friend with two caveats: 1) It is Christian-adjacent, but sympathetic enough to orthodoxy for me; 2) It is a book on DIY Jungian dream work and active imagination and such work should never really be done on one’s own. It would be best to work with a partner.

That being said, I think this book is about as practical as a book on dreams can be. It provides a simple (but deep) approach to understanding one’s dreams and applying their meaning. It also details the process of active imagination (which I might outline for you next week). There are many ways to cooperate with our transformation. We can hire a professional to help us with most of them. Among the many ways, I think dream work is an important element. I have enjoyed my own version of it for many years and Johnson has improved my understanding greatly. I highlighted so much of Inner Work, I will be reading most of the book again when I look at my notes — that might be a good thing.

You should read the book for the full treatment, of course. But I want to outline his steps for you so you can get started. There is no cut-and-dried approach to interpreting dreams, internet summaries notwithstanding. The true meaning of our dreams is mainly in how we personally interact with them. That relationship is changeable and ongoing, since our dreams contain elements as vast as our unconscious experience. We have to do our own work. But it is pleasant work.

Before I get to the four steps, I think it is important to repeat that reading books and interpreting dreams is best done with someone who loves you while holding Jesus’ hand. Do-it-yourself is not the same as being personally responsible. So imagine the following steps happening in a community in which Jesus is the center, not in your own personal universe with your ego in charge.

Four steps toward understanding your dreams

Johnson’s four step process is

  • Step One: Associations
  • Step 2: Dynamics
  • Step 3: Interpretations
  • Step 4: Rituals

You will note right away that this looks like a process you have encountered in different areas when teachers were helping you take steps into depth or wholeness (like the Flow Questions our pastors offer cell leaders or the 2PROAPT method for personal or group Bible study). The process starts with observing without judgment. Then it moves to relating to what is “on the table” so to speak. Then it brings the process to an interpretation that is the main take away. Finally, it leads us to doing something about it, like we always remind ourselves to “do the word.”

Step 1 – Associations

The first step begins with writing out the dream and thinking about it. Many dreams will be quite short, not a movie script. They are essentially a series of images connected as a story which doesn’t need to be rational – some of us fly, or swim like fish, or experience mayhem in our dreams. So write out the dream and then go through it again, noting every association that comes to mind for every image. Each image is a symbol of something occurring in the unconscious. A dream may contain persons, objects, situations, colors, sounds, or speech. Each of these, for the purpose of step one, is a distinct image and needs to be looked at specifically for its symbolic value.

Write down the first image that appears in the dream. Then ask yourself, “What feeling do I have about this image? What words or ideas come to mind when I look at it?” Your association is any word, idea, mental picture, feeling or memory that pops into your mind, anything you spontaneously connect with the image. (Inner Work)

You can see why this is called dream work. It takes a bit of effort but it bears a lot of fruit. Collect as many associations as you can before you sort them out. The first one or most likely one might not be the most relevant. In the next step we will be looking for the energy of the dream, the association that “clicks.”

Step 2: Dynamics

In the second step we connect each dream image we have identified with the parts of our inner self it represents. In our dreams we meet our many selves. This concept is a major Jungian viewpoint that trips some people up. They sometimes think seeing different parts of oneself as different people turns them into a scattered mess. Maybe for some people that could happen! But for most of us, it is a short trip from seeing how we have internal conversations within ourselves all the time (“That was stupid, Rod!” Or “If you do that you will be sorry” to “Why did you never learn the piano?”) to dialoguing more consciously with “selves” who are less conscious and making themselves known in our dreams.

God may meet us in our dreams, but most of the time our dreams are contained within our nightly brain-ordering process. So when we see each image we ask things like “”What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life lately? Where do I see that in my personality? Who is it, in me, who feels of behaves like that?” (Inner Work) First we gathered the facts, now we add the feelings, the relating to the dynamics, or energies. (See 1 Cor 12 – our bodies work like the Body of Christ).  There are dynamics surging in us – an emotional event, an inner conflict, an unloved personality, and attitude or mood.

Step 3: Interpretation

This step is the end result of all the work of the first two steps. We put together the information we have gleaned and arrive at a view of the dream’s meaning when taken as a whole. Like we skim much of the media we encounter and find shortcuts for our video games, it is tempting to take our first impression of a dream as a decent interpretation – “That was a bad dream!” But that is like taking our first impression of a person as all there is to them. It is not a very respectful way to treat your inner process by just making a snap judgment about yourself. If you are listening to your dreams well, your dream journal could end up with quite a bit of process on the way to coming to a “simple statement of the one, main idea that the dream communicates. Ask yourself: ‘What is the single most important insight that the dream is trying to get across to me?’” (Inner Work) Johnson has a LOT more help to give, but that gets you started.

Step 4: Rituals

This step is a physical act that affirms the message of the dream. A ceremonious action makes the dream more conscious and imprints its meaning more clearly in the here and now. The action could be very practical: “I will restrict TV to an hour a day,” or it could be symbolic: You buy a hamburger that represents your “junk-food relating” and bury it in the backyard. You can see that we are taking ourselves very seriously if we do this. Some people might be afraid they would be mocked if they were caught being this heartfelt – like some people never take communion for similar reasons.

Johnson recommends,

“Keep you physical rituals small and subtle, and they will be more powerful. The ritual is a physical representation of the inner attitude change that the dream called for, and it is this level of change that is requested by the dream…It is also a not a good idea to try to make a ritual out of talking about your dream or trying to explain yourself to people. Talking tends to put the whole experience back on an abstract level…Instead of a vivid private experience, you wind up with an amorphous collective chat. The best rituals are physical, solitary, and silent. These are the ones that register most deeply with the unconscious.” (Inner Work)

Find your contemplation where you can

I have enjoyed getting to know spiritual direction students and teachers over the past semester. My cohort is a diverse, sincere bunch of people that always remind me of God’s goodness and humanity’s capacity for compassion and hope.

There is only one thing about my new group of friends that is funny. Many of them remind me a lot of the old SNL skits about NPR.

Sometimes that NPR voice is such a wonder, like on my favorite WHYY voice, Jennifer Lynn. Other times the special character of that voice makes me wonder if the sincerity of it is just another act of branding. With everything on ZOOM now, a lot of us now have ring lights and new microphones. And I think a lot of us have started to wonder how to act on screen, including how to sound.

What does the voice mean, now?  My spiritual direction teachers and many of their students seem to have learned to speak with an NPR voice. Is that a thing, or is it just me? I know I’ve been tagged with a “Mr. Rogers” voice, so maybe I learned it a long time ago.

Voice command

Our voice is a powerful instrument. We had four children before the oldest turned 4. I developed their attention to my voice as a high priority, especially my command voice: “Do not step off that curb!” and “Let go of your brother’s neck, now!” Since we were often in a church meeting, I could turn the command volume down very low, “Give me that marker!”

Humanity continues to prove it is hell-bent on emulating the perceived power of God  through its own control and manipulation. This is kind of a leap, but I think the medium of radio does its control and manipulation via voice command. As my children tell me I did, I think NPR commands with an iron fist in a velvet glove. By this time, many of us fans can seem very empathetic and nonthreatening while advancing the same old domination.

I bring this up because my teachers, and most of the authors they suggest, basically move with Eurocentric, privileged assumptions that leak out as “best practices” for spiritual formation and direction. There is usually a candle. There is often Taize music (from France) or classical music (based in Europe), there is aloneness and silence, which, in themselves, are often hard-to-find luxuries. There is often a call to “let go,” which is hard to do if your are barely hanging on. There are often calls to “submit” or “surrender” since they are in charge and conquering something by nature. And when they speak it could be right out of NPR.

I have spent decades perfecting all the spiritual practices practices that come with the dominant culture – and to a good end. I think my teachers last semester were great. Candles, Taize, silence in solitude, and submission are all elemental to my spiritual practice.

reaching for the edge of contemplation

There is another side

I also have enjoyed the luxury of getting to know other ways to contemplate contributed by the nondominant cultures around me. Fortunately for me, my parents came from the U.S. underclass and felt blessed to have clawed themselves into the lower middle class. So when I brought classical music home from college as the first to attend one, it did not go over well. I was called on to let go of the pride of thinking I was better than someone else, rather than called on to let go of the assumption I was better than most of the world, like most world-dominating Americans assume.

Many people from nondominant cultures are invited into contemplation by Eurocentric people and the “hospitality offered may be more stifling than respiting, more harm than blessing…The ways that marginalized groups answer the question of who God is needs to be contemplated in a more authentic way than the ‘average’ contemporary expression of spirituality might expect” (Ruth Takiko West*). So true. Besides, members of the so-called “dominant culture” are also very diverse, so forcing them into learning the Eurocentric practices as if they are “best practices” could be a mistake. Leaders need a lot of intentional introspection if they hope to alleviate the problem of merely dominating instead of liberating. The image of God does not just reside in people such as oneself.

Your culture is fine, as is mine. But Jesus is transcultural, even though he comes from a culture, in a gender, and is born into a family system. He experienced the dominant culture providing some kind of general order. But he insisted on enacting the liberative, reconciling work of the Spirit by giving preference to the poorer or more distant, as well as those yet to be included.

The ever-accepting Savior calls us into a mutually accepting relationship with Him and everyone else. Jesus is the Spirit in a body, the body of Christ is the Spirit making all of us into family: the body of Christ. This works out in all cultures. One does not need to look outside of one’s culture or outside of oneself to meet God. Henri Nouwen said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that declares we are loved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence” (see Spiritual Direction).

The presence of the Spirit transcends and infuses culture

We don’t need to act one way or another to develop intimacy with God, and though Jesus came one way, the Spirit of God with which he graced us is as multifaceted as the Creator. If God speaks to you in an NPR voice, wonderful; it is a sweet voice. But it can be a dominating voice, especially when white teachers unwittingly erase other sounds by making it prescriptive.

The rich experience of Black Americans, even those who understand Taize, Thomas Merton, and such, is often run over by the soft tones of people in charge, even though they have a rich tradition of their own that might be even better. James Cone writes, “The spirituals were a ritualization of God in song. They are not documents for philosophy; they are material for worship and praise for the One who had continued to be present with black humanity despite European insanity” (in The Spirituals and the Blues). Solitude in silence is to be treasured but contemplation is bigger. It is purpose, intention and deep consideration. As such it comes in many forms in as many cultures. Takiko West describes the Black experience in community where contemplation is exercised in the singing and the hearing of songs like the spirituals:

The presence of God is evidenced by the movement of the Spirit that causes one to jump to their feet, hands thrown up in the air when the soloist hits that one note and sustains it as if he/she needed to make sure the sound would reach heaven. It is within that moment that there is communal solidarity around the awareness of God’s grace.*

Cone writes, “The certain fact is always that God is present with them and trouble will not have the last word.”

I’ve had the privilege of being invited into this kind of contemplation in cultures other than my own all over the world. I have a feel for NPR’s more Eurocentric contemplation and I have also been blessed by Aretha Franklin’s. In the following video from Franklin’s 1972 live album, Amazing Grace, she manages to lead the moment of contemplation in a setting of a live recording. In it she bridges the societal divides, as she was so good at, by taking a Carol King song and combining it with a familiar gospel tune, in a South LA church. The album is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Aretha Franklin demonstrates how the nondominant find their place in the culture and how they keep a hold of their dignity and affirm their identity as the beloved.  The contemplative scene she leads is just as useful as the singular, quiet, secure-that-your-body-will-be-there-when-you-get-back-to-it, Eurocentric contemplation. We don’t need to choose. There is one body, one faith, one Lord. No one is excluded.

* From her essay in Kaleidescope: Broadening the Palette in the Art of Spiritual Direction. Ineda P. Adesanya, editor.

Top Ten Posts for 2020

Thanks for reading in 2020!

Visits to my blog grew by about 25% this year. That’s kind of fun. 

Everyone who writes a blog makes their top-ten-most-read list at the end of the year because we want to see if we can get more people to read our stuff. I write because I like to and I have something to say — not just to get attention. But I would still like you to subscribe and experience my hopefully-nurturing, educating stuff.

Before we get to me, here’s a top ten video from an odd guy I relate to:

Here’s my top ten most-read blog posts, starting with #1

Tarot: Where is your reading leading?
My generous but skeptical take on the boomlet of tarot interest gets read every day.

Askers vs. Guessers: Where is Jesus on the spectrum?
I put my spin on a popular internet question. PA is full of guessers.

Cornel West: We’ve got a love the world can’t take away
Cornel West was so great with Anderson Cooper I wanted everyone to get a transcript.

Show up for your kids: Let go of your “helicopter God”
Anxious parents trying to protect their kids are developing anxious kids who can’t trust God.

Dahleen Glanton: White people, you are the problem
A journalist from Chicago tells it like it is about white privilege.

Everything is canceled: How to help each other deal with the disappointment
I adapt some common knowledge, which we still need because everything is STILL canceled.

Will people grow up before the church gets wrecked?: Eliza’s question and Janet’s answer
We wish everyone would develop a taste for the both/and of spiritual growth in the Bible. People on their earlier journey often need things a bit more “this or that.”

5 rules for life in the pandemic: Help for church survival
I collated some common understandings of how to practically help one another survive.

Turning: The basic skill of spiritual survival and growth
This was actually written in December of 2019, but it was in the top ten for 2020 so I put it in. I think turning really is the unadvertised spiritual lesson we forget every day.

In this world you will suffer: The Lord’s unloved promise
2020 was so full of suffering for all of us, we need to keep daring to talk about it – since Jesus saves us through it and in it.

The Last Christmas Eve of the Past        

“Maybe it was not such a good idea to meet for Christmas Eve,” he thought. The virus still raged. Everyone was told not to fly. He flew anyway. Then there was a nor’easter and his rental car had to plow through the last few miles to Grandmother’s house in Western Massachusetts. The “GPS knows the way to carry the sleigh,” kept running through his mind as the wipers tried to keep up with the downpour. When he finally burst into the house he expected his sister to already be there. Now he was worried she’d never get there at all, even though she was just coming from New York.

There was still a bit of evidence of the funeral meal they’d hosted in August. They had made an incomplete job of cleaning up the house they had inherited — and the caretaker kept it warm, not clean. As he put his gym bag on the dining room table, he looked around and realized he had made an incomplete job of saying goodbye, too. He slowly took in a very empty house, something like the body one sees in a casket at the viewing. The spirit just wasn’t there. This was his first real visit to the past.

The best part of his past, his sister Mary, was yet to arrive. His parents had named their only children, the twins, Joseph and Mary. It was never as funny as people thought it was. And their parents did not think it was funny at all. They lived a very serious life. They had died during one of their mission trips to South America, studying on site so they could translate the Bible into yet another indigenous language. They were in the back of a pick-up, their kids were told. It was too big for the burro track it was on and the cliffside gave way. It took months to retrieve and ship their bodies. Now they were buried — inseparable in death as in life, in the ancient family plot behind Grandmother’s house, now the twins’ house.

Joseph loved the inside of the house. His sister loved the outside, every part of the ten acres. But they were not really sentimental about it. The property felt like a burden for the most part. It mostly reminded them of being teenage sojourners with no place to stay — it had been one of their stops. Their parents had not expected to die, for some reason, since they spent an entire adulthood risking their lives. And they made no provision for their young teens should it happen. The twins were surprised with the bad news by the headmasters of their respective boarding schools. They spent the rest of their teen years going from relative to relative, mostly in New England. Winter breaks were spent with Father’s mother in the big Victorian farmhouse. So Christmas belonged to Grandmother. It was always Grandmother and Grandfather just as he was always Joseph, never Joe, never Joey — and certainly not Jo Jo!

Grandmother attended to propriety, but she was never a very attentive caregiver. The same year as their parents, Grandfather died and she became even more distant. Her last fifteen years were spent deteriorating with her house. It was like her cell membrane dissolved and she merged into indefinition. The men in her life had apparently been in charge of faith, because she realized she did not have any. She did not say anything about it, but the Christmas ornaments were slowly culled of angels and manger scenes and the exiled pieces were replaced with glass balls designed to reflect light without having any meaning of their own. They once found a box of lonely pieces in the attic.

As he waited, Joseph gravitated to his favorite room in the house where he had spent many hours alone — nursing his attachment wounds and avoiding his grievances. The dusty library was all his after Grandfather died. Grandmother barely touched it. He loved the novels, shelves of them.

But the book that probably made the most impact on him was an old hardback he found of not much more than 100 pages called Joseph the Dreamer. It was a short book because it had a small point: We all have a dreamer in us and the two Josephs that figure prominently at the beginning of the Old and New Testaments represent how primary this energy is in us all. Our dreams are the well-evolved capacity in us for spiritual experience. They are the doorway through which everyone can enter into their inner dialogue with God.

In the Bible, both Josephs are on a journey of becoming. They are both led beyond their ordinary sense of self — the sense of “I am;” I am myself, which is just the shoreline of the ocean our true selves. The dreams of the first Joseph lead him away from the shadow his brothers represent and into the darkness of his prison where he wrestles his desires and realizes his capability. Later, when he again meets his brothers, he does not use his power to get even, but teases out their confession and restores their relationship. He realizes he has always been serving a deeper calling than he could see in his pits and prisons and productivity.

The dreams of the second Joseph are often seen as bolts out of the blue given to direct salvation history. No doubt his parents interpreted their own dreams that way. But, chances are, like the little book claims, the second Joseph’s dreams represent a well-developed spiritual capacity, a deep connection to the Spirit. Joseph knows how to listen deeply. He’s not just a reluctant security guard for the Savior.

The second Joseph’s dreams also have an interesting parallel with the first. Like the first Joseph had unusual dreams that made his brothers furious, there is a good possibility that the second Joseph was always a bit more dreamy than most people in Nazareth. Other men were kings and warriors but he was more a magician and lover.

There is a good possibility that his furniture did not sell well because it often had an impractical flourish that made it look odd or look Roman. While other workers held their noses and did the job, he probably liked working on the restoration project of Herod Antipas in Sepphoris because it was the only interesting thing going in Galilee – beautiful new houses needing new furniture and new rooms decorated with elaborate mosaic floors. Sepphoris was a city on a hill to which he walked with his sons, a city which could not be hidden.

His neighbors in more homespun Nazareth were not in the market for imaginative carpentry skills and liked to think their practical, simple tastes were exactly what the Torah prescribed. In truth it was exactly the opposite. Their narrowness revealed their lack of basic self-awareness. Their self-protective legalism revealed their lack of appreciation for the transcendent qualities resident in Moses, whose law was like a veil blocking the view of his face burning like the bush from which God called him. So the second Joseph was a good partner for God in his plan to share the spiritual bounty imprisoned in the fallen creation. Jesus came to bring it all out of the pit, to welcome it back home like a prodigal child who needed to be blessed with a multicolored coat.

When Joseph found his second wife to be with child, he was tempted to let the engagement go and find a way to save her dignity. After all, there was only so far he could afford to stretch the sensibilities of his main sources of income. And one could never know how people might get whipped up into a murderous fury by some angry young man, of which there were many in Galilee. Mary might be sold off as a slave, or worse.

But after years of planing down the bark and imperfections of his soul as he patiently planed his finely imagined furniture, Joseph had a receptive awareness that only needed a whisper in the night to gain his attention. After the angel gently spoke to him in his dream, he shuttered his business, defied his relatives, and ended up in Egypt like the first Joseph, nurturing the Answer to the riddles of life. From that place of shadow an even greater salvation was given as a gift to the new remnant of God’s people, the people who change their minds about who really manages creation.

Joseph loved this book and had read it many times. He hid it high on a shelf where he expected no one would ever look. He climbed up to that shelf now and found it again, just to make sure it was still there. A flood of memory hit him as he held it in his hand. He had just had a dream of his own. In it was a woman a lot like his sister Mary. She was relying on him to reveal things to her since she never remembered her dreams. She attended to him like a companion. He was painstakingly teaching her things and she was taking them all in without fear or jealousy. It was like they were having a spiritual meal together.

In this way, the woman in his dream was much like Mary in the Bible, he thought. She could listen too! As soon as she got a message she understood exactly how it applied and she put it into practical or poetic form. She was always on her donkey visiting an Elizabeth and regularly came up with a Magnificat. His own sister was a bit like this. She could not stand church or silence, almost the opposite of him, since he could hardly stand anything but smoke and prayer. He admired his sister’s pragmatism, the shadowy, turbulent yin to his airy, light yang. Like her namesake in the Bible, Mary was more political, angrier. Her angel was a shining man, Gabriel, while his angels were all women.

Some people think the angel Gabriel oversaw the Galilee territory, and he was the one assigned to contact Joseph like he had Mary. But no one says who appeared to Joseph. It was probably a woman angel. No doubt his parents thought that was impossible since the Bible always talks about angels appearing male, even though angels don’t have the same kind of earth-bound, gender-bound duties as humans. Having been connected his whole life to a Mary, he just couldn’t see it. Joseph needed something more than enough spine to stand up to his brothers who were considering stoning his betrothed. God had always met him in the dreamy places and his companion woman must have carried the word.

Joseph was so deep in memories, dreams and grief, so far away from the library, lost in his thoughts, he was not really present until snow began to fall on the book cover. Mary had gotten up the drive, through the door and clear into the library without startling him until now. He jumped out of the reading chair, looked up at the ceiling before he turned around and saw her ready to shake the rest of the snow off her coat. Before any word was said, she came around his womb of a chair and embraced him. He set the book on the cushion and let the snow melt through his shirt. “My dear brother,” she said.

She let him go, brushed the flakes off her shoulders and shook snow out of her knit cap. “You must put your shoes back on and find your coat. It is already 10:15. The ride up here was a beast and I am surprised I am not dead. I would be if the snow had been any deeper when I fished that woman out of the ditch.”

“You stopped the car?”

“We can talk about that later. We need to get over to village for the vigil.”

“They are having a vigil?”

“This is the middle of nowhere. Wear your mask if you must. We never miss the vigil and, virus or not, I intend to be there.”

“Wasn’t it hard enough just to get to the farm? The road over to the village is no more than a lane. I’m sure it won’t be plowed until the 27th!”

“Then we can walk. We have those snow shoes somewhere. Where do you think they are?”

Joseph stood back and looked at her. She had begun to pick up stray utensils and plates on her way to the kitchen. He followed her to the sink where she began to sort and rinse and admired her bustling. She didn’t want to go to the vigil; she just wanted the dangerous journey. What she liked about the story was Mary traveling to Bethlehem pregnant. She secretly imagined birthing her first child in the barn. “You are amazing, you know,” he said.

She turned off the water and turned to look at him smiling. He smiled too. And then they laughed like only twins can amuse each other.

“I know you don’t want to go,” she said. “But I also know you don’t want to miss the vigil.”

“Let’s create a stable in the barn and you can give birth there.”

“How did you know that? Did one of your angels tell you?”

“She did not need to. It only makes sense.”

“Well. I suppose it will be hard enough to get to the barn, at this point.”

They started in the attic and found the box of repressed figurines and were glad to spot an old advent wreath with some used candles still in the holders. Mary overturned a frame and there were their parents, just married. They decided to let them join in. As a whim, Joseph grabbed a very old stick horse, since an animal needed to give witness.

When they left their inn for the stable the snow had stopped and a cold, round moon gilded the scattering clouds. A noiseless barn owl leapt through the missing board in the hay window door and flew through the light. They both gasped as they watched it move through the silent night in the clouds of their breath. If the nesting were late, they might meet the rest of the family up in the rafters.

There was no need to talk. They got to work like missionaries making do with what was available. An old milk crate could be a manger. A milking stool had been sitting in a corner for decades waiting for its chance to be an altar. The witness horse was propped up between two cinder blocks. Mom and Dad sat facing it on the other side on a block of their own.

Mary sat on the ground, determined to get quite dirty. Joseph lit the candles slowly and deliberately named each one: the hope candle, the peace candle, the joy candle and the love candle. And they waited.

The waiting allowed Mary’s exhaustion to catch up with her and she slowly rolled into Joseph’s shoulder. He put his arm around her as she dozed.

They had not thought about what to do at the appointed time. The rector would ring the bell in the village; maybe they would hear it across the field. They knew the organist would be playing Silent Night and everyone would have a candle. Mary said, “Oh Joseph, we have forgotten the baby! What will we put in the box?”

“Shall I go find a doll?” he asked.

“Oh no, you can’t go anywhere. You are my blanket.”

“Then God will have to provide the baby. If no other way, I can imagine you acting like a baby right here in the barn. Remember when we were about ten years old and I would not let you swing from the loft? Father heard the argument and said we would not be able to come back if we did not get along.”

“I would like a do-over with Father,” she whispered.

“I am glad we had each other when were growing up, especially when Mother and Father died. I felt so left alone. If it were not for you…”

“Maybe that’s it,” she interrupted. “We could claim Joseph and Mary once and for all and let them produce the baby. Our parents and grandparents tended to send the baby into cold storage for much of the year. But we kept welcoming that poor child.”

“I love that,” he laughed. “This gets better all the time. How about if we joined Joseph and Mary in the scene, even became one with them, and swaddled the newborn king ourselves?” He thought, “In some sense it is like I have been here in a dream and God was telling me what was going to be born. It is a whole new day. The earth is clean with snow and somehow we got here.”

They both got up out of their spectator seats on the floor and silently moved beside the manger box and knelt there. Joseph saw the cradle light up. And somehow the word came to him, “Do not be afraid.” He spoke it. “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

She began to sing, “O, holy night! The stars are brightly shining.”

The next morning a hush was still over the house. They did not speak until breakfast, but then they marveled at the parts of themselves they gave to each other in love — and how it all came together in the barn like it came together in the Bible: man and woman, dreamer and doer, past and future, old and new. God was with them like in a dream — candlelight and the mystery of tragic circumstances touched with glory. It was a story of improbable, willful, scared people  welcomed into their own birthing process. They could hardly remember it all. They couldn’t be sure if they ever needed to have Christmas Eve in the same way again. It was quite enough for now and surely something else was ready to fly into the moonlight.

The Innkeeper’s Wife

This is the second Christmas story I ever wrote for public consumption in 1990. I presented it to the Riverside Brethren on the Sunday before. I hope the lack of factuality does not bother you too much, since that’s not the point of this little fable of hope for the hopeless.

Pin on Bible: Jesus & His Birth

Miriam set down the tray of dirty bowls and greasy bones she was carrying so she could tuck that always stray strand of hair out of her eyes. But when she caught sight of her dirty hands she didn’t want to touch it, and her apron didn’t have a clean spot left on it after a day of seeing to the needs of the crowd in their busy inn. Quirinius had everyone travelling all over the country to be registered in their home town so he could keep track of them and tax them more effectively. The Romans were very good for business. Her husband’s inn was packed. But her hair was clinging to her wet forehead, and that one strand! She stuck it behind her ear with a sigh.

Across the smoky, crowded room, her burly, loud, husband laughed with a boom and slapped a man’s back. He picked up his glass and raised it to the young girl who was dancing in front of the fire. She had come with her father and brothers to Bethlehem and now she closed her eyes and felt the beat of the tambourines in her hips and the whine of the flute in her arms. The innkeeper’s eyes glowed.

The innkeeper’s wife was beyond being angry. It was just another girl. How many more would there be to take her place? She picked up the tray to move on to the kitchen where she couldn’t see, but then she made the mistake of taking one last look just as the young girl reached for the cup her husband held out. He grabbed her arm and swung her to his lips. The music stopped, the brothers jumped to their feet and the room burst into laughter. The innkeeper could be heard above them all booming and yelling again and again, “I mistook the little morsel for dessert!” And the wine poured again.

Miriam no longer had the urge to rush over and claim her rights. She had heard the joke too many times since the first night, long ago now. Then, she had danced before a younger innkeeper. He seemed handsome then and alive. The inn was new and he seemed rich and rich with love. The innkeeper loved everyone, for a night, at least. Years later he loved everyone but her, it seemed.

What had it been like to dance? She could hardly remember. It seemed like another life when he had taken her out into the field that night when her father was stupid with wine and spoken words she never forgot. “You are more beautiful than Miriam the sister of Moses when she danced before the children in the desert. You are more precious than the myrrh for which you are named.” And he even kissed her, which she never told her mother. Her hand felt the necklace beneath her blouse. Three amber beads he had given her on their wedding day. His own mother had worn them. There was one for him, one for her, and one for God in the middle. But God seemed as far away as the past. And kisses like that one stolen in the moonlight were distant memories.

Now there were so many guests and so much work to do — and not even a child to comfort her and give her worth, just a kitchen to clean up before she could finally go to bed. There was no room in the inn for fond memories or anything else tonight. She picked up her tray and started for the other room.

But as she passed the door, which was already bolted for the night, she heard a knock. Naturally, her husband was too involved with his new-found friends to notice. But she didn’t want to answer. She was too busy and there was not an inch left. The knock came again, louder. “Why do I do these things?” she thought, and drew the bolt.

Before the man even had a chance to speak she said, “People are sleeping on the benches in here tonight. We’re charging two denarii to lay out a mat on the floor.”

“But my wife.”

“You should have brought your wife earlier. There is no room, now.”

“But here is my wife.” And he gestured toward a figure on a donkey in the darkness. Miriam peered out the crack in the door. She almost shut it in his face. But as she stepped out with the lamp and held it up to see more clearly a door seemed to open inside her. What piercing, pitiful, knowing eyes on that young girl, pregnant, on one of the hungrier donkeys she’d seen lately.

“What is your name child?”

“Mary,” she answered.

And yet another memory flooded her thoughts. Her own mother had called her Mary which is just another way to say Miriam. She used to play a game with her when they sat carding wool. “Miriam, always be a Mary, not a marah,” she’d say — marah being the name of the bitter water Israel found in the desert. “Myrrh is for worship and healing, but without hope it is a bitter taste and a dying smell.”

Tonight was a night for myrrh to heal, she decided. Let her husband clean up the bones. Let him beat her if he even noticed she was gone at all. Tonight there was another Miriam on a donkey with a husband who loved her and a baby who needed a place to be born. So she took them to the stable.

She had been right. Her husband did not even notice she was gone. She left most of the mess in the kitchen, telling herself she could face it all better in the morning. Staring at the rafters in their room she heard his drunken stomp on the stairs. When he collapsed on the mat with a snore it seem to squeeze a tear from her eye for all the nights she longed for a tender word, even a small, “Thank you,” maybe even any word at all except, “Get me this,” or “I need this,” or some angry “Why haven’t you?”

“To what have I lost my life?” she cried inside, and she tried to stifle her sobs because she would have to explain to her husband. “What has become of me? Lonely, like my own mother looked before she died. About ready to die from loveless work myself. Just a fat, dirty face who no one knows. My own children, if I ever have any, will grow up just like me with a father like him and a mother like me.” And she winced from the pain of letting herself long. “Oh God. Where are you?” And she laid her hand on that middle amber bead, the only precious thing in her life.

She didn’t know how long she had been asleep before she awoke to shouts out near the animals. She gently slipped off the mat and crept beneath the window covering. There in the brightest moonlight she had ever seen were some men who looked so scruffy they could only be shepherds acting so excited they were either dancing or fighting. But before she could wait to find out, her husband whipped up the shade and screamed into the night, “You idiots. Don’t you know decent people are sleeping?”

“We have seen the baby in your stable,” one shouted back. “The angels have told us about our Savior.”

“More drunk shepherds,” the innkeeper grunted. “They’re worse than wolves. Then he bellowed, “Go back into the fields before I come down there and beat you myself.”

“Come down’.” another shouted. “See for yourself!” And then they hurried off, still looking like they might be dancing.

“Tired as I can be, my head splitting off, and the riffraff wake up my guests,” he grumbled as he stumbled back to bed.

“Go back to sleep,” Miriam said soothingly. But he needed no encouragement. With a grunt and a snore he was gone. But Miriam threw on her shawl and quickly and quietly hurried down the stairs, over the bodies in the dining room and out to the yard.

The night seemed so alive with strange light that she almost forgot to wonder why she had bolted out the door in her night clothes. Everything looked a little different, as if she had never really seen it before. It felt like the look in that young girl’s eyes — deeper than it ought to be. It drew her like the shepherd’s dance — unusual enough to make your heart beat faster, like when you wonder what will be behind the secret door you’re about to open. Out of her husband’s bed in the smelly inn, out in the moonlight in her night clothes, she felt a surge of excitement – and the fear that came with her freedom. The shepherds were right, a baby had been born that night.

Mary and Joseph and Jesus did not return to Nazareth right away. There was no sense travelling with a new born. Even though her husband objected on financial terms, Miriam managed to move them into a little house they owned. She had taken quite an interest in the family. They were a mysterious bunch. Mary so quiet and serenely religious. Joseph a bit nervous and cautious about visitors — and many came, because those shepherds had started some extravagant tales going around about the baby Himself, who was treated like God’s gift to humankind. The inn practically fell apart because Miriam spent a lot of time making sure her guests were all right and making sure she didn’t miss out on anything. The fact is, things happened to Mary and Joseph that never happened to her. Just being around them promised something. It was a welcome change to looking forward to dying in a greasy apron!

Her husband did not like her new interests one bit. On the way out the door one day he caught her arm and dug his heavy fingers into it. “It is bad enough that you have become Marah to me,” he said. She had made the mistake of revealing her mother’s game to him. “But now you will not even keep the inn. You have duties as a wife. You work for me, not your freeloading friends,” And it was no good to fight him when he had made up his mind. Others had crossed him and she saw the results herself. So on that day she kept the inn and he kept an eye on her. She kept herself, too, happy on the outside, but full of longing on the inside. Suddenly the chains on her ankles seemed visible for the first time. The ropes around her heart were so tight she expected they might burst. She made up her mind she would escape that evening.

It wasn’t hard. She just kept filling his cup and he felt well cared for. The less he felt responsible, the more ignorant of her he could be and the better he liked it. Soon his head was on the table and she was flying down the street.

Strange things were happening at the Child’s house. Camels and servants were outside and richly dressed men were entering the door just as she arrived. She was afraid to crowd in so she stood outside the window in the shadows and listened with barely a breath to break the silence. Many things were said by the strange visitors but the last one spoke so clearly she could not mistake his words: “For the King of the Jews I bring myrrh to anoint Him as a king should be. May He be the healer the stars have promised us.”

When she heard “King of the Jews” the blood rushed to her cheeks and the warmth made her dizzy. She put her hand to her heart and there were her amber beads. “What has come upon us?” she wondered. But she knew. It was God. She sat down in the dark and stared into the night as the visitors talked inside, laughed and prayed. “Behind this wall something is happening that is so amazing,” she thought. But here I sit outside again, left out, uninvited. She knew that soon Mary and Joseph would leave with this child and she would face the rest of her days unloved and struggling to keep her desires locked away where they didn’t hurt so bad.

She was the last to leave the house that night. The door was slightly ajar and she meant to pull it softly shut as one last piece of help she could give before her husband locked her away forever. But, instead, she opened it up to get a last look at the Child who was worshiped, who made news all over the countryside, of whom angels were said to sing, whose birth made her leave her bed and risk the wrath of her husband.

Mary was dozing in the firelight. The baby quietly moved in the cradle. Miriam crept up to his side and knelt there. She could have sworn he looked at her, but whether He did or not, something seemed to open up the locked places in her heart. Into her mind flowed such a bitter flood of sorrow that she was ashamed to be near such an innocent child. She knew she had to leave. How dirty she was. How jealous. How unworthy. How afraid to be sneaking in to stare at someone else’s beautiful, special child. She straightened up to leave, “Just one touch little Jesus and I will return where I belong and you will go on to whatever wonderful life you are meant to live.” When she reached out her finger the tiny hand grasped it and hot bitter tears rolled down her cheeks for all the days yet to be that seemed already lost to loneliness.

She woke Mary up with her sniffling. But she did not seem anything but welcoming. “He’s going to save us all, dear Miriam. Don’t cry. Dance. Let your heart dance again.”

Miriam reached around to untie the cord around her neck and without a word placed her gift at the newborn king’s feet: three amber beads, one for her husband, one for her, one for God, but it was really her heart. Because deep within it Mary’s words planted a bit of hope that it was all true. She could dance again.

We are all Miriams in our own way, aren’t we? Locked in our despair or hoping that what we expect will never happen to us. May the Mary in you grow and the Marah disappear. May the Lord touch you in your deepest longing and promise you dancing. And may He receive that precious hope from you. Let it go. Lay the treasure of your heart at His feet and learn to be free.