Tag Archives: dreams

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)

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.

Listen to dreams: They might show the way out of this mess

dreams.
“The Way Home” by Shaun Tan (2011) – click for background

I woke up with a vivid dream Saturday morning after a good night’s sleep away from the troubles of the rehab project that has made me a vagabond for the last few weeks. As it turns out, many other people have been dreaming more lately, too — having “coronavirus dreams” now that the stay-at-home has given them more time to get some rest. It’s possible that whole communities or even societies may wake up to something new after we’ve processed what is happening to us during this strange time. I hope it is like waking up to healing and new possibilities.

My dream was full of symbolism and used situations reminiscent of my binge-watch of Sanditon. My memory of the dream begins with saying goodbye to a young protégé as she hops on the bus. I’m worried about her. But she is looking to her future and so interested in what is happening on the bus she doesn’t even wave goodbye.

I go on to my own train, standing in line to go underground. I realize I am in the wrong line and need to run across the street to go the other direction. As I go down the stairs, I have to ask a young man behind me to keep his social distance. I say I will get my mask out and wear it. Then I realize I do not have it because I do not have my briefcase.

I go up to street level and vainly look around until I see a briefcase across the street where I had been in line. There is a collection of them there, but none are mine. Now I am afraid I will not be able to get home, since my briefcase is the “command center.” But then I realize I took my wallet out and it is in my back pocket. At that point I realize I did not even bring my other bag with my clothes. I feel better after I comfort myself with the thought that I won’t need anything in the bags, since it was all worn out and I was intending to replace it, anyway.

My unconscious needs a long sleep to help me process my confused feelings about the period of change I am in! I’d like to be home. In my case, it is my actual new home that is not habitable yet. But it is also a new home for my next life, to which I am traveling. Dreams about going home are often the signs of spiritual development going on. We are built with a longing for Home that keeps reminding us we are on a journey through time. At this point on the journey, I am saying goodbye to attractive parts of me. I am negotiating with ignorant parts of me. I am dealing with anxious parts of me. I am comforted by the sense that I am carrying the most important part of me as I move into what is next. What’s more, I already feel I can let go of much of what I am losing.

Oprah
Chainsaw sculpture of Oprah. (click for background)

Oprah with a chainsaw

That heading is part of the title of Alfred Lubran’s article from the April 23, 2020 Inquirer.

In a person’s dream, Oprah Winfrey deploys a squad of bruisers into the streets to scare up an audience for her show. Her studio is a giant warehouse transformed into a hospital, with mattresses placed six feet apart. Opening the program with upbeat patter, Oprah offers a special surprise: She revs up a chainsaw and cuts off the heads of everyone in the audience.

The Oprah dream was one Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher from Harvard Med School, collected by surveying 2,000 people throughout the world regarding Covid-19 since March 23. It reflects how we are living now: the feeling of being imprisoned that derives from being quarantined; the fear that something unspeakably bad is happening; the endlessly uttered admonishment to maintain six feet of distance from everyone else. I had a few of those themes in my dream, too!

Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been funneling anxiety into our dreams. Even though we’re asleep, thoughts of the coronavirus continue to spark in our brains. “COVID-19 is worrying our dreaming mind like our waking mind,” Barrett says. “Dreaming is thinking, only in a different state. It’s more emotional, less linear.” Our unconscious process is not censored for logic or appropriateness in the same way our conscious process is.

Joannie Yeh, a pediatrician from Media, had a virus-linked dream not long ago set in the Conshohocken IKEA, a favorite spot her family visited for hours on Saturdays.

In her dream, the store was closing, and she suddenly realized no one was wearing a mask or standing six feet apart. “It was strange because I was concerned, yet I was so happy to be there,” she said. “It felt nice to be among people again.”

A couple of elements didn’t add up in Mark Berman’s dream, either. A South Philadelphia graphic designer, he has a fear of heights.

Yet, in his subconscious, he was hiking along a snowy cliff — and smiling. Suddenly, he fell, but he caught hold of a ledge that saved his life. Soon enough, Berman found himself harnessed, first being yanked upward, then learning how to climb on his own. He accelerated as he ascended the cliff, which turned into the balconies at the Academy of Music. “A voice in my head was saying, ‘You’ll get through this,’ ” Berman said. “ ‘Just pull yourself up.’ ”

More sleeping means more dreaming

What Barrett is learning from her survey is that people are recalling more dreams than they ever have, and that the dreams seem more emotionally charged. Because many of us are sheltering in place and not working, we sleep longer. The longer sleep means more dreams and more memories of them. Dreams are loaded into sleep later in the night. We dream every 90 minutes when we go into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each REM period of dreaming lengthens the more hours we sleep. So, if we sleep eight hours, the last REM period (the sixth or seventh overall in the night) is the longest, and can last for 30 minutes. “Typically,” Barrett said, “our last REM is when we have the most vivid dreams. The longer we sleep, the more intensively we’re catching up on our dreams.”

In her survey, people had either literal dreams that depicted precise aspects of the virus, or metaphorical ones that reflected the panic and chaos people are experiencing. She heard from dreamers who saw themselves get infected, then become unable to breathe. They sought medical help but couldn’t make it to the hospital. The biggest cluster of metaphoric dreams was about bugs, Barrett said: writhing worms, advancing cockroaches, grasshoppers chomping with vampire fangs. “We use the word bug to describe an unseen sickness,” Barrett said. That’s likely why we dream of them attacking.

By far the worst dreams Barrett discovered were endured by health-care professionals: “They were full-on, classic trauma nightmares.” Doctors and nurses were unable to slide tubes down patients’ throats. Ventilators choked to a halt. Injections became impossible as every needle broke. In some cases, patients turned into zombies who attacked anyone with a face mask. Other virus victims had to be chained to beds to keep them from killing neighbors. Doctors felt huge guilt in their dreams, as though they’d infected patients.

In one of the worst images, Barrett said, an Italian physician trying to get a better angle to intubate a patient stood on the hospital bed and lost his balance. He fell out the window, grabbing the patient who plunged with him. On the street, the doctor emerged without a scratch, but the patient had been beheaded.

“Healthcare givers’ dreams look as bad as a wartime population’s,” Barrett said. “They were uniformly horrible, and there was not a single mastery dream among them where they helped the patient live.” It is no wonder that many healthcare workers are already imagining a time “after the war” when they can get out of uniform for good!

The gift of dreams

Dreams can feel horrible or wonderful, or both in the course of a few minutes. It helps to discuss them. Parents will help their children if they take the time to listen. Instead of dismissing “bad” dreams or saying, “Don’t pay attention to them,” it is better to share them. Sharing in a safe place can defang them, if needed. The more we talk about our dreams, the better we understand them and the better we can deal with the stress they often represent.

In the Bible, as you probably know, dreams are often the place where people are given prophetic words or direction in the middle of distressing situations. Think of Joseph in prison (waking up, above) or Joseph and the holy family about to be hunted by Herod. Sometimes people wonder why no one seems to get these spiritually-supercharged dreams anymore. For one thing, they do get them. For another, Deirdre Barrett might remind us, people don’t sleep like they used to sleep. Their mindspace has been colonized by Dreamworks.

Lately, our pastors have been dreaming about who we are as the church in the new era that may follow the lockdown. These six distressing weeks, and counting, have also provided some space to dream as a whole community. As in my dream, I think we are seeing what we have that is most important. The pastor team and our other leaders and staff have been gelling in new ways and seeing the future in new ways. Our businesses got clobbered and will re-emerge in new ways. I hope the whole society feels chastened and comes back with a new look at reality after we see what callous capitalism has done to the poor, the sick and the imprisoned, and we see what our incompetent and strangely uncaring leaders are really doing in Washington, while the local and state leaders come through for us.

Maybe you are not privileged to start dreaming positive dreams yet. Your dreams may be more filled with trauma than with a bright future. I can certainly understand that. I hope you are finding a place to talk them over in your cell, your family, or with your pastor or therapist. The final end of the virus nightmare is uncertain, but that end will surely come.

If you feel unsuccessful at turning into a new mindset or dealing with your anxiety you can still have moments when you join in the community’s dreams. There is something new forming among us (maybe even in the whole country). I don’t think anyone is left out of it. Even if parts of us seem to be going in all sorts of directions and the cityscape of our insides is full of threats, the message to me was that the riches I need are still in my back pocket. We’ll make it home if we stay on the way of Jesus.

Is the movement finally starting? Keep praying and pushing.

When Donald Trump was elected, I hoped it was the final straw to break the power of delusion choking so many people here in the last days of the Empire. There is some evidence this week that my hope was not in vain. The Spirit of God is moving among us and in our region and people are waking up. Things are happening that remind me of the stories I have heard about Jesus appearing to Muslims in places where it is illegal to even entertain the thought of becoming a Christian. People who can’t trust and are afraid to think are meeting Jesus personally in ways that change them forever.

Movement: the Spirit poured out
Acts 2:17

The movement of the Spirit in our church never really ground to a halt, but it seemed to slow so much, we began to wonder if we were missing something or doing something wrong. Our “flywheel” was slowing down and we realized we had better get behind it and do some pushing so the engine of our mission would get back to speed. We have been doing that and things are changing.

But there is only so much pushing one can do. The movement of the Spirit in a group or society is a mystery that is more about prayer than technique. So I have been praying for us and praying for our region, country and the whole desperate world. And I am not alone. Many of us have been drawn to pray and we have even started groups to do it together.

Evidence keeps popping up that something is starting. I almost don’t want to talk about it, lest I be wrong. But it is hard not to appreciate the possibility.

Cell mates of all kinds

For instance, my pastor, Rachel, could not contain herself last week and had to share the good things happening  in our cells:

  • She visited our Spanish-speaking cell and sensed the presence of God so strongly it made her “choke back tears.” The members were opening up about their lives, sharing real struggles and then praying for each other and reading the Bible together. For some of them, it was all brand new.
  • At her own cell, her host “shared a growing sense that Someone is leading her into a future that she doesn’t know yet, and she is actually excited about that, because she’s discovering that God has better things in store for her than she had for herself. She’s being surprised by hope.”
  • Then on her walk home, she ran into three of Jimmy & Zoe’s cell mates who looked like something good had just happened to them. They had just prayed with two friends who asked to receive Christ right there in their meeting.

A deluded millennial

About the same time, I was looking around YouTube for this video when I ran into this one by Steve Bancarz. I understand about zero why anyone would listen to a YouTube personality or how they get a following. But here is this guy who apparently made a living selling “new age” philosophies through his website. Then he had this remarkable experience with Jesus, gave it all up, and started his new internet business: debunking his old one.

I almost never get through a fifteen minute video, but this one intrigued me. When it was done, I felt it might be a scam. But evangelical outlets like Christian Post and Charisma have been telling the story too. His experience is like ones reported by Muslims, in which Jesus came to him and convinced him to change. I think his fundamentalist connections are serving him well as he gets over his drug use. It should be interesting to see how he moves on. Is this how Jesus is going to penetrate the despairing, enslaved, avoidant and cynical millennials?

A burned out evangelical

Movement from outside and in
Ocean waves and brain waves

Finally, I have been reading an “earth” book I keep recommending to people who don’t have faith, or who are interested in the new atheist arguments: Finding God in the Waves. It is about a Christian who lost his faith but who also had a life changing experience with God at the beach one night. He became “Science Mike” on the podcast from the group known as the  Liturgists  who say, “We create art and experiences for the spiritually homeless and frustrated.” (I have not listened their podcast, I admit).  Gungor is also a “Liturgist;” you can click his name and get a ticket to hear him on August 1 at 1125 S. Broad.

In Finding God in the Waves, Mike describes how science convinced him faith is not only possible, but preferable. Here is a quote about what he found most convincing:

“Trying to describe God is a lot like trying to describe falling in love. And that’s a serious problem for people who doubt that God is real…The unbelieving brain has no God construct, no neurological model for processing spiritual ideas and experiences in a way that feels real. This is why Bible stories and arguments for God’s existence will always sound like nonsense to a skeptic. For the unbeliever, God is truly absent from his or her brain. …

[Unlike how Christians tend to view solutions to doubt] neurotheology treats doubt as a neurological condition and would instead encourage people to imagine any God they can accept, and then pray or meditate on that God, in order to reorient the person’s neurobiological image of God back toward the experiential parts of the brain.…This insight was the most significant turning point in my return to God. I now knew I had to stop trying to perfect my knowledge of God and instead shift toward activities that would help me cultivate a healthy neurological image of God – secure in the knowledge that this network would help me connect with God and live a peaceful, helpful life.” 

It all amazes me. The desperate immigrants and illegals, the millions who are deluded by spirituality without Jesus, the science-laden who think their disciplines exclude the possibility of God, all of them popped up in my own experience with a story about Jesus coming to them in a way they never expected. And now they are joined around our own table in an odd way, celebrating the life, death and resurrection of the Lord.

Pray and push. Move with the movement. I can tell you are doing it, so all I can say is that I am with you as you pray and push. I am with you as we celebrate how Jesus transforms people who never expected to meet Him.

The pleasure of dreaming with God

Let’s consider how God might move us through a dream. Last night I talked a lot about dreaming in honor of Peter’s great outburst of enthusiasm as he quoted the prophet Joel to explain what the Holy Spirit of God had done in the gathered disciples on Pentecost.

No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.’ Acts 2:16-17 (from Joel 2:28)

Prophecy, visions and dreams are being poured out “upon all flesh” as God calls us back into the spiritual intimacy we were created to enjoy.

Scientists measure dreams

This reality is a bit off the grid for many of us. We have been trained to think our dreams, in particular, are a matter of predictable, physical processes we can measure — and it is true, researchers have been watching our dreams for a long time. The invention of the electroencephalograph allowed scientists to study sleep in ways that were not previously possible.

During the 1950s, a graduate student named Eugene Aserinsky (along with others, but long live graduate students!) used this tool to discover what is known today as REM sleep. Further studies demonstrated how sleep progresses through a series of stages in which different brain wave patterns are displayed. We mainly dream during stage four when we experience Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep (also known as active  sleep or paradoxical sleep).

During the earliest phases of sleep, we are still relatively awake and alert. The brain produces what are called beta waves, which are small and fast. As the brain begins to relax and slow down, slower waves known as alpha waves are produced. During this time when we are not “fully” asleep, we may experience vivid sensations known as hypnagogic hallucinations. Common examples are feeling like you are falling or hearing someone call your name. Another common event during this period is the myoclonic jerk; your body reacts as if startled.

Fairly recently, experts have named four stages sleep. By stage three, deep, slow brain waves known as delta waves begin to emerge. During this stage, people become less responsive to noises and activity in the environment. It is a transitional period between light sleep and a very deep sleep. Bed-wetting and sleepwalking are most likely to occur at the end of this stage of sleep.

Most dreaming occurs during the fourth stage of sleep, known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is characterized by eye movement under our lids, increased respiration rate and increased brain activity. REM sleep is also referred to as paradoxical sleep because while the brain and other body systems become more active, muscles become more relaxed. When our voluntary muscles go off line our brains enjoy a time to be active.

Sleep moves through these four stages four or five times a night. On average, we enter the REM stage approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first cycle of REM sleep might last only a short amount of time, but each cycle becomes longer. REM sleep can last up to an hour as sleep progresses.

God uses dreams

Understanding how we sleep and sleeping well is a good spiritual discipline. Working with the  different levels of how we dream is what deeply spiritual people do. Recalling and pondering what your brain was doing when your muscles were relatively paralyzed during stage four sleep can be very interesting. It tells us a lot about how the automatic scripts of our unconscious act and may give us a lot of information about what we desire and fear, as well as about what we just can’t see in ourselves in the light of day. Keep a pad and pencil by your bed. Talking about our dreams with trusted friends or our therapists and spiritual directors is a good ways to mentalize and become deeper.

Your Old Men Will Dream Dreams — Michelle Sparks

When Peter was telling the crowd gathered in Jerusalem about the movement of God’s Spirit in the followers of Jesus, the dreams he predicted were not merely the movement in our brains or the desires of our hearts. He was talking about revelations from God coming from the same places we normally consider unknowable. From out of the dark, God speaks. When our normal muscle control systems are out of the way, we can hear in ways we otherwise can’t. We meditate and pray in various ways so we can put ourselves in a condition in which we are more receptive to connecting with the Holy Spirit. Like the disciples were waiting in Jerusalem for the communion with God Jesus had promised, so we wait. The Lord has provided the forgiveness we need and defeated the powers that want to keep us locked up as their slaves. A new reality (to us, at least) is open for exploration.

The dreams of stage four sleep are often mysterious and downright comical. What we name “dreams” from God, since they arise in the same territory of our brains an electroencephalograph might measure, are much more clear. They resemble what others have experienced, often recorded in the Bible. They often reconfirm things our logic and conviction have led us to believe. They usually lead us to some specific action we can accomplish in the cause of redemption. They give us the pleasure of reassurance that God is with us and we are able to know the Lord. We are not lost in the dark, nor is the darkness full of unknown terrors, nor is our darkness only explored with some machine we invent. God is light in our dark and the future is full of the pleasure of God’s company.

Good, Disturbing Dreams

My friend told me about a troubling dream the other day. He was disturbed by it. He was interpreting it according to his ordinary awareness—the same awareness he has about what he feels about his dinner choices or his latest review from the boss. So he was not completely excited when I became enthused about what he had dreamt. He initially thought I was taking his bad feelings lightly.

I thought his dream was a wonderful expression of his spiritual awareness, which I have had the privilege of watching as it developed. Just below the surface of his ordinary awareness, his dreams were holding the spiritual awareness of the great changes God was making in him. I think that God’s work in us is emanating from places too deep for us to be fully aware of. We can often spot what is happening and cooperate when his works rises as close to our ordinary awareness as our dreams.

In this case the dream seemed to be about the classic struggle to put together the competing and complementary elements of the gifts and desires we all contain. How can I be myself and serve? How can I do what I want and do what I should? How can I follow love and still tell the truth? How can I experience what I think I need and still give what I have to contribute? How can I leave my past behind and still be true to what I have become? In the words of Jesus: how can I lose my life and find it? It is no wonder that the dream felt disturbing! Spiritual birth pangs were sending an urgent message that something new was trying to be born.

I am wondering how many of my readers are experiencing similar disturbance? What are your dreams telling you? I have to say that I think our whole network has definitely experienced the surfacing of dreams lately – from Haddon and Fern’s emergence, to Frankford and Norris’ crowning new baby congregation, to the rumblings of newness at Broad and Washington. Several people have told me that they are aware that God is bringing about something new. Are you aware of it, too? Any dreamers care to share?

Pray and Not Faint…again

This morning, I woke up to one of those dreams with a cast of thousands. Gwen and I were going to some show at some stadium and I had a part in it. But I had forgotten my script in the room, so I went dashing back to get it. Halfway to the room I realized I had no keys and no time to get back to Gwen and no cell phone to call her and no idea where I was and no one would help me for various reasons, etc. It was a good, frustrating dream about anxieties and inabilities trying to find a way to the surface to be redeemed. It was a good post-Lent dream about facing the possibilities that were uncovered during the long season of turning toward death and leaning into life.

As I meditated on the dream, I remembered a blog post I wrote last September about being reminded to “Pray and not faint” (Luke 18:1 KJV). I translated the word of the Lord to me as, “If you come up against the impossible, my friends, pray with abandon.”

Generally, I have been pretty successful at listening to that word and doing it since then. I not only did not faint, I think I got better at praying. The most immediate results were that I grew up some more, I faced some more fears, I reconciled more relationships, I withstood some major meltdowns among my intimates and God built some new capacity in me and the church. Now, as my dream seems to indicate, it is back to square one – time to face the next big things and the big societal things (that did not pray with me) and not faint…again. It is time to take a few more little chunks out of the hide of the monsters that we are all facing. Joshua and I were talking about a few of them yesterday when we met, and they are still much like what I was noting last year:

“Some days I feel surrounded by a spirit of disengagement. It’ s not that everyone is possessed by it, of course, but so many of us seem to be trying to survive by keeping away from threatening or even challenging people, by hiding from the overwhelming facts of gigantic governments and corporations fighting for power, by avoiding enormous info machines dominating communication, incomprehensible food production and invasive medical care turning us into things we can’t imagine. In my neighborhood, people try to turn a blind eye to the constant threat that the thousands of guns littering the zip code will be used when the thin fabric of community finally tears.”

Post Lent, it is always tempting to keep eating chocolate, to return to the bad habits we gave up for Jesus (or at least for Lent), to let our spiritual belts out a few notches and to re-insulate ourselves with the fat of the false promises which dissipation offers us as a substitute for being truly safe and happy. It is tempting to go back into some numbing habit that puts us into a stupor of avoidance rather than pray.

I feel blessed today that my interpretation of my dream is like an alarm bell – a stupor alert. Jesus ended his word to his disciples with, “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:7-8) Rather than sinking into the frustrations of my inabilities churning around in my unconscious or cowering in the face of the monstrosities of my time, I need to pray with abandon. I need to trust the Lord and be found trustworthy. I need to pray and not faint…again.