Seeking the Sacred – Dreaming
Acts 10 (abridged)
In Caesarea there was a centurion named Cornelius. He was a good dude with a heart for the Lord. One afternoon he had a vision in which an angel of God said to him, “Cornelius. Your prayers and your generosity tell me you desire my heart and my ways. Now send men to Joppa to find a man called Peter who lives on the beach.” Cornelius told three people about the vision and asked them to go to Joppa to find Peter.
The next day, around the time the three men were approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof of his house to pray. He became hungry and while his food was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large tablecloth coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Yuck. Oh, God, no; I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean like that stuff.” The voice corrected him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter was still on his roof, dumfounded, when Cornelius’ men approached and asked if he was Peter. Peter was still out of it, so the Spirit said to him, “I sent those guys to find you, so talk to them.” So Peter went down to the men and said, “You’re looking for me, but I have no idea why.”
They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, but a good dude with lots of Jewish friends, was directed by a holy angel to invite you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.”
Peter wasn’t sure he had anything to say, but he accompanied them to Caesarea, where Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. Peter said to everyone, “You know it is unlawful for a Jew, like me, to associate with or to visit a Gentile, like you all; but God has shown me in a weird vision with a tablecloth and snakes and birds that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but anyone, regardless of nationality, who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God our Father, from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit who unites us in faith. Amen.
If any of our midweek worship topics were going to make you feel uncomfortable, my guess is it would be tonight’s subject of dreams. Human beings have a tendency to prefer things that are concrete, practical, knowable, and controllable. Given that our primary motivation as a species is survival, what better way to ensure survival than to know and control as many variables as possible. Dreams, then, seem to have little practical importance.
After all, what’s the use of a dream in which your best friend, Mr. Fish, with a mackerel face and a lion’s tail, teaches you how to rumba so that you can walk upside down when it’s raining and enjoy a nice refreshing glass of purple lemonade with your second-grade teacher who is wearing a rainbow clown wig?
Before we get into the profound spiritual dimensions of dreams, here’s a quick primer on the brain physiology of dreams. The parts of your brain that, when awake, are busy assessing risk and testing sensory input against reality as you understand it are offline when you sleep. Then there’s your visual cortex, which is usually busy analyzing visual imagery. Even though your eyes are closed and there’s no visual sensory input, it continues to go to work, replacing the visual darkness with seemingly random bits of memories and experiences. One of the most active parts of the brain during sleep is the amygdala – your fight or flight center and the seat of emotions. Purely from a brain science perspective, dreams are the uncontrolled processing of sensory input that is charged by heightened emotional response; all of which takes place when you are unconscious and literally paralyzed.
That’s the what, but what’s the why?
The purpose of dreams is to help us organize our thoughts and memories. It is scientific fact that dreaming makes us smarter. The memories you make while awake is new information that has to transfer between several different parts of your brain in order to stick around for awhile. Those same patterns correspond with the patterns of brain activity during sleep.
Imagine you only ate peanut butter sandwiches but one day you tried chocolate and discovered you liked it. Days went on and you would each peanut butter sandwiches all day long, with a piece of chocolate at night. Then one day you wake up with the inexplicable and crazy-sounding urge to start spreading the peanut directly onto a piece of chocolate. The only reason the Reece’s cup was invented was because Mr. Reece had a good night’s sleep that allowed his brain to make a startling and revolutionary new discovery. This isn’t a true story; but it not not true.
Or you can think of dreams like you are watching someone clean your house while you’re outside watching through a window. You’ll notice as some things are put back in a slightly different place, some things are thrown away, and generally everything is dusted, scrubbed, and organized. The same thing happens in our brains when we dream. Our brains are busy organizing information, sifting through memories to see which ones to keep and which ones to throw away, and sharing information with other parts of the brain.
So let me ask you, is it possible that God could speak to us in our dreams? If we’re not in control of our body or mind, can God really tell us anything? Of course! And that’s what makes us uncomfortable, right? When we’re honest with ourselves we prefer to meet God on our terms, when we’re in complete control of our environment and faculties. The problem, of course, is that we have gotten so good at controlling our lives (or at least maintaining the illusion of control with white knuckles) that we often don’t leave room for God. In which case, allow me to make a bold statement: the more we push God out of our consciousness, the more likely God is to speak to us in our dreams….because that’s the only place God has complete and unfettered access to us.
There’s a compelling case to be made that dreams and visions are not God’s preferred method of communication with us. In the Old Testament there is an observable decline in the esteem of prophets’ dreams and visions. The 23rd chapter of Jeremiah includes the phrase, “The dream is like straw or chaff when compared to the wheat of God’s word.”
Earlier in worship we read the story from Numbers in which the Lord told Aaron and Miriam that he speaks to prophets through dreams and visions, but with Moses he is able to speak plainly, face to face, without the use of riddles. Moses is humble and his heart is fashioned after the Lord, so dreams and visions are unnecessary.
Look also at the accounts of Jesus’ life. There’s not a single reference to Jesus having a dream or vision in which God spoke to him. Now, of course, God spoke to Jesus constantly. The Father and the Son were in full communion with one another. Every breath the Son breathed, the Father breathed; and every teaching and healing demonstrated by the Son came from the Father. This intimate and complete union with the Father meant that Jesus needed no new insights during his dreams. In the scenario referenced earlier, Jesus would watch through his dream house window with a smirk on his face as the housecleaner walked between the furniture and frustratedly couldn’t find a single thing to clean or put away.
As far as I can tell, none of us have reached such union with the divine; so our best spiritual medicine could very well be to relinquish our illusion of control and head to bed a little earlier tonight, hoping that the furniture of our knowledge and memories will be rearranged and something will be put away in a new place that will suddenly make everything more in line with God’s created and redeemed order. If you feel yourself veering off track, chances are God will meet you in your dream with a new revelation or insight that can change everything.
This is exactly what happened to Peter in this evening’s story from Acts 10. Peter was certainly a spiritually mature person, but the divine imperative to dismantle the lines separating Jew and Gentile was so monumental and new that it took a vision in an altered state of consciousness for God to even introduce the idea to Peter. He didn’t even get it right away. He needed another night’s sleep before it all started making sense.
To clarify, not every dream or vision is from God. One surefire way to know if God is speaking to you through a dream or vision is by determining if it is leading you to a place of expansion and abundance. A dream or vision that inspires you to shrink your world, be less generous, and draw tighter lines of exclusion is not a God-ordained dream or vision.
As Christine Valters Paintner writes in The Soul’s Slow Ripening, “Dreams continue to call us into ways of being that are less linear and more intuitive, less goal-driven and more open to receiving the gifts being offered to us in the moment….They speak a language that can feel confusing to our waking minds, so we must approach with reverence and hospitality” (14). The imperative of this week’s spiritual practice of dreaming is to invite you to “Bless the wild edges of life where safe conventions are stripped away and space is opened for new imaginings”(20) for “When we descend into the holy darkness of night and receive an invitation through symbol and imagery, we are called to trust in the imagination of a God much bigger than ourselves” (21).
Your suggested spiritual practice for this week involves keeping a journal and writing utensil next to your bed so that you can write down your dreams and first thoughts when you wake each morning. They might not make any sense to you, but just write uninterrupted and without judgment for 10 minutes or so and see if some patterns or insights emerge – a trail of breadcrumbs that leads you to unexpected storehouses of God’s abundance and grace.
And, of course, this means getting plenty of sleep – which is itself the ultimate spiritual practice of surrender and trust.