I Dream of Covid
It’s been hot lately––very hot. Not exactly unusual for the Okanagan at this time of year.
Growing up here, I well remember the careful ministrations of my mother when it was hot (survival tactics, actually)––back in the days before most people had air conditioning: closing the windows tight from the crack of dawn; taking us for long afternoons at the beach; supper on our shaded porch on the east side of the house; and then the opening wide of the same windows at night, once the air had cooled, each fitted with a fan to draw air in.
Yes, they were survival tactics! Because when it’s hot, of course, not to mention humid, the ordinary rhythms of life become a challenge!!:––especially sleep. I’ve been struggling with sleep for a few weeks now, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you have, too.
Did you know that the one biological state common to all life forms, is sleep? All life forms. Animal, and vegetable!! Yes, vegetable!!! Some scientists actually believe––truth being stranger than fiction––that plants actually exist, in physiological terms, in a state of perpetual sleep. Sleep is actually a highly dynamic time for each and every organism, during which the organs of the body, ironically, remain highly active––especially the brain. Living organisms carefully rebuild themselves, during sleep, from the brain on down, bringing not only relief––and refreshment––but the power to carry on! “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” insists Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest, “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Or so one should wish . . . One of the most disturbing things about the current pandemic is how it has stolen––if not murdered––sleep: sleep that brings rest: and co-opted dreaming. “For millions of people around the world dealing with the coronavirus pandemic,” writes Gillian Flaccus of the Associated Press, “sleep brings no relief.”
“The horrors of COVID-19, and the surreal and frightening ways it has upended daily life,” she goes on, “are infecting dreams and exposing feelings of fear, loss, isolation and grief that transcend culture, language and national boundaries. Everyone from a college teacher in Pakistan to a mall cashier in Canada to an Episcopalian priest in Florida is confronting the same daytime demon. And each is then waking up in a sweat in the dead of night.”
Experts say humanity has rarely experienced “collective dreaming” on such a broad scale in recorded history,” continues Flaccus. “[And] the psychological toll is staggering, particularly for health care workers whose dreams show similarities to those of combat veterans and 9-11 responders. Researcher Deirdre Barrett, has collected 6,000 dream samples fom about 2,400 people. . . Episcopalian priest Mary Alice Mathison, for example, dreamed 500 people showed up for a funeral in her church and wouldn’t go home. Barista Ashley Trevino dreamed that she and her boyfriend were in line to enter a dark, metal warehouse where they’d be injected with the new coronavirus by government workers wearing Hazmat suits. Fluorescent lights in the parking lot cast an eerie glow as she watched her partner get the shot and gasp for breath. Then she got the shot, too. “I watched him kind of collapse against the wall and while I was trying to fight the effects of it and not pass out myself, I was like . . . ‘Is he dead now?’ Others have dreamed of being held down by infected people, who coughed on them; or of groups of people shooting at random strangers.”
I don’t know if you know this, but the Bible is saturated with dreams.
“The LORD said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam,” reads the Book of Numbers, ‘Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you.’ Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When both of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words: “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.”
In other words, not only is the Bible full, even saturated with dreams, but throughout salvation-history, to borrow a German term, dreams have often been the way that God touches the hearts of men and women when so much else has been lost––or grown dim. Or when people were barely listening to the Spirit of God. This was recognized throughout the ancient world, not just among the Israelites. The ancient world was full of dream ‘colleges.’ In other words, people went to school to study dreams. And these colleges were called the “Houses of Life.” Among other things, dream colleges published lexicons for general use, in other words, dictionaries, systematically indexed to make dream interpretation easy for those who wished to do so.
In this morning’s reading, Jacob himself begins to dream by the Spirit of God. You remember Jacob, Genesis’ most notorious bad boy, next to Cain. Deceiver. Supplanter. Usurper. scammer. Counterfeit. He has stolen the birthright from his brother Esau. He has swindled his father’s blessing. He has stolen everything he wanted most in life: Place; meaning; purpose; love. And so he’s now on the run, travelling between Beersheba and Haran––fleeing from the threat of a brother’s revenge.
And so he settles down to spend the night––alone in the middle of what one commentator has called a “pitch-black nowhere.” Without the ordinary accoutrements of a comfortable sleep, Jacob takes a rock for a pillow and settles down for a long desert’s nap. I don’t know how he could quite do it, settling his tortured noggin on a rough and inhospitable stone––but Jacob slept, and deeply. So deeply that he began to dream.
And in his dream Jacob saw a ladder––or what we would call a ladder; perhaps it’s what the ancients would call a ziggurat, a pyramidal tower surmounted by a temple, each side composed of steps. Moreover, on this ladder, there is, in a phrase, “strange traffic.” A strange commerce, as it were, going on between earth and heaven. Angelic commerce. Angels are going up and down from the throne of God to the world of men and women. Back and forth, forth and back, as if God were more involved in the world than we think him; as if there were a closer relationship between God’s world––and our world––than we have heretofore imagined. As if the world was full, chock full, of what the Celtic Christians called “thin places,” where the barrier between heaven and earth is as transparent as gossamer.
Suddenly, in the midst of this dream, God speaks:
“Jacob, I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.”
On awaking, Jacob makes an astonishing statement: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I hadn’t known it!” The text tells us he was frightened, and said, “This is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven.” Rather an odd statement to make in such a desolate place, by such a desperate person, on the run from his brother.
People of God; surely the Lord is in this place: surely the Lord is in your life; surely the Lord is in the world, even in a time of Covid; even when our dreams are infected with, and tortured by, Covid, and we are tempted to despair!
God is here; God is with you. God is sending angels, up and down from heaven. God is watching; God is waiting. God is loving. He has torn aside the veil between earth and heaven. In fact, once upon a time he sent his Son inbetwixt and inbetween, to bring life where there was once death; and hope where there was once despair.
Yes, let us therefore NOT despair! God is with us! He is! Even in a time of Covid.
The next day Jacob rose up early in the morning, took the stone with which he had bedded down, and set it up as a pillar. Anointing it with oil, he named the place Bethel, which means, in Hebrew, “house of God.”
The truth is, the world is not only full of dreams and visions by the Spirit of God, but “thin places,” where earth and heaven have commerce, one touching the other, with no more breadth than a veil. How else could it be that creation is so full of wonder, if it be but a veil––a very thin veil––between God and the world that he loves so very deeply?
The ancient Celts, for all their paganism, knew this only too well. For you see the Celts believed that on Beltane, or May 1, as on Samhain, or November 1, the boundary between the “real” world––so called––the earth and the spirit world––so called––and heaven suddenly disappeared. At these special times and places the Celts believed that the veil between heaven and earth was stretched so thin, that you could see through to the other side.
When Jacob realizes this, he falls to his knees, in worship. “Surely God is in this place, and yet, and yet, I hadn’t known it!!!”
Did you realize that the walls of this building––stones notwithstanding––are paper thin???
There is a ladder reaching right up out of this sanctuary, and angels are going up and down on it, right now––even in a time of Covid????
Here, as elsewhere, heaven’s gate stands open, Here, in God’s house. The question comes, however, “do we know it?” Indeed, to frame things a little more personally, do you know it? Do you??? As you find your way through this world, en route to the next, are your eyes open, or closed? Is the world full of thin places, or those which are thick, and inscrutable? Were God to speak to you, would you be listening?
This is what worship is all about. This is what following Christ is all about. Listening. Longing. Seeing. Watching the commerce which is going on between earth and heaven, whether by the Spirit of God, or by the angels which he sends.
“Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” muses the hymn-writer. “I can feel his mighty power and his grace. I can feel the touch of angel’s wings; I see glory in each face. Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place.”
“When heaven impinges on earth; when we meet God in ordinary events and realize that God is not just remote but deeply involved in our lives; when an overwhelming awareness of Christ’s presence embraces us, evaporating our cares and concerns,” writes David Bibbee, “we worship. Gathering with other Christians for worship in a sanctuary is a necessary aspect of discipleship, which does get us into touch with God. But this also happens in the corridors of hospitals or nursing homes. It happens while meditating on a work of art, while listening to beautiful music, or the song of a bird, or floating down a scenic river, or watching a sunset or gazing into a starry night, or holding a cup of coffee in your lap, watching the morning mist roll off the lake . . . .”
Thin places. Ladders from earth to heaven. Angels going up and down. It’s more than a dream.
It’s real. Devastatingly real. The great Christian mystic Thomas Merton said, “Life is simple.
We live in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through [to] us all the time.”
But are we listening? Are we seeing? And having seen, dare we believe, dare we respond, as God gives us the faith to do so? Even in a time of Covid? That is the question. Or are we preoccupied with the grotesquely tiny, inward-turning world of the self?? Are we constrained by little more than our own fear; fear over a virus, which may kill the body, but will never kill our souls? Our own suffering? Our own nightmares?
The famous mystic St. John of The Cross lived a life which was full of dreams. “Upon a lucky night, in secrecy, inscrutable to sight,” wrote he, “I went without discerning and with no other light except that which in my heart was burning. As in a dream it lit and led me through, more certain than the night of noonday clear, to where One waited near, whose presence well I knew, there where no other presence might appear.”
God is here, and he is not silent. Open your heart to him, if it’s the last thing you do. Even in a time of Covid.