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Two Dream Warnings

SigningWill

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men left for their own country by another road.

— Matthew 2:12 (NRSV)

The past two evenings, in late afternoon naps, I have received warnings in my dreams of my death. The second one was five minutes ago.

In the first, I was in a hospital, about to undergo one of those death by injection treatments which hospice nurses use on some people with terminal illness. (My mother died that way at home.) They administer painkillers, supposedly at a physician’s direction. I received mine, but I talked all the way through it, including afterward, which made me want to know why I wasn’t dead yet. Then the nurse left and closed a big old heavy wooden door – to shut death in with me, I guess; to make sure I couldn’t escape. Finally I asked, “Does this mean I’m going to keel over?” She paused, then cracked open a wooden vertical slot half an inch, and answered, “Yes.”

So I climbed back onto the gurney, made the sign of the Cross quite profoundly – and woke up.

A few minutes ago, I dreamed I was riding in a car with several middle-aged women as we headed to a political meeting; something to do with a fight over development in Clifton, a Cincinnati neighborhood where I once lived. I could picture the street in the business district they were all concerned about; they were fighting this development, and about to meet with a heavyweight donor in the northeastern suburbs. Then we’d all have lunch at a restaurant, and when the drama started we were already discussing how we would pay our collective food bill; a woman we picked up along the way would get the tab, then we’d all reimburse her. We were headed up north along the interstate – maybe from I-75 to the Norwood Lateral – when we rounded a curve and plunged into deep water that was flooding the roadway. I saw it coming, but the driver plowed through it, and in seconds we were all right. Then we rounded another curve with a much deeper wall of water, deep enough that no one would ever attempt to drive through it. At the crucial moment she glanced away to her left, and the car not only plunged in, it rapidly filled with water.

No one spoke. I could tell we would drown, and I headed my nose to the roof of the car. I clawed at it, managed to rip through the (old-fashioned) cloth, filled myself with oxygen and started giving directions, “Get your noses above water, there’s a little space here.” I tried the door, we were able to clamber out (which was odd, since I was sitting in the middle, and logically the door wouldn’t have opened so easily). I made it to the dry left side of the road, the driver somehow was able to drive a few feet ahead and park on the median, and when she got out she said, “I didn’t see it coming.”

Well, I did. That’s what dreams are for.

My spiritual director Marcia recently did an experimental painting, “Wake up to your dreams. They are unopened letters from God.” She’d gotten spiritually blocked about even trying this thing that wanted to come out of her, which I accidentally discovered while we had an e-mail discussion about an earlier work of hers, a pastel drawing of a young woman, which I own and she wanted to borrow back for an upcoming gallery event. She made arrangements to pick it up on a certain day, I took it down from my wall and Windexed the glass so it would be clean for her, and took it downstairs so she wouldn’t have to wait while I retrieved it. The day came and went and she never picked it up.

A couple of weeks later I wrote to her again, asking about it. And I somehow intuited her fear, though she hadn’t mentioned it. So I encouraged her in that e-mail, as best I could in my ignorance, that whatever was going on with her she should paint through it. “Just try, even if it turns out ugly or shameful or scandalous or wrong.” I didn’t know what I was saying, and yet I wrote this with confidence to her. She is quite a spiritual director, who has shared many things with me as I have with her, and the one thing I knew was that if my advice was off-base, she’d be strong enough to ignore it.

Two weeks later she finished the painting, took a picture of it, and sent me the photo by e-mail. Here it is.

Marcia Smith-Wood, 2013: Wake up to your dreams. They are unopened letters from God."

Marcia Smith-Wood, 2013: Wake up to your dreams. They are unopened letters from God.

It’s a self-portrait, but I’m not going to discuss it as art so I don’t intrude on her privacy. It was the title that got to me; such a clear expression of her insights. I thought it might even be helpful to my Daily Office congregation, so I posted it shortly thereafter for Morning Prayer.

No one commented on it, but its message stayed with me.

I can’t say, like the driver of the car, that I didn’t see it coming. My dreams, two afternoons in a row, told me death is coming.

Maybe I have a chance to repent and radically change my ways (I’m an alcoholic, sometimes in recovery and sometimes not, and I smoke). But I’m not entirely concerned with that right now. I am not for the most part horribly frightened of death. I hope when it comes it’s not painful, but my number one concern is my spiritual response to it. My first dream, in the hospital with the old heavy door, satisfies me; what to do when our death is at hand is to make the sign of the Cross. We don’t even have to say anything, for God will know. (It’s funny that in that moment of great physical weakness, I imagined my hand traveling all the way from my forehead to my waist, then one shoulder to the other. Liturgically impeccable, a death seen only in the movies.)

Last night just before I went to bed for the last time, I had a heart-to-heart with God about this. I asked him or her to make provision for my prayer site’s succession; it will need someone to outlive me. It is too big, after 2.5 million hits and another million e-mails to subscribers, and too successful simply to die with me. We are doing too well right now, with a pending grant application for $50,000 to church headquarters in New York, and brand new live webcasts five mornings a week. The technology is very exciting; a few people are trying it. We can see each other by webcam, hear each other by VoIP, and their computer screens (iPad or phone) display what’s on my screen: the website with its liturgy, art and videos. When I hit Play on the videos, everyone sees and hears them simultaneously. It really is like being in church together, though we’re physically located throughout the country.

None of my competitors even attempts such a thing – and indeed, one basis of our grant app is that we offer live curated services twice a day. (I’m the “curator,” because the term sounds grandiose enough to impress New York.) The two or three competing sites (why anyone would compete over this work is beyond me) are simply databases, where the user clicks enough times to put together the elements they want. No art – Fr. Richard Helmer recently trumpeted that he’s now added some, nine years after my innovation – and certainly no videos.

The pride I take in my site is the making of community; this is what online church should be, not praying to a database. If we do get selected for the grant, I’ve got another trick up my sleeve to grow this community. Don’t know whether it will work, but we’re big enough to try.

We get more visitors per year than the National Cathedral in Washington. They’re going to start charging tourists $10 a head, to raise $3 million for their overhead; with 50 grand I can take care of our techno expansion, pay myself a salary – which is key to my succession plan, because another minister will want that paying job – and start up a Spanish language version in cooperation with Padré Mickey.

Best $50,000 New York will ever spend, or so I hope. I prayed to God last night, “Give me that succession and I can go in peace.”

S/he gave me a loving response this morning, enveloping me in warmth, her favorite way, because I can receive it and know it’s her. She probably waited until this morning because I was headed straight to bed after our talk.

Then to have this death-by-drowning dream a few minutes ago, well – my fingers drum on the desktop – I clearly will have to completely change my ways. That’s what “repentance” means, an up-and-down transformation. Quit the behavior, no more self-destructiveness. Booze and smoking kill. That’s actually how my mother died; she smoked until she got lung cancer, and eventually drowned in the fluid that filled her lungs. I guess the morphine shots were a blessing – though the hospice agency was really dishonest about it. Nurse-assisted homicide takes place all over the country, and though that sounds shocking, people who’ve been there all know it.

Repentance is difficult, and for most people it’s very gradual, though fundamentalists would have you believe they’re all “born again” in a flash. This 180-degree turn is something they tell each other about constantly and take pride in, though they cloak that pride in describing how wicked they once were. (We’re supposed to think they’re not anymore!) It makes them feel better about themselves. And I don’t know that it doesn’t happen, so while I gladly satirize them, I don’t judge a one of them. May it all be just as they claim.

For 99% of Episcopalians it doesn’t work that way. We seldom have the same depravities they describe, and we seldom go through such a quick turnaround. I’m 62, and I’ve been working at social justice (while smoking and drinking, quitting and going back to it) all my life. They never get to that part, so fuck ’em. They deserve Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard and Fox News.

I don’t drink 24/7/365 anymore, but I do jump on and off the wagon, and lately I’ve been off in left field for two weeks.

So I just poured out my last vodka, to make sure I don’t go through withdrawal. I’ve been tapering again, and I’m pretty sure I’m physically in the clear; withdrawal is life-threatening. (If I should die tomorrow, notify Maria L. Evans of the Diocese of Missouri at once. The site will belong to her until she makes other arrangements. This is my legal wish.) Alcohol is the more immediately dangerous substance for me, and since New York is taking its own sweet time to decide our application, maybe I’ll stay sober long enough to keep the site going awhile.

My strategy to quit smoking is a week or so away: never buy menthol cigarettes again. (Europe’s about to ban them, and they’re right.) The “regular flavor” tastes so damn nasty I won’t want to keep smoking. I’ll set a quit date, taper down and be done with this stuff. If I still can’t manage it I’ll seek every kind of medical help there is. I can’t afford cigarettes, physically, spiritually or financially. If I have to take a prescription drug instead, I’ll buy it until I find one that works.

As you have decided by now, my story does not offer immense moral uplift with a pop soundtrack; only honesty amidst struggle and dream warnings. (Masturbation doesn’t kill anybody, or I’d have been dead at 16. Apparently my fantasies will continue until five minutes before I croak.) I thank God for my dreams.

Marcia, I opened the letters.

Otherwise I’m quite content with my spiritual life. The site is going great guns, and yesterday’s big sign of the Cross ending leaves me at peace. I’m thankful for the Spirit’s embrace this morning; God hasn’t left me, no matter how much danger I put myself in. Even today’s nap had me making my way to the grass, not perishing in the water.

Otherwise, here’s hoping I can consolidate my afternoon naps and my nighttime sleeping. I’m a plenty dramatic fella, but I’d rather not go through this three afternoons in a row.++

Josh Thomas
Kentland, Indiana
owner and founder, dailyoffice.org
November 29, 2013

Last Will Cartoon

Peak Spiritual Experience Isn’t Easy

dawn-28mfdrt

Yesterday’s Daily Office webcast was so enthralling I had to shut down for today; we may never reach those heights again.

It wasn’t my doing, but the music of Merbecke, Byrd & Tallis, the 3 Great Musicians. People even stayed 20 more minutes for the Vaughan Williams recital, they didn’t want to leave.

Yeah, I picked out the clips, so two bits for Josh… but having entered into that holy space, and knowing that I can’t reproduce it every day (wasn’t me, it was Mr. Big), I had to retire so we could get back to earth. I can’t further explain, but I had no spirit left.

Better to take the weekend off, and come back strong on Monday.

Terrible way to run a railroad, maybe, but I’m sure it’s right. We are not a bunch of cars on a fixed track, going here-there, here-there.

We hit the sun yesterday, and the only thing I know to do is to sit quietly this morning. The few who witnessed it I think will know why. They couldn’t stand it if we hit the sun again; they need some time to absorb it and just get back to normal. Have a piece of pie, pat the dog, get their bearings again.

We thought we saw God, and man, that isn’t easy. Don’t know what Moses went through after the Burning Bush, but in my world it’s major freakout time. Gather with friends, hold the puppy, allow it to happen – and go to work on Monday.++

Internal Dialogue: Little Tommy & Big Josh

This morning Marcia, my spiritual director, sent me this quote from Hannah Whitall Smith’s A Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.

 
“A Christian who was in a great deal of trouble was recounting to another the various efforts he had made to find deliverance, and concluded by saying, ‘But it has all been in vain, and there is 
literally nothing left for me to do now but to trust the Lord.’
  
 
‘Alas!’ exclaimed his friend in a tone of the deepest commiseration, as though no greater risk were possible, – ‘Alas! has it come to that!’ “

 

Marcia is hoping this bit of humor helps me, based on a phone conversation we had last night.

We have established by now that I have a great deal of trouble with St. Julian’s ideal of our soul’s being “one’d” to God.

Intellectually I’m all for it. But emotionally I invariably get anxious when the Holy Spirit invites me to get closer. I have a recurrent dream in which Christ stands inside a beautiful blue cave, with his hand outstretched, inviting me in.

The first time I dreamed this, I came close to the edge of the cave, saw that there was a little ledge to step over, and took one step inside before I ran away/woke up.

The second time, I took three steps inside, but no farther.

Then last week, when I was working on a new idea for webcasting Morning Prayer five days a week, which might really grow my website dailyoffice.org even more than its current 2.5 million hits, I got both excited and scared. So I called Marcia, and we talked last night.

She suggested that I try having a conversation with my childhood self; I’ll call us Big Josh and Little Tommy.

I have a photograph of him on my desk, taken by my grandfather when I was about 4. My parents had just driven from our home in north central Ohio to my grandparents’ house in Northwest Indiana. I was so glad to be out of the car that I ran around the outside of the house 3 times, then crouched down in the front yard, watching these people, waiting for what would happen next.

This was apparently remarkable enough that Granddad went to the house, got his camera, fiddled with the gear, came outside and took a snapshot. In the time it took to do all that I hadn’t moved.

In the photo Little Tommy doesn’t smile. It’s summer, obviously, because he’s wearing short pants overalls and no shirt; big head, big eyes, big ears, button nose, little mouth, short blond hair. His forearms are on his knees and he holds his hands together. All he does is watch for what happens next.

He looks anxious. That may be because of how he’s wired, but he’s also afraid of his dad.

One would think that the ultimate reassurance for a scared little boy is the protection of Christ himself. But that’s intellect talking.

This boy doesn’t trust.

I do, but he doesn’t. And when I get excited/scared about the most important relationship in my life, he runs the show. I have the dreams, but he’s the one who runs away/wakes up.

So, I told Marcia, this kid’s kinda messing up my life. She said, Talk to him about it. Then listen when he answers back. (Be both sides of yourself, like gestalt therapy’s “empty chair” technique.)

I didn’t do it right away. I’m trying to do it now.

Josh: I love you, little boy.

Tommy: I love you too. Gee, am I gonna look like you when I grow up?

Josh: Well, when you’re 62, yes. Sorry! I was cute when I was younger!

Tommy: That’s okay, I guess.

Josh: Do you know why I keep your picture in my bedroom-office?

Tommy: No.

Josh: To remind myself. You are me and I am you.

Tommy: I don’t understand.

Josh: That’s okay. You will someday. The thing is, child, your fears keep holding me back from getting closer to God.

Tommy: I don’t mean to.

Josh: I know. It’s my fault in a way, not yours. You were right to be scared then.

(No reply.)

Josh: My fear of the blue cave is that once I go inside, I’ll get lost and never come out.

Tommy: I’ve never been in a cave.

Josh: I have; a guide was with us. And there were lights inside, steps, a path. And signs, “This way out.”

Tommy: That would be good.

Josh: In another part of that cave, there were thousands of bats!

Tommy (covering his eyes): Ooh!

Josh: I know. I still don’t like bats much, but these were good bats. We sat and watched them fly around, while a hunky Park Ranger told us all about them.

Tommy: I don’t know that word hunky.

Josh: You will, buddy. I guess the point is that sometimes we get afraid when we don’t have to. When we’re with someone who’s safe and knows about bats, we don’t get so scared.

Tommy: Like a friend?

Josh: Yes, a friend.

Tommy: I don’t have any friends, I don’t think.

Josh: No. Which makes you twice as scared. But it’s all right. I’m your friend now. Will you be mine?

Tommy: I guess so.

Josh: I don’t want you to ever be afraid, baby. I want to hold you and love you and keep you from being afraid.

Tommy: Nobody holds me.

Josh: I know. But someday you’ll meet people who will.

(No reply.)

Josh: When you grow up you’ll get really good at taking a risk. Even when you’re afraid.

Tommy: How will that happen?

Josh: Some very nice people will teach you that being afraid prevents you from getting something you want a lot. And you want that thing so much, you’ll decide to try it in case they’re right. Because you know you won’t get what you want if you don’t try.

Tommy: What is it I want that time?

Josh: You want to help other people, at a place called the Crisis Center. Those adults run the Crisis Center, but they won’t let you work there if you can’t take a risk, and be honest and open. Which isn’t as hard as it seems, but you have to be willing to try it. Since you already know what it’s like to hurt so bad, like the people who need the Crisis Center hurt, you decide to do what your adult friends are telling you to do. It turns out great, baby. You change overnight, and become an open, honest person. The whole world opens up for you, because you took a risk to try and be like what they said.

Tommy: Gee.

Josh: That’s how you started making friends, and helping people. And they helped you too; they liked you, they loved you, they held you.

Tommy: Does it take a long time?

Josh: To a kid, yes. It takes surviving, first of all, which you’ll turn out to be good at. See, I’ve always kept you with me. I am still that child you are. You’re the greatest gift I’ve ever gotten.

Tommy: I like you.

Josh: I’ve always kept you safe, baby. We’ll always be together.

Tommy: That might be nice.

Josh: Now we’ve got to see what’s inside that cave, ’cause Jesus asked us to come in and explore it with him. He won’t let us get lost, baby. He always finds us and brings us back. And it’s this really beautiful cave, I’ve seen the inside of it. A little; but I want you to come with us. If you don’t come, I’ll never get to see all of it.

(Tommy thinks about this.)

Josh: I won’t make you. But Jesus is the one who will hold you forever, and keep you safe and warm.

Tommy: I don’t like being cold.

Josh (smiling): I know, baby. I don’t like it either. But we’ll be safe and warm with him. And we’ll see all these beautiful sights!

Tommy: Will we ever get to come back home?

Josh: Yes. Although Marcia says we won’t be the same as we were before. We’ll be better than we used to be, before we took the chance. Would you like to see a picture of this cave?

Tommy (nodding up and down): Yes!

Josh: Here it is, then. What do you think?

blue-cave

Courtesy of

bluecavejohnsparacio

blue_cave_walls

Tommy: It’s pretty!

Josh: Let’s go, baby. Hold my hand, okay?

Tommy: Okay. What if we get lost?

Josh: Stop trying to control everything. You trust me, I trust Jesus, we’ll be all right.

Lord, we’re ready. Keep the lights on for us; show us some of that pretty stuff you’ve got.

Jesus: Hey, guys! Nice you finally showed up.

Tommy: Don’t blame me, I’m just a little kid!++