Skip to content

Dream On

Schlaflosigkeit. The German word for insomnia.

Our family is currently visiting dear friends in Germany and my body is performing its usual stubborn revolt against the rude imposition of foreign time zones and unfamiliar schedules. I’ve been tossing and turning since five am after only falling asleep around one. Eventually, as always, I give up. Sleep has never been the kind of thing I can force.

Yesterday, over coffee, my friend told me that she’s been thinking a lot about whether or how God speaks through dreams and what they might mean. She’s started keeping a notebook by her bed to write down her dreams as soon as she wakes up. She wants to be open to the voice of God. I told her that I hardly ever remember what I dream and that even when I do, they are so incoherent that I could hardly imagine them meaning anything. I disliked how the words sounded even coming out of my mouth. Sometimes I weary even myself with my skepticism.

I had a vivid dream last night. Of course.

I was in a restaurant with our German friends and my meal was the last to arrive. It was a hamburger. Actually, it was a burnt bun with what looked like a lump of black charcoal in it. The waiter was a little old man with a hunched back. He looked about eighty years old. He looked very sad and tired. I told him that my hamburger was overcooked and that I couldn’t eat it like this. He reached toward my plate and with his bare hands took out the hamburger and what was left of the tomato, lettuce, etc., leaving me with a crunchy, blackened bun. “I’m not eating this,” I said, looking incredulously at what was left of my dinner. “This is burnt, too.” He threw his apron on the table in disgust, yelled that he quit, and walked out the front door of the restaurant.

I stared forlornly at the remnants of my dinner. I scratched my head at what I had just seen. All around, my friends were eating their delicious-looking meals, seemingly oblivious to the bizarre drama that had just unfolded. And, rather insensitively, to my lack of dinner. I thought about the little old man. I felt guilty. I’m quite skilled in the art of guilt.

I walked outside to see if I could find him. Perhaps I could explain to him that my refusal to eat the burger had nothing to do with him, that I just couldn’t eat something that was burned so badly. Perhaps I could explain that my response was actually quite rational, even obligatory. Perhaps I could attempt to understand why he reacted as he did and we could have a nice moment of reconciliation and understanding.

I went partway down the street when I saw the little old man. He was sitting on the top of a slide in an abandoned playground. I went to greet him, anticipating the aforementioned warm shared moment. Hi there, I began, I just wanted to make sure that you knew that there were no hard feelings… The man climbed down off the slide and began to berate me. Every week you stand up in front of people with your fancy words… (the man now knew that I was a pastor, apparently… dreams obviously shift quite seamlessly between different domains of life, unconstrained by the rational boundaries we expect and demand) … It’s like you think you’re some kind of angel and you and go on and on about sin and I’m tired of it! 

I began to protest that I didn’t actually talk about sin that much and to demand examples and to try to understand what he was specifically referring to and to feebly appeal to the idea that it’s sort of hard to preach from the bible while ignoring the concept of sin entirely. I even entertained illusions about trying to make a logical connection between the old man’s rantings about sin and my burnt burger and the incomprehensibly disproportionate response that he was having to my quite legitimate protestations. He was having none of it. I was a hypocrite, he said, and it was high time I knew it. All of a sudden there were many other people in the playground and they began to form a circle around me, closing in, closing in, accusatory fingers pointing… 

I woke up in a sweat, a frail old man’s anger ringing in my ears. I looked around the room, frantically trying to get my bearings. I thought about my conversation with my friend the previous day about how God speaks through dreams and about the importance of being ready for them. I wondered what on earth God might be saying to me through a burned hamburger, and an angry, wounded little old man in a lonely playground. I wished for clearer dreams. Maybe seven cows coming out of a river or something.

I tossed and turned for forty-five minutes, trying to either figure out the dream or to be relieved of the burden by falling back asleep. Or neither, as it turned out. Schlaflosigkeit instead.

And so now I’m sitting at a kitchen table in the pre-dawn stillness of a German morning pondering what it all might mean. Or if I should even be asking the question. Maybe my dream has less to do with God than a combination of jet lag and indigestion. Probably.

Or maybe, just maybe, dreams really are one of the ways that God can chip away at the pride and hypocrisy that are never too far beneath the surface of my life. If God can speak through cows coming out of a river than I suppose a blackened burger and a logic-bending conversation in a playground aren’t entirely out of the question. Maybe the lesson here, as is so often the case, is simply to be merciful, as I have received mercy.

Or that fancy words aren’t worth a whole lot if they’re not accompanied by humility.

Or to keep a notebook by my bed from now on.

Or to just shut up and eat what I’m served.

Speak, Lord. Your servant is (inadequately and uncomprehendingly) listening.


8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ros #

    ‘I told her that I hardly ever remember what I dream and that even when I do, they are so incoherent that I could hardly imagine them meaning anything.’

    Yes. That’s more-or-less what I told a friend of mine a year or so back. Then they suggested I read this book:

    It’s not written from an overtly Christian perpective, since Robert Johnson is a Jungian analyst. Nonetheless, it makes the point that what goes on in our dream world reflects what is going on in our subconscious realm and that this is a realm that God can access in order to push us towards growth. That made sense to me, so I decided to give it a go, even though I didn’t think I had many dreams and rarely remembered them if I did.

    Like your good self, I had a vivid dream that night – followed by two more on a similar theme – and I did manage to make some sense of them.

    From what Robert Johnson says, I would guess that the old man in your dream represents a part of yourself (and by extension others) that you’re afraid of or not listening to or that you don’t properly value. The burnt food suggests that you think he has nothing of worth to offer you. And the fact that the dream did not resolve suggests that this is something that needs attention or it’s going to start causing trouble for you (if it hasn’t already). However, that’s only a guess and I certainly don’t know you well enough to say any more.

    There is no doubt that making sense of such dreams is a challenge – for which reason I stopped keeping a daily record. I ended up with far too much to think about! But, yes, I concluded that God does speak to us through them and they do offer a means to personal growth, especially if we are willing to take a good, long, hard look at ourselves.

    Emily Dickenson said something like this: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant… The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.’ Yes, it’s here:

    I think that’s what dreams do.

    August 24, 2016
  2. Robert Johnson is a great start! I also recommend Morton Kelsey’s books, and John A. Sandford who wrote Dreams:God’s Forgotten Language. They take a Jungian approach within a Christian context. Helen Luke’s books are also useful; she was a disciple of Robert Johnson. These books are likely out of print but available on Amazon. (Stay away from the this means that type of dream interpretation book.)

    Yours is such a rich dream I would hardly know where to begin….If it were my dream, I would wonder about being asked to eat what is not nourishing to my psyche/soul… Being burnt has overtones of burnt sacrifice for me if it were my dream… Maybe one question to ponder would be, What does sacrifice mean?… That’s just a start. The important thing is what do the dream images symbolize for YOU, the dreamer? As the previous commenter noted about Emily Dickinson, dreams “tell it slant.”

    If you really get interested in dream study and dream groups ( I am a member of two dream groups), check out Robert Haden, an Episcopal priest who founded the Haden Institute to study dreams in a Christian context. There is a dream conference every year in May.

    Anyhow, that’s all for now. Hope you experience more dreams you remember!

    August 24, 2016
  3. Alison #

    I’m with the others – you had a very rich and meaningful dream. Now the trick is to interpret it! If you understand the unconscious speaks in images and symbols, and more particularly, that this dream is speaking through images and symbols that are particular to YOU, then let the images play around in your head and see what arises. Don’t overthink it! Emily Dickinson’s words are brilliant – it’s hard to figure dreams out head-on. I read your post just before going to sleep myself last night, and woke up thinking ‘The hamburger! Burnt offering! ‘ But of course that’s what it represents to me, not necessarily to you. Key images are the burnt hamburger, the old man and the deserted playground. How about him sitting on top of the slide? The slippery slope? Whatever else this dream is about, it is NOT a result of jet lag and indigestion (!) – and if you believe that, no wonder you don’t remember your dreams! The fact that your friend brought up the subject opened a door through your skepticism – just keep an open mind and stay curious. Maybe that’s the point of the deserted playground – children are naturally curious and filled with wonder. Where were the children? That was quite a dream!

    August 24, 2016
  4. Thanks, Ryan. Instructive for us all. I agree that the old man may be a shadow side of yourself that needs some attention–and it must be reassuring that the dream includes you leaving the restaurant and trying to engage him. The abandoned playground strikes me as a very significant image to ponder, and maybe a good pairing with the restaurant. Images of carefree celebration and community that serious thinkers (preachers, politicians, writers, etc.) might tend to marginalize or discount, often unconsciously. Please note the “might” and the “may” in my musings. I’m no dream expert, but have dabbled in Jungian approaches to dreams. Key, as Allison notes, is to play with the images, not overthink, and see what rings true.

    August 24, 2016
  5. If a parent were to dwell on the misconduct of a child only, then that parent would end up with a despairing child ready to just give up on ever doing anything right. The most success as a parent comes from focusing on what the child does right, and praising that. In most cases, parent and child can forget about the bad behavior, it often is no longer a factor, they are so happily engaged in pleasing themselves and a the parent with good behavior. That is not to say it disappears completely, it doesn’t, we all sin, but we need to put our attention on doing good, not thinking about sin. It is where we put our attention that our lives go. The old man is like a disgruntled child (hence, perhaps the playground, but an old man because you know your real audience is mainly adults) who has been receiving too many burned meals (scoldings, punishments and recriminations) and is turning it back on you. Everyone else is enjoying their meal (life) but your focus on sin, rather than the joys of good deeds, has resulted in an inedible meal for you or an unhappy focus in life. What are you serving others? The joy of serving? Or the guilt burden of their sins?

    August 24, 2016
  6. Sorry, that sounds very judgemental, and truth be told, it is what I need to turn on myself, I tend to focus on the misdeeds of others rather than encouraging what they do right.

    August 24, 2016
  7. Thanks, all, for your kind remarks and your interpretive suggestions. I so rarely pay attention to dreams and it’s been very interesting to hear others’ perspectives on this one.

    August 27, 2016
  8. Paul Johnston #

    I think yours is the more prudent response to dreams, certainly insofar as a life in Christ is concerned.

    Ancients had no understanding of subconscious thought or the still active stages of the mind during sleep. From that perspective, It seemed legitimate to conclude then that any vivid recollection occurring during sleep, must have a supernatural explanation. This understanding was not exclusively Christian and in fact a bedrock understanding of all ancient belief systems.

    Before I come off as too much of a dismissive rationalist, I do believe in supernatural visitation. I accept the appearances of angels, Marian apperition and even the visitation of Christ to Sr. Faustina ( The Divine Mercy).

    Irrational to be sure but experienced by lucid and awake people.

    Dreams are my thoughts not God’s.

    As for my thoughts and forgive the harshness of this assessment but I believe me responsible to affirm truth, I think it foolish for a person to analyze dreams and look for answers.

    Rather analyze and be honest about the realities of your life in a conscious state. Do what you know needs to be done. Seek help from those you trust when you aren’t quite sure.

    In all things, pray.

    September 1, 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: