Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dreaming in the Dark (12/21/14)

Dreaming in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 21, 2014
Matthew 1:18-2:23

Last week we reflected on Mary, the mother of God.   We played with the symbolism and toyed with the idea that the via negativa is to let be, to be open to the new and the unfamiliar as Mary did when told she would give birth to Jesus.  Her response was “Let it be with me according to your word.”   She is an example of trust amidst fear.   We, too, can give birth to the Holy, to trust and let be.

This week the focus is on Joseph.  Matthew’s gospel gives him a central role.  His character echoes another Joseph in the Genesis story.   Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus is a midrash or a retelling of the birth of Moses.    In both stories Joseph represents divine providence.   According to the legends both Josephs are guided by the supernatural through dreams.   The gospel writer wants the reader to know that God has orchestrated all of these events.

Dreams are pretty weird.  Crazy disconnected stories and images.  Sometimes scary.  Sometimes funny.   I often have vivid dreams.   In college one of my literature professors had us keep a dream journal.  It was a great excuse to take naps.  I was doing homework.    He wanted to teach us about symbols and archetypes. 

Dreams are strange.  They come to us when we sleep in the dark.   It is easy to imagine that pre-modern people would view dreams as communications from supernatural agents.    It is only in the modern era that we really have been able to break away and free ourselves from the conviction that supernatural agents control things including our dreams.  

Biblical authors would of course regard dreams as divine encounters.   Joseph is a hero because Joseph pays attention to his dreams and the divine guidance therein.   Not only Joseph, but the Magi also are visited in their dreams.   They pay attention and obey.  Important note:  Herod does not dream.  In the Genesis story, Pharaoh does dream but he doesn’t know what his dreams mean until the chosen one, Joseph interprets them for him.   So the bottom line is that dreaming is the literary device Matthew uses to communicate to the reader that God is in charge of this miraculous birth.   Joseph’s role is to be a vessel for the dream and obey it.  In a similar way Mary was a vessel.

The modern world does not regard dreams as divine communications.  They are the product of our brains firing away as we sleep.  We, that is our brains, are making up these stories.   They are our stories even as we are not conscious that we are creating them.   If we pay attention to our dreams we can learn some things.  For example, the naked dream in public may tell us that we have been feeling anxious or embarrassed and we might explore what that is about.   A wish fulfillment dream might invite reflection on grief or what we feel is missing.  In other words reflecting on dreams can be therapeutic.     Dreams can be little windows into that vast darkness of our non-rational mind. 

The motivations that drive us and the feelings we experience come at us.   We think we make rational and logical decisions, but really our reasoned consciousness is like a lawyer, rationalizing what our unconscious mind has already decided.   The dirty little secret is that we rarely make rational decisions.   Our motivations come from a big black bubbling cauldron of emotion.  That is what decides for us. 

When someone asks you why you did something, you can provide some logical rationale depending on how skilled your internal lawyer is.  But if you really want to be honest, you can say, “I don’t know.  I am in the dark as much as you.”   

And that honesty can be the beginning of some awareness.   We call that therapy.  Therapy is not for the faint-hearted.  It can be like digging up the muck and sludge that you spend all your waking hours trying to stuff in the closet.   Blobs of it spill out on the carpet during dreams.   That said, therapy can also be like hunting for treasure, especially when you realize that you are not as bad as you have been telling yourself.   In truth, you just might find that you are a courageous, compassionate, and creative person.    You are a beautiful, kind human being who needs and deserves love. 

The biblical story is that Joseph pays attention to his dreams and thus leads his family to safety.   Joseph reminds me to pay attention.   Not to judge or explain away or rationalize, but to accept.  Logic and rationality are secondary.  Primary is the stuff underneath, out of sight, in the dark, glimpsed in dreams.     Joseph reminds me to pay attention, not just to dreams, but to those aspects of life that are hidden.   

If you haven’t guessed, my sermon is attempting to make a case for therapy.   If I can be directive for a minute, I invite you to find someone you can talk to about the important stuff, the hidden in the dark stuff.  The dreamy stuff.   You don’t share this stuff with everyone or with anyone except someone you can trust to protect your interests.   We all need someone to help us pay attention to the things that happen in the dreamy dark.  

You might think it odd to make my last sermon about that.   It isn’t though.   I think the church’s future will be in helping people navigate life’s paths to be therapeutic.   We do that together. This congregation is a place where that happens.   This congregation has been that for me and for Bev.

The moving truck took all of our things Friday.    The last things to be loaded were the boxes of books in my office.  After everything was on the truck, the driver gave me pages to sign.   It was a complete list of everything.    Anything that wasn’t boxed including all the furniture was listed in detail with little codes that indicated blemishes.   After each piece there were series of letters and numbers that indicated the condition of our things.  Scratched on the left front.  Dented in the rear, stained on the top, torn on the side and so forth. 

I realized that all our furniture was wounded.  We are transporting our cracks and chips.   We are taking our wounds with us.   Those wounds on our possessions were not something of which to be ashamed.   The wounds were signs that our furniture and our home had served us and had been used.    I decided to read the damage codes as medals of honor.

Of course, I am not really talking about furniture.   The wounds and scars and cracks that appear on us and in us are signs that life happened.  That love happened.   They are marks of our survival and of our resilience.   I am not speaking just about my family, but all of us.   Our wounds are our medals.    They are signs of healing.

First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton is a healing place.    I don’t say that lightly and I don’t say that about every church by any means.   This is a place of healing, I think, because you allow space to explore the dark paths and the dreams beneath the surface.  

Singer-songwriter, Carrie Newcomer writes about this in her book of poems, A Permeable Life:

“A Permeable Life is about what presses out from the heart, what comes in at a slant and what shimmers below the surface of things,” Newcomer says. “To live permeably is to be open-hearted and audacious, to risk showing up as our truest self, and embracing a willingness to be astonished.”
I thank you, my friends at FPC Elizabethton, for making the space for open-hearted and audacious living, for being a place of healing for the wounded, and for reminding our wounds are signs of power and strength. 



  1. "The wounds and scars and cracks that appear on us and in us are signs that life happened. That love happened." Such an important lesson to learn and remember. What a lovely good-bye gift you presented to your congregation. I know they will miss you.

  2. God bless you John Shuck. May you live long and continue to preach!