Tuesday, December 24, 2013
What Sweeter Dream?
The First Eucharist of Christmas
24 December 2013
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
When David graduated from high school, his family pulled together enough money to send him and me on a trip to England and France. David had always wanted to visit the Normandy beaches where the events of D-Day were played out, and so, in April of 2005, he and I took off from Vancouver. The trip was a mixed blessing: David had his wish fulfilled and I spent five days and four nights in the cardiac care unit of the hospital in Bayeux.
Upon my return my physician sent me off to see Saul Isserow, a cardiologist who practices out at UBC. Under his care I went through a long series of tests to determine what course of care and rehabilitation I needed to follow in order to have a longer and productive life. One day, after I had answered a series of questions, Saul decided to refer me to the sleep clinic at UBC. There the staff determined that I suffer from sleep apnoea, a condition caused by temporary but recurrent blockages to the main airway. Those who suffer from sleep apnoea run a risk of stroke and, more practically, never get enough sleep.
One of the treatments for sleep apnoea is a device that provides ‘continuous positive airway pressure’, often called a ‘CPAP’ for short. Some people find the use of CPAP difficult, but the first night I used mine I went to sleep in a moment. The next morning, when I woke up, I turned to Paula and said, “I dreamt.” That morning I realized that I had not really dreamt in many years.
Nowadays there are many theories and myths about dreams and dreaming. Human beings have wondered whether dreams are messages from God or troubling visions sent by evil forces or premonitions or numerous other experiences. Psychologists have explored the meaning of dreams and there are some schools of theology that actively encourage the interpretation of dreams as a means of spiritual growth.
Recently some neuroscientists have put forward a new understanding of dreams. When we dream, our brains are re-ordering information. It’s a similar process to de-fragmenting your computer. When we use our computers, bytes of data. are stored in various locations, not always in close proximity to related data. When we ‘de-frag’ our hard drives, data is moved about and similar data finds a new home, closer to related matters. It improves the memory function of our computers and enables us to access data more quickly.
When we dream, these scientists suggest, our brain is moving memories, experiences, intuitions and other important data into new locations. In our sleep we experience different bits of our experience being set next to other bits, often unrelated, with the result of vivid but strange mental images. Some information the brain puts away into deep storage, other experiences are actually discarded as unnecessary. The end result is we actually remember more clearly and find ourselves able to access those memories more easily. There is even a suggestion that one of the most important ways to stay mentally alert and fit as we grow older is to sleep well and dream deeply.
It seems to me that every year at this time Christians and others share a dream. It is a dream that begins with a common experience: the wonder and mystery of a child’s birth. But this birth comes with many other wonders: heavenly beings, earthly shepherds; royal mystics and cruel tyrants; safety and danger; joy and sorrow. It is a dream that offers the promise of a new world, a world in which every human being is treated justly, a world where the needs of every person are met and a world in which life-giving relationships between men and women, young and old, human and non-humans, are formed and nurtured.
But this dream has not yet fulfilled its purpose. You and I have not yet been fully ‘de-fragmented’ so that our memories are clear and easily recovered. The experiences of each year often cloud our minds and we have difficulty in recovering the essential vision of this night. We struggle to remember why this Child is so important, to remember why heavenly beings and earthly shepherds gathered to celebrate his birth, to remember why the royal mystics travelled so far to see him and why cruel tyrants, even to this day, fear the message that this Child brings.
The seventeenth-century English poet, Robert Herrick, tried to capture the meaning of this dream in his own words:
What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!
Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give honour to this day,
That sees December turned to May.
Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly-shorn,
Thus, on the sudden?
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
‘Tis He is born, whose quickening birth
Gives life and lustre, public mirth,
To heaven, and the under-earth.
We see him come, and know him ours,
Who, with his sunshine and his showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome him. The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart.
Which we will give him; and bequeath
This holly, and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour, who’s our King,
And Lord of all this revelling.
What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
So tonight we dream the dream again. Images come into view that are both familiar and strange. Memories of a hoped-for world come tantalizingly close to our conscious minds. The ‘sweeter music’ of this day entices us to dare to believe that the promise this Child brings is not meant just for some distant future but for this present moment, for people such as you and me.
And as we dream this dream again, God is ‘de-fragmenting’ our hearts and minds, re-organizing our thoughts so that the truly necessary things come closer to our conscious minds. Only there can ‘the hopes and dreams of all the years’ find expression in the choices we make today, tomorrow and all the days after tomorrow until this night comes again and we dream God’s dream and dare to hope that it might be ours as well. For it is in this dreaming that we catch a glimpse of what is truly real --- for us and for all of creation. Amen.