On some mornings I wake from a dream so winsome and vivid that I long to lay my head back on the pillow to recapture it if only for just a moment.
And yet, within an hour of rising from bed the people and the landscapes and the improbable adventures of those dreams have mostly faded like the morning mist. I’m left only with the lingering emotions evoked by my nighttime fantasies.
It’s common to forget your dreams. Researchers insist that everyone dreams, even though a relatively small percentage of people report that they never remember having done so. It’s occurred to me lately that from time to time some of us—maybe all of us—need to be encouraged to remember how to dream.
Driven by fear or cynicism, selfishness or simple weariness, we can forget how to dream.
By “dream” here I don’t mean how the brain automatically processes our past while we sleep. What the unconscious mind does with those nightly images, emotions, and memories is crucial for our mental health. But that work is mostly about weaving yesterday into a coherent whole. About making sense of what has happened in our lives so far.
We also dream about tomorrow. In waking life our imagination casts visions about how things might be in the future. And sometimes we forget how to dream. Or more accurately, we succumb to or even actively pursue dreams that diminish us and impoverish the world we inhabit.
Recapturing and restoring our ability to dream is crucial, because these dreams will guide our actions and, as a result, shape the world that we will pass on to generations to come.
Dread is a form of dreaming. We imagine impending doom, heartbreak, and suffering with such intensity and with such frequency that we assume a habitually defensive posture and strike out repeatedly at perceived threats.
Some dreams are narrowly focused on self-interest. We drive relentlessly toward our own power, prestige, and possessions, justifying damage done to others along the way as collateral damage. As the unintended consequences of pursuing our own dreams.
These are unhealthy, unholy ways to dream. In the stories of Jesus’s birth and early childhood, Matthew’s Gospel teaches us a better way. A way more suitable to our very being as the image of God. Dreaming God’s dream—letting God’s dream guide our actions—is how we participate in the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Here’s what Matthew tells us:
• When Mary became pregnant, a dream led Joseph to stand by her and to care for her baby.
• Magi from the East followed a star to visit Jesus, but a dream warned them not to report the baby’s whereabouts to the murderous king Herod.
• As Herod descended upon Bethlehem to slaughter every child two-years-old and under, a dream alerted Joseph to scoop up Mary and Jesus and to flee to Egypt.
• Finally, in Egypt dreams assured Joseph that it was safe to return to Israel and to raise Jesus in Nazareth.
These were not Joseph’s dreams. They were God’s dreams. Joseph did not receive a perfectly clear vision of the final peace that passes all understanding. He simply received word about the good that he could do next to move toward the world that God dreams.
And mind you, Joseph was all too aware of the nightmare that the world could be. He had barely escaped the atrocities perpetrated by Herod in Bethlehem. The Roman occupation of Israel was brutal. People he knew and loved had probably been intimidated, beaten, and perhaps even imprisoned or executed.
And yet, he had the courage to dream God’s dream. To pursue in his small way the vision that God has for us all. He dared to hope. His charge would be to care for Mary and Jesus. And yet his courage arose from a broader vision.
God’s dream is that we all recognize one another as God’s beloved children. No hunger goes unfed, no one wants for shelter or health care. No wars. No crime. Mutual affection displaces loneliness, and love has driven out fear once and for all.
When Jesus had grown to adulthood, someone once asked him to name the greatest commandment of all. Jesus told us to love God with every particle of our being and to love our neighbor as if our own life depends upon it. In other words, Jesus taught us to love what God loves how God loves it.
In our fractured, heartrending world, loving like this means that we must remember how to dream. To dream what God dreams.