Have you ever had a dream that made you ask, “What the heck does this mean?” Dreams at night are such strange beasts, with their convoluted images and bizarre story lines. Often we dismiss them, laughing about them with friends. I don’t dream very often, and when I do, I might wonder about their meaning for a day, but then they are usually gone from my memory.
Every once in a while, we all experience what I call “Big Dreams”, dreams that seem really important, as if they are coming right from the “Book of the Meaning of our Lives”. Back in June I had a Big Dream, one that has stayed with me. I have turned this dream over and over, puzzling over it like Sherlock Holmes. I’ve realized lately that God has used this dream to speak to me, giving me an interpretation of my experience, and it is the winner in answer to where I have seen God lately.
The dream went like this: I am on an island, where a fire is raging. Across from me is a row of beautiful old pine trees that are going up in flames. No one is there to battle the blaze. All I can do is watch the destruction, powerless to do anything. I notice that the bottom of the trees won’t burn because the flames are going up and I am glad that at least the roots won’t be disturbed. Yet despite this consolation, I still panic at the destruction of the fire.
There is more to the dream, where more trees and even the pillars of old houses catch fire, but the image of flames burning the top halves of the trees is what stayed with me. What could it possibly mean? I wondered. I went about my days, making a mental note to ask my friend Marilyn about its meaning, since she has a knack for dream interpretation.
As June turned to July, with my neck pain burning like those flames, the dream kept coming back to me. It seemed to be saying something important about what I was going through. I wrote last week about having hope amid trials, and even though the dream was about fire’s destruction, it seemed to me that it had a message of hope for me, but I still couldn’t crack the dream code. I finally mentioned the dream to Marilyn, who pondered it and came up with words that seemed to click.
“The fire is like your neck pain”, she suggested, “and the trees are like the gains of wisdom in your life. Your trials seem to destroy the wisdom, but it doesn’t kill the roots.”
I’m a pretty slow learner, and I had to sit with this interpretation for a few days. Fiery trials make us all wonder what God is up to in our lives. What did it mean that the roots of God’s wisdom would stay intact? Last week I wrote about God being so creative that he can work together with us to create good out of any circumstance (Romans 8:28), but thinking about this during difficulties can sometimes evoke a cynical laugh. How can anything good come of sickness? Our society wants pain-killers, not pain-interpreters!
But, the longer I pondered Marilyn’s interpretation, the truth of it dawned on me. It became a helpful and hopeful grid to understand my experience. I was reminded of a story I came across in an email from a friend, about God being a refiner of silver. Malachi 3:3 in the Old Testament says: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” A Bible Study group had studied this passage, and wondered what it meant. One woman phoned a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She watched as the silver was held at the centre of the fire where the flames were hottest. He had to sit there the whole time the silver was being refined, keeping his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.
The woman asked the silversmith how he knew when the silver was fully refined. He smiled at her and answered, “Oh that’s easy – when I see my image in it.”
So often when we are in the heat of the fire, we want nothing more than to escape. I realize my pain is nothing really compared to what many go through, but when you’re tossing at 3 a.m., escape was my #1 priority. In my dream, I tried using a branch to put out the flames. Anyone looking on in the dream would have laughed, and in the dream I soon realized the effort was futile. Like trying to put out the fire with a small branch, I have felt powerless to really change my reality.
Isn’t this the way it often goes in our lives? We think we have a handle on a certain problem, but it continues to pester us. Mine lately happens to be physical, but there might be a troubled relationship, an addiction (large or small) that gets the best of us, a sense of emptiness or disappointment at what life has brought us, or depression.
We wonder about some of the things we have to go through. I know I spend way too much of my time scrambling to put the fires out, thinking that with my small branches I can control reality. How different things would be if we exercised trust amid our trials, trusting that the hand of God was holding us, watching us with loving eyes, waiting for the impurities to be burned away.
One impurity that I began to see was my pride at running. I realized that over the last 2 ½ years, I have been proud of my own self-accomplishments in running. I forgot that it was God that even gives the energy or will to do anything. A certain humility set in when I remembered that everything comes from the hand of God. I saw my pride and gave it to God. Only the Silversmith’s grace can transform this into a higher substance.
One of my favorite writers named Richard Rohr has a book titled Falling Upward. His book title describes what happens when we choose to let problems move us forward into deeper wisdom. We fall, yes, but with God a paradox happens as he takes our often dark situations and transforms them for good.
Rohr says that there is a “necessary suffering” to human life, and if we avoid its cycles we remain immature forever. If we let suffering be for the good that Romans talks about, we somehow mysteriously begin to fall upward. People in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous talk about giving their will over to a Higher Power as they realize they are helpless to fix things on their own.
I love thinking of God this way, that he is lovingly tending the trials of our lives, never leaving us alone for a second. God has been faithfully present with me in this last month. I see his face through faithful friends such as Marilyn who don’t let me forget about God, through the gift of prayer that my husband Lyle gave me on the toughest evening (I have mysteriously felt a lot better since that prayer), through the seniors who we sing with at the seniors’ home who still see good in their difficulties, and through the many ways I witness Love being stronger than anything we go through. This is the image of God that shines through the transformed silver.
The end of the email is my wish for us all: “If today you are feeling the heat of the fire, remember that God has his eye on you and will keep watching you until He sees His image in you.”