Letters from a Hospital Bed is a series of reflections by Jim Houston, now entering his 100th year, in which Jim seeks to capture and reflect new insights of his ever-discoverable God, revealed through his own hospitalization, for the encouragement of all care givers.
Editor’s note: The next few letters will explore the subject of dreams. Dad began this subject with the intention to ‘write a book’ as he has so often. Dreams have long been a subject of interest for Dad. As I heard recently, “young men may dream dreams and old men may see visions, but it is the middle aged who are in charge!” so we might wonder, what might be the relevance of exploring dreams? For Dad, who recognizes the pervasive corrosion of what he called ‘hyper-rationality’, the Lord’s access to the sub-conscious and even unconscious may often be the only door through which HE might sear our souls and shape our convictions.
February 3, 2022
My dear friends,
In recent months, I have been reflecting on the experience of dreams. Rarely have I taken them very seriously, but a recent spiritual encounter has awoken a memory of another deeply significant life experience for me and that, together with some other events, has caused me to ask, “why should Christians take dreams seriously?” None of the Old Testament prophets could have carried out their ministry of rebuking rebellious Israelite kings and their followers without the inspiration and even instructions of their dreams. Psalm 121 reminds us, that “He, that keeps Israel, neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Ps.121:4). So why then don’t Christians have more teaching, preaching, and writing about dreams? The Incarnation narrative, in the birth of Jesus, upon which we were recently reflecting, all began with dreams to Mary and Joseph. In the biblical narrative, dreams matter. Perhaps they need to matter more to us as well.
It all started for me earlier in the past year, when I replaced my winter blanket on my bed, for the summer. My daughter Claire, while flying the oceans as a flight attendant, kept herself occupied on the layovers by quilting a bed cover. One night, as I was praying for my family, I suddenly realized that Claire had sewn squares with the outline of the hands of each of my seven grandchildren. Beside each hand was a prayer, a Scripture reference each had chosen on the quilt. I was being covered with their prayers, while I was nightly praying for them! What a new bond of faith, hope, and love, this going to sleep became! I began to ask the Lord to shape my dreams, to grant me good dreams.
Wonderfully, nightmares and bad dreams, full of one’s ego, seem to have disappeared for me, that previously had continued to distress a mind that was not “in Christ Jesus”. It was as if my sleeping life was now “born again”. I realized that a further deepening of consciousness was needed if I were to have “the mind of Christ”. I began to explore how my own Christian identity might be shaped by this deepening unconscious encountering of God. This need was perhaps deepened as I struggled with ‘interruptions’ of the nighttime bustle of hospital caregivers; so well intended but making sleep more restless.
Later, last year, after my bed cover had given me many remembrances of my grandchildren as I went to sleep, I had a much more challenging encounter. I do not really recall what happened in detail, only that I fell while getting out of my bed and somehow wedged my body, jammed by a cramped foot, into the small space at the side of my bed. There I lay, unable to move on my own, for over eight hours, before I was found by my daughter Penny. The pain in my foot was so intense that I fell into a place between conscious and unconscious. There God met me. In this dream I saw Christ upon His cross and beside Him stood an empty cross onto which our Lord invited me to join Him in His suffering. I felt no fear in this invitation, only joy to be with the Lord. I vividly recall accepting His invitation, one I interpreted to imply I was to leave my earthly body. While I sensed the Lord’s welcome, I confess to some confusion that I find myself still here, waiting to discover what God holds in store for me until His invitation is fulfilled. The weeks of hospital rest that followed, did little to diminish the deep sense of reverence and awe in this encounter, one matched in my own experience only by one other like it in my life.
At an Urbana mission conference in the early 1960’s, in the privacy of my bedroom, late in the night, I had an experience that I have never forgotten and is as vivid today as then. I was, at that time, in discussions with a secular university to work with them to adopt the tutorial method of teaching in which I was immersed in Oxford. I had explained that I would want to share my experience in the context of my Christian faith, a condition that proved to be unacceptable to the university. It was during a night of this career cross-roads that I was woken by a very bright light at the foot of my bed. I felt compelled to respond with a question “Lord, what would you have me to do?” From that moment, I began to see the doors that would lead to the foundation of Regent College begin to open. When we pay attention to God, He reveals Himself to us.
In my next letter, I hope to explore what I have learned from others on the importance of dreaming. In the meanwhile, perhaps this letter might prompt your own reflection of ways in which the Lord has spoken uniquely to you through the twilight of consciousness in sleep.