I dreamed I was running a race through the woods. As the trail wound past trees, over rocks, and through creeks, I realized that this was not a friendly competition. I was being chased.
I fell forward and slammed the ground. I could not rise to my feet. I began to crawl ahead as something sinister bore down upon me from behind.
I woke up. It was before dawn, but I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep. My heart was racing.
Trying not to disturb my wife, I eased out of our bedroom and crept downstairs. I plugged in the coffee percolator and opened my laptop. As the percolator hissed and popped, I scanned the headlines. News of the national election, wars overseas, natural disasters, and record cases of the coronavirus.
Then I checked my calendar, which had been synched with my wife’s schedule and our eldest child’s virtual classroom. Events, meetings, appointments, reminders. I looked out the window into the darkness. My dream was still close.
I was being chased.
Essayist Scott Russell Sanders wrote of the imminent drastic reduction of the worldwide human population due to climate change and environmental degradation. Limited resources will make life impossible for a large percentage of the eight billion people on earth.
I should not read such essays before bed.
I see images and read reports of widespread suffering and death. Wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts run together despite my efforts to pay prayerful attention to specifics. The rising number of coronavirus cases in the world overwhelms me. I have to keep moving on.
I am keenly aware of the suffering and grief of the people closest to me. The deaths in my congregation. The anxieties among parishioners. The complaints of my own children. The weariness written on my beloved’s face.
In the face of professional crises, my reaction is to plan more programs and call more meetings. To employ more technology and more innovation. In terms of my family, I also work overtime. More housework and more supervision of the kids, even if I am on my laptop while they smash each other’s LEGOs. I sleep less and less.
Why do I push myself in these ways? I genuinely want to help. Also, I have something of a hero’s fantasy about my own abilities. That dream did not begin as a nightmare. There was a time of exhilaration when I moved swiftly and assuredly. I was winning!
Then I fell.
I’m afraid that, if I stop moving, my worst fears will catch me.
The morning after that dream, I could not shake the feeling of being chased. I could get more coffee.
When I returned to the couch, the brightened sky revealed the first outline of the trees across the street. My mind drifted to the familiar trail through the woods behind our neighborhood. Maybe we could take a family hike that afternoon.
Sometimes my children run through the woods. They sprint for the thrill of their own effort. They stop and consider the caterpillar or mushroom. An ordinary stick becomes a ninja sword, a rotting log becomes a pirate’s ship. The kids notice the intricate knots on the oak tree that I would have blindly passed. They talk back to the chattering squirrel that I would have ignored.
My young children also grow tried, bored, and hungry. Occasionally, their complaints boil over and drown out the birdsong above our heads. But I can anticipate their tantrums by noticing their slumped shoulders and the fatigue in their voices. Jesus advised his followers to pay attention to the change in trees to anticipate a new season. He claimed we could foresee the kingdom of heaven in the same way. I pay attention to my children’s signs and get them home to rest before their apocalyptic meltdown.
But I ignore the warnings from my own body.
Two summers ago, as we walked down the beach, my wife asked why I was limping. My gaze had been over the sparkling ocean, but my thoughts were back in the city with the congregation I’d begun serving at the first of that year. As I told the church leaders, I wanted to hit the ground running. I hadn’t paid attention to my plantar wart. This is not heroic but foolish.
Small things can catch up to you over time.
Scott Russell Sanders ends his essay about the potential for catastrophic loss of life on a hopeful note. The power of the human imagination, which led to such things as the fossil fuel economy, may yet reimagine a sustainable way of life: [The] visionary power that gets us into trouble may, with our gathered effort, get us out again.
This “gathered effort” speaks to me. At least in my waking thoughts, it helps to remember that I’m not running alone. Less emphasis on the Apostle Paul’s notion of running the race to win the prize (Phil 3:14) and more upon the community that gathers to encourage one another (Heb 10:25).
Though my church continues to refrain from large, in-person gatherings due to the threat of the coronavirus, I save every e-mail from parishioners encouraging me to take care of myself and my family. Certain retired clergy in the congregation can sound slightly paternalistic, but I know they have my best interest in mind. They are watching for signs of burnout. A few of them have confessed that they have learned the hard way.
I re-read these notes as a reminder to slow down and pay attention to my own body. Then I turn off the bedside light and try to give myself to sleep.