Are you a dreamer? Not the daytime fantasy sort, though those dreams have their place in motivating us to imagine something bigger and wider than our imaginations can often muster. No, I mean those nocturnal dreams that come either in the middle of the night or those which occur sometime in the wee morning hours when we are just about to awaken from slumber, but we haven’t yet hit the snooze button on our alarms. Those dreams that we don’t remember precisely, but must fill in the sketchiest of details if we remember at all. Those dreams that leave us wondering, “Now what was that about?”; those dreams that we dare to confess to our shrink, our spouse, or our best friend, if we dare confess them at all.
Our dreaming life often affects our waking life, which is to say that our dreams—whether we remember them or not, whether we even understand them or not—can serve as guideposts or potential coordinates for our psyche and sometimes our spiritual lives if we believe that God can speak thru dreams.
Much can be said about our gospel passage from Matthew—we can talk about celestial bodies—like whether the star that the wise folk saw was a comet or a supernova or based in history at all. We could focus on the wise men who were likely sages or representative of foreign nations and peoples. We could focus on gifts and those famed three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and what they symbolized for the newborn Messiah. Instead, however, we are going to zoom-in our Epiphany lens on dreams, direction, and dragonflies.
Even if you don’t remember any one particularly powerful dream that you have had in your lifetime, there is something altogether surprising and intriguing about a couple of wise folk having a dream—the same dream– that warns them to make a course correction around Herod on the way back to their homeland. But first, some background. When the wise ones from the East show up in Herod’s jurisdiction, they seek info, directions, precise coordinates which will get them closer to the Messiah. Having followed the star so far, it is natural they would seek specifics. Your GPS can land you in the general area, but at a certain point you will need to park your car or camel, get out, walk, and knock on the right door of your destination. The wise folk have followed the star to Jerusalem, now they need to know the correct address.
However, we know that Herod the King with all his power is threatened by the arrival of a small child whose very weakness and exposed vulnerability to others is an ultimate strength. The Herods of this world cannot abide the arrival of the newly born, whether it be a child or a growing awareness of the good, just and true, or the slow birth of a movement towards freedom for everyone and not simply a few privileged and powerful. No, Herod cannot abide any potential or actual threat to his reign and tries to employ other heads of state and leaders to do his bidding in secrecy. Herod pretends curiosity and transparency and his deception initially persuades the good foreign emissaries to provide the information that he seeks.
All proceeds according to plan, according to Matthew, until that dream…Until the wise ones meet the holy family, witness the revealed truth of the Cosmos wrapped up in a tiny infant destined to supplant all the Herods and hidden hells of the world. And then “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
We may hold such a prophetic dream suspect, but we might marvel at the less likely course correction. That is, the wise folk to a person change direction mid-journey, opting for an indirect route home. Urgent course corrections are not easy to make, especially when you are eager to arrive home after a long trip and after nights sleeping in strange quarters. The older we get, we tend to fall back on familiar routes and familiar ways to doing things. Driving home from their pre-k, my children often ask me to take unfamiliar turns and routes just so they can look at any possible Christmas lights that still shine from homes around the neighborhood that haven’t yet been taken down. It drives me nuts. I want to take the familiar way home, the roads that have all the stop signs where I expect them, fewer cars to navigate around, and at a speed that does not imply sightseeing or lollygagging. Just the other night, after taking a more unfamiliar route at the request of my children, I had to patiently wait for a UPS truck to complete his delivery in order to complete a turn because the truck was blocking entry to the side street. Of course, my kiddos were thrilled…and I was annoyed both at myself and the driver for parking in the middle of the street. Which is to say that adults tend to go for what is efficient, known, and tried.
For the wise ones to make a course correction on their way home would have likely entailed more time, nuisance, and camel feed and pocket change for their journey, just to avoid Herod and his nosy minions. Still, whether by dream, common sense, or some combination of the two, the wise ones got around Herod’s deception by taking that alternate route. Some side paths are totally worth it.
How easily do you make course corrections in your spiritual and emotional life? Is impending crisis typically the thing that motivates you to change direction? Are you fixated on certain obstacles that you find insurmountable or are you able to harness your imagination to consider alternative paths to your destination? Do you depend upon some popular Siri, King, or disembodied voice to help you to navigate potentially dangerous terrain or do you seek possible paths and options in community with others? We might remember that the wise folk whether 3 or many did not travel alone but had each other to discern their next steps.
The dragonfly is an amazing winged creature. Dragonflies can change directions quite rapidly, flying straight up and down, sideways, forwards and backwards. They can hover like a helicopter, easily glide, and they mate mid-flight. They are aerial gymnasts and mosquito-eating machines. Nearly all of the dragonfly’s head is eye, so they have incredible vision that can see almost every angle except right behind them.
The dragonfly is capable of swift course corrections in their adult life, mostly due to their 4 independently controlled wings. This ability has even inspired scientists to try to figure out how to duplicate the dragonfly’s agility in robotics. But dragonflies were not always capable of such flight in their lifetimes. A dragonfly, before it becomes an adult dragonfly, spends most of its life underwater as a dragonfly nymph. They will spend anywhere from one to two years propelling themselves thru watery muck and eating voraciously. Eventually, they emerge from their underwater world to breathe air and to eventually, by stages, grow wings and fly. As the poet and naturalist, Diane Ackerman, asks, “Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant? …We are all shape-shifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.”
We may be “shape-shifters and magical reinventors,” but we might consider well the speed with which the dragonfly moves and changes direction. Being human, we know that course correction often comes with painful choices. “Go here,” we discern, and then we realize, “Don’t go there.” But often we don’t discern until we experience some pain or tears or suffering. Choosing a “yes” to a particular path necessarily means a “no” to another path. Changing direction might come altogether easier if we, like the dragonfly, could see in multiple directions and from multiple perspectives all at once. Yet, part of wisdom, like our gospel writer suggests, is being able to heed warnings and insight that come from directional signals that are not entirely our own: a star, or a child, a group of steadfast companions, the ability to welcome foreign visitors like the Magi, or entertaining the simple notion that the future does not belong to Herod any more than it belongs to us.
On this Epiphany Sunday, consider how you– like the Wise Ones of long ago– might seek the Messiah in your life by studying closely both heavenly signs and those more earthly guideposts that bring stars to your eyes. Seek revelation, but when you do, may you be dragonfly dreamers who are not afraid to change course and travel gently with strangers. In doing so, may you circumvent the herods who harm, and may you ultimately find your way home. Even if you must take a different road from the one you anticipated.