Fever Dreams and Sunday School Jesus

When the cold came raking through me, rattling my teeth and curling my limbs up under me like a newborn dreaming of the warmth of the womb, I could do nothing but lay shivering under a blanket on the couch.  My thoughts were fragmented prayers, aimed up and out and anywhere they might catch hold.  Please, please let my fever break, let this shaking stop, let the boys be content watching this movie long enough that I can get some sleep.

My son, whose seven year old chest can't possibly be big enough to contain that leonine heart, could not abide the sight of my wretched shivering.  He climbed up on the couch and stretched himself out over me, telling me he would keep me warm with his own body.  His little arms wrapped around me, long and skinny thing that he is, trying to warm me and comfort me and hold me still.  When I still shook beneath him, he solemnly climbed off and began to pile blanket after blanket on top of me, smoothing each one out before flinging the next one over the growing pile.  "We're out of blankets, mom," he said when I was burrowed beneath the last one he could find.  "Are you warm enough now?" he asked, and though I don't think I ever answered him, I felt myself relax beneath all those layers and finally sink into sleep.

And then I dreamed the answer to everything, the great secret of the universe and why we are here and all of it, and it came as a sentence so deceptively simple like the solution to a riddle that, once heard, was understood to have been right beneath your nose the whole time.  I dreamed of a man who stood in a field of tall, golden grass like wheat that bent when he spread his hands out as if it were bowing beneath him.  When the golden strands were bowed down, he looked right at me and said this one miraculous sentence, and the simplicity of it, the sheer perfection, caused me to make a startled noise halfway between laughter and a sharp intake of breath.

I woke with a real life gasp, soaked through with sweat and desperate to remember the dream, to recall the words of the man in the field.  But the words hung just out of reach, bobbing in the murky tide of my memory but never breaking the surface. Every time I fell back to sleep, all through the afternoon and fitful night, I dreamed the same dream from farther and farther away.  The waist-high field of wheat that had rippled and bent on a windless day in some reverent choreography conducted by the nameless man now appeared far off like no more than a golden glow on the horizon.

I longed for sleep, tumbled into it over and over again in my delirium.  Each time the shivering let up enough that I could drift off, I was certain I would dream the full dream again, see the man up close and hear his words.  This time, I knew, I would watch him spread out his hands, and the wheat would bow away from him on either side, and he would give me the secret to everything in a few, simple words. And every time, in the moment of waking, I would reach out for the memory of the dream, searching as one groping for the light switch in a dark room.  Always reaching and never touching.

It wasn't until my fever broke that I realized there were no magic words.  No answer to everything.  Just a fever dream.  And the sadness I felt when I realized that it was all just a dream, the whole thing, well I'll tell you it was a profound kind of loss, an unexpected blow.  I lay there in sweat soaked sheets still thinking of that man I now knew was nothing but a gentle fraud born in the confusion of a poor human brain just trying to make sense of raking cold felt on burning skin.

I am still thinking of him, seeing the image of his prophetic gesture, watching the wheat bend beneath him.  I am still wishing for simple words to answer thorny questions.  I am still dreaming of easy ways out and pretty little assurances and tidy endings that only come in dreams.

Because, to be honest, it feels like all my prayers are fragments thrown out, desperate tendrils of thought tossed every which way.  Not even sentences half the time, just the disjointed cries of someone whose words have run out but whose ache seems never ending.  Just Anne Lamott's Help! more often than not.

I remember what prayer was like for me before the questions got bigger and the answers started to feel thin like the fabric of one my t-shirts stretched over an unwieldy elephant. Before the holes started showing.  I remember having the words then, pouring my thoughts into prayer with a relieved kind of gusto.  Taking it all to Him, laying it all at His feet.  I remember asking with boldness.  I remember being confident that God would give me what I asked because I read scripture and I always raised my hand in bible study and I was faithful.  I remember the simplicity of a faith inherited from everyone else.

I think that maybe that man in the field was a bit like the Jesus of my youth. Smiling and magical and full of easy answers.  Fixing everything with the wave of his hands.  No thorns to catch on your clothes as you approach, just gentle fields of golden grass. Like the Jesus from a Sunday School coloring page, who I would always color with Caucasian skin and chestnut hair and blue sash over a bright white robe.

And I miss that Sunday School Jesus, and those vending machine prayers that I just knew would dispense my request as sure as if I'd put in my quarters and entered my selection.  B20 for me please.  I would like an order of peace with a side of clear skin in time for picture day.  Oh, and a bit of good luck for my science test if you don't mind.

I'm still waking up to that loss, it seems.  Still fumbling with the kind of faith big enough to wrap all the way around the questions.  Still trying to find the new language of prayer now that I realize God is going to give me what I need no matter how many times I tell him what I want.  Still trying to ease into the realization that not getting what I want is going to hurt every single time.

And though sometimes I still feel like that old, simple faith is so close, just almost in my grasp, I remember how brittle that old thing was.  How it crumbled beneath the slightest pressure.  I remember how it never stretched far enough, how I was always left trying to make up the difference, stretching myself out thinner and thinner until there was hardly anything left.

And when I remember all that, I just say one of my jumbled thanks kind of prayers because I remember that nothing is ever simple, even the things that pretend to be.  I just say my thanks and I laugh at that old Sunday School Jesus, and I remember how glad I am, truly, to be awake.

Image credit, used under creative commons license.


  1. Andrew CarmichaelMarch 11, 2013 at 7:33 PM

    Liz, I really appreciate this post. Although I haven't had a dream like yours, I can so strongly relate to missing Sunday School Jesus, but not really wanting to go back there either. I too am "still fumbling with the kind of faith big enough to wrap all the way around the questions" and "still trying to fin the new language of prayer."

    I also really like your writing style. You have a great way with crafting words. Thanks for sharing your journey and your gift with others like me. It's nice to know we are not journeying alone.

  2. Thank you, Andrew. That old Sunday School Jesus (and the simplicity he represents) is so alluring in many ways, but I do believe a real, mature, nuanced faith is worth losing the easy answers and the simplistic view of who God is.


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