Thursday, June 16, 2011

Help for those who battle nightmares or night terrors or who simply struggle with bad dreams...

Sometimes nighttime is a battle unto itself.  I often have terrible dreams.  Most would be your garden variety bad dream.  Many are nightmares.  Some are true night terrors.   I wake up from one, and when I finally manage to fall back asleep, I find myself facing another.  Most nights, much of the time I should be sleeping is spent in a seemingly endless cycle of sleeping, dreaming, waking in terror, shaking, sleeping, dreaming, waking in tears, trembling, sleeping, dreaming.... 

I mentioned this to a pastor once.  Now, this pastor has a rather admirable stance of refraining from talking about his personal life so as to not displace his task of offering his parishioners Jesus with talk of the man in His office.  However, in mercy, he broke with his normal practice and shared with me that he had struggled with nightmares, too.  I was so surprised.  A pastor?? 

I quickly asked him how he dealt with them, since waking in fear and struggling to go back to sleep because I am weeping or frightened or ashamed sure doesn't make me feel all that faithful.  I thought he might have THE ANSWER for which I have been looking.  His answer, of course, was Jesus.

Now, Jesus is the answer, of course.  But how does that really help me?  The ex-evangelical in me wanted the life application!  So, I asked him how he clung to Jesus in those times.  He shared several examples with me.

He would sing the hymn Before the Ending of the Day, which he sang for me and let me make a digital recording so I could learn it:

Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world we pray!
Thy grace and peace to us allow
And be our guard and keeper now.

From all the terrors of the night,
From evil dreams defend our sight;
Drive far away our wicked foe
That stain of sin we may not know.

O Father, this we ask be done
Through Jesus Christ, Thine only Son,
Who with the Holy Ghost and Thee
Both lives and reigns eternally.
                        ~LSB (889)

He also would repeat the Lutheran version of the Jesus Prayer over and over and over again:  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  And he would gaze upon his crucifix.  Those are the things that helped him through his battle.

For me, he also suggested that I get a CD he thought I would find comforting: Lighten Our Darkness. The a capella music is astoundingly beautiful, even the songs in Latin, which I cannot understand.  It is a great compliment to the CD Evening and Morning:  The Music of Lutheran Prayer, which I had started listening to at night in order to learn Lutheran Liturgy.

So, each night, I looked upon my crucifix and prayed the Jesus prayer.  I also prayed Psalm 6 and then Psalm 4. 

O LORD, do not rebuke me in Thine anger,
Nor chasten me in Thy wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am pining away;
Heal me, O LORD, for my bones are dismayed.
And my soul is greatly dismayed;
But Thou, O LORD--how long?

Return, O LORD, rescue my soul;
Save me because of Thy lovingkindness.
For there is no mention of Thee in death;
In Sheol who will give Thee thanks?

I am weary with my sighing;
Every night I make my bed swim,
I dissolve my couch with my tears.
My eye has wasted away with grief;
It has become old because of all my adversaries.

Depart from me, all you who do iniquity,
For the LORD has heard the voice of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my supplication,
The LORD receives my prayer.
All my enemies will be ashamed and greatly dismayed;
They shall turn back, they will suddenly be ashamed.

                               ~Psalm 6 (NASB 1977)

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
Thou hast relieved me in my distress;
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.

O sons of men, how long will my honor become a reproach?
How long will you love what is worthless and aim at deception?
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly man for Himself;
The Lord hears when I call to Him.

Tremble, and do not sin;
Meditate in your heart upon your bed and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And trust in the Lord.

Many are saying, “Who will show us any good?”
Lift up the light of Thy countenance upon us, O Lord!
Thou hast put gladness in my heart,
More than when their grain and new wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep,
For Thou alone, O Lord, dost make me dwell in safety.
                         ~Psalm 4 (NASB 1977)

And I fell asleep while listening to either to Lighten Our Darkness or  Evening and Morning

Yet I still battled my terrible dreams.

A couple of months ago, a counselor gave me an aid that I believe is the perfect compliment to these above, one that has made my nights better, one that has given me, with greater and greater frequency, the victory over this "stain of sin" Christ won for me on the cross.

Her suggestion:  Rewrite the ending of the bad dreams.  Just a few lines.  Nothing elaborate is needed.  Just change the ending. 

Frankly, I scoffed at the suggestion.  How could that possibly help?  However, I did put pen and pad next to be bed, ran through my nightly routine, and fell asleep.  When I awoke from a nightmare, I scrawled out a different ending.  I will admit that I did so still in near derision that such a simple thing could help.  However, I did fall back asleep more easily thinking about the ending I wrote  instead of the one I experience in my dream. I awoke to two more dreams that night and did the same thing.

As the months have passed, I no longer actually write the endings down.  I simply speak them aloud, letting my ears hear how the dream should have been.  I now can go several nights without battling my dreams.  Once, it was even an amazing 12 days!

Tuesday night, I had a bad dream about my best friend and the ending of our friendship.  I awoke in tears and wept again late Wednesday morning when I told her about it.  She asked me if I rewrote the ending.  I had not.  She promptly suggested that we rewrite the ending then.  A part of me wanted to protest that it was too late.  However, much to my surprise, it was not.  She proffered a small suggestion as to direction and then let me finish with mine.  I felt better and can even laugh about part of the dream now. 

So, in short, rewriting bad dreams can be an immense help.  The rewrite can be written or spoken, and while immediacy is key to helping the one struggling with the bad dream fall back asleep, a delay does not diminish the efficacy in helping destroy the power the bad dream has over the dreamer.

But why is this helpful and what does it have to do with Jesus?

The why is that the dreamer is training his or her mind to think differently, to erase the negative thoughts and feelings that lead to bad dreams, to help diminish the worries, the fears, the failures, the things that our foe uses to assail us.  The what is that which Luther teaches us in the 2nd Article of the Large Catechism and elsewhere.

Now therefore follows the Creed, which sets forth to us everything we must expect and receive from God.  (1).  For here we see that the Father has given Himself to us, together with all creatures, and has most richly provided for us in this life.  We see that He has overwhelmed us with unspeakable, eternal treasures by His Son, and the Holy Spirit as we shall hear. (24)  We see how He [Jesus] has completely poured forth Himself and withheld nothing from us. (26)  "In this, He has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and from all evil.  For before I did not have a Lord or King, but was captive under the devil's power, condemned to death, stuck in sin and blindness." (27)  But all the points that follow in this article serve no other purpose than to explain and to express this redemption.  They explain how much it cost Him and what He spent and risked that he might win us and bring us under His dominion...And he did all this in order to become my Lord.  He did not of these things for Himself, nor did He have any need for redemption (31).  I believe that the Holy Spirit makes me holy, as His name implies.  For in the first place, the Spirit has His own congregation in the world, which is the mother that conceives and bears every Christian through God's Word. Through the Word He reveals and preaches, He illumines and enkindles hearts, so that they understand, accept, cling to, and preserve in the Word." (42)  By the Word He works and promotes sanctification, causing this congregation daily to grow and to become strong in the faith and its fruit, which He produces. (53) God's grace is secured through Christ, and sanctification is wrought by the Holy Spirit through God's Word in the unity of the Christian Church. (54)  The Father gives all creatures.  The Son gives His entire Work.  And the Holy Spirit bestows all His gifts. (69)

But how does that fit with rewriting the ending of terrible dreams?  Because God rewrote the ending of the first nightmare that destroyed the first good things of this world and plagues this world still with the stain of sin. He gave us the Word by which all evil, all sin, is rewritten so that the end to that nightmare is no longer death but life eternal.

We are to expect to receive good things because good is what He first intended and intends for us still.  The evil in which we now live is not what He intended.  That evil is what spawns those terrible dreams, but even there the evil is defeated by Christ's victory on the cross.  By rewriting the ending to my terrible dreams, I am saying to my foe anew that I am child of God, beloved in Christ, and wrapped in the presence of the Holy Spirit, fiercely loved and fully forgiven.  Even in my dreams I am to expect to receive the good things our Triune God has for me.  By the power of the Word, I can rewrite them, knowing that my good endings are what God has for me

I believe rewriting the ending of terrible dreams can be a way of clinging to Christ crucified.  Doing so has helped me.  I hope in sharing this it might help others.