The Dream of Brain Surgery

It was just a dream. Or was it?


‘Josef K.’ in the film rendition of Franz Kafka’s The Trial

It woke me three nights ago, but it won’t go away. Against every conscious attempt to push it away, it is still demanding my full attention.

I had a headache that wouldn’t go away. A surgeon opened my brain and was pulling an animal from the side of my head: a big, brown rat, resisting the surprised surgeon’s efforts, and then another, while the other part of me in the dream watched and cringed. That was it. That was the dream.

From the time I was very young, nothing frightens me as much as a rat. I was five years old when I saw my first rat after the family moved into the 120 year-old house on Church Lane — the one with the open cistern and the huge hole in the basement wall. A rat would scurry across the kitchen floor after leaping from the kitchen cabinet my mother had just opened. At night I could hear the rats moving in the wall next to my bed in the upstairs bedroom. Occasionally a family cat would kill one and offer it to my mother as a present; the sight of the gift sent chills up my mother’s spine as much as if it had been alive. Mom was scared to death of rats. So was I.

The rats I learned to hate were not pet rats or the white rats of laboratory experiments. They were sewer rats who lived in the open cistern with the tunnel to our basement, like the beady-eyed creature that leaped at my father when he blew him out of the opening in the basement wall with a shotgun. I’ll be 76 in a few days, but in my mind, it happened yesterday. 

Which brings me back to the brain surgery dream three nights ago. The pain in my head came from the rat that lived there. The rat wasn’t leaping from a cupboard or scurrying through the walls; it lived inside my head. I was helpless to remove it. It took surgical intervention, and its presence in my head surprised the surgeon as much as the part of me that was observing the procedure.

The rat represents everything I don’t want to be. It’s ugly. It’s dirty. It’s sneaky. It’s vile. It doesn’t operate in the daylight. It does it’s business in the dark of night. And, if you don’t kill it, it may kill you. Even if you shoot it, it will leap for your jugular.

It doesn’t take a Jungian dream interpreter to “get” the symbolism of the rat inside my head. I have been, and still am, my own worst enemy. You can run from the evil inside you, but the guilt remains. Betrayal, deceit, denial, divorce, hiding in kitchen cupboards, scurrying in bedroom walls, living in the cistern beside the house where the human beings live.

I’ve long known the truth of Carl Sandburg’s poem “The Wilderness”: “O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head…”. Like the rest of the human race, I, too, have a wolf in me, and a fox, a hog, a baboon, a fish, an eagle, and a mockingbird in me. But I have an animal not listed in Sandburg’s menagerie. I got a rat inside my bony head.

Childhood fears never die. And, like a former pope who hated his predecessor so much that he became him, if one isn’t careful, one becomes what one fears and hates.

Where is the surgeon who can remove it? What practices can pull the rat from my head and the free me of the horror inside my ribs? Or, is the challenge to live with it the same way I’ve come to terms with the other members of the menagerie of me — to go face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, and, after all these years of running from it, muster the courage to make friends with my own worst enemy?

Rat on a green background

The rats of my childhood disappeared when the opening in the basement wall was closed with brick and mortar and the cistern was filled with concrete. It will take more than bricks and concrete to remove the one in my head, but the process has started, and for that, I’m thankful.

“The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death. I was both the subject and the object in the dream, the self relating to its own self. There is light in the darkness. Hope abounds.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 2, 2018.

Don and Jesus in the Hospital

Word came this morning that a dear friend, Don, was rushed to the emergency room yesterday with internal bleeding. His hemoglobin count had dropped to a woefully low 5.5. Don is one of six classmates who gather each year for renewal of friendship, reflection, good food, a game of softball, and morning prayers.

Don’s hospitalization drew me back to an as yet unpublished follow up to the “Jesus in the Hospital” post from several weeks back on the weird dream of Jesus as a patient in the hospital.

Some readers stop reading when they see the name Jesus. Others like the name Jesus and are curious to read the story. Yet another group is distraught or confused by the thought of Jesus as a patient in the hospital. He might be the doctor or the healer, but not the patient.

This brief post is written for the latter group of readers.

Biblical scholars and theologians interpret the church’s sacred writings (Holy Scripture) according to the different genres of literature. They also differentiate between Jesus of history (Jesus of Nazareth), and the Jesus of faith (the crucified-risen Christ of believers). In Christian scripture the two are welded together. The Jesus story is told by four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A gospel is by its very nature a witness to faith, written by faith to elicit faith in the reader, not an objective eye-witness account of events in the life of Jesus as a video camera might have given us. The only access we have to Jesus of Nazareth is through the eyes of faith.

The theological tradition of the church has always insisted on the full humanity of Jesus. His humanity was only half the Chaledonian Formula (fully divine, fully man), but Jesus’ humanity is the starting place for any claim to the Formula’s other half: the divinity of Jesus Christ. Time after time there have arisen fanciful representations of Jesus. In some of these, the historical Jesus is, for all intents, obliterated.  He wears flesh and blood the way an actor playing a part assumes a costume to draw into audience into the play. In these versions of Christian faith, the bodily Jesus is a disguise for God.

But a Jesus who was never sick a day in his life, a Jesus without bodily functions, pains, and hungers, a Jesus who didn’t feel the hammer slam his thumb at his carpenter’s bench, a Jesus who couldn’t be admitted to the emergency room with 5.5 hemoglobin and the need for transfusions is a not one of us. That Jesus is a figment of imagination.

Why I dreamt of Jesus in the hospital remains a mystery. What I know is that the dream wouldn’t have come without a deep sense of Jesus, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. The only way I know to love Jesus is to love those who could end up in the hospital or hospice care. They are Jesus. Jesus is us.

One of the six friends who call ourselves the Old Dogs wrote a prayer for Don:

O Great and Merciful God, hold our brother Don in Your strong and loving hands. Lift him. O Jesus, Lord of the universe, as you did so often and so naturally to the sick and infirm in ancient Palestine, bring new health and healing to Don. And Holy Spirit of Power that tombs cannot contain, be with the Dog we all wish we were with right now, with him, with him. Amen.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 2, 2015.

Verse – dream of dancing

loving parents but the way they
read the bible meant no dancing

on my own after college I
took lessons to please my new wife

i was never good but had fun
for years moving with the music

now my knees and back restrict me
to a slow shuffle and a sigh

but in my sleep i leap and fly

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Feb.  6, 2014



Ever dream of being lost? Or confused? Distraught? Inconsequential and dispensable? Join the club.

    Scene 1

It’s my first Sunday back from a sabbatical. I am returning to the pulpit of the large church with the great music program. I love this church and am glad to be home.

    Scene 2

It’s Sunday morning just before worship. I’m running VERY late. My robe is in the office up several flights of stairs but I can’t remember exactly where. It’s just “up”. The robed Choir – the best in the city – is coming down the stairs while I’m trying to go up the stairs to find my robe in the lost office. No one in the Choir acknowledges my presence. They are in a rush down to the Chapel.

    Scene 3

I walk into the Chancel. The Chapel is fairly full. Attendance is good. I take my normal seat as their Pastor, prepare myself for the Call to Worship that will follow the Choir’s Choral Introit. Three Choir members dressed as animals crawl out onto the front of the Chancel and start to sing. I realize then that there is no Order of Worship. Instead there is a music program.

(The music program has always been a thing of controversy. A great blessing with the highest standards and exquisite classical musical taste, but it is also criticized for drawing attention to itself and demanding disproportionate financial resources from the church budget. I am a big supporter of the music program, but have also worked to maintain its rightful place in worship and within the broader life of the church.)

    Scene 4

I am confused and annoyed that this appears to be a music program stuck into the hour of Morning Worship. This is NOT worship. The congregation and I have been blind-sided. It is not what anyone in the congregation expected. It is performance, not worship.

Two members of the congregation who love music but who care more about the integrity of worship get up and head for the doors.

More people – five or six at a time – are getting up and leaving. Disgust is emptying the place.

    Scene 5

I am no longer in the Chancel. I am in the rear balcony pleading with those who are leaving.

“This is not worship! This is something else. I’m sorry. This has to stop!” But the few people who remain are heading for the exits.

    Scene 6

The Director of Music is deeply distressed. He’s gone too far, and he knows it. Finally…he knows it. So do some of the members of the Choir. What to do? Call them together quickly right now…but newer members of the Choir whose faces and names I don’t recognize are heading down the stairs for the doors. They don’t like conflict and, I suppose, feel hurt and unappreciated, like their Director.

    Scene 7

I realize that I had returned from sabbatical without giving the church office an Order for Worship in time to meet the deadline for printing. I am disappointed with myself and upset with the Director of Music. I’m feeling lost. Alone. Invisible. Clearly dispensable. My first day back from sabbatical there has been no welcome, no acknowledgement. I have lost all of the control that, over the years, has kept the Music Program, its Director, and its critics from killing each other in ecclesiastical warfare, and, from the looks of it, everyone and everything I have worked for is…lost.

Just Joseph

My children have had children, yet this week

this widower may take a teenager

to be a wife.  Her family did not seek

a younger, handsome  man.  A carpenter

I am, not an Adonis– I worship

just Adonai, and follow in the way

of Torah,  righteousness.

Did Mary slip

from  following the way, from purity?

She is with child, yet I have had a dream

like Joseph did of old:  an angel said

I should not fear to wed though it may seem

absurd.  The child in her has been conceived

by holy spirit, not by sex.  His name

should be Emmanuel, yes, God with us,

for he will save his people from their sins.


I will take Mary for my wife; Jesus

will be his name.  God can speak in a dream.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Dec. 4, 2012