Mountain Climbing

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

From time to time we all suffer from bad dreams and nightmares. We all know that dreams are usually filled with strange, jumbled up, perplexing, and often confusing imagery. It seems to me that many of us don’t bother to pay much, if any, attention to our dreams. For some reason we are afraid to consider those dim recollections with which we awaken in the morning; by the time we’ve finished breakfast usually those dreams have altogether fled from our conscious minds. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s through our dreams that our subconscious mind is trying to speak with us about those issues and problems in our lives that have been troubling us. And, if we don’t address our dreams they may come back to haunt us in subsequent evenings.

That is why I keep a "dream journal." It’s nothing fancy – just a small spiral notebook which I keep on the nightstand by my bed – but it has given me much insight over the years. When a dream or a nightmare awakens me, I quickly jot down any of the impressions, fears, and recollections that may be still bouncing around inside my head. After much practice – and, especially, after much trial and error – I have sometimes managed to wake myself up from my sleep in order to record the content of a particularly interesting or troubling dream. These notes almost always make for fascinating reading the next day, especially if I don’t remember a single thing about my dreams – or even if I had a dream! – until I read my notes from the previous night. Then, the memories usually burst forth, bringing insight and revelation to my life and circumstances. I have learned a lot about how my mind (and especially my subconscious) works from this practice of recording my dreams. It’s an exercise which I heartily recommend to anyone who is both interested in a similar experience and is also willing to confront some of the not-very-nice elements of our humanity.

One night I had a real nightmare; I dreamt that after Church one Sunday I went back to the office and took off my stole and my robe, only to find that I was wearing yet another full set of vestments underneath! With frustration, I proceeded to take off this second stole and robe only to find yet a third layer of clerical vestments! In my dream, I kept removing layer after layer of vestments – an endless procession of robes, albs, stoles, chasubles, cassocks, and clerical collars – with no end in sight until my cat jumped up on the bed and woke me from my thrashing. Of course, I was tangled up underneath my covers and sweating profusely, but the dream stuck in my mind quite vividly even many hours later, when I was eating breakfast and reading my "dream journal."

It’s not hard to draw insight from this kind of a nightmare. In many ways, the layers of work and the tangling responsibilities of our professional lives can become smothering. Be we farmers, construction workers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, truck drivers, secretaries, nurses, preachers, or whatever, it does not matter -- we can all become so trapped into our daily routine that we cannot find a way out. And this was my dilemma at that time in my life and ministry. It had been over 9 months since I had last taken any substantial time off, with 40 weeks of weddings, funerals, Emmaus Walks, pastoral counseling sessions, emergency hospital visits, research and study, administrative details, Sunday school lessons, Disciple Bible Study sessions, morning and evening sermons, all piled high on top of me. The weight of the pastorate, along with the many personal crises that can come to the surface when under pressures like these, had pressed down upon me and tangled me up and, indeed, had smothered me under the weight of my responsibilities. And, so, my subconscious was beginning to doubt that there was really any me underneath the layers of clergy vestments. Layer after layer of robes and stoles, and still no me to be distinguished from all the trappings of the pastorate. "Is this really true? Is there really no me to be found under my vestments anymore?" These were the kinds of questions that I was asking myself after waking up from that nightmare.

Sometimes, we need to get away from our work. Sometimes, we need to back away from our normal, day-to-day routine and simply spend a little Sabbath time reflecting upon our lives and the calling that God has for us. Sometimes it’s a good idea to "escape" for a few days, or a couple of weeks, and spend time hiking in the mountains, cruising on the ocean, or on a beach building sand castles, playing in the surf, and spending hours talking with friends and family. Sometimes we need to recreate and rest and recharge our internal spiritual and emotional batteries. There is nothing wrong with this.

I have known friends who have burned themselves out in ministry by being so busy taking care of others that they forget to take care of themselves. After that nightmare I was determined to never allow such to happen to me. I took off the vestments and forced myself to take a cruise. I forced myself to observe a personal Sabbath and "get away" from the pressures that were covering me up. Since that time I have been careful to take vacation – the minimum of four weeks during any given conference-year which is allotted to clergy who have been serving 10 or more years in the ministry – and, thereby, recharge my batteries. It’s not always easy to work that time in, and sometimes it means that I’ve got to be gone when I’d rather be in the pulpit, but pastoral responsibility demands that I take it.

And, thankfully, when my vacation is over and I put on the robe and stole again, it's easy! There’s only one layer!

© 2004 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from