Surely God is in this Place: Jacob’s Ladder and Unlikely Spiritual Geography

Jacob’s story today is a claim of unlikely sacred geography. Jacob finds himself on the run. He’s tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, his birthright. Essau, as we heard last week, isn’t someone to be messed with. So Jacob, the trickster is on the run. Away from home, away from the lands of his grandfather Abraham, he has a dream and declares. “Surely God is in this place.” The claim is surprising. God is in the “place,” the “holy place,” of people of Haran. What, we might ask, is God doing THERE?

Jacob’s dream becomes one of the most lasting and captivating images of the connection between heaven and earth. Jacob’s ladder has been painted, carved into stone, and set in stained glass. We sing old of the ladder in old spirituals, and have you ever been in a guitar store and not heard someone learning Led Zeppelin’s stairway to heaven? Jacob’s Ladder is even a popular wooden toy. How many Bible passages have their own toy?

We are fascinated by this image of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, this sense of God’s connection to earth, that in some places, the infinite and the finite touch. “Thin places” the Irish call them. Some of us have experienced the thinness. Do you have a sacred spot? A place you return to? I have a few. There’s a certain sage field at a camp I worked at in my early twenties in Colorado. I made it through a lot of angst spending quiet time in that field. There are places in our lives, old-worn paths that lead us to God.

But don’t miss what Jacob says when he wakes up. Surely God is in this place and I, I did not realize it. Our English translation misses a point of emphasis in the original. For you language nerds out there, we have an unnecessary pronoun: “I, I did not realize” Jacob says. The grammar of the Hebrew points to his realization that he, he has missed something. He has missed the presence of God. The responsibility for not noticing God in this territory belongs to Jacob.

Which leads me to ask: “How often do I, I not realize?” How often do we, we miss God? One of the biggest blunders in the spiritual life, and one I commit with great regularity, is assuming I know where to find God. God however, keeps ignoring my maps, showing up where I least expect. Jacob’s ladder touches down in unfamiliar territory.

Many of you know that I spent a year after college living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. As a freshly minted Bachelor of Liberal Arts, I was convinced that I could make a difference. I came to Honduras fully expecting to find God, and I did, eventually, but not where I was looking.

You see, I believed fully that I would find God in my work. I was convinced that I had a great deal to teach, a great deal to offer. I was giving a year, I thought, maybe even more, to serve God in “the least of these.” I was sure to find God.

I arrived to El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza, the Orphanage that would be my home to discover that the job I had come to fill did not exist. I thought I would be teaching English and helping to orient short term volunteer groups who came to visit from the states. I arrived to discover El Hogar had an excellent English teacher, and no volunteer groups were scheduled to arrive in the next six months.

To complicate matters, my Spanish was not nearly fluent enough to manage over 100 boys between ages six and 15. I had been reading Thomas Merton, the famous 20th century monk and mystic who described with such poetry his encounter with God’s presence. I had not found God in my work. I spent most of the first six months in Honduras feeling frustrated, bored: useless.

I said as much in an email home to a priest in San Diego, the rector who had sponsored me for the volunteer program. I told him that I had applied for some jobs that would take me home early. His response came like as a wake up call. He said, in three sentences: “Thomas Merton had a lot to say about usefulness. None of it was positive. Stay in Honduras.” I did.

And somehow I let go of my crippling need to find God in “meaningful work” at El Hogar. I discovered that, for the sake of trying to find God in serving others, I had missed God in the laughter of the kids around me, in games of soccer, in shared meals, in simple conversations, and hugs. Surely God was in that place and I, I did not realize it. Until I let go of my expectations, my assumptions about where God was to be found.

Sometimes we don’t make the best judges of God’s presence. I think there is wisdom in Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat today. I think he may be trying to tell his disciples not to go weeding before they learn the distinction between the wheat and the weeds. I could have easily uprooted myself too early from Honduras, and if I’d done so God’s presence to me in that place would never have blossomed.

Sometimes we can be so sure where we are to find God, so expectant about how God is supposed to act, that we miss where God is present. Wearing blinders that we’ve constructed, we pass through life looking for the God we can’t see, until we trip over the rungs of a ladder connecting heaven and earth.

I have a secret to share with you. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I don’t think God is just an Episcopalian. Years ago, because of some crazy friends at seminary I had a profound sense of encounter with God while whirling with dervishes in a Sufi muslim mosque. Over the last months and years, I’ve prayed with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Presbyterians as we work for justice in our region. I think God has been getting around. I think this story of Jacob encountering God in the pagan temple of a strange people has something to say to those of us who live in a religiously plural world.

If you’ve tried meditation with the Buddhists, read some of Rumi’s poetry, been to a yoga class, or experienced a seder dinner with Jewish friends, you may also have a sense of this. Episcopalians, even Christians may not have a monopoly on the divine. God can be found in the most surprising places, the upstairs room of a bar, or even in a laundromat.

As Jacob, that trickster, discovered, sometimes the best adventures occur when we venture into unmarked terrain. When we find ourselves out of our comfort zones, when we try the unexpected. Sometimes what makes a “thin place” thin is the loss of our sense of security and surety. If you find yourself somewhere unexpected, keep your eyes out. Pay attention to your dreams. Surely God is in this place.

PFLAG Panel (part 1): Confessions of a Naive Gay Christian

Last night I was invited by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Growing American Youth (a local LGBTQ+ youth safe space for the greater St. Louis area) to speak on a panel of religious leaders about our faith tradition’s stance on LGBTQ+ people. I sat alongside the legendary Rabbi Susan Talve, a force for justice in St. Louis over the past several decades, the Rev. Josh Privitt a young assistant minister at St. Peter’s UCC Church, Dr. James Croft, an atheist philosopher and leader at the St. Louis Ethical Society (a good friend who also wrote a great post about the evening). All of us came to represent our traditions’ embrace of people across the spectrum of orientation and gender identity. I would have loved to speak with these panelists about our various understandings of scripture, how we deal with the “clobber passages,” and (especially with James) whether or not religion can be redeemed. That was the panel I prepared for and expected. I was naive.

There was a fifth panelist, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian, seated between Pastor Privitt and Dr. Croft. Fr. Larry Brennan of the Archdiocese of St. Louis came to represent the Catholic perspective. (I write about what I wish I’d been prepared to say to Fr. Brennan in a second post). Before I go any further, I have to say, I may have interfered with Fr. Brennan’s representation of the “Catholic perspective” a couple of times during the event. I know too many wonderful inclusive Roman Catholic people to let someone who holds a misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic position define “what Catholics believe.” I talked about my wonderful Catholic friends and cited research that show the majority of US Catholics support marriage equality.

What I came to realize through the event was my level of privilege as a progressive Episcopalian. My experience of faith has been nurtured by churches that have come to see same-sex attraction as a “gift from God” (as the Rev. Ed Bacon once told an astonished Oprah Winfrey). I live, and move, and have my being in faith circles that affirm same-sex attraction; faith communities which are actively learning about trans identity and the use of pronouns.

I realized again last night that I am in the minority. The vast majority of Christians still worship in churches that openly persecute LGBTQ+ people. Last night, after our introductory remarks, the Question and Answer session was almost entirely directed toward Fr. Brennan. With tears and anguish, person after person shared their stories of shame, self-hatred, and friends who had committed suicide. My church is a sanctuary, an outpost, in a tradition that still inflicts so much pain. I am saddened and yet grateful for that reminder. I am also emboldened to continue the work to upset the status quo in Christianity.

Doubt, in Good Measure

Today there’s no escaping Thomas. Our Gospel story centers on a particular character, Thomas Didymus, Thomas the twin, but you know him by another name: Doubting Thomas.

How do we handle doubt? This morning, I want to try and make a distinction between “doubt” as a thought process, and doubt as a posture. Doubt as a thought process, I believe, is crucial for faith. Doubt as a posture can become toxic.

Doubt as a thought process, I’ll say again, is crucial for faith. Without doubt, can you really have faith? I don’t think so. If you know something, beyond a doubt, you have certainty. The Episcopal Church is a sacramental church, which is to say, we celebrate mysteries. What happens to bread and wine on that altar? Somehow Jesus is present. “How?”, you might ask, and I’ll likely respond: “It’s a mystery.” What will happen later this morning when we baptize Mira Carol Powell? She’ll be marked as Christ’s own forever? “How?,” you might ask, and I’ll respond, “it’s a mystery.” Sacramental Christians believe in ancient signs, in tradition, in marking the time and the stages of life. And we do it with mystery.

Sometimes in our Pilgrimage classes, like the one that will start here next week, I get a little pushback. These classes are designed for folks who are new to the Episcopal tradition, or to Christianity. They’re also designed for anyone who is asking questions, exploring doubts, wondering how this faith and church stuff might work for them. I get pushback in part, I think, because much of the church has been in the business of certainty. The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican tradition where we find our roots, has had to hold too many diverse positions together to be certain about much. We’ve argued about the Bible, Bishops, the Eucharist, women, LGBT people, race, colonialism. We try and hold diverse people and perspectives together. So we look to mystery. We say our prayers together, even when we have questions, especially when we have questions. I believe this is one of our strengths as a tradition today.

The Episcopalian Madeleine L’Engle, famous for her children’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” wrote in ways that challenged her readers. She wanted them to ask questions about God, family, even the nature of the universe. Her most famous book was rejected by countless publishers before it found a home. The publishers initially told her the questions were too big, the themes were to heavy on science, for a young audience. The book went on to win the Newbery Medal.

On one of her book tours, a child asked L’Engle about her faith. She said, “Do you really believe without any doubts at all. L’Engle replied, “I believe with LOTs of doubts and I base my life on that belief.”

L’Engle brings me to the distinction I want to make about doubt. There’s a difference between acknowledging doubt, thinking through questions, looking for evidence, and adopting doubt as a spiritual posture.

Yesterday a crowd of thousands gathered in downtown St. Louis, one of many such crowds in cities around the world, to march in the name of science. One of the signs held high in the march in St. Louis was on the Post Dispatch’s homepage last night. It had a picture of a Bible and a caption that said, “This is not a Science Textbook.” I thoroughly agree.

Have you ever been disbelieved? Especially if you were telling a story that was important to you? We typically think of children in this kind of situation. A young person tells a story, and the adults all nod their heads and then someone turns and says, “but that’s not possible.” The child is frustrated and disheartened “but you HAVE to believe me,” she says. No one is swayed. Have you known that kind of disbelief? Have you been so disbelieved?

Many in our society have used the Bible as a tool for dis-belief. Scientists who have spent careers refining data, pushing the edges of discovery, almost unanimously agree about human-caused climate change. And they have been disbelieved. The Christian tradition has been used to sew doubt in the validity of science. Many Christians have taken a posture of doubt toward science. They call themselves climate “change skeptics.” Our country is making some dangerous gambles on policy enabled by this doubtful stance. Yesterday the scientists took to the streets.

Scientists would tell you, doubt in the right measure is important. You have to question your hypotheses, you have to look for the evidence, but when you’ve heard the science and you doubt anyway, that’s doubt to a different degree. These folks tend to call themselves “climate change skeptics.” But that kind of doubt, that posture of doubt, is not just skepticism it’s cynicism. That kind of doubt can be toxic to your soul.

Now many climate change skeptics, would say they are distrustful that government can do anything about the science. That is the sort of cynicism I worry can be toxic. When science and government have worked together, we’ve gone to the moon. We funded cures for diseases like polio. Government, in a democracy, is the people acting together. Cynicism would have us say: “why bother? you can’t fix it anyway.” Cynicism leads to inaction, depression, an inability to make change.

Scientists, as a whole, and I know, it’s dangerous to talk about groups of folks as a whole, but the scientists I know tend not to be cynics. Folks who spend their lives testing theories, looking for answers, they tend toward hope. They want to try and conserve our planet, or, if there’s too much damage done to save a particular system, to find ways to help us adapt and live with the change. Scientists also tend to drive folks nuts when they get down to the bare bones of what we can know. Push a scientist or a theologian too hard and they both start talking about “mystery” and they’ll have the same wistful look in their eyes.

Which finally brings me around to Thomas. You did know I would make it back to scripture. Didn’t you? In the Gospels, today’s story is Thomas’ big part. He’s been mostly offscreen, a name in a list of Jesus’ followers. No other action centers on Thomas, but he does have a couple of lines before today’s story.

Late in the Gospel, Thomas, sensing the danger ahead as they approach Jerusalem, says to his fellow disciples. “Let us go, that we might die with him.” Thomas has a sense of what is to come. A few chapters later, Jesus has said told them Thomas is right, he will die, and he’ll go to his Father and prepare a place for them. Thomas says in response, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus says to Thomas that famous line, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Thomas had given his life to this Jesus. We don’t hear the story of Thomas’ call in the Gospels, but whether he was a fisherman like Peter, James and John, or a tax collector like Matthew, we can presume Thomas gave up his way of living to follow Jesus. And his few words in the Gospels give us the sense that he’d given his heart as well. Thomas was all in. So it would make sense that Thomas was disappointed, grieving, depressed. I can understand why he might have avoided that upper room at first. He’s not ready to jump at this sign of hope. He’s been burned. So Jesus meets him. “See the scars. Know that it’s me.” Only then Thomas will say, “My Lord and my God.”

When I hear Jesus’ words, “don’t doubt, believe.” I hear Jesus imploring Thomas: “Don’t become a cynic.” Don’t let life and loss drag you to a place that is hopeless. Faith is not so much ascribing the right constellation of ideas. Faith is a posture toward life. Jesus doesn’t want Thomas to check his brain at the door. Jesus doesn’t say: “believe despite the evidence.” Jesus says, “here I am.” Jesus wants Thomas to choose life, to choose hope, to choose resurrection.

As Christians, we say we are “Easter People.” When we baptize someone we say, “you are Risen with Christ.” New life is always possible. Your life can be new today. You can lean toward that “indescribable and glorious joy” Paul talks about. The nineteenth century Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks said, “The great Easter truth is not that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the resurrection.” How can your life be new today? How can faith help you lean, through the doubt, to new life?

“I believe with all sorts of doubts, and I base my life on that belief.” Doubt, in the right measure, is crucial for survival. If you can’t hold doubt, you can’t handle mystery, and what is life if not mystery. So doubt, in good measure. But be careful, because too much doubt can bruise your soul. When you adopt doubt as a permanent posture toward life, you can push away important data. You can push away good news. You can push away faith. Be careful.

Can you believe with all sorts of doubts? Can you, like Thomas, base your life on that belief?