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 2): What I wish I had said to Fr. Brennan

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. In my first post, I confessed my naivety coming to the event hoping to have a thoughtful interchange about LGBTQ+ people and faith among inclusive religious leaders. One leader, a Catholic priest named Fr. Larry Brennan, made that impossible, and reminded me that the majority position in Christianity is still misogynistic, homophobic and trans-phobic. If my first post was “confession,” this second post might be called: “What I wish I’d said to Fr. Brennan.”

To be clear, I spoke a great deal last night, probably too much. I countered Fr. Brennan’s presentation of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I clarified that the majority of US Catholics affirm same-sex marriage. Fr. Brennan said he wished the current pope “wouldn’t talk to reporters,” when asked what he thought of Francis’ words: “who am I to judge?” I said I really valued much of what Pope Francis has to say. What follows are responses I wish I had made to two of his substantial points. Last night was emotional, and I found myself trying to referee this priest. I wish I had slowed down and responded to two points in his argument:

First, Fr. Brennan quoted a letter from Pope Paul the VI, which he said characterized all sexual behavior outside procreative sex within heterosexual marriage as “dishonest.” He made his argument from the Latin word “inhonestum,” (significant because the official English translation does not use “dishonest”).

Those who hear me preach regularly know that I quibble about words and translation. For preachers words are currency. Words matter. This word, “dishonest” was chosen carefully by Fr. Brennan. He called same-gender love “dishonest” because in his mind, it does not fulfill the only true and full intent of sexuality, the procreation of children within a marriage. I, obviously, disagree with his theological position.

“Dishonesty” was the wrong word to choose in that room. In response to his remarks Fr. Brennan heard story after painful story from youth and adults about how much honesty can cost a queer person. Many of them were kicked out of their homes, scolded by their priests, removed from their youth groups. Several had friends who had completed suicide. Honest stories were shared with a priest who called same-sex love “dishonest.”

Engraved over the entrance to the library at my seminary are the words of the Rev. William Sparrow: “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.” Last night I heard people share painful truth, and I saw a priest respond with callousness. He characterized their stories as “attacks.”

I wish I had said to Father Brennan:

“I think you have a strange definition of dishonesty. You have heard so many deeply honest stories tonight. If you believe God loves human beings, if you believe that God made these particular human beings in God’s own image, then let them be honest. Let them tell you how their love has been a blessing. Let them tell you how their sexuality has been a blessing. Let them share their truth about their gender identity with you. Encouraging people to deny their truth, THAT is dishonesty.”

The Second point Fr. Brennan made involved a program he is personally involved with called “Courage” for folks who want to lead lives of chastity in response to same-sex attraction. He said that “Courage” models itself on the “twelve steps,” The twelve steps he mentioned are originally of Alcoholics Anonymous, and they are closely related to The Episcopal Church. An Episcopal priest, The Rev. Sam Shoemaker, helped to mentor the founders of A.A. as they worked to develop a program for recovery. The twelve steps assume that a behavior is a problem. Alcoholism is a disease. The first step of AA is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I wish I had taken him to task on what I believe is an abuse of a life-saving program.

I wish I had said to Fr. Brennan:

“Same-sex attraction and transgender identity are not disorders or diseases. While Courage may not attempt to “pray the gay [orientation] away,” I firmly disagree with a program which treats same-sex love like a disease. I could never call Courage a “ministry.” I hope your program gets sued by AA for abusing their method. For many years the church took the position, “hate the sin, love the sinner.” That position is flawed. Love is not a sin. Gender is not a sin. Sexuality is not inherently sinful. God created us to love one another, and cis-gendered heterosexual married partners avoiding contraception do NOT have a monopoly on love. God’s love is surprisingly big, inclusive, and God challenges us to live truthfully. Your program, in my view, encourages dishonesty.”

I hope I have another chance to meet Fr. Brennan, one where I am more prepared to share across disagreement. I hope he and I both “read the room” a little better before we respond. My colleague, Rabbi Susan Talve demonstrated what pastoral ministry looks like last night, as she closed the panel by responding to pain with compassion. She looked a woman who had spoken through tears in the face and said, “I hear you. I am sorry. You are strong.” Fr. Brennan and I both could learn from the good Rabbi. I hope to meet this priest again, because I believe God’s surprising love includes Fr. Brennan.

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.