|A 1966 painting by Albert Houthuesen (1903-1979), |
who owns the rights thereto, see:http://www.houthuesen.com/
Genesis 28: 10-19a
6th Sunday after Pentecost/ 20th July 2014
There’s more going on around us than we know. There’s more going on within us than we can imagine. That’s what Jacob discovered one night in a dream. Jacob the trickster, the fugitive, is running from Esau, his brother; Jacob is running from God, running from himself. Alone. The sun abandoned the day and gave way to night, and in the night Jacob gave way to sleep. He crawled up beside a large stone and slept. Tired. Exhausted. In that place unnamed, Jacob slept. Some place. In this no-place, this non-descript, seemingly godforsaken place, this wilderness place, Jacob was given a dream.
Given a dream. The Dream Maker gifted him with an image of a ramp (not really a ladder, but a ramp) that went from the ground and reached up into the heavens. The kind of ramp Jacob no doubt saw in Mesopotamia, ramps built along the four sides of a ziggurat, those terraced temples of Babylon, the top levels of which were known as the “gates of heaven.” In the dream the ramp is a busy place, fluid with movement, with messengers of Yahweh moving up and down, conveying the Word of Yahweh, translating between heaven and earth. As he was sleeping, as he was dreaming, Yahweh moved up over Jacob, poised over him as if whispering in Jacob’s ear and said, “I, the LORD, am the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie, to you I will give it and to your seed. And your seed shall be like the dust of the earth and you shall burst forth to the west and the east and the north and the south, and all the clans of the earth shall be blessed through you, and through your seed. And, look, I am with you and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land for I will not leave you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.”
Jacob awoke into a new day, into a world transfigured. He remembered the dream and said, “Indeed, the LORD is in this place, and I did not know. How awesome is this place. This is the house of God. Here is the gate of heaven.” Filled with holy fear Jacob realized that the encounter in that place brought him up against the otherness of the Holy. In those moments awe overcomes us as we encounter the Other who is Yahweh. You discover that the land upon which you stand is holy and you take off your shoes. You bow before the Holiness of the LORD with humility and begin to worship—worship like you’ve never worshipped before, for you know you’re standing at the threshold of the Holy, the sanctuary, the house of the One who holds the universe in love.
This non-place becomes some place because in this place, and potentially any place, the Holiness of God breaks through. I did not know the LORD was in this place. You see, there’s more going on around us and within us than we know.
Yahweh is closer than we think or dare to believe. Even though Jacob is running, he can’t run from God. Even though Jacob thinks he’s in charge of his life, he’s actually a pivotal figure in the larger drama of God’s plan and promise to provide a land and a future to God’s people, and nothing Jacob does—selfish, scheming, swindler that he is—is going to stand in the way of God’s promise.
But Jacob is more than just a pawn in God’s cosmic scheme. God wants Jacob to know who Jacob is and God wants Jacob to know who God really is. God’s promise includes Jacob, it involves Jacob realizing that the running can stop because his life is of greater meaning than his self-absorbed preoccupations and all the guilt and the fear and the shame of his past. He can let it all go. Jacob’s life has cosmic significance. If he would just relax and stop running, he would discover that.
Indeed, Jacob discovered that Yahweh is close. Jacob discovered that Yahweh likes to appear in surprising places, making mundane places holy. That’s why I’m repeating the word “place” so often, because the text does. The Hebrew word for “place” here, hamaqom, later came to be a name for God in post-biblical times. Rabbis said that God is to be understood as place, understood as place that encompasses the world. And so any place has the potential of becoming the place where we encounter the Holy One. God is not limited to sanctuaries or temples or churches.
Celtic Christians believed that there are places in the world, such as Iona off the coast of Scotland, thin places where there seems to be a permeable membrane separating heaven and earth, places where one feels really close to God. You know something other is there, another world is close. I’ve felt this myself several times in Iona.
Any place can be the place where we encounter the holy. I sometimes think the inside of a CT-scan or MRI machine must be one of the holiest places in our world. Think of all the prayer that is offered in those places, people asking for and experiencing God’s presence there. Think of a garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem—otherwise known as Golgotha—a place of execution that became the place where the glory of God’s suffering love was revealed on a cross. If God can be present there, then God can be anywhere. What about a drug and rat-infested row house in West Baltimore or a slum in Kinshasa?
There’s more going on around us than we know or can even imagine. We have to be open to it. We have to pray that our hearts and ears and eyes are open to God’s presence. When you do, you’ll meet God in very surprising places.
But if you’re the skeptical or logical type, the type that only sees what you want to see, believes only what you want to believe, if you like to be in control, if there’s a Jacob in you, maybe running from God, running from yourself, then don’t be surprised if God meets you in precisely those places where you’re not in control, where your ego-defenses are down—as when you’re asleep, when you dream.
Just as there are geographical places that convey the Holy, that allow us to engage in heaven-to-earth, human-divine conversations, it is significant that scripture tells us there are internal, psychic places that are like those ramps, where heaven and earth converse, where we receive a divine word of promise and hope and assurance that directs our steps and waking moments. A dream is like a ramp between two worlds, between the unconscious and the conscious. But a dream, scripture tells us, can also be a ramp between heaven and earth, between the human and divine.
It is not surprising that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), shaped as he was by his own Jewish experience, would put so much stock in the importance of dreams. His collection of essays, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), was a bombshell upon the moral, prudishness of Victorian Europe, and one of the great pieces of Western literature. Of course, Freud had problems with the notion of God, but he showed us the power of the unconscious to shape our waking moments. Freud’s colleague and close friend, Carl Jung (1875-1961) eventually separated from Freud and severed their relationship, in part, because Jung wanted to embrace the psychological importance of the God-experience, whereas Freud was suspicious of Jung’s interests. Freud basically believed that the unconscious was like a trash compactor and that dreams helped to “process” the events of waking life. Jung, on the other hand, saw the unconscious as a vast source of wisdom. It’s claimed that 90% of who we are is unconscious, leaving 10% for consciousness; like an iceberg, we see only the tip. The wisdom of that other 90% is conveyed to us through our dreams. Son of a Reformed pastor in Switzerland, Jung said that in our time, “We have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions.” If you want to know where God might still be speaking today, pay attention to your dreams.
Now, to be clear, not every dream is from God (thank God!), but every dream has meaning, multiple meanings, and is given to us as sheer gift for the purpose of health and wholeness. No dream is given just to tell us what we already know but something we need to know for our well being, to move us along life’s way.
Jung was only reclaiming something that Jacob knew: God speaks to us through our dream life. Everyone dreams, every night, whether you remember your dreams or not. You dream. Time and again the importance of dreams surface in the Bible. They’re still important. But unless you’re in analysis or know how to listen to them, we generally don’t take our dreams seriously or see them as companions on our walk with God.
Genesis 37:5 tells us, “Joseph dreamed a dream: and he told it to his brothers and they hated him yet the more.” Perhaps that’s your experience with dreams. Maybe you discount them. How often have we heard it said, or maybe you say it yourself, “It’s only a dream” or “It’s just a dream.” “Just…” “Just…” “Just”–such a “soul-crushing word.”
Dreams are more than “just” dreams—they have immense power, and when used by God, they have extraordinary power to redeem and help make us whole. For more than twenty-five years now I have kept track of my dreams, giving greater attention to them over the last seven to ten years, in particular. I write them down in the middle of the night. I have a pen and pad beside my bed, and I write down (sometimes in the dark) what I remember. I work with them daily. I listen to them. I amplify them. I don’t try to interpret them. I live with them. Over the years I have had three or four in which I know beyond a doubt God was speaking to me. They were significant, life-changing dreams that pointed me in a particular direction, and they continue to shape me today. There’s more going on around us than we know. There’s more going on within us than we know or imagine.
Maybe you’re still skeptical. That’s okay. Here’s a story from the last time I preached on this text, back in 2005. During my time preparing for the sermon that week, I came across an interview with the South African novelist and travel writer, Laurens van der Post (1906-1996); one of his books became the film, The Lost World of the Kalahari, produced by the BBC in 1956. I was familiar with the name but didn’t know much about him. In the interview, he talked about growing up in the Calvinist world of South Africa where he read the Bible and was fascinated by the importance of dreams. He later met Carl Jung, in 1949, whose own Calvinist background and psychological underpinnings allowed them to become fast friends. Van der Post believed, “a dream is the instrument of creative change.” In an interview with the Bushman, one hunter said to him, “There’s a dream dreaming us.” When pressed to explain, the hunter was moved by what he said and simply replied, “I can’t tell you more, but there’s a dream dreaming us.” That stayed with me all week.
Then, on the Saturday of that week, I was roaming through a used bookstore in Washington, DC, on Connecticut Avenue, glancing over some books in the religion section, when my eyes rested on the spine of a book. I was drawn to one book in particular with large letters that read JUNG. Because of my considerable interest in Jung, I pulled it from the shelf. I looked at the cover and discovered that it was written by Laurens van der Post! I bought it, grabbed some coffee, and sat down to read. In the first couple of pages van der Post talked about the importance of dreams. Then I discovered that he devoted two full pages to Jacob’s ladder or ramp dream, which he called, “the greatest of all dreams ever dreamt.” Now, Jung wouldn’t call my experience a coincidence, but an example of synchronicity. (Jung was the first to describe synchronicity.) It’s essentially a message of the psyche: pay attention to this, Kenneth, this is important.
So I drove back to Baltimore, to Dickeyville, and was about to sit down to write the sermon around 6:00 p.m. (Now, I usually don’t wait until Saturday evenings to write the sermon each week. Some weeks I sense resistance within me and I put it off because it’s not ready to be written.) So, it was Saturday evening, in Dickeyville, when—poof—the power went out. A fire truck spun out of control on North Forest Park and hit a utility pole (thankfully, the firemen were okay). Frustrated, I packed up my things and headed for the Church House to write the sermon. I turned on the computer, prayed, waited for the computer to fire up, and stared out the window behind the monitor, facing north, when my eyes focused on what had been staring at me for weeks, but I never really noticed it: a tree, with a ladder leaning up against it. But on that Saturday evening the ladder was placed lower down on the tree, making the ladder look more like a ramp. The ladder. The ramp. The way of moving between two worlds. I can see that ladder and the tree in my mind’s eye. The ladder seemed to shimmer, as though illuminated. It wasn’t actually glowing, but that’s how it felt. Synchronicity again. I got it and I laughed out loud: this is important, pay attention, Kenneth.
There is so much more going on around us than we can imagine. There is so much more going on within us than we know. Our world is connected to another world, and that other world, so very close, as close as our dreams, is the source of life and grants meaning to our lives. What matters most in the life of faith is making that connection. The closing words at the end of E. M. Forster’s (1879-1970), Howard’s End, says it all: “Only connect.” Only connect. What matters most is the connection, the fluid movement between heaven and earth, up and down on that ramp. I think van der Post gets to the heart of what Jacob discovered in his dream: “No matter how abandoned and without help either in themselves or the world about them, men [and women] are never alone because that which, acknowledged or unacknowledged, dreams through them is always by their side.” By their side. And I would add, as I have learned, the one who dreams through us is also on our side. On our side.
The one who dreams through us is God—this is a bold claim, I know, but the text leads us to such conclusions. My own experience backs it up. Jacob didn’t have to ask for help; it just came. It was gift—sheer grace. He didn’t have a dream, the dream had him; it was given to him. And the dream spoke so clearly to his situation—telling him that his life is worthy of God’s divine protection and promise—“I am with you and I will guard you wherever you go.” The dream grants a future, grants him a telos. He didn’t have to worry about his future. When Jacob realized this, it provided him with the assurance he needed to fulfill the meaning and purpose of his life.
Then Jacob did what you would do: he began to worship, really worship Yahweh. And he set up a reminder, established a shrine, so that he would never, ever forget what he learned in that dream.
So, what is God dreaming through you?
*I'm grateful to the folks at The Zurich Lab(oratory) for sharing a version of this sermon on their blog.
 Robert Alter’s translation in The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).
 Taken from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut (NY: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981). One rabbi said: “God is the place of the world, but the world is not His place.”
 First published in 1900, with the German title, Die Traumdeutung, which could be translated, “Dream meanings.”
 See Jung’s biography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffé; translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), in which he vividly tells his separation from Freud, including accounts of Freud fainting when the subject of God came up in conversations (146ff). See also Jung’s Terry Lectures delivered at Yale University, Psychology and Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938.
 C. G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (1953). See also C. G. Jung, Dream Interpretation Ancient and Modern: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1941, edited by John Peck, Lorenz Jung, and Maria Meyer-Grass (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
 Robert Alter’s translation.
 There’s a scene in the movie Finding Neverland (Miramax, 2004) about the life of J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), the author of Peter Pan, in which Barrie scorns the use of the word, “just”—as “such a soul-crushing word.”
 Laurens van der Post, Jung & the Story of Our Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), 12. Jacob’s dream “remains,” he said, “the greatest of all dreams ever dreamt and the progenitor of all the other dreams, visionary material, and mythological and allegorical activity that were to follow” in the Bible.
 See C. G. Jung, “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle,” in Collected Works, Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).
 E. M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910), "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die." (Chapter 22).
 Van der Post, p. 12.
 Van der Post, “For Jacob had not even to ask for help from beyond himself. The necessities of his being had spoken so eloquently from him that the dream brought him instant promise of help from that which had created him, henceforth to the end of his days, and of those who were to follow in his way after him.” (12).