Heaven on earth
Sorry for the gap in postings--I had computer problems and then we moved! I am 10 minutes from church now, and Dan is 15 minutes from his, and we love our new home. Grateful for blessings in the midst of COVID!
Our house in Frisco was on the market so we could move to the house we just purchased in Richardson, getting my husband and I closer to both churches we serve. We had to leave the house looking as if no one lived in it—walls, countertops and floors all bare. We even put the pillows we sleep on in the linen closet. I hated doing this with Dan’s pillow because it is this big, heavy, gel, memory foam thing that weighs a ton and it was hard to shove it onto the top shelf. Every time I did this, I repeated what comedian Jim Gaffigan says about futons—that pillow is "stuffed with anger!" I do not know how he sleeps on that thing.
Out in the middle of nowhere, far from home, Jacob uses a stone for a pillow—talk about a pillow stuffed with anger! How uncomfortable. What an apt metaphor for our life during this pandemic. We are not far from home, in fact we spend more time there than ever before, however, these last few months have been so disorienting, we are in a wilderness far from anything familiar or comfortable. It feels like all we have is a stone pillow making any sense of rest, support or solace difficult to come by.
We need to take a step back and recall how Jacob got into this godforsaken place to begin with. You might recall that Jacob bargained with his older twin Esau to give him his inheritance in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew, but there was still the matter of the blessing from Isaac. He was getting old and blind and it was time for Isaac to give Esau his blessing, so he asked Esau to go hunting for some game and make him a dinner.
But Rebekah wanted Jacob to receive the blessing. So, she instructed him to steal a couple of goats from the herd and make Isaac dinner while Esau was out hunting. Then she took the goat skin to make sleeves for Jacob so his arms would feel hairy like Esau’s arms. In his blindness Isaac was fooled, and he gave the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau. When Esau returned from hunting and learned Jacob had tricked him out of what was rightfully his again, he became incensed and vowed to kill Jacob.
Which catches us up to our story today. Jacob sets off on a long journey to escape his brother’s wrath and to find himself a wife. On this long, perilous journey Jacob is far from home, security, community, and anything familiar. There is no protection or creature comforts. I can feel the crick in his neck and the pressure on his head as he uses a stone for a pillow. It sounds much like our experience of this global pandemic. Many nights we lay our head on a stone pillow.
• For some of us it is the stone of fear. We live with a gnawing dread that we or someone we love will catch this awful virus. For the first couple of cases in Texas were few. But now it is all around us. For people we know who have contracted it--it is as bad as they say. Masks are helpful, but there is no surefire way of avoiding it if you need to go out.
• For others, our stone pillow is exhaustion. Parents are having to juggle jobs while being homeschoolers and now providing summer camp. Many workers have transitioned to work at home, which has some advantages, but if you are like me, you find that it frequently takes twice as long to get half as much done.
• Some of us lay our heads on the stone of uncertainty at night. We have largely accepted that this is how we will live for now--and then we ask ourselves, “But for how long?” Nobody knows the answers to these questions and uncertainty is our constant and unwanted companion.
• And for many of us, the stone pillow of this pandemic is loneliness. We miss church, book clubs, card groups, family gatherings, and going out to eat. So many simple pleasures have been denied us.
There has been no greater time when we can identify with Jacob’s experience of being alone in the wilderness with no protection or anything familiar to bring comfort but a hard rock under our head.
We may think that Jacob is getting his just desserts. But remarkably, when he is a trickster on the run, in a place that seems completely devoid of God, this is where God most powerfully shows up. When Jacob is at his most vulnerable—asleep—he cannot argue, wrestle, trick or bargain, God gives him an amazing, vivid and clear dream of heavenly messengers moving up and down a staircase connecting heaven and earth.
It does not matter where Jacob is, or what situation he finds himself in, the blessings of heaven, the guidance of God, the mercies of grace are with him, within him, beside him, and always available to him. God is not far off, rather God is closer than you can imagine and the blessings of God’s power are offered here and now on earth, to him—no matter what he’s done, and which piece of earth he’s sleeping on.
The vision is a powerful message in itself—angels descending who bring from above, echoes of mercy and whispers of love—but it is also a signpost that a bigger Word is coming. Jacob then hears God speak directly to him: I am the LORD, Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
God gives the details of the resources of heaven that are available to Jacob in his daily life, even though he is not terribly deserving. For those of us who have not been able to hear a God of grace in the Old Testament, here it is in spades!
God will abide with Jacob, God will protect Jacob, and that God will fulfill God’s promise to Jacob: to bring him back to this land that was promised him.
These promises of God are as true for us today in this time of pandemic, as it was for Jacob—God abides with us, God keeps and protects our life-eternal wherever we go, God fulfills the promise to be with us to the end of the age.
The blessings and resources of heaven are available to us now. God came to Jacob when he was most available—when our defenses are gone, when the familiar is absent, when our routine is broken, that is when we are most open to hear God as God appears to us and as God speaks to us. God is not limited to those times, but that is when we are most ready, most expectant, most vulnerable. And so, while we may hate this time of pandemic with its stone pillows, this can be a rich and deeply spiritual time for all of us—a time when God startles us with the message that the blessings of heaven are available to us, and that God is with us, will protect us, and will make good on God’s promises to us!
For some of us that may come through the regular rhythm of spiritual practices of prayer, and worship, and fellowship, and Bible reading. And for some of us, God will appear as God appeared to Jacob--in a dream or moment that disrupts our stuck thinking, in a vision or conversation that fills us with hope, in an unexpected word or insight that brings us back to God.
After God’s revelation and blessings, Jacob turns his stone pillow into a monument—Bethel—house of God. Jacob knows that God is real. That God’s promises are sure. That the blessings of heaven are available on earth. This is why Jesus is called Emmanuel--God with us--because he is the living embodiment of the blessings of heaven being available to us on earth. Through Christ, God turns our stone pillows of fear, exhaustion, uncertainty, and loneliness turn into testimonies and monuments of hope, energy, confidence, and community as we experience God bringing us through!
Rick Rodriguez gives us a wonderful example of this in his testimony, shared today. Rick had a Jacob’s ladder experience, where the resources of heaven became available to him in the middle of a crisis—a violent crowd in a foreign country, lost from friends and all that was familiar. As he prayed for help, the blessings of heaven—God’s presence, peace and protection—descended through the human connection and prayers with a stranger.
Indeed, angels descending who bring from above, echoes of mercy and whispers of love. With Jacob, with Rick, we open ourselves to heaven’s blessings as God turns our stone pillows into pillars of praise.