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Climbing the Right Ladder
July 20, 2014
If you’ve ever been to church camps or youth retreats perhaps you remember singing about Jacob’s ladder. The African-American spiritual was a favorite song during evening vespers when I was attending summer church camps as a teenager. You may remember the lyrics:
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Soldiers of the cross.
Every round goes higher, higher. Every round goes higher, higher. Every round goes higher, higher. Soldiers of the cross.
Sinner, do you love my Jesus? Sinner, do you love my Jesus? Sinner, do you love my Jesus? Soldiers of the cross.
If you love Him, why not serve Him? If you love Him, why not serve Him? If you love Him, why not serve Him? Soldiers of the cross.
Each time I read this story of Jacob and his dream, I always remember that spiritual about Jacob climbing a ladder. Like many adults, Jacob has been climbing a ladder all of his life, a ladder of his making.
The ladder is one of greed. Grab what you can while you can underlie a belief that life is about survival of the fittest. Getting the better of the other person before they have a chance to get the best of you is still a philosophy for success.
George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, was asked why Anakin Skywalker became the evil Darth Vader. He replied: “He cannot let go of things. That makes you greedy. When you are greedy you are on the path to the dark side.” Jacob’s ladder was a ladder of greed.
Competition can be another ladder. Do whatever it takes to win because somebody has to win and someone has to lose. At the end of the world cup soccer match last Sunday, a sign read: “You don’t win the silver medal, you lose the gold.” Such is the life of competition.
Since birth Jacob had been climbing ladders of greed & competition. Where have those ladders gotten Jacob? 50 miles from home, alone and scared.
In one of Tom Wilson cartoons, Ziggy is standing between two big boulders. He is pushing against them with all his strength. On one boulder is printed the word “Rock.” On the other boulder is printed “Hard Place.” On this night, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place with a stone for a pillow.
There are two great disappointments in life. One is not to get what you want. The other is to get it and discover it was not worth the effort.
Jacob had cheated his brother out of their father’s blessing and inheritance. Now Jacob is running from his ancestral home. On the way, Jacob stops at a random spot in the Canaanite desert. He pulls up a rock for a pillow and beds down for the night. As he drifts off to sleep, he has a dream: “a ladder set up on earth, the top of it reaching to the heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”
Old Testament scholars think that the Hebrew word here in the text for “ladder” actually corresponds to something more like a stepped pyramid of the type you might find at Chichen Itza. It must have been an amazing sight, given that it was taking place in the middle of nowhere.
The angels don’t speak to Jacob. However, the writer of Genesis tells us that God “stood beside” Jacob and provided the narrative to the scene. The narrative was a restatement of the covenant promise that God had given initially to Abraham — Jacob’s grandfather. It was a promise of numerous offspring and a family through which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Despite Jacob’s devious deception in snagging his brother’s birthright, and, despite being the younger brother, Jacob was going to be the one through whom God’s redemptive plan was going to continue.
It’s what God whispered in the pillow talk that Jacob really took to heart. “Know that I am with you — God says — 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 promised.” Regardless of what dangers await Jacob, even in a trackless, faceless, nameless place where a stone makes for a pillow, God was going to be with him.
When Jacob awoke from his dream, the angel staircase was gone. All that was left was the rock pillow. He took the rock and poured oil on it as a way of marking the place as a sacred. As he named the place Bethel – house of God – and declared: “Surely, the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” Jacob was overjoyed when he realized that what had once been a nowhere place was now a somewhere place because God had been there.
Here’s the good news for us. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been. It only matters that God is with you wherever you are. Everyplace can be holy because God promises to be there even when those places feel like a trackless spiritual desert. Sometimes, it’s the apparently God-forsaken places that become the most holy because God is already there, even if we did not notice it at first.
There are lots of lonely places where we can find ourselves: loneliness of grief, loneliness of unemployment, loneliness of illness or disease, loneliness of broken relationships.
My aunt Pat lived with our family when I was a young child in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her son, John, my cousin, was a commissioned Navel officer in Pacific during the Korean Conflict. While John was stationed overseas, I would help Aunt Pat bake cookies to mail to him.
You Never Walk Alone was then a popular song.
When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark.
Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone.
I remember singing that song with Aunt Pat as we baked cookies. Of course, Jacob didn’t hum that song. Yet, the lyrics could have been his as he left Bethel as his way towards Haran.
Through the years, I’ve found myself humming You Never Walk Alone whenever I’ve found myself scared and alone. Like that dark night when I was taken out into the woods of the Boy Scout camp adjacent to the Big Thicket in East Texas. It was my initiation campout for Order of the Arrow. I remember humming You Never Walk Alone as I tried to sleep with all the night sound seeming to close in around me.
Again, that time when I was in Peru as a college student on a summer’s cultural anthropological research project team. Our bus stopped in a remote valley high up in the Andes. The project director assisted as my luggage was off loaded. He pointed out the path off gravel road. He directed me to walk a couple of kilometers up the path where I would come to a village. He suggested I find the village leader and present my letters of introduction. He said: The village leader will help me find a place to stay for the reminder of the summer. I’ll be back in a month to check on you.
With the Peruvian locals staring at me I stood there watching the dust of bus, and felt alone and very long way from home. I prayed God to be with me as I began walking down the path toward that village, and humming “You Never Walk Alone.”
You Never Walk Alone … again in my final semester at Austin Seminary when I learned my first wife was filing for a divorce. The chairperson of the Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation told me I would never be ordained a teaching elder because I would be divorced by graduation in May. In 1971, Presbyterian congregations were not keen on their pastor being divorced. I prayed for discernment at this cross roads of my journey in pastoral preparation. Again, God was there as the congregation of Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, TX was willing to call as their pastor someone who was recently divorce.
Loneliness …. you know where those places are & when those times have been. Yet, such moments can be the “gate of heaven” where God offers holy presence in ways that we truly need. Trust me my friends, when you feel stranded between a rock and a hard place, God will extend the ladder of heaven all the way to where you are. The ladder of God is the right ladder to climb.
Well, that’s the good news for today; may it be so for you. In the name of God, our Creator; Jesus Christ, our Redeemer; and the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer. Amen