Meanwhile, Jacob left Beersheba and traveled toward Haran. At sundown he arrived at a good place to set up camp and stopped there for the night. Jacob found a stone to rest his head against and lay down to sleep.
As he slept, he dreamed of a stairway that reached from the earth up to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down the stairway.
Then God was right before him, saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.”
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!” But he was also afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!”
The next morning Jacob got up very early. He took the stone he had rested his head against, and he set it upright as a memorial pillar. Then he poured olive oil over it. He named that place Bethel (which means “house of God”), although it was previously called Luz.
Bill Stanfield is a community minister living in North Charleston, SC. He co-founded Metanoia, an organization that’s invested in their neighborhood assets. They’re committed to building leaders, establishing quality housing and generating economic development. When Metanoia began in the early 2000s, North Charleston had the highest concentration of childhood poverty in South Carolina.
Because the need in the neighborhood is attractive, outsiders with good intentions want to do something about it. People with resources, people with power who don’t live in the neighborhood get together to find solutions to the problems affecting that community. Bill was invited to one of these meetings, and at the beginning they were all given post-its notes. They were told to write reasons they thought kids in North Charleston were dropping out of high school. People wrote things like low-income neighborhood, failing schools, teenage parents. Bill was annoyed. Before he knew they were going to read them out loud, he wrote on his post-it that the problem was “Agencies getting together to come up with lists of why students are dropping out of school.”
Bill explained to the group that because of the way resources are owned and flow only toward what’s broken in his neighborhood, he’s not surprised that students are dropping out of school. What does surprise him is that there are still students who are graduating from high school. Instead of asking what’s going wrong, he said, they should be talking to the parents of those kids. They should be asking them, “What are you doing right? And how can we grow it?”
Recognizing strengths instead of the problems, starting with what’s strong, is a spiritual practice. Because God is already there. Where we see deficit, where we see obstacles, where we see something that needs to be fixed, God has already made abundant, made possible and called “good.”
We humans divide ourselves, deciding who’s in and who’s out, and then separate ourselves by telling the others we know how to fix their problems. We’ve even, at times, been so good at separating, that we have considered church to be something that happens separate from the rest of life. Clergy have to bless the water before it’s holy. We have to go on mission trip to bless the poor people there. So we end up missing how all of it—morning bird songs, soaking rain, laundry day, brewing coffee, hospital rooms, pizza parties, soup kitchens, piano lessons, clothes closets or farmer’s markets—all of it is already saturated with God.
When we find Jacob in this Genesis story, he’s missed God’s saturation. He’s running and vulnerable. Because he separated himself, he has no choice but to get out of dodge.
Rewind a few years to earlier in Jacob’s story. We all know parents aren’t supposed to have a favorite child. But Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob’s parents, aren’t even hiding the fact that they do. Isaac loves Esau, Jacob’s twin brother, and Rebekah loves Jacob. And so the separating wall is already forming in this family.
The wall grows one day when Esau comes in from hunting, lightheaded he’s so hungry, and manages to hand over his birthright to Jacob in exchange for some of the stew Jacob’s cooking.
And the final brick in this giant wall separating Jacob and Esau comes when their father, Isaac, is on his deathbed, preparing to bless Esau, his firstborn. But Rebekah overhears his plans, and she sends Jacob in to steal Esau’s blessing. The stew, the goat skin on his hands and neck, it all works. Isaac, who can’t see very well, blesses Jacob just as Esau is coming in with the food he’s prepared.
“But don’t you have a blessing for me?” Esau begs, anger and desperation mixing in his voice. “Bless me too, father, please!”
First the birthright, now this blessing, Esau has had enough of his brother. He makes plans to kill Jacob.
Rebekah pushes Jacob out the door, “Go, far from here. Live with my brother Laban until Esau forgets what you have done to him.”
So scared, vulnerable, unsure of the place he’s going but hoping for a safer life, Jacob takes off. It will be a few days before he makes it to Haran. When the sun sets on the first night, and his legs are tired, he looks around and finds a rock to use as a pillow. As he lays down under the stars, he’s too scared to even remember that story of his grandfather Abraham and YHWH and the stars.
He’s not asleep long when he dreams the most stunning scene. Right there, right where he is sleeping, he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth. And…angels…going up and down that ladder, between heaven and earth. He takes two deep breaths, trying to take in the beauty of angels covering the world, but he jumps, because a voice breaks through his reverie. A voice that feels like home.
“I am YHWH,” God says. “I have loved your grandfather Abraham and your father Isaac. I am their God, and I have promised this land to them. I promise your children will be a blessing. They will be abundant, like dust covering the earth. I am yours, Jacob. I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. I will not leave you. I promise.”
The words wash over Jacob’s broken, cold heart. There was nothing he did to deserve this. In fact, everything he did was wrong. But God put a ladder up, breaking through the boundary between heaven and earth and radically changed Jacob’s perspective.
When he wakes up, he can barely find words. He whispers, “How did I not know that God lives here? How have I missed this?”
God showed Jacob that it’s not heaven or earth, Jacob or Esau, us or them. It’s all one. Heaven is here. Angels are here. God is here, with us, among us, for us.
For Jacob, God countered the fear that divided Isaac and Rebekah’s family—that limited mindset that said there was only one blessing to be given out. To the blessing denied to Esau, and despite the fact that Jacob had done something terrible, God responds with widespread blessing. Through all of their family, God promises the whole world will be blessed, as common and tireless as dust.
Just when we are confident that heaven is perched perfectly beyond our skies, God throws up a ladder, breaks through that boundary and shows up right beside us, at soup kitchens, piano lessons, or laundromats. No matter how broken or divided we see our world. No matter how many walls we put up. No matter how limited we understand the possibilities or how awful we’ve been to each other, the angels are still invading. God is still here, bringing all that brokenness to wholeness and not letting us go.
As we got ready to move to New York five years ago, we got used to hearing people tell us to be careful up there. Folks thought the city was dangerous. Many people told us they wouldn’t ever go themselves. They had seen news from the city of shootings and muggings and understood that to be the kind of place New York is. But in believing that, they missed knowing and witnessing the Light alive there.
A few months ago, I was working at a clothes closet in Manhattan. Because of COVID, guests weren’t able to shop through the racks themselves. They put in orders for what they needed, and a small team put their bags together for them. I was handing out the completed bags, bringing two people at a time up to a table to look through what was picked out for them and see if there was anything they didn’t want. The closet was particularly low on its winter coat inventory. We only had a few sizes left, so we struggled to find a good size for one woman at the table. Meanwhile, another woman shuffling through her bag on the right side of the table was putting on her new coat, and we were all commenting how nice it looked on her. Eventually, the woman on the left had tried all the coats we had near her size, and none of them really fit. There was not much else we could do. That’s when the woman across the table took off her new coat and offered it to her.
“I would be okay with that one,” she said to her. “Do you want this one?”
They swapped coats, zipped them up over their layers, swapped grateful glances and left with the winter gear they needed.
And I was left amazed at what I had just witnessed. Only one of us in that room saw abundance when the rest of us saw deficit. She saw a solution, while we were focused on the problem. God broke through, with an acknowledgment that we are all connected, that we need each other and there’s more than enough for each person. God broke through, right there in the middle of a busy Monday, because of her.
God breaks through because of clothes closet clients sometimes. Like when someone needs a newer pair of boots, but they think theirs still have some wear in them. So they take their shoes off and put them on the shelf for someone else before lacing up their new ones because they know they don’t need two pairs. God’s ladder, God’s invitation to see heaven, breaks through beside the shoe shelf.
These ladders show up in the most ordinary places because God is in everything around us. So we pray to have the vision to see all this holiness.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that in the Bible, “God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.” Ladders all around us, just waiting for us to wake up to God’s vision, like Jacob.
When we’re lucky, or we’re really awake, we can see God’s dream—a dream of flourishing and wholeness and love for every single one of God’s creations, including us, even when we’re on the run, even when we have no idea what we’re doing, even when we only see closed doors.
In these moments of clarity, breathe deep and greet God right where you are. And then, like Jacob, we respond to God’s invitation and vision and promise by setting up an altar to God—an altar that faithfully joins in God’s dream of flourishing for all—altars of doors opened in hospitality, hearts extended in forgiveness, feet marching in protest, hands joined in conservation, ears listening in companionship, and giant, boundless, healing love that can’t help but see possibilities.
God is here, now, giving us endless chances to see holiness saturated all around us, to relax into that voice that feels like coming home. God promises not to leave us. And we get to respond by being a part of the loving, healing, reconciling, justice-seeking vision of God—setting up altars all over the world.