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A Vision of One's Own

by Katharine R. Henderson

I have a confession to make. As I lived with the task of preparing these words for my first cyberspace sermon, I found myself wondering what to say about such a well-known passage of scripture, Jacob's ladder no less, I found myself a reluctant preacher. I found myself wondering what to say, how to convey, in words clear enough, eloquent enough, spiritual enough, the truth that God wants me to express in this new medium.

And then, sitting in the mudroom in the back of our house in the country, sitting in this little room made entirely of stone, my little cave...where I can put my head down on that cool stone much as Jacob did that night at Bethel...I realized that it was not so much the words in Gen. 28 that captured my attention....

But the vision. God spoke, yes...there were words..But there was the vision. And I realized the discrepancy between any word I might say and the powerful vision of Almighty God that Jacob had that night.

I realized for myself this was not a time for words, for articulation, but a more primitive time...a season of the senses, for feeling the coolness of that stone, for hearing the whirring of the wind while swinging on a swing, or feeling the sticky, sweet wetness of a baby's skin in August....A time for images, impressions and visions, not words.

Alright, so back I went to that vision in Gen. 28. I ask you to make this journey, to hold fast with me to that vision of the ladder with God at the top and angels ascending and descending.

But first, let's set the stage. For what comes before and what comes after is of critical importance. We catch Jacob during this dream...We can imagine this dream occurs at the end of perhaps the loneliest day of his life...You remember Jacob...He has pulled off the scam...He has stolen the birthright from his brother Esau. He has received the counterfeit blessing from his father and is fleeing for his life fearing his brother's revenge. He has stolen what he wanted most in all the world...standing, meaning, purpose and love.

But instead of a sound, restful sleep which his exhaustion demands, Jacob has his first real vision of God. He sees a ladder or ramp extending from heaven to earth, with angels walking up and down, a vision of God at the top. He sees a God whose presence and promises eclipse even his father's blessing earlier that day.

Promises of descendants, of land, of blessing and homecoming, of God's continuing presence. We might wonder that Jacob did not scramble up that ladder and away while he had the chance to leave the world behind. Or wonder at God's distance standing there at the top of the ladder, so far away.

And what of Jacob's reaction? "Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it. How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

Dread, ...wonder, ...awesome love,...Jacob is overwhelmed by the power of the vision...and yet, note his thoughts the following morning: "If God will be with me....If God will give me clothes and food,...If God does the traditional, expected thing, then the Lord will be my God."

At this point my mind could not help racing ahead, for we know the rest of the story. God does not appear to Jacob just once. On the other side of this experience of the union between heaven and earth, Jacob struggles with an unknown opponent who springs from the shadows at Peniel and he struggles with this God of the shadows until the Being blesses him.

And we know that yet a third time Jacob sees the face of God in his brother whom he must finally confront....for to see Esau is like seeing the face of God.

Three experiences of God.....Three experiences of God, from out of the shadows of human guilt, deception, pain, betrayal and separation. We could say Jacob experienced a glut of visions, more than enough for a lifetime....certainly more than his share.

As I pondered Jacob's vision, this ramp of angels going to and fro, I realized the horror of it...for me and for us...We are as prone to stealing Jacob's vision as Jacob was in stealing the birthright from Esau. We may not steal birthrights, but we are not beyond stealing visions..Leaning upon the visions of others, borrowing, savoring what others have seen of God, but expecting little for ourselves.

We would live as vicariously and manipulatively on Jacob's vision as he was willing to do with Esau and for similar reasons...Up until this immediate experience of God at Bethel Jacob felt that he must steal what he wanted and envied most. The blessing, the gift, the goodness of God...love. He could not imagine that God would bless him with presence and a vision. Not once but three times.

Is there not something of the voyeur in us? We are good at picturing what Jacob saw that night. We can tell his story. We can even sing. "We are Climbing Jacob's Ladder." But it is quite different to have a vision of our own. The word incarnate.

There is something in us like Jacob, not quite trusting that God appears to us in dreams and visions that will inform and guide our lives.

If I asked you to describe your vision of God, how you picture God, it might be almost too intimate, threatening to share. Or perhaps, there would be nothing to share. In a psychotherapeutic session it is easier to reveal one's sexual fantasy, than to discuss one's vision and experience of God.

And yet, Gen. 28 is telling us that there is commerce between heaven and earth. God does appear to you and to me. But instead of welcoming the visions and images of God bubbling up in the world around us, we are often threatened by them. Visions of God like Jacob's can be awesome and frightening, full of unspeakable love.

We are suspicious of visions of God that do not match our own sense of correctness. So when feminists speak of the mother God or goddess, or others see God as black or peoples of the third world portray God as standing with the poor in opposition to the policies of our own government, it is no wonder we are scared. The new vision of God doesn't meet our preconceptions.

But if we filter out every image of God that does not match what we have read about in Scriptures or heard about from others like ourselves, then we disqualify ourselves as a people of vision. And as the hymn writer puts it, lacking a vision, the people perish.

The message I hear in Gen 28 is that our images and pictures of God are gifts...God appears within and without the shadows of our lives...We are not confined to the visions of God in pages long ago. We need not live vicariously through Jacob's vision. We may trust the God who speaks to us even in our dreaming.

And if we do not trust this God of visions, it is at our own peril. For we are people living in a video age. A people stuffed full of images and pictures, filled with television images. If we do not speak imaginatively of our own visions people will be filled with the images of God that are the packaged and created products of TV religion, the mass media, cult or sect.

It seems to me that if we do not let our own images and pictures of God live within us we will become simply the clever merchants of dying words. If our pictures of God are not alive within us, people will know, they will see right through.

Is that not what Jesus encourages us to do, for he was the one who encountered the other, the numinous as a daily experience. Almost as close as if he and God were one and the same. Jesus was alive with pictures of God...He spoke of vines and branches, of the body and its members, of seed and sowers, of a reed in the wind, of houses and sand, or figs and thorns, of Abba father, of a marriage feast, a heavenly city, of delight and the treasure in one's heart.

Jesus encourages us to see God through the shadows and follow God through dangerous and uncharted waters. It was such an uncharted course that led St. John of the Cross the mystic to describe his vision of God as this:

"Upon a lucky night, in secrecy, inscrutable to sight, I went without discerning and with no other light except that which in my heart was burning. It lit and led me through, more certain than the night of noonday clear, to where one waited near, whose presence well I knew, there where no other presence might appear."

I believe that God appears to us in dreams and visions to match even Jacob's...that God approaches us for example through the obscurity of a jail cell in Mao's China where a prisoner told this story:

"Many weeks passed. One day merged into another. Prolonged isolation heightened my feeling of depression. Often I became so choked with emotion that breathing became difficult. One day, I saw a small spider no bigger than a good-size pea, climbing one of the rust-eroded bars. When it reached the top, it suddenly swung out and descended on a thin silken thread spun from one end of its body. With a leap and swing, it secured the end of the thread to another bar. The spider then crawled back along the silken thread to where it had started and swung out in another direction. The tiny creature knew its job and was carrying it out with confidence. When the frame was made, the spider proceeded to weave a web that was intricately beautiful and absolutely perfect.

Who had taught the spider how to make a web? Could it really have acquired all that skill through evolution? or did God create the spider and endow it with the ability to make a web so it could catch food and perpetuate its species? Whether God had made the spider or not, I thanked God for what I had seen. A miracle of life. Mao Tse-tung seemed much less menacing. I felt a renewal of hope and confidence.

For this woman in her prison cell, God's presence was mediated through a spider. And, it was a vision, a picture of God as the source of community I am told, that led a couple on a long journey recently. For you see, they needed more than their own strength to face the death of one of them from AIDS. Neither had had anything to do with the church before, and yet, as if groping in the dark, they searched for God's face in many churches, until they found one, a community in whom they could see the face of God...Just as Jacob saw God in Esau's forgiving face. They tell me it was quite a homecoming.

And I have been blessed with my own experience of God's presence, a vision of sorts, during our vacation recently. My family and I sailed to Maine in my father-in-law's sailboat. My father-in -law had died suddenly of a heart attack the winter before, and had wanted us to keep the boat he had maintained for more than twenty years before his passing.

It was a graceful precious time. Particularly on the last morning when my husband and I were cleaning the boat making it ready for his brother's use, I had the most vivid experience of my father-in-law's presence in that cabin, he seemed to be there with us enjoying the woodwork newly oiled and the brass lantern freshly shined. He was our companion in the cleaning and in the shining. It was our experience of commerce between heaven and earth, God's blessing for what had been an unusually stressful year....a whisper of encouragement from an ancestor who lived his life as best he could and who has gone on before.

My husband and I later realized in the same breath that we had not been cleaning the boat for his brother at all, but for his father, all the while.

God appeared to Jacob, God appears to us and leaves us with these words of promise from Ps. 91. I read this promise with the hope that it will spark pictures of god, and that we will find light in the Shadow of the Almighty.

"Because you cleave to me in love, I will deliver you. I will protect you, Because you know my name. When you call to me, I will answer you. I will be with you in trouble, I will rescue you and honor you with eternal life. I will satisfy you and show you my salvation."

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles P. Henderson.