I’ve found myself over the last few months in my new call asking a lot of people and groups, “Why are we doing this?” This is a congregation full of people with the awesome inclination toward being helpful. But that means sometimes we start off by having solutions before we know what the problem is – or if there is one. It also means we have a tendency to work ourselves to death without stopping to wonder, is this a cause over which I need to put myself in the grave? We’ve been talking a lot about the cost of what we do – in time, energy, loss of ability to do other things – and whether the benefit balances or exceeds it.
I can relate. Oh yes, can I relate.
Last night after a wonderful but long day of ministry, I realized that I was not in a good physical state. I haven’t had a spinal issue or sciatica flareup since I moved here, but I suddenly had one so bad that I had to hunch up and drag my leg to walk home. My ear had been bleeding through our Session meeting (don’t worry, just a bug bite gone awry, not a brain wound), I kept feeling something in my eye, and my digestion had been unpleasant all day (sorry, TMI). And I was utterly, can’t move exhausted. I laid on the floor of my apartment to get my spine back into order, and it took me a half hour to summon the energy to get up and go to bed.
My body is not subtle when I’m doing too much. In this case, it was already yelling about the twenty-four hours I had worked over the course of two days, and I was staring down the barrel of another twelve plus hour day today and three more full work days before I leave on Sunday night for vacation. As I laid in bed, dreading another day of pain and exhaustion, and filled with anxiety about whether I could possibly get everything done, I asked myself the question I’ve been asking everyone else: “Why am I doing this?”
I should have been at a great training event today. I feel bad about skipping it – but not as bad as I would feel if I had been up at 7am today to sit through eight hours of training before heading to another four hours of meetings tonight at church. I just couldn’t do it. The cost was too high. Instead, I got an extra hour of sleep, walked the stiffness out of my back, ran some errands, and got some advanced work done for church so I can actually be away on my vacation and not trying to write liturgy from Scotland.
I want my church members to be able to ask the question, “Why am I doing this?” I want them to be able to consider the cost and benefit, and say no to things that cost them their spiritual and physical health. I want us as a congregation to ask, “Why are we doing this?” and think hard about how our decisions foster flourishing and resist draining. Apparently that means I have to be willing to ask these questions of myself, too.
Most of the things I know about racism, I learned and continue to learn from being called out for my unhelpful attitudes and actions. In classrooms, on social media, in friendships, and in casual conversation with people who were basically strangers, people have pointed out to me that my perspective is not neutral; it is shaped by my whiteness as well as other particularities of my social position. Some of these people have been gentle and gracious. Some of them have harshly instructed me to shut up and check my privilege.
Both of these approaches have been immensely helpful to me.
Sometimes I have needed someone to come alongside me and help me navigate the unfamiliar waters of discussing race and racism, and my friends who are not white and who live this as a daily reality have sometimes been willing to add my education to their burdens. For this I am so very grateful.
Sometimes I have needed to be knocked abruptly out of my assumption that my perspective is accurate or has primacy, and I’m grateful also for the people who took the enormous risk of challenging me in this way. I recognize now, although I didn’t always at the time, that it was a risk, especially in spaces that were predominantly white, or where I held more power than the person critiquing me.
The rest of the things I know about racism, I learned from reading the books and articles that were recommended to me by the people who called me out.
None of this was particularly pleasant, because people weren’t always polite and gentle about their challenges. Plus, who wants to be wrong? Who wants to discover that their perspective has serious blinders? Who wants to learn that they carry a legacy of oppressing others, or that they benefit from systems that exploit and abuse others? I certainly didn’t. If no one had ever called me out, I would not have realized it was necessary to dedicate my time to learning things about myself and my culture that are unpleasant, unflattering, and in opposition to the values I claim to espouse. But the people who called me out impressed upon me that I could learn and change, or get defensive and continue to participate in a system that actively harms people who aren’t white. Yikes, what a choice!
And then I learned that the choice isn’t a one-time thing. It’s every day, every situation. Part of the whole white privilege thing is that I get a choice; I can opt not to do the work of dismantling racism, and not suffer any noticeable ill effects. So, somewhere along the line I decided that I would not give myself permission to opt out.
That means that sometimes now I am the person doing the calling out – because one of the things I’ve heard over and over from people of color (and marginalized people in general) is that they are absolutely exhausted from giving their time and energy and risking themselves to not only preserve their own lives, but also educate people like me along the way. Once they’ve invested that time into me, they have said, the best thing I can do is talk to other white people, so POC don’t have to be the only ones spending their time and energy and risking themselves to talk about racism. So yes. If I encounter other white people wielding their whiteness in unhelpful ways, I’m going to call that out. It’s uncomfortable and people don’t like it, but oh well. It is not always possible to tell someone, “Stop being unhelpfully white,” in a manner they will find acceptably pleasant.
And I still get called out, because I still don’t get it right all the time. But that’s okay, because after it happened a few times and I learned from it, it didn’t hurt so much to be called out. It just became part of accepting that I need to be knocked off my privilege pedestal from time to time. Defending my own goodness or rightness is not the only response option.
I can listen.
I can believe POC when they tell me something is a problem for them.
I can use my hurt feelings as motivation to do some self-examination rather than as a reason to disbelieve or discredit POC.
I can restrain myself from insisting that my intention was good, or that my character is good (see: “not all white people”), or that my perspective is neutral and therefore I get to define what is offensive.
I can do some work, and read/watch materials from POC.
I can apologize and change my behavior in the future.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
I thought I knew what I was going to preach this week.
I’ve had it planned for weeks, and it’s why we’re behind the lectionary today. I’m fascinated by this story of Jacob struggling with God. This is where Jacob becomes Israel. This is the apex of this whole narrative we’ve been following, from Abraham and Sarah, through Isaac and Rebekah, to the twin brothers Esau and Jacob and their lives of conflict. It all comes to a head here, with Jacob waiting to see whether, after many years apart, his brother Esau will agree to be reunited with him. But before that happens, he spends the night wrestling with God and refusing to let go, even when his hip is dislocated. He holds on. In the morning he emerges, limping but alive, and with a new name, Israel. He has struggled with God, and with humans, and he has prevailed. From that moment on, he carries the name of God’s people and they carry his, and it is a name forged in struggle.
I thought I knew what I was going to preach about, because wrestling with God is kind of my specialty.
But then this week happened. And we crept a little closer to war each day, as our recklessly fearless leader threatened not only North Korea but Venezuela, angering China and Russia in the process, and continuing to hold to his picture of the greatness of America.
And then on Friday evening I started to hear reports that people were gathering at the University of Virginia, carrying torches and preparing to march and surround a church, where a number of black clergy and laity were praying for the resistance to the larger “Unite the Right” march scheduled for Saturday. I want to make this picture clear: black people were trapped in a church while white men with torches stood outside chanting, “You will not replace us!” And there were no police in riot gear, and the mainstream media was nearly silent.
Then yesterday, the main march occurred in Charlottesville. Heavily armed militias marched the streets carrying Nazi and Confederate flags, the symbols of genocide and slavery. They surrounded and attacked groups of peaceful counter-protesters. One of them drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing at least one of them. Three deaths and nineteen major injuries are now attributed to the rally, to these white nationalists chanting “Blood and soil,” a Nazi cry that declared the unique right through lineage and land to possess their country.
In the midst of all of this, it occurred to me that perhaps America, especially white America, has been identifying a little too closely with God’s chosen people.
Throughout the history of the United States, American Christians, particularly white American Christians have been thinking of ourselves as the new Israel, and this as some version of the promised land. This might have made sense in the beginning to the European immigrants who fled religious persecution. But the Europeans who came here for many reasons, not just religious, claimed this nation by taking the land from indigenous people, and built it with the labor of enslaved, predominantly black and African people who were brought here against their will, and so the promised land was only full of promise for a few, right from the beginning.
I wish I could say that was the past, but yesterday was just the latest proof that white supremacy is alive and well. It doesn’t even feel enough fear to hide anymore; the new KKK doesn’t wear sheets or masks. They show their faces, unafraid of condemnation, in the light of Tiki torches from Pier One, and the appropriation and privilege of that would be laughable if the history of white men marching with torches wasn’t so horrifying.
The most disappointing thing of all is that most of white America, even those of us who would say we aren’t racist, who find this deplorable, will be silent about the riots that happened yesterday. Or we’ll be upset by it today and forget tomorrow – because we can. We will talk about free speech, or we’ll say, “This isn’t really America” and distance ourselves from the reality that this really is America, because we can. That’s what privilege means. We can forget. We don’t have to be afraid of the next marchers with torches, or the next armed militia, or the next time we get stopped by the police, or the next random person walking down the street who thinks they have more right to exist here than we do. We can go back to our normal lives, and back to putting ourselves at the center. We can go back to thinking of this America that primarily benefits us as the promised land. Even we liberals who would never think this or say it aloud, we can go back to acting as though white American Christians are God’s chosen people.
But the fact is that this America doesn’t look much like the promised land or the chosen people of God. The Israel of the Bible – both the person and the nation – struggled, with God and with humans. Israel was not a world superpower. Israel was small, marginalized, often enslaved and exiled. If we’re identifying modern places with the biblical story, this America is not Israel. It’s Babylon. It is a country where the true people of God don’t quite fit, where they are in exile, where their role and their call is resistance to a culture that crushes the weak and the different.
We who are in the majority have for a long time thought of our nation as a close ally. I think it may be time to reconsider. It is time for us, especially those of us who are white American citizens, to wrap our minds around the fact that we cannot count on the culture or the government to do the heavy lifting of justice for us. We cannot claim to follow Jesus and then just go with the flow here, because the flow is drowning millions and millions of people. We’ve been really slow on the uptake, refusing to listen as people of color have been trying to tell us for decades about the continuing realities of white supremacy. If it took this for some of us to believe them, so be it. Now is the time. We cannot wait for another racist rally. We cannot wait for another death.
Now I know that a lot of you are out there and you are on the same page, and you want to stand up and resist this racist, white nationalist abomination. But some of you may not feel like you have the fortitude for this fight. Some of you may be afraid, because this is getting very ugly and there is real risk involved. And some of you may simply not be sure what to do.
But this church has struggled with humans and with God before, and has prevailed. This church has struggled, with humans, and with God. And you have prevailed. And we can do it again.
Most of you have been forged in faith journeys that involved struggling with family, friends, the church, and even God as you defined your identities, beliefs, and values in ways that traditional western Christianity has not quickly accepted. And yet you prevailed.
This church has been forged in its struggle with the wider church, with the law, and with God, as it grabbed hold of the open table and welcome for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. This church held onto that open table, and held on to its hospitality, and you would not let go, even when the church hurt you for it, even when you wondered why God was putting you through this. You held on until morning, until the blessing came. And this church that was called irregular and subjected to disciplinary commissions is now known for sticking it out and doing what was right even when it was a struggle that seemed it would never end, and even when it hurt, and even when you came away limping.
This is a new time, and the struggle is for a different set of rights, and it’s one that is harder for us, because this time most of us are in the position of power and privilege. But you know how to do this. You have grabbed hold and not let go before. You have held on until morning, even when it was a wrestling match that seemed like it would never end, even when it hurt, even when you came away limping. You have been forged for this. It won’t be easy, and we can’t do it alone, but it can be done. Morning is coming.
Standing in true solidarity with black and brown people in this country will be a struggle. And it may hurt – because it has been hurting people of color for centuries. But if we claim to follow the example of Jesus, there is no option. We resist white supremacy, or we become complicit in it. We struggle through the night until morning comes, or we give in to it.
If we’re looking for an Israel to identify with, this is the one – the one who struggles, even when it hurts, the one who holds on til morning. Morning is coming, if we just hold on.
We are a week behind the lectionary, because we had a fairly spontaneous youth-led Sunday last week, and there is NO WAY I am skipping the story of Jacob wrestling God. So we will be focusing on Genesis 32:22-31.
In my worship planning, I picked up this book to find a poem to use as a call to worship…and now I can’t put it down, and I just want to stand up on Sunday and read Rilke.
I’m not going to do that, but I am going to share this poem with you which is one of my favorites. It has very little to do with the story of Jacob, but I’ll be using one of the more fitting poems on Sunday and didn’t want to double up. If you’re looking for something to read devotionally that isn’t, well, a devotional, I highly recommend this book. It is an absolute fountain of spiritual honesty, depth, and wisdom.
Gott spricht zu jeden nur, eh er ihn macht
by Rainer Maria Rilke
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.
Flare up like flame and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
**Throughout this sermon, there are repeated references to “turning the story,” a phrase which came from the Children’s Message. We looked at pictures that, from one perspective, seem to be people hanging precariously from cliffs or walking on their hands up impossible inclines. When turned, the pictures reveal that the people are lying on the ground, or walking on a normal street with their hands positioned on an overhang. All a matter of perspective, if you just turn the picture.
Richard Nixon dies, and a voice tells him to walk down the corridor to meet his fate. So, nervously, he proceeds down the hallway. He comes to a door and opens it to find former Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom Nixon had defeated for Senate in 1950 by painting her as a closet communist—”pink right down to her underwear” were the words he used. Nixon nervously asks, “Is she my punishment?” “No,” replies the voice. So he continues down the hall, stopping at the next door. Peering inside he finds his nemesis, former NY Congresswoman Bella Abzug, the first member of Congress to call for his impeachment. Nervously, Nixon asks, “Is she my punishment?” “No,” the voice replies. Relieved, Nixon presses forward down the corridor. Stopping at the third door, he can barely bring himself to open it. When finally he does, to his relief, there sits the pop singer Madonna, stretched out on a sofa. Nixon chuckles. “Is she my punishment?” “No,” the voice replies. “You’re hers.”
One of the characteristics of good storytelling is a clear point of perspective. It’s important to our enjoyment and understanding of a story to feel sympathy for the intended hero, and antipathy for the intended villain. Complicated and imperfect heroes are popular right now in various kinds of media, but it’s still clear who is the star of the show. Everyone else is either a dilemma or a support for the main character. I don’t usually make a practice of explaining jokes, but the humor of the Nixon joke I just told you works because it plays with the typical expectations of perspective. At the last moment, Nixon turns out not to be the main character at all – the worse luck for Madonna.
Perspective makes stories make sense. So even when we play with the perspective to get an element of surprise, or when the story leads us to sympathize with a hero who doesn’t quite live up to our usual expectations, perspective holds together the dramatic tension and plot movement in a cohesive way. In the first person, this perspective is obvious; the story is told explicitly from one person’s point of view. In the third person, it’s less obvious but no less true; the story is still dependent on a preferred point of view.
We know this implicitly even if we’ve never thought about it explicitly, and so it doesn’t surprise us when, for example, Game of Thrones is told from a third-person perspective that strongly suggests that we empathize with the Stark family but hate the Lannisters, that we cheer for Daenarys Targaryan, but again, have I mentioned that we hate the Lannisters? It’s not even important for you to have read or seen Game of Thrones, you just need to know that we hate the Lannisters.
But what if someone turned the picture, and suddenly told the same story from the perspective of Cersei Lannister? For those of you who are not up on your Game of Thrones, Cersei is the Most Horrible of all the horrible women. But if this was told from her point of view…I suspect it would look a lot different if the main character was a woman who was born into a family where she was clearly the most capable sibling, but was always prevented from inheriting her father’s wealth and power because she wasn’t a man. I think a different story could be told about this woman who was married off against her will, watched her husband cheat on her repeatedly and then die suddenly, who soon thereafter lost two children to murder and one to suicide. Cersei is complicated, there’s no doubt, and she’s not a “nice” character even if she’s the hero. She has a creepy incest situation and a penchant for blowing things up. But it’s not that hard to envision the same story being told from a perspective in which Cersei is the central character, as a saga of her rising from her circumstances to win the Game of Thrones.
The same story of thrones and crowns would change again if the picture was turned to the perspective of one of the minor lords or ladies whose only power is dependent upon the major family with whom they are allied. And it would alter dramatically if told from the point of view of one of the servants, named or unnamed, who set the background for the exploits of the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens.
This whole concept seems fairly obvious when we’re talking about literature or film, so you may be wondering why I’m explaining all of this to you. But when it comes to the Bible, people often don’t apply the idea of perspective. We can tend to see the Bible as perspectiveless, or omni-perspective, or perhaps as God’s perspective.
In the passage we read today, it’s pretty easy to pick up who the main character is, right? (ask) Right, it’s Jacob. We’re supposed to feel the story from Jacob’s perspective. What’s important here is Jacob’s emotions; his emotions are in fact the only ones that are mentioned. Jacob’s love, Jacob’s service, Jacob’s marriage, Jacob’s deception, Jacob’s anger, and Jacob’s eventual triumph. Focusing on Jacob makes the story what it is, where the dramatic tension is in him being tricked by Laban, very much as Jacob himself tricked his father into believing he was Esau. And we can learn some things from focusing on Jacob, perhaps that deceit can come back to haunt you in surprising ways. By focusing on Jacob, we continue to learn about the patriarchal line of God’s covenant, which is probably the main purpose of this story beyond any moral lesson.
But what if we turn the story this way, and read it from Laban’s perspective? Suddenly it looks more like a primer on shrewd business deals.
And what if we turn it this way, and see it through the eyes of Leah, who has been married off to a man who doesn’t want her and will always resent her? Or Rachel, who is wanted but still has no say in her marriage, and becomes the second wife to a sister who is always more a rival than a friend? Maybe this is a story about the injustice that is visited upon women when they have no rights of their own.
Now what if we turn the story just a little more, and look at it from the point of view of Zilpah. Who? Zilpah, Leah’s maid, and Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, both show up in this story too. Both are given to Jacob along with Laban’s daughters, and both end up having children that are fathered by Jacob, children who are then said to belong to Leah and Rachel. Told from their perspective, the perspective of enslaved people, perhaps this is an entirely different story.
If you want an interesting alternate perspective on this family, you might try reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, which tells the story from the point of view of Leah’s daughter, Dinah, and adds some flair to the personalities in this complicated family. Sometimes imaginative retellings help us get at something beneath the top layer of the biblical story. Focusing on one character tells us something, but turning the story and focusing on another tells us more – it gives us depth of understanding, and empathy for people whose lives are different from our own.
Telling the story with Jacob as the main character tells us what it’s like to be Jacob – on the run at the moment, a little out of his element, but still with a lot of power to change his circumstances. At the end, it all comes out pretty well for him.
Telling the story from the perspective of Leah or Rachel tells us what it’s like to be a woman of rank in that society. The bad news is you have almost no autonomy. The good news is that there’s still a lot of concern for your security and basic well-being.
Turning the story to Zilpah and Bilhah tells us what it is to be barely mentioned, to be property. And indeed, in the written account, their voices are never heard; they are accessories to the main story.
There are many ways to read Scripture. The one that is usually used is to take the stories at their simplest face value, privileging the perspective of the person who the biblical author decided was the main character. But that’s not our only option. We can also read Scripture and ask ourselves, who is not heard here? Who is not named? Who does not come out on top?
I think this particular story is really helpful because the strata of characters is very obvious – Laban who has the most power and benefits the most from the situation, Jacob who manages through effort to pull himself up to a powerful position, Leah and Rachel who make do and maneuver themselves into situations of as much power as they can manage, and Zilpah and Bilhah, who have no power at all. All of these categories exist throughout the Bible, and they exist today, in every story and situation. We tend to understand stories – true and fictional – from the perspective that is given, or the perspective closest to our own. But what if we turned these stories another way? What if we saw events as they looked to someone else? Whose voices might we hear? How might our view of the world change? How might the way we love and serve and work for justice be changed, if we just turned the story?
As some of you know, I’ve been putting the lectionary passages from Genesis into a series for the past few weeks. I’ve been going pretty heavy on the angle of “Look, these are human beings, in a very different culture but with a lot of the same basic needs and wants and problems we have.” My congregation is very strong on social justice, so I haven’t been talking as much about the justice/injustice aspects of these stories; instead I’ve been emphasizing how we find God in the gritty, messy, seemingly secular details of our lives.
BUT. This week and this passage have me in a frothing rage. The Senate has opened up the possibility of stripping millions of Americans of their health care, and removing protections for people who have pre-existing conditions (like me, and like basically everyone I know, because mortal life is a pre-existing condition). This morning, Trump arbitrarily declared a ban on trans people in the military, never mind the thousands who already serve. Here in Cincinnati, we still wait for justice for the murder of Sam DuBose. The death penalty is about to be administered not far from here despite much protest of the method in particular and the death penalty more broadly. Yet another seminary that claims to affirm women has invited an anti-woman lecturer onto their campus, clearly having learned nothing from the Princeton debacle, and supposedly egalitarian men are busy telling women that this is not a problem, that we need to hear all points of view. Perhaps they need to hear one more time that women have no business in pulpits, but I have heard it more than enough. These events are not equal in their egregiousness, but they’re all on my list of things that are filling me with fury.
On a related note: please stop telling people they need to sit back and listen to the perspectives that say they are inferior, intolerable, or abominable. Those who are categorized as “less than” already know the perspective well.
What does this have to do with Jacob and Leah and Rachel (and Zilpah, slipped in there for good measure), you ask?
Well, take a gander at Jacob and Rachel’s first encounter. Does anything about this seem odd to you? Familiar, perhaps? A man comes upon a woman he thinks is beautiful, and just runs up and kisses her. Sound like anyone else whose name and ongoing atrocities we can’t escape?
This passage is just full of men making decisions about women’s relationships and bodies. Everything is seen from the male gaze: Rachel is SO BEAUTIFUL. Did you catch that she’s really really beautiful? And Leah is…not. Not at all. She’s super ugly. Oh, and Zilpah, who just gets shuffled along as an accessory, but none of them really have any choice in this situation. They are objects for the pleasure and benefit of men, and my rage about this cannot be contained, because this still happens every day. Not just with women, but with all kinds of people, who are made objects for the use of someone with more power. Americans with limited resources are objects for a government that plays us like pawns in their game to one-up each other. Trans people are objects waved around to keep a certain part of the population convinced that Trump cares about “family values.” Sam DuBose was an object; the value of his life could be weighed and discarded in a moment by Ray Tensing for nothing. Prisoners are objects whose crimes make it acceptable to abuse and even kill them. Women are objects who are allowed by men to preach, maybe, as long as we don’t inconvenience the men by asking them to choose speakers who don’t tell us we are a lesser class of human. Oh, and by the way, be pretty like Rachel, so you get the love story with Jacob instead of being snuck into the deal, because ugly women aren’t worthy of love.
By Sunday, all of this will turn into some kind of sermon. In the meantime, I have some other Scripture to quote: “Arise, O Lord, in anger! Stand up against the fury of my enemies! Wake up, my God, and bring justice!”
This week was less scripted than usual, so there is no transcript available for this sermon. However, I wanted to put up an outline for those who missed it and are trying to follow the series on Origin Stories. Hopefully soon we will have online access to our sound files so sermons like this one can be heard if they cannot be read.
Celtic Christians borrowed a concept from their ancient pagan ancestors of “thin space.” Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, they say, but in thin spaces the distance is even shorter. They used the term to describe places like the island of Iona, or the peak of Croagh Patrick. They may be spaces that are beautiful, although not all beautiful spaces are thin, and not all thin spaces are beautiful; Cancun is stunning in its own way but usually doesn’t offer much of a window to heaven, and one of the thinnest spaces I’ve ever encountered was a hospice ward in South Africa. Thin spaces may be tranquil – Iona in its windswept isolation certainly is that – but it’s equally likely that a thin space will not relax you at all, that it will disorient you and knock you out of your normal path into something entirely new.
That’s the thing about thin spaces. They’re not just pleasant spaces. They’re spaces that transform us, that let us in on realities that are usually hidden. They are places where we become more essentially ourselves.
(Share stories of thin spaces in groups of 3-5)
Jacob on the run wanders into a thin space, and it changes his life – the heir of God’s promise actually shifts from being a trickster and basically self-interested person to living like someone who is the heir of God’s promise.
What does Jacob’s story have to do with us?
We often bumble into thin space, not when we’re at our best, but when we’re at our worst. Jacob was not having his finest moment. In fact, his life up to this point was a series of not finest moments. If he was expecting God to show up, it was probably to give him hell for what he had done to his brother and his father. But Frederick Beuchner in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who describes Jacob’s dream. He notes, “the words God spoke in the dream were not the chewing-out you might have expected, but something altogether different … It wasn’t Holy Hell that God gave him … but Holy Heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world that you can’t get but only can be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular.” Nothing separates us from God, even ourselves.
Jacob’s dream is not about the dream, it’s about the reality. It would have been really easy for him to become fixated on how God spoke to him in this dream, and to believe that was the totality of the experience. But the point of the dream is not the dream. The point of the dream is the window it gives him into reality. That picture of the angels going up and down on the stairway, delivering messages between heaven and earth, and that vision of God standing beside him – it’s telling him something important about the reality of how close the sacred and the secular really are. They are right there together. When Jacob wakes up, he realizes that God has been there all along, in the dust and the stones all around him. He realizes that it’s God who provides for him every day. And for someone who has been trying so hard his whole life to trick and plot his way into security, this is a serious epiphany.
Thin space only matters if it changes us. It changes Jacob; he leaves the pillar in memory of his experience, but also begins to give a tenth of all he has. The reality of God’s presence changes how he sees the world, and it changes what he does.
Will it change us? Will our thin places transform us, and make us more ourselves? Or will we simply leave them there, a remembrance of something we glimpsed once, long ago?
(After a time of silence we shared something we carry with us from our “thin spaces,” or hope that we will.)