Thursday, September 5, 2013

God of Wanderers and Wilderness

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 
There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac... I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." 
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." – Genesis 28

At this point in his life, Jacob is headed backwards. God had called his grandfather Abraham to Beersheba (a land of water, wells, leisure, and peace) from Haran (“parched”), one of the two ancient capitals the Mesopotamians had dedicated to their Moon god. 

Between Beersheba and Haran, Jacob settles down for a cold, lonely night beneath the light of the very moon his grandfather left behind. 

While Jacob is in the desert between Beersheba and Haran, God meets him.

Jacob did not expect this. Most of the ancient world thought God was present only at designated holy places, and this was certainly not one of them. On the other hand, Abraham, his grandpa, seemed to moved from holy place to holy place:  From Shechem to the oak of Moreh (Genesis 12:6);  to Bethel, “God’s House”(Genesis 12:8); to the sacred oaks of Mamre by Hebron (Genesis 13:8). 

Jacob's in the desert, heading away from a life of promise and heading back to a land of despair. He's not even trying anymore. He was not expecting to be anywhere holy, and yet… "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it…this is the gate of heaven."

We are constantly moving between our own versions of Beersheba and Haran, between peace and despair, hope and horror.  The wilderness is not unfamiliar to us. 

I’m alone, Lord,
A thousand miles from home.
There’s no one here who knows my name
Except the clerk,
And he spelled it wrong.
No one to eat dinner with,
Laugh at my jokes,
Listen to my gripes
Be happy with me about what happened today
And say that’s great.
No one cares.
There’s just this lousy bed
And slush in the street outside
Between the buildings.
I feel sorry for myself
And I’ve plenty of reason to.
Maybe I ought to say
I’m on top of it,
Praise the Lord,
Things are great;
But they’re not.
It’s all
Gray slush.*            

And, like Jacob, we forget that God is in every place, not just the ones that feel good. We veer toward Haran, pulling up rocks for pillows and letting the world go by. But God is present where we do not expect him: with us, the lonely people, wandering in the middle of nowhere and heading in the wrong direction. 

*       Joseph Byly, “A Psalm in a Hotel Room,” from Psalms of My Life.

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