“Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!’ […] 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”)…” — Genesis 28:16-19
“When everything that’s right feels wrong, and all of my belief feels gone, and the darkness in my heart is so strong, can you reach me here in the silence?” — “Jesus, I have my doubts,” Jon Foreman
Along with my wrestling matches with God, I share another similarity with the momma’s boy patriarch in Genesis: failing, just like all of us, to see the glory of the Lord all around me. To not realize until after that the Lord truly was in the place, whichever place, that I was in — whichever place I am in. I catch a fleeting sense that the Great I Am was with me — is with me — and yet it vanishes like vapor when I try to grasp it. As Elizabeth Browning said, “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every bush is aflame with the glory of God. But only those who see take off their shoes; the rest just pick the berries.”
Like the pessimist with the half-empty cup, we fail to see the sacredness all around us. A blooming flower has much to tell us about the lavishness of God, for even Solomon in all his glory could not match the beauty and wonder of a single flower (Matthew 6:29). In my cynicism, I see nothing but a lousy twig in my front yard; the neighboring kid, however, sees a Harry Potter wand. And day after day, I sit in my local Barnes & Noble café, ignorantly missing the sacredness of a coffee shop. I daydream of Narnia and Hogwarts with my Kindle and cold brew, procrastinating on whatever psych class I should be working on, forgetting that if I would simply look up from my small table I would notice a quaint café teeming with stories, some of which are full of mourning, some of which are full of laughing, and others a combination of both. I do not pretend to say that I have no need for fiction, for it is often fictional stories that draw me back into the Great Story I find myself in, the Story we all find ourselves in, and it is often fictional stories which keep me from adopting the cynicism, anger, and blind tribalism of the dominant culture. But I must say that it is possible to escape to the Epic of a novel and miss the sacredness that is present all around us. For if we do not allow the stories we love to open up our hearts to the mystery of life, then we will inevitably fall for the trap of numbness and blindness to the possibility of a new way of seeing and living.
There is a certain sadness, or grief, that I have found among “grown ups.” In an effort to “mature”, we forsake the very things that make us human. Our desire to be seen becomes our need to perform, our desire for love becomes our need for approval, and our longing to be known becomes our mastery of simply getting by with no true intimacy. We become the rich man in the story of him and Lazarus, locking ourselves within our own chasm of darkness as we wade within a hell of our own making. For in truth, all of us who are honest know of the dark nights of the soul; those days, or perhaps years even, when Gehenna feels more real than Zion.
And so we trek on with our days, laboring in vain and vanity as we lie to ourselves and the world that we are content east of Eden. But just like Paul, we all come to understand soon enough that it is hard to kick against the ox goads (Acts 26:14). And in his mercy God allows for us to trek on, wrestling with us through our pain, doubt, and darkness, until one early dawn morning at the Jabbok riverside we are too tired to fight on but too awake to let go, and God blesses us despite the angry tears in our eyes and the gnashing in our teeth. And as our heart breaks open, the abundant love of the Father flows in, and the broken pieces of our once stone heart fall on the ground as a memorial — an Ebenezer, as the Hebrews would say. And just like with what will one day happen with the world as a whole, we become a living example of redemption.
In our wrestling with God, we are invited to take the journey toward the crucified and risen King, inviting us to rediscover the beauty and wonder of He whose temple is creation. He is not made of wood, yet we nailed him to two pieces of it. He does not live in man-made temples, yet His spirit was made known in the great Temple of Solomon and is made known among the shabbiest altars of the most obscure corners of the earth. He is the One true God, the One all of us search for whether we know it or not, the One all of us are offspring of whether we know it or not. And this God causes the sun to shine on both the just and the unjust, whether they give a damn or not, whether they say his name or not.
It’s a paradox, isn’t it? In our very wondering away from God, we find ourselves being pursued by the love of God. Like those fools on the road to Emmaus, we find a companion for our doubts, which is to say we find a companion for the rawness of the human experience. For is not every day a whirlwind of life and death? As one of my professors likes to remind me, “God isn’t too big for your questions.” Indeed he is not. We are not denied a seat at the table; and when the bread is broken, perhaps we will realize that the still small presence that was with us had been Jesus all along. For even in our darkness our hearts long for He who is Light, for we know that the beauty and wonder that calls out to us has a name and has indeed named us. So call him Jesus or Yeshua or God or Divine Mystery or whatever you like, or nothing if you like, but do not forsake that voice that called out to you long ago, that indeed still calls out amidst the thunder and fire and the chaos and whatever the hell else tries to drown out the love of the One whose spirit hovers above the waters, the same today as he did in Genesis. For to know Him is to live, and to know Him is to know love, so in the words of the crusty old beach bum who’d later die on the island of Patmos, St. John, “God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16).
So let us not be afraid of the journey, for although Bilbo was right in that it is a dangerous business to walk out of one’s front door, it is perhaps more dangerous to stay inside, for to stay inside is to miss the sacredness all around us that we must open up to and walk out in to if we wish to take the adventure that has come upon us. And this adventure, echoed all throughout the Scriptures if we would dare to have the eyes to see, is the journey of everything being restored (Acts 3:21).
May we witness the sacredness of the coffee shop, of each other, of the poor man, of the rich man, of our enemies, of ourselves — for nothing and no one is too lost, and perhaps at the heart of the gospel is to become a child.