A Pillow Cool On Both Sides

Since 2006, Dos Equis beer has run an ad campaign about “the most interesting man in the world.” The so-called most interesting man does and says things equal parts extraordinary, useless and foolish.

One of the comments I enjoy, done in a voiceover, sonorously announces, “Both sides of his pillow are cool.” How silly. But I also think: that’s my quest on a hot summer night. Please, a decent sleeping temperature and a cool pillow and life will be good. I will have, as I restfully slumber, a hint of heaven.

The 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for July 17, 2011

“And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Genesis 28:17)

Ah. Heaven.

I’ve been considering heaven because of Jacob, one of the most interesting men in the Bible. He’s the one after “and” in the great trinity of the Jewish fathers of faith: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As believers and readers, we follow his complicated, engaging story from womb (where he battled brother Esau) to the grave (where his battles finally end and he desires to be buried by his father and grandfather). Jacob the battler was also a liar, doubter, believer and schemer. One who sought the Holy and yet so often seemed more concerned with raising holy hell.

Jacob also gave us a dream of heaven, one I memorized as a kid in Sunday school. Then, where mostly we talked about how Jesus loved the little children, Old Testament references were minimal and sanitized. None of my Sunday morning teachers mentioned Jacob’s less-than-redeeming features. They were ignored or glossed over. But the ladder to heaven tale, well, that was interesting! Remarkable. Memorable. Kid friendly!

As a kid, I didn’t know the Jacob of Genesis 28 was—again—on the lam. Now I know the Bible never ignored the awkward truth of “and Jacob,” for he was escaping his brother’s wrath when he settled down for the night and used a rock for a pillow. On that night, this “most interesting man” probably wasn’t concerned about his pillow being cool on both sides. How could he not lie awake, troubled by those primal feelings of regret about the past and a longing for a better future? How could sleep, true rest, ever come?

And yet it does. He dreams. Angels ascend and descend on a ladder between heaven and earth. The Lord arrives in this dreamy night, sidling up to the ne’er-do-well grandson of the father of three faiths, to vow—once again—Jacob will be blessed, will birth a people and nation, and will always have God by his side.

The dream ends. But doesn’t the ladder stay? Isn’t there for Jacob, and all who would follow, a sense of connection to God’s promise of blessing, to God’s longing for us to believe the Holy will always be by our side? Jacob’s story is not about a man who sought a place called heaven, or even searched for God “above” or “below.” Instead, unexpectedly, as surprising as a rock aiding sleep, or a pillow cool on both sides, heaven-as-hope is revealed to him within the best of dreams: God, always present, believes in us.

As an adult, I don’t think (or believe) of heaven as a place I can define with words or impose my version of a divine address on its description, but I revel in daring to believe it’s all around me. In the Realm of Heaven Jesus referred to, heavenly moments are gifts where we are in communion with others. If there be a metaphoric ladder, the rungs are named forgiveness and compassion and radical hospitality and . . . Continue reading →

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M is for . . .


As a United Methodist I’m influenced by John Wesley’s quadrilateral. Ah-oh, that’s a fancy faith-muttering kind of word. But it’s inspired by Methodist founder Wesley’s belief that faith is discerned by four “tests”: scripture (always #1), tradition, reason, and experience. Most Methodists I know appreciate the open-mindedness this four-legged stand on faith encourages. I certainly do. After all, it affirms that my experiences with God, with Creation and Christ, may be different from yours, but should be honored. Listened to. Considered.

Here’s the toughie, though. As always, it works both ways. Arrggh! How hard it can be to realize another’s interpretation of scripture or another’s personal experience may be dramatically different than mine. Wouldn’t living out our faith be easier if you could easily identify who’s right (people that agree with me) and who’s wrong (people that don’t agree with me). Alas, faith is not easy, nor easily categorized. At least that’s been my personal experience.

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At this point in the summer, the tomatoes thrive in our small raised-bed garden. Not the cilantro. To use Matthew 13:6’s language, my once luscious, tasty herb appears “scorched” and “withered away.”

The 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for July 10, 2011

“But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away…” (Matthew 13:6)

Echoing the agrarian concerns of Matthew 13, was the cilantro’s demise because of:

Farewell, good Cilantro
  • Birds eating the tender leaves?
  • Rocky ground preventing healthy growth?
  • Each day’s scorching sun (an issue here in California’s Central Valley)?
  • The presence of thorns?

No times four. My wife, after observing the cilantro’s failure, simply stated, “Snails.” Drats. Helix aspersa, or as the French might exclaim, escargot! Indeed, many of the “common” snails lurking in my garden have ancestors brought over from Europe during the mid-1800s. They hit American soil and did what any self-respecting Helix aspersa would do: endlessly, relentlessly breed.

Why didn’t Jesus mention snails as a danger to a sower’s future seeds? Easy answer: wrong climate. Snails weren’t a local threat for first century Palestinian farmers. For example, in the Bible thorns are mentioned at least 50 times. What about the snail count? Twice (Leviticus 11:30 and Psalm 58:8). And most scholars—yeah, if it’s in the Bible, even snails receive a scholarly, theologically-inclined analysis—would argue the Leviticus reference is really about a specific sand lizard. Lizards and thorns do well in the dry, desert climate. Not so much a snail.

My wife is right. Snails slimed us.

“Why didn’t they go after the tomatoes?” I asked.

My wife shrugged. “Who knows?”

Not surprisingly, a percentage of Jesus’ parables are farm fresh and garden ready. Many in Jesus’ day were directly linked to the earth: farmers, bread-bakers, potters, shepherds and so forth. Everyone knew the risks of sowing, nurturing and harvesting. Birds swooped down and plucked seeds. The sower, distributing his or her future food across the ground, would inevitably hurl some into rocky, thin-soiled spots. Therefore, when Jesus warned about birds and thorns and poor soil, his audience nodded. It had all happened to them.

Grow, fair tomato

And yet he wasn’t only talking about the first-century farmer scattering seeds or the twenty-first century suburbanite tending cilantro in a raised-bed garden.

This agrarian story invites us to look at the growth of our faith.

My faith.

However, as with a sower in Jesus’ original audience, I could comfortably dismiss this story by rationalizing Jesus told it so people—others, them, those new or old or unfamiliar ones—would understand the “big picture” of faith. Some people get God, some don’t. Some people understand loving your neighbor, some don’t. First or twenty-first century, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink it. Folks come, or don’t come, to your church, and some of ‘em don’t stay. But it’s not my fault. They were thorny or bird-brained people, after all. Not like…me. Continue reading →

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