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)
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 . . .
. . . and so I dream of heaven on earth.
Last week, as a hospice volunteer, I visited a patient. Let’s call him Jack, a simple name for a simple guy in his mid-80s, in the final months of a battle with cancer. He’s tired. I am there so he wife can run errands. He speaks of his love and trust in God, of being saved by Jesus as a young man. Heaven as a place is never mentioned. But then Jack recalls the home health aide who bathed him earlier in the morning. He’s enthused and animated as he tells his story. Another person made him feel safe and clean and refreshed; made him feel fully human. Jack raved about the young man who stood in a shower with him, and helped him be, well . . . himself. I believe Jack described heaven. Or heaven as best as I can feebly understand it.
Heaven as hope. Heaven as safe. Heaven as mercy. With a heavenly feeling, we dare to imagine God’s blessings will never leave us.
When Jacob awoke in the spot he’ll call Bethel—God’s dwelling place—his life of deceit and regret is far from over. He’ll make more mistakes. There’s a long road to walk before redemption. But this most interesting man has dreamed a dream that won’t let him go, will forever remind him he’s linked to heaven, and that God sought him out to give blessing.
I have experienced the dream of heaven. People have forgiven me when I didn’t think I deserved it. People have held my hand in the worst of times when all seemed lost. The Holy whispered blessings in spite of fears and failings.
Jack, the hospice patient, speaks about God’s love, of his trust in the One who has been with him since birth. I smile as Jack remembers his shower. How great it felt, as if both sides of the pillow were always cool! And I wonder, wasn’t that aide angelic, descending a ladder, linking the dream of heaven with the reality of helping another feel clean and whole and blessed?