The Spiritual Discipline of Waking Up
And so we have begun our Lenten journey together. We will be walking through these longer spring days and allowing the light to lead us. Historically, the early church fathers called people to fast during the Lenten season, giving up one’s portion of meat or fish to give to the poor. It was a way to remember the generosity of Christ’s all-inclusive love and care for those in need, but somehow throughout the centuries the focus was more on the fast and the idea of self-sacrifice. The focus was on deprivation and not on grace. This is a shame, I believe, for I don’t believe God wants any of us to suffer, just as I don’t believe he wanted his own son to suffer on the cross. Instead, I believe that those who first adopted the practice of Lent in about the 4th century had it right. Let’s choose to do something in these six weeks that helps those in need, or let’s choose to do something that calls us into deeper discipleship. Rather than simply refraining from something which we know in our heart of hearts we will simply revert to doing again in six weeks, thankful that the six weeks is over, let’s add a new dimension to this Lenten season and grow into our faith in ways that shape us for the journey throughout the rest of life.
During the next six weeks of Lent I invite you on a journey of finding the sacred in the ordinary, of allowing yourself to be drawn deeper into your faith, of recognizing that our faith is a deep pool of grace that we have the chance to dive into in each moment. During the next six weeks of Lent we will be exploring scriptural examples of holy disciplines, and the thoughts of homiletics professor and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Altars in the World, which is what we will be studying in our Tuesday evening Lenten book group as well. We will explore all sorts of spiritual disciplines—some as simple as walking, connecting with nature, and observing Sabbath and some as messy as being part of community, physical labor, and finding vocation. And it is my fervent prayer that our Lenten season may be one not of depravation, but one of growth and focus. And so it only seems right that we begin this morning with the first discipline, that of waking up to the sacred in our midst.
This morning’s scripture is jam packed with juicy details and strange nocturnal imaginings. The main character of the story, Jacob was still a young man. And as we pick up the story in the twenty-eight chapter of Genesis he had just left Beer Sheba, on the run because his “whole screwy family had finally imploded.” (Taylor, p 2). Jacob’s father was a classic Hospice candidate, dying a slow death, and hungry to pass his wisdom and blessing on to his sons so that he could die in peace. But, Jacob had colluded with his mother to steal the birthright and blessing from his twin brother, Esau. And as sometimes happens in deeply dysfunctional families, Esau had flown into a rage and Jacob quickly realized that there was no way for him to keep his life and remain with his family of origin. Jacob really was sort of a scoundrel at this point; he hadn’t exactly been honest and upright in the whole inheritance thing. But, he is not the first person, nor will he be the last who falls short of God’s hopes and then is still called by God. It is refreshing, actually, that those of us who have made mistakes have Jacob as a model. For if rascally Jacob can find the divine, than surely we can as well.
Jacob’s advance into the wilderness and away from the wrath of his brother led him into a desolate place, and as it was dark and there was no where else for him to go, he made a bed under the night sky with only a stone for a pillow. And that’s when the dreaming began—the dream of the angels traveling up and down the ladder. But perhaps more than this bizarre image was the power of the words which were spoken, the words of God saying, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Even scoundrels like Jacob are not abandoned by God.
But the story continues. Ushered in to the holy of a dream, Jacob chooses to trust that the vision was from God. It would have been easy to write off those angels traveling up and down that ladder as the remnants of that funky left over beef jerky the night before, or to discount the dream as the wild nighttime ramblings of a busy mind. But Jacob wakes a believer. And more, commemorates his revelation by creating a stone pillar and pouring precious, expensive oil on it and declaring it a holy place.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way, “Even if Jacob could never find the exact place where the feet of that heavenly ladder came to earth—even if he could never find a single angel footprint in the sand—his life was changed for good. Having woken up to God, he would never be able to go back to sleep again.” (Taylor, p. 4).
And so I believe our first Lenten discipline must be to wake up to God, to wake up to the divine which lurks all around us. Too often in our world we have demarked the sacred and the profane. We draw a line in the sand between what can be holy—church, well-behaved children, butterflies, rainbows, teaching the world to sing and what we would see as mundane—a common streetcorner, a piece of trash blowing next to the highway, the woman in front of us in line at Walmart. By creating the designations in our heads, the labels of where we plan to see or not see God, we but on spiritual blinders and we forget to look for evidence of our creator. There are ways that our ideas and definitions of what is sacred keep us from holding God’s creation at arm’s length.
Throughout scripture we see God show up in any number of guises…God is found under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the top of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes and perfect strangers, (Taylor, p 13) and so who are we to define where God would and wouldn’t be now?
When I turned thirty-four, and after Robert and I had been married for three years, the yearning for me to have a baby was palpable. I mistakenly assumed that now that the time was right for me to conceive, that now that our universe was at rights, that it would be a simple process to have a child. I was wrong. I was heartbreakingly wrong. And month after month would pass with mourning, and rage, and a sense of loss I could barely contain. We did the round of doctors visits, and met with fertility folks, and investigated reproductive technology options. And after two years of trying, I was miserable. One day during that time, I wandered into a little store on my lunch hour and found a basket full of stones with the word “hope” etched on them. I practically snarled in derision and anger, the irony of that word an insult to my raging sense of injustice, but I still bought all eight of them. And then I found myself putting them everywhere that I could see them. By my phone at work, on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, next to my bed where they would be the first thing for me to see in the morning. It was the only way that I could hold my prayer and my intention tangibly. The only way that I could wake myself up to the reality that there was a world of sacred hope that was still beckoning me. I could not control the outcome of our infertililty. And I could not make a baby magically appear in our lives. But, I could remind myself to rest in hope, and I could remind myself that God was hoping along with me. By placing those stones in my daily path, I was, unintentionally, creating my own sacred altars. Crying out to a God who promises us that all will be well, and that we are not abandoned, whatever the outcome, whatever the path.
Barbara Brown Taylor talks of her own waking up in this way, “I can set a little altar in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome that place is. I can flag one more gate to heaven—one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it—where the divine traffic is heavy when I notice it and even when I do not. I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on to where I am due next.”
This morning during the final hymn I will be wandering among you passing out smooth stones, smooth stones to create altars of your own. Altars to place somewhere in your home, or to carry with you and rub your fingers across. Altars which are meant to draw your intention to God’s presence. When you see these stones, remember the sacredness of the one who told Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Use these stones as reminders, lest you forget, that God promises the same to us. In short, allow these stones to invite you to wake up!
I want to close this morning with a poem by the Persian poet, Rumi.
The breeze of dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
On this first step in our Lenten journey may we walk with intention across that threshold where we meet our God, and may we know that “the earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” (Taylor, p 15).
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Harper One Press, 2009.