Sixty-one days ago now, not long after the world became such a dangerous place that the best way to love one another was to stay home and stay apart, I began missing the world and the people in it. It wasn’t that long ago, and it feels like an entire lifetime ago–back when we could not even imagine our lives without Sunday morning worship and coffee hour, school classes and senior proms, choir practice and nursing home visits, commencement ceremonies and class reunions, family get-togethers and vacations. Way back then, I was already missing you and all our shared times together.
And even before all that happened, I had been longing to travel to my happy place, which is any amazing place I have never been before.
But every day there was more sobering data about the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Every day there was another news report or government directive telling us to hunker down, shelter in place, and stay safe. Everything we heard and saw made it clear that our lives would be different, church would be different, the whole world would different–at least for a little while.
And so it was that 61 days ago I decided to start a new spiritual practice–disguised as a Facebook project. To try to stay connected to the wonder of God’s creation, to remind myself of all the good in the world, to remember to pray for the safety of people everywhere, I would post one photograph a day from my travels. Hashtag: Wonderful World. Today is #Wonderful World Day 61, and it seems my little project will continue for some time yet.
About a month ago, Nancy Spencer told me about a much better and bigger Facebook project: a group called View from My Window. The premise is simple: With people all over the world confined to their homes because of the coronavirus, create a way for them to connect with each other, and shrink the distances between countries and classes, races, and religions.
The methodology is more simple still: Have these people post photographs of the views from their homes, the places from which they see the world, the places they have not been able to leave because of the pandemic. Have them say little more than where and when the photo was taken.
To say that this group caught on quickly is an understatement; at last count it had some 2.3 million members. Some of the photographs are stunning, while others reveal more uninspiring or even mundane vistas. The point is that no matter how disconnected we may feel from one another and the larger world, no matter how far away we are or how varied our environments are, we are all living through this pandemic together, and we will get through it, together.
Sometimes people offer words of explanation or encouragement to go along with the photos of their view; sometimes they comment on someone else’s photos and share where they are from. Most often they say something like this: "I had no idea the world was so beautiful."
I had no idea the world was so beautiful.
Now this isn’t exactly what Jacob said after awakening from a most wondrous dream, but it’s pretty close:
God is in this place, and I had no idea! It is awesome! This place, this little patch of dirt where I laid my head on a rock, is none other than the house of God. And this is the gate of heaven!
As you may recall, Jacob, the younger son of Isaac and Rebekah (Isaac being the miracle child of Abraham and Sarah), had not been ordered to shelter in place. Jacob was not trying to get away from a dangerous world. No, Jacob was running from a mess of his own making. He had deceived his dying father and stolen his twin brother’s inheritance. What Jacob had done was so horrible that his own mother told him to run for the hills before his brother killed him.
And then Jacob was in isolation, but due to circumstances he had created. He was not sheltering in place, but running for his life. And rather than hunkering down in familiar surroundings with his best beloveds, he was all alone in the middle of nowhere.
And still–still!–God came to him in a dream.
There was a ladder in Jacob’s dream, a ladder that was set up on the ground beside him and extended way up, up high into the heavens, farther than he could see. And on the ladder were angels, coming down to earth from heaven and going up to heaven from the earth. Climbing and descending, going up and coming down, a constant parade of heavenly hosts, a holy thread connecting the human–even a conniving, greedy, home-wrecking human like Jacob–to the divine.
And then, just as Jacob’s unconscious mind was beginning to make some sense of that, the dream continued–and suddenly God was standing right beside him.
Now, the conscious mind might have expected God to give Jacob a serious talking to. Our rational minds might want God to punish Jacob.
But in this dream, a dream for Jacob’s rock-bottom moment and for ours, that is not what happens. In this dream, a dream for Jacob’s scary time and for ours, that is not what happens at all.
Hear what God says to Jacob in this dream:
I am the Holy One, the God of your ancestors, the God of all your people, and also your God. I know things look pretty bad for you right now, but I want you to know that I am with you. Not only that, but I will always be with you, no matter what. I will bless you and keep you, and I will stay with you until every promise I have made to you–promises of a future with hope, promises of a land and a family, promises of a legacy–has been fulfilled.
Now, if you have any doubt about our primal need to know this fundamental promise of Presence–that God is with us and for us, now and always–let me tell you another story:
Seven years ago now, on one of our first youth and family retreats at Craigville, we focused on this story. We acted it out, we built a pillar of rocks and poured oil on it, and we talked about angels and awesomeness and that pretty spectacular promise from God.
Still, you never know what will take with kids, what will sink in and what will provoke the dreaded eye roll.
On that Sunday morning, when we gathered on the beach for our closing worship service, the children were not exactly engaged. The sand was warm, the sun was shining, the waves were rolling in, and they were busy with shovels and buckets, some of them sitting with their backs to me.
But when I asked the kids what God had told Jacob in his dream, 8-year-old Brendon Tolles, still facing the opposite direction and playing in the sand, did not miss a beat. In a voice clear and strong and sure, he said:
"I am with you and I will be with you wherever go. I will bring you back home and will stay with you until I keep all my promises."
I don’t think I was the only adult who was stunned by Brendon’s almost word-for-word recitation of scripture. I don’t think I was the only one moved to tears by having a child speak the truth we all long to hear, no matter what our age, no matter what our situation:
I am your God, and I love you. I am with you now and I will stay with you always.
It is one thing to work in our isolation to remember that there is a wonderful world out there, that we live in a world made of gifts and grace, and that even now we are still connected to it.
But perhaps our present situation offers us even more: The awareness that wherever we are is the house of God, the gate of heaven. The grounding truth that God is with us now and forever and always because, if we allow it, our own hearts can become the house of God, the gate of heaven.
We could do much worse than to come out of our pandemic isolation newly aware that God is in this place, wherever we are; that God is in our hearts, however they are; and that God’s love for us, alive in us and living in and through us, truly is the gate of heaven.
May it be so.