Our dreams tell us volumes about who we are. I don’t mean the dramas unfolded by our unconscious mind while we sleep. Instead, I have in mind what motivational speakers and graduation keynoters call our dreams.
They tell us to pursue our dreams. Life without a dream is empty, they say.
What they mean by “dream” gives us an insight into what we take life to be. And it’s killing us.
In these cases, “dream” is a synonym for “aspiration.” We are taught again and again to set our sights high.
It is true. God wants us to have a bold vision for our lives. His concern for us is never that we shoot too high. We repeatedly frustrate him by shooting too low.
Ironically, it is our so-called dreams that lead us to shoot depressingly low. That’s because so many of us dream of ladders. We dream of ladders that we must climb.
Underlying all of these dreams is that we are not enough. We are somehow empty and yearn to be filled. We fancy that when we get to the top of that ladder we will finally be somebody, complete, fulfilled.
For many of us that ladder is a career ladder. Each rung of the ladder is another achievement. We hope that if we achieve enough, we’ll reach the top and we’ll never have to climb again.
Mostly we find that there is always another rung, even if the next rung is just a step down. The longing we feel cannot be satisfied by any of our career achievements. That’s because we long for God.
But even among those who long for God, ladders sometimes figure prominently in our dreams.
We assume that there is a ladder of virtue or wisdom or spiritual maturity to climb. The religious rungs we climb are achievements no less than those rungs of the career ladder; only in this instance those rungs represent moral or spiritual achievements.
Climbing the religious achievement ladder to God leaves us no less bereft than the career ladder. The top remains infinitely out of sight and the bottom never seems very far down.
The ladder from earth to heaven, from our fractured and small lives to the infinite significance for which we yearn, is too high for us to ascend. And that is why God descends it.
Jacob dreamt of a ladder long ago. He was a man much like many of us. There was an emptiness deep within him. Maybe because his father Isaac preferred his elder brother Esau. Maybe because the social system of the day favored the eldest in matters of inheritance. Who knows!
But Jacob spent his early years conniving and grabbing to fill a hole in his soul that seemed only to grow larger and larger.
He stole his brother’s birthright thinking that the inheritance would make him whole. He sold himself into indentured servitude for seven years to get the stunning Rachel as his own. Convinced that she was the one that would finally make him at home in his own skin.
None of this worked out as planned.
After Jacob stole his brother Esau’s blessing he had to flee. Esau was furious and intended to kill Jacob. On the road to his uncle Laban’s estate (where he would first lay eyes on the lovely Rachel), Jacob had a dream. A dream about a ladder. (Genesis 28:10-19)
God’s angels were ascending and descending it. The Lord himself stood next to him. At the base of the ladder. God said,
“I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, 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.” (Genesis 28:13-15)
In other words, here’s the blessing you’re really yearning for. Not just the stuff I can give you. But me. Your God.
Jacob didn’t get it. He woke from the dream and figured that he had stumbled upon some remarkably holy place, a kind of divine stargate. It doesn’t dawn on him that the place was holy because God was there, and that God chose to be there to be with Jacob.
In Jesus Christ God himself descended to redeem us. And his Holy Spirit dwells in us even now. God is with us and among us. He does not wait for us to ascend to him.
But I can’t say that we can blame Jacob. I can’t. How often do I still worry that my parenting or my work as a pastor or my devotion to my spouse or my prayer life don’t measure up.
Less often, I hope, than I used to do. But I need reminding. Again and again. And thanks be to God, he never tires of descending to wherever he can find me.
(The image above is Marc Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder, one of many he did on the subject.)