Jacob is on the run, crossing border after border, fleeing from his brother who has threatened to kill him. The sun has set. His feet ache. He has to rest. So he finds a rock for a pillow and falls asleep. And he dreams.
There’s a ladder reaching from ground beside him into heaven, and angels climbing up and down, ascending and descending, from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. Jacob calls the place “Bethel,” a name that means “the house of God,” because he dreams of earth and heaven in communion, an earthly gateway into the divine.
“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16).
We dream like Jacob does, hoping for God to be in this place, here among us. That’s why we worship together, in this house of God, praying for gateways into heaven, a ladder reaching God to us and us to God. We pray and sing, we read from the Bible and share from our lives—all because somehow we’ve stumbled into God’s presence, here, and so we come back, led by our dreams.
Although, there’s an ambiguity to this story about Jacob’s ladder, because it all takes place in a dream. The scene is foggy. Words are hazy. God is cloudy. Jacob is in a stupor, his mind exhausted with worry and his body fatigued from his escape. The reassurances of God are shrouded in a mist. All Jacob has is what he sees and hears in a dream, promises that seem clear while sleeping but blurry after waking up. What does it mean to trust your life to a dream?
Dreams break into our world; they interrupt our lives—like what happens to Jacob as he flees, the surprise of a vision while he’s on his way. A dream reaches into our lives and opens up realities we haven’t noticed before, exposing to us what we’ve forgotten or ignored. Dreams don’t have to be illusions, fantasies of distraction, shielding us from the realities of our world.
Instead, they are invitations to live according to another vision, according to a different future. A dream can redirect our lives, repositioning us, shifting our attention, guiding our eyes to places we may be surprised by God, surprised by unexpected possibilities. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” Jacob says, “and I didn’t even know it.” An unexpected God. [i]
Jacob says that he’s sure, he’s so confident about God that he makes a vow—the first vow recorded in Scripture: “Then Jacob made a vow,” it says (28:20). But as soon as he starts to speak his vow, you can hear the ambiguity slip in—all the wonderings, all the uncertainty about reassurances offered in dreams. He starts his vow with an “if,” he makes conditions: “If God will be with me… then the Lord shall be my God” (28:20-21). If God does this, then I’ll do this, Jacob says.
There’s a struggle here, a wrestling, a striving with God—a wavering promise, a hesitant bond, a risky commitment. Jacob’s dream isn’t a prediction; it’s not a guarantee. Instead, it’s a call to hope, an invitation into the struggle of hope, to work for hope.
A dream is a prophecy that strengths us for the summons of God—not to wait around for God to do what God does, but to work out our hope, to give our lives for hope, to a reality different than the one before us, to live into a dream of heaven in communion with earth, the surprise of another world breaking into this one, remaking the present and remapping our future.
I had this story about Jacob in my mind this past Friday, when I went to a prayer vigil for José Chicas, an undocumented resident who was issued deportation orders last month. The Immigration and Custom Enforcement office told him to have his wife drop him off at the RDU airport, where a federal agent would escort him to an airplane and accompany him on a flight to El Salvador—a place José fled more than thirty years ago, back in the 1980s, when the United States was funding a civil war in his country.
He crossed border and after border, fleeing for his life as a refugee from war, and he found a home here in North Carolina, a place where he heard a call from God, a dream to become a preacher. He now pastors a church in Raleigh, Iglesia Jesucristo es el Pan de Vida—Jesus Christ is the bread of life.
I met members of his church at the vigil, all of us gathered in the parking lot of St John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Durham. Pastor Chicas had sought sanctuary there, in the School for Conversion house on the property, where he has lived for most of this month, because immigration agents have been asked not to invade religious communities. The house has become his sanctuary from deportation.
On Friday, there on the hot asphalt, we circled around José and his family. We sang and we prayed our support, asking God to protect him, to restore him to his community here in North Carolina—We prayed for miracles, begging for mercy.
And in that circle, I found myself thinking about what Jacob said when he woke up from his dream: “Surely the Lord is in the place—and I didn’t know it.” But I thought of those words as more of a question, or more like a prayer, a hope, a dream for a ladder to appear from a cloud, with angels ascending and descending, for God to set our world free from border walls and violent legislation and immigration police.
“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” God says to Jacob in his dream, “and I will bring you back to this land”—that’s what I found myself hoping for pastor José, those words of restoration, for him to be back with his community, here, in this land.
Earlier I pointed out that Jacob falters when he makes his vow, how he starts off by saying “If”—making conditions for his commitment to God. “If God will be with me.” But if we follow his words, we notice a shift at the end, in the last sentence, in the very last words of verse 22. Jacob shifts from talking about God to talking with God—from talking about whether God will do this and that, to addressing God directly, with the word you: “and all that you give me,” Jacob says, “I will surely give one-tenth to you.” God becomes a “you” for Jacob.
That’s what faith sounds like—when something happens in us, and we find ourselves somehow speaking to a figure we thought we remembered from a dream, to call out to that presence, and to call God, “You”—like the Psalmist in our passage, “You have searched me and known me” (Psalm 139:1).
Faith means dreaming heaven on earth, waiting for the one who searches for us in the wilderness and parking lots, the one who knows us and loves us, who rests upon us in a fog.
[i] By “dreams” I mean what José Esteban Muñoz’s describes as “utopia” in his book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009): e.g., “Utopia is not prescriptive; it renders potential blueprints of a world not quite here, a horizon of possibility, not a fixed schema” (97); “Utopia is an idealist mode of critique that reminds us that that is something missing, that the present and presence (and its opposite number, absence) is not enough” (100); “Utopia is in fact a casting of a picture of potentiality and possibility” (125).