Saturday, July 22, 2017


            God’s Forgotten Language is the title that Episcopal priest and Jungian psychotherapist John Sanford gave to a book he authored several decades ago. I discovered it around 1980, long before I spent nearly three years in Jungian analysis. During that period of time I would record my dreams as soon as I could after waking. You get really good at remembering your dreams after you establish a discipline of recording them before they slither snakelike down a bottomless hole  I would go to see my analyst once a week with sometimes a sheaf of paper on which I had scratched out the contours of almost as many as two dozen dreams of varying lengths. We would select one or two that seemed to me the most puzzling or interesting or compelling and we would focus on what those dreams were telling me. 

            In that whole experience I came to appreciate Sanford’s title as well as the book that bore it. I came to see that deep down in the recesses of my unconscious mind Truth was walking to and fro. Truth communicates itself to us in various ways, through symbol, ritual, relationships, experience, but none more powerful than dreams. Some of you will tell me that you don’t dream. Perhaps not, but my experience is that there is a difference between not dreaming and not remembering one’s dreams. When the soul is especially restless to grow, or seeking peace, or trying to find balance, dreams tend to come bringing messages to the conscious mind through symbols. And since it is Truth that is speaking—for your dreams won’t lie to you—it is fair to call Truth by one of its other names: God. 

José de Ribera, "El Sueño de Jacob," 1639
            Jacob dreams his famous dream of a ladder bridging earth and heaven when he is at a turning point in his life.  He is on the run having lied to his father, and having cheated both father and brother through tricking the old man into blessing him instead of his elder twin brother. This is not the kind of mess that we commonly suppose produces the stuff of deep spiritual experience. Which goes to show how mistaken we can be about what “spiritual” experience really is. There are several details in the story that hint at what the story is about. First, he comes to a place at sundown, takes a stone and uses it for a pillow. I suppose that isn’t so strange, given the number of stones in the Holy Land, though I cannot but wonder why that little detail was preserved in the story. Hold on to it for a little while and we’ll come back to that. Then comes the dream. There is a ladder in the dream that reaches from earth to heaven.  On it angels are ascending and descending. If you think for a minute, I suspect you might agree that if you or I were telling the story, we might say it the other way around. Angels are heavenly beings to most of us, and it would be natural to imagine them first descending to earth and then ascending again to heaven. But that isn’t what the story says. The angels ascend and descend.  Hold on to that detail as well. Finally the Lord God in his dream stands beside Jacob. Not face-to-face, not over him, but beside him. 

            It is easy to be caught up in the substance of the message that Yahweh delivers, the essence of the promise to the patriarchs. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.  I will not leave you till I have done for you what I have promised.” To be sure, that is not incidental to the story. But first, look at these little details, beginning with the stone. I have never used a stone for a pillow because I have always had softer choices. But whatever else a stone is, it is of the very earth itself. This is not the only place that stone figures into the story, for at the very end we see Jacob taking it, setting it upright as a pillar, and anointing it, in effect marking it as holy.  So there is a connection between the stone, the dream, and the holy. What might that mean?  Jacob seems to think, waking from his astonishing dream and its revelation of divine purpose, that there is something divine about the place itself. “This is the house of God, the very gate of heaven.” There are such places. Perhaps you have been to one or more. We tend to speak in contemporary language of how there is a certain “energy” in such a place. Maybe that is our way of saying what Jacob recognizes as well and articulates it in his own vocabulary:  “House of God, gate of heaven.” The earth is filled with the Presence of the Maker, not just human beings, and not just other sentient creatures, but the trees, the clouds, the weeds, and even the rocks and stones. Every electron encircling a nucleus of an atom bears the stamp of its creator.  The stone that Jacob uses for a pillow is, like his own body, charged. It might not have been hyperbole that caused Jesus to say at one point, “If these [disciples and crowds] are silenced, even the stones will cry out.” If you think that everything in the universe does not have some ultimate worth and is therefore worthy to be cared for, think again. Sometimes stones become pillows and the heads they support dream weird and magical dreams.

            And in Jacob’s dream, angels first ascend. What does this mean? Jacob is on a journey of transformation, though he does not know it. His whole life will be an amazing learning experience born of love, rivalry, reconciliation, wounding, grief, and profound joy. And his, like all journeys of transformation, begins at home on the earth and in the earth. Like everything else in every dream, the angels, the ladder, all are parts of Jacob’s soul, projected, as it were, onto a screen for him to view. What Jacob sees is the truth that the way up is the way down and vice versa. Going deeply into bodily life is the path of the soul. The soul loves the body, its senses, the delight of good food, the warmth of a fire, the pleasure of music, the ecstasy of erotic energy. Ascending to the heights where we can view all as One is the path of the spirit. They complement each other.

Angel at Dusk

Then God stands beside Jacob. This is a great and lovely insight. Long before there is anything remotely like a story of Jesus or a theology of incarnation, this old story grasps the truth that God is on our side. God takes a place alongside every Jacob and Rachel and Leah, not over against them. Many people have trouble with God essentially because, whether or not they “believe in” God, they think that the whole notion of God is that God is fundamentally a spoil-sport that really is out to get human beings, ready to strike or punish, and ultimately must be bought off with religious actions or sacrifices in order finally to accept human beings. In other words, God is a punitive parent either to be feared and placated, or to be mocked and dismissed as useless or unreal. Notice that God is ready to empty all measure of blessing on Jacob, even though Jacob has arrogated to himself every means of acquiring that blessing as if it all depended upon him and his wits. No, God is at our side, says the dream. And there is no bottom to God’s blessing, even for thieves on the run.          
            God’s forgotten language, that is dreams, is forgotten for at least two reasons. First, because we generally don’t pay much attention to dreams and frequently imagine that they are unimportant compared to the everyday projects we have of working, earning a living, raising kids, and so forth. Second, dreams are in most ways the exact opposite of rational thought. Dreams don’t know logic. They don’t know common sense. They don’t shrink to fit our ready-made categories. They speak of things we wouldn’t think of uttering in public. They catch our attention and then trick and confuse us. If Sanford is right that this is the primary language in which God communicates to us, then that says something amazing about God. God smashes our small thought patterns, wrecks the assumptions of our egos, rearranges our values, and leaves us with far more questions than answers. Most religion and most of its adherents imagine that God is full of certainties and is interested mainly in managing human beings, not freeing them. 

            Jacob when we meet him at the place of the dream is not a mature individual. He has much to learn and much to suffer. But he gets the point rather quickly. He recognizes that he is on holy ground. The ground is not holy because of the stone. It is holy because the Holy One has spoken in the dream. 

            Sarah Flower Adams took this story and used its imagery to shape her well-known and much loved hymn, “Nearer, my God, to thee.” Adams, a Unitarian, penned a poem as full as any of Christian conviction:

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee.
Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee.
William Blake, "Jacob's Dream," pen and ink, ca. 1800
Is it possible to see that it is not just our personal woes and griefs, but the great mass of human disappointments and failures, all symbolized by Jacob’s own trickery and deceit, that become a pillar marking the fact that straight through the pile of sin and stinking shame the Holy One has walked? Can we imagine the Holy One anointing those stony hearts of ours with the oil of great joy and gladness and healing them? Might we awake from some of our own dreams, even nightmares, and arise to offer thanks for the Grace that takes our breath away and leaves us startled, saying, “Surely the Presence of the Lord was in this place and I didn’t even know it”?
            There is a passage near the beginning of the Fourth Gospel in which Jesus says to Nathaniel, whom he calls to join him in discipleship, “Do you believe me because I said I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” So it is not just Jacob’s dream after all. It is God’s dream, a dream shared with the likes of Nathaniel and Joan and Becky and Zach and Sean. God’s language doesn’t know national borders or ethnic divisions. God’s language is the Word that speaks out of the depths of our souls, no matter who we are. And the message is still the same: “Know that I will be with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
A sermon based on Genesis 28:10-19a
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017


Friday, July 14, 2017

Letting Go

In The Fantasticks, El Gallo says, "There is a curious paradox that no one can explain: who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain? Who understands why spring is born out of winter's laboring pain, or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?"
Life has but one central problem: the need to let go. With the possible exception of abject deprivation, nearly every symptom, complex, problem, issue that humans experience can be traced to some dimension of the need to release something that is hindering or blocking. Sometimes it is not necessarily a bad thing that we need to let go of. It may be beautiful, precious, or a talent aching to be shared. The athlete who is training, intent on breaking his or her record, must let go of fear, self-doubt, or perhaps behaviors that would drain off needed energy to push forward past the present limit. Sometimes it is an addiction, or grief, or self-loathing, or some emotion or memory. Sometimes whatever we need to shed is obvious if not easy. Sometimes it is hidden, maybe insidious.
Take any path, religious, spiritual, psychological, or some other—any path that will lead you to know yourself and not some false image of yourself—and you will find that the destination is a place of peace. Strangely it comes not from anything you possess, material or non-material, but from what you are able to part with.
The heart of discipleship is having nothing you cannot afford to lose. Only when we are able to lose it all do we ever discover the proper place of the obverse of letting go: holding on. That is the paradox. Grasping and holding, especially for the insecure, will always be more powerfully attractive than letting go. Letting go feels like dying because it is an act of dying.
But letting go comes with a very big warning. Be sure when you let go that what is left you give to a good and true Master, whoever that may be, called by whatever name. For when the house is swept clean, the demons compete to occupy it.
Letting go never ends. That is why it is ultimately transformative. We all must die a bit before we grow again.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

Monday, July 03, 2017


 Genesis 22:1-14

Many folks have a hard time with stories in the Bible in which God seems to be the opposite of what we want our heroes and heroines, let alone, our Deity to be. Sometimes God appears to be a trickster, capricious, and monumentally unfair. We tend not to find such a God either trustworthy or inspiring. So when we come upon a text like the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, revolt is in the air. It is one of those stories that one has to take pains to explain God’s actions on display. How could a just and loving God jerk around a good old fellow like Abraham with such a horrible, repulsive plan as to commit infanticide? And with that, a great many folks check out of the play completely.

Too bad, really. This story is less about God than about the wiles of the human heart. In fact, I’d say that any story about God is inseparable from the stuff of the human heart—for the only way we can know anything about God is by reading the tea leaves of experience. So if we begin not exactly as the text does, with God saying something outrageous to Abraham, but rather with the human relationship of a father and a son, we might more readily see what the story is driving at.

The twenty-second chapter of Genesis is about ten chapters into a story about an old man who was distinguished not by his morality but by his faith. And faith had nothing to do, as indeed it rarely does, with religious performance, but rather with a capacity to trust. Abraham picks up stakes and leaves his native land deep in the area near the Persian Gulf and moves northwest up the Euphrates River valley to a place called Haran, somewhere in present-day Syria. From there he moves southward towards the Mediterranean coast. Abraham is old. His wife Sarah is barren. One day three strangers come along and talk with Abraham, announcing that sometime the following spring Sarah will bear a child.  The child is to be named Isaac, a sort of joke riffing on the fact that Sarah, eavesdropping on the conversation, giggles when she hears that after all these years after menopause and no baby she is, as she puts it, going to "have pleasure."

To this aged couple Isaac is beyond special. He is the seal of divine promise, the proof of God’s faithfulness, the fulfillment of hope, the dream child bringing laughter to life. Who would not dote on such a boy? We know from other stories in this saga that Abraham is incredibly generous and no stranger to sacrificing and offering. It is a part not only of his culture but his nature. So we might imagine that as the boy grows, Abraham begins to ponder whether maybe he doesn’t love the boy a little too much, or a lot too much. He has another son, Ishmael, whose mother is or was Sarah’s slave, Hagar. By comparison, Ishmael holds nothing to compare with Isaac. Abraham is no fool. His relatively recent acquaintance with “God Most High” is bound up with the idea that absolutely nothing comes between him and that God. And yet—here is the boy. Could it be that Abraham becomes possessed of the notion that somehow Isaac has to go? See the neighboring cult of Moloch, where child sacrifice is regularly practiced? Maybe they have it right. The feeling becomes daily more powerful. Abraham becomes convinced that what is in his gut is nothing less than the movement of what you and I might call Holy Spirit. Take the boy to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him there, far away from the inevitable devastation of his grief-crazed mother. Abraham is bound and determined.

Caravaggio, "Sacrifice of Isaac"
Abraham is bound. He is sure that he is doing the right thing. You know what it is like because you have been Abraham. You have been utterly convinced that you knew what you were doing. Maybe it was the time that you quit your job, or said yes to a marriage proposal, or decided you had to move, or turned down an offer that was most attractive. Something deep inside moved you to believe you were right. And you might have been! But right or wrong, you were bound. It was as if on some level you were being moved by forces beyond your control.

The irony is that it is exactly that state that frequently makes possible the alliance between the soul and its Maker that will change not only you but others around you and perhaps quite literally the world you live in. It is the ability, or more precisely the gift, of letting go of your conscious willing need—your dearest love, your fondest hopes, your Isaac—and march off into the land of Moriah which is all misty and foggy in the early morning when only a hunch tells you that you’re on the right track. So you take your Isaac by the hand and walk up the mountain. It is anything but easy, but you know in your heart that you’re doing what you have to do.

Rembrandt "Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac"
But Abraham’s isn’t the only way of being bound. Isaac is a vulnerable child, not an adult. He instinctively trusts his dad. He wonders what’s going on, and feels in the pit of his stomach something’s amiss. He senses the tension in the older man. “Here’s the wood. Here’s the fire. Where’s the lamb?” They get to the place, a great stone table. Suddenly Isaac understands. Does he scream? Plead? Convulse with tears, begging as I did when I was a child about to get a whipping. “No, Sir, please, please, please don’t….” Blindfolded, bound, the splinters of the logs stab his young flesh.

You know what it’s like to be Isaac because chances are you have been bound like Isaac. Bound to someone’s agenda. Bound by somebody stronger, bound by circumstances you had no way of changing, bound by habits you honestly couldn’t quit, bound by forces well beyond yourself, but in a different way from the bound and determined Abraham. Isaac is a victim, handed over to suffering and in just a hair’s breadth of being handed over to death.

When we look at the story like this, though we might not be able to match it up exactly with our personal experience, we can see that what is playing out is a well known dynamic in human history. Yet something happens that changes everything. At the moment when the knife is drawn and the shaky old hand is ready to come down with the fatal blow, time stops. Maybe it is a moment of insight. Abraham! Abraham! What are you thinking? Hold on! This is not what God wants. Not death, Abraham, but life! And as the knife falls clattering on stone, Abraham must think something like, “Oh my God! Oh my God! How could I have been so wrong, so stupid? I just didn’t understand. I thought I was following the deepest voice within me. Now I see that I was way off base.”

That, you may argue, is not how the story goes. But it is how my story goes. Sometimes when I have been most certain that I was doing exactly the right thing in the right way I have come to see that I had it all wrong.  One such time happened when I was rector of my first parish.  We had a youth retreat.  One of the kids invited a friend to come along.  His name was Ian.  He was Jewish.  A cute kid, he was a spark of light in the group, and obviously liked being among us.  On Sunday morning I foresaw what was coming.  We were going to celebrate a eucharist and, as a priest who wanted to do everything just right, I knew I couldn’t share the Body and Blood of Christ with an unbaptized person.  So I pulled Ian aside and told him what was about to happen.  I explained why I wouldn’t be able to share the communion with him, and asked him if he understood.  He said he did.  Well, he didn’t understand what I was saying and was probably too embarrassed to admit so.  When I was distributing communion around the circle, Ian reached out his young Jewish hands and I reached up and gave him a blessing instead of the bread.  He blushed scarlet.  At the end of communion he made a bee line  out of the circle.  I went to him and tried to explain.  He was polite.  Polite and devastated.  He never came back.  If I had the chance to relive my ministry I’d make a bee line to that moment and change it.  I look back and say about that “Abraham” moment, “How could I have been so stupid?” So now what do I do? Wail on myself? Or take a deep breath, realize that I was and am simply human, and come to my senses by the grace of the one whom I really do at bottom love profoundly and want to serve?

I once knew a woman who had an Isaac moment. She sat in her bathtub, razor blade in hand, ready to slit her wrists. She was bound, you see, to depression, which is a cruel master. One might say that it was not she so much as the inner darkness that possessed her that held the blade ready to do the deed. And at that moment came a voice. “Whose woods these are I think I know, his house is in the village though…” She began remembering Robert Frost’s poem and got down to the last lines, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and ….” She could not for the life of her remember the last line. Finally, she laid down the blade, got out of the tub, dried herself off, and went in search of the poem. “Do you know,” she wrote to me, “that voice of Frost’s saved me?” Tell me that is not Providence. “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Right there in the land of Moriah, a bath tub, a bound woman, and a voice.

But then there’s a lamb—a ram, really, but let’s call it a lamb—waiting in a thicket, mute, ready for the moment when nothing but a lamb will do. And you know the name of that Lamb. He is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God that liberates both those who are bound and determined and those who are bound in helplessness. He himself has been bound as he was when he set his face towards Jerusalem, his own Moriah, bound and determined to get there where he would be bound in another way, mounted on and tied to wood.

In these days when we are thinking about and celebrating liberation and freedom, we would do well to remember that more is in play than our national story. Moving not only in the global sphere of human affairs but in lives like mine and yours and Abraham’s and Isaac’s is a mysterious Stranger who at once likes us bound to his service but at the same time teaches us that that service is perfect freedom. When at times we have it all wrong, he is there to stay our hand calling us back to our senses. And when we are most helpless, there he is, waiting for the chance to set the captives free, even to the point of becoming a captive himself.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017