Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage (Genesis 28:10-22) transports me to the old Dreamland Drive-In on south Tunnel Road in Asheville, now the location for Lowes and Walgreens. The Dreamland was a landmark for Asheville, a flea market by day and a drive-in for up to 700 cars at night in its heyday. The cars contained couples in search of romance as well as carloads in search of cheap entertainment, as the big screen would show B-movies or horror flicks. The movie component closed down in 1990, and while I don’t know what the last flick was to play there, I’d love to imagine that it was Jacob’s Ladder starring Tim Robbins, which came out that year and didn’t stay long in the major theaters. As a psychological thriller with vivid hallucinations, it would have been a perfect feature for that venue.
In today’s Passage, Jacob has a pretty vivid hallucination of his own. He is traveling toward Padanaram in search of a wife, and when nightfall comes he sets up camp in what would become a Dreamland for him. It is there that he has his famous dream, inspiring such varied things as a hand-held string structure, a flower, a quilt, a children’s song, and many a sermon. Like many dreams, the symbolism of this one is unclear and is open to interpretation. Jacob sees a ladder, or stairway, starting on the earth and reaching to heaven, and he sees angels ascending and descending the ladder. We don’t know enough details about the dream to know why, but for some reason Jacob’s dream frightens him. He wakes up scared, saying in an odd couplet that surely God has been here, and that it is a dreadful place. He is in awe; it has been an awe-full experience.
Despite what we may have sung in children’s choir, we are not climbing Jacob’s ladder. The ladder of his dream was one on which angels, not humans, were ascending and descending. Holiness was coming and going, entering in and exiting out of his sphere of life. I wonder if this might provide a clue to the terror of the dream, the alternating presence and absence of the divine in Jacob’s life experiences. Whatever the meaning, he was afraid when he opened his eyes.
I’m reminded of a scene from Jacob’s Ladder. In the movie, Tim Robbins’ character, Jacob, had been part of a Vietnam war unit that was given an experimental drug, called “The Ladder,” presumably to enhance their battlefield skills, but it had backfired. A line of the movie says that the drug was so named for its ability to cause a fast trip straight down the ladder, right into primal fear. Jacob reveals the hellish nature of some frightening nightmares he is having to his chiropractor, who responds with a quote from a 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart: the only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you; they’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.
Perhaps the angels were making a fast trip straight down the ladder into Jacob’s primal fear, helping him let go of his attachments in this life. Given his tenuous relationship with brother Esau, who wanted to kill him, it could be that Jacob’s primal fear was of dying. Or maybe he was afraid of the sense of calling and responsibility imbedded in the dream. The late Irish poet and philosopher and priest, John O’Donohue, said of the dreamland that there is an unseen life that dreams us; it knows our true direction and destiny. . . Behind each of us, way back in the unrippled beforeness, there is a Form that dreams us into being. For Jacob, that Form, that unseen life, was dreaming him into his destined vocation as the father of a far-flung family, a nation with a noble calling to be a blessing to all the families of earth. It’s the same way the resurrected Jesus dreamed his frightened followers into being as bearers of good news to all the world. It makes me wonder what was on Jesus’ mind when he dreamed us into being.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.