I came across this painting at a time when I felt myself to be in a dark and rocky place, not unlike the ground on which Jacob is seen to be lying. It was painted by Marc Chagall, a modernist artist, in the early 1970s to depict the encounter we are told Jacob had when he was fleeing from his angry brother, Esau, in the Genesis story. Is it possible, I asked myself, to be surprised by God at a time when I would least expect it? Jacob said, "God was in this place and I never knew it." Perhaps God was in my dark place with me, too?
If people were bored of hearing it, I was bored of saying it: this had been a long, dark tunnel of transition. Our move to Spain had not brought with it the life I expected. Things hadn't worked out with the team I thought I'd be part of. Now I had no local team, in spite of a couple of promising starts. There seemed to be some secret to making friends in Spain that I had yet to learn, which caused me to question who I thought I was. For the first time in our lives in ministry, my husband and I seemed to be on two totally different tracks. He was deeply involved in an ongoing crisis that was endlessly distracting, and I was trying to push open new doors, never sure if they would swing wide (this seemed less and less likely) or slam shut in my face. To top it all, one of our daughters had become anxious and withdrawn to a degree that seemed unusual, even for a teenaged TCK in transition.
So yes, although it might seem melodramatic, I did feel that I could identify somewhat with Jacob. Granted, at the time of his encounter with God he's on the run from a highly dysfunctional family and risks being killed by his brother. Yet, like me, his previous ways of managing his life are no longer serving him. And, like me, for all its promises of blessing, life has unexpectedly brought him to a wilderness and he doesn't know what's coming next. Certainly, in his grief, loss and confusion, he's not really anticipating that this apparently empty and desolate landscape could become a place of meeting God.
I am moved by the fact that, in the painting, God is depicted as reaching down to Jacob. Weary and asleep, Jacob is not the one who initiates this divine appointment. I realise how often I feel responsible for my sense of connection with God, forgetting that He is the primary agent in our relationship. He is the one who pursues, seeks out, and takes the initiative towards me. Can I trust that even in my places of desolation, or of soul-weariness, He will reach out to me?
Following this encounter, Jacob says "God was in this place and I never knew it." I wonder at the ways God seeks to be present to me in my dark seasons, and I fail to see Him? Could it be that He is in my questions, that He is inviting me, in my wrestling, to turn to Him? Is it possible that I am sleepwalking over the rocky ground, absorbed in my own inner turmoil, while He is patiently waiting for me to lift my eyes to His reaching hand?
These days, I am looking for those ladders that offer themselves as points of connection between this earthbound life, and the unseen realm that is nevertheless as real as the ground I walk on. And while I used to consider a sunrise, or a meaningful conversation as a possible ladder, now I realise that my tears, or my anxious waiting may also offer their ascending rungs to my hesitant steps. May you too have eyes to see these touch-points ... and may they become for you places of meeting that somehow change the course of your inner journey.