Transformed Stones . . . Transformed Souls
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. . . . When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” . . . Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel. . . .
—Genesis 28:10-11, 16, 18-19a
For three glorious days in December 2001, my husband and I traveled more than 250 miles through Yellowstone National Park on snowmobiles. Before we went on our trip, I was certain that Yellowstone Park would be beautiful. I had seen photographs and heard others speak of the magnificent scenery. It was indeed beautiful. But what I did not expect was that Yellowstone Park was somehow also a holy place.
As we rode over the glorious mountains through never-ending stretches of meadows covered with snow and scattered with bison and coyotes and eagles, I felt the profound presence of our Creator God in an unexpected way. I often found myself singing hymns out loud: “For the Beauty of the Earth,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “How Great Thou Art.” (When you’re on a snowmobile you can sing at the top of your lungs and no one can hear you!)
Something similarly unexpected happens to Jacob in Genesis 28. He encounters God at an unexpected time and place. At this point in his life, Jacob has not exactly been a model of faith like his forebears Abraham and Isaac. He’s just tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. In describing Jacob, words like schemer, scoundrel, liar, and cheat come to mind.
Jacob’s on the run from his own brother, who is out to kill him. He’s departed in haste to save his hide. At “a certain place” he stops for the night because the sun is going down. Here, in this in-between place, Jacob takes a stone and puts it under his head to sleep for the night.
Have you ever tried to sleep on a stone? Or, perhaps more likely, have you ever tried to sleep with stones in your soul? That night Jacob must have felt the heavy weight of the stones in his soul: fear, jealousy, remorse, resentment, alienation, isolation.
What are the stones in your soul? What keeps you up at night or wakes you early in the morning? Is it planning for a new season of the church year? Strained relationships? Financial pressures? The turmoil in our neighborhoods and around the globe? Those can all be stones in our souls.
But here’s where the unexpected happens. When the weight of the stones in our soul feels most unbearable, God breaks in with promises and hope.
At the low point in Jacob’s life, God breaks in with a dream. In this dream, the God of Abraham and Isaac comes and stands right beside Jacob and promises him land and offspring. More than that, God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes. God promises to keep him and bring him back to this land. When Jacob wakes from his dream, he takes the stone that was under his head, turns it on its end as a pillar, and pours oil on it.
God’s transforming presence can take the stones in our souls and transform them into something holy and whole, even at unexpected times or in the in-between places of our lives.
Another holy thing happened while I was in Yellowstone Park that winter. I didn’t even realize it until a week or so after we returned home. At some point, I said to my husband, “My spirit feels so much lighter.”
If you recall, the fall season of 2001 was filled with sadness and sorrow as we dealt with the aftermath of September 11, 2001. In Manhattan, where we were living at the time, many of us lost loved ones, colleagues, and friends that day. Many of us saw horrific things unfold before our eyes. Many of us lost our feeling of safety and security. As I led funerals and services and prayers over the next months, I had gathered more stones in my soul than I realized.
There was something special about being in Yellowstone. It was so big. So vast. It was a place where I could leave behind some of the September stones of my soul. As my husband put it, “You could leave them at the altar of Yellowstone.”
Like Jacob’s unexpected encounter with God at Bethel, my Yellowstone encounter just “happened.” I did not intentionally look for an experience of the sacred there, though perhaps I should have been suspicious when I found myself singing.
Like Jacob, may we be able to say at unexpected times and in in-between places: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it.”