Drawing nearer to God, one rung at a time

The journey to the nearer presence of God has evoked many images, such as pilgrimage and walking the labyrinth. There is also the image of the ladder — not always an easy climb.

Following Jesus is about love, here and now, always, under easy circumstances and difficult. Not romantic love: that is, not idealizing another person. Not passionate love: desiring another person. How about getting-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-to-change-the-dirty-diapers love?

How about cleaning-the-toilets-at-the-homeless-shelter love? How about listening to another person who is suffering, even when you would rather be reading a really compelling mystery or watching “Dancing with the Stars”?

How about spending time with someone who bores you out of your skull, because you know that person is lonely and afraid?

(And finding the grace not to act bored?) How about cleaning the mold out of the organ pedals at church?

How about not snapping at someone who challenges you, but answering their snarky questions asked in an unkind tone of voice from patience and kindness.

The Old Testament story of Jacob’s vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven serves as an illustration of a soul’s spiritual progress before God.

The Old Testament story of Jacob’s vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven serves as an illustration of a soul’s spiritual progress before God.

And sometimes, it is being quiet and still to listen for God’s voice when you would rather be up and running around doing stuff. It is unexpected moments that offer joy and hope.

A young man who comes to see Jesus is a good Jew.

He follows the Ten Commandments, and all the rules in Leviticus, not just the ones that suit his purposes. He is a solid member of the community.

He is, perhaps, pretty satisfied with his spiritual life; yet he sees Jesus, and he is attracted, whatever the reason.

Jesus tells him what he needs to do to make spiritual progress and he goes away in sorrow because he has many possessions.

Perhaps he had expected that Jesus would just love him to pieces because he was living right. Instead, Jesus put a challenge before him (Following Jesus is not about what we expect).

One day at church, Gerry Baker and Richard Stiles were changing the light bulbs in the recessed lighting in the sanctuary. Pat Stiles and Gloria Baker and I were in the back, helpfully making jokes about “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb,” but when I came into the sanctuary and saw the ladder extended to prop up against a ceiling beam, I didn’t think it was so amusing any more.

Those beautiful recessed lamps with their spotlight bulbs are a long way up and seeing Richard go up the ladder made the top of my stomach do funny little butterfly flips.

I was glad there were two Episcopalians to change that light bulb — one to climb the ladder and one to provide the stability at the bottom.

This simple moment reflects our life in Jesus Christ. Sometimes we are the one on the ladder, going up to do something that provides light for others on the path.

Sometimes, we are the ones standing below holding on to the ladder to make sure it doesn’t slip. And sometimes we are the one praying for the one who is climbing the ladder asking, “God, keep him safe, keep his feet sure on the rungs and help Gerry to keep the ladder stable.”

Someone aid to me the other day that it seems that whenever you start to make spiritual efforts whether to change your life or to give more time to God or to give up things that are harming you and the people around you the devil notices and starts tempting you.

We live in a world in which there are many attractive ways to harm oneself. They seem to offer themselves to our attention just when we have said, “I want to live closer to God, and to follow Jesus more perfectly.” That is when the devil tries to shake you off the ladder or at least back you down a few rungs.

I don’t think the devil has horns, a tail and sharp, shiny black hoofs as portrayed in paintings and stories. I think the devil has a voice that says, “One little bit of chocolate won’t hurt,” or, “Have a drink with her for old times’ sake,” or “Why not give him a piece of your mind? He deserves it.”

We are all faced with challenges every day of our lives. We are all on the ladder and, despite temptations, it is our choice whether we go up or down.

I actually started thinking about this in Northern Ireland last summer. We had gone to visit an ancient pre-Christian stone circle and on our way back we noticed a simple, beautiful Roman Catholic chapel and stopped to look at it. It was open — the only church we found in Ireland that appeared to be kept open all the time.

In the front there was a ladder near the altar enclosure as if someone were working on the roof or as if someone were trying to climb right up to heaven.

The moments of prayer in the little country chapel were completely unexpected and unplanned moments in the trip to Ireland. Let me suggest to you that in our lives God sends us on pilgrimages — and up ladders — that we may not expect or plan for. From the time of the Old Testament and especially in the story of Jacob we see the idea of spiritual progress represented as a ladder.

The great English mystic Walter Hilton wrote of spiritual life as a ladder and talked about the difficulty as we advance up each rung.

When we follow Christ we know that we will have spiritual friends helping to stabilize our ladder — and we know that there will be temptations to get off the ladder — or even to dive off it into great troubles and sorrows that might seem attractive in the moment.

Yet just when we feel that we have no hope we find the church in the fields or the sun breaks through the clouds or someone offers us a way to get out of the trouble we have made for ourselves and to start climbing the ladder again.

Remember, when Jesus asks us to be perfect that does not mean he thinks we can live flawless lives. Perfect, in the language Jesus spoke, actually means “whole” or “complete.”

When we are holy, we are complete, and our lives belong wholly to God. When that happens God takes us to places we never expected to see. Sometimes the ladder is where we least expect it. It is our decision whether to start climbing.

 

— The Rev. Georgia C. DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry and St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Leetown

 

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