My mom gave me a copy of Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith for Christmas, and I've been underwhelmed by it thus far, but I really liked her piece on "Grace":
Jacob's theophany, his dream of angels on a stairway to heaven, strikes me as an appealing tale of unmerited grace. Here's a man who has just deceived his father and cheated his brother out of an inheritance. But God's response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in open country, is not to strike him down for his sins but to give him a blessing.
Jacob wakes from the dream in awe, exclaiming, "Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!" For once, his better instincts take hold, and he responds by worshiping God. He takes the stone that he'd kept close all night, perhaps to use as a weapon if a wild animal, or his furious brother Esau, were to attack him, and sets it up as a shrine, leaving it for future travelers, so that they, too, will know that this is a holy place, the dwelling place of God.
Jacob's exclamation is one that remains with me, a reminder that God can choose to dwell everywhere and anywhere we go. One morning this past spring I noticed a young couple with an infant at an airport departure gate. The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking he would respond with absolute delight.
It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched the baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt as awe-struck as Jacob, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation. And, as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we've done in our lives to the creature made in the divine image.
I suspect that only God, and well-loved infants, can see this way. But it gives me hope to think that when God gazed on the sleeping Jacob, he looked right through the tough little schemer and saw something good, if only a capacity for awe, for recognizing God and worshipping. That Jacob will worship badly, trying to bargain with God, doesn't seem to matter. God promises to be with him always.
Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles they would become. God does not punish Jacob as he lies sleeping because he can see in him Israel, the foundation of a people. God loves to look at us, and loves it when we will look back at him. Even when we try to run away from our troubles, as Jacob did, God will find us, and bless us, even when we feel most alone, unsure if we'll survive the night. God will find a way to let us know that he is with us in this place, wherever we are, however far we think we've run. And maybe that's one reason we worship -- to respond to grace. We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us his own.