Encountering Altars

October 4, 2015 – Rev. Jan Hryniewicz

Genesis 28: 10 – 22

Isn’t it interesting how precious time becomes when we know its running out?  How we savor the remaining warm days, the lingering flowers and vegetables in our fading gardens, one last swim or boat ride… a final ice cream cone at Goose Rocks Creamery, that final round of golf before the snow falls!! We treasure the last few days of our vacations….. and cherish final moments with loved ones who are leaving or dying, humans and pets.  Quite suddenly, the remaining time, activity, relationship seems infinitely more precious.  We may even have regrets that we wasted time and did not make the most of every moment.


My little granddaughter Dalia is a senior in high school this year, eagerly visiting colleges and making important choices.  This week her mom, my daughter Niki had to go to what was the last Parent/Teacher conference at her high school, GAMP ( Girard Academic Music Program) in Philadelphia. She called me in tears, after the conference:

 “ that’s the last time I have to do that!”  She started thinking about how precious this last year of having Dalia at home is going to be.  We all know how things change when our kids go off to college and begin life on their own!  We treasure each moment with them. It intensifies our feelings of love and concern. I cried all the way from Philadelphia to Hartford when we dropped Niki off at University of Arts 20 some years ago!

I’m sure you can all relate.  This is actually how I feel at this time in my ministry with you.  Fifteen years, coming rapidly to a close…..so much left to say….to feel…to do….to treasure.  What have I left unsaid that is important to me….that would be helpful to you and the church?


I decided to turn to several of my very favorite books and authors who have continually ministered to me during my ministry.  Today, I share insights from Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful book, An Altar in the World, published in 2009 and Margaret Silf’s beautiful book  Sacred Spaces, published in 2001, from which Ada read the story of Jacob this morning.

I find myself reflecting often on what we have built together here in Biddeford Pool….. this wonderful community of faith and family and  mission. … a place of love and peace….of laughter and support… a church home filled with bright, creative people with seeking minds and energetic spirits. We are blessed continually with beautiful music, inspiring poetry and stimulating speakers… and now have a rich treasury of memories, as well as some money in the bank to support this beautiful historic church.   In many ways, by Barbara Brown Taylor’s description, we have built an altar in the world…. an altar that celebrates the love and compassion that the Spirit inspires in this place…. an altar of gratitude.


Here’s a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor that may give you a hint about why she is one of my heroes!

Sometimes I wondered if it even mattered whether our communion cups were filled with consecrated wine or draft beer, as long as we bent over them long enough to recognize each other as kin.”   Love it!  Think on that…about what it suggests about church in general….and our church in particular.


In the first chapter of An Altar in the World, she discusses the practice of Waking Up to God, which is exactly what Jacob did in the Genesis text that Ada read.   Taylor writes:  “ The first time I read Jacob’s story in the Bible, I knew it was true whether it happened or not. // There he was, still a young man running away from home because his whole screwy family had finally imploded.  His father was dying . He had played a dirty trick on his twin brother Esau who was not happy…so Jacob was on the run.  When he stopped to rest for the night, he had a dream… one you all know well, of a ladder filled with ascending and descending angels. And God was beside Jacob, promising that he would be with Jacob….promising him land, children and safety.

Wow!  Jacob woke up feeling pretty darn good, shocked, actually. He knew that he had just encountered the Divine.  “ How awesome is this place!  Surely the presence of God is in this place and I did not know it!”

The story of Jacob is incredibly ancient. It comes from among the oldest traditions, which make up the Old Testament. Circulated by word of mouth for many centuries, the tales were finally committed to writing. Such ancient stories are always filled with mythological touches, and it is sometimes difficult to know where the historical leaves off and the yarn begins. But, as John Sanford says in his book The Man who wrestled with God: , “This didn’t bother the ancient Hebrews because these stories were part of the fabric of their souls, affecting them at the deepest level of their being. They bore an unconscious as well as a conscious meaning for the listener.” (The Man Who Wrestled With God, John A. Sanford, page 4)

Yes, these wonderful ancient stories introduce us to the human/divine struggle for relationship and understanding. They help us comprehend humanity’s ongoing search for and relationship with a higher power. They teach us the truth imbedded in the metaphorsThese stories were an important part of the religious heritage of Jesus.


Jacob’s dream was an astounding dream! You and I may not put as much stock in our dreams as biblical people did. My dreams are nuts!  They seem to make no sense at all…perhaps reflective of a chaotic mind!!??  But every once in a while you hear someone tell about a dream that radically affected them.  I have heard dreams from some of you that are pretty amazing.  Just on the news the other night was a story of a young woman whose sister was killed in a tragic car crash last year.  She had a dream of her sister appearing to her and telling her to go to the crash site and find the cell phone that she had with her at the time of her death…a phone full of pictures and memories.  The sister went and found the phone and the family has been rejoicing and feeling connected.  Amazing story!


I read about this pastor recently: One night, Pastor Richard Exley dreamed that he was twins. Exley dreamed that one twin was the normal Richard Exley, and the other twin was a tall, muscle-bound, giant version of Richard Exley. In the dream, the giant Richard was attempting to kill the normal Richard. Exley awoke from the dream in a panic. He discerned that the muscle-bound Richard in his dream represented his ego and his ambitions. They were threatening to overtake his personality, and possibly destroy his ministry. He immediately knelt in prayer and asked God to teach him humility and servant hood. He prayed that God’s Spirit in him would increase, while his own nature would decrease.

That night, Richard Exley felt a burden roll off his shoulders as he relinquished his own ambitions and gave himself wholeheartedly to Gods work among the poorest of the poor.   It was a transforming dream, as was Jacob’s dream.  It was a holy encounter.  We never know when they can happen.

Barbara Taylor Brown comments: “ Jacob, having woken up to God, would never be able to go to sleep again, at least not to the divine presence that had promised to be with him whether he could see it or not.”

 Jacob knew he had to mark this spot….to build an Altar so that he would remember the place of encounter and that others would know that something very sacred and transforming had happened in that ordinary place in the stony wilderness.    He found a stone, built a foundation for it, and set it in place….. a stone finger pointing to the heavens…..an altar so he’d never forget.  But then,  we may wonder….how could he!?  One does not easily forget an encounter with God!

The pastoral associate, the associate pastor, and the pastor are taking a shortcut to a meeting. As they walk through a vacant lot, the trio stumbles on an ancient oil lamp. On a lark they rub it, and to their amazement a genie appears and offers to grant them each one wish.


The pastoral associate cries out, “I want to be on an island paradise, lolling in the sun without a care!” The genie waves his hand and she disappears in a puff of smoke.

The associate pastor jumps up and says, “I want to be walking through the halls of the Vatican, marveling at all the artwork and never have to go to another meeting as long as I live.” He too disappears in a puff of smoke.

Scowling, the pastor says to the genie,” I want those two back in time for the meeting.”

We may expect an encounter with the Divine to be comparable to the hocus spocus magic of a genie. It may be ….or it may be a challenge…. or a very ordinary happening.


Author Margaret Silf has a chapter in her book, Sacred Spaces called High Crosses, and she writes about the Celtic tradition of erecting high crosses to mark places of holy encountersShe writes: In Celtic times, the standing stones and high crosses were the village library, its pulpit and art gallery, just as they were the sentinels of the high places, watching over the community, focusing the people’s gaze always to something beyond themselves.  …   They rose like compass needles, guiding people to listen to the core of their being, and to live true to what they heard there.” These places were acknowledged by all to be sacred places.


My very favorite of Roland Merullo’s  books is Talk Funny Girl.  It’s a marvelous, heart wrenching  story of the rehabilitation of the spirit.

In one of the poorest parts of rural New Hampshire, teenage girls have been disappearing, snatched from back country roads, never to be seen alive again.  For seventeen-year-old Marjorie Richards, the fear raised by these abductions is the backdrop to what she lives with in her own home, every day.  Marjorie has been raised by parents so intentionally isolated from normal society that they have developed their own dialect, a kind of mountain hybrid of English that displays both their ignorance of and disdain for the wider world.  Marjorie is tormented by her classmates, who call her The Talk-funny girl, but as the nearby factory town sinks deeper into economic ruin and as her parents fall more completely under the influence of a sadistic cult leader, her options for escape dwindle.  But then, thanks to a loving aunt, Marjorie is hired by a man, himself a victim of abuse, who is building what he calls “a cathedral,” right in the center of town.

With a lot of hard work, Marjorie turns into a respectable stonemason, but mostly she discovers an unexpected world of beauty.   In what was an unsightly lot which collected trash in the center of the depressed little town, the stone cutter and the girl worked daily….for months…to create a small and beautiful cathedral.  Each stone and piece of stained glass they designed and cut and put in place signified a step toward wholeness for both of them. Marjorie discovers what is loveable in herself.  It was a transforming creative process that healed the wounded places in both of their lives and created an altar of beauty and peace and hope for the little community.. The simple cathedral,  became a monument …an altar…..to the presence of the Divine Spirit and what can be accomplished when we are open and engaged.

  1. S. Lewis was one of the best known religious writers of our day. One of his books, which tells of his experience coming to faith, is titled Surprised By Joy. The movie Shadow Land tells the story of his life. One sequence in the movie is especially significant. Lewis was an intellectual. His whole life seemed to be contained within the walls and traditions of a prestigious university. He knew a lot about the Christian religion and what the Christian religion taught about God, but it was all pretty much on an academic level.

One day a woman named Joy Davidman came into his life. He eventually married her. She represented to him life as other people experience it. One day Joy saw a picture hanging on Lewis’ wall. It was a landscape of a beautiful valley. Joy asked where it was. Lewis said he had never thought to ask that. He thought it might have just been a product of the artist’s imagination. It never occurred to him that it might be a picture of a real place. Joy investigated and found that the picture was a painting of a real valley that was not far from the university. She insisted that they go to see it. They did, and they experienced the great beauty of the reality represented by the picture.

In a similar way, many of us still have some ideas about what God is supposed to be like and about what life is supposed to be like, according to the Christian religion. Unfortunately for many of us, these ideas have come to seem like pictures hanging on a wall or words written in a book, the products of someone’s imagination, things that have no relationship to the real world in which we live….to the spiritual path we have chosen.

And yet, many of us have encountered the divine ….have felt the spirit while star gazing, walking the beach or trails in the woods, while sailing, kayaking, while on a mission trip,…. intimate family times with pets or grandchildren…. the possibilities are limitless……Frequently, we take home memorabilia…. a shell, stone, art work, photograph, driftwood, trinket of some kind and put it in a place in our home… creating an Altar of sorts….. to inspire the memory …to relive the inspiration of our sacred moments, our divine encounters.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes: I keep an altar in my room. It’s an old vanity made of rosewood with  fancy scrollwork around the oval mirror and a small stack of drawers on either side. I think of it as a portal that stays open whether I go there or not. I keep some icons on it and lots of candles. When people ask me to pray for them, I write their names on slips of paper and put them in a small brass box that sits in front of two paintings, one of Jesus and one of his mother looking lovingly at her son.  Beautiful.  I know that some of you also have altars in your homes, bearing icons that bless you daily.


I’d like to think we have created an altar here at Union Church, a sacred place where spiritual encounters happen…the presence of God is apparent…. a holy place where our thoughts about God and our faith have been transformed. It’s a place where the energy and faith of all of us has mingled and flourished. It is place where we are blessed and encouraged to bless others.  A spiritual altar, from my perspective and as noted by Margaret Silf, must point beyond itself to the One which has inspired it….as Jacob’s altar did and the Celtic high crosses and stone pillars that dot the countryside do.

Barbara Brown Taylor is convinced and is   passionate about convincing her readers that there is no separation between the sacred and the secular.  God’s altar is all of creation. We can encounter God in the changing leaves, in a moment with a loved one, while riding the subway, while scrubbing pots and pans.  The Spirit of God is everywhere….and always  available for a transforming, healing  encounter….. which makes  the world a holy place… full of altars!

The bread and cup we are about to share, are placed on an altar… a table of sacrifice and remembrance ….of love and grace.  It points beyond this time and place to the grace of God and the sacrificial love of Jesus, the Christ.  We come to this altar to be forgiven, to be nourished, to be healed, to be embraced with love and peace.  Come to this sacred altar prepared for you with great love.    Amen.







The Ladder of Reconnection

Genesis 28: 10- 22  – Translation by Margaret Silf, Sacred Spaces


The sun had set, and Jacob stopped to find a place to sleep.  The ground was not very inviting, so he lay down where he could find a place, and took a stone for his pillow.  He had a dream.  He dreamed there was a ladder that began on the ground right where he was lying, and stretched all the way up to heaven.  Angels were going up and down the ladder all the time.  Then God was standing next to him, talking to him in his dream.


“I am the God of your whole story and your people’s story”, God told him. “ I am giving you this ground you are lying on. It is yours now.  It is the space where your story shall be told and the story of all the human family.  This is the earth of your own experience. It is the infinity of all human experience, from north to south, from east to west, through all time, for as long as human life shall last on Earth.  You can be sure that in every part of this experience I am with you.  Wherever you travel I will keep you in my care and at the end of your traveling, I will bring you safely back to your truest self and your eternal home. I will never be apart from you, ever.  You have my promise.


Jacob woke up with a start, and exclaimed, “ Truly, God is here, and I never realized!  This little patch of stony ground is a place of wonder, where I have felt the presence of God!  This little corner of Earth is nothing less than the dwelling place of God and the gateway to heaven!”


The next morning, overwhelmed by the deep truth his dream has opened up in him, Jacob took the piece of stone he had been using as a pillow and placed it upright as a marker for all other travellers. He poured oil over it, as if to anoint it.  He declared it to be a sacred space.