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An Awkward Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.

Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.” — Genesis 28:10-15

I looked at the lectionary recently and saw the passage in Genesis containing Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching into the heavens. I struggled to keep my mind focused on the sermon I was preparing, because my mind kept going to the song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” to the killing of George Floyd, and to the Black Lives Matter movement.

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the Cross

Every round goes higher, higher
Every round goes higher, higher
Every round goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the Cross

Brother, do you love my Jesus
Brother, do you love my Jesus
Brother, do you love my Jesus
Soldiers of the Cross

If you love him, why not serve him
If you love him, why not serve him
If you love him, why not serve him
Soldiers of the Cross

When I was in middle school and high school, my family attended a small church. On a good week, we had about 30 in attendance.

I started taking piano lessons when I was in Grade 9. I got the same music books to play as the little kids in Grade 1. I was quite aware of the fact that I was embarrassingly older than other students playing from those first music books.

Because my church was so small, I got pressed into playing the organ while I was still in Grade 9, while taking my first year of music lessons. My mother played the piano and I played the organ. One of the grandmothers in the church requested “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” every week. The song was awkward for me to play because it was written in five flats.

“We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was not written as a children’s song. Its history goes back to the days of slavery. The song may have originated as early as 1750 — the message from the spiritual being that God’s promise to Jacob applied to the enslaved people of that time, who were Black.

Today I hope and pray that I will continue to feel an awkwardness about that old song, for reasons no longer musical, until:

  • There is an end to systemic racism.
  • Indigenous and Black people are no longer disproportionately incarcerated.
  • Indigenous land claims are settled.
  • Black, brown and olive-skinned people no longer fear the police.
  • Black parents never need to have “The Talk” — the discussion Black parents have with their sons to help ensure that an encounter with the police will not go tragically wrong.

Lord, please keep Jacob’s Ladder awkward for me.