Ups and Downs and Hope

One of the stories I like to tell is the Biblical account of the life of Joseph (Genesis 37-50). I especially like to use this story when I’m with someone who suffers with depression, whose life seems to have lost meaning, or who is feeling overwhelmed at the hardship of their life.

Here is his story in a nutshell: Joseph is his daddy’s favorite child, and he gets all kinds of special treats. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph and to feel so loved.

Unfortunately Joseph likes to brag to his brothers about how special he is and how he is going to lord it over them. Not surprisingly, the brothers decide to kill him (after all this is the Bible, with stories of great passion and drama!) One of the brothers manages to persuade the others that they should spare Joseph’s life. Instead, they sell him off into slavery in Egypt. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph now.

When he arrives in Egypt, things are actually better than they might have been. He gets a decent job for someone close to the Pharaoh and becomes quite successful in his service! Imagine what it is like to be Joseph now. 

Then things take a turn for the worse again: Joseph’s employer’s wife makes a pass at him, and when he does the honorable thing and rejects her, she gets back at him by accusing him of rape. Joseph is thrown in prison. Imagine what Joseph is feeling now.

Fortunately for Joseph, he spends his time in prison together with two men who are very close to the Pharaoh. Joseph helps them out by interpreting their dreams correctly. One of them is later in a position to bring him in to interpret two dreams for Pharaoh himself, and Pharaoh gives Joseph a very important position in Egypt. Imagine what it is like to be Joseph now.

Pharaoh’s dreams, which Joseph interpreted, help the Egyptians to be prepared when a 7-year long drought struck the Middle East. Eventually 10 of Joseph’s brothers come pleading for food and they beg his forgiveness. He forgives them, feeds them, and is able to bring his entire family and tribe to safety and comfort in Egypt. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph now.

After Joseph dies, the descendants of all the 12 brothers end up as slaves in Egypt, until Moses comes along and liberates them after centuries of toil and suffering. Imagine how Joseph would have felt if he had known the plight his descendants would end up in.

What I like about this story is that it shows the ups and downs in a person’s life in great detail. At each change in Joseph’s life, I ask my listeners what they think Joseph might be feeling. Many can relate to what it is like when Joseph is carted off into what must be a bleak-looking future in Egypt, or is thrown in prison.

Then I ask my listeners whether those hardships in life mean that God is punishing Joseph. Every one so far has said, “No, of course not”. I love the moment when my listener says that. That moment is almost always followed by a swelling of hope: Hope that the hardship in the listener’s life does not mean that God is punishing him or her. Hope that God loves him or her. Hope that hard times will be followed by good times. Hope similar to what Joseph knew when he could say to his brothers in Genesis 50:19-21: “Though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

For prayerful consideration:

Though bad things happen in my life, God will use all things for good. I need have no fear; God will provide for me and my little ones.

Resurrection Stories

I have been presented with an opportunity where I can choose to act on something that is unfair. It would have been an easier decision if the unfairness had affected me, but the stakes are raised by this being an injustice against M, my nine year old daughter. It is much harder not to intervene when she is the one paying the price.

M has been playing basketball this season. It was fun to watch the practices. Half the girls couldn’t get the ball in the hoop even when they had no opponent, but I loved watching them try. But then the matches began and the fun ended. The league is for 3rd and 4th graders, and M’s team happened to be almost all 3rd graders. The teams they played had almost all 4th graders, and tall 4th graders at that. M’s team only played one match all season on which the opposing team’s girls didn’t tower over M and her teammates.

This is probably where I should confess that most of the information on actual matches is based on my husband and daughters’ accounts, as well as conversations with coaches and other adults, because as a non-American, I had begged of getting very involved in this particular sport. I have learned to like baseball, but basketball and football remain incomprehensible to me. After a while, it also became too painful for me to try to watch matches, although I’d come for the end of a game once in a while because I wanted to be there for M.

Back to the towering opponenets: It could still have been OK if their coaches had held them back just a tad when they got way ahead, or if the referees had given the inexperienced “midget” team a break once in a while. But no. In the first match of the season, our girls were beaten 26 – 0. They felt not just beaten but humiliated, and most of them left in tears. But the thing that made me an avid hater of basketball was the roughness of the sport and the fact that all but one of the young men who refereed the matches rarely or never blew the whistle for a foul. The bigger and older girls were often quick to realize that they had a free pass, and our midgets frequently left the court with huge bruises and abrasions, but fortunately no major injuries.

The season was the stuff that movies are made of – our girls actually managed to win one match, and that was the final match of the season with a cliffhanger ending with a shot at the buzzer. As you can imagine, that victory was as sweet as sweet can be.

After reading this, dear reader, I hope you can understand why my blood is boiling. So why am I still unsure about writing a courteous letter to the League to suggest a few changes to the rules? Because this basketball season was also an illustration of what the resurrection is all about: new life grew out of the places of brokenness.

The girls’ spiritual growth this season was phenomenal, and I believe they will be better persons for it. The injustice they suffered was not really a big one in the grand scheme of things, and these girls have plenty of other successes in their lives. The girls all had involved adults in their lives to support them through the experience, so it never had the power to do real damage to their souls. Coach J and his assistant K were an important part of the girls’ growth.

Based on the conversations we had in our home, here’s the spiritual growth I think M and her team mates may have had: They understand that life isn’t always fair, and sometimes the best option available is to develop your own standards. The girls learned to define success as working hard,   improving their team’s skills, making the opposing team work hard for every single point. They learned to redefine goals: Winning one quarter of play became a victory, even if they lost in the final score. Reducing the other team’s margin became the measure of progress. Their progress was steady: from losing 26-0 they progressively whittled down on the opposing team’s margin until they actually won. 

They learned something about compassion. I saw M start to think differently about herself. She became a little more aware of the areas in her own life where she might have an advantage over others. She started to think about how her advantages might come at the expense of others. She asked some questions about who she is and how she affects others in the school playground. She articulated a desire not to ever use her advantages in the way she had seen others do it in basketball. All of these concepts have of course been around for a while in our conversations, but M seemed to begin to apply them more in her own life.

I heard a brand new insight into ethics – a beginning understanding that just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD: there were numerous conversations about the fact that the teams that clobbered M’s never broke a single league rule.

I heard M and her teammates begin to understand the value of good rules, laws, and enforcement, and more acceptance even of the rules that may limit her own freedom.

Last, but not least, the members of M’s team bonded like no other team she has been on, and the parents bonded correspondingly. The end-of-season party went on and on and on, and some of the girls were crying when the party broke up. Everyone wanted to be on the same team with the same coach next year, but the girls wondered if that was the right thing to do. They didn’t want to be next season’s 4th grade bully team. They finally decided that they would bring in the two eligible younger sisters onto next year’s team (!) and that – if they ever got way ahead of another team, they would volunteer to hold back and let the better players spend more time on the bench.

Wow. So maybe this is not the time to show the girls how to stand up against unjust structures. But there may be a number of tall 4th grade girls who think that getting the ball in the hoop the most times is what it’s all about, and for their sake I should perhaps get some ideas from M and her team mates to pass on to the League. For M and her friends, their experience of powerlessness has done its work. Maybe it’s time to talk more with M about how God uses even bad things for good purposes, and that God is trustworthy and always at work. We may not see God and goodness while we’re struggling to breathe again after an elbow to the belly, but darkness and injustice cannot ultimately win. Love for each other and willingness to make sacrifices for one another will always win the ultimate victory.

Query for prayerful consideration:

When have I experienced resurrection – the ultimate victory of love and sacrifice – at work in my own life?

What Is Prayer?

Theologians and worshipers through the ages have come up with different ideas about what prayer is. That could have been a lovely thing, bringing more forms of prayer into the common domain and giving us more avenues to being close to God. But that’s not what happened.

Unfortunately the old temptation to claim that there is a Right way and a Wrong way to pray – everyone claiming that theirs was the Right one or the best one – found a toehold. C.S. Lewis’ senior demon, Screwtape, would have been pleased at all the effort we put into fighting with each other instead of actually praying!

So when we ask what prayer is, I think it is important to ask first who gets to do the defining. Throughout the millennia, one of the biggest discussions was over whether prayer with sensory components (often referred to as kataphatic) or without sensory components (apophatic) was superior. Since prayer increasingly became the domain of people who prayed professionally who retreated from the world of farming, manual labor, and hands-on interaction with people and went into a realm of books and solitary prayer in a cell without adornment – guess which form of prayer gained ascendance?

I am oversimplifying, of course. The battle was never decisively won, many of the monastic orders maintained manual labor for their monks and nuns, and some of the greatest opulence grew forth in adornment of churches and in liturgy. Still, labor was generally seen as a way to chastise the flesh. Showing magnificence was seen as something befitting God’s stature, but creating beauty wasn’t seen as an act of worship intrinsic to human nature. The invisible, spiritual, otherworldly was seen as good, and anything that was created in physical form was considered inferior. 

Why does this matter?

It matters because, with the understanding of “formlessness” as the “best” way to pray, many of us have inadvertently put our spirituality and prayer life in prison and thrown away the key. And so, although God is constantly praying within us, we don’t hear God. We think we are bad at praying, and nothing inhibits prayer quite like believing we are unworthy of God’s attention. Screwtape gets to do another little victory dance and exchange high-fives with his fellow demons, who are constantly conspiring to keep us from hearing that we are God’s beloved and living as if we are God’s beloved.

So what is prayer? I think anything can be prayer. Any act or thought that engenders awareness of God or brings forth any of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is prayer – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I would add harmony and creativity to that list. 

Here are some of the ways prayer can be: holding my hands in the dirt of the garden; a sudden awareness of the beauty of the curve of my daughter’s eyelashes; tearfully holding the fragments of what until recently was the mug my grandmother gave me shortly before she died; feeling the warmth of my husband’s embrace; listening to the birds going crazy at dawn; the smell of rosemary in the air after my hands brush the plants’ leaves; giggling with my daughters; the sensation of warm oil being put on my face in anointing; sweating as I liberate a rhododendron from the stranglehold of ivy; complete concentration in learning a new piece of music.

And these things are also prayer: wrapping a blanket around someone; dropping off a donation at the food bank; writing a condolence card; seeking the right words to capture the essence of the man whose funeral I’m planning; the tug I feel to sit quietly with God for a moment; the ecstasy as my soul is lifted up in singing a hymn; writing a check to a charity; learning about the plight of AIDS orphans; the warmth of feeling something that I can only name as being held in God’s loving embrace; the aha moment in a sermon; the sense of being exactly where God wants me to be even as I lament while I sit with a woman who would rather die than be alive.

I am unable to claim one as superior to the other. They are all just among the multitude of ways in which God keeps the promise to be with us – always.

Query for prayerful reflection:

What are some of the ways in which I experience God?

(Curious about my thoughts about Quakerism and prayer? See my other blog.)