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.

A Time to Mourn

I have been rereading Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving fom Affluence to Generosity. He starts by taking us through accounts of real men, women and children’s experiences of poverty and gives statistics that show just how many people are affected. One of those numbers is that 30,000 children die every day because of poverty. I also have been reading media accounts of suffering in places far away, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, and Kenya, and that adds to the burden. Then there is the daily dose of pain and suffering closer at hand, dutifully reported, too. Add to that the places where suffering happens outside the media’s watchful eye. All of that is painful enough for those of us who know it from experience or have the sympathetic imagination that allows us to know it, even from afar.

And then Ron Sider takes us through the causes of poverty and I get the unbearable feeling that suffering will never end. He has sections on each of these causes: personal choices, worldviews that support inequality, natural disasters, lack of technology, inequalities of power locally/nationally/globally, Western colonialism, market economies, international trade, national debt, the environmental crisis (climate, pollution, overfishing, deforestation, misuse of land) hungry countries exporting food, multinational corporations (economic, political and cultural effects), discrimination, and war. If this is what we’re up against, how can we possibly believe that some day every man, woman, and child will have food and shelter, access to education and the resources they need to be productive?

The lump in my throat grows as I consider how difficult it would be to effect change in any one of these areas. And the world needs to change in every one of them!

When the full futility hits me while I consider the amount of anguish that exists, words fail me.

Surely this can’t be real? My mind tries ideas like “Maybe none of this is real? Maybe I’m really inside a Matrix-type existence, where this other being is testing my response to perceived suffering, but the people I’m seeing and their troubles don’t really exist, except inside my mind?” No, that’s too weird…..

Another thought that comes to me is the concept of the Lamb’s War, which early Quakers liked and took primarily from the Book of Revelation: They believed that there is a spiritual realm that is parallel to this physical one which we inhabit, but the spiritual realm is actually the Real one. Each act we undertake here either strengthens the Light or weakens it in its battle against Darkness. Instead of measuring our lives by the happiness, joy, sorrow, or pain we experience, we should measure our lives by the extent to which Love grows as a result of what we do. 

Ultimately I cannot discount the suffering of the world. The stakes are too high. If there is even the remotest possibility that the vast ocean of suffering is real, I believe God calls me to wade in the water to stand with those who hurt. So I let the tears flow and despair to flood me. Not forever – soon I must return to the hope that makes it possible for me to continue tackling injustice and suffering. But for now I believe that I am called to shed my tears, and they help give expression in this physical world to God’s grief at the suffering of every one of his sons and daughters.

I see nothing that gives me logical reason to hope, but I desperately want to believe it when Jesus says:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:3-12, NRSV)

Query for prayerful consideration:

What do I believe about mourning and faith?