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.

More Thoughts about Faith and Class

As I have read and pondered the question on class and faith (see yesterday’s post for links), I have also thought about my own background and how it might influence my perspective. I don’t know how to answer more than a couple of questions in the various questionnaires that try to place a person in terms of privilege, so here’s the quick background on my “class” in bio form. 

My father is South African, my mother Norwegian. I grew up in Botswana with two Batswana foster siblings, one of whom died of “witch craft” as a teenager. I spent 10 years in Botswana, then 16 years in Norway, and have been here in the USA now for more than a decade. My life has been lived being tugged between opposites. Who knows what my culture or class was or is? Not Norwegian, not South African, not Tswana, not American. I belonged to the rich elite by Botswana standards, but was poor by Norwegian standards. Here in the USA I’m a “legal resident alien” with few legal rights, but I’m privileged by virtue of education. My profession gives me status, but let me advise you not to go into chaplaincy or spiritual direction if you want to earn enough to pay your bills. 

I spent decades in painful identity struggles, feeling like an outsider no matter what setting I was in. In 1996, I became a hospital chaplain, and here’s what happened: 

One of the reasons I think I do well as a chaplain and spiritual director with the mentally ill is that their pain is real to me, even when the cause for their pain may be a delusion. When a woman believes that the man she loves is trying to kill her, she is in agony, and it makes no difference to her whether it is factually true or not. She is in agony one way or the other. My spiritual responses to that woman are quite similar, whether the man is trying to kill her or not: I address the sense of betrayal, the fear, and the heartbreak in similar ways. The difference in my response would lie in whether or not I call the police and other support services, and how much I would involve her reasoning capacities in my support of her (hardly at all if her fear stems from mental illness).

Another gift of chaplaincy is that I have learnt what is important in life and what is not. Whether I listen when someone looks back on their life as they approach death, or I listen to a grieving family talk about what made their loved one important, what I have noticed over the years is that they rarely talk about work, success/failure, or income levels. Unless, of course, those things caused conflict or estrangement between family members. Because relationships with loved ones seems to be the most important thing to everyone, and the extent to which they lived honorably and/or lived in accordance with their faith can also be important.

Suffering comes in many shapes and forms, and what I have learned is not to judge whether or not it has merit, but to accept each form of it as real, to respond with love and compassion, and to offer hope that the suffering will end one day. The hope I offer is something like this: there is no life without death, no love without loss. I borrow from Ecclesiastes with an added emphasis of my own: there is a time to mourn, which WILL be followed by a time to dance, there is a time to weep and it WILL be followed by a time to laugh. And God promises over and over again that no matter where we are in this life, God will be with us in it. When we mourn, God mourns with us. When we laugh, God laughs with us. 

“I thought this was supposed to be a post on class and faith?!”, you may be wondering. Bear with me a little longer, dear reader.

I said that it was a privilege to be a hospital chaplain because I have learned what is important and what is not. I need to add that that privilege came at a high price. The price I have paid is that I have been with parents holding their dead newborns in their arms. Sometimes it is a wealthy family, sometimes it is a poor family. The agony is no less real either way. It takes me weeks to recover each time I am present in a situation like that. Each visit I make to the hospital is a reminder of just how fragile my happiness is, because I know how easily I could lose everything I love in life. In the midst of privilege, I hurt.

Although I have lost my innocence, I feel I have ultimately gained far more than I have lost. What I see is that the basic human drama is the same, no matter what our class, culture, ethnicity, nationality, faith, or other background. This doesn’t mean culture, faith, etc are unimportant. There was a time in my life when a friendly question of “Where are you from?” was enough to make me burst into tears. So I’m not trying to say that class doesn’t matter. Class matters, as do other identifiers, because they are part of who we are and how we understand our world and how we understand God. And God uses the particulars of our language, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and faith to speak to us. And identifiers like class can be used to include or exclude, they can be used to give or withhold privilege. When that happens it is wrong. And I think my denomination and others ARE guilty in this regard.

Even more importantly, it REALLY matters if someone is starving or suffering any other kind of physical deprivation. 

My musings today are about the solution, and to me the solution to the problem of exclusion and privilege lies in going together to a deeper, more fundamental level, the level at which all human beings are united.   

What we all share is this, as I see it: When we mourn, we need God’s words of comfort and promise of hope. When we rejoice, we need to be reminded of those who suffer. When we are close to giving up, we need to be reminded to persevere. When we are feeling hopeless, we need to hear words of encouragement. When we are wealthy, we need to be reminded to share. When we are poor, we need to know we will be cared for. When we are hungry, we need food. When we are afraid, we need to be made safe. When we feel we are boxed in, we need to hear of God’s freedom. When we stand before a daunting task, we need be reminded to tap into God’s strength so we can survive. We need to be loved and respected.

I refuse to accept the idea that one denomination speaks to the faith condition of one class more accurately than another class, one nationality better than another, one culture better than another, one income bracket better than another. If a denomination addresses one group more than another, I think it has failed.  

Faith, for me, is ultimately about God’s love for every single human being in his or her particularity. Our calling is to be a conduit for God’s love into every person’s life, whatever their condition may be.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What is God stirring up in me with regard to these issues?

Resurrection Faith Is Incomplete

This summer I spent some time with a group of evangelizers as they considered the hardships and persecution of former Muslims who had recently become Christian due to their mission efforts. These new Christians had been blocked from access to their village well, had been physically attacked, and were ostracized by their own families. The converts’ lives were in perpetual danger, and several of them were considering committing suicide rather than being at the mercy of their attackers and living outside the community and family of which they ahd always been part. Some of the evangelizers were exultant about this persecution, because it signified to them a glorious victory for the cause of Christianity and they hoped that the converts – if they were able to stick to their new faith – would be a powerful testimony to others. I confess I was horrified that the evangelizers didn’t seem to think that the converts’ human suffering mattered much in comparison to the glory of the salvation of their souls. This is what I think of when I think of the dangers of resurrection faith that is not held in balance by the crucifixion side of Christian faith.

As readers of my blog will know, my own faith arose out of an experience of suffering (1/10/08 blog entry), and it was only later that the joyful side of faith, what I call “resurrection faith”, became part of my relationship with God. So when I venture into this topic, I’m not coming at it with a basis in my own experience, but from a reasoning perspective.

What I can say is that I am incapable of comprehending a faith that isn’t affected by physical or emotional suffering, or doesn’t address God in relationship to suffering (theodicy is the fancy word for it). To me, the Bible seems to be full of stories of God’s presence when people suffer, and God’s desire and actions to lead people out of slavery and other forms of misery. Incarnation, whether we’re talking about God in human flesh in Jesus or the Spirit infusing each human on earth as in “that of God in every [person]”, seems to me to require us to embrace the physical aspect of our being, not just the spiritual and other-wordly. Is it possible to be human without encountering suffering?

To care only about the immortal soul at the expense of the physical body seems to me to be wrong. But it is equally wrong to focus only on avoiding physical or emotional suffering at the expense of the immortal soul. I don’t think a soul does well when it is only pampered and stroked and removed from potential pain.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Are hope (resurrection) and suffering (crucifixion) in balance within my soul?

Crucifixion Faith or Resurrection Faith – Part I

One day during an informal meeting for worship at a Young Adult Friend gathering in Norway, I had a vision of Jesus on the cross. At the time, my understanding of God was of a “collective unconscious”, and “Jesus” and “Christ” were practically non-existent in my understanding of faith. As you can imagine, having a vision of Jesus in that context was quite unsettling, to say the least. I couldn’t think of anyone in my Quaker meeting with whom I would want to talk about this, so I didn’t speak of it to anyone for a very long time and just wondered privately about my mental health.

Here’s what happened:

I was worshiping with about a dozen other young Quakers in a cabin on the southern coast of Norway. Suddenly I was transported to the foot of the cross where Jesus was being crucified. I could feel the hot dry sand I was standing on, and in front of me I saw Jesus on the cross, or rather, all I could see of Jesus was his feet. They were nailed to the cross, and I could see blood running down his feet and dripping onto the sand beneath him. Then I realized that the sand only formed a thin crust around the earth, and the core of the planet was an ocean of blood.  Jesus’ blood was dripping into this ocean of blood, and suddenly I knew that Jesus’ blood was the blood of all people, and that as long as anyone suffers, Jesus continues to hang on the cross and suffer. I knew that my task in life was to alleviate suffering so that Jesus could be taken down from the cross and the resurrection become a reality.

I eventually encountered evangelical Quakers, who helped give me a context for my vision so that it could become part of the core of my faith and part of my calling to be a hospital chaplain and spiritual director.

For many years the crucifixion was much more real to me than the resurrection. Looking back, I now understand that my vision was incomplete as long as the crucifixion was more important than the resurrection. It seemed unnatural to be joyful while there was so much suffering in the world and while Jesus continued to hang on the cross. Heaviness and sorrow seemed somehow not only appropriate but also virtuous, and my mood seemed to blend right in with my liberal church community.

Fortunately my faith story doesn’t end there. To be continued in my next blog post.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What does the crucifixion mean to me?

Frankly, My Dear, …

Yesterday I got to have a conversation with my nephew, newly returned from a semester’s study at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. I listened as he talked about his experiences in Egypt, and then we talked about why things work the way they do there as compared to here in the USA, and also compared what works best here and what works best there. Since I have lived more than 10 years each in three different countries on three different continents, this is the kind of conversation I love the best. And I was impressed with Jesse’s appreciation of the inherent logic of Egyptian culture and his ability to take a critical look at his own culture, yet being clear that he is not a relativist and there are things he can’t condone. I threw myself into comparisons of university systems, political structure, crime, the situation for women, Christianity and Islam etc.

Then it occurred to me to wonder what a homeless man or woman in Seattle or Cairo might think of these issues, and whether s/he would consider those issues important or assess them in the same way Jesse and I were. 

I could almost hear God saying, kindly and gently, “Susanne, this is a sweet and lovely conversation, and these are charming ideas. I love you dearly. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn what you think.” Then I remembered what the prophets say over and over again, which I forget over and over again: The true measure of the moral condition of a society is measured by examining the situation of the marginalized in that society.

For the first time in my life, probably, I saw my opinions for what they are: the opinions of a woman who is among the wealthiest 6th percent of this planet’s inhabitants by virtue of being a middle-class Norwegian living in the USA. I may be well-intentioned, but my vision is horribly distorted by the circumstances in which I live. And my concerns are correspondingly irrelevant to God’s purpose for the world and the majority of God’s sons and daughters. 

Even with this insight and my desire to take God’s view of human life, I have to wonder whether I will ever be capable of understanding God’s purpose for me and others. Can I understand God’s purpose for the church? Do I have any hope of comprehending what true community looks like, when my community consists mostly of Quakers like me, who think we are living simply and being environmentally friendly – all the while being among the top percentiles of wealth and knowledge on planet Earth?

If there is hope, it is only with God’s grace.

Lord, I humbly acknowledge that I know nothing. I pray that you would open my eyes to the things that I cannot see with my human eyes or understand with my human comprehension.

Query for prayerful imagination:

How might God’s priorities for the world look different if I were at the middle – 50% of the people in the world own more than I do and 50% own less than I do? 

– if 75% of people own more than I do? 

– if I were in the bottom percentile – if 99% of the world’s people have more than I do? 

Ruined for Life

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) has as its informal slogan “Ruined for Life”. I love that phrase and appreciate that many of us are “ruined for life” without ever having been in JVC. What I like about the phrase is how amazingly intentional they are about creating a process of alienation in which a person with privilege is given an experience of what life is like for the poor. After getting to know individual men, women, and children who are poor, a ruined person will forever choke on foie gras and champagne. We are ruined because we can no longer settle for merely ensuring the well-being of our own circle of friends and family while we engage in charity on the side. As ruined people, our circle of care has expanded to include the marginalized, and we can only be content when each child of God has access to food, shelter, education and meaningful work. Which means we can never be content. We are ruined.

Being ruined hurts. Like most spiritual processes, being ruined is not a once-in-a-life-time event. It happens again and again. Sometimes we go in with eyes open, as with JVC. Other times it catches us by surprise:

I woke up this morning feeling sad and alone, feeling that no-one understands what I’m talking about or writing about these days – not really. I was discouraged by my city’s (Seattle’s) way of responding to the crisis of homelessness. I felt irritable about the Bible study I went to last night. I couldn’t bring myself to go to Quaker Meeting this morning because I was sure I wouldn’t connect with anyone, and I was ready to write off liberal Quakerism altogether.  After I had persuaded myself that none of my friends are with me on my current exploration of abundance and gratitude, I talked myself into believing that my husband doesn’t understand my musings about the graces I receive at the Recovery Cafe, either.

When I had written everyone off, I reminded myself not to engage in self-pity but to look for something for which to be grateful, of which there ought to be plenty since we all are enfolded by God’s abundance. Then I could see clearly again, and I saw the multitude of people I know and people I have not yet met who have been ruined for life. I knew that I have just been “ruined for life” all over again.

For that I am truly grateful. Therein lies hope, because compassion grows forth from the ruins of people like you and me.

Query for prayerful consideration:

When I feel alienated from everyone and everything, where do I find hope?

Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Jurgen Moltmann spoke at Seattle University a few weeks ago about his 35 year old book called “The Crucified God”. One of the most moving moments was when Jurgen was asked whether God, as the author of all things, also is the author of suffering? His heartfelt answer, after all these years of reading, writing and praying, was “I don’t know. That is a question we must live with.”

Indeed, theologians, religious, chaplains and others have wrestled for millennia with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or, “Why did the one I love have to die?” No-one has come up with an answer that musters much consensus.

Moltmann says that the “why?” questions are the wrong ones – they can’t be answered. The better question is “Where is God when people suffer?”

And we do know the answer to that one. God says, over and over again in the Bible, “I am with you.”

Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in [hell], you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Query for prayerful consideration:

In my times of trouble, where has God been?