won·der

n.
v.
adj.

The story is the heirloom

I have a folder called Family Stories. It started with my Oma’s funeral. I’d gone around that day, asking people to remember the sayings she had, “You haff to laff,”  “It comes handy-in,” “It’s an unicum [oonickum],” “I simple cannot,” and, to her own children when they were growing up, “Act normal and you’re acting crazy enough” (except said in Dutch). I wrote down every remembrance, every story, every detail someone told me.

And I’ve done that ever since, whether with my family or my husband’s, because I know that if I don’t scribble them down somewhere, I’ll forget. There are stories that stick with me, like the Nazi soldiers coming to the house for my Opa (because he worked in the Resistance) and his sister-in-law dressing him in a lace cap and nightgown, plunking him in a rocking chair and handing him a baby, and then showing the Germans around the house, “See. No men here. Just women and babies. Women and babies.” They bought it, and he was safe. That one’s so good I’m putting it in the second David and Saul novel, with David getting the nightgown and baby treatment. Or one my father’s earliest memories: he was playing outside during the war and the air raid siren came on, and his mother (and nanny?) screamed for him to come inside, but he wouldn’t, because he was only two, and it was fun outside.

There is one story that I’ve been wanting to write about in a more formal way for a long time: the time my mother’s house burned down when she was 6 and she managed to salvage something both silly and important and everyone laughed at her. catapult* magazine gave me that opportunity, and I’m grateful to them for it.

Even in the writing of that piece, I found out things I didn’t know before. I had to call my mother for clarification and learned that the outhouse she used until she was 7 was a two-holer, and that the Sears and Spiegel catalogues were the toilet paper of choice. Also that they moved into the basement of the new house the year after the old one burned down, and lived in just the basement for a few years while her Uncle Herm built the house above them, as they could afford it. This was apparently a common way to build houses back then.

Don’t get me wrong, I love every item I have from prior generations, and I recently made clear to my dad that I don’t want him to give away their art after he and my mother have died (which won’t be for many, many, many years). But the real heirlooms are the stories, the reminders of different ways of life, of the fears and struggles and triumphs of those who eventually made me (and my husband). The fun stories and the not-so-fun ones. They’re all important.

So I’ll keep jotting down the details as my family members let them slip. I’ll keep stealing good stuff for my fiction. And I’ll keep turning them into more formal pieces, so I can learn even more. ETA: Since publishing this, I learned two things I got wrong — there were 5 kids in the house, and she only had to run 1/4 mile to the neighbor.

When my mother was six, in the summer of 1947, her home burned down. Her mother was in the barn, and the four kids were in the house. After the four-year-old noticed fire licking out of the wood-stove pipe in the kitchen, my mother and her older sister got the kids out of the house and then ran a mile to the neighbor’s — he didn’t have a phone, either, but he had a car and could drive to a phone.

The fire department doused the flames, but the house was a total loss.

Their neighbors followed the truck, gathering to commiserate. Once the ruins cooled, the kids took turns dashing into the house to see what they could salvage, tossing the spoils on the grass. My mother was very proud of one thing she managed to save: my grandmother’s ratty house shoes.

Everyone burst into laughter, leaving her mortified and confused.

Please click here to read the rest.

 

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On opening the clenched fist

You know how you can take months (even years) to struggle through an issue, unable to move on or let go or make a decision or whatever the problem is, and then in one moment, the angst is sloughed away? I had that experience recently.

A friend was giving the children’s message at church to illustrate  Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man who wanted to know whether he was doing all he could to get into the kingdom. Jesus loves him — this is an important part of the verse, I think, and one we don’t often focus on, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus loves him and, in a glance, knows him, and knows that he has a problem with the love of money of which he needs to let go.

The children’s message involved a raccoon and a jar.

my great-grandmother's jar

He explained that raccoons love shiny things, and if they spy a shiny object at the bottom of a jar, they’ll stick their paw in and grab it.

sticking my hand in the jar

But then, sometimes, the neck of the jar will be too small and they can’t get their clenched fist out. They don’t want to give up the shiny item, so they don’t unclench their fist — and they’re stuck. All they have to do is let go of the shiny item, and they’re free.

I can't get my hand out!

But they don’t.

This was me. I mean, the photo is of my hand and my jar, but also, in broader areas of my life, I was clenching something tight in my fist and I wouldn’t let go. I was good and stuck. The thing I was holding: the desire to place my novelization of the story of David and Saul with a conventional publisher. Or with an agent who would then find said publisher.

Some of this desire was practical. It’s a novel for young adults, and (as of this writing) they read paper books more than e-books. In addition, being traditionally published can put you in libraries (both school and public), which are a major discovery tool for kids. Besides, lurking around inside me, still, is the girl who wants the gold star: “I’ve done something good — now acknowledge me!” Traditional publication would be a great big gold star.

And then it didn’t happen.

At first, I looked deeper into the story (after whining for a bit), and discovered some holes that needed filling. So I filled them. Still…crickets. While I’m the good student who wants the gold star, I’m also the daughter of an entrepreneur and do-it-yourselfer (long before that term even existed). I read James Altucher‘s blog, who’s such a believer in the idea that he titled a book, Choose Yourself. I’ve been following news about self-publishing for years.

I wasn’t ready. I put off every decision deadline I gave myself, still holding out for that one more chance. Stuck. Unable to get any traction on revising the next book in my stuckness.

Until that children’s message.

I opened my clenched fist and decided to self-publish. Like so many big decisions, there were no fireworks or giant resolutions. Just a quiet, calm, “yes.” Since then, I found an editor who doesn’t know me and sent her the manuscript; as an editor, myself, I know the value of an outside eye. I’ll start talking to cover designers soon (one lives a block away from me). A Calvin Seminary Old Testament professor recently joined my church, so I’ll ask her to look it over (for an honorarium, of course) to make sure I haven’t gotten any of the cultural stuff wrong. I’ve booked a room in Alexandria, VA for 6 days while my daughter is at a youth conference there, to take a writer’s retreat and get cracking on Book 2 — the best advertisement for your first e-book is your second e-book, so I’d like it to come out about 3 months after the first one. That’s my list so far.

Even my fortune cookie agrees. Here’s this evening’s widsom: You create your own stage and your audience is waiting!

Do you have any advice for me? Any areas you’ve come unstuck from recently? Any areas in which you’re stuck?

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Sunday Ramblings

On this lovely Sunday, I begin 3 days of kid-free existence. I feel rather giddy about it. And also rather nappy. In fact, a nap may very well interrupt my writing of this post. Which might make this the best kind of Sunday afternoon, except for the problem that I often wake up crabby — scratch that, I always wake up crabby.

The Sunday afternoon nap remains an appealing daydream, despite the fact that I’m a terrible napper. Not only do I always wake up crabby, but I also have to trick myself into sleeping. Even then it mostly doesn’t work. Just now, for example. I had This American Life on the radio and all those mellow voices were lulling me. My eyes were getting heavier and heavier. My behind was sinking deeper into the couch as my muscles relaxed. I put the computer down, but kept the radio on, and curled up, listening and not listening, trying to distract my brain.

No go.

My brain whirls and whirls. So there was no nap.

Just rambling.

* The telling moment

It happens in fiction all the time — that one little moment, comment, reaction — that tells the truth of who someone is or how healthy a relationship may or may not be. But we don’t always gets to see one in real life. Here’s one I heard about recently.

A young man liked a young woman. Happily for him, the young woman liked him back. But they were taking it slowly, making sure they had a solid foundation of friendship before taking things in a romantic direction. Truth be told, this was the first young woman to like the young man back.

Both of them had recently read The Fault In Our Stars and were looking forward to seeing the movie when it came out. The young man’s mother told her son about something a friend of hers had done: seen an advanced screening, with the author, during the movie, they were served risotto during the dinner in Amsterdam scene, and after the Q&A, they all went out in the parking lot and egged a car. She told her son, thinking that he’d get all jealous about her friend meeting John Green and doing that cool stuff.

But, no.

The young man turned a serious face to his mother and asked about the throw-up scene, and how graphic it was, because the beloved young woman had a problem with seeing other people throw up, and he’d like to be able to warn her about it, so she’d be more comfortable seeing the movie.

[sigh]

What a lovely glimpse of her son as a boyfriend.

* Scope for imagination:

A Facebook friend linked to this article this week. It was an interesting piece about a subculture I’d never heard about: young women in southern Guangdong province in China who could choose to become “self-combed women” rather than marry. Now, it’s not like they could then go to university and live a fabulous and independent life. They had to leave their families and work hard, either in factories or as servants in others’ households. They were illiterate. They were expected to send most of their income to their family of origin. But the women made money, and their contributions to the household were worthy of thanks — these were unusual in that culture in the 1800s through the mid-1900s. Women who entered (either by choice or by force) their husband’s family’s household would have had to endure whatever kind of treatment the husband and his family deemed their right, and they’d have to serve their parents-in-law with no thanks (because they were merely doing what was expected). Also, the self-combed women were expected to remain celibate. They were independent of the marriage system, but still bound by cultural norms; able to choose, but not have many choices.

The thing that has my imagination all fired up is the name itself, “self-combed.” By deciding not to marry, they wouldn’t get to do the pre-wedding ritual when their mother would comb their hair into a bun to symbolize their transition from single girl to married woman. They combed their own hair into their own bun.

When I looked into this more, I found a contemporary visual artist, Man Yee Lam, who sees her own life in the complicated story of the self-combed women: “‘Self-Combing Women’ is an exploration of my relationship with my ancestral roots, and of my life-long battle between my independence as a woman and my experience of subjection to cultural patterning.” Click here to see the piece she made of a woman inside a silk cocoon (the self-combed women often worked in silk industry factories).

* Do I miss my children when we’re apart?

I won’t keep you in suspense: no. For the most part, I do not pine, I do not ache, I am not distracted by their absence. When they’re gone, I am glad they are on whatever adventure they are on, with whichever friends they are with. And if I’m the one who’s gone, I’m generally consumed by whatever adventure I’m on, with whichever friends I am with.

This is in the forefront of my mind these days because my 15-year-old son is off in Europe for 2 1/2 weeks with his best friend and said best friend’s mother. In the week he’s been gone, I’ve had one teary moment — right after we’d finished a FB chat. We talked via Skype this afternoon, and there was no teariness. He’s having way too much fun, seeing way too many amazing things.

And, as I said at the beginning, I’m giddy because my daughter is camping with a friend and her family for 3 days. It’s fun for me and my husband to have the house to ourselves, to have cut in half the needs and schedules we have to negotiate. This time, I’m not even racing to paint the kids’ rooms, as I was the last time we had them both gone for days at a time.

There are many different kinds of mothers, and I guess what I’m doing here is claiming my own style, my own way of loving my children.

* I must confess

That most of my ramblings these past few days revolve around bad words and unkind thoughts that I aim at my neighbors and their love of all-day and middle-of-the-night fireworks, particularly those booming M-80s.

Netherlands Lion* And also Hup Holland Hup

I’ve been enjoying The Netherlands’ performance in the World Cup, spending lots of money at the Dutch store, eating more dropjes in the last month that I normally do in two years.

 

SO, what are you rambling about this Sunday?

 

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The Natural Angle of Repose

My parents recently had some landscaping done. An area to the side of the house that butted right up against the dune was being unsuccessfully held back with a tier of railroad ties; sand always dribbled onto the walkway, except when it rained, when there would be serious erosion.

So their landscape guy recommended that they get rid of the railroad ties and find the natural angle of repose.

The Natural Angle of Repose

the dune’s natural angle of repose

Which is my new favorite phrase.

The natural angle of repose is the gradient at which the material naturally settles and becomes stable. How do you find said angle? You send people to the top of the dune to pour sand down the hill until it stops sliding onto the walkway. Then they added some plantings and mulched it. My parents have had a number of good rains since then, and there has been zero erosion, despite how steep that angle of repose is.

The thing I love about that phrase isn’t so much its landscaping use, but its personal one.

Aren’t we all trying to find our natural angle of repose? To find the arrangement of our lives that will be stable enough to allow us to thrive without depleting our resources, no matter what conditions are thrown at us.

And there’s no way for that other than to live and try things out. Just as different materials become stable at different angles, someone else’s angle of repose won’t be the same as yours, so you can’t just copy what others do.

I feel like I’ve been holding back my personal dune with railroad ties for so long that it’s taking me ages to dribble that sand and find my natural angle. But I’m trying.

This is a bit of a funny post for me: I’ve got no words of wisdom, just a really cool phrase with lots of scope for imagination. And a wish for you that you find your natural angle of repose.

 

 

 

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Strip Away the Weirdness and You Get Good News

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Revelation on my own. In fact, I’ve avoided it because it seemed like a book for Christian conspiracy theorists, numbers obsessives, and end-times enthusiasts — none of which I am. All those apocalyptic images of battles, beasts, horsemen, etc., are so distracting and confusing. Not to mention scary.

The Good News of Revelation, by Larry Helyer and Ed Czyewski is an antidote to all that.

The authors do not bend themselves backwards to try to make sense of those distracting images for the contemporary reader. They get down to the story basics:

Who were the people this was originally written to?

What was happening in their lives?

What did they need to hear from God?

How did Revelation give them what they needed?

I love drilling down to the core of a story, and I’ve found it so fruitful, in my own spiritual life, to use my imagination in concert with cultural research into what life was like for the people we read about in the Bible — this book was right up my alley.

Helyer and Czyewski begin each section of the book with a short story, each of which is told from the point of view of a different person who was involved in the writing, disseminating, or receiving of this communication from John. These were wonderfully grounding: a real person wrote Revelation, and real people read it and passed it along in spite of real threats to their personal safety. The stories ran the gamut from interesting to truly moving. The final one is my favorite: Lydia, whose husband was dragged away by Roman soldiers, poring over the scroll at night:

“As the rising sun made it easier to read the scroll in front of her, she traced her finger over the small letters once again. One particular line caught her eye every time, ‘He will wipe away every tear.’ She thought of the lonely nights crying by herself and those moments before bedtime where her boys cried out for their father. They didn’t feel safe. She didn’t feel safe. She didn’t know how much more she could take. While the details were vague about God’s new home for his people, she couldn’t stop reading about Jesus wiping away every tear. As good as that sounded for some day, she needed that now. She needed God to step in and deliver her. She needed God to protect and provide for her boys” (p.84).

Phillip’s response to her questions aren’t entirely satisfying, but he sums up the gist of the letter:

“Well, the point of the letter is that God is already victorious. We just don’t see it yet. However, there will come a day when God visibly rules. We don’t know what this New Jerusalem will look like, but the point is that Rome’s days are numbered. While we need to persevere for today, there will come a day when God will reward us with his presence and peace, wiping away every tear.”

All (what I think of as) the weirdness is in service to that basic message, that basic good news.

There is more to Revelation than that, of course. There are specific messages to the seven Asian churches about what they’re doing well and what they need to work on or root out of their congregations. There is prophecy, which the authors connect to the prophetic writing in the Old Testament and define as “inspired speech that appealed to the listeners to repent and to put their complete trust in the Lord;” it can reveal God’s future plans, but doesn’t necessarily give us a “blueprint of the future” (p.8). There is also apocalyptic writing that communicates the fight between good and evil via visions, symbols, and images that would be able to be decoded by those in the know, but opaque to outsiders — and that assured readers/listeners that not only will God win, but God already has.

One of my favorite writing teachers, Lisa Cron, says this about story: “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution–more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on t0″ (Wired for Story, p.1). In Revelation, John is given a heck of a story to tell the seven churches of Asia, with lots of flashy elements to get them to pay attention and to help them connect this story to stories they’ve heard before, but it is, at root, a story about what and who to hang on to, and encouragement to keep hanging on.

As I read The Good News of Revelation, other stories kept coming to mind: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson. Each of them, essentially, contains the message that there is evil, there will be difficultly, you will have to choose your path, evil will come at good over and over again, there will be pain and even death for you and those you love, it matters how you treat everyone, even those “lower” than you, good (and love) will eventually triumph. This is also the message of Revelation.

Please note that Helyer and Cyzewski do not make this connection; that’s on me. You see, I love those stories. Seeing echoes of them in Revelation may give me a way in to a book I’ve avoided. As will having (finally) read all the Old Testament prophets. As will having read The Good News of Revelation. At the glacial rate at which I’m reading through the Bible, I might be at Revelation by the end of the year; I’ll report back then.

The authors are running a Goodreads giveaway, or you can just go ahead and buy it: Amazon | Barnes & Noble.

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Sometimes Fields Need To Be Fallow

image courtesy of Darryl Smith via rgbstock.com

 

I messed up.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been “writing” (in my head) a post on being fallow. Because that’s how I’ve been feeling: like a field with tapped-out soil that’s being rested in order to be more productive later.

You see, I did what I said I’d do a few months ago and sought help for my depression. It has been a beautiful, beautiful thing. I’m sleeping (mostly). I’m not having random anxiety attacks. I’m present for my family. I haven’t visited TMZ.com even once. I have enough energy to make my kids do their chores.

But no writing. My drive and discipline seemed to vanish with my desperation.

I wasn’t stuck, just … still. Which made sense. I’d twisted myself into such a tight, unyielding corkscrew of disappointment and frustration over my writing that there wasn’t going to be a SHAZZAM when all was made okay in an instant. It would take time. And I’d have to decide — over and over — not to follow the comfy brain paths I’d worn in during my depressed period. I’d have to choose to put good nutrients back in my tired soil.

So I started reading again: romance, history, mystery, speculative fiction, science, memoir. While I painted and redid my kids’ rooms, I listened to audiobooks of two Harry Potter and three Rick Riordan novels.

I let myself be fallow, and didn’t pressure myself to write much more than Facebook posts and Goodreads reviews (including for The Good News of Revelation, a longer and more reflective review of which will be forthcoming in this space).

And I took some risks. The Japanese student who lived with us for 9 days was a good risk. Joining the adult “beginner” soccer league (that was not so beginner) was less so. Then there was signing up for the Festival of Faith and Writing.

Which was where I messed up.

Does anyone out there remember phones with cords? Do you remember winding the cord around itself until the only remedy was to unplug the knotted cord from the body of the phone and hold it so the receiver dangled? And when you did that, it’d slowly untwist at first, but then it’d get faster and faster? (If this is not in your memory banks, visualize a figure skater doing a tight spin that speeds up until he or she is just a blur.) Well, if all my earlier soil restoration strategies were the slow untangling of the cord of my frustration (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), then the Festival was a giant pile of soil conditioner followed by a glorious rain that spun my phone receiver around like crazy. So that I no longer feel fallow.

I’d been so wanting to write a non-triumphalist narrative, to write about being fallow while in the midst of it. But, being fallow, I waited too long. And seeds were sown and fertilized this past weekend. Good seeds. Good fertilizer.

Because it’s how God rolls, this even fits with my theme for the year — softheartedness. The phrase that the New Living Translation renders as “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts,” appears as “Break up your fallow ground” in the New Revised Standard Version (Jeremiah 4:3).

That isn’t to say that I’ve already got a healthy crop growing. It’s not like I’ve forsaken online Boggle, or severely limited my time on Facebook, or even reduced the number of blogs I read (if anything, after the Festival, I have more). But I’ve written this, and actually have ideas and plans for more. I’m moving forward with submitting It Is You and revising its sequel again.

Resistance is already dialing up to meet my challenge. After months of waking up at 5:30 a.m., last night I decided to take inspiration from Anne Lamott and do some writing before the craziness of the day started. Resistance got me up at least 8 times over the course of the night so I’d be too tired and already too harried to write. Did it work? No. But I’ve got to give props to a good attempt. Now I have to keep at it until I wear new habit grooves in my brain.

Although I’m sorry I didn’t get you my in-the-midst post, I’m grateful for my four fallow months and for the Festival of Faith and Writing. I needed them both.

How is your field? Fallow? Fertilized? Highly productive?

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Compassion for Jesus?

In 1988, I did a bad thing. Well, I didn’t think it was bad, but the fact that other people did made it all the more delicious.

I went to see the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Kind of funny now, I know, but back then, during the height of the furor around the movie, it felt naughty. It wasn’t playing in the conservative city where I attended a Christian college, so a friend and I drove for an hour to see it, giddy with anticipation of the blasphemy to come.

The movie did not disappoint. A Jesus who waffled, unsure of who he was and what his message was? Check. Sexual overtones with Mary Magdalene? Check. Extensive fantasy scene in which he comes off the cross, doesn’t die for our sins and even confronts later Christians with his physical, non-dead presence? Check.

I giggled in glee at the prospect of writing my review for the school paper.

But then there was one scene that didn’t go for shock value, and that one scene made me reevaluate not just the movie, but my appreciation of Jesus’ story.

The Garden of Gethsemane…

Please click here for the rest of this post, part of the Stations of the Cross series hosted by Emily McFarlan Miller.

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Blessed Are The Listeners

I recently told the story of The Wise Man and The Foolish Man (who build houses on rock and sand, respectively) in children’s worship, but forgot to add the line I wanted to include at the end:

In Jesus’s story, the wise person is the one who listens and follows, not the one who knows the most. Which means that even you (kids) can be wise, because anyone can listen to what Jesus says and follow it.

It isn’t a perfect fit, because “the one who listens and follows” is like the wise man who builds his house upon the rock, which he presumably does because he knows that rock makes for a firmer foundation than sand. The wise person has to know who to listen to, but once that’s in place, the wise person is the one who listens for and listens to the voice of God, and follows it.

Not the smartest person in the room. Not the one with the degree. Not the one who makes all kinds of pronouncements about what you should and shouldn’t do. Not the one with the “best” theology. A wise person can be and do and have those things, but those things aren’t necessarily a sign of wisdom. Nor are they sufficient as a proof of wisdom.

Listening and following are.

There is some of this in Proverbs, too. I’ve written before about how crabby Proverbs makes me (Spotten on Wisdom), but I appreciate this:

“But the wise, when rebuked, will love you all the more. Teach the wise, and they will be wiser. Teach the righteous, and they will learn more” (9:8-9, NLT).

The wise person is teachable.

Again, not the most knowledgeable, but the one who learns when faced with their unpleasant realities.

Proverbs 10:17 People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger.

I think of King David, a man with many unpleasant realities, but who God called a man after His own heart. When Nathan confronted him with his sin with Bathsheeba and Uriah, his response was simple, direct, and unescapable: “I have sinned against the Lord” (1 Samuel 12:13). Again, when he was fleeing the son who was trying to usurp the throne and a relative of Saul yelled curses at him, instead of agreeing to let his soldiers shut the man up, he says, “My own son is trying to kill me. Shouldn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it” (2 Samuel 16:11).

On the other side, I think of poor King Saul who, when he went about business as usual, was smacked down by Samuel:  “What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to His Voice? Obedience is far better than sacrifice. Listening to Him is much better than offering the fat of rams” (15:22). Saul never really “got” that lesson, and lived out his kingship in paranoia and fear.

“If only you would listen to his voice today!
The Lord says, “Don’t harden your hearts…” (Ps. 95:7-8a)

Here again my theme for the year: softheartedness. We (you and me, both) cannot truly listen if our hearts are hardened to what God has to say. I daresay we cannot be wise if we are hardhearted.

Can we expand this listening as wisdom idea to encompass not just God, but God’s children — our families, friends, spouses, people we love, people who make us uncomfortable, people we disagree with, people who are different from us? I think we can. After all, it’s usually through our relationships that we are forced to confront our unpleasant realities. God doesn’t only communicate with us through the Word, but also through other people. How can we be teachable if we don’t have a listening attitude? How can we have soft hearts to God and hard hearts to God’s children?

What if we got better at listening than telling? At asking more questions instead of crafting tighter arguments?

Listening is intimate. We have to quiet our egos, our need to be right, our need for other people to acknowledge how right we are. Being teachable means that we know we need correction. We have to fight against our natural urge to defend ourselves. And then there’s the following. Being wise is not an intellectual state. We have to live out our softheartedness with other people and their unpleasant and glorious realities. These things are the heart of wisdom.

Moreover, these things are the fuel for the louder things we usually associate with wisdom: The demand for justice for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the debtor — all those who are considered “at risk” in or are ground down by our culture. The perceptive analysis of a state of affairs, whether in your own or someone else’s life, or in the life of the wider church, nation, or world. The call for us all to be more faithful and loving followers of Jesus.

Wisdom is complicated: listening and speaking, being teachable and teaching, all while softheartedly following God.

I’m writing this to, at the very least, remind myself to pursue the heart of wisdom and let anything I say, any argument I make, grow from its roots there.

 

 

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That’s not how you’re supposed to do it

Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasseh (17th-century painting by Guercino)

But Jacob crossed his arms as he reached out to lay his hands on the boys’ heads. So his right hand was on the head of Ephraim, the younger boy, and his left hand was on the head of Manasseh, the older … “I know what I’m doing, my son.” (Genesis 48: 14, 19)

Jacob was 147, blind and dying. It was time to deliver his parting blessings to his children and grandchildren – a holy and emotional moment.

While blessing the two sons of Joseph, his favorite son, he crossed his hands. In ancient Israel, the right hand was the “good” hand (maybe because they wiped after going to the bathroom with the left hand?), so it represented the greater blessing. The younger son was about to get the blessing that was supposed to go to the older.

Even though he, himself, was a younger son who’d eclipsed his older brothers, Joseph didn’t like that one bit. He grabbed his father’s hands and tried to rearrange them to the expected position. But Jacob said it was no accident.

Which follows a pattern in their family.

Isaac was Ishmael’s younger brother, but Isaac inherited Abraham’s household. Jacob was Esau’s younger brother, but he tricked Esau out of the blind Isaac’s blessing. Joseph was one of Jacob’s younger sons, yet his brothers bowed down to him.

In theory, any son could succeed his father as head of household; in practice, it was considered the oldest son’s legacy. But over and over in the Old Testament, a younger son received the greater blessing.

That’s interesting, but what does that have to do with us?

God is not bound by our norms. There are different norms now, depending on where you live, but our societies and cultures still have expectations and molds they expect you to fill depending on your gender, education, neighborhood, racial or ethnic identity, wealth or poverty, physical prowess or disability, intellectual capacity, etc. God has always called people to bust through these molds, and blessed the people who did, in His name.

Even religious cultural norms. God is not bound by those, either.

You might be the one being told, “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.” If so, you’re hopefully flush with passion and leaning on God’s guidance for how you’re working out your faith.

But what if you’re the one saying the confused and anxious, “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it”? What if you’re Joseph, the once-rebel who now has a stake in maintaining the cultural status quo?

There is anxiety for both the rebel and the gatekeeper, but the same path is open to both of them. Pray. Read the Bible. Pray some more.

It takes a lot of trust to not be threatened when God calls someone to behave in a different way than your cultural norms dictate. Just as it takes a lot of trust in how God is leading you to oppose your dominant culture. Trust that God knows what He’s doing. Because He does.

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Finding myself in Joseph

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Guido Reni 1631

I recently heard a sermon about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife that focused on how Joseph dealt with his sexual desire for Potiphar’s wife — he refused to act on it because it would be a sin against God, and when pressed, he fled. A fine message about how to deal with desire for someone you shouldn’t have sex with. With one problem. Nowhere in the passage does it mention that Joseph felt desire for Potiphar’s wife.

True confessions: instead of listening with my full attention to the sermon, I was thinking about how I’d characterize what the story was really about.

This is the first story of Joseph after his brothers faked his death and sold him to slave traders, who sold him to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s palace guard in Egypt. Joseph quickly became Potiphar’s favorite, because everything he did succeeded. So Potiphar gave him more and more responsibility until Joseph was running the entire household, and Potiphar “didn’t have a worry in the world, except to decide what he wanted to eat” (Genesis 39:6, NLT).

After Joseph started running the household, the Bible tells us that Potiphar’s wife began to desire Joseph, and “invited him to sleep with her” (39:7). Oh, to have more details. Is “invited” the best translation of whatever that ancient word is? An invitation takes place between equals. It’s a hospitality word. It makes me imagine it as part of the day’s rundown of household work: “I’m craving fig cakes, so make sure we have enough. My favorite tunic is getting thin, so I need more flax. Get me some purple thread. I have a palace event to go to and my robes need more embroidery. And, if you have time, take care of me in bed, as well.”

Whether it’s the correct translation or not, there remains the fact that Joseph and Potiphar’s wife are not equals. She owns him. He may be spoken of as Potiphar’s slave, and he may be running the entire household, but the fact remains that Joseph belonged to the household, and as the woman of the household, she owned him. As a slave, he had no right to determine what happened to him. His owners got to dictate everything about his day and his night. And you better believe that Joseph never forgot that fact — he used to be free to do as he wished, even more so than his brothers, since he was the favorite and coddled son, and now he was a slave. God was blessing the work he did, but he was still a slave, subject to the whims of his owners.

So Potiphar’s wife’s “invitation” had the weight of her power over him behind it. Which makes it terrifying, not attractive; an occasion for fear, not desire. This isn’t a pleasant seduction, and it doesn’t really matter how attractive she may or may not have been. If he does what she demanded of him (let’s drop the whole “invitation” charade), then he’d be violating the trust of his owner, who would then be free to do anything to him — throw him in jail, cut off the offending member, kill him. So he refuses. She continues to pressure him, day after day, and he tries to avoid her. Until one day, when nobody else is around, she grabs his shirt and demands that he do the deed. He runs away, leaving his shirt behind. She cries rape, and Joseph is thrown into jail without a chance to defend himself. All his responsibilities and all his success gave him no advantage, because he was a slave.

I have another reason for recognizing that the situation is not one of desire on Joseph’s part: I’ve been Joseph. Not so dramatically, thankfully, but with enough resonance that I could empathize with him.

In my 20s, I worked for a stockbroker. I started out as a temp, doing basic data entry, but when they discovered the depth of my administrative skills, I was given more and more involved tasks to do, until I was working as an assistant for a newly-hired stockbroker. He was less than ten years older than me, fairly established in his career (or as established as anyone in that highly volatile field can be). He’d been fired from his previous employer, under some kind of cloud, and the previous employer was trash-talking him to his clients and trying to make sure his clients didn’t move with him to the new firm. Things were in flux, so I had a desk in his office. I ghost-wrote beautiful, heartfelt letters to his clients that helped convince them to move with him to the new firm. Anything he gave me to do, I did it, quickly and very well. He could count on me, so he gave me more and more responsibility. I was hired on full-time.

And then it started. If he had to show me something, he’d pull his chair up right next to mine until our arms or legs were touching; if I scootched away, he’d pull my chair back until we were touching again. If he had to pass me in a doorway or hallway, he’d brush up against me. He’d talk about my hair or my clothes in very flattering ways. After one letter that meant two extremely wealthy clients would stay with him, he kissed me on the top of my head. He called me endearing terms with more affection than he exhibited when he spoke about his wife. He made a point of mentioning that he had an empty apartment on the upper east side. He was attractive and fit. He praised my work effusively. He was rich.

Did I feel desire for him? No.

Discomfort and anxiety, yes. Sure, the early compliments were nice and I was flattered by his praise of my work, but once the rest of it started up, even the compliments made my stomach twist. His actions towards me were expressions of his power over me as his employee. I experienced them as coercion, not invitation. I was not remotely tempted to take him up on his implied offer.

I tried what Joseph tried, just keeping away from him, keeping my distance. But he was my boss, and I wanted to keep the job, so there was only so much I could do. I put up with it for not even 3 months before leaving — letting them know exactly why I was leaving and getting some “severance” pay for my troubles. Because I was an employee and not a slave, I had rights.

Joseph was not so lucky. God used it all for glory, but those weeks (or however long it was) when Potiphar’s wife was hounding him had to be full of anxiety, if not outright fear. He was not fighting desire for a woman — he was fighting to keep his position and his life. In some ways, though, Joseph was lucky: he was a man. A female slave in that situation didn’t have the option of “no.” She’d be raped and tossed aside when she became inconvenient — think of Hagar, “given” to Abraham and then cast out into the desert with her young son. Heck, even wives didn’t have the option of “no” — think of Sarah, told to masquerade as Abraham’s sister and entering the households of a couple of foreign kings (and what was asked of her there?) because Abraham was afraid they’d kill him if they knew she was his wife.

So I submit that the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is only about sex on the surface. Underneath, it’s really about power and powerlessness, coercion and fear.

 

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