Leaving the Game and Entering the Dance

All I heard was a thwack.
Thwack.
The thwack of a beach towel.
Unfortunately it was not the thwack of a towel being straightened or folded.
It was the sound of a towel hitting the legs of my younger daughter.
And who was doing thwacking?
I’m sure you can guess.
Her older sister.
This might have been the first time for towel thwacking
But it was not the first time the drama of sibling rivalry has graced the stage of our home.
Unlike the usual unfolding of these dramas,
My husband happened to see both parties poking and prodding one another.
After a stint in time out,
I went to have a conversation with my older daughter.
(My husband went to speak with the younger.)
I started the conversation with the ubiquitous question
Why do you think you are here?
Like usual, Gabi is able to articulate the choices and actions that landed her in the study rather than at the local pool.
After she finished explaining her transgressions,
I said
“So basically, hitting Sophia was worth spending some of the afternoon in timeout.”
Gabi scratched her head. Thought a moment. Then nodded.
“You know you give a lot of your power away.” I said. “Seems like Sophia does a good job of prodding. And you end up doing the thwacking.”
Now Gabi was really confused.
I spent a couple of moments asking Gabi what it might look like if she were to let her younger sister pester her and not retaliate. Would it be possible for Gabi to walk away? Find something else to do. Pick a third option rather than hit or snitch.
That’s hard for a ten year old to do.
It’s hard for an adult to do.
It’s certainly hard in families.
Especially when power and prestige are part of the game.
Power and prestige
Jealousy and sibling rivalry
Trickery and deception
That’s just a small portion of the saga we heard today about Jacob and his sons.
It seems in the case of Jacob
That the unresolved issues and challenges of his life
Are absolutely being revisited on and with his sons.
The dysfunction in Jacob’s family stems not from any one source,
but rather from the brokenness of all parties.
Jacob clearly displays favoritism to Joseph…
Besides being a child of his old age, Jacob bestows Joseph with a Technicolor Dream Coat.
Let’s not forget, Joseph is Rachel’s only son.
Rachel, the chosen favored wife of Jacob.
Jacob, however, seems oblivious to the ramifications of his favoritism
He sends Joseph off
Alone.
Into the wild to search for his 11 older brothers.

Joseph is a tattletale and braggart.
First he snitches on his brothers. Joseph brought a “bad report of them to their father
I can hear it now, ”Dad, the boys did this to me…”
Then there are the dreams that he has about ruling his brothers. Rather than keeping these to himself or waiting for the right moment to mention them, Josesph almost taunts his brothers that they will bow down to him in the future.
Talk about rubbing salt in a wound.

And of course, there are the 11 brothers.
The first people we could easily find fault with in this drama.
Their real anger is with their father. But in typical family patterns, they displace their anger on their youngest brother…he makes an easy scapegoat. Who wouldn’t be irritated by a little tattletale? But at the end of the day, their anger is with Jacob. And they are jealous of his love for Joseph.

Even Reuben and Judah, although they won’t allow murder, don’t stand up and say “this is wrong.” Is Reuben acting out of love and justice or mere sense of rightness that often comes with being the oldest child? As an oldest child myself, I confess that more than once I have chosen “the right thing” for a less than “right reason.”

So it seems that all parties have a hand in this tragedy.
A tragedy that seems almost archetypal.
That is all well and good
But where is the Good News?
This story isn’t one of our family dramas
And it’s not an excerpt of Days of Our Lives.
This is a story from the Holy Bible.
Where is God in all of this?

God is confoundingly hidden in this story.
This story might be one the longest and most detailed stories in Genesis
Yet it is almost completely without God, who was the driving force in the lives of the faithful men and women before and after Joseph.
In the Garden of Eden God walks among creation and interacts directly with Adam and Eve.
Abraham has a direct encounter with the Divine.
Jacob climbs a ladder to heaven and later wrestles with an ish.
Yet the story of Joseph hardly mentions God.
Is God hiding amidst the chaos?
Has God abandoned the chosen people?
From the vortex of family struggles, not only can it seem like God isn’t paying attention, it can feel as though God has left entirely.

I suggest it isn’t so much that God has left the Joseph drama
Or become mute.
Rather the family has stopped looking for and listening to God.
Who can’t relate to that?
When the conflicts and chaos of life churn
It can be easy to stop looking for and listening to God
And to enter into the name, blame, and shame game.
There are times where our families, our churches, and we our communities get so caught in dysfunction, we loose sight of Who we are and Whose we are.
The still small voice seems silent.
God, Whose words and ways are not ours, repeatedly reminds us in the stories of Scripture that God does not think in
All or nothing
Win or loose
Insider and outsider terms.
These concepts are not part of God’s realm.
When our family and communal drama go all in with the name, blame, and shame game
The noise blocks out the whispers from the still small voice.

Perhaps the timelessness of the story can be discouraging.
In many sense I think this story lets us off the hook.
we are all participants in the faults and foibles of family and communal life.
No one person is 100% at fault.
No one person is 100% innocent.
It invites us to change the game.
To stop looking to name and blame.
Instead to begin looking and listening for the still speaking God
In our families it’s an invitation to stop dual thinking and seek a bigger picture:
Who am I right now in this story? Am I with Joseph in the pit? Am I one of the older brothers? Or am I like Jacob, unwittingly choosing favorites?
How do I perpetuate cycles?

I don’t know about any of you, but recently I can find myself playing the name, blame, and shame game when I listen to or read the news.
From the violence in Gaza
To the turmoil in the Ukraine
I often find myself crying out, “God, where are you?”
I admit
More than I wish
My prayer changes from seeking God’s Will for myself and for granting me the courage and power to carry that out. And my prayer becomes a desperate question of asking for where God is hiding followed by a long to-do list for how what I believe God should do here and now.
But there is one story in particular that reminds me
To stop and listen for God.
All summer I’ve been listening to stories of the undocumented children
Crossing our borders without parents or even adult supervision.
I’ve heard stories trying to name and categorize the children
Are they illegal immigrants or refugees?
When I pause and listen for God,
I hear that God isn’t concerned with labels.
God reminds me to that these are children.
Children.

I’ve heard stories advocating for solutions to the problem…
They need due process.
They need to be returned to their country of origin.
I’ve heard stories attempting to pin-point fault
It’s because of drug dealers and gangs.
It’s because our immigration policies are too lenient.
When I stop and listen for God,
I hear that God isn’t interested in due process or immigration policies.
I hear God reminding me that these are children.
Children.
Right now, they need safe sanctuary.
When I’m honest, that’s all I feel I truly know. These children need safe sanctuary in this in-between time.
I don’t even know what justice looks like in a case like this.
I don’t know what the answer to this crisis is.
All I know is there is a desperate need for us to seek a different way of understanding this crisis.
I believe this story invites us to remember that fault-finding is not helpful.
Sometimes we aren’t ready for solutions.
Sometimes the task is to sit with the uncomfortable questions
And realize that before we can find any answer
We may need to re-think our questions.

The story this week does not have a happy or sappy ending.
It leaves us in an uncomfortable place.

Theologian, teacher, and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor believes that Joseph’s story reminds us to stop and seek God.
A God Whose will does not override our own.
A God who enters into a relationship with us that is more like a mysterious dance that takes place between God’s freedom and ours.
As Christians we believe that God works in a through even the worst tragedies that humans can perpetrate against one another.
We might be tempted to fall in the ditch of either or thinking…God is dead.
God is a puppet master.
This person is all good.
That person is all bad.
No single option can ever fully grasp God.
A God who can make miracles even from our biggest mistakes.
As we leave this sanctuary, may we go choosing to leave the name, blame, and shame game and instead seek to accept God’s invitation to enter into the mysterious dance.
A dance we can’t choreograph.
A dance that ends with redemption and liberation for all people.

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