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September 5, 2020

Moth

A few days ago, I looked down into my drinking glass and saw a small moth floating on the surface of the water inside.
8 min read

A few days ago, I looked down into my drinking glass and saw a small moth floating on the surface of the water inside. The movement of its tiny limbs let me know that it was still alive, even if its wings were too wet to permit the poor creature’s flight.

My first thought in the moment was: Gee, I wish I hadn’t just taken that last, buggy swallow. My second thought, days later, was: I know that bug is me.

After walking through a few more days since that second thought, and also walking through some Biblical text, I have a better grasp of why I identified with the insect that came so close to becoming a part of me (in the most literal sense).

Lately I have felt like I’ve been trapped in a holding pattern, as if I were treading water to survive and not doing much else. I’m aware that many of us who are cooped up or otherwise constrained by COVID-19 may feel this way, but I suspect my disquiet goes back further than the early spring, when normal life here in CT shut down and our family’s daily routine unraveled.

One thing I’ve come to believe about human beings is that as much as they need physical provisions such as food and shelter, they also need to feel a sense of significance and purpose, as though their lives count for something. I bet very few people on the planet could simply go through the motions of work/eat/sleep/repeat and be satisfied. God’s assessment that “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) backs me up on this. If Adam couldn’t be happy fulfilling his responsibilities in a world without Eve, neither will we be content to labor in isolation, be it physical, emotional, or intellectual.

Way out here, leagues and leagues from Paradise, we feel our need for human connection most keenly, and that connection so often comes as we are serving others—building something of value with those who are both the same and different from us, learning to both give and receive in the context of community.

What I am trying to say is that we require a steady diet of fruitful human relationship and enterprise, ideally one as varied and abundant as the offerings of Eden.

You don’t need me to tell you any of this. A few days of Wi-Fi-less quarantine will quickly prove my point. As will any TV show depicting solitary confinement in jail. But what about subtler forms of seclusion, in which one might be surrounded by other people and yet be locked up in some secret chamber of the soul, with no way to get out? Henry David Thoreau remarked that many of the people he encountered seemed to be living lives of “quiet desperation.” Maybe he was onto something. There’s a story just beyond Adam and Eve’s that points in that direction. You’ll find it in Genesis 37–50.

On the outside, Joseph, son of Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and carted off to Egypt, appears to be making the best of his exile. Granted, his first stint as Potiphar’s head steward and second stint as chief administrator of Pharaoh’s prison cannot be compared to the privileged life he lived in Canaan as his father’s favorite son. But the Genesis text clearly states that God was “with” Joseph, so that he became a successful conduit of divine blessing (39:2). Even when he is unjustly thrown into prison, God’s hand rests on him there in the form of “steadfast love” and “favor” in the prison-keeper’s eyes (39:21). In fact, God so gifts Joseph with winsomeness and aptitude that wherever he lands, his superiors invest shocking amounts of authority in him, relinquishing their personal responsibilities into his care.

And yet.

Even after Joseph has risen to the position of Pharaoh’s second-in-command—by means of successful dream interpretation and food management in time of famine—something inside the accomplished overseer seems to be treading water. Working its way in internal circles despite all appearances. Seeking some form of resolution, some escape from that cup.

Having studied the Joseph story for quite some time (I wrote my dissertation on it), I’ve long been intrigued by how much—or little—the narrator allows the reader to “overhear” his emotions over the course of his ups and downs. When his brothers throw him into a pit to die, we know that Joseph begs for help, but are not privy to his exact words (Gen 42:21). On the multiple occasions he cries upon seeing his siblings in Egypt, it is only when he finally reveals himself as their long-lost brother that we are allowed to hear his emotional undoing (“I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” [Gen 45:2]). Much of the time the reader is left to guess what motivates Joseph to say what he says. Is he bragging when he tells his provocative dreams to his brothers and father, or just bedazzled by their suggestive symbolism (Gen 37:5-11)? And where in the world does he learn the rarified art of dream interpretation when he offers to solve the cupbearer and baker’s dreams (Gen 40:8)—much less Pharaoh’s (41:25-36)? Beats me.

There is one place in the story, however, that is easy to skip over but actually offers a rare look into Joseph’s interior life­—his most intimate thoughts and feelings. It comes in Genesis 41, when Joseph’s highborn Egyptian wife bears him two sons right before the seven years of predicted famine. Joseph calls the first one Mannaseh, a name which derives from the Hebrew word na-sah, or “to forget.” “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house,” (Gen 41:51) the great interpreter declares. It almost sounds as if he were presenting the reader with a riddle along the lines of: if a tree falls in an empty forest, does it still make a sound? Joseph appears to be asking: “If I no longer dwell upon the trauma of the past, does it still hold a grip on me?”

Oh, Joseph. Despite all your wisdom and visionary prowess, you have yet to learn that it’s not so easy to divorce yourself from the pain of the past, no matter how much blessing you may experience in the present. Yes, the God of all comfort wants to heal our wounds, but that healing may come in a manner we could hardly have expected. In fact, it almost always does.

In keeping with this retrospective language, Joseph calls his second son Ephraim, a word related to the Hebrew verb pa-rah, or “to be fruitful.” “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction,” (Gen 41:52) explains the dream interpreter, conjuring another name of praise that is laced with pain. Joseph may have risen to meteoric heights in Egypt, but his beginnings as a slave (not to mention a betrayed brother) remain in his thoughts, all protestations of “forgetting” to the contrary. No, if we attend to Joseph’s naming of his children, we may strongly suspect that his former “hardship” and “affliction” will have to be dealt with head on. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

And that is exactly what happens to Joseph, three chapters later, when his brothers show up to buy grain in Egypt because famine has hit Canaan hard. His identity safely obscured behind an Egyptian façade, Joseph puts his now-vulnerable brothers through a series of trials meant to reveal how their family fares all these years later. He is after whatever lays buried within their hearts as men of Israel—both Israel the man (also called Jacob) and Israel the land, whose God he worships.

Of course, this process of testing causes Joseph’s brothers much anguish as their sins are revisited in the cold light of truth. But the puppeteer does not pull his strings without suffering. What enslavement, false accusation, and imprisonment could not do, interaction with his brothers finally does: unmasks the agony Joseph has been carrying since he was kidnapped from Canaan. And once they have surfaced, Joseph must pursue the meaning of his wounds to their very end. “[Y]ou meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive…” (50:20) he finally concludes. Thus he provides his brothers, himself­—and us—with the hope that no matter how dark our narratives may get, God can suffuse them with enough light that they becomes something else entirely. Stories not just of tables turned, but of lives redeemed by a Creator who works and reworks every detail into one magnificent weaving.

In my own life, I have had to sift through the hardship of my father’s house, where I was singled out from my siblings as an object of fury rather than favor. Something about my very existence, the way my mind, heart, and soul were put together, really disturbed the man who gave me life. On the one hand, I know that when he looked at me, my father could see the gifts we shared: sharp intellects, strong social skills, and initiative-taking natures, to name but a few. On the other, the resemblances between us meant that whatever conflicts raged within himself—and there were many—he took out on me. Not only was he afflicted with undiagnosed mental illness, but like Joseph, he had endured family-related trauma in his youth. There was sufficient darkness within my dad to fill way more than one life. And so it spilled over—and into—mine.

And then there was the matter of what my father didn’t see when he looked at me. A child of God with her own divinely appointed destiny. One whom he had been called to nurture and protect to the best of his ability. One whose needs he was supposed to happily fulfill with the resources God so amply provided. One who was his only in the sense of his to love. Not his to use like a packhorse. Or a rag. When, at age 12, my father decided to go into full-time ministry, that is when I really disappeared from his view. Because every decision from there on out centered on what he thought was best for the church he was building, not on what was best for me—a youth who was suffering from pretty serious depression at that point.

Why am I rehearsing all this now, when I can look all around me and see that I have been spared so much of the trouble that consumes other people during this pandemic? Because, I suppose, I am still at odds within myself, as unsure as an adolescent as to what I’m supposed to be when I grow up. Every day I hack away at the obvious—raising my special needs son, who has autism and requires so much care. I also stand at the crossroads between my experiences as a struggling Christian and my training as a biblical scholar and blog about the insights that arise at that intersection.  I have written two books—one academic and the other fictional—that have yet to see the light of day. I would like to continue writing projects of some depth and length, but don’t know how much more of my heart I can invest in texts that go nowhere. Like Joseph in his jail cell, some part of me wonders: Will I ever get out of here? Is there more to life than this?

Becoming what you are meant to be is hard. Especially if you are stuck in a holding pattern where your efforts remain largely unrewarded or invisible. Maybe you wonder whether the work of your heart, your hands, makes any difference at all. And maybe it’s all but impossible—as it is for me sometimes—to picture a Heavenly Father who cares one whit about your development as person. Maybe you just can’t imagine him striving to see the gifts he placed in you come to fruition. Heck, maybe you’re still having trouble with the basic concept of being his child. When you think “son” or “daughter,” you either go numb with unknowing or, on the other end of the spectrum, tremble from trauma.

I want to say that I see you. I know you are there, waiting to forget your pain and become fruitful in the land of your affliction. You so want to move on, but how and when and whether that happens seems out of your control. You’re trapped, unable to take flight. Just waiting to be swallowed up into the darkness.

You’re being so brave, keeping your eyes open for opportunity to change. You’re being so strong, remaining on your feet. You’re being so noble, refusing to give up on yourself. (Did you know that’s what you’re doing? It pleases God no end.) And you’re being so good—fighting on the side of love and life and light.

Let us sit in each other’s company for a spell and know that we are not alone as we pray and persevere, asking each day to interpret our narratives correctly so that we may trust God—even if we can’t understand the ups and downs of our own life stories. Our moment to bear witness to the good that God extracts from evil will come. We are more than what our past has made us. That is Joseph’s final message. We may have to fight long and hard to get through to our healing, but that struggle will save more lives than just our own.

Do you believe it?

Today I do. Today look into my autistic son’s eyes and I do. I look at all the years I battled post-traumatic stress from my childhood and I do. I look at all the people God has put in my path to intervene and I do. I am not who or what I was even ten years ago. I have gained wisdom. I have won strength. And I expect to fill my pockets with more treasures such as these in the next ten years to come.

Come join me. We will crawl up the sides of that cup, shake our wings free, and fly.

‎ בָּ֭עֶרֶב יָלִ֥ין בֶּ֗כִי וְלַבֹּ֥קֶר רִנָּֽה

 Weeping may endure for a night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning (Ps 30:5).