My Needs

GENESIS 44:18-34

18Then Judah stepped up to him and said, “O my lord, let your servant please speak a word in my lord’s ears, and do not be angry with your servant; for you are like Pharaoh himself. 19My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ 20And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead; he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.’21Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, so that I may set my eyes on him.’ 22We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ 23Then you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall see my face no more.’ 24When we went back to your servant my father we told him the words of my lord. 25And when our father said, ‘Go again, buy us a little food,’ 26we said, ‘We cannot go down. Only if our youngest brother goes with us, will we go down; for we cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ 27Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons; 28one left me, and I said, Surely he has been torn to pieces; and I have never seen him since. 29If you take this one also from me, and harm comes to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in sorrow to Sheol.’ 30Now therefore, when I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, 31when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die; and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. 32For your servant became surety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I will bear the blame in the sight of my father all my life.’ 33Now therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.”

You’ve gotta hand it to Judah, speaking to Joseph the way that he did took some chutzpah. He acknowledges that this man is practically Pharaoh in terms of his power and his ability to affect whether or not Judah and his brother lived or died. He knew that his words might be falling on deaf ears or worse, that his words might provoke this powerful Egyptian to even greater wrath. Still Judah, stands up and presents his case despite his trembling hands and knocking knees. Judah could not bear the thought of seeing his father’s face absent his brother’s company. He knew that Jacob would die of grief and he couldn’t bear that burden. So he spoke plainly of what he wanted and what he needed to happen, knowing that this could go badly in a hurry. This was an act of courage.

Speaking our daily needs and our daily truths may not seem the act of bravery that we see in Judah, and yet how often are we terrified to speak aloud the things we need from life, less known the things we want.

Today, my therapist and I spoke of a continuing narrative that has haunted me since I was a child: my needs are a burden to others. I can make due on my own. If I speak my needs, I will be seen as needy. It’s better to go along with what others want and not rock the boat.

These are pretty standard middle child narratives. They’re also pretty standard abuse narratives. The best way to keep from being noticed is to not have needs. Like so much of my make-up, this is survival thinking that has outlived its usefulness.

It may not always feel like a matter of life and death, but it is important for us to speak what we need, because it communicates to others, and most importantly to ourselves, that our needs are valid. We may speak our needs with trembling voices, but it needs to be done. And like Judah, we can’t control how people will respond to hearing our needs, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they need to be heard. I confess my timidity throughout my life in articulating my needs, especially to those who love me and care about my well being. I pray for the courage to be honest with myself and others about my places of deprivation.

My Self Loathing

No lectionary today. I have been enjoying writing about the story of Joseph this week. It is one of my favorite stories from the Hebrew scripture and I continue to find inspiration in it, but that’s just not where my head is right now.

I have been having a really rough few weeks. I lost my job a few weeks ago. I won’t go into detail (I signed something that said I wouldn’t) but it felt unfair. I didn’t love the job and I’m sure at some point I’ll look back and say “that was the moment was I was released to become what I am supposed to be in the world”. I’m sure that moment will come, but that ain’t where we are right now, kids. I feel like a failure. I haven’t held down a steady job in years. I feel like a screw up. As unfair as I felt the circumstances were, I know I wasn’t giving my best. I haven’t given my “best” to any work in about five years.

In the midst of this, I was informed that someone was saying pretty awful things about me online. I hurt this person, and I get their anger, but it felt like a cheap shot. It reminded me of all the harm I’ve caused and won’t be allowed to forget.

I’ve been hesitant to just take a job for the sake of having a job. I fear I’ll end up right back here in a year. I need to invest myself in something, something I care about and something that feels deeply meaningful to me. I feel like I’m probably going to need to build that thing. That takes time. It’s terrifying to me.

The church has basically written me off. Not the individual members, but the institution. I can’t serve the church and I can’t seem to take any positive steps to rectify that situation. I’ve been volleyed back and forth between governing bodies like a hot potato that every once to keep away from their parishioners. It’s hurtful and maddening.

The biggest blow on the income front is having to cut back on support to my kids. The bulk of what I’ve made over the last year has gone to them. There is enough in my life reminding me that I am a substandard dad, now the little I am able to contribute has been taken away. I hate that I cannot do more for them. They deserve so much more than what I have to offer right now.

In the midst of all of these things, and to some extent because of them, I have been very depressed. I have been lethargic, unfocused, and unmotivated. I feel like a waste of space. Of course, all of that is my brain talking and I know that I can’t trust my brain. I know that there is an opposite reality out there, one where I am making slow but steady steps toward new goals, making new contacts, and handling the things I can handle. I know that I should focus on that narrative, because it’s just as true as the one that plays in my head most often. But it’s difficult to keep my attention on the silver lining.

The greatest sin, I believe, is when we can’t see the Divinity in the face of another human. That includes seeing the divinity in the face in the mirror. I know it’s there. I can’t see it right now. Right now, I see a loser. A failure. I confess my inability to see something of worth when I look at myself right now. God, forgive me.

My Desperation

GENESIS 43:1-15

1Now the famine was severe in the land. 2And when they had eaten up the grain that they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again, buy us a little more food.” 3But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ 4If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food; 5but if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you.'” 6Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” 7They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Have you another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” 8Then Judah said to his father Israel, “Send the boy with me, and let us be on our way, so that we may live and not die – you and we and also our little ones. 9I myself will be surety for him; you can hold me accountable for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. 10If we had not delayed, we would now have returned twice.”

11Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry them down as a present to the man – a little balm and a little honey, gum, resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds. 12Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the top of your sacks; perhaps it was an oversight. 13Take your brother also, and be on your way again to the man; 14may God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, so that he may send back your other brother and Benjamin. As for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” 15So the men took the present, and they took double the money with them, as well as Benjamin. Then they went on their way down to Egypt, and stood before Joseph.

What do you do when things get desperate? Do you do the thing you swore you would never do? Do you do things that go against your personal code? Do you adjust your value system? Do you barter with the things that matter most to you?

What do you do when you’re at the end of your rope? What choices do you have when everyone is depending on you? Where do you go when it seems like there is nowhere left to turn? Jacob couldn’t have known at this point how sweet this was all going to end up being. He didn’t have a clue. At this point, he is trying to do what he absolutely must to meet his family’s most basic of needs. He’s playing his last hand. If this doesn’t work then game over.

Desperation is an awful feeling. It is a feeling that millions across our country and across the world feel everyday. I’ve heard poverty defined as a lack of options. When the choices are between feeding your family and maintaining the integrity of a personal code, it’s the rare case when the pressing needs of the moment don’t win out. We do the things we think we must do to survive.

I’ve been in that situation, maybe not to the depths of despair that many have experienced, but I have been there. I hope that those experiences give me empathy for those who make decisions that otherwise would be unthinkable to me. I confess the callousness of my heart. May the experience of my own sense of desperation give me a soft and open heart toward those who act out of their own.

My Karma

GENESIS 42:29-38

29When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, 30“The man, the lord of the land, spoke harshly to us, and charged us with spying on the land. 31But we said to him, ‘We are honest men, we are not spies. 32We are twelve brothers, sons of our father; one is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in the land of Canaan.’ 33Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. 34Bring your youngest brother to me, and I shall know that you are not spies but honest men. Then I will release your brother to you, and you may trade in the land.'”

35As they were emptying their sacks, there in each one’s sack was his bag of money. When they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed. 36And their father Jacob said to them, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has happened to me!” 37Then Reuben said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”

It’s hard to imagine what Jacob must have been feeling at this point. He’s been kept in the dark to this point. He’s long been mourning his favored son. He’s worried that he may lose more at the hands of the Egyptians. It would be easy to imagine that at this point Jacob is feeling like the actions of his past are coming back to haunt him. He was, in his past, a liar and a deceiver. Since then, he has had a life of struggle and loss. He has to imagine a this point in his life that his youthful betrayals are bearing consequences.

On my drive home yesterday, I listened to the audiobook of the Bhagavad Gita… because I’m a big religion nerd… and in the opening commentary there is a definition of the word “karma”. We tend to think of it as meaning “what goes around comes around”, but it is a bit more nuanced than that. Karma means that every action is both the cause and effect of other actions. It’s about consequences, yes, but it’s also about character. We are the sum of the decisions that we make.

I have felt a lot lately that I have found myself on the wrong side of karma. I feel like my negative actions have caught up with me in ways that at times feel overwhelming. It’s hard not to feel like I have earned/created the life that I have now, because in all honesty, I have. The thing about Karma though is that it isn’t changed by wishing or praying it away. It is changed by selfless action which serve as their own reward.

I can easily imagine Jacob’s despair. I have felt a version of that despair lately and wondered if there was any escape. Hinduism and Christianity agree that the best way to find oneself is to lose oneself in service to others. I confess that I so easily get lost in the sense of despair that says that I can not escape the consequences of my actions and I recommit myself to being a person of selfless service to world.

My Payback

Genesis 42

6Now Joseph was governor over the land; it was he who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. 7When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” 8Although Joseph had recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. 9Joseph also remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them. He said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land!” 10They said to him, “No, my lord; your servants have come to buy food. 11We are all sons of one man; we are honest men; your servants have never been spies.” 12But he said to them, “No, you have come to see the nakedness of the land!” 13They said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” 14But Joseph said to them, “It is just as I have said to you; you are spies! 15Here is how you shall be tested: as Pharaoh lives, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here! 16Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain in prison, in order that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you; or else, as Pharaoh lives, surely you are spies.” 17And he put them all together in prison for three days.

The other night, Shannon and I watched the movie “Payback” with Mel Gibson. I don’t think she enjoyed it much, but it is one of my favorite films of his. He plays an unlikable thief named Porter out for revenge against the man who stole $70k from him and his ex-wife who shot him in the back. He goes to ridiculous lengths to get his money back, tracing it all the way back to the head of a crime outfit. He leaves a lot of dead bodies behind and significant property damage. It’s a delicious revenge fantasy. 

It’s easy to imagine that Joseph was ready for a little payback against his brothers. He has power and he has his brothers at his mercy. Let’s face it, he could have revealed himself to his brothers immediately, given them provisions and eliminated about seven chapters from Genesis, but he doesn’t. He lets his brothers dangle and tortures them a bit. Delicious! 

There are moments when I wish I could be Joseph at this point; he has power over those who have hurt him and the ability to leave them in prolonged agony. Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about such a circumstance! I confess that I think s out this a lot these days. Then I think of all of those who might be wishing the same of me. I think of those who actually have taken revenge on me and how it doesn’t seem to satisfy them. I’m not sure why Joseph didn’t just come clean with his family, but ultimately he wanted his brothers to be well. I pray that can be my wish for all who have hurt me as well as all who I have hurt. 

My depressed mind

Psalm 31

Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
          my eye wastes away from grief,
          my soul and body also.
10  For my life is spent with sorrow,
          and my years with sighing;
     my strength fails because of my misery,
          and my bones waste away.

11  I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
          a horror to my neighbors,
     an object of dread to my acquaintances;
          those who see me in the street flee from me.
12  I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
          I have become like a broken vessel.
13  For I hear the whispering of many —
          terror all around! —
     as they scheme together against me,
          as they plot to take my life.

My strength fails because of my misery. Yes, I get that. Depression, as they say, is the absence of vitality, not the absence of happiness, though those things can quite easily go hand in hand. Parts of my body hurt for no discernible reason. I am dragging. I am unfocused and unmotivated. This is how depressions hurts.

I find it interesting that the Psalmist adds to the list of his depressive symptoms the scorn of both his neighbors and his adversaries. Of course, he would be the scorn of his adversaries. That’s what adversaries are for. But he’s also “a horror to his neighbors”, “an object of dread to his acquaintances”. How much of this is in the Psalmist’s mind? How much of it is his perception of what people must be thinking of him because it is how he sees himself? Adding to the fact that many think less of him, he is also troubled by those who think of him less. “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead”. It is not just the hurt of the adversary or the distain of the casual passerby, it is the sense that loved ones no longer think about him or care for him. That his state has sunk so low that he is nothing but a faint memory to his friends and family. These are the tricks that depression plays on your mind.

Tradition holds that it is David who wrote these words and that he wrote them in a dark period of his life. So it is natural for him to have these sorts of feelings. And of course it is easy to jump to the portions of the Psalm where he returns to proclaiming his faith in God because, heaven forbid that we dwell on the sadness, loneliness and despair.

Right now, my brain is playing tricks on me. It is telling me of the horrible person I am and reminding me of the horrible things I have done. It is telling me that I deserve nothing good. It is getting in the way of my doing the things I enjoy. The fact that I can step outside of myself and see this happening is, in fact progress, but it does not make the hurt go away. I confess that I am depressed and broken. I wish that I could escape from my brain.

My Safe Friends

Mark 2

15And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples – for there were many who followed him. 16When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”17When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Why does he hang out with sinners? Why does he insist on keeping bad company? It’s a good question. I wonder what made the Pharisees ask it? Was it because they legitimately didn’t understand the Master’s motives? Was it because they felt ignored? If Jesus was going to blow them off for someone it should at least be people of higher status? Or was it because being around sinners was unsafe? Not just unsafe in the “you might get your wallet stolen” kinda way, but unsafe in the “what would this do to my reputation” kinda way. See, the problem with Jesus’ hanging out with bad company is that it forces us to keep bad company if we want to spend time with Jesus. The Pharisees wanted Jesus without the bad company.

Most of my friendships are with safe people. I hang out with a lot of pastors and church folks. I have lots of friends in the non-profit world and many people with similar sympathies. I don’t hang out with many tax collectors or sinners. When I do spend time with the “sinners” it is usually in a very transactional way. I am providing some sort of service and they are on the receiving end. I am shielded, to an extent, by the hierarchy created by service. Maybe Jesus was too, to some extent.

January of 2o14 I checked myself into a crisis center. My ex-wife had finally gotten fed up with my antics and asked me to leave the house. I was on the verge of losing my job. While I was at the center, I hung out in the lobby near the TV. I read. I journaled. I watched whatever edited for TV movie was decided on by the committee. In that space, I was surrounded by the people that I am used to serving. We were on the same plane. I had options available to me many of them may not have had. Maybe some of them had options that weren’t apparent. I felt out of my element and longing for the safety of the friendships that I knew.

Another thing happened around that time; I lost a whole bunch of friends. To many, I became the bad company. It’s weird. Bad decision-making is not contagious, but I became an undesirable. I know there is more complexity to the story than how I’ve spelled it out here, but in those moments, I became the sinner, the one whose reputation was to be avoided.

I try to hold on to memories of those times. I don’t ever want to lose those feelings I had in those early months. I don’t ever want anyone to feel like they are beneath me because no one is. I don’t anyone to think that I don’t want to be seen with them. And even if I am in a position of service, I don’t ever want anyone to feel like I have power to lord over them. I repent that I have often sought out friendships that are safe and sterile to avoid the risk to myself instead of thinking through what healing might develop through our friendship. Healing on both sides. I feel like I could use a few more sinners and tax collectors in my life.