Catching up on all of the podcasts I put off listening to throughout the holidays, I was listening to Jonathan Storment - preacher at Highland church of Christ in Abilene, TX - give an advent preach on Joseph (as in Old Testament, technicolor dream coat Joseph) while getting ready for work one day last week.
You remember Joseph. His over-sized, favorite son ego gets him into trouble with his ten older brothers who sell him into slavery. He does well for a little while and rises in his master's house until he gets thrown in jail for something he didn't do. He interprets a few dreams which years later brings him to Pharaoh's thrown room and he walks out the second most powerful man in Egypt.
Listening along with Storement, he came to Genesis 39:20,21:
But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.
Storment observed that this verse is totally converse to what most of us think of when we think of the blessing and favor of God. That as Storement said, "Most of us think if God is with us, we don't even know a warden...If I'm honest, I'd rather be home alone than in jail with God. I'd rather be comfortable alone than suffering with God. But here is Joseph's story, and it's telling us that sometimes the Lord can be with you and things can still be kind of awful."
God can be with us and things can still be awful?
But it's true.
I thought about Hagar in the wilderness and El Roi, the God who sees me.
I thought about David in the cave running for his life and El Elyon, God Most High who vindicates me.
I thought about Mary the mother of God in a community which would stone her for a pregnancy out of wedlock and the Mighty One who has done great things for me.
I thought about Leah in Jacob's household and Yahweh who hears that I am unloved.
Then I thought about my friend and the new wedding date just set and her father's pancreatic cancer.
I thought about my client and her divorce and financial struggles and her children who can't comprehend a father who has abandoned them.
I thought about my friend who spent her Christmas in the hospital rather than with her husband and her three children.
I thought about my friend who after years and years of suffering has finally received an accurate diagnosis.
I thought about the families in the process of adopting who had their hopes dashed when Russia stopped all US adoptions.
I thought about these and others, and pondered a God who is with us in our prisons, in our banishment, in our illness, in our suffering.
Because when God is with us, we don't want there to be pain. We don't want there to be suffering. When God is with us, we want there to be healing. We want their to be release and renewal and reconciliation. When God is with us, we want the outlook to be rosy.
There are better theologians than I who can discuss the problem of pain - the problem of jail cells and hospitals and suffering.
I can tell you it has to do with a fallen world, a world not fully reconciled to God. I can tell you about a Jesus who promises us we will have troubles in this world, but to be encouraged because he in his coming - in his birth, life, death and resurrection - has overcome the world. I can tell you, looking back on my own times of heartache and pain, what it means to see the fingerprints of Emmanuel on my life. I can tell you these things, but my experience with "the Lord was with" is not one of words.
My experience with "the Lord was with" is one of action and community and prayer. It is a group of women meeting with me to pray and read scripture and to offer words of encouragement. It is of a dear friend who sat and watched TV with me and stopped to talk when I needed to talk and stopped to cry when I needed to cry. It is of coffee dates and embraces and encouraging words. It's of scripture which seems to speak directly into the situation and moments of stillness when God feels close enough to touch. It's warmth when all seems cold and dead. It's so many little things and so many monumental things all of which whisper and sometimes scream "the Lord is with you".
The Lord, he is with me, and the Lord, he is with you.
He is always listening, even though he may not be speaking.
He is always comforting, even though he may not be doing.
He is always near, even though he might not make himself known.
And for me, that is enough.