Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

Have you ever seen a cultivator?

hand cultivator

It’s pretty wicked looking.  To me, anyway.  If I’m dirt, that’s a pretty intimidating device.  Not sure why, but it reminds me of the life-sucker from Princess Bride- you know, the thing they hook up to Wesley to suck life out of him.  All the way till he’s *mostly* dead.

I’ve been reading the Gospel according to Mark lately, and the last couple of weeks have been focused on the parable of the Sower and the Seeds.  Or, more to the point, the Parable of the Seed and the Four soils.

Allow me to summarize if it’s unfamiliar by name.  Jesus is telling a story about people.  He says, a sower goes out and sows his seed.  Some falls along the path, but the ground is hard, and the birds come and take it away so that it doesn’t take root.  And then some falls on rocky soil.  It takes root, but when the heat of the day is on it, it withers and dies, because the soil is shallow.  Then some of the seed falls amongst thorns.  It grows, but the thorns quickly choke it out, and it does not bear any fruit.  Then there is the seed that falls in good soil.  It takes root, grows, and in due time, produces fruit, 30, 60 and even 100 times what was sown.

So we’ve differentiated between 4 different landing zones for the seed.  The Sower is not really discussed in any particular detail, nor the seed.  Jesus goes on to explain to his dullard friends what he *really* meant.  He says the seed is the word of God, and the different soils represent the different kids of hearts that receive the word sown by the Sower.  The Path represents those for whom sin has so hardened their hearts that they turn from the word immediately- Satan snatches it up before it can grow.

This makes me sad.  Sometimes when I hear a word of truth- a word that is convicting me directly I squirm and sweat a little.  I get that icky feeling that I know I have to confront this.  I know that there have been seasons of my life where I had given myself permission to feel like this, talk like that, act in this way to such a degree that I honestly didn’t really feel that bad about it.  I know that this dimension, affected so deeply and radically by sin, which is simply alienation from God and from perfection (or as the bible calls it, Shalom)- that this dimension is so filled with the power of sin that God’s spirit REALLY does have to struggle to crack through the stone heart.  It’s amazing to think about- that the God of the universe has to exert the same force that created black holes to penetrate the human spirit and win his heart!

…the God of the universe has to exert the same force that created black holes to penetrate the human spirit and win his heart!

Imagine the sadness God must experience- the profound sadness of a child not simply turning away from a parent, but disowning and rejecting him.  Calling him evil.  This is the timelessly unending and yet immediate daily reality for the sovereign God of the universe.

Then there’s the rocky soil- a place where the seed takes root, but is shallow, and is burned by the sun.  It’s a simple, skin deep kind of root.  The kind that burns off like the fuel I drown my charcoal briquettes in.  Apply a little bit of fire, and poof.  It’s gone.  Maybe this person’s heart experiences a little ribbing when his friends find out that he’s giving Jesus a try.  Little bit of fire- poof.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

And the thorns.  We all know about thorns, don’t we.  I mean, lets face it, Christian or not, anybody who’s ever had a goal has faced thorns.  Maybe you wanted to overload in college.  Or lose weight before spring break.  Or learn how to play an instrument, speak a foreign language.  Pray.  Submit to authority.

But the worries of life, and the desire for things crowded out the seed, and it never produced any fruit.

This person never got to experience the “now” aspect of God’s kingdom.  They never experienced the pure joy of brotherhood, of accountability, of sharing the serenity of God’s faithfulness and how good He is.  They never experienced the nearness of God’s kingdom.  And, frankly, some would say they never really knew who Jesus was to them, and will be for all of us.  I don’t know.  That’s not for me.  Then, finally, the good soil.

Which brings me back to the cultivator.  Take another look at that thing.  Teeth.  Spikes.  A really crazy mad looking rake.  Guess what the big difference between the good soil, and all the others?  You got it.

Is the seed different?  Nope.  Sower?  Nope.  Just the ground.  The path has never seen a cultivator in it’s life.  The rocky soil?  Nope.  That rake in the back is for picking up rocks and whatnot.  The tines on the wheel are for the thorns and weeds.  All in all, I’d say it looks like an altogether unpleasantly, disturbing instrument.  And I think that’s the thing.  The ground needs the tiller to cultivate the soil to prepare it for the seed.  It’s worth mentioning that the process of cultivation is ongoing.  Ain’t no “one and done” kind of deal.  That ugly, spiky wheel rolls over the good soil over and over again, constantly pulling up the weeds and rocks, constantly turning the rain-soaked soil into loose, workable dirt.

How does cultivation happen?  Abide.  Jesus shares in John 15.  He says that the one who abides in Him will bear much fruit.  How much?  Like 30, or 60, or 100 times what was sown?  Maybe?  Maybe.  So the time we spend with Jesus is the time He spends picking weeds, plucking the rocks and stones from the flesh of our souls.  The torments and worries- he plucks them away.  And he nurtures the soil- painful at times, but rewarding, as the sun is able to warm us, and the rain to water us, with nothing to steal away our joy.  Our joy being the pleasure of experiencing God’s kingdom and salvation now, and forever.  This isn’t to say really that Jesus is a torture device.  If that’s what you read- I humbly apologize.  But God is a farmer- he plants a vineyard, he cares for it, builds a threshing floor and digs the winepress, and builds a wall around it.  Why?  To keep the soil good and workable.  And he uses tools and time to do the job of making rocky, thorny, packed down soil into loose, clean, workable soil.  Are you ready to receive the seed?  Are you submitting to the plough blade?  Or the tines of the cultivator?

If you are experiencing pain outside of the context of salvation- if you are not a follower of Jesus, and are experiencing deep, chronic pain- spiritual pain- you are in Hell.  Right now.  This is the foyer of the kingdom of dark.  But God desires to grow you!  He will even spread the seed of his word on you!  Farmers don’t drop seed on the road, friend!  It’s a waste!  But God- He will sow anywhere and everywhere.  Receive his word-  the Kingdom of God is near you!  He will faithfully tend you and make you to grow and produce a harvest!  The soil needs to be broken though.

Maybe you are a believer, and like me, you have experienced drought.  The ground is cracked and stiff. Rocks poke up from the frosts, and the thorns are the ONLY thing that seem to grow under this sun.  Submit to the rake and cultivator.  You will loosen up, and the seed will sprout.  He is faithful, and he’s got a bit of a green thumb.

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Genesis 45

1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.

 

5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.[a]
 8 “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.

Catharsis!

So- finally some good news, here in chapter 45 of Genesis.  Joseph has removed the veil and revealed himself to his brothers.

I didn’t think that reading the bible one chapter at a time would ever be very problematic.  Wrong.  While not a terrible profound observation, it stands to be said every so often just as a reminder: the Bible wasn’t written in chapters and verses.  In fact, what we call the first five books are really just five chapters of one book.  The conventional divisions into 5 distinct books has to do more with the central theme of each section, but they are all dated at about the same time- and have their own name: Pentateuch.  Sort of a subset within the bible.

Well, this is just another lesson in hermeneutics then- sometimes breaking a story up into artificial segments can be detrimental to how we understand the whole story.  And nowhere has that been more evident in Genesis than right here, in Joseph’s story.

Joseph has been gone for at least 9 years.  For a decade, his brothers have been under the mantle of remorse.  Or at least some of them have.  Joseph’s father, the patriarch, Jacob, aka Israel, has been slowly deteriorating under the pain of losing his beautiful Joseph.  Joseph has been a captains right hand, and the focal point of his derision.  He’s lived in relative luxury and in a prison.  He’s known the adrenalin rush of being pursued by a woman- and the fear of standing before the most powerful man in the world, Pharaoh.  He’s been forgotten and he’s been the “father to Pharaoh.”  And now he’s at the end of his considerable emotional rope.

His trials seem to have brought him wisdom.

This is no small victory.  I’m not sure I’d be so fortunate.  Joseph, by today’s standards has every reason to have lost trust in the most sacred things.  He was betrayed and sold into slavery by his own family.  Framed and abandoned by his employer.  Left and forgotten by people he’d been charitable to in prison.  His power would have corrupted a lesser person.  A lesser person might have taken liberty with his power to acquire wealth and security- to prevent the pain and suffering he’d known up to this point from ever happening again.  He might be jaded and permanently untrusting.  He might be inclined to blame God for ten years of being abandoned by family and uncared about, forced to live in a foreign culture with no ties to home.

But no.  In all this time, Joseph’s faith in God’s purpose has caused him to pursue a sort of soterical career.  Even after his own abandonment by family and imprisonment, he is still pursuing other peoples’ peace.

He has spoken truth to the two fellow prisoners.  He gave peace to the Pharaoh about his dreams by clearly giving meaning to the dreams he’d had, and then offers sound wisdom to offset the bad news.  And now, Joseph is giving his brothers peace and forgiveness!  He is telling them that they were doing God’s work by despising him, selling him to a band of strangers, and ultimately into slavery and all that happened to him here in Egypt.  Why?

He’s giving God- this God that we have only heard about in the context of giving meaning to dreams, credit for using Joseph to save a nation’s worth of lives, as well as the lives of his own family.

This, I think, is an almost super-human ability!  Especially when you consider how much time has passed.  I can only speak for myself, but if I get a little down in the mouth for a couple months I start examining my life for places where I’ve let God down.  Maybe that’s not bad, in itself, but when I do that, I start to get blue, and a little mean.  I start thinking naughty thoughts about God- like He’s punishing me (which of course, He’s not, having fully extracted any punishment he must for me from Jesus), or that He’s changed His mind about me (which he doesn’t because nothing can take me from Jesus’ hand).  In short- I get impatient very quickly with God.

Ten years!  Ten years have passed in Joseph’s life.  Have you waited ten years, faithfully, for something?  Anything?  I don’t know that I can honestly say that I have.  At least not in obedience.

There’s plenty here about forgiveness.  There’s plenty here about how family relationships are kinda messy, and sometimes require a frequent and potent bath in the bubble-potion of forgiveness.  But God’s providence is what is on display, and Joseph’s unfailing dependence on it.

God is faithful.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, great comfort can come from the simple proverb: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is God’s purpose that will prevail.”

This may seem obvious- but God has a purpose!  This may seem less obvious at times: God’s purpose is for good!  Joseph declares his joy in this when he tells his brothers not to be troubled by their evil plans, because God caused good to happen!

This is less obvious:  If Joseph had sucked his thumb and pouted while he was in jail, God would have had a much more difficult time getting everything in order.  Joseph set his pain, anger, betrayal down on the floor of his cell and “saw that they were troubled” and set himself to comforting the two fellow prisoners by interpreting their troubling dreams.  Had he never done that- had he never inserted himself as a healer and a comforter into that situation- he would never have stood before Pharaoh to warn him of the coming prosperity that would buffet that following famine!

A simple act of selflessness, on Joseph’s part was a small key in an extremely large lock.  A single act of selflessness was the spark that lit the tinder, that held the ember, that caused a campfire to turn into a forest fire.  And it happened during a rainstorm.  Heck, a monsoon.

That is God’s character.

Genesis 42:

6 Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. 7 As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked.

 8 Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. 9 Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”
 22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” 23 They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

  He turned away from them and began to weep, but then came back and spoke to them again. He had Simeon taken from them and bound before their eyes.
 25 Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put each man’s silver back in his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. After this was done for them, 26 they loaded their grain on their donkeys and left.

Families are indeed curious creatures.  If you have one, you must agree.  They have these histories- they become genetic.  Part of the DNA of each person.  In this segment of Genesis a strange reunion takes place.  The conceited son who was ambushed, sold off in spite, and left for dead on the highway of their shared memory is reunited with 10 of his 11 brothers.  But rather than leap down from his place, clutching them and exclaiming, he upholds his new identity as an Egyptian governor, keeping safe distance.

In fact, he actually comes down pretty hard on his brothers, yelling at them, and accusing them of mortal crimes.  He throws them in jail for 3 days just to make them sweat.

It says in the scripture that “he remembered his dreams about them [bowing down to him].”  Yet he keeps all of that to himself.

Apparently, though time has passed, and they have collectively agreed that Joseph was killed tragically long ago, the guilt has not passed.  Though they may never talk about it openly, the sounds of their brother weeping and pleading from the bottom of the cistern still echo in the space between them.  And now, at a distance from their father, those memories are not distant.  They are right there, on the surface.  Having another moment of glory, slimy and black on their collective memory.

21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother.

What a horrible moment this must have been.  Full of tension.  Full of angst.  All the way around the stage, everyone tense, everyone eager for resolution.  Nobody knowing how it might happen.

Did Joseph’s conceit return?  Was he gloating in the memory of his dream, with the sheaves of grain bowing down to his sheaf?  Is this the return of the old Joseph?  What in the world is God’s spirit doing right now?

Does God gain glory from this moment?  Brothers in conflict?

In the New Testament epistle called 2 Peter, the author speaks of God not being slow… as some understand slowness.  I don’t know what the Greek words are for all of this- but I have been comforted by the idea of this phrase.  

God is not subject to linear time the way that we are.  The way that Joseph and his brothers were.  God holds time within himself.  Each moment of our history is evident to him.  I believe that every moment of history exists as the present for God.  He is the creator and sustainer of every moment.  Each moment of our lives is utterly rooted in God and in his sustenance.  He is more than sunlight feeding a plant.  He is the sunlight, the soil, the ability to convert the sunlight into energy usable by the plant- he is the time it takes for the plant to convert the sunlight.

My point in saying this is that I see moments like these, where time seems to slow down, and each moment is adrenalin times 100- when each second is like fire and ice mixed together in a torturous pathology, God is still present in these moments.

In that moment when my father was dying, and me and my brothers sat around his bed- where was the glory of God in that?  Each of us experiencing our own private anxiety about losing our father.  Each of us reliving all of the moments of our lives with him, good and bad.  Between each breath.  Each of us secretly fearing the next moment.  Secretly hoping that something miraculous might happen, each knowing that it was impossible.

His glory seemed slow in coming.  But God doesn’t “do” time like we “do” time.  His kind of doing time sees the apple, the manger, the cross, and the last trumpet all at the same time.  Maybe that’s what we’re seeing here.  A sliver of the spectrum.

Joseph conceives of a plan.  He wants to see his littlest brother, Benjamin.  It seems, from the text, that Jacob is protecting Benjamin, desperately, almost as though that might somehow save Joseph from his past.

Joseph uses his power and swag to fill the bags of his brothers not only with grain but with the money they used to purchase it as well.  He must have known it would cause them great terror.  Maybe.  Maybe it didn’t occur to him that they might see it is as an opportunity for Egypt to take them all away for good and for ever.

In either event, he keeps one brother as collateral- a guarantee that they will return, and they will bring the little brother, Benjamin.

But when the brother’s get back to their father and tell them what happened, he is in despair at the loss of another son.  And utterly refuses to let another child go down to Egypt.  He is still mourning the loss of Joseph, and is thrown into mourning for Simeon as lost.  And he will not lose another.

But Rueben, desperate to regain his conscience, and fully lost in remorse over Joseph, offers the lives of his own children as a promise that Benjamin will return unharmed from Egypt.

Are you in mourning over something that is behind you?  Or frightened of something in front of you?  I have been.  I am.  At times like this it’s easy to wonder where the hell God has gone.  But we have for us many examples, in scripture, and even in the collective lives of our families and friends, stories of God’s faithfulness.  The written comfort from 2 Peter is often on my lips, and in my ears.  God is true.  He is faithful to his own character.  It sometimes drags out for us- sparks glowing into embers, into flames into a full-on all consuming fire that seems like it will go forever.  But it won’t.  It can’t.

Only God and his words can go forever.  And his words, his promise, is that He is with us.

“He is not slow in keeping his promise, as some reckon slowness.  Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

2 Peter 3

Genesis 41:

1 When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream:


57 And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe everywhere.

Genesis.  In the beginning.  Genesis is all about beginnings- some good, some terrible.  One of the beginnings that Genesis confronts is the beginning of evil in the creation.  The beginnings of trauma, murder, stealing, aggression.  The beginning of what I like to call “the suck.”

But there is another kind of beginning too.  There is the beginning of salvation.  The beginning of the promise.  The promise I’m referring to is found in Genesis 3, when God comes to see Adam and Eve, and discovers their infidelity to Him.  He points to the serpent, in reproach, and promises it that He (God) would have the last word in the matter.

Then there’s the promise to Adam and Eve that they will pay dearly for what they have done- that pain will increase, toil in labor will increase- and finally, that they will not be allowed to reach out to the Tree of Eternal Life, to live forever in this broken way, with no hope.

Now we are an unknown number of years beyond these beginnings.  Joseph, the last born son of Isaac, has been in a dungeon for two years, in an Egyptian city, far from his home.  His brothers had sold him into slavery, and he ended up in the service of a captain of the Egyptian Royal guard.  But he was framed by the captain’s wife, who was angry because Joseph would not disgrace himself by sleeping with his master’s wife.

When Joseph sees two fellow inmates looking distressed because of dreams they had each had, he listens to their dreams, interpreting them and explaining them to them.  When the dreams’ visions unfold in real-life drama, Joseph is proven true.  But the dead don’t speak, and the freed go on living, so Joseph’s ability remains in the dark of the dungeon.  Until Pharaoh has a dream that nobody can explain.

Then the freed remember their chains and the day they were broken, and Joseph is quickly brought up from his dungeon.

When Joseph is finally before the Pharaoh, and the Pharaoh has explained to Joseph why he is there, Joseph denies the abilities that have been ascribed to him, saying,

“I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”

He then proceeds to explain to Pharaoh what God is revealing to him in these dreams- that seven years of astonishing prosperity were coming to Egypt, but that they would be quickly forgotten during the seven years of agonizing and desperate famine that would immediately follow.

And then he begins to ad-lib a little.  Joseph takes the opportunity to advise Pharaoh on a game plan.  Tax the abundance heavily, and put it into savings for the years of want.  What government can say no to a plan like that?

Just kidding.

Anyways.

So God is bringing a famine to Egypt?  That’s part of the plan?  This is not congruent to how I understand mercy, grace, or love.  Why does God want to bring suffering?  What kind of God allows that?

Here’s another question: If God is bringing this suffering, why then is He warning Egypt about it, and then offering a way to mitigate the pain?  Can’t really seem to decide which way He wants to go with this.

Jesus faced a similar argument in his ministry too.  People objected to this notion that he might be the Son of God.  They cringed every time he told some whore or diseased bum, or a lowlife roman-sellout-”jew” that he or she was “forgiven.”  Like a man has the authority to say that.  But then they would see him cast out “demons” and healing people with illnesses and the such.  They said “He casts out demons by the power of the devil!”

Wha?  He what?

To this Jesus answered, “a house divided amongst itself will not stand,” implying that it was really kind of stupid to say that (which it was).

Here’s my thought: God doesn’t “bring” suffering to Egypt to entertain Himself.  Watching all the little Egyptians scramble around looking for food, and dying is not some kind of God-tube “Survivor: Divine Island” sick entertainment.

Famine is the undeniable evidence of how many ways we are broken.  It is the unstoppable evidence of how badly messed up creation is as a result of our pride and greed and selfish ambition.  It is the fruit and wage of sin.  I.e. it’s all our fault.

God steps in though- desiring to save, feeling compassion, wishing to preserve.  He sends a servant with discernment.

How can I say that?  How can compassion exist when a famine is happening?  One of my foundational assumptions is that God is Holy.  A Holy God cannot be divided- or conflicted.  And He is a creator.  He created everything out of an abundance of desire for community.

When Adam and Eve broke that communion, His retaliation came in the form of making better clothes for them than they could make for themselves.  His retaliation came in the form of preserving them from living eternally in that broken state.  His retaliation came in the form of cursing the tempter and promising that the curse would not be permanent.

These promises must be kept by a Holy God.

In the Biblical story, mankind is always the one who instigates evil.  He ignores the advice of God in favor of the shady promises of a serpent.  He kills out of jealousy.  He multiplies evil on top of evil until the whole of society is such an abomination that nothing good can be said about it at all.  He uses his creativity and ambition to build something for himself that he can take pride in, that he can rely on, and hope in.  To look to for strength.

In the Biblical story, God is always the one with Hope for a better future.  He’s the one that tells the tempter that the curse will be only for a time.  He resets what he has made and restarts society- giving it a second chance with a new family of his careful choosing.  He distracts humanity, causing them to cease their building (at least for awhile), and hopefully turning their eyes back to God for their strength and solace.

And today, God speaks through Joseph, warning Pharaoh that disaster is ahead.

Maybe you’ve been suffering for awhile.  I know that I have had seasons that felt like dungeons.  I have had seasons that felt like a trap.  Like handcuffs.  Like maybe, I was being punished.

But maybe a time is coming where you will stand before a king, and proclaim saving news to him.

Maybe a time is coming where you will share something with somebody that they have been trying desperately to see on their own, and have had no fortune to find.  Until you.

Maybe you would never have been there, not in a million years, if your brother hadn’t sold you out.  If somebody who you’d tried to serve graciously hadn’t framed you, and made you look like a horrible monster.  If you’d not simply spoken truthfully to somebody who had no intention of returning the favor.  Maybe, you had to experience the famine before the feast so that somebody else would never know the famine at all.