When the Path Seems to Go in Circles

January 6, 2015

I haven’t written much since I was waiting for contact from someone. He emailed yesterday- this kind man and pastor who oversees a number of churches in a particular region- expressing some of his thoughts at recent disappointing event. And once I heard from him, I felt free to try to sort out thoughts in writing.

We had another near miss with a church- a beautiful, interesting, creative church that would have been as close to perfect in fit for us (and us for them) as possible. But for whatever reason, they took a sharp turn toward someone else. And even in our disappointment and broken love for this church, we bless the candidate who will lead them next into their new season of change and growth.

Yet this has been hard to swallow. It is not the first time that an interesting and compelling church has slipped through our fingers so close to the finish. As a friend of mine describes, “It feels like always being a bridesmaid but never a bride.” That friend now pastors a wonderful church where he feels right at home. I rejoice with him.

Since seminary, one of my spiritual practices is to use the narratives of the Bible to help make sense of my own story. So at different points in the journey, I have found companions in Abraham and Sarah. Or Peter in prison. Or Job in pain. Or Lazarus’ death and resurrection. Or even Epaphroditis who burned himself out in ministry. This practice has allowed me to explore parts of scripture that inform my own experiences, that inform my theology about those experiences. And quite frankly, they offer hope. Which I’m pretty sure is in short supply for many of us and we need it.

Recently, I’ve bounced between the narratives of the Israelites’ victory over Jericho and Joseph’s story in Genesis. Joseph probably more than Jericho. Yeah… Joseph has been my buddy lately. In fact, I’m pretty sure we are at the part when he’s in prison, gifted with God’s presence the favor of the warden to use his gifts and excel, but being forgotten in the injustice of a butler’s lack of memory. Yeah… I’m pretty sure we are there. 

What’s been interesting about living in this narrative is that I have revisited my childhood a bit. I have always been weirdly awed by the fact that we currently live in my hometown. A place we had never planned to return to. A place that often feels like a prison all it’s own. We have had wonderful blessings in this place and terrible afflictions as well. But it’s almost like, for me, I had to come back to where it all began. To come back to the places that had shaped my life and faith in both good and bad ways. I now am close friends with the woman who helped lead my youth group when I was a teen. I have taken my son to play on the playground where I spent so many hours as a child. I have put to rest the angst that my childhood theology had caused. I am not sure why we had to come be in this place, but perhaps there’s something to coming home and letting go in order to move forward. Or maybe it’s just what happened and there is no rhyme or reason to it.

The truth is, I don’t need to answer “why” to much of anything anymore. I used to worry myself to death with the answer to “why” things happen. And as an avid lover of asking questions, it’s fine to ask why. But it can be fruitless too. In the end, I think I’ve learn to trust God enough to not need the “why.” And while there’s an eerieness to that, there’s also a freedom to it.

Anyway, back to Joseph and childhood. When I was a kid, my parents had a record player that predated me. And they had records. And once we were old enough, they let us carefully slide the vinyl recording out of the cardboard sleeve, place it on the player, let it fall down with flipping sound, and watch as it automatically lowered the needle to play the record. At any given point, one of the four of us would be found playing our favorite records, sitting in front of the large speakers, sometimes singing along, sometimes simply listening intently.

One record my parents had was called Dreamer. It was the story of Joseph set to song. I loved this record. I knew all the words to the song and we even got the music to the score and would sing out of that book. I have not thought of that recording for years.

And yet, as I have walked in Joseph’s story, those dormant songs have come alive again. Despite their clearly dated sound, many of the words, the theology, has spoken to my soul. I find myself waking in the morning with one of the songs from the recording in my head… and I have learned that sometimes when music speaks to me, there is something God is saying to me in it. So I have woken to lyrics like this:

     “I don’t know what’s around the corner, Lord, but I know that you’ll be there.”

     “He’s working it out, the very best for me.”

     “When every road I’ve travelled leads back to where I’ve been… he gives me new                  direction.” 

     “You’re everything I need for you to be.”

     “Here I am depending, Lord, the rest is up to you.”

Perhaps you see why remembering this childhood story in song has been a gift.

And so, it has led me deeper and deeper in Joseph’s story. Into finding this mysterious God who leads me (us) along paths that don’t always seem to go anywhere. We have had plenty of those in the last years. Last year, God clearly told us to pack in order to move. So we did. We packed boxes and stacked them in our garage. We prepared to put our house on the market. My husband had jobs lined up in the location God had told us to go. And then our son got sick again with the same infections that had plagued him for months and affected his entire body. So, our boxes stay in the garage, but our house is no longer ready for showing. The path seemed to go in circles, leading back to where we had already been.

We battled our son’s reinfection and made radical changes to diet and other things. We thought we were getting somewhere with God’s leading. And then tests showed the worst infection yet. The path led back to where we had already been.

We followed God’s guidance to a special therapy that promised more than it delivered, and cost us dearly in finances, times, and emotions. The path led back to where we had already been.

We listened to God about church calls- we pursued the ones who seemed to fit best for us and us for them. We got close, so close, just to have them taken away. The path led back to where we had already been.

And I wonder of that’s how Joseph felt. No matter what he did, no matter who he talked to, no matter who he helped, the path always led to prison walls.

But the Lord was with Joseph. And the Lord is with us. We know this. We don’t always feel this, but we know it. We do not know why he is so delayed. We don’t know why we stand ready and he is not. We don’t know why any of this has occurred. But we know his presence and we know his grace, and despite our occasional lack of patience with what sometimes seems to be his passive response to things, we know well the words of Peter, when he was asked if he would leave Jesus too. “Lord, where else would we go? You have the words of life.”

And the other thing about Joseph’s story- in time (why that time and not another, I don’t know) God not only led his path out of an unjust prison, but into an amazing job. Second in charge of all of Egypt. The protector of the people. A man with wisdom and grace, able to lead an entire nation, and rescue his own people, his own family, from destruction.

So, we too wait in Joseph’s story, amazed at the favor we have been given, frustrated at times at the paths that go in circles, and waiting for the “Joseph job” that will emerge- we think- at the right time.

It has required more faith than I think I ever knew before- well, this and my son’s recovery. Nancy Guthrie says, “Trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness- this is the kind of faith God values perhaps most of all. This is the kind of faith that can be developed and displayed only in the midst of difficult circumstances. This is the kind of faith that cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken.” 

I think she’s right. It’s hard though. Very hard. And we feel completely inadequate in it. But we know that we know that we know that God is still good. That God is still finishing what he started. That God IS.

I don’t know what paths you are taking. I don’t know if, like us, you feel that you are led one way just to end up back at the beginning. For a long time, I worried it was my fault that I ended up back at the beginning. And sometimes, for some of us, we do take things in our own hands and end up hitting obstacles that turn us back to where we started in order to grow and learn and change. But not always. Sometimes, it’s just the way of following a God who is clearly not linear in his thinking. Sometimes, it’s just the way of letting God lead in places and ways that do not make sense for us. But when our faith gets shaken we learn of a faith that doesn’t get as easily shaken, because we have lived that and learned of a deeper trust. A deeper sight. A deeper God.

One thing that I have that Joseph did not have is the gift of friends. Especially the “inner circle” friends who know me so well, and love me anyway. That circle of friends share my surprise and disappointment at this recent near-miss. They too saw the potential of us joining hands with this particular church. But the thing about this inner circle- they stand taller than me in spirit. They often have the faith and hope I can’t always muster. And they let me borrow it regularly. Because they stand taller than me in spirit, they can see a bit farther than I can. And so, their gift to me has been joining me in disappointment and then craning their necks to see ahead- to see where I can’t. They do not pretend to see the end of the path, but they see more than I can see. And so they remind me that Joseph’s prison is not the end. That there’s a “Joseph Job” just ahead. That while they can’t quite see all the way there, they see God at work, laying the pathway, opening the doors, making it right again.

That is a gift. Joseph just had God in his prison. We have God and community.

And so we gather up our shaken faith, we gather up the confusing return to the familiar place where we started, we gather up the question marks and we ask this ones closest to our hearts to help carry them, and we wait. We wait.

Hands held high, open and ready.

One Response to “When the Path Seems to Go in Circles”

  1. dave harlow said

    Thank you for walking this circular path with me and your words of encouragement.

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