Save us from the hand of our enemies; turn our mourning into gladness and our sorrows into wholeness. – Esther 14:14
We learn as small children that the smile is a facial expression for “happy” and that a frown is a facial expression for “sad.” So, most of us, I think, see gladness and sorrow as polar opposites. As a simple communication tool that’s helpful. But life and it’s emotions are very complex. And the spiritual life, even more so.
Today’s Old Testament reading is taken from the book of Esther, which is a beautiful story of triumph about a Jewish orphan who becomes queen and ultimately saves her people from genocide. A dramatic plot unfolds over the course of only a few chapters wherein as evil plans are being formed on one side, God is at work planning to overcome the evil through Esther and her uncle. At one point, Esther turns to prayer calling out to God to save her people and “turn our mourning into gladness.”
I’ve had many prayers like this myself, and I imagine you have, too. My intention, of course, is for them to be answered immediately, so that I can “turn that frown upside down” as we sometimes say. And while it stands to reason that God could certainly work quickly– and sometimes does–very often his work is more slow, more methodical, more plodding than I’d like.
Yesterday I had an experience that gleaned some new insight into the hurried pace I often tread alongside a slow and methodical God. And I realized I might be missing something: that joy and sadness don’t have to be polar opposites, exactly because sometimes joy and laughter appear right there in the middle of the sadness, not as an opposite but as an oasis of healing in the middle of a struggle.
You see, last week, a friend informed me that she’d received a call confirming a diagnosis she’d been dreading: cancer. The same friend met up with me yesterday only to share that she’d just gotten another phone call with more news that they’d discovered a second disease she would now have to battle along with the cancer.
A devastating blow for sure.
But after my hugs and assurance of prayers, she broke into a smile and said, “You know, when I told my daughter about the second phone call today, I was wallowing over all this bad news. I told her it was bad enough to get the first phone call, but the second was even more devastating. Then I asked her what she thought I should do. And you know what she said?” I shook my head no. “She said, ‘Well, Mom, for starters, I’d stop answering the phone!’.”
And we both broke out into laughter right there in the middle of all that sadness.
Of course, we’d all like to be spared from loss and suffering. But I’ve heard it said, “The only way out is through,” and very often that is true for each of us. While, unlike Esther’s story, we may not always get the outcome we are hoping for, in the midst of our struggles God is happy provide us an oasis of healing. It may come in the form of laughter with a friend to balm our wounds, or in the form of a warm hug to flood us with the grace to accept an alternate ending to the story we’d written for ourselves.
So I see Esther’s prayer a little differently today than I did before. Since her story has a happy ending within only a few chapters, I’ve always seen that God answered her prayer immediately. But the ultimate answer wasn’t immediate, of course. Things had to be set in motion. People and places had to be just so. And I realized God had to work slowly because we are limited by time and space, not him.
But he meets us where we are.
And he walks us through s-l-o-w-l-y, reassuring us of his presence with countless oases of healing along the way.
Reflect: What or who provide an “oasis of healing” for me in my struggles? Do I recognize these moments with these people, too, are a way for God to answer my prayers? If not, what would happen if I just labeled these moments as “from God” even if I’m not certain they are?
Pray: God, thank you for your constant companionship! Help me remember that just because I grow frustrated or weary in my struggles, does not mean that you have abandoned me! Help me to soak up the joys of each “oasis of healing” I encounter to strengthen me in my journey ever closer to you. Amen.