An Oasis of Laughter

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.

 

 

 

 

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When God Regrets

The males and females of each living creature entered the ark, just as God had commanded. Then the LORD sealed them inside.

-Genesis 7:16 (ISV)

In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama was asked the question regarding a painful moment in his life, “How did you deal with that feeling of regret?  How did you eventually get rid of it?” to which he replied, “I didn’t get rid of it.  It’s still there.”

As Christians, we too, know the feeling of regret.  We are hardly alone.  I have regrets.  You have regrets.  The Dalai Lama has regrets.  Despite our best intentions, it seems, we all have regrets.  Searching in my memory for moments of regret in Scripture led me to the story of Noah.

 Then the LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and he was deeply grieved about that.

Genesis 6:6 (ISV)

While this may not sound like the beginning of a story of hope and promise and love, it most definitely is.  It is, of course, in the beginning of one of the most popular bible stories of all time:  Noah and the ark.  While it may initially sadden us to read that God ever “regretted” creating us, what we may find comforting about reading this is the reminder that we are made in God’s image so if even God had regrets, then it must be OK –perhaps even necessary—that we have them, too, right? That leads to the question: what do we do with regrets?  Well, more importantly, what did God do?  He looked at this regrettable situation and the messy-ness his decisions had created and he found the good. He.Found.The. Good.

 The LORD was pleased with Noah, however.

-Genesis 6:8 (ISV)

And when God found one good thing amidst all the bleakness, he was able to find more!  As we read on we discover not only Noah, but his wife, his three sons, their wives and all the animals were still good and worth holding onto in God’s eyes!  So God focused all his attention onto the goodness that remained, commanded it to stay put, and tucked it all away into the safety of the ark.

 The males and females of each living creature entered the ark, just as God had commanded. Then the LORD sealed them inside.

-Genesis 7:16 (ISV)

After this, of course, a brutal storm rages.  Waves crash, winds howl and Noah and all the animals are tossed about, until finally, one day, storms have passed, the water has subsided and there is solid ground once again.  Here, finally, it is safe and beneficial to let out the goodness that had been tucked inside.  And that goodness—that is, in this case, Noah—makes an offering to God.  God, in return makes a promise:

 … “I will never again curse the land because of human beings—even though human inclinations remain evil from youth—nor will I destroy every living being ever again, as I’ve done. Never again, as long as the earth exists, will sowing and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night ever cease.”

-Genesis 8:21-22

Then, this happens to the goodness that was Noah and his family:

God blessed Noah and his sons and ordered them, “Be productive, multiply, and fill the earth.”

-Genesis 9:1 (ISV)

I see woven within in the story of Noah a recipe from God for what to do when we find ourselves faced with regret:

  1. Acknowledge our regret. For many of us, this is done best through the acknowledgement—or what modern psychologists might call “owning up” – of all of the ways in which we may experience regret.   This act of acknowledgment comes most powerfully in the form of a humble and contrite confession to God and is not limited to acknowledging only our poor choices but also the many ways in which regret and sin may find us, “in my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,” as Catholics say in the Confiteor.
  2. Find something good to hold onto from the situation that brought on the regret. Most often it will be a new awareness or appreciation for something that perhaps was previously taken for granted. Regret over a poor parenting decision, for instance, may bring the “fruit” of a new appreciation for our children.
  3. Tuck that goodness into your heart and lock it safely inside. While God’s forgiveness is immediate and complete, the process of forgiving ourselves generally takes much longer. During this time, our emotions rage. All those Why did/didn’t I…? What if I had…? ‘s can be very taxing, but in time, the harshness of these thoughts will diminish if we let the tides of God’s love wash over them. Most importantly, while the storm of regret rages, do not forget that goodness, too, can and will eventually come from the darkness if you are willing to let it.
  4. Remind yourself of God’s promises. First, that he loves all of us and does not seek to destroy us, yes. But secondly, that throughout all our time on earth we will know “sowing and harvesting, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night.” In other words, we will know suffering, but we will also know joy! Again and again and again. This is not just a promise to love us always, but also a promise to reassure us that everything—even our moments of regret—are all a part of God’s blessing and design for us!
  5. Use any goodness from your moment of regret for a greater good. If your regret brought a new awareness of a social injustice, consider taking action to promote awareness of it, or donating your time and money to its cause. If your regret brings new insight into what led to your poor choices, remind yourself to make a better choice the next time you are put in a similar situation and give thanks to God for helping you see another option. If your moment of regret led you to find a new appreciation for life or family or Church or freedom, cherish that gift and give thanks to God for it and celebrate that gift with others.

It seems in the story of Noah, we can take comfort in believing that it is normal, maybe even necessary, to have some regrets. It is a gift to use them and learn from them. A life without any regrets is seemingly impossible, and arguably would provide little growth. As the Dalai Lama went on to say in his book, “But even though that feeling of regret is still there, it isn’t associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back. It would not be helpful to anyone if I let that feeling of regret weigh me down, be simply a source of discouragement and depression with no purpose, or interfere with going on with my life to the best of my ability.” Put another way, we can realize through Noah’s story, that what we do with regret is our choice.  God gives us the freedom to choose whether we will hold onto the good that comes from moments of regret and move forward, or let them sink us.

Reflect: What is my moment of deepest regret in life? How am I a better person for having that experience, despite any regret I may feel? What did I learn about myself or others from that experience that has given me a deeper wisdom? How can I use my regret as a catalyst for good moving forward to make my life better for myself and others?

Pray: Cleansing God, though they are painful experiences and memories for me, thank you for giving me moments of regret as milestones in my life. Help me to use them as reminders that growth is sometimes a painful process. Help me also to see that even in painful moments, your love for me and all of humanity endures. Like you sealed Noah and his family in the ark during the storm, seal the regrets of my life with the balm of your love. Amen.