When Obstacles Become Doors

February 7, 2021

In his meditation, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, Henri Nouwen offered a powerful thought: 

what seems a hindrance becomes a way; 

what seems an obstacle becomes a door; 

what seems a misfit becomes a cornerstone.  

Jesus changes our history 

from a random series of sad incidents and accidents 

into a constant opportunity for a change of heart.  

To wait patiently therefore means to allow our weeping and wailing 

to become the purifying preparation by which we are made ready 

to receive the joy which is promised to us. (p. 55)

These seem like wonderful ideals to encourage us in times of struggle, but are they really applicable to real life, or just a bunch of holy speak? If I can find examples in scripture that overlay and inform such words then – in my most sedate voice ever – WOOHOO bring it on!

So, I looked and here’s what I found right off the bat:

Joseph, that man of the Technicolor Dream Coat fame, whose life journey was recounted in Genesis 37-47; his life was a trainwreck for most of his adult life. 

As a child, Joseph was his daddy’s favorite – the entitled family snitch who irritated his brothers so much that they wanted to kill him; thankfully, reason prevailed and the siblings sold Joseph into slavery to some traveling Egyptians instead. 

This sad incident became an opportunity for a change of heart: an attitude of entitlement can create bitterness and violent tendencies in the hearts of others not so well positioned. Joseph learned.

Even though a slave, Joseph landed on his feet and became the master of his master’s household, until false accusations made by a powerful woman landed him in prison. Fake news is a destructive obstacle not easily overcome. Yet, Joseph lived with integrity even in prison and this obstacle became a door to a future beyond all imagining. 

While in prison, Joseph formed bonds with fellow prisoners by accurately interpreting their dreams. When one of the recipients of Joseph’s interpretation was restored to his previous position, he promised to advocate for Joseph with those in power, but instead forgot all about him! Left in prison, Joseph waited patiently, gaining a new understanding of what it means to be powerless, forgotten and alone; a stranger in a strange land. 

Yet, things ended well.

Joseph was freed, rose to power second only to Pharaoh in authority, and was chosen to bring new hope and new possibilities to famine ridden Egypt. He also was positioned to deal with his family when they too were impacted by the famine and traveled to Egypt to beg food.

Joseph could have berated his siblings for their past misdeeds, punishing them rather than forgiving them, but Joseph had been transformed and empowered by those sad events of his past. 

Those times of entitlement, violent jealousies, accusations, imprisonment, aloneness and isolation, came together in a way Joseph could hardly have imagined and he chose a different way – 

  • reconciliation with his family and the salvation of a nation from a potentially devastating famine.
  • humble use of his power for the good of all and not the increase of personal entitlement and oppression of those who had once oppressed him.  

When I think of Joseph’s life, and Nouwen’s words, they truly resonate with me – particularly now.   

+ + +

The sad events of 2020 have changed everything for all of us.  

The curtain that hid the divisions within our country, the deep bitterness over entitled ignorance, the lies perpetrated for personal gain, the oppression of racial, social, and economic inequities, has risen to the surface in an undeniable manner and we are confronted with anger, violence and distrust on all sides.  

All sides are vying for power so that they might heap payback on whomever has just been defeated. Just as the defeated continue to seek power and revenge as they fear a return to lives of benign neglect.

All sides are sharing fake news – or at the least exaggerated news – about the other.  Each sides lives within its own information bubble which reinforces what they already ‘know to be true’ rather than doing the hard work of engaging with ‘both sides’ and finding the truth that lies in the middle.  

We are realizing that the land of plenty is, in reality, a land in the midst of a famine – a famine of compassion, of understanding, of peace, of love.  Toleration is the best we can muster – and toleration only lasts as long as the side in power wishes it to do so. 

The curtain has been pulled back on the prison we have made and in which we live.  We are faced with the reality of overwhelming obstacles ignored for decades:

Unity seems but an illusion. 

Entitlement of the few has created a climate of violence and bitterness among the many.

Relative worth of the individual as determined by education, social standing, bank account, etc. as a determinate of power is leading us to the precipice of demise as a nation. 

Yet, these obstacles of 2020 can become a door into a future with hope for all, if we are willing to wisely choose a different way: Joseph’s way. 

If we choose to see and hear each other more clearly – and do so without the blinders of our own egos and need for power; without the mufflers that block all sound but that of our own voices and like-minded souls….

  • perhaps, like Joseph, we can withstand the lies of the powerful and maintain our  integrity even at the expense of some of our previous entitlements.
  • perhaps, like Joseph, we can see, hear and empower the dreams of those kept imprisoned and hopeless for so long and set them free to live into a future of hope.
  • perhaps we will find that, as we open our lives, our hearts, and our souls to others we will be able to see each other family to love rather than not punish, as we become like Joseph who saw his brothers: those in need of our embrace, our forgiveness and understanding, so that we begin again live lives of abundant compassion rather than struggle in the famine of bitterness. 

We may not want to do these things; it may not be a life path we have chosen for ourselves; which such choices we inevitably lose some of our own perceived power. However, the only true life path for the family of God – and for our nation and the world –  is a life path where all are united and free. 

Joseph was set free to save a starving nation. 2020 has pulled the curtain back and set us free to see and save our famished nation. 

We just need to see beyond ourselves – and receive the joy that is promised to ALL of us!

And to God be the glory!  AMEN.

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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