In the last post we got into this idea of “Hineni” (meaning, “Here I am!” to God — read the last post). Well I had a pre-marital counseling session with a couple this week, and the groom-to-be missed the sermon because of his work. Smiley (that’s his nickname) is a fireman, so he can only make a couple Sundays a month with his rotating schedule, and he wanted a review of this Hineni deal he’d heard about. With his profession, it dawned on me that this sense of call is juuust like a typical night for Smiley at the station. It might be 3am, snoozing good, when the sirens go off and lights flash and he and the other fire people run for the fire-pole and jump into action, race over to their fire-suits all spread out, step into their boots, pull on the gear and go for it.
He corrected me that they don’t have a pole anymore because someone once greased it as a prank and it’s a liability. BUT. Assuming they did have a pole, I see “Hineni” as answering God just like those guys and gals — not knowing what’s waiting, they are resolved to take that plunge. And there can be a big fluctuation on how their days go, with high highs and terribly low lows. I mean, best-possible-case-scenario: the fire crew answers the call in record time, has everything they need, follows their training perfectly, and puts out the fire immediately. Not only that, but the building they saved is historic and famous, filled with 1,000 schoolchildren and kittens, and CNN happened to be close by; moreover, the mayor gives them awards and a private citizen grants each $100,000 for their heroism. Kaboom. A great day. Not likely at all, ever, but if we knew the fire was going to go this way, who wouldn’t volunteer to jump down the pole?
On the other side is the worst day, the lowest of lows: nothing goes right, everybody arrives late on the scene, the blaze goes out of control and there’s no stopping it. We fight it tirelessly to no use, and lose several members of our crew in the process. Turns out there were others in the building we couldn’t save, and still more who just lost everything they owned/loved. Also not your everyday situation, but sometimes close; or think about all the days in-between, the thankless or mundane calls. If they knew that’s what they were walking into, who would do it?
Thank goodness, firefighting isn’t pay-as-you-go, so that these folks choose whether or not they’re willing to answer the call at a given day/time based on a whim. Because we know we have got to have fire people who are resolved to GO, and to answer, regardless of the coming circumstances. And thankfully that’s how so many of them see their work.
But you and I are in the same kind of boat, as people called by God. There are dire circumstances to which we’re summoned, that depend on God at work through us. There can be exuberant high points, and hideous low points. Victories and casualties. Welcome to the call of God. “Hineni” is taking the step onto the pole, down into action, with resolve, towards the unknown ahead.
I think it’s where we find Joseph again, in his story continuing now in Genesis 39. Highs and lows. Joseph is exemplary of how to handle two of the bigger trials that we all deal with: winning big and losing big. Those two extremes provoke a lot of different reactions in us; we can come out on top, with honor and integrity, or we can do pretty poorly. What does it look like when we let winning/losing beat us? How do we act?
In my experience of others and within myself, we sore losers bear some common traits. 1. Blame. Sometimes the blame is laid on circumstances or surroundings (“The sun was in my eyes”). Or we blame teammates, or try to accuse our opponent of foul play — all trying to minimize our responsibility and maximize others’ responsibility for the loss.
2. Denial. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time controlling the competitive part of me; so even if I’m playing something for good fun, if my opponent takes the game real serious or talks a lot of smack or is consumed with winning, some part of me wants to put them in their place, to shut them up, and show them what’s up. Maybe you relate, maybe not. The thing is, even when that works out and my team smashes the big-talker’s team, it’s often these same opponents who don’t seem to realize how bad they’ve been beaten. It doesn’t shut them up. It sometimes sends them to this place of denial that has them talking even MORE smack. “I’ll get you next time”…”Let’s run it back”…”You got lucky”. And oftentimes these folks act almost cockier, more arrogant, in the loss. It’s like you can see their pride trying to swell up to block out the insecurity that came with losing. An inability to face the truth of the loss. Prime example recently, Charlie Sheen. We know the famous comments. Interviewer to Charlie: “Some are saying you’re bi-polar” Sheen’s response, “I’m bi-winning.” Some of us handle losing big by refusing to acknowledge it, and even going to a place of non-reality where it’s like it never happened.
3. Quit. Plenty of times, sore losers know how to just quit. We refuse to play again, we don’t want the experience of losing again, and we “take our ball and go home.” Even if it means others can no longer play, even if it means we never have a chance to get any better.
On the other end, us bad winners have common traits of our own. 1. Taunting/mocking. Where we maximize what we’ve done and minimize everybody else — our opponents or teammates. I know a lot of this is just getting caught up in the moment of victory, but not always. Think about those famous way-too-over-the-top touchdown dances, they usually involve the one player hogging up ESPN’s end-zone camera, even though it took the other 10 players to get them there. And then there’s the intended effect on the other team — to kick them while they’re down, to use that psychology of “See, we’re better than you, there’s no use in even trying anymore.”
2. Taking advantage. We all try to use our strengths and overcome our opponents’ weaknesses; but there are those players who so want to ensure victory that they will use any and every edge they can find. Plenty of our champs and stat-leaders turn out performance-enhancement positive. We say, “But he/she was so good, why soil that talent with cheating? Why not just play straight-up?” Because then they might not feel as sure to win; and we never know if they would’ve accomplished what they had or not, playing honorably.
3. Retiring. Now, yes, we all have to do it. And in many sports it’s wiser to retire sooner than later for health’s sake. But then there are those who don’t handle winning well by quitting prematurely lest their star start to shine less, or their opponents learn their game, or the up-and-comer faces them down. This is tough in some arenas where players have a very limited window of their athletic prime. Tennis, for example, seems to fall to the teens and 20-somethings; but we have examples of noble champions in people like Federer, who are edging towards the end of their prime but stick around to not only play but continue winning at times. His dominance is seemingly over, he’s dealt with injury, but he plays on. Like in poker, it just seems right to me to give folks “a chance to win their money back.” Quitting the game while you’re on top, when you’ve still got fight left in you, is a poor way to go out in my book. Sometimes it reflects a resting on our laurels, a self-satisfaction at glory-gone-by, when truly our ability to compete is far from over. It’s a poor winner who will only play as long as he/she is the champ.
So what about Joseph?
In Joseph’s deep losses (slavery, taken to a foreign land, wrongfully accused of rape and sent to prison, etc.) and excellent wins (becoming Potiphar’s house-manager, prospering, God’s favor, becoming the warden’s prison-manager), how does he respond?
Did he place blame and set his heart to revenge his brothers? Did he lie down on the road to Egypt to die? Honestly, I guess we don’t fully know; the story leaves out the details. But the next thing we hear is that Joseph is doing well in Potiphar’s household, “the Lord was with him” and he prospered. There’s a pattern at work in him that we’ve seen before. He’s the favorite to his Egyptian master, and been endowed with authority over everything, just like he was back home in his father’s house, even as second to youngest. I think we see an integrity of character in him, that is attached to God, and that he is still living out of somehow. In the face of great loss, Joseph’s heart perseveres.
Then, did he take his position of power and abuse it? Did he rest on his laurels and decide that God had finally brought him to where he deserved, and it was time to reap the benefits? Did he say to himself, “God himself has prospered you, Joseph, and made you great in the Egyptian’s house, why not take his wife, too, who obviously wants you?” Nope. He recognizes the wrong it would do to his master, and to God, and refuses, even to the effect of going to prison for it.
How does he do it?
And how do we do such? How to lose so well AND win so well? Again, the story isn’t explicit, it doesn’t give a “how-to” for being like Joseph, it just shows us how to be. I think as if to say there’s no magic formula or secret step-by-step, there’s just doing it. Because even after the great high of rising in Potiphar’s household, Joseph is at a great low again in prison. But the pattern re-emerges: he’s very quickly the favorite who has been given authority over everything and God is with him and he prospers. Whatever the circumstance, Joseph just seems to choose to persevere with a heart grounded in God. He never quits, never takes his ball and goes home, never retires while he’s ahead.
Don’t we know God’s call is EXACTLY like that for us? We said last week that the call of God comes under heavy assault, and we see it again in Joseph again. We see that the call is assailed by evil, death, and sin. MANY of us know that in our own experience. But do we also know that for all their power, evil, death and sin cannot do an ounce of harm to God’s call? They cannot change it or damage it or stop it. Only we can do that. Why does the call of God sometimes seem to turn out fruitless? Because we choose whether or not to answer it, and whether or not to continue in it along the way. When some of us find ourselves in the midst of GREAT loss, losing huge, we bail out on the call journey. When some of us find ourselves winning big, we settle into enjoying the comfort of the moment, retire from the race, or quit while we’re ahead.
Joseph teaches another option: answer the call and press on. Through high and low, when you think it’s over for bad or for good. While we have breath, we have a chance to cry, “Hineni!”