Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Seeing Shapes Believing

August 16, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

As I reflect on Joseph’s response to his brothers' re-entry into his life, I am drawn to consider how I might continue honing my capacity to see those in my field of vision with more compassion, more curiosity, and more hopefulness.



Spirituality & Psychology

Unshackled by Visions and Values Martin Brokenleg

Martin Brokenleg

Professor Brokenleg frames his work with Native American children as requiring the kind of vision seeking that is traditional in the Lakota nation. He addresses four realities with which these youth must contend–"alienation, urbanization, cul­ tural conflict," and anomie–and identifies four visionary responses: "belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity."

Open in a new tab

Science & Nature

What Is Hemianopsia?

Rachel Barclay

Article describing a visual disorder caused by brain injury and outlinining effective treatment protocols.

Open in a new tab

Science & Nature

How do funhouse mirrors work?

Kings Heath Mirrors and Lightining

Description of the science that makes fun-house mirrors reflect distorted images of ourselves back to us.

Open in a new tab

Arts & Architecture

Kaleidoscope Optical Device

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Story of the invention of the kailedoscope and description of how it works.

Open in a new tab


Where might you broaden your sight so you can see God's vision a bit more fully?


Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. —Genesis 45: 1-4

Think, for a moment, about what Joseph sees when his brothers are right there, in front of him again. What he sees in himself, in them, in the moment between them, that makes him say, “Come closer to me,” when everything in him could have screamed, “Get out of my sight!”

For our lexicon of maxims, I propose an addition, similar to the Anglican favorite, lex orandi, lex credendi—“the law of praying shape the law of believing–or just, ‘praying shapes believing’”–for simplicity’s sake. I would submit a critical shaper of belief is how we see and suggest we add, “seeing shapes believing.” And, of course, what we believe shapes, in turn, how we move in the world and how we act and interact.

In these days when we who are of white european descent are reexamining our collective behaviors as a nation–historically and presently– towards members of this country’s family who are of races and ethnicities different than ours, and as we experience a devastatingly divided political landscape, our ability to see things from multiple perspectives has become a critically important capacity. The work before us involves cultivating more, not fewer, vantage points from which we can contemplate the mysteries of our relationships with one another. Too many of us have become comfortable with seeing things only one way–our way. When we develop a habit of seeing in more than one way, we open possibilities for reaching beyond indiviual partial viewpoints to find a yet more compelling vision together.

Consider Martin Brokenleg’s reflections on his encounter with 10 year old Kevin, who was brought into his therapy group in shackles (see today’s spirituality and psychology lesson). Professor Brokenleg was confronted, immediately, with a question of what he would see and how he would act in response to what he saw. In this article, Professor Brokenleg describes the work of engaging indigenous youth as requiring vision-seeking, coming out of his Lakota tradition. Seeing in new ways is a pre-requisite, he argues, for helping these youth address the realities with which they must contend and meet them with new vision, not unlike the new vision Joseph was able to see when he was reunited with his brothers.

When Joseph’s brothers came back into his life, he saw what they could not see, at least not until he showed them: namely, that God had used their actions against him to put him in position to spare their lives. He saw redemption where most would see only pain, betrayal, abandonment. And from that seeing, he invited them to step past their own distress back toward him:

“And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”—Genesis 45:5

Joseph’s seeing was a beautiful thing. He believed there was goodness in the future–not only general goodness, but specific goodness in these relationships that had been, by all accounts, irrevocably broken. And he used his influence to act on the bigger picture he saw and create a new future:

You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.—Genesis 45:10-13

What happens next is, to me, one of the most exquisite parts of scripture:

Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. —Genesis 45:14-15

Like so many other passages, this is one that has grown too familiar to us, so that we miss its import. Imagine, these brothers who had left Joseph for dead now simply talking with him. Imagine Joseph kissing his brothers and falling upon them weeping.

It's a breathtaking scene, to be sure. But I do not want to gloss over the rest of the story. These brothers had left Joseph to die. Much time had passed since that day. And in that time, Joseph had space. Space I imagine he might have used to rage, to grieve, to despair. And then, to listen and pay attention to the divine, who always beckons us out of the mire—onward toward hope, toward joy, toward redemption born of a bigger vision. Beckons, but does not require.

Redemption happens when we say yes to God’s beckoning. And that yes is not always easy. That yes can look like humiliation. It can look like hard, hard work. It can look like a big mirror into which I am invited to see my own image—to see and not flinch at my own failures. To name what I have done—not everybody else's sins, but my own. To name them, to own them fully, without minimizing them or dressing them up to disguise them. To see them naked and exposed—to do what I must to care for them and to care for those whom they have hurt—those whom I have hurt. And then, to take a deep breath and love all of me—the painful failures, the beautiful triumphs, the embarrassing missteps, the honest questions—every last bit of me. This is the work of training myself to see all of me. Which, of course, makes it much more possible for me to see all of my neighbor.

In today’s first science and nature lesson, we read about a sight disorder called hemianopsia. In layperson’s terms, this affliction is a partial loss of vision caused by a brain injury. It is possible to regain some or all of the vision through exercises intended to retrain the mind to see what is missing from one’s field of vision. The treatment options for this condition offer a compelling metaphor for our soul’s work in regaining a more theocentric vision of ourselves and of our neighbors. We can stimulate the edges of the missing field of vision. We can rely on other data than what we see to help us reach for what is missing in our own perception. We can change our vantage point so that we are looking at things other than those we are comfortable viewing. We can create reference points to test our perception. We can enlist others whom we trust to help us navigate the world that seems so fraught to us because of limited vision.

We all see through a glass dimly. The dream of God for us–as individuals and as beloved community–is an ever expanding sight-line. So that, rather than seeing distorted images of one another, like those in the carnival mirrors (see today’s second science and nature lesson) or just a bit of broken glass here or there—we may begin to see the full fractal of our existence, bearing kaleidoscopic beauty (see today’s arts and architecture lesson).

To see as Joseph did requires training one’s spirit; it requires looking for the whole picture, even and sometimes especially when others have not practiced the same way of seeing you. And it also involves an appreciation that there is a divine vantage point beyond what we can see. And it is from that vista that new worlds can be imagined and built.