You Go Nowhere by Accident

desert_flower2

You go nowhere by accident.
Wherever you go,
God is sending you.
Wherever you are,
God has put you there.
God has a purpose
in your being there.
Christ lives in you
and has something
he wants to do
through you where you are.
Believe this and go in the
grace and love and
power of Jesus Christ.
— Rev. Richard Halverson

I love this benediction by the former U.S. Senate chaplain, Richard Halverson; I’ve been using it since it was introduced to me by Rev. E. Stanley Ott over a decade ago.  I would end every worship service at Westminster Presbyterian, Baytown, Texas, with the words; they were so much a part of our congregation that when I left the church for my next call, my going-away cake said, “you go nowhere by accident.”   Soon after I left the church, the new interim pastor came by my office wanting to talk about that benediction.  How could you possibly use those words?  The theology is all wrong, he said, and dangerous for the spiritual and emotional development of our members.  We need to assure people that God doesn’t cause the pain in their lives.  “You go nowhere by accident …” implies that God creates even the bad things that happen to good people.

We see the same tension in the Joseph story.  Does God cause those bad things to happen to Joseph?  It is all part of God’s master plan?  Is God a powerful manipulator of human lives?  Did God know Joseph’s brothers would traffic him to the Ishmaelite traders who would sell him to Potiphar’s house, where he would be accused of attempted rape and thrown in prison, which would lead to Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and leading Egypt through the boom and bust, all so that he could provide food for Jacob’s family during the famine?  Did God plan all of that?  Did Joseph really go nowhere by accident?  Didn’t he really go by human abuse and by assault?  This couldn’t have been God’s intention.

Joseph says pretty much the same to his brothers when they return to Egypt, in part, to appease their fear and guilt about what they had done to him:

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.  For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping.  But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. (Genesis 45:5-7)

I cannot believe in a God who would cause that amount of pain in the life of Jacob’s favorite just so that one day he can save his family.  I cannot believe in that any more than I can believe that a person is stricken with cancer so that they can be a witness of goodness in the chemo lounge  God doesn’t intentionally heap riches and wealth on one and starvation and poverty on another just to make a point.  God doesn’t make bad things happen so that we can grow in faith, or be more creative, or meet the right people.  That understanding of God is mistaken; it’s premised on a hind-sighted logic that gives meaning to something after the fact.  It takes a truth … “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28)” … and turns it around to imply that God caused those bad things to happen in the first place.  No, that is not the God I know and love.  God is more like the potter with the clay.  If things don’t turn out exactly the way it was imagined, then the potter uses the apparent imperfection or flaw to create something new, dramatic, functional and beautiful.

In Joseph’s case, God continues to act in the life of the boy, who was abused and stripped of all he was given (his name, his family, his home, his prized cloak, his freedom, his identity) yet continues to live faithfully.   In fact, God blesses Joseph so much, that he is a blessing not only to his own family, but to many nations.  Sound familiar?

When I say the words of the benediction, “you go nowhere by accident” I am not saying God has a master script that we’re all reciting in which God wants us to be in the cells of prison (literally or metaphorically); I am saying, instead, that God is so much a part of us that he is present even in the worst of times and the ugliest of places.  Even in those times and in those places, we are guided and shielded and blessed by the hand of goodness.  God can take the worst of conditions and still work in us in such a way that we can be a blessing to others.  Christ, who lives in us, wants to do something through us where we are.

Joseph realizes that it’s not his own ingenuity that saved his family, it was not his intellect or his good looks or his wealth … it was the work of God … the blessing of God working it out through him …  “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2:13).”  This is the life of faith.  So everywhere we go, we go with the intentionality of God’s grace, God’s abundance, working in us, strengthening us, saving us, forgiving us …

What do you think of the idea that God didn’t have it all “planned” from the beginning, but that God works in and through us, even our flaws and sins?

The Lord was with Joseph

Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. He was the first born son of his favorite wife, and Jacob couldn’t help but lavish his favor on Joseph.  Joseph got the fancy coat that set him apart from the others. And, while the other brothers were off tending the herds, Joseph stayed at home with his father. It certainly seemed that the Lord was with Joseph.

That phrase, “The Lord was with Joseph,” appears several times throughout this week’s reading. In particular, when Joseph was sold into the service of Potiphar in Egypt, we are told that

The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.  … Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph.

A very similar story takes place after Joseph is placed in prison, being falsely accused of attempting to rape Potiphar’s wife. So what does it mean that “the Lord was with Joseph?” Other times I’ve read this story, I’ve always read “the Lord was with Joseph” to mean that good things would happen to Joseph. But that is clearly only a part of the story. After all, if that were it, then Joseph should never have been sold into slavery in the first place. Nor should he have been thrown in prison while in Potiphar’s service.

As I think about this now, I’m getting the sense that “the Lord was with Joseph” doesn’t mean good things would happen. Rather, I’m getting a sense of “the Lord was with Joseph” meaning that Joseph was able to be in touch with strengths and abilities beyond himself. Like the interpretation of dreams. So, when it reads that “The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered,” it may be that Joseph prospered as a result of the actions he was able to take as a result of the Lord being with him, rather that the prosperity being the direct result of the Lord being with him.

Somewhat counter to that interpretation is the last portion of the above quote: “the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph.”  However, “because” can be a somewhat nebulous word, and I wonder if perhaps “through” would be another possible translation of the original Hebrew text. I have no idea if that’s a possibility or not. Just something I’m wondering about.

Does this sort of analysis resonate with anybody else? Or is this the sort of thing that only interests me? I’d love to hear other thoughts on this, or anything else in this week’s reading that jumped out at you.

Random thoughts on Chapter 3

This isn’t my “official” post on chapter 3. That will be coming up on Monday morning. Rather, this is a few random thoughts that came to me this morning during worship and Sunday school. Feel free to comment on any of this, or other thoughts you might have on this chapter.

  1. Does the feast and famine sequence in the Joseph story relate in any way to the parable told by Jesus in Luke 12:16-21? In that parable, a wealthy landowner finds he has a bumper crop, and is so pleased with himself, he decides to build new barns to store all that bounty. Jesus chastises that landowner for not focusing on what’s important. On the other hand, Joseph is rewarded for planning for the future. He even gets the Egyptians to sell themselves to Pharaoh. Seems to be directly opposed to the message of the parable. Thoughts?
  2. A popular topic among some Christians today is the idea of spiritual warfare – the idea that “the enemy” is actively placing obstacles in their way to attempt to prevent them from doing God’s will. Was Joseph the victim of spiritual warfare? There were certainly obstacles placed in the way of Joseph fulfilling his destiny as he saw it. But God needed him to be in Egypt. So were all those obstacles from the enemy, or from God? And how does that relate to what’s called spiritual warfare today?
  3. In my prior readings of this story, I’ve felt that the “character” of Joseph was lacking, from a purely literary perspective. Not because he has flaws – in fact, just the opposite. Joseph never seemed to “grow” as a character, and I found it hard to identify with him because of that. I tended to identify more with the brothers. But I saw something reading it this morning that I hadn’t seen before. When Joseph described his dream abut the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him, Jacob rebukes him. I always just glossed over that in the past, but, today, I saw it as a sign that Joseph, as a young man, was a little full of himself, and his father had to reign him in. It was only later that Joseph learned to attribute everything to God, and not himself.

I’d love to hear your comments on these random thoughts, or anything else you’d like to talk about

Where You Lead, I Will Follow

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Where you lead, I will follow
Anywhere that you tell me to
If you need, you need me to be with you
I will follow where you lead
— Carole King

I’ve never been a good follower.  That’s why I’m a terrible dancer; I want to set my own tempo, make my own way, take the lead.   I’m baffled by Abram who gets up and leaves his homeland, his people, and his familiar ways … because God says to go.  If it were me I’d be asking a slew of questions:  where exactly are we going?  do you have the GPS coordinates for that?  How long will it take us to get there?  Will I need to pack dress clothes?  Who is going with us?  How long did you say it would take?  What’s the weather like?  What will I do when we get there?  Are you kidding me?

But Abram goes.  With only a promise from God that he will be blessed and that he will be a blessing to others, Abraham packs up his family and starts on a journey to a place “God will show him.”  Abraham isn’t a stupid or a foolish man.  He’s not young, he’s not looking for a way to make it in the world.  He has a good life, a wife he loves, and they’ve built a household that is more than sustainable.  They’re doing well.  So why?  What does it take to get a household like Abram’s on the road?

Even the promise of “you’ll be the father of nations” doesn’t seem like enough to get him going.  Yes, I realize that’s the one place Abram is unfulfilled … he has no sons, no heirs.  But he’s old … 75 years old when he leaves … any snake charmer could promise children, but Abram wouldnt necessarily follow … Unless, there was something stronger …

Relationship … yeah, you know we’d be back to that, right?  The response of Abram to God’s call is remarkable; it is not only a tribute to Abram’s faith in God, but to God’s steadfastness and trustworthiness.  In other words, Abram’s love and faith in God is not a story of a groupie traveling behind the rock band’s bus.  Abram’s response is based in a knowledge, experience, of God’s presence, blessing, abundance, trustworthiness which he already knows.  And just as Abram has faith in God, God has faith in Abram.  God chooses Abram/Abraham.  There is a bond … a covenant … between God and God’s people.  Abraham becomes the father of our faith, because he is the one God chooses, and Abram chooses to follow God.

It is mutual, it is a love song.  I can almost hear Abram’s Carole King-like response, “If you need, you need me to be with you …”  The relationship is as strong as the mother’s love in The Runaway Bunny“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.  For you are my little bunny.”  Abram’s actions speak volumes, saying “you are my God, and we are your people.”  This kind of trust, this kind of faith is built through years/generations of relationship.  And the relationship is tested on this journey together.  It’s not an easy one … not for Abram, not for Sarai … the whole story would make a TV series that would rival Downton Abbey … yes, even Breaking Bad or Games of Thrones … in it’s deception, trust, intrigue, rape, family relationships, etc.  For the full character development and spicy parts of the story, you’ll need to read the unabridged version.  But over and over it’s a faithfulness, a love of God, that calls them back.

Loving you the way I do
I know we’re gonna make it through
And I would go to the ends of the earth
‘Cause, darling, to me that’s what you’re worth

Post Missing!


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We’re still getting the hang of this … I was wondering why there were so few comments on last week’s text … then I realized the post I had published was gone, missing, AWOL, vanished!  It was a good post … that is, I had a great conversation with myself about it …  It included Carole King and the Runaway Bunny.  I will try to recreate it and get it up … but, in the meantime … what are your thoughts now, on Abrahamm and Isaac and Jacob?

 

Assignment 3 — From Slave to Deputy Pharaoh

This week we’ll be reading the story of Joseph. That’s Chapter 3: From Slave to Deputy Pharaoh.  For those reading along in your own Bible, the references are: Genesis 37; 39; 41-48; 50. Look for this week’s reflection on Monday Morning.  In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here.  Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory.

Two People, One Flesh

A year or so ago, I did a wedding for some friends in Texas.  In order for their wedding to be inclusive of the many faith perspectives and the sexual identities of those attending the wedding, Maegan and Jonathan were careful to choose a Scripture reading that would not offend, but challenge those who shared their day with them.

I wrote this interpretive adaptation of the creation stories for them:

In the beginning of time, the story goes,

God spoke,

“Let us make human beings in our image,
make them reflecting our nature
So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,
the birds in the air, the cattle,
And, yes, Earth itself,
and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.
And so God created human beings;
he created them godlike,
Reflecting God’s nature.
He created them male and female.
And God blessed them.[i]

These are verses from the creation story preserved in the first chapter of Genesis.  In the second chapter another story is told that is believed by Biblical scholars to be considerably older than the first.  In this story, God is more personal and intimate.  Man and woman are created not from the cosmic boom of the voice of creation, but by the hands of God himself.

The first person, we’re told, is “hand made,” uniquely inspired, shaped, and formed from the earth.  adamah.[ii] God names the personality after “adamah”, a lump of earth.  The first human being is named “Dust” or “Red” or “Clay.”  Yes, God created the first human being with a name … with personality, ego, conscience, self-awareness, and the same longing for companionship that God, himself, had suffered.  And, although this being is given life and soul by the very breath of God, Clay is alone.

“It is not good for the human to be alone.”  And, so, God seeks to design a suitable companion for Clay. God creates every species of animal on earth and presents them one by one to the human.   One by one Clay accepts them and labels them, but none of them fill the longing in the heart for a friend, a sympathizer and a partner in life.

So God puts Clay to sleep … and takes a piece of flesh, not another lump of earth, but the very flesh and blood of “Clay” … and from that first piece of humanity, God fashions another being … separate, distinct, unique, yet born of the same essence … the same spirit and flesh.  And God introduces this one to Clay.

“This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

And so it is, that we grow independent of the parents who raised us, and embrace our life[iii]partner … wife, husband, companion, friend, lover … two people, one flesh.

[i] Genesis 1:26-28 paraphrased in The Message

[ii] Hebrew word upon which the proper noun Adam is based.

[iii] In Genesis 3, the second person is named “Eve,” which is a Hebraic allusion to the word for “living”; if I were to name “Eve” in my story, I would choose “Zoe,” the Greek word for Life.

I wrote this to give light to my own understanding of these verses, but also to challenge some of the assumptions we make as we read these stories.  Comments?