Tag Archives: Joseph

The Last Christmas Eve of the Past        


“Maybe it was not such a good idea to meet for Christmas Eve,” he thought. The virus still raged. Everyone was told not to fly. He flew anyway. Then there was a nor’easter and his rental car had to plow through the last few miles to Grandmother’s house in Western Massachusetts. The “GPS knows the way to carry the sleigh,” kept running through his mind as the wipers tried to keep up with the downpour. When he finally burst into the house he expected his sister to already be there. Now he was worried she’d never get there at all, even though she was just coming from New York.

There was still a bit of evidence of the funeral meal they’d hosted in August. They had made an incomplete job of cleaning up the house they had inherited — and the caretaker kept it warm, not clean. As he put his gym bag on the dining room table, he looked around and realized he had made an incomplete job of saying goodbye, too. He slowly took in a very empty house, something like the body one sees in a casket at the viewing. The spirit just wasn’t there. This was his first real visit to the past.

The best part of his past, his sister Mary, was yet to arrive. His parents had named their only children, the twins, Joseph and Mary. It was never as funny as people thought it was. And their parents did not think it was funny at all. They lived a very serious life. They had died during one of their mission trips to South America, studying on site so they could translate the Bible into yet another indigenous language. They were in the back of a pick-up, their kids were told. It was too big for the burro track it was on and the cliffside gave way. It took months to retrieve and ship their bodies. Now they were buried — inseparable in death as in life, in the ancient family plot behind Grandmother’s house, now the twins’ house.

Joseph loved the inside of the house. His sister loved the outside, every part of the ten acres. But they were not really sentimental about it. The property felt like a burden for the most part. It mostly reminded them of being teenage sojourners with no place to stay — it had been one of their stops. Their parents had not expected to die, for some reason, since they spent an entire adulthood risking their lives. And they made no provision for their young teens should it happen. The twins were surprised with the bad news by the headmasters of their respective boarding schools. They spent the rest of their teen years going from relative to relative, mostly in New England. Winter breaks were spent with Father’s mother in the big Victorian farmhouse. So Christmas belonged to Grandmother. It was always Grandmother and Grandfather just as he was always Joseph, never Joe, never Joey — and certainly not Jo Jo!

Grandmother attended to propriety, but she was never a very attentive caregiver. The same year as their parents, Grandfather died and she became even more distant. Her last fifteen years were spent deteriorating with her house. It was like her cell membrane dissolved and she merged into indefinition. The men in her life had apparently been in charge of faith, because she realized she did not have any. She did not say anything about it, but the Christmas ornaments were slowly culled of angels and manger scenes and the exiled pieces were replaced with glass balls designed to reflect light without having any meaning of their own. They once found a box of lonely pieces in the attic.

As he waited, Joseph gravitated to his favorite room in the house where he had spent many hours alone — nursing his attachment wounds and avoiding his grievances. The dusty library was all his after Grandfather died. Grandmother barely touched it. He loved the novels, shelves of them.

But the book that probably made the most impact on him was an old hardback he found of not much more than 100 pages called Joseph the Dreamer. It was a short book because it had a small point: We all have a dreamer in us and the two Josephs that figure prominently at the beginning of the Old and New Testaments represent how primary this energy is in us all. Our dreams are the well-evolved capacity in us for spiritual experience. They are the doorway through which everyone can enter into their inner dialogue with God.

In the Bible, both Josephs are on a journey of becoming. They are both led beyond their ordinary sense of self — the sense of “I am;” I am myself, which is just the shoreline of the ocean our true selves. The dreams of the first Joseph lead him away from the shadow his brothers represent and into the darkness of his prison where he wrestles his desires and realizes his capability. Later, when he again meets his brothers, he does not use his power to get even, but teases out their confession and restores their relationship. He realizes he has always been serving a deeper calling than he could see in his pits and prisons and productivity.

The dreams of the second Joseph are often seen as bolts out of the blue given to direct salvation history. No doubt his parents interpreted their own dreams that way. But, chances are, like the little book claims, the second Joseph’s dreams represent a well-developed spiritual capacity, a deep connection to the Spirit. Joseph knows how to listen deeply. He’s not just a reluctant security guard for the Savior.

The second Joseph’s dreams also have an interesting parallel with the first. Like the first Joseph had unusual dreams that made his brothers furious, there is a good possibility that the second Joseph was always a bit more dreamy than most people in Nazareth. Other men were kings and warriors but he was more a magician and lover.

There is a good possibility that his furniture did not sell well because it often had an impractical flourish that made it look odd or look Roman. While other workers held their noses and did the job, he probably liked working on the restoration project of Herod Antipas in Sepphoris because it was the only interesting thing going in Galilee – beautiful new houses needing new furniture and new rooms decorated with elaborate mosaic floors. Sepphoris was a city on a hill to which he walked with his sons, a city which could not be hidden.

His neighbors in more homespun Nazareth were not in the market for imaginative carpentry skills and liked to think their practical, simple tastes were exactly what the Torah prescribed. In truth it was exactly the opposite. Their narrowness revealed their lack of basic self-awareness. Their self-protective legalism revealed their lack of appreciation for the transcendent qualities resident in Moses, whose law was like a veil blocking the view of his face burning like the bush from which God called him. So the second Joseph was a good partner for God in his plan to share the spiritual bounty imprisoned in the fallen creation. Jesus came to bring it all out of the pit, to welcome it back home like a prodigal child who needed to be blessed with a multicolored coat.

When Joseph found his second wife to be with child, he was tempted to let the engagement go and find a way to save her dignity. After all, there was only so far he could afford to stretch the sensibilities of his main sources of income. And one could never know how people might get whipped up into a murderous fury by some angry young man, of which there were many in Galilee. Mary might be sold off as a slave, or worse.

But after years of planing down the bark and imperfections of his soul as he patiently planed his finely imagined furniture, Joseph had a receptive awareness that only needed a whisper in the night to gain his attention. After the angel gently spoke to him in his dream, he shuttered his business, defied his relatives, and ended up in Egypt like the first Joseph, nurturing the Answer to the riddles of life. From that place of shadow an even greater salvation was given as a gift to the new remnant of God’s people, the people who change their minds about who really manages creation.

Joseph loved this book and had read it many times. He hid it high on a shelf where he expected no one would ever look. He climbed up to that shelf now and found it again, just to make sure it was still there. A flood of memory hit him as he held it in his hand. He had just had a dream of his own. In it was a woman a lot like his sister Mary. She was relying on him to reveal things to her since she never remembered her dreams. She attended to him like a companion. He was painstakingly teaching her things and she was taking them all in without fear or jealousy. It was like they were having a spiritual meal together.

In this way, the woman in his dream was much like Mary in the Bible, he thought. She could listen too! As soon as she got a message she understood exactly how it applied and she put it into practical or poetic form. She was always on her donkey visiting an Elizabeth and regularly came up with a Magnificat. His own sister was a bit like this. She could not stand church or silence, almost the opposite of him, since he could hardly stand anything but smoke and prayer. He admired his sister’s pragmatism, the shadowy, turbulent yin to his airy, light yang. Like her namesake in the Bible, Mary was more political, angrier. Her angel was a shining man, Gabriel, while his angels were all women.

Some people think the angel Gabriel oversaw the Galilee territory, and he was the one assigned to contact Joseph like he had Mary. But no one says who appeared to Joseph. It was probably a woman angel. No doubt his parents thought that was impossible since the Bible always talks about angels appearing male, even though angels don’t have the same kind of earth-bound, gender-bound duties as humans. Having been connected his whole life to a Mary, he just couldn’t see it. Joseph needed something more than enough spine to stand up to his brothers who were considering stoning his betrothed. God had always met him in the dreamy places and his companion woman must have carried the word.

Joseph was so deep in memories, dreams and grief, so far away from the library, lost in his thoughts, he was not really present until snow began to fall on the book cover. Mary had gotten up the drive, through the door and clear into the library without startling him until now. He jumped out of the reading chair, looked up at the ceiling before he turned around and saw her ready to shake the rest of the snow off her coat. Before any word was said, she came around his womb of a chair and embraced him. He set the book on the cushion and let the snow melt through his shirt. “My dear brother,” she said.

She let him go, brushed the flakes off her shoulders and shook snow out of her knit cap. “You must put your shoes back on and find your coat. It is already 10:15. The ride up here was a beast and I am surprised I am not dead. I would be if the snow had been any deeper when I fished that woman out of the ditch.”

“You stopped the car?”

“We can talk about that later. We need to get over to village for the vigil.”

“They are having a vigil?”

“This is the middle of nowhere. Wear your mask if you must. We never miss the vigil and, virus or not, I intend to be there.”

“Wasn’t it hard enough just to get to the farm? The road over to the village is no more than a lane. I’m sure it won’t be plowed until the 27th!”

“Then we can walk. We have those snow shoes somewhere. Where do you think they are?”

Joseph stood back and looked at her. She had begun to pick up stray utensils and plates on her way to the kitchen. He followed her to the sink where she began to sort and rinse and admired her bustling. She didn’t want to go to the vigil; she just wanted the dangerous journey. What she liked about the story was Mary traveling to Bethlehem pregnant. She secretly imagined birthing her first child in the barn. “You are amazing, you know,” he said.

She turned off the water and turned to look at him smiling. He smiled too. And then they laughed like only twins can amuse each other.

“I know you don’t want to go,” she said. “But I also know you don’t want to miss the vigil.”

“Let’s create a stable in the barn and you can give birth there.”

“How did you know that? Did one of your angels tell you?”

“She did not need to. It only makes sense.”

“Well. I suppose it will be hard enough to get to the barn, at this point.”

They started in the attic and found the box of repressed figurines and were glad to spot an old advent wreath with some used candles still in the holders. Mary overturned a frame and there were their parents, just married. They decided to let them join in. As a whim, Joseph grabbed a very old stick horse, since an animal needed to give witness.

When they left their inn for the stable the snow had stopped and a cold, round moon gilded the scattering clouds. A noiseless barn owl leapt through the missing board in the hay window door and flew through the light. They both gasped as they watched it move through the silent night in the clouds of their breath. If the nesting were late, they might meet the rest of the family up in the rafters.

There was no need to talk. They got to work like missionaries making do with what was available. An old milk crate could be a manger. A milking stool had been sitting in a corner for decades waiting for its chance to be an altar. The witness horse was propped up between two cinder blocks. Mom and Dad sat facing it on the other side on a block of their own.

Mary sat on the ground, determined to get quite dirty. Joseph lit the candles slowly and deliberately named each one: the hope candle, the peace candle, the joy candle and the love candle. And they waited.

The waiting allowed Mary’s exhaustion to catch up with her and she slowly rolled into Joseph’s shoulder. He put his arm around her as she dozed.

They had not thought about what to do at the appointed time. The rector would ring the bell in the village; maybe they would hear it across the field. They knew the organist would be playing Silent Night and everyone would have a candle. Mary said, “Oh Joseph, we have forgotten the baby! What will we put in the box?”

“Shall I go find a doll?” he asked.

“Oh no, you can’t go anywhere. You are my blanket.”

“Then God will have to provide the baby. If no other way, I can imagine you acting like a baby right here in the barn. Remember when we were about ten years old and I would not let you swing from the loft? Father heard the argument and said we would not be able to come back if we did not get along.”

“I would like a do-over with Father,” she whispered.

“I am glad we had each other when were growing up, especially when Mother and Father died. I felt so left alone. If it were not for you…”

“Maybe that’s it,” she interrupted. “We could claim Joseph and Mary once and for all and let them produce the baby. Our parents and grandparents tended to send the baby into cold storage for much of the year. But we kept welcoming that poor child.”

“I love that,” he laughed. “This gets better all the time. How about if we joined Joseph and Mary in the scene, even became one with them, and swaddled the newborn king ourselves?” He thought, “In some sense it is like I have been here in a dream and God was telling me what was going to be born. It is a whole new day. The earth is clean with snow and somehow we got here.”

They both got up out of their spectator seats on the floor and silently moved beside the manger box and knelt there. Joseph saw the cradle light up. And somehow the word came to him, “Do not be afraid.” He spoke it. “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

She began to sing, “O, holy night! The stars are brightly shining.”

The next morning a hush was still over the house. They did not speak until breakfast, but then they marveled at the parts of themselves they gave to each other in love — and how it all came together in the barn like it came together in the Bible: man and woman, dreamer and doer, past and future, old and new. God was with them like in a dream — candlelight and the mystery of tragic circumstances touched with glory. It was a story of improbable, willful, scared people  welcomed into their own birthing process. They could hardly remember it all. They couldn’t be sure if they ever needed to have Christmas Eve in the same way again. It was quite enough for now and surely something else was ready to fly into the moonlight.

Spiritual life on the edge and in the center: Joseph and my mentors

I don’t know how old I was (jr. high?), but I do know this: I was too young to be the Sunday School teacher for the 5th grade boys. But the church was desperate and I was their boy, so the coach put me in. I am not sure what the class learned except how clever they were to discover that I could be nicknamed “Rod White and Blue.”

servant of Joseph finds the cup French 19th Cent.
Not exactly as the 5th graders portrayed it.

But I learned quite a few things! One of them has stuck with me ever since. In order to keep these boys occupied I decided to have them enact the story of Joseph for the church (Genesis 37-50). I have no idea why the pastor let us do this in the Sunday meeting, since it was a uniformly terrible production. But the parents put everyone in a bathrobe and the servant found the church communion chalice in a gunny sack and the whole thing. Perhaps the kids still remember the epic story as a result. I do. I have been pondering it my whole life (and I’m not alone).

Edge and center spirituality

Recently, I learned a new twist to the great story after I read a book about discerning life transitions. I have offered an entire series of messages about life transitions based on this great saga about Joseph and his family, since all the stages are all there and vividly portrayed. But this new book taught me that, in the course of moving through the stages of spiritual development, there is another theme to follow and the author used Joseph to demonstrate it. Ernie Boyer calls this theme “edge spirituality” and “center spirituality.” Boyer sees two spiritual ways in life, reconciling them in the image of a circle, in which the “edge” is our traditional sense of spiritual discipline and the center is a renewed spirituality of everyday concerns. His idea brings Mary and Martha back to living together in the same house, perhaps Mary returning from her hermitage or Martha moving into the monastery.

Boyer encourages us to explore life “on the edge” (following the lead of our apostles, prophets, and artists) like the edge of a wheel, feeling all the highs and lows, coming into contact with the rough surface of the earth, and rolling into what is next. But he also, realistically, encourages us to stop neglecting life “at the center,” which we often despise for its repetition and domesticity, and find the Spirit in what is already established. These two spiritual modalities are often side by side in the New Testament, though the edge is often considered the better way.

You can see how the “edge and center of the wheel” this is a nice metaphor for meditating on our individual and communal lives. Individuality lends itself to a heroic search for the edge. Community leads us to look for ways to develop the sacrament of our routine and the blessings of living as part of the Lord’s body, on pilgrimage and rooted in eternity. There is always a balance of individual calling and caring for others, a balance of looking at our personal career goals and caring for our family, both biological and spiritual.

Joseph learns his relationship with God and his unique calling out on the edge: in his dreams as a teen, in a pit in his twenties, way on the edge in Egypt in his thirties, in prison in his forties (the timeline is subject to interpretation of course). Then in his older years, he ends up in the center of Pharaoh’s household in the center of the whole kingdom and in the center of a famine that gives him the capacity to save his family, bring them to live with him and end up at the center of them again. There is an interesting dance of these complementary spiritual ways in the story. Joseph’s family upheaval spins him out on the edge. Then his great spiritual journey on the edge makes him fully capable of nurturing the center. You can also see this idea worked out from the beginning to the end of the Lord’s mission. At the beginning, Jesus is pushed to the edge by his mother, at a wedding no less. Then at the end, as Jesus turns back toward home, both as a man and God on the cross, he looks to his mother and provides her a home with John, then turns to the Father and says, “It is finished.”

How edge and center spirituality goes together

As I look back over my faith development, I can see how these two spiritualities often felt like they were in competition, but usually ended up in a balance – or at least a truce! When I got out of high school, and out of the kind of Baptist Church that would make me a Sunday School teacher (!), I became an actual Christian. My first mentors in the faith were all people who had great faith “on the edge.” I loved Anthony in the desert, Patrick on his hill, Francis in his cave and Wesley on horseback. It was a real question whether to become a Franciscan or marry Gwen. I just could not get God to let me be a Franciscan — and since you may know my wife, you can see why I did not argue too much with the good given to me in her! But my mentors in history made me feel a bit guilty about my choice. Since an “edge” spirituality often despises anyone who ties themselves to the “center” of the wheel.

Francis on the edge in brother sun sister moon
Francis on the edge

Thank God I had the flower-child-recasting of St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon to encourage me. Here is a bit of wisdom stuck in my memory, straight from the script:

[Giocondo] I can take all the rest, the cold, the hunger, but there are days and nights when I’d gladly face eternal damnation for one moment of love. I’ll ruin everything you’ve tried to do, Francesco. I can’t go on.

[Francesco] But, but you don’t have to. We’re not a regiment of priests for whom the sacred vow of chastity is a discipline. We’re, we’re just a band of men who simply love God, each according to his own capacity. But if Giocondo finds the lack of a woman distracts him from loving God,then he should marry and breed to his heart’s content.

[Giocondo] You didn’t cut my hair before. You knew I was weak. You knew this would happen.

[Francesco] If everyone took the vow of chastity, the human race would end. Be fruitful and multiply, but with a wife, remember.

Dwight Judy says, “Most of us are not living the highly individualistic life of early hermits in the desert. We live in society, in communities, and in families. Yet the resources from Christian spirituality largely reflect the individual quest for purity of soul before God. Even when engaging in a communal living situation, such as monastic life, our spiritual legacy of prayer and attention to the inner journey helps us primarily with the task of solitary communion with God.” Francis had to assure Giocondo that making love is great. For many of us it is one of the most spiritual things we do. And watching a child born is usually the closest sense of incarnation we ever witness.

The spirituality of the center is the hub of the circle where we live in community and family, doing the daily routine in grace. The turning of the wheel and the bumps in the road usually push us toward the edge, where we meet God in our unique experiences, gifts and troubles. The rarified experiences we have out on the edge then inform our return and they refresh the center. The two spiritualities are woven together in a “coat of many colors,” just like Joseph’s.

Being conscious helps with the balancing

I have a great affection for St. Francis whose “out there” spirituality also built a community who still love to call themselves the “little brothers,” just like he taught Giocondo. I know my balancing act of the two spiritualities, though somewhat conscious, has often careened from one extreme to the other. This blog post arose in a day of retreat out on the edge. But I will be into the community life of Circle of Hope later in the week and August is full of family and friends — and I am still married to my lovely wife! But as much as I long for my solitude with God and the pure joy of revelation and comfort I find there, it is really no less joyful, I think, than having my grandson climb up on my lap as I am lounging, put his little nose on my big one and ask me one of his profound questions. So odd, isn’t it, that we might despise one revelation in comparison to the other, or ignore one and specialize in the other, or fear the edge while we cling to the center or fear the center as we look beyond our edge.

I take heart in the story of Joseph, since it begins and ends with impossible grace. He never knows what is going to happen next, but he apparently knows where he is going. He’s rolling along with God, not assessing whether he is experiencing “edge” or “center” spirituality! He receives whatever comes along. He even tells his brothers. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20).

If you are learning how to have a disciplined spiritual life, the point is: Don’t mistake the edge for the whole wheel. Don’t despise the hub as if it were mediocre or mundane. It is all one life energized by God’s Spirit. From wherever you start today, perhaps clinging to the center too much or aspiring to an impossible edge too much, we all have the assurance that God keeps developing us, just like Joseph developed, by the seemingly unpredictable or even troubling experiences we face. It is all a wonder and God intends it for good.

Joseph Helps 30somethings with Spiritual Roadblocks

A friend was telling me about his remarkable triumph over the temptations that accompanied his 30something decade the other day. He reminded me of a series of messages I offered in 2007. Here is an adaptation of one of them I thought might be useful to some of you facing temptations to your fidelity, like Joseph faced in Genesis 39, when he might have been in his thirties….

Part One

Philly 30somethings at El Vez

The Inquirer interviewed Daniel Brook at El Vez, up on 13th St on September 2 about  his new book called The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All-America. As they were interviewing, they observed a lot of happy, young professionals enjoying happy hour. Daniel’s take on them? — “They won’t be happy for long.” In his view, the small luxuries, from sangria to Ikea, may come cheap these days, but the ballooning costs of education, housing and health care will soon drive these young people into making the bargain with corporate America they wish they did not have to make.  Daniel Brook says, and I imagine you agree, that a great many 20 and 30somethings are in the process of “selling out,” right now. If you just look at everyone’s school debt or at the inequity of salaries between teachers/social workers and lawyers/big pharma workers, it is so striking, who can consider teaching or doing social work or doing anything that isn’t about surviving? Who can live in Center City unless you go for the bucks? In 1970 a beginner lawyer made $2000 more than a beginner teacher. Now the salary gap is $100,000. The corporate takeover of America under the business-friendly policies of Clinton and Bush, especially, is making freedom to choose impossible if you want to have a family and live in a decent house. In some places, like San Francisco or Manhattan there is no middle class at all anymore, and everyone thinks this is normal.

Daniel Brook is talking about teaching, social work, writing for the City Paper or creating an arts cooperative as occupations for people who want to care. He’s lamenting that such a choice is unaffordable. As Jesus-followers, we’re talking about a life that is not merely a matter of choosing a place in the economic order of things. I’m talking about Christians who receive basic directives like “love your neighbor as yourself” and hear demanding teaching like “If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it to me.” Our choice is not just about how big a house we can afford; we have a moral imperative that is stronger than that impulse; the compulsion to love is bred into us. We can’t help but care, if we are following Jesus. But we face the same social circumstances as everyone else. Will we sell Jesus out for a seat at the economic table? I think that is the big question for 30somethings as they continue on the spiritual journey; and as we’ll see, the answer doesn’t just boil down just to economics, but answering might largely take place in that arena.

Jesus describes the spiritual challenge of the 30s with a picture that every 29-year-old might want to display somewhere in her house. Remember what he said in the parable of the sower? “The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the person who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” Put up a picture of a believer getting choked with worry and deceit. That’s the threat of the 30’s.

The story of Joseph the 30something

Our friend Joseph fell into quite a thorn patch, didn’t he? I am saying he is about thirty by the time we get to the part of the story we’re looking at. That gives him a few years to rise up in the ranks of Potiphar’s employees and become the head of his household. But even if he is not quite thirty, he is facing what 30somethings often face. And if we haven’t gotten over the roadblocks we typically face in our thirties, if there is some arrested spiritual development, he is facing the roadblocks any of us could face.

There are striking parallels between him and us:

Joseph, the boy who had the great coat and the pampered place in his family is now a slave in Egypt. 30somethings around here may have grown up in wealthy, pampered environment, as well — similar to the compared to other countries. Now, those same pampered youths are often as good as slaves. They have first-rung jobs; they are in debt; they are working long hours under threat of dire consequences; they get two weeks vacation and no job security; if they are married they may have a couple of kids tying them down to the house with both parents working to stay afloat.

Nevertheless, Joseph, the youth who had his splendid dreams, who seemed full of potential but ended up a slave, is still very capable. Everything he touches prospers and his boss has noticed how he makes things better.  Likewise, the 30somethings we all know are generally more capable than they used to be. They learned from being in their 20’s; maybe they went to school; they have at least been in the school of hard knocks; they have survived. They are bearing the first fruits of coming into their fullness as the person they were meant to be. This fruit will ripen for the next 20 years or so and feed people. It is no surprise that Jesus was a 30something when he died. He was just ready to do what he was sent to do and did it as soon as he could.

So I am mainly talking about the roadblocks to faith that are presented to capable slaves. The roadblock to gaining faith, if you have passed the 30 mark, is often insurmountable, since most people are fully in thrall to some master by then. The master might just be a philosophy, or one’s own entrenched habits of the heart, maybe an addiction, or it may be an actual master, like the job. In my cell last night we named the people who weren’t there because of school, but mainly because of the job – and the absentees assumed that was normal. The job was unadaptable, but their expression of faith was easily pushed to the margins — they didn’t even have a problem with it. So although there are 30somethings who do not fit this description, I think most do and all are going to have their fidelity tested.

For people who have faith, I am still talking about the unfortunate circumstance of basically being a capable slave, caught in some demand that needs to be satisfied and facing serious consequences if the master who is usurping the place of God is not obeyed. Like never before, perhaps, we face the thorns in our thirties. The main roadblock for Joseph is obvious, he literally belongs to someone else! For most of us, it could be more about belonging to one’s employer. Or it could be about belonging to someone else you love. There are serious roadblocks to being faithful to God and doing what God has given you to be and do.

I think Joseph is a brilliant example of what one must do to get beyond the roadblock. His response boils down to two basic questions we will all have to answer, “Do you honor who you are?” And “Will you risk the wrath of the master to serve God?”

Part 2

Joseph was sold to Ishmaelite traders who passed by Dothan on their way to Egypt. They showed up just in time for Judah and his brothers to flag them down. The boys must have shouted over the braying of the camels, “Hey what do you say about buying this fine potential slave we have in a pit over here? We think you’ll find him dreamy, just like we do.”

It is very possible that the main salesman, Judah, is a 30something, or nigh on to it, when he makes the sale. Judah spent his twenties being a jealous, rapacious youth. By this time, he is hardening into a bitter, greedy adult who can traffic in brothers. As we know, God can use anything for good, but that doesn’t mean Judah is going to be spiritually present for the results of God’s grace. His act unwittingly ends up saving his family and he, personally, fathers the tribe that produces King David — God may use you, too. But that doesn’t mean you won’t make yourself disposable after you have pursued yourself or some other master instead of God. Life is meant to be lived in relationship with God. If we don’t do that, we appropriately return to the dust whence we came. God brings the life.

So Joseph ends up in Egypt, delivered by Bedouin Express, perhaps with the shipment of the balm the picked up in Gilead. Potiphar buys him. Some people say they can verify that both Potiphar and Joseph were in Egypt and were the people the Bible says they are, by reading the scarce records of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom during the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhet III


Like many artists have done as Noel Halle did, portraying Potiphar as old and his unnamed wife as young. It is a juicy story. Everyone wants to but a brush to it. It looks like Potiphar may been the head of the secret police, so one could paint the whole picture in 1940’s uniforms. Maybe he is the old, established captain of the guard with his trophy wife. She seems to wish she had a different husband. Maybe she has a reason to wish it — he owns slaves; he may own wives, too.

30something temptation

The artists also like to portray everyone in this story naked, but I like this more chaste rendition by Orazio Gentileschi. It is just so hyper real! — with the beautiful work on the red curtain in the background; it is kind of a “still life with seduction.”

The story is relatively predictable and gets played out on the TV about every night in one way or another. What doesn’t get played out on TV (except on Saving Grace which is a lot like the story of Joseph), is that God is in the middle of this predictable story. Joseph is actually considering God, and that makes all the difference in how this scene gets played out. Joseph is faithful to God; and the story is about how his fidelity is being challenged by his subjection to a master and the invitations of a potential sex partner. If he can maintain his fidelity he will be with God and God will be with him and we can move on to the next challenge.

Considering God, being faithful and moving on seems like just what should happen; the choice is obvious to anyone who follows Jesus — that is, until you place it in the workplace.

  • In the workplace so many of us are convinced that mentioning Jesus it is impolite, if not illegal – “Better to be put in jail, then,” Joseph might say.
  • Or put us in a relationship with a sexual partner and we might not think morality makes that much sense any more if “they love me and want me.” Some people would sell out God for a chance at sex or love or whatever it is we are doing since we moved in with each other – “Better to never have sex, than not trust God,” Joseph might say.
  • Or put the choosing in our social circle in which half the people are ambivalent about Jesus, at best. We are tempted to give Jesus up whenever we are around such friends because it isn’t nice to believe things and we don’t want to seem pushy by being ourselves or thinking we know where being ourselves leads – “Better to have no friends than to trust such friends,” Joseph might say.

But the fact is, 30somethings have been sold out and they are tempted to sell out.

Joseph does two things that are brilliant.

1)      He honors who he is. This begs the questions “Do you honor who you are?”

When Potiphar’s wife wants to have sex, Joseph remembers who he is. “No one is greater in this house than I am.”

30somethings are getting hold of their true selves and operating out them, or not. It is their great task.

Listen to Jesus working this out. He tells people who are essentially trying to get him to conform to their way of thinking in John 7:28-30 “I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.” Jesus knows where he is from and why he is here. In the face of his opponents he reaffirms who he is and honors his true self, even if others discount him.

It is not easy to be confident about being who we are, especially when we are just learning about that. Sometimes we have a slippery hold on what we’ve been given and what we’re sent to do. That’s why it is so important, during the first fruits of our thirties, when we are feeling our capability, being useful, possibly nurturing a young family and marriage, that we honor who we are. If your faith makes it to thirty, you will be especially challenged to maintain Jesus at the core of who you are. It is the prime sell-out decade for believers.

Joseph was tempted to doubt that what was entrusted to him was worth being faithful to. He was tempted to give up his integrity for an orgasm. It seems that he considered the prospect and then came to his senses. “No, I won’t do this, I am who I am.”

Going through this doubt and staying faithful to our true self is fundamental to overcoming the 30something roadblocks to faith. For instance, if you get married, you’ll face a subset of the problem when you are tempted to doubt the love in your marriage and start over somewhere else instead of going through the problems and letting them refine who you really are, like all good marriages do. The emotional landscape is littered with people who did not make it through that doubt. Many of them are still kicking themselves for giving in to Potiphar’s wife in one way or another. Even if you did give in and you were not faithful or they were not faithful to you, God is much bigger than your faithlessness. But you’ll still have to recognize what you’ve still got from God and go with the maturation of that.

The doubt about who we are, especially applies to our fidelity to our relationship with Jesus. Being 30something is often the biggest challenge to that relationship because the other masters are in full competition for our allegiance. We have something to offer the powers that be and they want us. We can become excellent slaves for their greed or other pursuits. Once they get us in their thrall, we often get re-educated to think about things their way. They pay us to learn their ways. They buy us to do so. They fire us if we don’t. We begin to doubt that following Jesus is worth it. He can tag along if he likes, but He hardly has the stuff to lead. We have to answer hard questions — Do I have Jesus? Is Jesus enough? Who or what owns me and my time? Do I honor Jesus in me?

2. This brings up the other brilliant reaction Joseph demonstrates that saves his fidelity. He risks the wrath of the master. It begs the question, “Do you ever risk the wrath of the master?”

When Potiphar’s wife lures Joseph to go against what is of God, he says one of the phrases in the Bible that everyone needs to put in their knapsack to bring out at the appropriate moment (like 100 times a day), “How shall I do this thing and sin against God?”

The easiest thing to do might have been to have sex. Joseph doesn’t have his own wife, it appears, so having sex would be nice and she wants to do it. But even more, if he doesn’t do what she says (she is the master’s wife, after all), anyone could see that she might get even. She’ll start screaming and enrage the old man, upon whom Joseph’s whole life depends. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t – that’s life, unless you are faithful to God. Joseph hangs on to his faith in God and risks offending the master and his wife!

Jesus is frank with us about the likelihood of these situations. And I don’t think when he was telling his disciples this, he wasn’t telling himself, too (in Luke 12:47ff), “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  Don’t you think Jesus was a Joseph? Wouldn’t he also say, “I would rather risk the wrath of the earth-bound people who threaten me than sin against what is from God for all eternity.”

Getting through this fear is the way through the roadblock to faith that comes up in our journey through the thirties. That is especially hard these days, because our whole country has been bending the knee to fear since 9/11. People have been appalled this week that the junta in Myanmar (which our president’s insult-first policy causes him to call Burma), has been surrounding Buddhist monasteries and keeping the monks from going out to protest. It is such naked domination. Meanwhile, the powers that be here in the U.S., have been using the means of domination (mainly the money to buy the air waves and direct the communication) to convince the country to spend billions to pursue Osama bin Laden in Iraq when he is in Pakistan making videos, all out of fear. We’re all reacting to it. Joseph does not react to his fear of the future when he refuses to jump into bed with Potiphar’s wife and that is what keeps him moving toward becoming the man he is destined to become.

More specifically for believers, we have to face our fear of the consequences of following Jesus. Just being a Christian can be a fearsome thing. We have some Joseph–like believers in our cell; I hope they will tell you stories. But, we also have a lot of friends who are really struggling with the fear they have about being a Christian. Simply not doing what others are doing because they go to a cell meeting and a PM each week makes them a weird person in the eyes of their friends and family – that tiny show of devotion gets them in trouble with other masters! What if they did what the Holy Spirit really compels them to do? What if they said what they really believe? What if they doubted out loud about the things that run them, like the things that run them doubt about them? I sent a youtube screed by Bill Maher the other day as an example of what we’re up against.

We’ll see the results of Joseph’s actions in full as the story goes on. At this point we see that his actions get him thrown into prison — where he prospers. The upside-down logic of God is something that 30something Joseph is now fully capable of accepting and living out. All us 30somethings have come to that age and can do it, or not. Now is the time. You’ll either be a slave to an earthly master, committing adultery against God, your husband, or you will honor your true self and dare to risk the consequences of faithfulness. You’ll say right in their faces, speaking the truth in love, “How could I do this thing and sin against God?”