Friday, May 22, 2009

Wrapping Up

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 (Genesis 45:5).

My kids will be in school until May 29th. I’m not sure, but something tells me that all meaningful academic activity will probably end today if it hasn’t ended already. My calendar shows big blocks of time set aside next week for the fourth grade swim party and the fifth grade bowling party. So there’s still one more week of something that we’ll continue to call “school.” I’m not complaining.

While the school year is grinding to a slow and celebratory halt, my son’s journey through elementary school came to an official end on Thursday morning. Marnie and I attended the fifth grade honors chapel and witnessed a ceremonial marking of the transition from the lower school to the middle school.

My own journey through school didn’t allow me to experience a “graduation” until the end of high school. These days multiple “graduations” have cropped up on the educational landscape. Our children are praised as they graduate from kindergarten. We do the same thing again when they leave the elementary (or lower) school. I’m almost positive the same kind of thing will happen at the end of middle school. By the time the child finishes 12th grade it’s same song third or fourth verse.

But why shouldn’t we mark these transitions in the lives of children? To do so in their childhood is to acknowledge something that will be true of their lives long after their formal education ends. And we acknowledge what is true of our own lives right now: Life is a series of endings and beginnings; we are continually concluding one thing and launching into another. Something is wrapped up while something new is opened.


Today we’re wrapping up this series of daily reflections on the life and times of Joseph. What an ending this story has. Joseph knows his brothers but conceals his identity from them. He harasses them one moment and then weeps privately the next. Eventually he comes clean and everything crescendos in the tears and the embracing and the forgiving and finally in Jacob’s journey to re-unite with the son he had long thought dead.

But all of this happens in the Bible’s first book. This really isn’t an ending at all. In fact, what we’re seeing is seed of a new story, a story of God’s people flourishing in Egypt and then enslaved and afflicted. We have here the prelude to Moses and Joshua, the backdrop to the Exodus and the quest for a homeland, the shadowy outline of David, and even Jesus. Jesus, guarded from another cruel ruler by parents who flee back to Egypt.

Joseph’s story is only a part of much larger story – a story about God. All the events and twists and turns of the plot line are really about God and what God is doing in the world. Every story in the Bible belongs to that larger story. A story that continues today.

All of your beginnings and endings are a part of that story, just as Joseph’s was. Kids go from lower school to middle school, from newly wed to new parent, from associate to partner, from driven to retired. Somewhere along the way, by God’s grace, we realize that the story we’ve been living really wasn’t our story at all. .

Maybe, having kept company with Joseph for a few weeks, you’re starting to see what he saw. Joseph came to a point in his life in which he was able to affirm “God sent me ahead of you.” That’s actually the point of his entire story: God. It’s the point of your story as well.

Are you able to envision your life as a part of God’s larger story?

O God, work in my life just as you did in Joseph’s. I want my life to be caught up in the great drama of your work in this world. Teach me to trust you with every joy and every heartache, confident in the knowledge that there’s more to my own life than me. Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What We Hold Back

Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin . . . because he was afraid that harm might come to him (Genesis 42:3).

Jacob had already lost one son. He wouldn’t risk losing another.

More than two decades had passed since Joseph’s tattered and bloody garment had been returned to Jacob. The grief that followed was deep and long. But time had done what time is able to do in such matters. Jacob still felt the loss, but the weeping was far less frequent. The invisible wound left when Joseph had been ripped from him was still tender. It was an ache that had become familiar to Jacob’s soul and he had learned how to live with it.

Rachel had given birth to another son: Benjamin. It seems that one of the ways Jacob had coped with the loss of Joseph was by directing special affection toward Benjamin. Now a grown man, Ben remained the baby of the family.

Thus, when it came time to go to Egypt in search of grain, only ten of the brothers packed and made ready for the trip. Jacob would not send Benjamin. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. He had sent Joseph on an errand and never got him back. This time, Jacob would guard his heart by keeping the beloved son at home.

When the ten brothers finally arrived in Egypt and found themselves standing before the Pharaoh’s second in command, their brother’s absence was noted. They didn’t know Joseph, but Joseph knew them and he saw that someone was missing. Joseph interrogated them, threatened them, and finally cut a deal. The ten could have the grain they needed but they would have to return to Egypt again, this time with the absent brother (Genesis 42:14-20).


The losses we suffer in life have a way of making us cautious. We guard the place where pain was inflicted. If the pain came because we dared to love someone, we are slow to love again. If the hurt was dealt to us because we trusted someone’s word, we begin to assume that most people are liars.

In the life of faith this means that there are parts of life that we are reluctant to place in God’s care. Like Jacob, we keep the cherished child at home. We believe in God, but we’d like for God to keep his distance when it comes to this part of who we are: our children, our love life, our business decisions. We hold something back. Having been hurt or let down once, we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But quite often, that very part of life is the part that God requires of us. The place where we are tempted to think God failed us is the place where God most desires to prove his faithfulness to us.

When Jacob finally loosened his grip on Benjamin, he found Joseph again. As Jacob relinquished the one, God gave him two.

What are you holding back today?

I want to place every part of my life in your care, O God. I would hold nothing back – and yet my fears of what might happen and my regrets over what has happened in the past keep me clutching to pieces of my life. Grant me grace to trust you, knowing that only open hands can receive your good gifts. Amen.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Go to the Grain

When Jacob learned there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” . . . I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us . . . (Genesis 42:1-2).

While we yearn for resolution in some areas of life, we know that a certain amount of tension is a good thing, even necessary.

When I watch my kids climbing a rock wall at Atlanta Rocks, I like knowing that there is tension in the belay line. Tension means safety. Tension means the chances of broken limbs are greatly reduced.

When we’re trying to fly a kite at the beach I like feeling tension in the line. Tension means the kite is actually rising into the air. Too much slack and Daddy is seen running hard dragging a kite across the sand. This is neither fun nor flattering.

Once we embark on a life of faith it doesn’t take long to discover that following Jesus is filled with tensions. To pursue easy resolution is to lose something at the core of life with God. Somehow we have to learn to live with these tensions.

We are asked to believe on the Lord Jesus and be saved. And we are saved because Jesus claimed us and chose us. “You did not choose me, I chose you” (John 15:16). There is a tension between our believing and God’s choosing.

We are saved by grace alone and yet there will be a day of judgment in which we will give an account of what we have done (See Ephesians 2:1-10 and Matthew 25:31ff.).

The famine that gripped Egypt had far reaching impact. We’re hearing plenty these days about the global economy, but the same dynamics were at work in the ancient lands of Egypt and Canaan. “And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph” (Genesis 41:57). The sons of Jacob, however, were slow to act. Jacob had heard that there was food in Egypt. He confronted his sons: “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” A fatherly kick in the pants was needed to send them on their way. Thus the sons of Jacob went to Egypt to buy food and keep the family alive (Genesis 42:1-2).

Here is another tension in the life of faith. God provides for our needs. Paul confidently asserted that God will meet all our needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). And yet there are times when we have to go to the grain. We stand around looking at each other when there is food to be had if we will only go and find it.

We are invited to live a life of trust, resting in the promises and providence of God. And yet there are times when the life of faith expresses itself in risky action. Standing around looking at each other is not an adequate way to live by faith. At the same time, our frantic efforts to gather and accumulate can be equally faithless.

God told the Hebrews in the wilderness to get up every day and gather their manna – but only what was needed for one day. The outer work of gathering and the inner work of trusting belong together.

Today may be a day when you need to go to the grain. God has provided for your needs. God will give you what you need to keep going and get through the barren times. But that provision may be in a place like Egypt. You’ll have to go seek out what God wants to give you. You’ll have to move from your comfortable place, take some risks, launch an expedition. Sometimes faith shows itself when you go to the grain.

What would it mean for you to go to the grain today?

We give you thanks, O God, for your faithful provision. And we ask for your help, that we might know how to seek what you so graciously will to give us. Teach us trust, and teach us to risk. Guide our steps today as we go to the grain, acting in faith in all things. Amen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Plot Resolves

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them (Genesis 42:7).

My kids’ school has a weekly chapel service. It’s the real deal, not chapel light. The kids who help lead the service wear vestments. They say “The Lord be with you,” and get a resounding “And also with you” in return.

As a second grader my daughter served as the reader, or “lector,” in a chapel service. Before the service started I said “Anna – today your Mom and I get to sit in the pew and you get to be up front in a robe.” She loved that.

Last week we attended chapel, not because we had a child involved in the liturgy, but because it was the week of our daughter’s birthday. I’ll spare you the details, but recognizing student birthdays is a standard feature of the otherwise formal service. As it happened, on this day in chapel one of the third grade classes was doing a dramatic rendering of the story of Joseph. A narrator read the story while other muted children acted out the various scenes with sweeping gestures.

The entire Joseph story was done in about ten minutes. The whole thing: Brotherly animosity, the sale to Egypt-bound merchants, the prison detour, the dreams and Joseph’s hero-making interpretations. All of it, ten minutes tops.

I love stories that resolve quickly, tensions that melt like cheese in a microwave, hostilities that soften with one good drenching of tears, painful memories that fade entirely leaving barely recognizable images on the mind. Broken pieces and loose ends bother me. Waiting an entire summer to find out what really happened in May’s season finale is irritating. Give me enough tension to make things interesting – and then resolve it. And soon.

Sadly, the Joseph story we have in our Bibles is not a ten minute story. It takes more than ten minutes to read it all, and it certainly took more than ten minutes to live it. The Joseph story is a story of resolution delayed.

The seventeen year old boy doesn’t serve Pharaoh until he’s thirty. Falsely accused, Joseph the prisoner sits for years until he is vindicated by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. After seven year of abundance, Joseph’s brothers are driven to Egypt by the famine. Joseph does not immediately embrace them. He imprisons one of them, sends the rest of them home, frames them by planting his own silver in their luggage.

Joseph seems torn. He wants to come clean, reveal his identity, make things right – but he also seems to want payback. Resolution does not come quickly or easily. But it does come.

Your life is not a ten minute story. Perhaps you could tell a ten minute version, but it wouldn’t be quite right. And this may be a day when you are yearning for resolution, waiting for something to be made right, restored to wholeness, put back together. Our God is a master of plot resolution, but to our dismay God never hurries.

The Joseph story reminds us that the plot will eventually resolve – and very likely in ways that surprise us. When God’s hand authors your story, twists and disruptions in the plot will be made smooth. All things resolve, but not quickly. Maybe not today, and certainly not in ten minutes.

In what way are you seeking or waiting on resolution in your life?

Gracious God, there are loose ends and broken pieces scattered about my life. My efforts to piece them together never seem to take. The wholeness I make on my own is short lived. Enter my life today, and bring all things to into harmony with your plan. Resolve as you will, and make me strong in the waiting. Amen.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Lean Times

“Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them” (Genesis 41:29-30).

We moved back to Atlanta seven years ago, March 2002 to be exact. Seven years. A good biblical number. The day before closing on the house John and I came over and laid claim to our home unofficially by putting out a birdfeeder. It’s still hanging in the same place, weathered by seven years of seasons and all that they bring.

Last week my daughter turned ten. When we moved into this house she was still two, just weeks away from her third birthday, but still two.

Seven years. Where does it go?

That very question must have surely been on Joseph’s mind as he watched the land crusting, the earth turning to pottery and growing increasingly barren.

It wasn’t a surprise. He had seen this seven years earlier as God gave him insight into Pharaoh’s dreams. There would be seven years of abundance, but seven years of famine would follow. Joseph had provided leadership, designing a seven year preparation plan that would carry the nation through the lean times. An agricultural stimulus package, if you will. Those seven years were completed. The time of abundance had run its course. Seven years. Where does it go?

Not to take anything away from Joseph’s gift as an interpreter of dreams, but it seems he simply predicted what most of us know to be true of life. There is a rhythm of feasting and famine in the course of our days. Stretches of plenty are often followed by scarcity, blessings come with accompanying burdens, delight yields to despair and eventually our heartaches make room for hope again.

Seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. That doesn’t come as a surprise to many of us. It would be nice to tell the Joseph story in such a way that the coming famine is avoided. We would like for God to be in the business of stopping famines. As with so many elements of the Joseph story, that’s not what we see.

God does not stop the lean times. God does not give insight into famine avoidance. But God does give us what we need to get ready for the lean times. The famine will happen in Egypt, but God will bless Egypt through Joseph and they will be ready for what comes.

And there’s more. God doesn’t merely help us survive, steely-eyed and tight-jawed. God works redemption in the famine. The scarcity of food is a secondary plot line in Joseph’s story. The famine will force a family of brothers south in their quest for food. In the midst of this lean and barren season, God will work redemption. Relationships will be restored. Brokenness will be made whole and right.

Do not despise the lean times. Do not fear the famine. What we often dread as harmful, God designs for our good.

How do you get ready for the lean times? Has God ever surprised you in the midst of a difficult season?

Gracious God, both abundance and scarcity come to us from your hand – and you are at work in all things. In days of plenty teach us to look to you, so that in the lean times we will be alert and ready to see your redemptive work. Amen.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kept in Place

“I cannot do it,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Genesis 41:16)

Gnarled and longer than it had ever been, Joseph’s hair fell at his feet in clumps.

The attendant sent to prepare Joseph for his appearance before Pharaoh didn’t seem at all concerned about being careful. After all, Joseph was a convicted criminal. There were moments when Joseph was convinced his hair was simply being yanked out by the bony fist he glimpsed in the corner of his eye.

No matter. The task was soon done. He washed as best he could with the wet rag tossed at him, wiped stray itchy hairs from his face and shoulders. He was given a change of clothes and then escorted quickly from the prison. Joseph was being taken directly to Pharaoh. Not sure exactly why he had been called for, his memory of the cupbearer gave him hope.

Once the gestures of subservience and deference had been properly carried out, making clear who was who and what was what, the ruler got straight to the point. “I’ve had a dream. I can’t seem to forget it and no one who hears me tell about it has a clue as to what it means – but I’m told you interpret dreams. ”

The message was subtle but hard to miss: “You’re said to have a special gift. Use it for me.” This could go either way. Joseph could be the hero or, like that chief baker, Joseph could be hung out on a tree for the birds to eat. It’s one thing to speak truth to a fellow convict. It’s quite another to speak truth to power.

Not intimidated, Joseph was equally direct with Pharaoh. “I cannot do it.” That’s a risky way to answer the most powerful man in the land. But Joseph wasn’t refusing to use his gift. He was being bold about the fact that the gift wasn’t his to use at will. “I cannot do it, but God will give the answer.” In this moment power was redefined. Pharaoh was not the most powerful presence in the room. God was.

There is a particular strength of character that enables a person to live life before God while standing in the presence of Pharaoh.

Joseph did not despise or disrespect the power of the Pharaoh. He did however keep the Pharaoh in his place. The Pharaoh could not define who Joseph was. The Pharaoh could not dictate what Joseph would say. Only God could do that.

Our world makes claims on us, and many of these claims are attempts to define who we are and how we should live. It can be difficult to live life before God when you’re seated at the table with the firm’s partners. It can be difficult to live life before God when your paycheck and health insurance come from the company. It can be difficult to live life before God when you want to be married and you’re just beginning to discover a new and promising relationship.

Business partners and employers and a love interest are not wicked (at least not always). But they were never meant to define your life. They are to be kept in their place and not given a place reserved only for God. Those who live before God while standing before Pharaoh are those who, like Joseph, change the world.

What kinds of claims attempt to define you? How do you manage to live before God while standing before Pharaoh?

Almighty God, your claim upon me is what defines my life. But there is plenty of competition – some at work, some in my circle of friends. Give me strength to keep them in their place as I live each day for you. Amen.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Wonder Years

When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream (Genesis 41:1).

Two years had passed. It had been two years since the cupbearer had returned to work for Pharaoh, two years since the chief baker’s execution. Joseph had tried to leverage his connections and good favor with the cupbearer to secure his own release from prison. Nothing had happened. One day would yield to the next, forming weeks, forming years.

“Remember me,” Joseph had said to the cupbearer. But the cupbearer forgot. Twenty four silent months passed.

And then Pharaoh had a dream: emaciated cows devouring plump cows, thin heads of grain consuming healthy heads of grain. Like most dreams, weird stuff. Pharaoh was bothered enough to seek the counsel of his spiritual advisors, magicians and wise men. They were stumped.

That’s when the cupbearer had a flashback, a snippet of conversation from two years prior, a quick promise as he made his way through the prison gates. Turns out the cupbearer didn’t really forget Joseph. He just remembered him very, very slowly.

“I know someone who can help,” the cupbearer offered. And then, finally, Joseph’s moment came. A chance to prove himself to someone other than a prison warden. A chance at freedom, two years in the making.

We know all too well how time passes. What we know far less about is what the passing of time does to us. Yes, we pull pages from the calendar and see the wrinkles becoming more visible around the eyes and mouth. But time’s real work is done in unseen places.

When our children are growing, two years is like a weekend. For someone sitting in prison, two years is large piece of life and they move like a glacier. Either way, it’s the movement of time that does something to us, working on our soul the way sandpaper works on wood, exposing the grain, bringing out patterns and beauty that were there but needed time to emerge.

We are given no information about those two years – the time that lapsed between Joseph’s request to be remembered and the moment when his name and vitae were placed before the Pharaoh. We are left to wonder. What was the point? Why so long? What were those years good for? The scripture offers no answers. Call these the wonder years.

You may have your own wonder years. Why were you transferred to Chicago for four years? Why did you give yourself to a marriage of twenty three years that eventually tanked? Why did you give your prime years to a company that decided it had no use for you? The time gets by us. What was it about? We are left to wonder.

But God is the God of time. Every moment counts. And as the time moves we are being shaped, formed, refined, tempered. The Psalmist said it well. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).

All of your days have significance, and that includes this one. Every day that makes up a year – and especially the days that make up your wonder years.

What we wonder about is fully known to you, O God. You are the maker and giver of time. Teach us to live this day with gratitude. Make us patient before you as you use our days and years to shape the image of Jesus in us. And change our wonder years from a time of confusion and questioning to a season or wonder-filled worship, we pray. Amen.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Remember Me

But when all goes well with you remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison . . . The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him (Genesis 40:14, 23).

To sleep again in his own bed, to wake with his wife beside him, to dress for work and sit down to breakfast with his children – these were things he had almost given up on. From the confines of his prison cell he could barely muster hope that the Pharaoh would allow him to live. Best case scenario: He would serve his sentence and then try to get his life back.

But men still dream in prison. The cupbearer kept seeing himself placing a cup in the hand of Pharaoh. Joseph, a man with a God-given ability to interpret dreams, explained what it meant. What Joseph spoke became reality. The cupbearer was released from prison. He went home. He went back to work – placing the cup in the hand of the Pharaoh. No more shadowy images. This was real, just as Joseph had said it would be.

Like a man discovering his life for the very first time, the cupbearer relished his work and delighted in his family. He savored smells and tastes, the feel of clean sheets and warm bathwater.

And he forgot Joseph. That was all Joseph had asked of the cupbearer. “When all goes well with you, remember me” (Genesis 40:14). A simple request. In the elation of release and the thrill of finding life again, that simple request was easily forgotten.

People forget things. Important things.

We forget meetings and names. We forget to make bank deposits and return phone calls. We forget meeting people and feel awkward when we see them again and act like we’ve never seen them before. We forget that thing we were dying to tell just two seconds earlier.

In most instances our forgetting is not malicious. We forget without intent to forget. Our momentary amnesia is explained with soft language: “It slipped my mind.” Or we use humor: “I had a senior moment.”

Whatever we call it, however we explain it, our forgetting speaks to our limited capacity to hold on to everything that enter our minds. We get busy, we get rushed, we get excited we get distracted. In all this getting we keep forgetting.

The cupbearer forgot Joseph. We are never told why. Excitement about being a free man again, the pressure of his high position, the ease with which promises we make give way to the goals we pursue. Reasons remain hidden to us, but not the result. He forgot Joseph.

Many years later another prisoner, sentenced to death, would look to a fellow convict and ask the same thing. “Remember me. Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And the other convicted man, innocent yet suffering execution, promised he would. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Our savior remembers prisoners and promises to set captives free. Our God remembers that we are dust, finite (Psalm 103:14). He remembers his covenant promises forever (Psalm 111:5). A cupbearer forgot Joseph, but God did not. This same God in Jesus Christ remembered a crucified thief. And this same God remembers you when it seems that no one else does.

Do you know what it’s like to be forgotten? How might God’s remembering you change this day?

Remember me today, O God. Remember the prayers I prayed last week and then forgot. Remember the good I intend but struggle to do. Remember me, and set me free of things that bind me, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


“. . . mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon” (Genesis 40:14-15).

Do you deserve the life you have right now? I can say without the slightest hesitation that I do not. I’ve done nothing to deserve what life has brought my way.

I’ve done nothing to deserve the parents I have: two people who took care of my every need; they put up with my foolishness and put me through college; they made sure I had a set of drums even when I couldn’t play them; they suffered with the noise in the house as I learned how.

I’ve not done a single thing to deserve the family I have under my roof: the two children who drive me to the limits of my patience when I’m driving them to school; the same two kids whom I delight to see at the end of every day. I don’t deserve my wife. My absent mindedness is poor exchange for her exuberant presence.

I don’t deserve my job: I make a living teaching the Bible from week to week and writing about it from day to day. I get to walk alongside people when they marry and stand by them when they die. I get to pray for them as they come to faith and when they struggle to hold on to faith.

Back to the question – do you deserve the life you have right now? Some of you, like me, have to say no. In the words of the Psalmist, your cup runneth over; the excess that you’ve done nothing to deserve is spilling all over your fingers and running down your arms.

But there are surely some of you who give the same answer for very different reasons. Do you deserve the life you have right now? No – no way.

You don’t deserve the cancerous cells that have invaded your body. You don’t deserve the raw deal you got from a business partner. You didn’t deserve to be abandoned by someone you loved; you didn’t deserve to lose a business that you nurtured from nothing.

Joseph knew that he didn’t deserve to be in a dungeon. That he is able to say so should be reassuring to us. A person whose life is being guided by the providence of a good God is not a person who passively accepts everything that life brings. Our sense of what is right and just is often violated, even when God’s hand is firmly upon us. We sense that we’re getting stuck with something we didn’t ask for, a life we don’t deserve.

But living with the expectation that we should get what we deserve is not a very good way to live life. The better alternative is to live by grace. What I deserve is defined by my goodness. Grace is about God and God’s goodness.

When you’ve received far more than you ever deserved, that’s grace.

When life has been cruel and you think you’re reaping what you’ve sown, getting what you deserve, grace insists that there is more to your story than you can imagine right now.

And when you’ve received far less or worse that you deserved, grace is what keeps you going until you discover the gift in what you never wanted to begin with.

What is it about your life today that you deserve? What can be explained only by grace?

We give you thanks, O God, for your grace. We are thankful that sometimes you give us far more than we deserve, and at other times you mercifully refuse to give us what we deserve. Help us to move beyond bargaining as a way of life with you. Instead, we will live every day by your abundant grace. Amen.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Long Reach of God's Kindness

Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison . . . but while he was there in the prison the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden (Genesis 39: 20-21).

Joseph had fallen from grace, and hard.

He had been Potiphar’s right hand, a most trusted servant, a good caretaker of all that Potiphar owned both in the house and in the fields. But it had come down to “he said - she said.” That was a contest Joseph couldn’t win. The accusations of Potiphar's wife shattered the trust of his master like old pottery.

Joseph was now in prison. There must have been something vaguely familiar about that experience. His brothers had done the same kind of thing to him, only the cell was a dry cistern. He had already been taken from his place and deprived of everything he knew. Prison allows plenty of time to ponder how unfair life has been. Prison is a good place to stew over every injustice done. Prison is the kind of place that convinces you that the real story of your life is about getting knocked down.

That’s what happens to you in prison. You grow cold and hard, your soul shrivels up and you get small and mean. That’s what happens . . . but for one thing: God.

At this point in the story we come across words we’ve read before. The Lord was with Joseph. The Lord showed kindness. The Lord granted favor. And all of that took place in prison. God’s kindness and favor was easier to detect when Joseph was climbing the ladder of success in Potiphar’s house. But in the prison, kindness and favor are much harder to find.

“If God were truly good and kind,” we say, “God would have kept Joseph out of prison and protected from the lies of Potiphar’s wife.” That sounds good – but that’s not the story the Bible tells us.

Instead what we are told is that there is no place you can be where God’s kindness cannot reach you. There’s no way to get beyond the reach of God’s grace and favor.

God shows you kindness when you’re promoted . . . and when you’re let go.

God shows you kindness when your child is born . . . and when you struggle with infertility.

God shows you kindness when you win the tournament . . . and when you break your leg at the start of the season.

“The Lord’s compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23). And that includes this morning, this day.

What does the kindness of the Lord look like in your life right now?

Whether surrounded by power and luxury or whether deprived of all that I hold dear – teach me, O Lord, to give thanks for your faithfulness and the mercies that greet me with every new morning. Amen.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Desires and Decisions: Thoughts on Integrity

And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her (Genesis 39:7).

Joseph made two decisions with regard to Potiphar’s wife. Both were born of his resolve to do what was right. Both decisions were costly. Both point to his integrity.

And both imply something of his weakness too.

Her overtures were relentless. Perhaps they started as flirtations and hints, but eventually she grew bold, forward. “Come to bed with me” (Genesis 39:7). Joseph refused. To yield to her would violate the trust placed in him by his master. Most importantly it would be a sin against God.

To make ethical decisions based on whether someone else is hurt is a good start, but that’s all it is – a start. Ultimately, all our actions and ethical choices have to do with God above anyone and anything else. Joseph knew this.

So he made a decision. Not only would he not accommodate her advances, he would not even be in the same room with her. Noble, we might say. Growing weary of Joseph’s righteous resolve, Potiphar’s wife caught him alone in the house and seized his cloak, pulling his body closer to her own.

Decision time again. No more time for talk, no more explanations, no more moral reasoning. He had tried that and it clearly wasn’t effective. This time Joseph ran. His decision to run would be his undoing. He left his cloak in her hand – exhibit ‘a’ in the charge she leveled against him. Those decisions were costly. Joseph did the right thing and went to prison for it.

We are right to admire this. But perhaps we should be careful not to let our admiration for Joseph eclipse what was surely a genuine inner struggle. Why did Joseph resolve not to be around this woman? Why did he react so strongly when she laid hold of him? Was it because of his exemplary moral fortitude? Maybe. But maybe not.

Maybe Joseph stayed at a distance and ran because he knew that part of him wanted to do what she was asking. He knew how vulnerable he was to the threat she posed. He wanted to take what she was making so easily available to him. We don’t want to read too much into the story, but Joseph’s actions speak to something we know to be true in our experience. What tempts and lures us most powerfully must be resisted most intentionally.

People of integrity are people who know how weak and vulnerable they are, and they know how those weaknesses show up in their lives. Whether it be a weakness for food or sex or shopping, people who manage to do the right thing are often people who honestly acknowledge how much they’d love to do the wrong thing: eat too much, browse the porn, buy more stuff.

Integrity isn’t grounded in our moral perfections. It’s grounded in our imperfections. Integrity doesn’t belong to the confidently holy; it belongs to the humble and weak. Paul had it right. “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

And at the end of the day integrity isn’t about the thoughts that ran through our mind or the feelings we felt stirring somewhere deep within. It’s about what we did – the decisions made an acted upon, perhaps relying on a strength not our own.

What is your weakness? What will you do with it today?

Gracious God, help me to do what’s right, because apart from your help I probably won’t do it. Grant me the grace to make decisions that honor you, confessing the temptations that nag and harass me. You alone are my strength and I will live this day in humble reliance on you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Finding Favor

When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes . . . (Genesis 39:3).

Graduation day. A day toward which my wife had labored for nearly seven years. A day we had eagerly anticipated since the successful defense of her dissertation five months earlier.

The kids were dressed and ready. We had gone to the hotel lobby for breakfast, avoiding major spills. We were packed, ready to check out and get to the graduation ceremony site on schedule with time to spare. And then I lost my glasses.

I looked everywhere for those glasses – bedside table, bathroom, TV cabinet, drawers, under the bed and bedcovers. I scoured the place, several times over. Finally we had to leave or we’d be late. So much for time to spare. And so much for those glasses.

Graduation went well. I could see well enough to know that my wife had in fact received a diploma and that she was officially “Doctor” Crumpler. Lunch with family followed and then the drive home. That night, while unpacking our luggage, the glasses appeared – buried in my wife’s make-up bag, of all places. How they came to be there was the topic of some lively marital discussion for a while. It remains a mystery.

Why is it that we don’t always find things when we look for them? When we’re not looking, those things seem to find us: Glasses, keys, the remote, the checkbook, a baseball glove. Jesus told us to seek and we would find, but in ordinary life it doesn’t seem to work that way. We seek to no avail. We seek, but we are the found ones.

As Joseph proved himself in the service of Potiphar, the story tells us that Joseph “found favor” with his master. The favor came as a result of the success that God gave. Joseph doesn’t appear to have sought favor or even earned it. Joseph simply found what God had given him.

Joseph is not presented to us as a man who got what he wanted. He is not presented to us as a man who obtained what he pursued. Joseph is someone who found what God gave. God gave success, and in that Joseph found favor. This is another way of saying that Joseph lived by grace.

God invites us to live every day by his grace. This is not an invitation to passivity or laziness – but it’s a way of receiving what God gives. To live by grace means that you are not driven by your desires and wants. To live by grace means that your life is not a chase after some elusive prize.

Living by grace means that our seeking and finding is closely tied to God’s giving; the line that separates our finding and God’s giving is a wisp, one barely discernable from the other.

As you enter this day, what are you looking for? What has God given to you?

Gracious God, help me to live this day by your grace, finding what you give. Keep me from chasing the false rewards of this world. Keep me from being driven by my own empty desires. Give as you see fit, and find me as I serve you, in Christ’s name. Amen.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Detour by Design

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt . . . and the Lord gave him success in everything he did (Genesis 39:1, 3).

Something had happened to Joseph.

Sure, we know the basic course of events and how they unfolded: Joseph sent to find his brothers, the brothers plotting Joseph’s murder, opting instead for leaving him in a well, seizing the chance to make a profit by selling him to Ishmaelite merchants. In this sense we know exactly what happened to Joseph.

But something else happened, happened within him and not simply to him. When Joseph arrives in Egypt and takes his place in the service of Potiphar he seems like a different person, less like a boy and more like a man. More winsome than whiny. More doer than dreamer.

Something had happened to Joseph, quietly and out of sight. And, as best we can tell, it happened on the road to Egypt. Somewhere between the deal struck at the well and the household of Potiphar, a new self began to take shape.

We’re not given a story about how this happened or how long it took. We don’t know whether Joseph himself had any awareness of what was happening to him, whether he sensed courage and competence taking shape in his soul. We’d like to know these things, but on these matters scripture is silent.

This much seems clear: God works in significant ways on the road to Egypt.

The road to Egypt will usually feel like a detour. It’s not a road we intentionally take. The road to Egypt is where you find yourself when your life has been hijacked. Joseph on the road to Egypt was probably bound in some way, confined, depersonalized. We’ll do just about anything to avoid the road to Egypt. It is a long and barren route. We travel it much as Joseph did, not knowing where it will take us or what we’ll find once the journey stops.

The road to Egypt shows up over and over again in the pages of the Bible. Of course, it isn’t always a road, and often it has nothing to do with Egypt – but it is God’s way of shaping those whom he will use by forcing them to difficult places. God likes detours.

Moses will flee Pharaoh’s courts and tend to livestock in the wilderness terrain of Midian for a while. Elijah will launch his prophetic career only to be told by God to hide himself in the Kerith Ravine where he will be fed by ravens. And eventually Jesus will emerge from the waters of baptism to be re-immersed in the desert temptations.

And then there’s you. Perhaps you’re on the road to Egypt right now. Let this truth sustain you until you reach the place where the road ends and a new life begins: On the road to Egypt God chisels out the form of who you were made to be. God readies you for what you were made to do.

When have you traveled the road to Egypt?

“Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul . . . Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143: 8, 10).

Monday, May 04, 2009

A Bought Man

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar . . . bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there (Genesis 39:1)

It’s a small detail, easily missed, but enormously important for understanding the kind of man Joseph was becoming. The words read like a throw-away introduction to a more important story. Indeed, more significant events will later unfold, but everything that comes later is made so much more interesting by a fact that we take for granted.

And here it is: Joseph was bought, not hired.

Give that just a few moments to settle into that place in your brain that manages to hold on to things for more than thirty seconds. It won’t take long to realize that the difference is huge. Bought, not hired.

Many of you know what’s like to be hired or to be hiring. Some of you used to hire but have stopped, and some of you can’t seem to get hired to save your life. Regardless, the entire hiring transaction is predicated on some kind of mutually acceptable agreement; you might even call it a relationship.

When you’re seeking to be hired, you try to make a good impression. You want someone to know that you are capable and experienced. You want that person to connect with you in such a way that they might enjoy having you around the business on a daily basis. You work at being charming, appropriately funny, and confidently no-nonsense about the work. And all the while you’re hoping that the person you’re working so hard to impress will also be someone who truly impresses you as well.

None of that happens when you’re being bought. Buying help is one sided, much like buying bananas. When I buy bananas I’m calling the shots. I know what I like and what I want: not to green and yet not likely to be brown and gushy the next day. The banana has no say in this. I assess. I evaluate. I decide. I make the purchase. And all of this happens without forming a relationship with the banana

Potiphar bought Joseph. Much like you buy a refrigerator or a weed whacker or bananas. There was no relationship.

And yet, Joseph excelled. As a slave in the household of Potiphar, Joseph demonstrated exceptional skill in his work. This is surprising. He had no reason to do so. He’s there against his will, far from home, betrayed by his brothers, purchased in the same way a rug is purchased. Joseph had every reason to be resentful and bitter and despise his master. But he didn’t do it. He earned his master’s trust and admiration and moved up in the ranks.

And we are given only the briefest word of explanation: “The Lord was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2).

The implication of this is something that might change how you live this day. When God is with you and working through you, you will give the best of who you are in the place where you are right now. You will not sulk about how and why you’re there. You will not voice complaints, whether silently to God or spoken to others, about why you can’t seem to get out of there. You may have every reason to be bitter. But you will give your best.

That’s what Joseph did – and as best we can tell he did so for no other reason than that God was with him.

How might God’s presence with you change you today? How might it change how you see where God has placed you?

O Lord, you have given me a place and a task for this day. Be with me – and grant me grace to give the best of myself in all that I do, to the glory of your name. Amen.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


Then Jacob . . . mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him but he refused to be comforted . . . Meanwhile the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar (Genesis 37:34-36).

I had no idea what I would say to Steve’s mother. Still fairly new to the whole pastor thing, I had baptized Steve when he was thirteen or fourteen years old. Now, not very many years later, I was doing his funeral.

I showed up at the house, exchanged a few greetings and pleasantries with visitors gathered in the den. Someone pointed down the hall to Steve’s room. “She’s in there. You can go on back if you want.” Part of me didn’t want to go anywhere near that room. Maybe I was afraid of what I’d find there.

The room was rather dark, the only light coming from the window. She was sitting in a chair in front of that window, holding some of his things in her lap. I remember the tennis shoes. I cannot recall what I said, but I remember the shoes and her far away gaze through the window. There would be no comforting her, not today.

Jacob refused to be comforted. His sons and daughters tried, often and earnestly. They urged him to eat, invited him over. I see Jacob staring off at something no one else can see, the stained robe in his lap. Jacob, refusing to be comforted. “‘In mourning I will go down to the grave to my son.’ So his father wept for him” (Genesis 37:35).

Something in us craves relief from this scene. We need to come up for air. The relief we seek is found in the word “Meanwhile.” In most English translations of the Bible that’s the word that comes right on the heels of Jacob’s weeping. It’s a word that permits a slight glimmer of hope.

“Meanwhile” points to a story that’s taking place off stage. It’s a drama that no one sees, except us as the readers. Granted, Jacob’s other sons knew that Joseph was alive. That they allowed their father to go on grieving speaks to depth of their hatred of both Joseph and Jacob. But the “meanwhile” was beyond Jacob’s knowing. It was a different reality, one that he would come to know years later.

You may know someone today who refuses to be comforted. That someone could be you. The nature of the grief looks different from person to person. Some are consumed with loss, some are consumed with worry about the future, some are consumed with bitterness over a perceived or actual wrong done, some are consumed with denial and won’t listen to reason.

In all of this there is a “meanwhile.” God is doing something right now that you know nothing about. There’s a story unfolding that you can’t see and you surely can’t write for yourself. It may take a long time before the page turns and you discover what God was doing all along. For today, hold on to this one word: “meanwhile.”

Have you ever refused to be comforted? Ever discovered a “meanwhile” in your life?

You are always at work, O God, creating realities that I cannot imagine, creating stories that involve me but are not of my making. But those “meanwhile” dramas are so hard for me to accept, so hard to wait on. Help me to embrace the “meanwhile.” Gant me the comfort I need for this day. Amen.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Reuben's Regret

Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father (Genesis 37:22)

As far as Reuben was concerned, he had failed.

The inconsolable grief of his aging father was his fault. Most nights, before sleep came, Reuben saw again the sight of the empty cistern, heard again the laughter of his brothers as they counted the shekels and explained that Joseph had been sold and was on his way to Egypt.

The original plan was to murder Joseph. When they had seen him approaching from a distance they quickly agreed the moment was right to be done with him. The discussion turned to means: wrap this rope around his throat and break his neck? Plunge this knife into his heart?

Lacking the stomach for murder, but possessing the guts to speak up, Reuben offered an alternative plan. Their murder plans were too messy. “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern.” Rueben didn’t disclose his real plan. He would come back later for Joseph, get him out of the pit and take him home to Jacob.

Reuben left the others for a while, thinking his plan was in place. When he returned he was told that Joseph had been sold to some Midianite merchants. Reuben tore his clothes in grief. The others killed an animal, soaked the despised robe in blood, and concocted a lie to tell their father about Joseph’s violent death.

And Reuben was left with his regrets. If only he had stayed close by. If only he had been there when the merchants came. If only he had come back sooner. If only he had been more forceful and threatening with the others.


Most of us have said this kind of thing to ourselves about something. We’ve relived the moments that we think we could have changed if only we’d done better or done more. We’ve rehearsed our failure over and over again. We’ve given ear to the low murmurings of our regrets.

If only we had been there. If only we had watched the baby closer. If only we had been behind the wheel of the car. If only we had made sure the oven was off. If only we had said something sooner.

We are not told, but it isn’t hard for us to imagine that Reuben lived long with his regrets, that he rehearsed them often. But what looked and felt like failure to Reuben wasn’t failure at all. God wanted to get Joseph to Egypt. God’s plan trumped Reuben’s plan, but this is hard for us too see. The divine hand is often hidden behind what goes wrong.

Is it possible to set our regrets aside rather than rehearse them? Surely, one strategy must be to rehearse just as often the sovereignty of God in all things. What we would do all over again if we could is guided by the will and ways of God who does all things well from the start, every time.

What would you do over again of you could? How will you place your regrets in the hands of a sovereign God?

Gracious God, I’ve replayed my mistakes enough. I’ve rehearsed my regrets and know them well. Today I give them to you, trusting your unseen hand to work something good, something redemptive, from every part of my life. Help me to trust you with all of my life, and grant your peace, I pray. Amen.