Let Go and Let God

JosephweepswithBrothersReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 45:1-15 on August 16, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

(I apologize this may be the second time you receive this due to a posting/computer error).

When was the last time you had a big, ugly cry? A messy, wailing, embarrassing cry? I know every guy is squirming in his seat as I say this, since crying is considered an “unmanly” thing to do in our culture. But maybe you can be encouraged by Joseph today. If you have not had a big ugly cry in the last five months since the pandemic started, I would say, you are due.

Maybe like Joseph, you need to hold on until you are alone before you can let it out. Maybe, you need to wait until you get in the shower so the water and the fan can muffle the sound. That is okay. Use Joseph as a model and stop trying to hold it in, maintain control and instead, just let it out. What is the worst that can happen? Trust me, no one finds having a stroke, a heart attack, an addiction problem, or any other stress-related disease more attractive than the occasional ugly cry.

Even though he sent people away, when Joseph cried, he wept so loudly the whole household heard it. But it was his moment of transformation.

What led Joseph up to that moment? What happened that he could no longer hold it in, no longer fight for control, no longer hang on to anger and resentment toward his brothers? He had been through so much! Let’s do a quick review.

After his brother’s sold him into slavery with traders heading to Egypt, Joseph was sold Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. He prospered there, running the entire household. That is, until Potiphar’s wife propositioned him, and even though he refused, she falsely accused him, and he was thrown into prison.

While in prison, Joseph befriended two royal officials who had strange dreams that mystified them. Joseph, who knew a thing or two about dreams since he had them himself, interpreted their dreams correctly. He asked one of the officials to remember him when he was released and put in a good word with the Pharaoh, but he forgot. Joseph was in prison for two more years.

Then Pharaoh had unsettling dreams: the first dream involved seven sleek and fat cows being eaten by seven ugly and thin cows. Pharaoh’s second dream was similar: seven plump and good ears of grain were swallowed up by seven thin and blighted ears of grain. No one could explain these dreams to him. The royal official who met Joseph in prison finally remembered him, so Pharaoh called for Joseph to tell him what his dreams could possibly mean.

Joseph told him there would be seven years of a plenteous harvest followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he made him the Secretary of Agriculture, overseeing the storage of surplus grain during the 7 years of plenty, so they could survive the 7 years of famine.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s family back in Canaan had run out of food during the famine, and they heard there was grain in Egypt. Jacob, now called Israel, sent his 10 sons there to get food, keeping back his youngest and new favorite, Benjamin, the second son of his beloved Rachel. When the brothers arrived in Egypt, Joseph recognized them, but they did not know Joseph—how could they? It was inconceivable that the brother they sold into slavery long ago would be the second in command in Egypt. Joseph’s dream of years past came true, as his brothers bowed down before him, asking for grain.

But Joseph did not reveal himself right away to his brothers—he toyed with them and tormented them for a good long time—months or even years. Joseph accused them of being spies. Convincing them of his gift of divination he kept Simeon as a hostage until they came back with their youngest brother, Benjamin. When he sent them back to Canaan, he hid money in their grain sacks—not to help them, but to make them worry about being accused of theivery.

Israel could not bear to part with Benjamin, so months go by. But they ran out of food again, so the brothers returned to Egypt; this time bringing Benjamin, and returning the money Joseph added to their sacks.
Joseph released Simeon and sent them away with grain again, but this time, he hid a silver cup in Benjamin’s grain sack and then sent his police force after them. Joseph threatened to keep Benjamin as his slave to atone for his supposed crime of stealing. The brothers knew this would break their father’s heart, so Judah offered to take Benjamin’s place, telling Joseph that it would kill their father to lose the youngest son after he already lost his brother—that is, Joseph—years ago.

That is the moment when Joseph breaks open to transformation. He kept control of his emotions and the situation, working his anger, resentment, and revenge into all these schemes for so long—and then he just cannot do it anymore. Joseph hears how much his father misses him and loved him. Joseph hears how his brothers have changed—how much they want to take care of their father and protect Benjamin in a way they could not for Joseph years earlier. So comes the moment of truth: are his resentful, controlling schemes really working for him? No. Not now, not ever, really. His need to exact revenge melts as Joseph finally sees that God’s power has been present the whole time and God always had an alternative plan. Joseph lets go of his need to control and surrenders to God’s control.

Then, the big ugly cry begins—I am not sure there is a neat way to realize your own foolishness and really let God in (that’s why I always wear waterproof mascara). Yes, Joseph endured hardship, but God was there the whole time—

• making sure he survived,
• getting him to Potiphar’s house,
• giving him the gift of dream interpretation,
• connecting him to royal staff,
• getting him in front of the Pharaoh,
• making him the Secretary of Agriculture,
• and now, reuniting him with his own family,
• bringing his boyhood dreams to fruition and
• saving all of their lives. It has all been God’s doing.

Tears of relief, sadness, joy, overwhelm, release, confession and grace all mix together in a wail that cannot be quieted, as Joseph allows himself to be truly held by God and transparently seen by his family.

That is the gift of the messy, wailing cry—to be truly ourselves—nothing more, nothing less. To be who we really are, and be held by God, whom we let be truly God. To be seen and known in our human finitude, accepting our limitations and what we cannot control.

We cannot know and do and control everything—

• we do not have all the answers,
• we cannot make others do what we think is right,
• we cannot control a virus,
• the political environment,
• who wears a mask and who does not,
• what the school policies will be,
• and if people who are sick will distance properly.

We can make ourselves sick with anger and resentment and everyone around us miserable. Or we can turn what we cannot control over to God and from a surrendered heart manage what God has given us to manage—which is only ourselves—with faithfulness and peace. Practicing this kind of spiritual surrender is, I believe, an essential life-skill in this time, or we will come out of this pandemic with even more severe stress-related illnesses.

So, if you have not had a big ugly cry in a while, take a shower, talk to your spouse or best friend, or call me--my last big ugly cry was in July. Your body will unclench. Your family will relax. Your spirit will be able to breathe again. Your mind will stop trying to control the uncontrollable. It is okay to be a limited human being, held by God who is in control, even when we do not yet see how. That’s why we call it, “faith.”

Take a page from Joseph’s story—he endured tremendous hardship, but God was working God’s goodness and plan through his story the whole time! Joseph finally and fully participated in God’s dream for him when he let go, and let God have control. As the old song says, “Go ahead and cry.”
Image: Joseph Reunited with His Family.

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A Sordid Tale of Sin

JosephsoldbybrothersReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 on August 9, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

You would think that after surviving an all-night wrestling match and receiving a new name, “Israel,” and then being forgiven by Esau for stealing his blessing and birthright, that Jacob would have wised up. But, I have yet to see the sun set on a day free of my own sin, so I am not sure why I expect this of Israel. He is a lousy dad. Joseph is son #11, but he is the oldest of Israel’s beloved wife, Rachel, making him the obvious favorite. Once again, the younger is preferred over the oldest who is supposed to be the recipient of the father’s favor. Lest we forget God is always working through us flawed and limited human beings, family drama ensues.

Israel gives Joseph a fancy coat that no one else gets. Joseph seems to enjoy flaunting his favoritism—he wears his fancy coat when he goes out to check on his brothers, whom he snitches on, to boot. We can understand why the older brothers are fed up with this kid-brother Joseph; he is more than just annoying. If Joseph continues to give bad reports about them to their father, it could upend the inheritance which rightfully belongs to the oldest, Reuben. The other brothers depend on Reuben’s goodwill to share in their father’s wealth. Joseph could mess up the future for all of them—they want what is rightfully theirs.

To make matters worse, Joseph has been sharing elaborate dreams about all of them. The first involved sheaves of wheat: Joseph’s sheaf rose up, and the brothers’ sheaves bowed down to Joseph’s. Exactly what the brothers feared. Joseph would get the goods, and they would be left beggars. The second dream was even worse. Eleven stars, symbolizing the brothers, and the sun and the moon, representing his father and mother, were all bowing down to Joseph. The brothers are incensed—they will not be bowing down to anyone, least of all this high-falutin, dreamin’ nark of a baby brother.

We can understand, even identify with their anger, frustration and feeling that their livelihood and well-being are threatened. But the bonds of family and brotherhood are also strong. In this ancient, agrarian kinship society, family bonds are everything. Their lives are woven together from birth to death, and they owe complete fidelity to their father’s desires. They have reached a conflict point—where culture, morality, and loyalty clash with pain, jealousy and fear, providing an opportunity for brokenness and sin to take hold.
The brothers “conspire” to kill him. The Hebrew word for “conspire” uses a rare verb form that is both reflexive and causative at the same time. A better translation would be, “they caused deceit to themselves to kill him.” Is that not the very pernicious nature of human brokenness and sin? We deceive ourselves about what is right and moral, we justify and make excuses for actions based on our pain, the injustice we have suffered, or the fear we must avoid at all costs. And the unthinkable becomes thinkable—even necessary, even justifiable, even right. The brothers deceive themselves that it is better to betray loyalty to their family, harm their brother, lie to their father, and bring guilt into their own hearts, rather than deal constructively with their feelings of fear, anger, and jealousy. They do not just make a plan to get rid of Joseph—they have to lie to themselves and each other, in order to choose fear over loyalty, jealousy over morality, and pain over family.

This understanding of sin is reiterated in 1 John, chapter 1 which we often use an introduction to our confession: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." We may feel a little better that Reuben and Judah come up with less drastic measures of shame and deprivation by stripping him of his robe and dropping him in a well, and then profiteering by selling him to Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. The brothers may have opted for an extended death sentence rather than an immediate one, but no brother is exempt from committing evil in this text. They violated a core value of ancient family life and covenant law, valuing profit over kinship. They sacrificed another human life to preserve their own privilege, status and assets.

So what might God want us to take away from this sordid tale of bad parenting, flaunting and snitching, near-fratricide and the self-deception of human sin?
1. Broaden your circle of conversation and get new perspectives. The brothers only spoke to each other which reinforced their negative emotions, strengthened their sense of injustice, and increased the likelihood of deceiving themselves that sinful action was justified. When we live in fear and we do not engage in conversation that gets us outside our own version of the story, we sacrifice others to meet our own needs. Ask any person of color you know to tell you their stories of being someone else’s sacrificial lamb to maintain privilege. How are we engaging in patterns of self-deception that maintain privilege and resources at the expense of others? Broaden your conversation partners and find out, asking God to open your mind and transform your heart.

2. Do the work to heal your emotional wounds. Hurting people hurt people. Instead of resolving their emotional pain, the brothers compounded fear and jealousy with guilt. What would have happened if the brothers would have spoken honestly to Joseph and to their father first? Or included their mothers in a family conversation that aired out anger, jealousy, and curbed Joseph’s flagrant behavior? Feelings unexpressed come out some other way—often painfully for us or others. Whether or not personal conversations are possible, we can participate with God in healing our emotional wounds through counseling, prayer, and spiritual direction. I am here to you assist you with this healing or recommend someone who can. I regularly see a counselor and a spiritual director, so I do not, as much as possible, hurt you or my family with my own unresolved issues.

3. God always has a bigger dream at work. Joseph’s dreams of him ruling over his family were not the fantasies of egotist, but they were messages from God that would ultimately save Joseph’s life, and that of his entire family later in Egypt. I am sure life did not feel that way to Joseph on the caravan to Egypt. Despite the appearance of present circumstances, this story calls us to trust that God’s divine purpose will somehow be fulfilled. The dreams and plans of God cannot be thwarted by human machinations nor undone by human sin. God has a dream for you and your life that is being fulfilled right now. God has a dream for St. Luke’s and for our mission, which is actually growing right now—as more people have access to worship on-line and as we start a Community Breakfast! Our first one last Saturday served 63 burritos! Trust that God’s dream is at work despite any appearance to the contrary.

Israel’s gift to us is not that his family learns to live without sin, but that we learn from their mistakes and deepen our trust that God’s dream is at work, even in the midst of our present circumstances.

Image: Ferenczy, Károly, 1862-1917. Joseph Sold into Slavery by his Brothers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.


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Wrestling and Blessing

JacobWrestlingReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 32:22-31 on August 2, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Jacob is utterly alone. He sent his wives and children ahead of him, across the river on their journey to back to Canaan and he spends the night alone on the Jabbok River. It is one thing to be alone during the day, or even at night in the comfort of your own bed—but out in the wilderness with nothing familiar, cut off from everything and everyone—no comfort, no conversation—with only your roiling thoughts and regrets to keep you company. That’s alone.

But Jacob is not left alone for long. A man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. Who is this man and what did he really want? Is this a real man nearby? Another vivid dream like the ladder with angels? A real angel or, actually God? A clear answer is not revealed, inviting our imagination to wrestle with the possibilities.

Maybe Jacob’s opponent is a real man, like Jacob’s brother, Esau, surprising him in the darkness to get the upper hand. Jacob bargained Esau out of his birthright and tricked him out of their father’s blessing as the eldest son; then Jacob fled to his Uncle Laban’s to escape Esau’s wrath. Now, after building family and wealth, Jacob sent a message with gifts to Esau that he was on his way back, so perhaps this jilted brother is ready to take his vengeance. Jacob left him with half his inheritance, so surely, Esau might still be angry enough for an all-night wrestling match. Even if it is not his intent to kill Jacob, perhaps Esau just wants to anonymously see Jacob experience a good measure of the fear, suffering and misery Jacob caused him.

Perhaps this midnight wrestler is not made of flesh and blood, but rather powers and principalities. The shadows of the night reveal the shadows in Jacob’s own soul; being alone invited them out for an honest reckoning. The real reason Jacob is alone, apart from his family, is because he is a coward. He really did fear Esau would kill him, and he knew Esau was headed his direction with 400 men. But instead taking the lead at the head of his family and facing his brother, he put his wives and children out in front of him to save his own skin. Maybe Esau would spare his wives and children; or at least he would be tired of the slaughter and will have exhausted his wrath by the time he got to Jacob at the back of the entourage. Either way, Jacob’s cowardice means he has placed his whole family in harm’s way to save himself. Maybe through this long night, Jacob wrestles with this deep fear of death, and his urge for self-preservation that even love for family does not overcome. Like a dark night of the soul, this fearsome wrestling match gives Jacob a way to confront and conquer this crippling fear and devastating character weakness.

Maybe this wrestling partner really is an angel visitor in the night, confronting Jacob with his fierce self-reliance and inability to trust God. Twenty years earlier, God promised Jacob security, success, and a return to his homeland—and that promise has come to pass with children, large flocks, and this night of his return journey. But Jacob has built his wealth through trickery. Jacob always has a scheme or a plan to get himself ahead—but God wants more than a self-reliant, scheming, successful man. God calls him to bear the covenant God made with Abraham and Isaac and through them, all of creation. Jacob carries a calling that is bigger than himself, a calling that requires him to fully and finally put his trust in God and to be the leader this covenant demands. Jacob needs to conquer his relentless independence, cunning and self-reliance that denies a deeper relationship with God. This wrestling match is Jacob’s Garden of Gethsemane—that moment when he has to learn to declare, “not my will, but Thy will be done.”

As the day began to dawn and the struggle nearly over, Jacob asks passionately for a blessing. At this moment, there is no cowardice, no fear, no trickery, no scheming—just a desperate, clinging request to not leave the battle without a blessing, without something good coming from it. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob Would. Not. Let. Go.

The man asks Jacob his name. “Jacob Jacob, the supplanter; Jacob, the grasper; Jacob, the usurper. But this name is now too limiting for Jacob to move forward in the next stage of fulfilling God’s covenant. So Jacob receives not only a new name, but a new identity. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Jacob reveals a profound truth for all of us. We cannot move forward before we can name the blessing from the last battle—and until we get it, until we can see it, until we can claim something good from something awful, the best that we can do is to hang on. Some days, we survive by nothing more elegant than not giving up on ourselves and not giving up on God.

That’s what Jacob does—as he wrestles with his past, himself, and with God—he hangs on and he does not give up—he clings to the moment and demands that goodness, holiness, life, and blessing arise from the pain somehow. Jacob demands transformation, a kind of resurrection. And he receives it.

Israel—the name of a new man and a new nation—which literally means to strive or wrestle or contend with God. This God wants us to hang in there and never give up. Through wrestling, Jacob transitions from fearful schemer to role model. Jacob invites us to cling to God and demand a blessing even when it’s hard and painful to wrestle with our demons, to live with broken relationships, to confront our character weaknesses, and to submit our self-reliant, ornery selves to God’s will and purpose. Every loss, every divorce, every broken relationship, every diagnosis, every death of someone we love leaves its mark. Just like Jacob, we leave these life experiences with a limp in body or soul. Each struggle leaves a scar.

But with Jacob, we grab the mystery of God and hang on, even when we are tired, or in pain, or have doubts. We fight for our relationship with God. Faith is not a static, one-time gift from God; it is God’s lifelong pursuit of us and our lifelong pursuit for God. We may never have the complete answers but in the struggle to hang on to faith and to God, we become stronger, and grow and with Jacob, we become blessed and transformed into something more than we were before.

Right now, we all hang on together, refusing to let go of God until God’s blessing transforms us anew.

Image: Delacroix, Eugène, 1798-1863. Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, from Art in the Christian Tradition. Original source:

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God Works Through Us Anyway, So Tell The Truth

JacbobsFamilyTreeReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 29:15-28 on July 26, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

There is a new, young dentist at the practice where we go, who worked on me this week when I had to have some fillings replaced. When she found out both Dan and I are pastors, she said that everyone in our family must always behave well and be happy all the time. In between drillings, I tried to explain that faith in God really meant the opposite—that we can bring our whole selves and all our life experience—even and especially the rotten and the hard stuff, to God. She was relieved since it would be hard to be happy all of the time.

Jacob certainly was not happy all the time, as we discover as his story continues today. After his dream of angels moving up and down a staircase from heaven and God’s promise to be with him, protect him, and return him to this land, Jacob made it safely to his mother, Rebekah’s people and arrives at his uncle Laban’s. He beholds the fair and beautiful Rachel at the well and is smitten from the start—this one will be his wife. He and Laban agree on the deal—he will work for seven years to earn Rachel. We find this somewhat satisfying; for the first time, Jacob works for something rather than bargaining and tricking his way into his desires.

But Laban has his own plans and deceptions; the rules of primogeniture—that the firstborn male gets the inheritance—also applies to females: the firstborn daughter must be married first. Laban will not work outside that system regardless of Jacob’s desires or work ethic. So, the trickster is tricked. The bride is covered during the ceremony and revealed to be Leah, not Rachel in the morning! Jacob must work another seven years for Rachel—but because of his love for her—he is willing to pay the price.

This does not, however, set up happy family dynamics—a family begun in deception leads to sibling rivalry between Leah and Rachel, with competition over the production of babies. Leah is not loved and cherished as her sister, but she is fertile and able to produce more sons, making her an extremely valuable wife. She gives birth to Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Rachel is loved and adored, but, as we have heard many times in the story of the matriarchs already, she is barren and forlorn.

Rachel repeats Sarah’s solution and sends her slave Bilhah in as a surrogate who gives birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah, not to be outdone in the area where she is successful, also sends her slave to Jacob and she produces Gad and Asher. Leah then becomes barren for a while, but later gives birth to Issachar, Zebulun, and even a daughter, Dinah.
Finally, after years of barrenness, God remembers Rachel, and Rachel gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin, the children of Jacob’s old age. Later we will find Jacob’s favoritism to Joseph, the first son born from his beloved Rachel, causes more rivalry and jealousy among the brothers, but that’s for another day.

And the misery and trickery of this story does not end there. Laban is no charmer either. Jacob has made him a wealthy man, but when it comes time for Jacob to return to his homeland, Laban, the greedy, only wants to give him the less-desirable spotted sheep and goats, and then he secretly hides them so Jacob would get nothing.

But Jacob also has more tricks up his sleeve. He engages in what might be called an ancient form of genetic engineering down at the watering hole using spotted sticks for the strongest animals to produce spotted off-spring, giving himself a large flock that Laban cannot refuse him.

When Jacob, with his whole family, staff, and herds finally set off in secret, Rachel decides she needs a memento from home, and steals her father’s idols deceiving both her father and husband. Laban chases after Jacob and his whole entourage, but through a dream is directed by God to make peace with Jacob.

And THAT is how the 12 tribes of Israel began—God built an entire nation that God wanted to be a blessing to the whole earth from this mess of a family. Perhaps we are like the dentist who wants people of faith to be well-behaved and happy all the time—biblical heroes who are daring, honorable, truthful, and courageous. Instead we see limited people struggling with trickery, jealousy, dishonesty, greed, and rivalry. We understand that God is not waiting for them or us to be someone other than themselves, or something other than limited, sinful human beings.

Instead, we hear the truth—the truth about this foundational family, and the truth about ourselves—even if our family rivalries, jealousies, competitions and greed remain unspoken, or if we have family members with whom we do not speak. God is with you anyway. God is with them anyway. God can work God’s purposes anyway. Jacob’s trickster character shaped the family he created, and God found a way to build a nation through them anyway.

Rather than glossing over flaws, faith in God means being able to handle to the truth. Faith means dealing with what is real, to put the truth before God and trust God can work with it, as God has through all the flawed people before us. In twelve-step programs, there is a saying that, “we are only as sick as our secrets.” Psychologists will tell us that human consciousness does not emerge at any depth, except through struggling with our own shadow, our own failures, our wounding, our character flaws.

This also describes the significance of the racial reckoning in our nation today—we need to tell the truth and hear the whole truth of our history and its impact on all peoples, not gloss over it. The very nature of our Scripture stories which are human and wholistic, give us the courage to tell, and to hear the impact of confederate symbols, of sports mascots based on Native American stereotypes, of the fear and frustration systemic racism creates in the lives of so many.

To tell the truth and heal the wounds of our past is much like hearing about Jacob’s messed up family and the beginning of Israel as a nation. Israel did not keep secrets about its story and history and neither need we. We see ourselves and our own limitations, and we see God at work moving a people forward: we find ways to make better choices, to trust God with our transformation, and to make something new from us today. This work is an act of deep love and trust and faith in this country, and most of all in what God can do with who we are, individually and together.

God is not waiting for you to become someone else, someone you are not. You do not have to be perfect or happy all the time. God is with us anyway. God is working God’s purposes through all of us anyway. Jacob, his family, and the nation they are building do invite us to tell the truth about ourselves and to be willing to listen to the truth of others. The more wounds we heal individually and as a nation, the more available we are to consciously participate with God in building the kingdom of justice and love that God calls us to as God’s people and the church.

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