Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Truth versus the Joseph Story

When I was a kid, one of my favorite stories was the narrative of Joseph
in the book of Genesis.

Not only was it an exciting tale--much better than the Begats, Leviticus, or the doctrinal epistles of Paul--
the Joseph story filled me with deep hope and faith in God.

I read with wonder how Joseph by faith overcame betrayal, terrible experiences, false accusations,
insurmountable odds, and eventually became Prince of Egypt--healthy, wealthy, powerful and wise.

Then as I grew up, and, myself, encountered terrible times (like most of us do),
and came to face to face with insurmountable odds, I would remember the rags-to-riches story or re-read it for more details.

Keep the faith and you will win, no matter how bad things get.

What I didn't realize until much later--into middle age when I continued to have worse and worse life experiences--
is only one person can be prince of Egypt, and it wasn't me;-)

Somehow I had modeled my central hopes and expectations according to a very few winning stories--
Joseph, Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego,
the Apostle Peter, George Fox, John Woolman,
Menno Simons, Levi Coffin, etc.--the great heroes of the faith who suffered greatly but overcame and eventually succeeded.

What I had somehow missed is that most hopeful people down through the many thousands of years of human history, and at present,
not only never reach a high place, they seldom overcome their tragic lives,
don't get out of the "pit" others or bad circumstances have thrown them in;
they live lives more like Jeremiah
than Joseph--
life only gets worse and worse as they age.

Millions never get to even age.

Their lives are cut short by debilitating illnesses, false accusations, abuses, wars, tortures, and destruction.

They die in prison like Francis Howgill, mistreated to death,
get drowned like Felix Manz,

executed like Quaker Tom Fox in Iraq,
or are tortured, sawn into, beheaded,
or burnt at the stake like Michael Sattler.

On an on the suffering goes. The injustice and very bad news seem endless.

This doesn't even deal with the millions of people who die in vast plagues, in hurricanes and tidal waves, who starve to death, get cancer or are abused.

No wonder so many despair and feel the hopelessness of Hezekiah in the book of Isaiah:
"For Sheol cannot thank you, Death cannot praise you,
Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness."

Indeed, I now see that the Joseph story as I envisioned it is a harmful delusion of the worst sort.

Contrary to the claims of hundreds of thousands of success sermons and endless prosperity books, most people don't win by the world's standards. They don't even get to come in last, 5 hours late like
one runner who refused to give up.

They are born blind, or get leukemia at 4 years of age, or die of cancer at 33, leaving behind their 3 little preschoolers.

So where does that leave us, those who seek and hope in God, despite the worst Life heaves our way?

Those who think Dawkins, Harris, and other non-theists are wrong in their claim that existence is meaningless and hope is a delusion.

It's all about perspective.
Paul spoke of it in Corinthians when he spoke of the scandal of the cross:
"We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness."

No doubt many Jews were hoping for a Joseph-like figure, a messianic leaders who would thrash the Romans and become an overcoming prince.

They didn't want a Jewish laborer who told them to love their national enemies and sinners, one who was then arrested for treason,
tortured, and nailed to a Roman cross.

And the Gentiles (all those not Jewish) were interested in power, wealth, and success as well. Who would want to follow some Jewish peasant that didn't
have an abstract philosophical system and who ridiculously told his followers to resist evil with love?

Obviously he didn't understand the real world.

Not much has changed in over 2,000 years. Many of us still want--at least I so often do--
a successful Christ, one who will help us live a healthy, happy life, with a successful career, etc.

But Truth doesn't come our way very often with Joseph-like health, power, wealth, wisdom.
Besides, how wise was Joseph really when he turned millions of Egyptians into paupers dependent on the national ruler?

George Fox and the early Quakers learned that early. They had hoped that Oliver Cromwell and English government would bring in justice, goodness, and truth.

On the contrary, only more destruction, slaughter, and oppression!

Many innocent individuals spent years in prison, lost all their material possessions;
thousands died as have many other people of truth have in the past. And in Europe,
hundreds of thousands died because of the 30 Years War--a battle between Roman Catholics versus Reformed to see who would get to be "Joseph"!

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of how unearned suffering is redemptive in the midst of a life of sacrifice.
For a while it even appeared that King might become a modern day Joseph as he went from being a minor Black minister in the South
to becoming a national hero and society-changer.

But in the end, he was executed by a lone gunman, and he, himself, had turned from the ethical way, even committing adultery repeatedly.

So tragic.

May we in each moment of now abandon our Joseph delusions.

Let us not give up, or give into unethical actions.

Instead, let us live in the hope that good, truth, and justice will eventually win, even if we don't.

To be continued--

Daniel Wilcox


Hystery said...

This speaks directly to my soul and reminds me of my favorite sermon about the Book of Ruth which my father entitled, "When Selfishness Fails, Love Succeeds. It was about devotion and love in the midst of tragedy. It was about the choices we make.

It is all about choices, isn't it? Choices we make in the midst of powerlessness. We cannot always choose our condition but we can choose our philosophy and its beneficiaries. We can choose uncompromising love.

I am impressed neither by Christian nor New Age sentimentalism in which those who think all the right thoughts or pray all the right prayers are rewarded by bountiful wealth and wellness. The notion that we can "attract positive energy" seems to fly in the face of relentless suffering. Worse, such theories seem to suggest that those who suffer are spiritually deficient. I refuse to believe that anyone's suffering is a result of sin or of the New Age equivalent of failure to think positive thoughts.

I find the deepest hope in our gift of deep compassion; that we can love one another in the midst of pain and sorrow. That we are able to set aside our own happiness and even safety for the sake of this Love seems to me to be the source, not of shallow happiness, but of Transcendent Joy.

On another note, it is interesting that Jesus' birth narrative and his parents' flight into Egypt mirrors the Joseph story. And out of Egypt, a new Moses emerges to lead his people out of slavery.

Daniel Wilcox said...


I should have had you write the reflection! Your comment reaches deep. Much Light. Maybe you might write your own blog post on Ruth.

I hope you soon find a meeting in which to minister. (And your dad needs to get back into pastoring. I wish I could have heard some of his sermons.)

And thanks for the typological reference between Joseph and Jesus.
I used to know all that in the past but had fogotten it.

Your spiritual insight in this comment was definitely from your Dr. Jekyl side;-)