by Rev. Doug Gray
Of course, we’ve all heard things like, “She has her father’s eyes” or “He’s got his mother’s laugh,” but can you name any of your physical traits and which family member they “come from”?
[Take responses from the congregation.]
It won’t take us long to think of other things we get from our family—a love of nature, joy in helping others, or a pet peeve—and some of the things we get from our family we are maybe not so happy about. We might even call them character flaws, or dysfunctional approaches to relationships. In our passage for today, we surely see the favoritism and family deceptions of Jacob’s family suddenly explode. How do we deal with dysfunctional family traits? How do we find hope as we wrestle with ourselves, our families and our God?
First, let’s be honest. There are times when we are like Joseph in the well. What are some of the things that land Joseph in the well?
[Take responses from the congregation.]
If we are honest about our own character and our own situation, when we find ourselves in the well—a deep, dark place in our lives—we have often set ourselves up. Oh yes! At times our own brokenness and weaknesses come out in ways that trip us up. When I was a kid, I learned that making people happy meant that I felt good and I felt safe. That works fine if you’re a kid. As an adult and a leader, I discovered not only that I can’t make everybody happy, but that I will wear myself out trying to do it, and the things that I really want—or that I know God really wants—sometimes mean someone is going to be unhappy with me. But if I’m honest with myself, that people-pleasing thing can get me into trouble really fast, and lead me to being really unhappy. For Joseph, all his flaws are coming home too. Maybe that’s happened to you too, and when it does we can be honest and own the pieces that are ours.
Second, recognize that we are powerless to get ourselves out. In college, I played on the varsity volleyball team, and I was shown how to approach the ball and hit. So I learned it. The next season, a new coach who had led several teams to national championships, came and told me I was doing it all wrong. I had to start over, learning the right way, but I couldn’t get it right without his help. The challenge with healing our deepest character and family flaws, is that most often, we only learned them one way—the wrong way! We didn’t learn to do them the right way. The easy, familiar ways for us to behave are the ones that got us into trouble in the first place. Usually there comes a point when we begin to see clearly that our challenge is more than we can get ourselves out of. When we are trying to change at the deepest levels, we realize we aren’t even conscious of all the places where we need to change. Like Joseph, we are in the well, and then sold into slavery. We may even ask, “Why, God, are you letting this happen to me?”
Third, lean into God. The thing is that Joseph can’t really do much about the well or the slavery. He can’t control those pieces. So what’s left? God and himself. Where is it God is taking him? How will God be with him? How will God make a way for him? How can he live so that God can bless him? When I was relearning my approach for hitting in volleyball, I went through a period where it seemed to get worse—I couldn’t hit anything. My timing was off and there were times I went home wanting to cry because it was so hard and it felt like I was failing so badly. But my coach kept encouraging me—telling me when I did it wrong, helping me understand when I was getting it right even if it felt all wrong to me. When we are trying to change at levels we can’t really reach, we can fight it, or we can lean into Coach Jesus, and receive the encouragement, strength and guidance we need.
The problem with the well is that we can’t see a way out of it. We can’t see how we can possibly be what God says is possible—more wholeness, more peace, more joy. The real work begins as we lean into God and trust that God will guide us to the right place, even if it’s a place we can’t see or understand or even imagine. And we may even have a sense that we are going through even tougher times than when we started. Leaning into God, learning to trust God in the middle of the hardest times is the real work. But we are trading our sorrows for joy. We are trading our pain and flaws for renewed relationships and better tomorrows…but dang! It can be hard. Fortunately, we don’t just worship an abstract God, because in Jesus we find someone who stands in the middle of the storms of our lives, who invites us to leave the safety of the boat and step out onto the waves. Suddenly, we discover we are loving and treating people in new ways—it’s like we are walking on water! How did we do that? If we are honest, we know it’s not us. Because if we are honest, we know we were the cause of most of our problems. Because we recognize how powerless we are to escape the depths of our problems, we know these changes are not ones we have made. While we were trusting God, leaning in for God’s strength and encouragement, God has been making us ready for power. Through the well and the work and the waves, we keep our eyes on Jesus, who knows what it’s like to surrender himself to God’s guidance, and who walks with us through dark places to better days. We can have our heavenly Father’s eyes of compassion. We can grow our heavenly Father’s heart. We can have our heavenly Father’s life through the well and the work and the waves. If we will only lean into God, our deepest flaws and our hardest relationships can be healed. If we will only lean into God…