Skip to content

Occasionally, Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a biblical commentary or discussion of a contemporary topic, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Generations

Next week my siblings and I will gather to celebrate what would have been my dad’s 100th birthday. (He died less than six years ago at the age of 94.) Reflecting on his long life and legacy, I am filled with gratitude as well as a sense of wonder as one generation after another emerges and passes away.

Dad was an average man. He said so himself. “I’m just average.” He grew up in Chicago during the Depression, spent World War II as a private on an Army base in South Carolina, and became a truck driver after the war. Divorced and remarried, he worked hard, raised six children, then spent his retirement years working at a flea market in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After ninety-four years, he sat in his favorite chair at home, holding the hand of his name-sake son, and passed away.

Dad had no great accomplishments, nor did he excel at any skill that our society values. With his peers, he was modest and reserved. As a father, he spanked too hard, yelled too much, and interacted too little.

And yet he is so deeply beloved by us. He was sometimes goofy, ever-helpful, always generous, and a man of integrity. Most important of all, he loved his wife and children without limit. He would sacrifice anything for us.

And so, though he often struggled to pay the bills while we were growing up, he was immensely rich. He had everything he wanted: a happy family.

As we approach his 100th birthday, we can so clearly see that he lived a meaningful life. In addition to numerous descendants (seven children, eighteen grandchildren, and–so far–a similar number of great-grandchildren), he and our mother planted a legacy of love, goodness, generosity, creativity, faith, and optimism. These traits continue in the various branches of the family tree.

As I reflect on Dad’s life, my life, and the passing of the generations, I am reminded that the task of life is not to survive, but to serve; not to gain advantage, but to share. And the one who loves without ceasing is the most fortunate of all.

Useful Delusions

I’m in a book club that recently discussed Shankar Vedantam’s Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain. The book is breezy and easy. Here are some of the take-aways I found the most useful:

We human beings have evolved to survive. Part of our survival equipment is what the Greeks called mythos: thinking in story and metaphor. In the Western philosophical tradition, we have elevated logos (reason and logic) as true, and mythos as inferior and delusional fiction. But these two are intertwined in our brains and cannot be separated. We can’t even do science–the most rational and logical endeavor–without also using imaginative models that come from mythos.

Plenty of scientific tests have demonstrated the paradox that “delusional” thinking often has superior results. Optimists live longer and outperform realists. The “theater” and hopefulness that accompany the use of placebos results in real healing–especially for chronic conditions. Thinking one is tasting a more expensive wine (when in fact it is a cheap wine) results in greater stimulation of the pleasure center of the brain. A fake brain-booster drink actually helps people solve puzzles better–and doubles their performance if they had to pay more for the drink.

Vedantam also has some interesting things to say about religion. Though he’s a strict materialist and rationalist who views religion as a delusion, he is forced to admit that religion is highly functional for our survival. The atheist Christopher Hitchens rightly claimed that a nonbeliever can perform just as ethically as a believer, but Vedantam points out that religion enables a large group of people to share the same ethical code and is an effective mechanism to get them to act ethically. In one study called the Dictator Game, subjects are given a sum of money and are then told they may share any amount of it with a stranger in another room. Those subjects that first unscrambled words such as Spirit, Divine, God, Sacred, and Prophet gave away twice as much money–whether the subject was religious or an atheist.

Various studies have shown that religious teens have better mental health on average than nonreligious teens, and the more religious peers one has, the greater chance of mental health. Analyses of obituaries have shown that religious people live between five and ten years longer, on average, than nonreligious people. Religious people have more friends, more support, and do more volunteering. Secular social groups (for instance, a tennis club) do not result in the same level of positive effect.

Vedantam concludes that having delusional hope and purpose (which includes religion) is part of our necessary and functional survival equipment, bequeathed to us by evolution. My question is, if it’s functional and necessary, is it delusional, or a different level of true?

Signs of Hope?

No doubt about it: we are living in difficult times. Our newsfeeds continuously shove new problems, disappointments and disasters into our awareness. Here’s just a small sampling:

The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has left Afghan women vulnerable to oppression, the country open to possible terrorist safe-havens, and the reputation of the U.S. diminished.

Natural disasters such as massive forest fires devastate the land while we all feel the effects of dramatic climate change.

Record numbers of immigrants and asylum-seekers continue to pile up at the U.S.-Mexico border, overwhelming our capacity to respond to their needs and secure our border.

Our society continues to be politically polarized with mutual hatred, and a dysfunctional Congress barely operates while political factions threaten to torpedo the government and the economy unless they get their own way.

Conspiracy theories recklessly undermine democracy (e.g. the 2020 election was stolen) and public health (e.g. covid vaccines aren’t safe).

In the face of these challenges it is easy to feel overwhelmed and pessimistic. But without negating the seriousness of these and other problems, I think I see signs of hope for our society and the world:

We seem to be waking up to the futility of some of our wars, including the horrendous cost in blood and treasure, and the unspeakable trauma for all involved. Invading countries and toppling governments is rarely a wise plan. The need for diplomacy is reasserting itself.

A rush of corporations, and a growing number of individuals, are taking climate change seriously and supporting ways to help the world become carbon-neutral by 2050. The world may not meet that target, but the closer we get to it, the better the prospects for the long-term wellbeing of humanity and all life on the planet.

The disruptiveness of the covid pandemic may be starting to wane. It will certainly be with us for a long time to come, and deadly new variants may still arise, but vaccinations continue to increase and become more widely available throughout the world.

Despite some reactionary responses, our society is further embracing its diversity and rejecting discrimination and undeserved privileges. We don’t all agree on how this should be accomplished, but the overall direction is not likely to be stopped.

The church in the U.S. is perhaps becoming a little more self-critical, recognizing the need to be focused on following the way of Jesus rather than the way of political power. I think the church will come out of the pandemic with more clarity about its mission and creativity for carrying it out.

The best sign of hope, in my opinion, are the people I see around me every day. Despite our flaws and fears, the vast majority of the people I see are good at heart, committed to helping people regardless of labels and divisions. Love has not been stamped out. On the contrary, I think genuine love is on the increase. As we see the meanness in some of our systems, we become more committed to countering it with unconditional compassion.

Let us give ourselves to the source of hope and love.

The Meaning of Statues

A couple weeks ago I walked several blocks from my house to the largest Confederate statue in the United States to see it being taken down. General Robert E. Lee’s 21-foot bronze equestrian statue stood atop a 40-foot graffiti-covered stone pedestal. The crowd was enthusiastic as they awaited the moment. The smell of pot–recently legalized–wafted through the air. The times they are a-changin’.

When I moved to Richmond seven years ago I was struck by the grandeur and aesthetic beauty of the statue. Situated on a large green circle on an elegant avenue, it was a focal point for all sorts of community events and parties. As a white northerner from the Midwest, I didn’t have any particular feelings about Robert E. Lee one way or another. He was a great general who chose loyalty to Virginia (and succession, and the perpetuation of slavery) over loyalty to the United States. Given the complex political and social factors of that time, I imagine it was a gut-wrenching choice for him. The wrong choice, but an understandable one.

So a few years ago when some people in Richmond began calling for the removal of his statue, along with all the other Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, I was uncertain about my own position. A local commission recommended removing the statue of Jefferson Davis (because he wasn’t from Virginia), and adding “context” to the other statues. I certainly agreed with removing Jefferson Davis–not just because he wasn’t a Virginian, but because he epitomized the rebellion against the United States and the desire to sustain (and expand) slavery. Regarding the other Confederates on Monument Avenue, I fantasized whimsical solutions, such as having Lee carry a rainbow banner or having Stonewall Jackson’s horse display a BLM sign. More seriously, I thought the solution could be to add monuments to heroes of civil rights and inclusion, placing their statues in close proximity to and interacting with the Confederate statues.

But suddenly in the summer of 2020 the injustices still suffered by African Americans at the hands of society’s protectors became clear to the nation, and large crowds of young people (in particular) would no longer tolerate the presence of statues to those who enabled slavery and racial bigotry to continue.

The debate about the meaning of these statues intensified, each side largely talking past each other. Does removing a statue of a prominent person “erase history” as many claimed? Does it reject (white) southern culture, ancestry and pride?

The debate expanded to other-than-Confederate statues. How about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington? Clearly they were essential to the formation of our country, but at the same time they were slave owners who perpetuated slavery. How about Christopher Columbus? He fundamentally changed history by making a courageous voyage that resulted in Europe becoming aware of the Americas. But he was also a harsh governor who enslaved and brutalized indigenous people, beginning a long process of native genocide. Do statues of prominent people represent their best qualities and achievements, or do they represent their worst hypocrisies and moral failures? What does a statue mean? Does it change over time? Does it matter whether it is in a public park, or on a busy intersection, or in a museum?

When the Confederate statues were first erected on Monument Avenue, there is little doubt that they were intended, among other things, to justify certain aspects of the Confederacy. They were probably meant to justify rebellion against the federal government if it trespasses on what white southerners perceived to be “states’ rights.” They were probably meant to justify white political control over the lives of Blacks and their continued segregation from white society. They were probably a way of saying, “Our cause was just.” That is not a message Richmond should any longer perpetuate.

For perhaps most Richmonders, the statues no longer carried that meaning. They were simply part of the landscape, a bit of aesthetic grandeur, and a nod to military cunning. But for a sizeable minority (especially those who continue to be disadvantaged because of their race) the original meaning of the statues could not–and should not–be forgotten. Hence, the statues must be removed.

I support keeping our statues of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other Founding Fathers. That they were often hypocritical when it came to slavery will always be a blemish on their memory; but they are rightly remembered and honored for creating a nation that aspired to ideals of freedom and equality they themselves did not yet live out. As a person who seeks to practice the Christian faith, I am aware that all of us suffer self-blindness. In the future, all of us will have our hypocrisies exposed. If we allow no public honoring of individuals because of their moral failures, we will not be able to honor anyone at all. Lincoln–gone. FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt–gone. Martin Luther King Jr–gone. The question we must ask ourselves when placing or removing a statue is this: Does this person represent something so good and essential and vital to our society, and so much greater than their faults, that their accomplishment in this field must continue to be emulated and never forgotten?

The answer is always subjective, influenced by our experiences in the present, and so each generation will have to decide which statues to put up, and which ones to move to museums.

We Lost More Than a War After 9/11

As our country marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are also in the midst of grief for losing the 20-year war that directly followed that tragic attack. But we lost more than a war after 9/11.

When the Twin Towers came down in New York, and the Pentagon was smashed, and another airliner crashed in a Pennsylvania field, it was not just Americans who were horrified–the whole world was horrified. People and nations all around the globe grieved with us, from impoverished African countries to competitors like Russia. For a time we had the sympathy and goodwill of nearly the entire planet.

And then we lost it.

We lost it because we chose to respond with reckless invasions, mass arrests, indiscriminate torture, and alliances with corrupt warlords. The result was that we threw three nations into chaos (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria), brutalizing their populations and killing, directly or indirectly, hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but it is still shocking how foolish and counter-productive our nation’s actions have been since 9/11. First we invaded Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban government. Granted, the Taliban government was terribly repressive, but the Taliban government did not attack us; Al-Qaeda did. The Taliban government was giving Al-Qaeda safe haven within the borders of Afghanistan, and we should have pressured the government to stop providing that safe haven; but our single focus should have been to topple Al-Qaeda, not the entire Afghan government. Because once we toppled the government, we had no way to secure the country or replace the government with a better government. We made alliances with warlords who were hated by the people every bit as much as–or more than–they hated the Taliban. In the eyes of the people of Afghanistan, our soldiers were always seen as a foreign presence propping up a puppet government. And they were right, because as soon as we announced we were leaving, the government folded.

Next we invaded Iraq, which was even more foolish and immoral than invading Afghanistan. The excuse was that Saddam Hussein had secret ties to Al-Qaeda and that his government was producing Weapons of Mass Destruction. But the evidence for these assertions was always highly questionable. The Al-Qaeda connection was based on the discredited testimony of a tortured prisoner, and international weapon inspectors regularly reported that they had no evidence of Iraq having WMDs. But we invaded anyway–even though everyone knew Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 and had never threatened to attack the United States.

Like Afghanistan, this foolish and immoral invasion quickly overthrew the government but had no ability to replace it with a better one. A disastrous decision was made to throw out all the Baathists in the government, which meant disbanding the Iraq army, police force, and most civil servants. The country descended into utter chaos. We had far too few soldiers to provide any semblance of law and order, and the unemployed Sunni military soon became a guerilla insurgency at war with the Shiite majority and with the U.S. military. This eventually morphed into a new major terrorist organization, ISIS, which spilled over into Syria. As of today, Iraq and Syria are still a terrible mess, and the only nations that have gained power from the chaos are Russia and Iran.

These two misguided, disastrous, immoral and unwinnable wars have cost the United States well over 5 trillion dollars, not to mention horrible deaths and injuries to Americans–and far more to many innocent civilians.

In the meantime, our government made four more ominous decisions: to use torture, to place hundreds of prisoners in secret prisons (or Guantanamo Bay) often without charges or trials, to assassinate (rather than capture and question) suspected terrorists on foreign soil through drones, and to create a humongous and costly bureaucracy called Homeland Security which has put restrictions on the privacy and civil rights of Americans. The government has since foresworn torture, but continues the rest.

One could argue that some of these efforts have worked: there have been no successful large-scale foreign terrorist attacks on the United States since 9/11. But at what cost? We’ve made much of the world a mess, and the United States has lost much of its credibility and moral authority. Our war on terror has resulted in many white Americans now voicing hatred or at least distrust toward any non-white or Muslim immigrants to the U.S. (egged on by many politicians and right-wing media pundits). This in turn has resulted in white domestic terrorists now being a greater threat to our country than foreign terrorists. In short, we have destabilized our own country.

Al-Qaeda got exactly what it wanted: a greatly weakened United States. Could we have responded to 9/11 more badly?

These counter-productive and immoral over-reactions could have been prevented. I especially fault those Christian groups that rallied around revenge and war and torture and prejudice. This was a betrayal of our faith. To prevent such disasters in the future, we need to be honest enough to confess what we did wrong in the past.

On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, I mourn what we as a nation have lost over these last twenty years. I pray for a more humble nation that will now turn to the better angels of our nature.

The Failure of the American Church

A couple of months ago I read the results of a poll by the Pew Research Center that troubled me. Americans were asked whether they favored or opposed the death penalty for those convicted of murder. The results were broken down by various religious affiliations: White evangelical Protestant, White mainline Protestant, Hispanic Catholic, White Catholic, Black Protestant, Agnostic, and Atheist. The group that most strongly favored the death penalty was White evangelical Protestant. The group that most strongly opposed the death penalty was Atheist (followed closely by Agnostic). What troubled me was that those with no religious faith were apparently more compassionate than any major grouping of American Christians.

I could list various reasons for opposing or questioning the death penalty (e.g. the shockingly high number of people on death row who have been proven innocent, and the fact that the poor and people of color are many times more likely to be executed than wealthy Whites for the same crime), but that is beside the point. I am sure we could all come up with reasonable reasons for supporting or opposing the death penalty. My question is: Why are all major groups of Christians more in favor of the death penalty than those without religious faith? Why are those without religious faith more uncomfortable with execution?

This pattern is seen in polls regarding other issues. For instance, after 9-11 the Pew Research Center asked Americans whether they supported or opposed torture for suspected terrorists. Once again, every major Christian group was more in favor of torture than atheists were. The same result was found when the question was about going to war. More recently polls have found every major Christian group is more opposed than atheists are to expanding legal immigration into the United States.

I don’t know how to read this pattern except in one way: going to church–in most cases–makes people less compassionate and more fearful of others than if they don’t go to church at all.

As we are all aware, church membership in the United States has been going down precipitously in recent years. For the first time in the eight decades that the Gallup Poll has been asking this question, less than half of Americans (47%) now belong to a church. For six decades the number hovered around 70%, but in the last twenty years it has been on a steady decline. I don’t know what all the reasons are for this decline, but if most churches have been making Americans more fearful and less compassionate, then they were already failing in their key mission of fostering faith and love.

I want to reinvent the church in the United States. But to do that we need to set aside the unhealthy and unhelpful church that has too often been the norm. In a recent sermon I outlined several false understandings of faith that need to be changed. Here are the ones I identified:

Faith as unquestioned, memorized answers. True faith asks questions, and often there are no final answers to those questions. Faith is not about answers anyway; it’s about trust in God and a commitment to love as God loves in the midst of questions that cannot be answered. Faith is a relationship, not a list of doctrines that must be correctly memorized and subscribed to.

Faith as rules. A lot of churches read the Bible as if it’s a rule book. Granted, there are many commands and rules in certain parts of the Bible, and it is also true that every community (religious or secular) needs rules in order to function smoothly. But Jesus said that all the commandments and rules in scripture are based on and summed up by just two rules: Love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself. This spiritual-ethical principle gets repeated many times in the New Testament by many authors, so all rules–whether in the Bible or not–must be tested by whether they are consistent with loyalty to God and treating others as we would want to be treated. The Big Rule is love. If what we are doing or saying is not resulting in love for others, we are failing true faith.

Faith as political power. Jesus criticized those who wanted to be greater than others and exercise control over others. He insisted that leaders must be servants–they serve the needs and interests of others, not their own needs and desires. But many churches have sought to link up with the power of the state or with a political party and thereby increase their own political influence over society. But when we combine faith with a political party and begin using (or condoning) its use of spin and dirty tricks and selfish efforts to gain advantage, we completely subvert the servant-way the church is supposed to operate. Individual Christians may certainly be involved in the political process, but the church must never be turned into an arm of political power. The church represents self-giving service, not the way of power-hungry politics.

Faith as national patriotism. National patriotism is a powerful emotion that taps into a reservoir of commitment and energy. The church is constantly tempted to tap into that emotion and energy by combining faith with national patriotism, making the Christian faith synonymous–or at least compatible–with American culture and military power. But as much as we may appreciate our country and are committed to being responsible citizens, the church is not a national faith. We represent the kingdom of God which is transnational and operates in a completely different way. The church must critique the nation, always insisting on greater justice and nonviolence, rather than being its cheerleader.

Faith as entertainment. When the church gathers, it should certainly experience times of lightheartedness and fun. But entertainment is not what the church’s mission or worship are about. Its mission is to speak deep truths and offer healing. The church must avoid a culture of gimmicks, trinkets, trivialities, celebrities and fads.

Faith as comfort and keeping the status quo. Humans don’t like change–especially if we are benefiting from the way things are. But faith isn’t about maintaining comfort. It’s not about maintaining privileges and advantages. It’s not about keeping the world as we knew it decades ago. True faith hears the cries of the world, the cries of those left out and left behind, the invisible and the forgotten. Faith means having the courage to disrupt the status quo so a more fair and healing reality can be built in its place.

The faith and church I’m wanting to reinvent is not a utopian dream. It already exists in many places and denominations. It is the local churches I have been a part of throughout my life. They may not be the norm in the United States, and perhaps they never will be; and they are not perfect, but they are compassionate and merciful. I believe in them and I will do all I can to see them flourish.

Lessons From Afghanistan?

I would venture to guess that just about everybody in Europe and North America is utterly shocked by the fact that the entire government of Afghanistan–including its 300,000-strong military and its heavily defended capital, Kabul–collapsed into the hands of the Taliban even before the American military had finished withdrawing.

What do we learn from this? That American military leaders and the intelligence community were outrageously optimistic about the Afghan government’s ability to hold off the Taliban at least for a while? Yes, but there is a more important lesson: there was no Afghan government. Or rather, the United States military was the de facto government; and when it left, the Afghan government, such as it was, went with it. This, I believe, is the lesson we should all take to heart.

In the weeks, months, and years ahead there will be plenty of finger-pointing and blame placed on Biden, Trump, or incompetent advisors. (Perhaps the president most responsible for this war and its outcome was George W. Bush.) But focusing on blame deflects from a deeper truth that we may not want to face. On one of the Sunday morning news shows two days ago I heard General Petraeus admit that this war was unwinnable. Despite our overwhelming technological and military superiority, we would never be able to defeat the Taliban. At best, he believed we could “manage” the war by keeping a few thousand troops there indefinitely (which is what he favored). Whether we could have managed the war indefinitely or not, the important point is that we never had sufficient support from the population. Our troops–and the corrupt government it propped up and protected–were always viewed by most people in Afghanistan as foreign and illegitimate. No amount of money poured into the country for twenty years was able to change that fact.

That sounds an awful lot like Vietnam.

The United States is unquestionably the most powerful nation on earth, but that does not mean the threats we face always have a military solution. Many times they do not. The world is more complicated than that, and we need to understand the world (and respect the world) far better if our government wants to achieve long-term good.

The immediate price of our failure in Afghanistan are all of those who trusted in us, cooperated with us, and who are now facing the threat of death or fierce reprisals by the Taliban. We have a responsibility now to take in as many refugees from Afghanistan as possible. But we will never be able to take in enough. Are we going to import the entire female population?

The power we must now rely on is the power of compassion, shared grief, and honest confession of our hubris.

Genesis 42-45, 50

Joseph had so much power and prestige in Egypt he thought he could forget his past–his family, his brothers, and the injustice that was done to him. But then one day, when the famine wipes out food supplies in Canaan, Joseph’s brothers show up in Egypt to buy grain from the storehouses that Joseph prudently filled during the years of plenty. The brothers do not recognize Joseph–perhaps due to Egyptian eye makeup, clothing, and years of aging–but Joseph recognizes them.

Joseph has an immediate choice to make. He can reveal himself or remain hidden. For now, he hides his true identity. He takes advantage of his brothers by accusing them of being spies and throwing them all in prison. We can imagine the pleasure he feels taking revenge on his brothers by making them feel a bit of the pain he felt when he was sold into slavery and then, based on a false accusation, sent to prison. But ultimately, Joseph decides to test his brothers. Are they the same envious and violent brothers who sold him into slavery, or have they changed?

Joseph proceeds with an elaborate plan. He holds one brother hostage until they bring back their youngest brother, Benjamin. Benjamin is his full brother through his mother Rachel; and with Joseph presumably dead, Benjamin has become Jacob’s protected favorite son. Through subterfuge, Joseph manages to make a false accusation that Benjamin has stolen a sacred silver cup. Joseph tells the brothers they can all go back home, but Benjamin must stay and be his slave. At this point Judah–the one most responsible for having sold Joseph into slavery–steps forward and pleads with Joseph to let Judah take Benjamin’s place. Judah had assured their father that he would protect Benjamin with his life, and Judah is determined to fulfill that promise.

Joseph cannot maintain the pretense any longer. He is overcome with emotion and tears. The brothers have proven themselves to have genuinely changed. He reveals to them his true identity, shocking the brothers. Joseph sees in all of these events the providence of God. “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:7-8a).

Joseph tells them the famine will continue for several more years, so they must move the entire family to Egypt. The brothers go home and tell their father, Jacob, all that happened. He is stunned. Then the entire family moves to Egypt, welcomed by Pharaoh, and are given land to live on. God tells Jacob in a vision during the night not to be afraid to go to Egypt. “I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again” (46:3b-4a).

Years later when Jacob dies, the brothers are fearful that now Joseph will take his revenge on them–that Joseph was merely pretending not to be angry with them until their father was gone. They concoct a lie and tell Joseph that before Jacob died he instructed them to tell Joseph to forgive his brothers. Joseph once again breaks down in tears. The brothers also weep and fall down before him saying, “We are your slaves.” But Joseph says to them, “Do you be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (50:19-20a).

The Joseph story is rich in theological meaning. Forgiveness and reconciliation is the major theme. It is developed even more than in the Esau-Jacob story. The theme of personal change and taking responsibility is more clearly delineated. The story clearly favors forgiveness, but not blind forgiveness. Forgiveness needs to see that the offender has grown and changed and become humble. Forgiveness is also necessary for reconciliation. No one can change the past. No matter how much an offender has changed or apologized, there is no correcting the wrong already done. The injury must be pardoned. That is the only way to healing–not only individually, but together.

In our culture today there is a growing movement to define forgiveness in purely internal terms–as a letting go of rage and a letting go of a past we cannot change; but it is done only for one’s own psychological wellbeing. No pardon for the offender is offered. That is not forgiveness as defined by the Bible. In the Bible, forgiveness is not merely an internal letting go of self-destructive anger; it is also a releasing of the offender, a letting go of the grudge, a letting go of the demand for punishment, that impedes the possibility of reconciliation.

It is also common in our culture to say, “No justice, no peace.” We certainly need to pursue and demand justice. But at the end of the day, we cannot arrive at perfect justice because we cannot correct all of the injuries of the past. So peace requires not only the honest pursuit of justice, it also requires the ability to forgive.

The other profound theme in the Joseph story is God’s providence: that God is at work even through the terrible events and injustices of life. This does not mean that God has planned, willed, and arranged all of these events (though many people understand providence that way); it means that God works through even our unjust and unwise choices to bring about some possibility of good. Good cannot be stopped. God goes with us. God shares the perils with us. God will not abandon us but will instead see us through it. God has to assure Jacob it is alright to bring the family down to Egypt. Jacob realizes this is risky–it means leaving the land God promised to him and his ancestors for creating a special nation. Indeed, Egypt will turn out to be quite dangerous, enslaving the Israelites in forced labor and requiring rescue through the efforts of Moses in generations to come.

The human story is a complicated story. We can either conclude it has no direction and no meaning, or we can trust that somehow it does have meaning and does have a healing direction. This is what Genesis is urging us to believe. It is what faith is all about. Faith is not an intellectual affirmation of a philosophical construct of God’s existence. Faith is daring to trust in a gracious Purpose and thereby living a courageous life of goodness, love, and reconciling forgiveness.

Genesis 40-41

Dreams play a central role in the Joseph story. As a boy, Joseph has dreams about his own future greatness (chapter 37), and now, as a grown man, other people’s dreams–and his ability to interpret those dreams–are the key to his becoming great.

Unlike the actual dreams of most people–which are bizarre and irrational–all of the dreams presented in the Joseph story are obvious allegories. Joseph’s own dreams don’t even need interpretation–his brothers and father have no problem understanding their symbolism. So also, the dreams of the cupbearer, baker and Pharaoh all seem straightforward. The reader can’t help but wonder why the dreamers need Joseph to interpret them!

In the ancient world, and in various places in the Bible, dreams are a means for heaven to speak to us, revealing hidden truths. Modern science has revealed that dreams are a process the brain uses to convert and store the experiences of the day into long-term memory. (I find that if I read aloud my sermon just before going to bed on Saturday night, my brain imprints the sermon during the night, allowing me to preach it the next morning without notes. Similarly, if you practice an instrument and then go to sleep, you will play the instrument better than if you practice but do not sleep before the performance.) Dreams also help us to process problems we are working on. “Let me sleep on it” actually works. We make better decisions, solve more problems, and are more creative if we’ve slept and dreamt in the interval.

In the Joseph story, dreams are predictive. Human beings have always longed to know the future. This thirst for future knowledge has led humans to use tea leaves, animal entrails, tarot cards, dice, and all sorts of magical means to find out the future. But in the Bible–and in the Joseph story–we do not have access to future knowledge through magic or ritual. (This is why Pharaoh’s magicians and wise men fail to interpret his dreams.) Only God can reveal the future. Therefore the story makes it clear that the interpretation of dreams (for the purpose of prediction) belongs to God alone. Joseph does not interpret the dreams; rather, God gives Joseph an interpretation. How this happens is not told in the story and is beside the point; the point is to discourage us from thinking we can figure out the future.

Following the pattern that we’ve already seen in previous chapters, Joseph’s fortunes seem to rise only to be dashed. He correctly interprets the dream of the cupbearer, and pleads with him to tell Pharaoh that he is an innocent man languishing in prison, and yet when the cupbearer is released, he forgets about Joseph, and Joseph remains stuck in prison an additional two years.

But when Pharaoh is distressed by his own dreams, the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph and tells Pharaoh. When Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that seven years of bounty will be followed by seven years of famine, Pharaoh is so pleased with Joseph’s insights and advice he makes him the chief administrator of Egypt’s agricultural program. Joseph operates with the direct authority of Pharaoh himself, as symbolized by the wearing of Pharaoh’s signet ring. Joseph is given such honor that he rides around in a chariot, wearing finery and a gold chain, while servants order everyone to kneel as he rides by.

The story perhaps hints that all of this authority goes a bit to his head. Joseph is turned into an Egyptian. He wears Egyptian clothes, he’s given an Egyptian name, he marries the daughter of an Egyptian priest, and when he has two children, he names the first one “Forget” and the second one “Fruitful.” The implication is that he has forgotten his identity as an Israelite–a member of a family God has chosen for a great plan to bless the world. Wealth and power and ease have this effect on all of us–we forget our true calling and identity God has given us.

But just when Joseph thinks he can forget the past–and the trauma he suffered because of his brothers–the past will come back to haunt him.

Genesis 37, 39

Beginning in chapter 37 we turn to the story of Joseph. His story takes up most of the rest of Genesis. It’s a kind of novella–a short novel. Even more than the Jacob story, it explores the theme of conflict, suffering, repentance, reconciliation, and God’s providence.

Once again the initial conflict is triggered by a parent playing favorites. Jacob loves Joseph more than his other sons because he is the son of his favorite wife, Rachel (who has now died giving birth to a second son, Benjamin). Jacob displays his favoritism by giving Joseph a special long-sleeved coat. Joseph then antagonizes his brothers by relating to them dreams he has had in which he will rule over them and they (including his parents) will bow down to him. Joseph comes across as the spoiled “golden child” of the family. We know that his dreams are bound to come true–that God also favors him–but at this point, as readers of the story, we don’t particularly like him!

Joseph’s special status is also shown through the fact that, unlike his brothers, he doesn’t have to work as a shepherd. Instead, his father sends him out to check on his brothers after they’ve been away for a long time grazing the flocks. When the brothers see Joseph coming (far away from home), they seize this opportunity to kill him–or they would have had it not been for Reuben who convinces them to throw him into a pit instead. (Reuben, presumably, plans to rescue Joseph later.)

So the brothers strip Joseph of his glorious coat and throw him in a pit. They sit down for lunch and then see a caravan passing by. Judah has the bright idea of making money off of Joseph by selling him to the caravan as a slave. (The story sometimes calls the people of the caravan Midianites, and sometimes Ishmaelites. It looks to me that this story leaves clues that it consists of a blending of two variations of the same story.) The brothers then dip the coat in some animal blood and bring it back to Jacob as evidence that Joseph must have been killed by a wild animal. Jacob is devastated.

Joseph is taken to Egypt, and there he is sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Just when we think Joseph’s life is as good as ended, we are told, “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man.” Potiphar is impressed by Joseph’s skills and puts him in charge of his household. As a result, Potiphar’s household prospers because of Joseph’s good management.

But just when we think all is looking well for Joseph, he is brought down by another person’s resentment: Potiphar’s wife. Joseph is a handsome young man and Potiphar’s wife suggests a sexual liaison. Joseph, unwilling to betray his master and commit such a sin against God, refuses her advances. This culminates in an encounter in which Joseph runs away from her while she is clutching his shirt–which comes off in her hands. Insulted and resentful, she uses his shirt as evidence that Joseph attacked her and she had to fight him off. Potiphar believes his wife and has Joseph thrown into prison.

Once again, this should be the end of the story. How can a Hebrew slave get out of an Egyptian prison? “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.” Joseph’s honesty and management skills get noticed by the chief jailer, and as a result, Joseph is put in charge of overseeing all of the prisoners. Even the prison prospers under his oversight.

By now we start to see a pattern in the Joseph story: repeated ups and downs and up again. The worst things happen to Joseph, and yet he is like cream that keeps rising to the top. God is with him. And during this pattern our attitude toward Joseph changes. No longer does he come across as a spoiled golden child; instead, we are impressed with his character–his honesty, integrity, persistence, and management skills. We now sympathize with him when he experiences one disaster after another, but we are cheering him on, knowing he will somehow succeed.

Is the Lord with us as well? Are we favored by God? The New Testament makes the claim that we are indeed all favored by God. If we embrace that truth, it empowers us. We too can continue to rise to the top despite adversities if we continue to trust in God and maintain our integrity. This is not a guarantee of worldly success, but of spiritual wholeness and God’s peace. It also enables God to use us as God’s instruments.

God has a surprising task for Joseph up ahead. But first there will be another bump in the road.