How I Got in God’s Way
In trying to figure God’s intent and desire for my life, I looked into several avenues that I felt leaned toward my gifts. I talked to a friend in Columbia, South Carolina who told me about a new program in religious studies at the University of South Carolina. After going through several interviews, I found myself with a fellowship, stipend and on the fast track toward having a Ph.D in religious anthropology, teaching at a major university. However, the stipulation to make it work was that we had to sell a house in Griffin. God let us know his will and we found ourselves still in Griffin.
During this struggle I also began feeling a sense of calling toward ministry. I was serving in a part-time capacity as the minister of media for Crestview Baptist Church. Over time, I noticed myself being more involved in other aspects of ministry, which eventually led to being a part of a praise band (eventually leading music), teaching Sunday School as a fill in and eventually filling in for the pastor on Wednesday nights. Through this God led me to understand my gifts better and that He had a greater purpose for those works than I knew, and the testing to prepared me for those works.
Heather and I began praying about what we should do: continue in lay ministry or go into full time ministry. I felt like I was called to full time ministry but we were skeptical about dealing with the up and down, unpredictable finances of being in ministry. Finally, I accepted my call to full time service. At the time we needed to find a way to replace the income we had before we went into ministry. Bills have to paid and we needed to keep a roof over our heads. Three months later I lost my job, my wife found one and we both began the journey into full time ministry with the lesson of living on faith.
With the call came more questions, most of them about what I believed. In our earliest conversations, Heather and I lamented the differences in our beliefs and those in our church and more of this led to more searching and an imaginary yellow legal pad in my mind with two columns: our beliefs on one side and a question mark on the other.
God all but held my hand on the way to the Methodist church. As I was wrestling with these issues on my own understanding of belief, trying to minister in our church, my wife and I began taking our daughter to the pre-K program at the First United Methodist Church near our house in Griffin, Georgia. On what seemed like a random day to me, I went into the gothic style sanctuary to pray about where I was, what God had me doing and whether or not it was what He actually had in mind. I prayed, felt no closer to an answer and started out the door when I ran into a man I would eventually come to know as my first mentor in Methodism. Kevin Lobello introduced himself as senior pastor of the church and in the course of conversation I began to wonder if maybe he might have some answers.
After a short conversation, he handed me a marked copy of the Discipline and a copy of Mack Stokes United Methodist Beliefs. A few weeks later I dropped my daughter off at school, walked into his office, handed the books back and said that made more sense to me than anything about faith I had ever read. He had an answer to my problem: I was a Methodist in a Baptist church. After that I asked him how one becomes a minister in the United Methodist Church. Kevin would become brother, advocate and mentor to me, giving me the first opportunity to minister in a Methodist church and helping usher me into ministry in the North Georgia Conference. That was eight years, five churches in four cities over four states, two conferences, and ninety-nine hours of seminary ago. If I learned anything from the experience it was this: don’t plan, follow. God does the planning, we are called to be faithful, we are called to live in the moment, we are called to listen and follow.
Following in the Moment
The story of Joseph is probably one of the most familiar stories of the Old Testament. For me, it seems to resonate because it speaks to the idea that God takes care of us no matter what we face, no matter how difficult the situation. It speaks to that part of us that wants to know we are cared for and loved and will be watched over in the darkest of nights and most terrible of storms.
And yet there is something that I have missed in past readings of the story. A little recap here of the story. Joseph is born to Joseph, a child of Joseph’s ‘old age’ as the story says and for this reason is the favorite of twelve sons. As Joseph grows up, this position is cemented in the family and for the second time a patriarchical story in Genesis puts the younger ahead of the elder, as in Joseph’s father Jacob. Joseph of course, gets on the wrong side of his older siblings by recounting his dreams to them, which seem to the brothers to be arrogant expressions of Joseph’s superiority. Having had enough, they decide to kill him, are talked out of it by the eldest brother Reuben, and Joseph is throw into a well. The oldest brother is left out later discussions when the others decide to sell Joseph and make it look like an animal killed him.
Joseph ends up in the house of Potiphar, purchased as a slave, and becomes the personal aide of Potiphar, essentially running his household and personal affairs. The story says that,
The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made everything he did successful… From the time he appointed Joseph head of his household and of everything he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s household because of Joseph. The Lord blessed everything he had, both in the household and in the field. – Genesis 39:2-5
Things are looking up for Joseph until Potiphar’s wife starts to notice him. The wife makes a play for the slave and Joseph makes his way to the door. He is accused of attacking Potiphar’s wife and Potiphar, either believing her or having to save face, has Joseph thrown in jail.
Joseph finds himself in jail but as always,
“While he was in jail, the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph. The jail’s commander put all of the prisoners in the jail under Joseph’s supervision, and he was the one who determined everything that happened there. The jail’s commander paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s supervision, because the Lord was with him and made everything he did successful.” – Genesis 39:21-23
So again, God uses the natural talents of Joseph as the Spirit of God moves over Joseph’s life situation. While Joseph is in jail, two men from the house of pharaoh are sent to prison. Both have dreams and Joseph is given the meaning of these dreams and interpreted that the cupbearer would be restored and the baker would be put to death. As the cupbearer returns to his former duties, Joseph asks that he remember him and tell pharaoh of his innocence. The cupbearer, in his excitement of not meeting the baker’s fate, forgets about Joseph.
Another few years go by and the cupbearer is reminded of Joseph when the pharaoh’s magicians and sages fail to interpret a series of disturbing dreams that pharaoh has. The cupbearer remembers Joseph who interprets the dreams as a regional bumper crop followed by a famine and offers a plan to help Egypt survive the famine. pharaoh’s reply,
“Since God has made all this known to you, no one is as intelligent and wise as you are. 40 You will be in charge of my kingdom, and all my people will obey your command. Only as the enthroned king will I be greater than you.” Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Know this: I’ve given you authority over the entire land of Egypt.” – Genesis 41:39-41
Joseph is able to do all that he suggested to stave off the famine by the guidance and leadership of God’s Spirit. In time, Joseph sees his original dreams come to fruition as his brothers come from their homeland to seek food. Joseph is restored to his family, awkward though it may have been, and the house of Jacob is saved.
Throughout this narrative, God walks with Joseph and shows him the way, but one thing struck me as I reread this story: Joseph still has to live up to his side of the relationship or covenant. God is working in the life of Joseph but Joseph is working as well. God gives him the ability and Joseph uses the ability to the glory of God and to the betterment of those around him. God is working behind the scenes to provide as Joseph acts on this provision.
What allows Joseph to do this is that he is living his faith in the moment. It’s not that he has forgotten the past – those lessons probably served him well in his journey. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the future – he seems to be looking to the goal of following God into whatever God has in store for him. But Joseph lives in whatever his circumstances and does not get bogged down in anything else.
There is something of this in the words of Jesus when he says in the Sermon on the Mount,
“Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:25-34
It’s pretty simple really. God will provide. Recognize and acknowledge the provision. Use the provision wisely. Focus on now, not before, not later. As I said earlier and I firmly believe this, God does the planning, we are called to be faithful, we are called to live in the moment, we are called to listen and follow.
Practicing covenant in the moment
So imagine if Joseph doesn’t live a life of covenant in the moment. Imagine if he decides to take matters into his own hands as he begins to get a taste of power. Imagine if he became despondent and languished as a menial slave in the house of Potiphar. Even if he had not given up, what would he have done in Potiphar’s house if he had accepted Potiphar’s wife’s advances? Would he have ever met the men in jail and interpreted their dreams? Would he have ever made it to the court of pharaoh to interpret the ruler’s dreams? Would the entire region have collapsed? God would still have kept his word and honored his covenant with Abraham to restore the children of Abraham after their four hundred years in Egypt but what of Joseph? Would it have been the story of Benjamin instead? Or Reuben?
We have no idea how God may have redeemed Israel out of bondage but it would not have been with Joseph. And the bearer of the coat of many colors may have been lost to a single family’s history and erased from the biblical record. What we know is that Joseph lived out his relationship, his covenant with God moment by moment and for that God used him to save his family and his people.
What of us? What is God calling us to that we cannot hear because for the promise of tomorrow or the distraction of yesterday? How much have we squandered on living in moments that cannot be changed and moments that have not yet happened?
One of my favorite writers is the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In his book Thoughts in Solitude, he composes a beautiful prayer that is one of my favorite writings,
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” – Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
May we learn to live a life that embodies this Christ like desire to know only God and know him moment by moment. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.