Dear Sisters and Brothers at Belle Vue,
who are seeking, sometimes stumbling, other times succeeding to follow Jesus and the way of Jesus.
You are my brothers and sisters, for we are of the same faith, faith in Jesus, in our messy world and often messy lives I celebrate your faith in the God–born child or is it the child–born God.
Where do we grow from here?
You are my sisters and brothers for we are of the same faith, faith in a God of fellowship, Father Son and Holy Spirit, even if our churches function very differently to each other, even if I don’t feel I would ever really fit in a congregation like yours and I’m sure you’d feel out of place in a congregation like mine but by Him we are connected in a fellowship which is deeper than surface theology and expressions of worship.
Where do we grow from here?
You are my sisters and brothers for we are of the same faith, faith in our Messiah’s unimaginably excruciating, unjust death and glorious hope empowering resurrection. The pain in our lives is different, the joys in our lives are different, but we are united in his pain and his joy
Where do we grow from here?
We are family, and as you know family is not always a happy song and dance. Family is more tapestried than that. Life is more complex. Life is well…messy!
Could it be we will grow by building a faith home (both personal and church) which holds the tension of pain and doubt closer to the surface, a faith which can see God’s saving work in the darkest of times?
Perhaps we will grow from here by making the story less of celebration and more of a redemption the world can connect to.
As I write to you in Advent, let us consider Joseph.
No not that one, the Old Testament one. You know, coloured coat and all that. You sing along with me: “I wore my coat / With golden lining”
What we do with the musical Joseph is perhaps a good way of seeing what we do with faith on the whole.
If we are to grow from here, perhaps we need to leave the ‘musical’/ air bushing out the blemishes, faith behind us and get back to telling the whole story.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is epic and I love it, (I was the Elvis king as a child), but it has little to do the reality of one of the longest, deeply honest human and most potent family stories in the Holy Scriptures.
I think we are losing the argument with the world about the place of the church and how Jesus relates to people. Why? Because we are trying to tell a ‘glamorous’, ‘cool’ version of a story which is poorer for it and we are trying to tell that story in a market place which is filled with has much better entertainment resources, quick fixes and a load of half truths and that was before we had an election going on!
Where do we grow from here? We tell the story as it is, understanding that this will lead us to a new, uncomfortable and alien home which will be more like a promised land than we can at this point picture, just as it did for Joseph and his rather weird and totally messed us family!
The musical barely touches on the truth of the human condition and where God fits in.
So let’s look at the story and see if it can help us map out a route to how we grow from here.
I’m going to assume you have some familiarity with the Joseph’s story, don’t worry if you don’t. I hope I will include enough of the details, but do go and read the last half of Genesis, starting around chapter 24.
We live in an age when fact checking is to be encouraged, please go and fact check my letter and references.
Joseph’s story like all people’s story doesn’t start with him, it starts with his parents and his grandparents. His dad Jacob is the youngest child of Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac was the son of Abraham.
This story is right at the very heart of Jewish genealogy and story which will lead into the Jesus’ story. The great arching narrative of God’s saving connection with his created humanity.
You need to know right from the outset that Joseph’s father Jacob was not his father’s favourite child. Isaac had two children Jacob and Esau. It was Esau, Isaac’s who eldest son, who held his highest regard. This is a theme we will come back to again in Joseph’s story. If we are going to grow from here perhaps it is time that we acknowledge that some of the traditions and habits that we have as individuals as our own family unit and as church are inherited bad habits from our forebears.
Just as some of the habits and traditions that we have, which can breath a life and joy into our homes and churches, have also been handed to us by our forebears.
If we are to grow from here and I think we need to get better at self-awareness as to where our habits have come from. Jacob’s father caused him pain by having a favourite and yet this is something that Jacob repeats onto his own children’s experience.
It means that the people that we meet whether they be employed and earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, whether they are unemployed destitute and poor in the food bank queue, are almost definitely going to be wrestling with the habits that their home of upbringing have given them. These habits, good or bad become our dwelling place, for individuals, families and churches and these dwelling places can become too comfortable for us to grow.
These habits are deeply reflected in Jacob and his sons.
Brothers and sisters, we are the same, we have inherited the family traits and some of them are holding us back from growth.
Now I’m not suggesting we go on a family trait witch hunt, seeing ‘death’ and pain in all our parents and church leaders have done for us, nor am I suggesting we remain loyal to our forebears because of a fear that we don’t want to seem disloyal to them, rather we humbly accept we are a product of our upbringing, but we are not defined by it. Joseph in this mixed up story clearly trusted God in the middle of it all and much of it is bad! Could we be willing to grow together by being willing to be shaped more by our future than our past? This means our future ‘dwelling’ place will be alien to us because it will be without those habits!
At church 1v23 we share 8 questions each week as break bread. One of the questions is will we always eat this meal together? I answer No. We will not always eat this meal together, one day Jesus will call us to place where we will not be defined by the pain of our family habits and traits. We will be defined by Jesus.
It might not be a glamorous gospel, but it is the work of the gospel to help people find their identity in Jesus which enables them to refine, heal and celebrate the good that they were given within the community of brothers and sisters in Christ. If we are to grow from here brothers and sisters we need to have a community where we can talk and be honest about who we are and where we come from, and because of Jesus who we are and where we are going.
Now, let’s look at Joseph himself. To call him a ‘prat’ would be I think still being mild and compassionate. He was Jacob’s favourite but even he stretched that when he had a dream from God and took great joy in telling, I mean bragging, to the others, ‘I am better than you’. What didn’t help was that Joseph was given the technicoloured coat, a beautiful garment by his father to wear.
Who here has not had the experience of feeling compared to other people in the room? Who here has not had those moments of comparing themselves to another and thinking am I important? Do I fit here? Do I have an identity? Do I really belong? All of Joseph brothers must have felt these questions in the light of their dad’s clear and blatant favouritism and Joseph’s willingness to brag about his future lordship!
The musical never really does justice to Joseph stupidity. I don’t think I would have ever sold my brother or sister into slavery but if they behaved like this I would have certainly tried to put them in their place.
If we are to grow from here we need to have better ways calling each other out when we are a prats. The bizarre thing in the story is Joseph did have these dreams from God. If we are to grow from here we need to go to this uncomfortable alien land where we are willing to do conflict in a way which leads to growth rather than destruction. Even people anointed by God get it wrong. We live in a society which is vengeance orientated, which is becoming more starkly us versus them. Let us grow by offering them a distinctively alternative way of relating to one another.
If we are going to grow from here we need to be able to get truly honest about how dark human relationships can get. Pne of the chapters Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t include in his musical is Genesis 34 in which Joseph’s sister Dinah is raped by somebody from another tribe. This awful events touches on a number of deep modern-day issue for us to great real about: rape, domestic violence, the role and place of women in society, vengeance and retribution as her brothers get even with her rapist.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I guess in some ways that’s the point. If we are going to go from here we need to be a church which wrestles with the dark acts of humanity. We need to be churches where victims have no fear of telling their story, where we passionately seek justice for those so awfully wronged. At the same time we need to wrestle with how we relate to the perpetrators of such crimes. Once the victim is safe (which is of the highest importance), how do we express the kingdom of God rather than the vengeful desires of society.
There are many other parts of Joseph’s story we could look at: The bizarre chapter about Judah and Tamar. Joseph’s experience of work and slavery and he himself is unjustly accused of rape.
I do however, want to focus on the end of his story and his response to it all.
Joseph lands up being the prime minister of Egypt after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. There is a region wide famine and his brothers, who think he is dead come to him, without knowing it is him, to get food.
Again this passage of the story is well worth reading, the emotions and honestly are well recorded.
Joseph reveals his true identity and his brothers freakout! They expect vengeance, he gives them food. They still expect vengeance he give them a home.Their father dies, they manipulate his final words for they are still expecting vengeance!
Joseph breaks these family traditions and says “You did this for harm, God used this for Good, to save people!”
Now I totally struggle with this, but it is all I have left.
I work with the mess of families lives. I’ve often described some of my work with social services as wading through the cesspit of human relationship.
I work with very broken people, people without hope and I don’t know what to say to them. People whose children have rightly been removed and people who have such severe mental health issues there is little chance of recovery.
Some are in places of darkness because of decisions they have made, some because of what others have done to them, other because of the way the world turns, or do we dare to even say because of God. I’m not of deep enough faith to give a clear answer on that one, others more theological than I can give you that answer on that. However this I know. God can still save in this. Jesus is still loving in this. You are not forgotten and God can, is, and will bring something from this. It might not be the ‘healing’ you are after, but it will be something, because he is God.
If they are to grow, if I am to grow we need to get better at addressing the human condition, to talking about the human mess, to be willing to offer people the hope that yes this is a mess, but somehow God will save people. Others planned this mess for pain, still other things happen which are beyond our control, but God still does stuff, is always doing stuff. In Jesus, God is always redeeming!
The musical would have the story be a song and a dance, some people I know can’t dance and sing, it is too dark, too sour, too painful, but they can see God at work, they can see some redemption or hope in the redemption of eternity.
For me there is this wonderful irony. Joseph and his family land up being at home, safe, redeemed in an alien land where they have to learn how to dwell along side other custom and faith traditions. As those who know the story we know that in a few generations time something will go wrong and Moses will need to lead God’s people on an exodus to the promised land, but before that the alien land will be home. Church is it time to accept that the church is moving to a similar alien land? A land where the church is not dominant and has to learn how to dwell alongside other in what will at times feel uncomfortable, but it will be home.
After that God might call the church on an exodus, who knows? What is clear is to say we are here. Don’t learn to wrestle with the human condition, continue in the old family habit and just keep singing and dance in a way which excludes those who can’t yet sing and dance. We will not grow from here.
My dear Sisters and Brothers at Belle Vue, we are of the same faith, faith in our Messiah’s unimaginably excruciating, unjust death and glorious hope empowering resurrection. The sufferings in our lives are different, the joys in our lives are different, but we are united in his suffering and his joy.
If we are to grow from here let’s together embrace the whole of our stories in the hope that Jesus is with you, always with you, always saving.
I, Rich, write you letter in my own hand of frail and doubt–filled faith.
May the God of fellowship, and family mess and wounds give us all the grace to see him redeeming even in the darkness. Amen.