The Prison Years

December 19, 2014

The last couple days, I’ve been thinking a lot about Joseph’s story in Genesis. The punk kid in a dysfunctional family whose daddy loved him best and he knew it. He didn’t have any trouble rubbing that favoritism in the faces of his older brothers and he took every opportunity to do just that. Joseph is not just his daddy’s favorite. He also is incredibly gifted. He has this ability to tell what dreams mean, to see the future while he slept. And he took every opportunity to rub that in the brother’s faces too.

I feel for the brothers sometimes, until then they go and do this terrible thing. They kidnap Joseph and plan to throw him into a cistern and let him die there, but then settle on trafficking him away from his home. 20 pieces of silver and kid brother Joe is carted off to Egypt.

While he’s in Egypt, he works as a slave in a powerful man’s house. He does a good job. Because he’s gifted. He’s good at whatever he does. But this man’s wife becomes a bit too interested in Joseph and she seduces him, but when he turns her down, she’s so angry she falsely accuses him of assault and without any hesitation, Joseph finds himself in prison. Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned, huh?

It’s the prison years that have my attention these days. One of the maddening things about the Bible (for me) is that it doesn’t give us a lot of details sometimes. So I wonder about these lives. These people who lived stories that seem so grand and so dismal, so powerful and so mundane. I wonder about Joseph in prison a lot. What did he feel? What did he have to do to survive? Who was his bunkmate? Did he have a bunkmate? 

Did he go in trembling, but believing that justice would win in the end? Was he sorely disappointed when the months turned to years and justice didn’t seem to win? Did he ever feel despair? Did he feel his strong gifting seeping out of his pores as he languished day by day? How frustrating to know your calling and not be able to do it. Joseph did well in prison. Because that’s what called and gifted people do- they do the best they can wherever they are with whatever they have. Joseph was moved into a trustee-type position, shepherding the lives of the criminal and innocent within the prison walls. But he wasn’t free.

The scripture tells us that even in prison, God was with Joseph. And that’s nice to read. Except I wonder if it made Joseph mad sometimes. A God who is present but seems to inactive at releasing the innocent from oppression can get under my skin. “It’s nice that you are here, Lord, but could you do that thing you do and release the captives now, please-and-thank-you?” 

So I wonder about those prison years. Held against his will, having committed no wrong, for years. Scholars are not sure how long, but it was not a quick stay. I wonder during those years did Joseph still dream of his future? Did he eventually give in and stop imagining his life beyond the walls of the prison? Because that’s easy to do in prison years. It’s gets harder and harder to see the vision of your calling.

We are told two men have dreams in the prison and Joseph interprets those dreams. Good news for one, bad news for the other. The bad news ends with an execution. The good news ends with an exoneration. But to add insult to injury, even though Joseph begs the exonerated man to remember him and to plea his case before the ruler of Egypt, the man forgets. He forgets. Like so many who are met by a warm word of wisdom, like many who are released from their pit through the service of another, this man forgets. And Joseph is left behind, abandoned again.

And I wonder all my questions all over again when I realize the crushing impact of being forgotten. Of being given a glimmer of hope just to have the light snuffed out quicker than it was lit. Did Joseph’s dreams die then too? I know that feeling well. Maybe you do as well.

I think a lot about those prison years. In many ways, Joseph is a kindred spirit to me right now. And so I don’t quickly clean up the ugly of his years held as a gifted, innocent man.  More of us feel the cold walls of prison that perhaps we let on.

I know that prison years matter. I know that they shape us, they make us something, they form in us new passions, new skills, new gifts. But they are achingly, astoundingly hard. They bite into us, chomping daily as we feel trapped by things not in our control. It becomes painful to dream dreams. To think of life outside the chill of the jail cell. Sometimes even our sobs to God for help fall silent, defeated to the hope of rescue. And to have a close call- a near miss- a moment of hope when we might, just might, be remembered and called up, called out, released and free… just to have the crushing weight of loss placed heavily on us again.

I know that prison years matter. But they are horrible. And I think we have to be honest about that. Let the rest of the story sit idle for a moment- the rest of the story will keep just fine without us rushing into it. Instead meet Joseph in the dark of those years. The constant struggle to keep his head about him and his heart lifted when it looks as though his entire life would end before it really began. I think we shouldn’t pretty up these prison years because these prison years are where some of us- maybe a lot of us- spend time. And to rush out of  them does our stories injustice. Even if there’s no one who wants to hear our stories.

The prison years.

I confess freely I don’t get them. I get some of them. I get parts of them. I get that in the dark, in the deserts, in the prisons, in the hard times- that’s when character is forged, that’s when we are tested and made stronger and better and ready. I get that. You don’t have to read far in scripture to catch onto that. But when those years languish. When the lessons have been learned, when the new person has emerged, when the new calling has been honed- and yet the years languish. When we are finally ready- not to just be done with the desert, but ready to be the person God is making us to be. That’s when it gets hard. Sure it’s hard all the way through. It’s hard at the beginning. But when you’ve been made ready for what’s next for awhile now, and still people forget. Still the prison holds you. That’s when it’s the worst.

And I don’t get that part of prison years. I don’t know that I ever will. And I don’t get the sense that Joseph had the satisfaction of knowing why it took so long. He just moves on. Eventually he is summoned by Pharoah to interpret a dream and from that chance encounter, he’s put in charge of the entire kingdom.

Joseph adopts his new country. He marries in Egyptian woman and tries to put the painful past behind him, even naming his children as reminders to do exactly that. Every time he called his children, he called to himself to forget. To move forward. To move on. To put the pain and loss of the past behind him. Every time.

And he even has the maturity to forgive his brothers when they come trembling before him asking for a bit of grain to take back home to eat. “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” That’s what he says. I don’t see this as an explanation for why he had to endure the prison years. I don’t like it when people say “Oh, he had to go to prison to learn how to forgive, to learn how to lead” or whatever nonsense some people say. Because I don’t believe that. Sure, God allowed him to find favor in the eyes of the people who bought him as a slave, who held him a prisoner, and who honored him as a ruler. But I don’t believe that prison was the only way Joseph could learn whatever he needed to learn. It simply was what happened. So when he forgives his brothers, it is not reflection on his prison years per say. It is reflection on how he has walked with God- or God with him- all these years.

I don’t understand prison years. I never will. But I do know these words of Joseph. What you meant for evil, God meant for good. When Joseph forgives his brothers, he is not saying what they did was OK since it turned out well for him. What you meant for evil, God meant for good. When you or I are in prisons, it may be hard to believe it, but what you meant for evil, God meant for good.

Injustice happens to us all. Some injustices are more grievous than others. But what you meant for evil, God meant for good.

We know that the book of Genesis, where Joseph’s story is found, was compiled while Israel was in exile. Stripped of their homeland and their autonomy. They are far from what they had known. Their babies were being born in a foreign country. They experience the smells and language of a different culture. They were living in their own sort of prison years. That’s why the book of Genesis was compiled. To remind them. To give them these traditional stories of their ancient Story. To remind them that what was meant for evil, God makes good. To give them back their identity and pull together a people scattered in so many ways. What you meant for evil, God meant for good.

And we know that from those people of Israel, a child would be born. Angels would sing the baby announcement. Blue collar workers would arrive late and unruly to pinch the baby cheeks and ask how his mother was doing. And we know that that child would be called things like Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Mighty God, Prince of Peace. He would also be called things like Blasphemer, Liar, Criminal. What you meant for evil, God meant for good.  We know that this man would grow up to have a whirlwind ministry that unleashed something new, breathing life into the staleness of a world gone wrong. What you meant for evil, God meant for good. We know that this man would be sold off for 30 pieces of silver and eventually hang from a cross, broken and poured out for the sins of all humanity, forgiving those he called brothers and sisters for what they had done to him. What you meant for evil, God meant for good.

And we know that in a garden- a garden that was only a shadow of the glorious garden which begins the book of Genesis- that man would breathe again the breath of resurrected life from the dead. What you meant for evil, God meant for good.

Wrapping my head around all this is never an easy task. And I don’t think it should ever get easy for any of us. It’s even harder to understand or see in the prison years. But it all still matters. Believing that what is meant for evil, God makes good. Not easy. Not easy for me today.

But still true.

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