Unlocking potential

Prison d’Aix, in Provence, built by Ledoux (1862) from Gazette Des Beaux-Arts, a French art review. Rawpixel. Public domain CCO.

A meditation with Joseph. Genesis chapters 39-41.

A long time ago, when Joseph was a boy, he’d had dreams of far off things- the stars in the heavens above; the moon and the sun- they had been all in a dance, bowing down and doing crazy things. He’d had other dreams, and probably talked too much about them. This had got him into trouble. Cross words and bullying. They were not the first family to allow petty jealousies to grow into harshness and hatred between brothers. One day, they’d nearly killed him. But instead, he became merchandise for a foreign slave market. Joseph was bound and led for many steps across the desert to the distant land of Egypt. While he had been stripped of the coat his father had gifted to him, his father’s God had gone with him into his permanent exile.

Joseph had watched other slaves taken away to who-knows-what miserable fates at the market, but his new master was different to the other buyers. Potiphar’s household was no place of luxury for this young foreigner, but his master seemed disposed to trust Joseph beyond the common expectation of enslaved servants. Joseph could continue to grow up, to embrace the work set him, and gave of more and more of his best. Under Joseph’s care, things went well in Potiphar’s house- from good to very good. Joseph remembered the tales of his father, recounting God’s blessing of his ancestors in years gone by. Though far from home, and violently disowned by his brothers, it seemed that the Presence of Yahweh was not so far from Joseph, even here in Egypt.

Things had been going so well. Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, was no longer the steward of his own household or manager of his fields, because Joseph had proved admirably capable as overseer and charge hand of everything he had. His master discerned divine blessing on Joseph. But Potiphar’s wife did not have the same disciplined eye as her husband- she looked at Joseph and saw different things that she liked, so she reached out to take them. Joseph’s character had been amply tested in many ways already, and he had discovered the wonder of partnership with God in his life. His job description no longer encapsulated who he was- in this household he was even known as Joseph the Hebrew– the ‘man of God’! Such was the truth in Mrs Potiphar’s false testimony to her husband when he returned: “The Hebrew servant came to abuse me.” She did not mention that Joseph had repeatedly reasoned with her as the wife under God of his master, her husband.

Joseph’s diary is sparse on detail at this point. He had mastered the situation in the only way possible- he had run, and once again had been parted from his coat, which became a false sign- just as before. Potiphar was angry. He found his Hebrew servant, in whom he had placed all his trust, and threw him into jail.

Eleni Afiontzi. Free image from Unsplash.

Joseph already knew what it was to be shackled. He had been frogmarched along the dusty road south to Egypt as a boy, suffering chaffing from ropes and blisters on his feet before entering Potiphar’s household and finding unexpected liberty in his service. Joseph had been able to forget the brothers who had sold him into slavery to divert their rage from murder. He had developed a new integrity before Potiphar, but what good had it done him? It was no use hoping for a trial- there were no honest witnesses, so there could be no vindication, no justice. God was not speaking up on his behalf. The might of the Egyptian state was now thrown around him. Joseph’s life was in complete and utter lockdown.

Why me? What did I do to deserve all this?

Terry Waite. Envoy to the Middle East for the Archbishop of Canterbury, captured and imprisoned  in Beirut from 1987 for five years. 1

“At least I am still alive.” But for how long? How long would his master’s patience last? What was he waiting for? What am I waiting for? Am I awaiting execution, or am I simply being left to rot? Unanswerable questions, and interminable hours and days in which not to answer them. What time is it? What day is it today? Joseph could not be in control of his circumstances, but he could determine his response. But stop. Note this: Joseph was not, in fact, alone at all. No sooner was Joseph locked down in the main prison, we are told that God was with him [Gen 39:21] and that Joseph knew His steadfast love. At various times in history, captors who have taken many prisoners have sometimes put selected ones in charge of the rest, delegating to them the dirty work, watching on as the tortured masses squabble and bicker behind their bars. But no such inhumanity results here. Right here in this institution of merciless state punishment, Joseph and his God are seen to be working in partnership. Once again, the keeper of the prison promotes Joseph to the same freedom of influence as his earlier master had done. “Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it.” [Gen 39:22] Did the Governor give Joseph all the keys, that he could open cells at will? Whatever the details, at least within the walls, this prison was as an open field to the man of God.

Then two new inmates arrive, with news from the outside world. The ruler of the nation, the mighty Pharaoh, has sent down two members of his court- those who serve at his personal table. After all, for the rich elites, their food and wine are really all they care about, and you’d better not cross them. It may cost you your life. And so it would prove for the baker.

What does this have to do with Joseph? These two prisoners speak to their new ‘master’ and in one word, Joseph is put to the test. Dream. ‘I’ve had a dream.’ ‘And so have I,’ adds the other. The very thing which started Joseph down the road which led to this very prison. Two dreams. Joseph has been set free within the confines of the Egyptian state prison, but what is happening in his heart? What does he say in there, in the darkness, in the night? Despite betrayal and shackles, enslavement and false witness, something stronger than prison bars has been forged in this man’s heart. Despite being confined in the prison, he has determined to live in freedom, and so God’s word is not chained in his life either. “Do not interpretations belong to God?” he tells them both. [Gen 40:8] It may seem miraculous, but Joseph can speak from his heart to both men without bitterness. “Only remember me, when it is well with you,” quietly pleads Joseph, for I have suffered injustice upon injustice.

If you are bitter, it will eat you up and do you much more damage that the people who have hurt you. 

Terry Waite
Empty jail. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Rawpixel Free image CCO.

Exactly as Joseph interprets, when the two men are summoned to Pharaoh’s birthday party, the baker is executed, and the cupbearer is restored to Pharaoh’s service. We are told that he put the cup into his very hand, exactly as Joseph told him he would. Yet at that very moment, in the very action in which he should have remembered, the cupbearer forgot Joseph, and made no petition on his behalf. [Gen 40:23]

Mr. Henri Giffard’s Captive Steam Balloon by the artist Albert Tissandier (1839-1906). Original from Library of Congress. Rawpixel. Free image CCO.

The nineteenth century was an extraordinary time in the history of science and technological innovation. From 1803, steam engines were lifted from their fixed moorings by the coal pits and placed onto a wheeled chassis- the steam locomotive was born! To start with, they had to be preceded by man walking with a warning flag, while Dionysus Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at the new London University, informed his readers in 1824 that ‘Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.’2 By 1830, Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ was pulling passengers at 36 mph! In an extraordinary feat of imagination, the French engineer Henri Giffard3 dreamed of sending a steam engine up into the sky, to thus drive a balloon to carry passengers too. Getting off the ground would require a great supply of the highly flammable gas hydrogen, while the only known motive force was a steam engine. Yet sparks from steam trains regularly start line side fires, so Giffard not only tailored the design of a 3HP steam engine, which stores steam in a cylinder ready for precisely timed use, but also an injector which mixes the hot waste gases from the fire with water before diverting it harmlessly downwards, after driving the balloon or ‘dirigible’ by means of propeller and rudder.

Imagine, if you will, the courage and stupidity required to commence such an adventure. Having manufactured enough of the explosive gas to fill the cigar shaped balloon, of sufficient dimensions to lift both engine and persons from the ground to a significant height, you then need to moor the great gas bag in a shelter to protect it from gusts of wind, while then preparing the fire in the engine. Once accumulating a sufficient head of steam, you then persuade your excited passengers aboard, and having done so, attempt some amateurish assessment of the prevailing wind. On the 24 September 1852, Giffard gave the command to release the multitude of guy ropes that tied down his 180 kg airship and steam engine. It rose into the air and steadily made its maiden voyage some 27km from Paris to Élancourt, successfully steering this way and that on its journey, though not proving powerful enough to make the return trip against the wind. Nevertheless, this was a notable triumph! Giffard had harnessed and released the powers of hydrogen, steam, wind and gravity and prevailed, liberating his briefly captive passengers safe and sound after their spectacular adventure.

What was happening in Joseph’s mind and heart while languishing in the jail? Is languishing the right word? How did he occupy his mind? What was the nature of his fellowship with his God? One of the intriguing details of Giffard’s story is that he invented and designed his steam control-injector without any experimentation before its final manufacture. He had worked out exactly and fully what to do in his head. Terry Waite discovered gratitude for having been a choirboy as a child, as he had memorised large portions of the Psalms for the cycle of sung church services. He was almost completely deprived of books, only being given one and a couple of scraps of paper to write on during his long isolation in solitary confinement. Nevertheless, he was prepared to keep both mind and heart alive and active- he drafted the poetry that he was later able to commit to the printed page. Like Joseph, Terry had to decide what sort of life he would lead inside his prison, even a life with his God. Would he nurture resentment towards his captors who held mock executions? Would he surrender to cycles of imagination of revenge and fantasies of escape? Despite gnawing hunger, would he exercise each muscle against every pain, or would he allow his physical being to seep away in a slow day-by-day decline?

If one can understand why people behave as they do then often the road to forgiveness is opened.  Not only is forgiveness essential for the health of Society, it is also vital for our personal well-being.  Bitterness is like a cancer that enters the soul.  It does more harm to those that hold it than to those whom it is held against.

Terry Waite

Joseph knew that his God could see him– the brief stay of Pharaoh’s two officials had been further proof of that. But what was he waiting for? We might wait for disease to reduce us, the decay of our minds, or death by someone’s hand. ‘You should try meditation or ‘mindfulness!’ These activities may be of some value- but will they really sustain hope? Those dreams are of no use to him now, we might think. But it turns out that Joseph is waiting for someone else’s dreams. Having primed and placed the cupbearer for exactly the right moment, in God’s good time, Pharaoh becomes the involuntary recipient of the third pair of dreams that will finally bring release for Joseph from his confinements. It turns out that God is not only interested in justice for Joseph. He has bigger purposes for this Hebrew on whom his steadfast love rests.

Sometimes the wheels of justice grind slowly. 

Terry Waite.

Joseph’s God, the God of the Hebrews, the Sovereign God- this One God is the God of history– God over Everything. At this time, two years after the restoration of the cupbearer and two years after the judgement of the baker, now is the time that God’s dreams come to Pharaoh, and the lack of imagination and insight of Pharaoh’s courtiers, managers and magicians is exposed. Only now does the cupbearer remember his faults. There are footsteps heard on the floor of the jail, and the door is flung open. It is now time to release the nurtured human resources of this man in whom is an accumulated store of the Spirit of God. Up you come, man of God.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

John 3:8 The same Greek word means both wind and spirit

Footnotes:

1.You can read more about Terry Waite here https://www.networknorwich.co.uk/Articles/499380/Network_Norwich_and_Norfolk/People/Faith_and_creativity_gave_hope_to_hostage.aspx

2. Quoted from ‘The steam engine fully explained and illustrated’, in ‘The Early Pioneers of Steam: The Inspiration Behind George Stephenson.’ Stuart Hylton 2019 The History Press.

3. https://www.britannica.com/technology/airship#ref265869

(c) Stephen Thompson 2020

Introducing myself as a ‘Common or Garden’ Theologian

My given name is Stephen. My mother was the first person to settle on that name in my family history, as far as we know. She liked the name, though I could not push her into giving any more of an explanation for her choice. Since discovering my namesake in Acts 6 and 7, and finding that the Greek means ‘crowned one,’ I have become fond of alluding to this when introducing myself. One of my more unique features, I think. “Getting my crown slightly early”, I sometimes quip. If more modesty is called for, I might well add, “But my halo is still small enough to strangle me.”

Stephen is first mentioned by name in a list in Acts 6:5, a little like the genealogies that pepper the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis. Teachers were behind this phenomenon, I am sure, as we love registers, or at least, we cannot escape them. Where there are schools, there should be dinner duties, which is where Stephen first comes in. I’ve done my share of wiping tables and stacking chairs, and enjoy the physical interlude it can provide in a day’s work. Serried rows of stacked chairs and the glistening reflection of afternoon sunlight on freshly wiped table tops can send a shiver of satisfaction down my spine.

There is a powerful dynamic in moving from dining hall to classroom. Children- students- young people: what exactly should we call them? They treat you differently, respond differently, listen differently when you have made contact in a contrasting setting. It makes for more of a community feeling, because you have done some life together, attending first to the body here and then to the mind there. I repeat: they listen differently, without realising it. Jesus demonstrated this reality when he fed 5000 men and uncounted women and children. He then challenged these people to decide if they persisted in following him because they had been fed on bread or God’s word. No answer was given. Perhaps none is called for. Every day, we hunger for both.

Stephen was certainly listened to. What he’d said in conversation through the serving hatch was repeated around the refectory; then it got onto social media and it was all round the city. What had he said that caused such excitement? Something about Moses and God, apparently. Well, that’s everything then. The folk at the ‘Synagogue of the Freedmen’ didn’t like that Stephen’s teaching was shaking up their fusty traditions about God in His heaven and old man Moses the lawgiver who led Israel to their promised land, leaving them to take charge of their land of milk and honey. A new relationship between God and people – all people mind you, not just the descendants of Moses and Abraham. The future is no longer just found in the synagogue of freedmen, but rather in the Church of all the Free, empowered by the resurrected Christ!

If Stephen had been a slower talker, Acts chapter 7 would have been a lot shorter, but fortunately he had both the gift of the gab and plenty to say. We are treated to an extended re-presenting of the history and theology of the people of God. Despite the fact that his hearers are already angry, they seem riveted to their places until the lesson is done. “I don’t care if the bell has gone- you are not moving from those seats until I am good and finished. Sit still and keep writing!” As it turned out, that was the end of both the lesson and the teacher. But the teaching was not lost- we can read it still as recorded here at length. The life of Stephen’s message is testified to in two ways: the powerful works he did while alive, and the vision of his translation to glory even as he was being stoned, observed by the helpless witnesses in the crowd, reminiscent of Elisha straining upwards to see Elijah rising before him on the chariot of God.

So Stephen and his fellow deacons were not merely table waiters. They were teachers of the Way just as much as the Apostles, who perhaps did not anticipate just how much of an impact their new deacons would have on the future. ‘Deacon’ is not a commonly used category in most ecclesial circles these days, and ‘theologian’ isn’t very popular either. Stephen’s example, at such a pivotal moment in the history of the new church, shows that the call to towel and bowl should not be disjointed from the call to consider what it is we are to proclaim and so how we are to live. What kind of people shall we be? To what in our day do God and Moses point?

No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian. Perhaps not a theologian in the technical or professional sense, but a theologian nevertheless. The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians or bad ones.

R C Sproul. Knowing Scripture. 1

I think that many Christians consider theologians to be some kind of elite, and not in a particularly good way. But if we are to be proper Christians, which is to say, proper people of God, with bodies that sleep and eat and work and sing, but also with minds and brains producing rationally coherent thoughts, then to be a common Christian is also to be a common theologian. R C Sproul has it right. What kind of people shall we be? Common is not merely ‘average’ or ‘bathroom standard’; it is whole, functioning and complete. ‘Fit for common use’ means you can use it for all sorts of things, and all these tasks can be done properly. Everyday tasks are the tasks on which our survival depends, but the priority they should have held was diverted in favour of dispensable luxuries, the leadership of elites who serve only themselves and have proved tone deaf to our collective disaster, while celebrities and ‘influencers’ have been all-too-suddenly forgotten – exposed as having nothing to say of real value. Look around you. Common is not so common after all. Common is being applauded, and not before time. Behold the judgement of the common people.

‘Garden variety’ is also easily underestimated. The exotic variety needs special care and tending; a special place in the greenhouse or conservatory before it will blossom and bloom. Some can be planted out in the garden beds for show, but to survive the winter after spectacular summer flowering, they must be lifted again and cared for rather unceremoniously in a plain pot under frost-proofing sacking. Not so for our native plants. These plants are ‘garden variety’ because they belong here, and that means they are hardy. Whatever the local conditions- whatever changes– they cope. After initial germination and nurture, the garden variety will thrive in all variations of climate; more or less rain, dull autumn days and bright sunbathed summer days, through late frost and passing gales. Yet without much thought or tending, they bloom perennially, set seed and spread out across all borders into neighbouring territories. Garden flowers beautify wherever they find a niche, and common crops could provide a harvest which will be plentiful enough to feed us through the year. The world is changed by our gardening, and it should be changed for the better by theology that has been hardened by all the tests our culture has to throw at it.

Even stones.

Notes.

  1. bingham.com/blog/what-kind-of-theologian-are-you/

(c) Stephen Thompson 2020

I am doing something new

We breakfast in the morning. We can choose whether to eat the same thing as we had yesterday and the day before, or we can opt for novelty. During one season in their history, the wanderers in the wilderness were told not to rely on yesterday’s manna, but to discard what was certain to decompose, and seek out a fresh portion.

Some new friends gathered for prayer today, and as we spent our allotted time together, we began to wonder whether we would return to yesterday’s thinking- even about the good things we had been fed. That was a good meal. It was a pleasure to share, and we rejoice in the fruitfulness that came from it.

But today is to be a New Day. In each new yom Day in Genesis 1, the English says, “And God said…” As the first week proceeds, each day is in continuity with the one that went before, yet it is different. ‘And’ adds a subtlety: connection and reconsideration. Deliberation and strategic consideration. ‘And…?’ The first three days are frames, formed in structure and yet preserving a clear void within. In the latter three days, God brings in stages a distinctive fullness to the framework he had laid out. We perceive, from our human perspective, an emergent holism in the developing world that God makes day by day. Each day adds newness and diversity. Most of all, we perceive the interconnected soundness of the world that is forming before our wondering gaze. What was ‘good’ yesterday can therefore become part of something ‘very good’ today or tomorrow.

The poetic pattern of Genesis 1 does not deny that we can maintain a disciplined rhythm in our life ways, but equally, to be poetic, the ways we tread today should aspire to fresh breathing of creativity- and certainly some genuine novelty. As we dance to the song for another verse, add a kick here or a twirl there- or turn a different way! Today is to be different. “And God saw that it was good.”

(c) Stephen Thompson 2020