A brief moment but a long look

August 2nd, 2020

Genesis 45:1-15

A few years ago my husband and I visited our son, Kyle, a first-year college student. We had left him months earlier as a young, first-year student excited about going to college, leaving home, happy to be living no longer under the shadow of his parents but confident in the joy that comes with finally leaving the nest. As he relished his newfound freedom, I contemplated the sadness of his departure, wondering where the time had gone. The time has passed so quickly—the baby, the toddler, the elementary school years, the middle and upper school years, and now college as a physically strong, mentally alert, vibrant young adult. I wondered if we had provided him what he would need to face his own life experiences. As I walked into his empty bedroom at home, now uncomfortably clean, I wondered, as I had right after his birth, “Will Kyle be glad that he was born?” I certainly hoped that he would.

In late fall we invited him to dinner in honor of his nineteenth birthday. We spent a fun evening laughing about times past and exciting days to come. As we parted in the parking lot, he walked to his dorm while we moved toward our car to return home. While we were getting in the car, he yelled from the dormitory steps, across the large parking lot, “Thank you, Mom!” I turned around to see this beautiful young man glowing in the street light in the yard of his dormitory, his arms lifted wide open, with one hand raised high in the air. In that second I heard a voice that projected straight to the stars and moon, as Kyle unabashedly hollered, “Mom and Dad, thank you for the dinner and thank you for my life!”

Time collapsed for me in that moment. In that split second of time, the only markers of time that I know—past, present, and future—melted into one. In that one moment, frozen in space, I remembered the little baby Kyle, for whom we had prayed for years to come into our life. I instantly saw the endless sea of diapers and corrections for the life of the young toddler learning about his world. I remembered the challenge of his teenage years, the academic hurdles, the loud rock and roll music coming from the basement, and the usual clutter of his room. I could also see in that same moment his future, the joy that he would have as he learned more life and himself, as he met the experiences of college, perhaps even found a soul mate, then move into the world with a career and family. That moment in time took on a more circular form, not contained by the strict measuring lines of yesterday and tomorrow, but fused into one dimension, where yesterday cannot be separated from tomorrow, and today is yesterday, and yesterday is today.

I stood there frozen, watching his arms wave and hearing his voice ring through the still, cold winter air. The walls between past, present, and future melted. All was one. All was good. The moment was brief, but the look was long.

Perhaps Joseph had a similar experience. The narrator suggests a similar freeze-frame moment when Joseph stood face to face with his brothers as he prepared to identify himself. The earth stopped moving. Time stood still—at least as a linear marker. Joseph was standing in front of his brothers, the ones who had despised him and placed him in a pit to die. His life had been saved by traders on their way to Egypt. Joseph had made a life for himself in a foreign land without family: first in the household of Potiphar, the captain of the Egyptian guard, then in the house of the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. More than twenty years had passed. Famine had ravaged Canaan. Joseph, who somehow knew that famine would come, had urged the Egyptian government to stockpile food. Thanks to Joseph, Egypt had vast stores of grain. The inhabitants of Canaan, however, were starving. Jacob, Joseph’s father sent the brothers to go purchase grain from Egypt so that they could live and not die from hunger. Now the tables were turned.

Now they are all there in the magnificent hall of the Egyptian Pharaoh. The brothers were hungry; Joseph had food. The brothers were begging; Joseph had power. The brothers stand before Joseph, who is called the “father of Pharaoh” (chief minister), begging for food, negotiating their little brother’s life, so that they and their father might live. They do not know that the man to whom they are speaking is their brother. Joseph looks different; he speaks differently; he has assumed the Egyptian ways (Genesis 42:8). The brothers have no clue. Joseph, however, does.

Hear the narrator describe the moment of decision: “Joseph could no longer control himself in front of all his attendants, so he declared, ‘Everyone, leave now!’” Joseph needs thinking space, solitude. Joseph, in this moment of time, will rehearse his past and project his future. Time—past, present, and future—will melt into one dimension.

Joseph could have chosen just to look back to the past, only seeing his youthful arrogance, his brothers’ hatred, and the injustices experienced. Or he could choose to see the future, the hunger of his father, and the eventual death of his entire family. Joseph, rather, visualizes the entire drama from a richer and wider perspective. George McLeod, founder of the Iona community in Scotland, called these moments in time as “thin places.” Those places in our life where the veil that separates heaven and earth are lifted. Where one can see clearly and in more careful detail all of the events surrounding our lives. The Apostle Paul described it in this manner: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Joseph, however, did not need to wait for some great eschatological morning for full clarity as the Apostle Paul describes. Joseph saw the end from the beginning and beginning at the end. That is why he could say, even while weeping “so loudly that the Egyptians and Pharaoh’s household heard him,” that he had no remorse, that he could forgive his brothers, that he could see the end from the beginning. Joseph finally speaks with words that are considered to be the hermeneutical key to the entire Joseph story: “Now, don’t be upset and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here. Actually, God sent me before you to save lives.” This key point will be repeated again at the end of Joseph’s life, when he says again: “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today” (Genesis 50:20).

Joseph had the long look in order to make the right decision in that eventful moment. He could see his own personal shadows as well as those of his brothers. Joseph could also see the rich path that had been his, the opportunities to live and prosper in his adopted homeland. Joseph could also see the possibility of a meaningful future, both food and forgiveness for this entire family. In that “thin place” Joseph had the clarity of vision to make the right choice—he forgave himself and his brothers. Joseph died an old man, surrounded by his family in their adopted land.

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