Facing The Past

I shared this message as a part of my church’s Coping Well in a Covid World – and I thought some might find it helpful.

Facing Up To The Past – Keeping it Together

“Oh yes, the past can hurt, but you can either run from it, or learn from it.” Rafiki

In my view, there is endless wisdom that can be gleaned from Disney films; and this is one of those gems. 

Simba (the main character) has run away because he’s been told by his evil uncle that he killed him Dad (are you keeping up?) and when he runs into someone from his not so shiny past, he freaks out. And the wise Mandrill (yes I thought he was a monkey too) has these words to say. 

“Oh yes, the past can hurt, but you can either run from it, or learn from it.”

They are some of those words which can bruise the tenderhearted among us today. 

I can barely get through the present, let alone the past – you might be thinking.

Or

The past is a no go, kept behind lock and key for good reason. 

It might feel too soon to try and unravel all the feelings that the coronavirus pandemic has raised. 

This is understandable, and let me encourage you that I’m not saying the past needs to be confronted right now – one of my favourite authors Kathryn Greene-McCreight writes:

“Here is God’s mercy, the sun rises slowly.”

For some of you, the past needs to be faced with someone qualified to ascend a mountain, for others now isn’t the time, and for still more of us, it might be time to gather a small group (socially distanced or online) to pray for discernment. 

So whether you’re in a place to look back or not, we’re going to look back at Joseph’s story, see how he faced his past and see how his life points us forward to the life of Jesus who took all of our stories; the beautiful ones and the breaking ones, to the cross at calvary. 

Because scripture tells us that facing up to the past is never done alone; it’s done alongside the author of our story. My story and Joseph’s story. 

So let’s dig into Joseph’s story a bit. 

It’s an interesting one, isn’t it?

There are all the ingredients for a blockbuster (or a musical starring Jason Donovan!)

Joseph is the favourite child; beloved by his Father and he’s a bit full of himself and his own importance. He’s a dreamer – and not particularly wise with it. He dreams of his older brothers bowing before him, worshipping him. 

I’m an only child – but even I can see that elder siblings are unlikely to appreciate this image!

The brother’s reaction, however, is perhaps a little extreme. 

They essentially kidnap their brother, trade as a slave for silver and go to tell their Father that his beloved son is dead – and they don’t see Joseph again for twenty two years. 

In those 22 years Joseph rises through the ranks, is lied about, jailed, becomes a trusted inmate, interprets dreams for the Pharaoh’s jailed staff members, and becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man as his preparations spare Egypt from feeling the effects of a famine. 

Never a dull moment with Jospeh!

And in Genesis 45, Joseph has been reunited with his brothers (who fulfil his dreams and bow to him), imprisons Simeon and tricks his other brothers into bringing their little brother Benjamin back with them to Egypt before framing them for stealing. The passage we read was the showdown – and in the musical I’m pretty sure it’s accompanied by a very dramatic score. 

Here is Joseph’s moment; after over two decades he is quite literally facing his past, some of the people who have most hurt him and he let’s the tears fall.

Joseph let’s it all out – in fact – he weeps so loudly that everyone in the vicinity can hear. 

Our tears aren’t crimes, they aren’t un-christian – sometimes when we are facing up to the past – tears are our most holy offering. 

Tears are fascinating, actually. 

There are three types; reflex tears help to protect us, they fall when we get dust in our eye or something!

Basal/continuous tears are the ones that stop our eyes from getting dry.

Emotional tears actually release toxins and hormones that accumulate when we are under stress or experiencing difficult emotions. 

Crying actually produces the same hormones as exercise – feel good hormones called endorphins.

Tears are a god-given way of facing up to our past – and grieving what has hurt us. 

I’ve certainly found myself crying more than usual since March; there have been a hundred little losses we have all endured since the beginning of lockdown; from worrying about what my son is missing out on, missing my friends – to the concern about how those who are grieving loved ones and what the pandemic means for the most vulnerable in our societies. It’s been a time of tears – and I think that’s okay.

Joseph does it, and thousands of years later tears fall down the face of Jesus when his friend Lazarus dies and when he surveys the state of the city he loves. 

When we face up to the past – sometimes we need to let our tears fall. 

Then we need to draw close.

“Come close to me, I am your brother Joseph who you sold into Egypt.” Says verse 4

Joseph had to close the gap between him and his brothers – and in doing so he makes a change from his trickery in the previous chapters – and allows them to draw close to him. 

This isn’t always possible, or safe for us however. We can’t always draw close to those who have wounded us – and neither should we feel an obligation to. 

It isn’t always practical at the moment with restrictions and social distancing in place.

But, we need to draw close to Jesus-  and we can draw close to Jesus even when we feel distant to everyone else. Because it was Jesus who took our sin, and the sins of those who have wounded us, to the cross – and He sent the Spirit to be with us – always. 

Psalm 23 paints this picture for us, before Jesus even came to begin his earthly ministry, but Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, which teaches us that He takes on the role the Psalmist spoke of.

A psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

    he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

    through the darkest valley,[a]

I will fear no evil,

    for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

    in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

    my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

    all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

    forever.

And as I’ve re-read this psalm, I’ve seen the story of Joseph reflected in it.

Jospeh provides for his family during the famine, he gives them a new home and plenty in a time of wanting. He sits at the table with those who have hurt him and tells them that everything is going to be okay – that their sins didn’t have the last word. 

And Jesus does the same for us today and more. All we need to do is accept grace.

He is our provision in a land of want. 

He is our refreshment in a parched land.

His is our guide when we feel lost, our comfort in the dark, our joy – even in the pain. 

Facing up to the past isn’t just about facing up to what has hurt us – it’s about facing all Jesus has done for us. 

When Joseph’s brothers see the face of their sin, the consequences of their sin, they are reminded that sin doesn’t have the last word. 

They had the plentiful land of Egypt to live and flourish in; and we have the hope of heaven to look to. 

Verse 14 tells us that there is more weeping; as the brothers reunite. It’s a wonderful picture of facing up to the past and finding resolution and comfort around the dinner table as millions do throughout the world.

And years after Joseph’s meal with his brothers – Jesus would sit around a table with his friends and point to a way they could reconnect to their past – and to him. 

I used to really struggle with communion. Years of struggling with self-harm meant that I found the talk of blood and bread incredibly painful – instead of realising that I could come to the table with all my brokenness and baggage – I felt as though I had to arrive at the communion table with everything ‘sorted’.

I didn’t believe I was good enough to be at the communion table. I felt as though everything I had been through; everything I had done to myself stood between me and Jesus. 

I wonder how Joseph’s brothers felt as he embraced them? Did they feel unworthy to accept what he was offering them?

There is good news; both for Joseph’s brothers, for me and for you. 

We don’t have to wait to feel worthy, to be worthy. We don’t have to have faced our past to be accepted at God’s table. It’s not something to be ticked off a checklist – it’s about accepting the invitation of grace that God offers us. 

None of the men around the table with Jesus on Maundy Thursday were worthy. In the three years they’d travelled with Jesus they’d got into fights, battled for supremacy, missed the point more than once and before the week was out one would betray Jesus and another would deny him. 

And yet despite their futures and their pasts – they can meet with Jesus.

The same is true for us. 

The restoration and reconciliation Joseph gave his brothers is available to us through Jesus. 

We may not be able to reconcile with the people who have hurt us. We may feel as though aren’t even at the start line in our marathon task of facing up to the past – but Jesus brings good news. 

When he took the most ordinary food – bread – and broke it – He made it holy.

Glenn Packiam writes in his book “Blessed, Broken, Given” “Could it be that God’s grace comes rushing into the very brokenness of our lives? Maybe brokenness has a way of opening us up to the Lord. The more aware we become of our frailty, the more we are able to embrace the grace of God. “My strength is made perfect in weakness” the Lord told the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9) Or as Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” To be broken is to be opened up to grace.”

Joseph’s journey had broken him countless times. Broken as he was trafficked by people who were meant to love him, broken as he sat in prison, wrongly convicted. But Joseph’s speech to his brothers shows us all that our brokenness isn’t the end of the story. 

“Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves” he tells the men who left him for dead. 

When we face up to the past with God’s grace within us, we cannot help but end up with something greater than our brokenness. We can trust our author.

In the text, he reminds his brothers – and us – that it’s not him who has brought goodness from the pain. 

“you sold me… but God sent me.”

The communion bread tells the same story. The bread is broken – but in its breaking it can be shared. The broken body of Jesus allowed the grace and love of God to be shared with the whole world.

It tells us that how we begin, our past is never the end of the story because God’s grace is an interruption which can make our lives more beautiful, more purposeful than they ever could have done without the brokenness. 

The Japanese art of kintsugi says something similar. The word kintsugi means golden joinery. It’s the art of joining broken pottery headed for the bin into something more beautiful by mending it with a gold coloured liquid resin. It declares “I was broken, but in my mending I’ve been made more beautiful.’ 

The challenge is if we’ll allow it. 

Will we allow God into our broken places? 

Perhaps it will be sharing a chapter of your story with a trusted friend; or writing your story down for the first time. 

It might be seeking the advice of a counsellor or pastoral carer. 

It might be praying in your heart that God softens your brokenness and shows your way forward. 

Or it may be about resting in the knowledge that Jesus is our bread of life; broken for each one of us. Jan Richardson writes

The Hardest Blessing

If we cannot

Lay aside the wound

Then let us say

It will not always

Bind us.

Let us say

The damage

Will not eternally

Determine our path.

Let us say

The line of our life

Will not always travel

Along the places

We are torn.

Let us say

That forgiveness

Can take some practice

Can take some practice

Can take a long

And struggling time.

Let us say

That to offer

The hardest blessings

We will need

The deepest grace;

That to forgive

The sharpest pain

We will need

The fiercest love;

That to release

The ancient ache,

We will need

New strength

For every day.

Let us say 

The wound 

Will not be

Our final home – 

That through it

Runs a road,

A way we would not

Have chosen

But on which

We will finally see

Forgiveness,

So long practiced

Coming toward us

Shining with the joy

So well deserved. 

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