Charlottesville, Joseph and Visible Thoughts

This blog is the written version of my August 13, 2017 sermon. As such, it seemed appropriate to leave some of the parts of worship that seem to resonate with the sermon and with this moment in the world. 


Take a moment to consider a situation in which you have behaved badly and for which you are not quite reconciled. Take a breath, filling your lungs with fresh air, and then breathe out. Reflect on the words: “God is saving all of us by divine mercy, no exceptions. We are all saved in spite of ourselves, good and bad alike.”

We are the family of God; and like every family we come in all shapes and sizes. We are raucous uncles, annoying cousins, doting nannas and flamboyant aunts. We are happy toddlers, busy parents argumentative siblings and football loving grandpas. We are quiet book lovers and mechanically minded menders of stuff. We are knitters and cooks, golfers and gamers. We are poets and farmers, pianists and twitchers. We are freckled and knock-kneed; we are daredevils and dawdlers. Our lives are colorful and creative, and as diverse as wildflowers, and we all belong here.


Worry, fear, pain and loss cloud our vision and veil our sight, O Lord, causing us to miss the truth of your Word. By the power of your Spirit, lift our burdens and pierce us with your good news that we might experience the hope and freedom of your life in us. Amen. 

A couple of weeks ago, I went on a spiritual retreat. While there, I learned about paying attention. This is the practice of noticing the condition of your heart and taking a moment to write down what is going on when your heart gets afraid or angry or very upset. So, the back page of my journal has the stories around times or things that made me angry or were upsetting. 

After a period of time, you re-read the things you noted to pay attention to. As time goes by, the things gain clarity. With consideration the deeper yearnings and fears and desires and drivers of my heart and life seem to bubble to the top. When they do, I’m able to re-think them, find their real truth in my life. 

This is a process known as “Visible Thinking”. Basically, you take what ever is going on in your head, put it outside in a form that’s visible and then think about it again. It’s pretty easy for us to have thoughts in our heads that drive our speech and behaviors but they’ve never seen the light of day. This can allow us to act in ways we wouldn’t, if we had every really thought about what was going on in our minds. 

As you look at the writings or drawings, or consider you thoughts from times past, you say to yourself, “I used to thing….but now I think…” This “I used to think … but now I think …” is shorthand for the process of understanding our own lives and can describe a “changed perspective.” Often, when we think visibly, we are better able to understand how our point of view has shifted on this or that subject. 


+ Facebook meme: I used to think that you were my happily ever after … but now I know you are only my once upon a time.

+ I used to think that God could not possibly love me … but now I think God loves me unconditionally.

+ I used to think that I was, well, let’s face it, pretty much perfect … but now, well, not so much.

And so on … When we review our own past and the positions we used to hold, the attitudes we used to have and the opinions we used to express, we get a fresh understanding of who we are and the process by which transformation and perhaps maturity has occurred.  

Yesterday in Charlottesville was a day requiring some changing of thoughts. We used to think there were statues that some supported and some opposed. The supporters said they valued history and the opponents said they only stood for racism. We, very personally know that some of the supporters of civil war monuments are just racists, but certainly not all. And here at Enon, we’ve lived with this reality. We have our monument. Not everyone who likes it is a horrible racist and those who support it shouldn’t say that. Because it’s untrue. 

But what happened in Charlottesville is different than our disagreement about a monument. The issues in Charlottesville started over a monument, that’s the presenting thing. But if we think more deeply, if we pull the thoughts out and make them visible. We find that there is a mountain of fear about change. Change that is happening too fast for most everyone and so the fear of having a place at the table is off the charts. 

Then those most susceptible, most disenfranchised are vulnerable to becoming radicalized. This happens in Islam and it happens in Christianity. So a small percentage feel so disconnected, they long so deeply for community, they find it in all the wrong places.  We have a rapidly growing Alt-Right, Klan, Neo-Nazi movement in our country. They showed up by the thousands in Charlottesville. Those weren’t all Virginians. The man who drove the car into the crowd was from Ohio. 

We have a problem and we need to make the thinking visible. 

Racism, anti-semitism are wrong. 

White supremacy in all its forms is evil. 

Violence and doing harm to other human beings is wrong.

Generalizing and casting judgement on large groups of people is wrong and very unhelpful.

Excluding and driving to the margins, other people, is not only wrong but it will result in what we saw yesterday.

Silence about what is wrong, failure to address and stand up to evil is a sin.

When we make these things visible, then we can go to the Bible and find help.

The story of Joseph and his brothers, exemplifies, the ways we can look back, check our thoughts, allow God to transform them into something that builds rather than destroys. 

The first episode takes place in Joseph’s home with his family. Joseph is obviously the favored son, as evidenced by the “richly ornamented”coat “of many colors” his father gave him. And seeing this favoritism, his brothers “hated him”.

Joseph exacerbates the situation by telling his brothers about his nighttime dreams in which he sees his brothers symbolically bowing to him. So intense is their hatred that they eventually devise a plot to kill him, and for openers, they throw him into a pit. Later, seeing a chance to make a profit and be rid of their hated brother at the same time, they sell him to some traders, who take him to Egypt. The brothers then convince their father that a wild animal has killed Joseph.

Joseph is sold into slavery and purchased by Potiphar.  Joseph is now in Egypt, where he works in the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officers. Although Joseph is a slave, he’s well-treated, and because of his industriousness and skill, he is soon promoted to overseer of Potiphar’s household. Unfortunately, Potiphar’s wife has designs on Joseph. When he resists her attempts to seduce him, she accuses him of making unwanted advances. Potiphar has Joseph thrown into prison.

This lands Joseph in prison, where he interprets the dreams of two fellow inmates, the pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker, both of whom have fallen out of favor with the ruler. Joseph tells them that, according to their dreams, the butler is to be freed and restored to his position and the baker is to be hanged. When this happens, the butler, who has every reason to be grateful to Joseph, promises to put in a good word for him with Pharaoh. But upon his release, the butler doesn’t bother.

Two years later when Pharaoh has a disturbing dream he cannot understand. Hearing that Pharaoh is searching for a dream interpreter, the butler at last tells his master about Joseph, who is promptly brought from prison to Pharaoh’s court. Joseph understands Pharaoh’s dreams to be a prophecy of seven years of plenty, to be followed by seven years of famine. Believing Joseph’s interpretation, Pharaoh makes Joseph head of the food-storage program, with the responsibility to prepare the nation for the coming famine. And Pharaoh gives Joseph a high government rank.

During the widespread famine, Joseph’s brothers come from Canaan to Egypt to buy food. Eventually Joseph and his brothers are reunited, but before they recognize him, they bow down to him, just as he had dreamed years before. Now, however, Joseph takes no pride in that. Instead, he forgives them, and his entire family migrates to Egypt to weather the hard times.

Everyone in this story could frame his experience using visible thinking. The brothers could certainly say, “I used to think that Joseph … but now I think …” And Joseph himself surely saw his actions while in the family house in a different light later on. The brothers’ treatment of Joseph — their threats to kill him, their casting him into the pit and finally their selling him into slavery — was obviously a terrible ordeal for Joseph.

But God is not through with Joseph. More years pass and Joseph’s fortunes again change. It’s now two years into the widespread famine, and Joseph has seen how his dream-interpretation ability saved many lives, all because his troubles put him in the right place at the right time. Then Joseph comes face to face with his brothers, who have come to Egypt to buy food. Once they learn that the man in charge is Joseph, they are afraid he will use his power to get even with them. But Joseph assures them that he wants reconciliation. He tells them his new perspective on the pit experience — and this time, we don’t have to imagine Joseph’s new viewpoint, because the Bible reports it in Genesis 45:5 & 8: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here,” he tells his brothers, “for God sent me before you to preserve life. … So it was not you who sent me here, but God …”

That’s quite a change in Joseph’s thinking. 

As we look at the difficult episodes of our lives, it would be a misunderstanding to say that they only seemed to be bad — or that God made us go through them for our own good. Bad things are really bad, not good. Troubles are real and can leave permanent scars.

But here’s the thing: Like Joseph, we can come to a place where we see that the purposes of God are not thwarted by the evils of other people and pains of existence.

We don’t believe that God makes bad things happen to us so that we will glean some good out of them. But God is a God of redemption and power. God sometimes takes the pain of our lives and says, in effect, “Yes, it was a bad thing, and I didn’t send it on you. But now look what good thing I can make for you and for others out of it.” 

It’s often the case that the meaning God wants us to see from some painful event is not the immediate one, but the meaning that dawns on us later from the perspective of time, the one that comes after we go through the I-used-to-think / but-now-I-think process — perhaps more than once and from different places on our journey.

We can take the tough stuff we’ve gone through and, while not denying the pain of it, say to God, “Here it is. What good can be redeemed from it?” And then, take time to look for the answer. 

What might we need to rethink? 

So picture, the worst of life? Those wounds you’ve held close and nursed along all your life? That ugly comment? Abuse? Harm? The pain you’ve known…Hold it in your hands and ask…what good has God brought from this experience? What good can God bring? How else can I see the experience?

Consider the horrible events in Charlottesville yesterday. What good can God bring? A willingness to differentiate between differing opinions and the presence of evil? An end to sweeping generalizations about other people who are at a different point on the political spectrum? A willingness to speak love to a person in our family or friend circle who seems to be moving toward the fringes, who is being radicalized? Maybe even open arms of love and grace with that neighbor or friend or family member that has been alienated over mere human opinion?

I used to think …but now I think?

I used to think every “republican, democrat, yankee, rebel, black, white, old, young, man, woman was “evil/dumb/unpatriotic/communist/racist/thug/chauvinist…but now I think they are all individuals, beloved by God and worth getting to know and understand as individual people.”

Begin to do this daily with all of the times you feel your soul shaken. When you get really angry. Feel really hurt. Write them down. Then ask yourself, “What was really happening with me?” “Where was God?” “Did I trust God, keep God present, or let the moment chase God from my mind?’ With reflection, we can allow God to work in our lives every day. We can have God present in our routine interactions. Our behaviors and minds will be transformed by Christ…

I used to think Christ was just on Sunday but now I think Christ can transform my every day interactions, experiences, responses.

Praise be to God.


Credit: Visible thinking sermon started from Homiletics.

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