The Man for the Dream.
Joseph is a popular Old Testament hero. He had a technicolor coat, looked vaguely like Donnie Osmond, and seemed to find himself in shackles a lot. His story ends with him COOing one of the largest empires the ancient world ever saw in Egypt… a right hand man, long before Hamilton did so for Washington. (There are so many Broadway references here, it’s almost ridiculous.) At any rate, I suspect one of the reason’s Joseph, son of Israel, is a favorite character is because he appears to hold out one of our culture’s highest attributes: dreamer.
It would have, in a different age, been disparaging to call someone a dreamer, but not today. Today a person’s dream is the thing about them we are to love the most. We are to endear ourselves to the thing that gives them great feeling, aspire to their aspiration. A dream is a way to “feel good about yourself,” as if positive self-feeling were the highest aim to be achieved. Whether or not this worldview is useful is not to be decided here, but what I can say without reservation is that Joseph was no dreamer.
The only time the word is used, it is used as a derogatory by his brothers who wish to point out how full of himself the young teen is. Joseph’s REM sleep was filled with visions of his family bowing down to him. Probably not something you would want to say out loud. And when he did, his brother’s made him pay. Or more accurate, made Midianites pay… as they sold him into slavery.
Slavery turns to servitude turns to success turns to scandal turns to imprisonment and then… more dreams. Turns out it is not so much Joseph’s ability to have dreams as his ability to give MEANING to them which makes him remarkable. It is Joseph’s ability to stand within in the empty days of unfulfilled dreams and give meaning and purpose to the dreams he hears from others. He turns Potiphar’s dream of a thriving household without a personal care into a reality (minus the conniving wife). He interprets the dreams of cupbearers, bakers and kings without regard to consequence. He doesn’t hold back in telling them what their dreams will cost them and what it will take for the dreams to come true. He is not interested in making sure the soon-to-be-dead baker “feels good about himself.”
Turns out, the real reason why Joseph is such a catalytic figure in Bible-story lore is not because his is a story of a man finding his dream.
Rather, his is a story of a dream finding its man.
The story begins with the unwanted visual of a subservient family when all Joseph really wanted was to fit in and be one of the guys. This is an unsolicited aspiration. The story ends with abundance, land, and liberty being bestowed on those same brothers by Joseph’s hand. How was it that Joseph became the kind of man who could carry the weight of such a vision? Well, the story makes it clear.
Temptation to folly.
Joseph faced hurdle after hurdle. You could say that all along he was the man worthy of these challenges, simply time-after-time showing the integrity of his heart, but this—I think—idealizes the tale and the man within it. More likely, it is the challenges, each rising in escalation, that stretches the soul of a young man who once hung his hat on being the future altar to his brothers’ worship. The avarice of the dream had to be wrung out of him by redemptive time… a string of fortunate misfortunes which allowed him to (with increasing risk) to decide what kind of man he was to become.
If Joseph was to be trusted with Egypt’s fortunes, if Joseph could be counted on to treat his brothers with generosity rather than retributive justice, if Joseph was to finish his race upholding the value of self-emptying love rather than acquisitive manipulation… his heart had to be formed by struggle, courage, loss and redemption. In short, Joseph had to learn first-hand the transformational journey, so that he could reach the moment of his dream’s aspirations and be the man who could successfully live inside it.
I find in so many conversations in our day that folks have this twisted. They feel as if they only had something important to aspire to, some great impact they could make on the world, then they might become someone. I see this stretching from aspirational millennials to down-trodden baby-boomers. They lament the wrong question:
“What great thing will I do with my life?”
This, is a question with only answers in the rear view. It is not a dream which draws you to greatness. Don’t trust the advice of athletes and celebrities who reach their peak at 28-years-old and have the rest of their days to be let down by the mundanity. The questions we ask of ourselves determine the answers we get so it behooves us to seek out BETTER QUESTIONS. The question ought to be:
“How will I become the person worthy of a great life?”
How will I handle disappointment? Rejection? Confusion? Lostness? Failure and Strife?
I remember going through one of the most difficult seasons of my life after my “big dream” failed at the end of my 20s. It was the thing I was convinced I was put on the planet to do, and it laid in ruins around me. I was working with a skilled counselor at the time and spending much of my waking days in uncontainable tears.
In one of these bouts of grief, I said to her, “I don’t know where I go from here, but I do know this: I don’t want to waste this pain.” I wanted to squeeze the bone marrow out of the dry bones of my now-dead dream. I knew that the loss of this thing would mark me forever, and in the losing I knew I had a chance to find my way to something new.
I won’t glamorize the story. I went through nearly ten years of confusion, emotional disorientation, and additional substantial losses before the loose strands of life started to feel like they were weaving themselves back together again. And yet, I can say in retrospect the decision I made to steward the pain God had given me as best as I could was one of the best I ever made. I wanted to feel it all, pour out all the lostness identified with it and find the bottom of the barrel. Because I knew that it is only in the full emptying of our bucket, that we see God at the bottom. If we leave ourselves half-full we will always wonder… if I lose it all, will I end up alone?
Joseph was a man who lost it all more than once. You can imagine him living a well-heeled life, as the steward of Potiphar’s house, thinking: this must have been what I dreamt about all those years ago. I am an important man, more important than I ever could have imagined.
But he was not yet the man for his dream. There would be imprisonment, fear, great risk and further losses yet to come before the sun and moon and eleven stars would come to bow. He had further stretching and emptying to do, before he could be fully-filled for the mandate of his existence.
I have been dreaming some new dreams lately. Some THIRTYSIXWORDS dreams. I don’t know what will come of them, and in many ways—given my past history—to even speak them to life feels like an invitation to trauma. And yet I must remember that for all of Joseph’s troubles, he still started by speaking his dream.
But speaking is not enough. I have been praying. Praying mostly that God would make me the man worthy of my dream. That God would use the years and decades to come (whatever they may be) to build in me that which is necessary to carry all that I could become. I wish to not just be one more man with a dream. But to be the man for the dream. The man who through the fire has been forged to carry it to fruition.
I hope you will too. Dream big (of course). But then do the unthinkable, surrender. Let God know that you would rather the dream stay in the flight of imagination than to come to you before you are ready. Ask God to make you the woman, the man for your dream. So that, in the interim, we may be people of character who can come along side each other, tell the stories of our REM sleep, and bring meaning to the days in between. As Joseph did. We will spend the majority of our days not in fulfillment of our aspirations but in the hours and years where they are far from view. It is in the in-between where the meaning of the story finds its home in us. We cannot find what the dream means until we discover the meaning of our days without it.