Successfully Plan to Fail

A farmer told me once, “Preacher, folks don’t lose their farms because they have a bad year. It’s because they have a good one.”

He happily broke it down, “A farmer will have a good year, so he will take his profits and buy his neighbor’s farm. The next year he will need more equipment and more help, and he will borrow some money. Then he has a couple of an average years followed by a bad year, and he has to borrow more money. Finally he has another bad year, and maybe he’s under.”

“The way I farm is five years at a time. In five years, I will have a good year, but I cannot say about the rest. That’s what I have, a good year and a lot of I-don’t-know-years.”

“You understand, Preacher?”

I thanked him for giving me a sermon illustration for the seven lean and seven fat years of the Joseph story.

Our successes and failures are illusory—one of Wayne Eliot’s favorite words—a smart business man whom I served as pastor. Every bar graph I have seen moves up and moves down, just as every pulse I have felt rises and falls. To me this means I have what I have for five, ten, or fourteen years or more of a pulse, of a rising and a falling.

The further I extend this thinking out, the better I understand birth to death, the first rise to the last fall. I am not only who I am now, but who I have been and who I will be, all the rises and all the falls. That is who I am, a pulse.

“I bet you were a good preacher,” said Jay Thomas, a friend of mine from the Fayetteville Farmer’s Market.

“It depends on who you talk to,.” I replied. “And they are all right.”

He responded with a knowing nod of his head. I can’t run from the past. It will catch me. I will be passed. I will be the past. There is no point denying the future either and its inevitabilities.

I should figure them up the way my insurance company does. I will be wiser and more profitable.

That’s how Joseph saved Egypt and his family in a time of famine, how he saved Israel, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the past, and how he saved the future Israel, the descendants. Joseph, the sheltered son in the fancy coat, who played at home while his brothers worked. He who went out to the fields, spied on his siblings and tattled on them. Justifiably, they were mad at him (as I would be) and threw him down a hole, and later sold him as a slave (perhaps, going further than I would). Joseph who went to prison and who went from prison to a palace; this man understood how illusory our present successes and failures can be. He knew it was best to make a plan that includes both, lest our successes be as much our undoing as our failures.

Joseph understood the fullness of time and could change bad dreams into good advice. Those were remarkable talents. Perhaps even more remarkable was that Joseph so freely shared them with others: with strangers, the Egyptians who abused and then rewarded him, and with his family who once nurtured him and then sold him to strangers.

They all become one in the pulse of our living, brothers and enemies, good years and bad. Sage Joseph knew this so he knew to plan ahead for good and bad behavior in weather and people. He knew that bigotry against others, even enemies, is bad business, and that mercy satisfies more than settling an old score.

Joseph’s talents were not possessions to be horded or wasted, but rather gifts to be shared with others. Through his generosity the past and the future were miraculously changed so that what might had been meant for evil was turned to good, and a grim future was made bright again with the promises of old.

Our gifts are never ours, at least not for long. The Spirit rains them down upon us during the good years of planting and harvest. The storehouse of our grain is from God and is for the earth, the whole earth, to which it will return.

The Rev. Cooper is a retired elder in the Arkansas Conference. Email: