April 15, 2009
But Joseph said to [his brothers], Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done…
Genesis 50:19, 20
Today marks the 144th anniversary of the death of President Lincoln, shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865 at Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre (now a National Historic Site). And while you probably know many facts about the assassination, perhaps you’ve never heard the fascinating tale of one of the drama’s minor characters.
Booth broke a leg in his haste to escape the theatre after shooting the President. Fleeing through the Maryland countryside on this day all those years ago, Booth stopped at the farm of an acquaintance, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the damaged limb.
Eight people were tried and found guilty of conspiring or aiding in the murder, including Dr. Mudd (Booth had been killed in the manhunt). Four of them were hung. Mudd and the others were sent to the military prison at Ft. Jefferson, which today is part of Dry Tortugas National Park.
The conditions there were brutal. Garden Key, the small island on which the fort is situated, is part of a chain of keys surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean as far as the eye can see. In summer, temperatures soar and mosquitoes swarm. Dry Tortugas came by its name because turtles (tortugas, in Spanish) are plentiful—but fresh water isn’t. Life at Ft. Jefferson meant desolation, heat, bugs, hard labor and rationed water.
During Dr. Mudd’s incarceration, a yellow fever epidemic broke out. The staff physician died, so Dr. Mudd took over his duties. In gratitude, three hundred soldiers petitioned President Andrew Johnson to grant Dr. Mudd pardon, writing, “He inspired the hopeless with courage, and by his constant presence in the midst of danger and infection, regardless of his own life, tranquilized the fearful and desponding.”
Their request was granted. Dr. Mudd left the island in March of 1869, and lived his final fourteen years a free man.
When I heard Dr. Mudd’s story during a tour of the park, I thought of Joseph in the Old Testament. He too had hard times: first sold as a slave by his jealous brothers, he fell into a good job, then was jailed under false pretenses. After a long wait, he got out and became second in command in Egypt. The same brothers who betrayed him ended up coming to him for help during a famine. Joseph not only provided for them, but also showed them forgiveness when they feared retribution.
Like Dr. Mudd and Joseph, perhaps you too find yourself in difficult circumstances. Maybe you realize you could have done something differently—in Joseph’s case, Scripture indicates he lorded his status as favorite son over his brothers, fueling their resentment—but the consequences seem too high a price to pay. Or maybe you’re like Dr. Mudd, in misery because of a stupid mistake (historians believe he probably wasn’t part of the original plot, but was guilty of not alerting authorities of Booth’s whereabouts), and now you’re paying dearly, with plenty of time for regret.
Or maybe you’re in trouble through no fault of your own. On her very first day of senior year in high school, proudly driving her new (used) car that she’d had only five days, my daughter was hit by a careless driver, causing nearly $6,000 worth of damage to the car (thankfully, no one was hurt). Unfortunately, Mimi was the one who got the ticket and four points on her license. It took a lawyer, three court appearances and several months before the truth emerged, charges against her were dropped, and the car got repaired.
Three years later, a teenager on her cell phone ran a red light and finished off the car (only scrapes and bruises this time—thank God for air bags!). Now, nearly two years later, Mimi is being sued over this last accident, even though witnesses and both insurance companies agree she was not to blame. Trust me when I say that we’re experiencing a lot of anger, bewilderment and frustration these days.
But Joseph’s words are a message for all who suffer: Don’t despair! God has brought you to this place for a reason. I don’t presume to know what He’s doing in your life—and I sure can’t always figure out what He’s doing in mine—but you and I can be assured that the same One who guided Joseph through his triumphs and trials will see us through as well. In whatever dry and deserted place we find ourselves, God is accomplishing something in us and through us that couldn’t have happened otherwise. We may not understand it and we certainly don’t enjoy the process, but when we grit our teeth and trust Him, we can battle through the fear and hurt and anguish, and emerge victorious.
May it be said of each one of us that because of or in spite of our tough times, like Dr. Mudd, we display courage and extend hope to others. And like Joseph, that we forgive those who harm us, and take heart because we are in God’s place.