He makes me lie down…

March 16, 2011

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

He makes me lie down… That’s first action of God in this psalm. Leading us into the posture of rest. And the Hebrew for “still waters” is waters of rest. Nice.

We have a way of rushing, us humans. So much so that I’ve never paid much attention to this wonderful and early verse of psalm 23. But there it is. Before he restores my soul he leads me into a lush, abundant place of rest.

Do you ever rest? Really rest? If you don’t count sleep, how hard does He have to try to make you to lie down?

Less is more this Lent.

March 12, 2011

“These are indeed the outskirts of His ways; and how small a whisper do we hear of Him!”

Job 26:14

Dear reader, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted for rather a long time. Tiredness and then other spiritual pursuits were the reasons at first, but now I find myself uninspired to start up again.

It is Lent, and that’s important to me. It’s the season that prepares me for rejoicing in the wonder and hope of the resurrection. I try to take it seriously. It is a time to turn back to God before we contemplate that greatest love of all (and not the Whitney Houston version).

And this year I feel I need to do less jibber-jabbering and more listening. I need to reduce my wordiness so that I may hear God’s whisper (see quotation above).

So blogging as usual doesn’t seem very appropriate. Nor does attempting to read 3 psalms or 6 chapters of Jeremiah in one sitting. This blog has kept me a bit too much in my head and I’d rather be focussing on my heart.

So instead of following ‘the plan’ I’ll be meditating on very short passages of scripture (probably the same one over a matter of days, whichever I feel moved to choose) using the lectio divina prayer technique. If it’s appropriate, I might share a few sentences of what I’ve reflected on with you here.

I’ll also be praying the examen (a prayer that helps us review the day with God) at night time, but that one’s between me and God. I’m not a reveal-all-on-the-internet kind of a girl.

What are you doing/not doing for Lent? I suppose some of you don’t pay much attention to the liturgical seasons, but I find the more I invest in them the more they help me shape my life around God.

Fasting or feasting, may the Lord be with you.

Meek Expectations.

February 23, 2011

Dear reader, I have made a discovery! I have always thought of ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ as a very New Testament saying, but guess what? It’s in the Old Testament! Psalm 37:8-11 reads:

8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
   Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
   but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
   though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
   and delight in abundant prosperity.

Who knew? Well, maybe you did, but I didn’t and I’ve enjoyed discovering it.

I’ve always found that phrase, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ (or the land) a bit tricky. What does it mean? I mean, the meek couldn’t exactly rise up and take the earth by force because then, well, they wouldn’t be meek! In fact, Eddie Izzard puts it a lot better than me (if you don’t like swearing, sorry!):

haha… now where were we…or yes the meek shall inherit the land. You see the thing Eddie isn’t really getting is that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, loves a bit of paradox. It likes to make you go, huh? The Beatitudes are all like that, turning things on their head. The poor get a kingdom? That doesn’t sound right! And here is Psalm 37 too we’re being reminded that all is not as it seems. We’re told don’t worry about the wicked, yes they look they’re in control and triumphant but, you know what? When all’s said and done they’re not (watch our David Cameron!). And it’s the meek that will inherit the land. An unexpected outcome, no? Because God is not subject to the ways of the world. Oh no siree!

And today, for a change, all of the psalms I’ve read (36-38) speak to each other on this point. Psalm 36 begins with a criticism of ‘the wicked’ but then contrasts this with the ‘steadfast love’ of God saying “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings”. Here even those called ‘wicked’ have a chance; an unexpected outcome again. (and if you, like me, find ‘the wicked’ a difficult term then perhaps think of them who have turned from God for the time being, rather a group who you have a right to judge). Psalm 38 is an appeal to God from one who is facing his own brokeness and sin and seeing that enemies are lining up to rub his nose in it, but who turns to God even in his iniquity, trusting that he won’t be forsaken, whatever his circumstances now. So even when things look rubbish, God can still be trusted, another idea to induce a ‘huh’?

The blessing of the meek and the declaration of hope in God whatever the circumstance is a call to vision beyond our sight.

Can we really believe in a world that different? Jesus did… Oh us of little faith.

 

Photo from flickr.

Um, okay…

February 21, 2011

Dear reader, it’s been a while. Have you missed me? Well, okay, I suppose 6 days isn’t really that long, but since this was originally a daily blog it feels like an awfully long time to me.

I’ve been very tired recently and am determined not to make blogging another stick to beat myself with, so I gave myself a little break. It may also have been to do with the incredibly low level of inspiration I’ve got from 1 Samuel 11-15, in which we learn about the misguided as short-lived reign of Israel’s first king; Saul. The dominant thought that arises while reading this rip-roaring war-fest is ‘seriously, this guy?’.

God anoints Israel’s first king and, well, he’s not very good! Perhaps this is because God didn’t want Israel to have a king. As I wrote in my last post on this book, it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. But then we’re used to flawed protagonists in the Bible, aren’t we? I mean apart Joseph, Daniel, Mary and Ruth I can’t think of many irreproachable characters, can you? (yes, Jesus too, obviously!).

The bit that really gets me, then, is not any of Saul’s rashness, but what appear’s to be God’s! In Chapter 15 Samuel tells Saul that the Lord has ordered him:

Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

Um, okay.

So what does Saul do? He kills everyone, adults and children alike, but spares the King takes the good cattle for his troops and to sacrifice to God. And for this heinous crime he’s told that that’s the end of his anointed kingship.

Um, okay.

Any one else find it difficult to believe that God ordered the killing of entire people? I mean, as the kids say, WTF? (excuse my implied language).

And I’m afraid I don’t have a snappy wrap-up or turn-around. I feel I need to read more about these stories to understand them better but as it stands I find this section of the Bible hard to get fired up about, at least fired up in a good way. But I needed to write something, just to get back on the bloggin wagon, I knew it wouldn’t be pretty, but here it is.

I wanted to be honest about that with you guys, because this is a blog about experience, not insight. And right now I’m finding it hard, perhaps you find some of the Bible hard too; that’s okay. But it that could all change tomorrow. Bring on the psalms.

A grudgeless God.

February 15, 2011

Dear reader, today I read Genesis 48-50. I guess, on finishing this rather long book I should feel a sense of satisfaction, perhaps even closure. But instead I feel a bit…hmm… Yes, like that.

This is because, dear reader, I just don’t know what write about. There is some nice heart-warming family time between Jacob and Joseph in chapter 48, Jacob’s ‘blessings’ on all this sons (most of which read more like admonitions!) in chapter 49 and then a sort of ‘wrapping in all up’ bit in chapter 50. I enjoyed reading but nothing jumped out at me.

So, what to do when you don’t what to write? Read!

I read commentaries and sermons on this passage and I found out something very interesting. In 50:15, following Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers say ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ A justified fear, seeing as they left him in a pit to die and have been living from his provision since their reunion.

But the ‘what if’ that we read in English translations is not ‘what if’ at all in the Hebrew; it is the word lu. In all other translations in scripture lu  becomes ‘if only’ or ‘would that’. But here it can’t be that can it? Then the translation would be ‘if only Joseph still bears a grudge against us…’ Why would the brothers desire Joseph’s wrath?

Well, two reflections (well worth a read; here and here) that I read suggested that in some way the brothers may well have wanted this. They desired to be punished and so have their guilt assuaged. Joseph offers them forgiveness, but this is a difficult thing to accept. 

I really recognise this symptom of guilt, don’t you? This feeling that we deserve retribution, that somehow it would be easier to take that than to fully accept we are forgiven. How hard it is to really accept forgiveness? To see that the past is forgotten, redeemed, washed clean.

This Sunday morning I was standing in church waiting to take communion and I was thinking about what that sacrament meant to me. They sermon had been on Matthew 5:21-26, all about being reconciled with one another before we approach God. And I had been thinking about a certain relationship in which I struggle with feelings on anger.

As the bread and wine came around it struck me that communion didn’t fix me, but it reminded me that I was forgiven. Jesus came so that we might be free from sin; and that freedom only comes if we are forgiven by God. And we can only fully live our freedom if we are aware of God’s forgiveness.

A difficult thing to really accept at the core of our beings; isn’t it? But it is a truth. And for a fleeting moment on Sunday morning I felt it, I felt the freedom of knowing that was nothing hanging over me, no list compiled to be read out at the end of time. There were no grudges being held in heaven.

Aaaah, what a relief!

A Valentine’s Verse.

February 13, 2011

love builds up

 Dear reader, today’s post is very short and, I hope, a little sweet. As you know, it’s valentines day tomorrow and so how apt that I should be reading Paul’s advice on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. However, I must admit, it’s not very romantic!

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ 2But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. (7:1-3)

I can’t imagine any one having that read at their wedding! Now, of course, it’s taken out of context. Paul was actually encouraging the Corinthians, who’d convinced themselves to give up marriage, that the union was good in the eyes of God, that it was fine for them to be married. Though he, believing that Jesus would come again in his lifetime, erred on the side of caution advising those who weren’t married to stay that way.

No, you’ll not find much romance from this chapter of Paul. But don’t despair, I have a found us a verse about love, one to keep in hearts (our real hearts that is, not over-priced chocolate covered or stuffed velvet ones!). And I have found it in the less likely chapter 8, which is all about whether or not the Corinthians should eat food offered to idols. Nestled in the very specific advice, which can feel irrelevant to us now, is this wonderful phrase:

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (8:1b)

Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to act from a place of love, rather than one of superior knowledge, and so he says Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (8:2-3). He asks them to act from a place of humility.

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” I know in my own marriage this is a verse to remember. When we think we’re in the right, when we think the other person simply doesn’t understand; will I act from my ‘knowledge’ or in love (which is always God’s love)?

May tomorrow not be about cards and chocolates and flowers, which will fade so soon (and cost so much!!) but instead may it be about building each other up with a hundred little blessings; making a home of love.

Amen.

 

P.S. Just to prove I’m not blogging in a vacuum; how about Egypt huh?

Seeds of change…

February 12, 2011

 

Today’s chunk of Bible is the fabulous Mark 3-4. The gospels are fan-flipping-tastic aren’t they? I could write an extended post about each passage but, don’t worry, I won’t. I’ll pick a theme. And today’s theme is…seeds. That’s right; seeds!

Yes, in chapter 4 Jesus tells no less than three parables that mention seeds, and in each the seeds either represent the word of God or the kingdom of God. I’ve been struck by this seed-fest before. I mean, you’ve gotta admit JC liked the seeds. Whilst cycling home tonight I was thinking ‘what is it about seeds?’ I began listing in my head the different qualities of seeds; what are they like? As I did this I realised the many amazing and apt qualities of seeds. Unsurprisingly, Jesus chose his metaphors well. 

So here are a few observations about seeds and, perhaps, about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is like a seed (4:31). What are seeds like?

   They have a lot of potential.

          They need to be nurtured and nourished.

         We think they’re predictable, but we’re often surprised.

     They feed us.

         They are a renewable resource.

                They are natural.

                        They’re small and unassuming…at first.

                                  They are often self-propagating.

                                       We can plant them.

                         They need the right conditions but…

                  Sometimes they germinate despite of, not because of us.

                        In the cold and dark times they hide just beneath the surface;

                             They are patient.

Eventually, they bear fruit.

                                                           Amen.

 

Today’s photo on flickr.

The answer.

February 10, 2011

Dear reader, a short but efficient post today, 2 for the price of 1 no less!

Yesterday I read Job 23-24. Basically, Job has a good old rant at God, whom he feels deserted by and at the world’s injustices. It’s a very good rant, the kind of rant where you find yourself thinking, ‘yeh!’ as you read. Oh yes, I can really get on board with Job’s outrage and indignation. The fact that there are people making clothes for the West who can’t afford clothes for their children, or picking crops who can barely feed their families seems very close to Job’s complaints in 24:10-12.

Funnily enough, I didn’t consider writing a post that just said ‘yeh!’ Maybe I should have. I was tired and not feeling so well so I thought I’d wait until today, read Isaiah 61-66 and try to write about them both. Afterall, last week’s posts on these books fed into each other quite well.

Well, dear reader, I get the feeling that if I wasn’t still feeling slightly off-key (and also cooking a meal for 15 students) tonight, I may very well be able to come up with a creative and insightful posts synthesising these two passages. As it is I’m struggling.

But there is a grain, a little seed of something that I’ll share with you.

The passage in Job questions why there is oppression, why there is hunger and deprivation and why those who oppress and steal seem to be rewarded in their earthly lives. The passage in Isaiah begins with these famous words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

These words speak of a God who won’t stand for the very injustices that Job rants against. And these are the words that are read by Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth at the very beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-21). When he had read these words he said “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

So, perhaps, there are no answers to Job’s rants, no adequate ones any way. None that tie everything up and sort anything out.

Except Jesus.

Not that Jesus sorted out the world, so that there’s no oppression or hunger, if only that were true. But that he has come to set us free from this world. He has died and rose again so that all, no matter what their earthly state, might live fully and eternally.

This seems so simple that I find myself wanting to qualify it with lots of disclaimers like “this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for a better world” and “I’m not suggesting that we should say to people who are deep in suffering “cheer up, Jesus died for you!””.

But I’ll try to ignore those impulses leave it at this: Jesus came. And just as Job knew, somehow, mysteriously, in the depths of darkness, that his redeemer lived, just as he trusted in a final, unending justice (23:10), so can we in Christ Jesus. In him there is freedom.

Amen.

Pursuing Peace…

February 8, 2011

Leader: Go in peace, to love and to serve;

All: We will seek  peace and pursue it.

 

Dear reader, I must confess, I don’t pray every morning. Not formally at least. My mind almost always moves towards God, always greets Him, but I don’t always make time to sit down with Him.

But this morning I did sit down, and I decided to use the morning service from the Iona Community to structure my prayer. I don’t do this often, but when I do there is a richness that comes. The response above is taken from the ending of the service, and this morning these were the words that stayed with me. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that by some graceful synchronicity these words are taken from Psalm 34 (part of today’s Bible dose):

11 Come, O children, listen to me;
   I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 Which of you desires life,
   and covets many days to enjoy good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil,
   and your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Depart from evil, and do good;
   seek peace, and pursue it.

Seek peace, and pursue it. Pursue it. I don’t know about you but pursuing is not a verb I associate with peace. In my mind it seems almost predatory. Thinking about this made me realise that I have been thinking of peace as rather a passive thing. A gentle thing. A quiet thing. But can peace also be dynamic, can it be loud and lyrical? Maybe.

I really like this quotation from Baruch Spinoza, a 17th Century Dutch Jewish theologian;

Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.

How interesting. Peace, then, isn’t something that simply arises when conflict stops (I found a great blog post on this subject) but it us a quality, a state to be cultivated and sought after. To be pursued.

But what does that look like?

Well, it must, on one level, mean us as a community speaking truth to power, as the prophets did before us. It must mean crying out against injustice and violence. It must mean speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves.

But it’s not just about breaking down, it’s about building up. It must be about the creation of something new, and this creation surely starts closer to home.

In my church every Sunday morning, as in many churches across the world, the middle of our service is punctuated by ‘the peace’. We stand up and offer each other our hands saying “peace be with you”. Some people even look me in the eye as they say it (in England too, this is quite a rarity). It’s a wonderful moment and I’ve never really thought about it until now, but it really forms the centre of our service; the bridge between the unfolding of the Word and sharing of communion. In the middle of our worship we stop to wish each other peace. Do we know what we’re wishing for?

This act is an important one, its power is not to be dismissed. But I wonder in what others ways we pursue peace as a community? Is it really on our radar?

And there is a peace even closer than this. Closer than the community and even the most intimate relationship. It is the peace within. In John 14:27 Jesus tells his disciples at the last supper “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” We are given peace by God himself; how many of us receive it?

We don’t live in a world of peace, not on any level. I learnt this weekend (at the SCM Still Small Voice conference) that globally there have been less than 30 minutes of peace since the outbreak of World War Two. 30 minutes.

On a community level our egos and our precious ideas make it hard for us to really hear each other, however hard we try. And individually which one of us does not wish for a quieter mind? That we could switch of the voices of criticism that sometimes swarm around us?

It occurred to me today that without peace, there can be not freedom. It seems to me that this works on all levels; material, communal, emotional, spiritual. Without a clarity, a strength of stillness, how can we be free? While there is still violence, internal or external, how can we be free?

Peace is not easy. That’s why it must be pursued. But perhaps not to pursue it is, ultimately, harder work.

Today I read Psalms 33-35.

 

Thanks for AuntieP on flickr for the beautiful photo.

‘Because there is no other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.’

A response taken from the Anglican liturgy of Evensong.

 

Today I read 1 Samuel 6-10. I’ve always been fascinated with what happens in chapter 8, it seems to be a hinge on which Israel’s future turns.

War torn Israel asks Samuel for a king. God has given them tribes and judges, a more diffuse, perhaps even more democratic (in the wider sense of the word) set up, but they want a king “like other nations.”

It is quite clear from this telling of the story that in asking for this they are rejecting, whether consciously or not, God’s kingship over them (8:7-8). Why?

Reading the chapters preceding, it is quite perplexing. The Philistines had victory against the Israelites, yes, but when they stole the arc of the covenant their luck certainly changed (1 Samuel 4-5). In chapter 7 we are told that God “thundered with a mighty voice” against the Philistines and Israel’s land was recaptured; that’s pretty decent stuff (kind of). But then I noticed that just before this victory they had asked Samuel to ‘cry out’ ceaselessly for them. Is it, then, that they trust not in God’s deliverance but in Samuel’s prayer?

Perhaps they can’t quite trust what they don’t see. Perhaps they think they need an intercessor, that there is no way to follow God without following man (and we ain’t talking ‘full God, fully man’ here; just man).

At first I thought  this choice was all about not trusting themselves to hear God, to be guided by God. While I think that’s part of it I think there’s something else going on. They want a ruler, they want someone to tell them what to do. Why? Perhaps because they don’t trust each other to be guided by God.

As well as a rejection of God, I see this choice as a rejection of community. In the systems of clans and judges there is room for debate, for consensus perhaps; but with that room comes messiness and effort. It is, I think, the harder route.

When you try to live in community, when no one person is ‘in charge’, then you have to be open to listening to others and to questioning yourself. You can’t just follow the rules, you have to engage with them, test them, even challenge them, or their interpretation. You have to be willing to change.

When someone is telling you what to do from on high you don’t need to wonder if it’s right or wrong, you don’t need to inquire into yourself; you’re just following orders.

In this, latter, model there is no personal responsibility. There is no group ownership of faith. Is there really what you could call a faith community?

From my impression, the early Christians seemed to embrace community living (Acts 2:43-47). There are natural leaders, apostles, of course, there are different roles within community, but there is still engagement of all. This is key for me. And I worry, sometimes, that many just go to church and listen to a sermon and believe it, rather than engage with it. The more I read the Bible, the more sure I am that there could ever be one person who ‘has all the answers, but I’d still love there to be. I still look for a teacher other than Jesus (Matthew 23:8).

There is a telling verse near the end of chapter 8. The Israelites hope that “our king may govern us and may go out before us and fight our battles.” I think they were afraid of the almighty, unpredictable force that has been going out before them. They want something they can pin down, someone they can hear physically, not something they have to stop and listen to ‘in their hearts’.  I think that they would rather just have a nice predictable human who they can see and touch; they think it will be easier to obey him. That once they have the right leader then everything will be sorted; life will be easier. They look to another, rather than within themselves.

Enter Saul… but that’s a whole other post.