Wouldn’t it be great if there was a reduced Bible company? You know, like the Reduced Shakespeare Company, but performing shortened and hilarious versions of books of the Bible? It was this thought that led me to today’s experiment (not on Psalms, that’s tomorrow; I was getting a little ahead of myself) on 1 Samuel 1-5.

After all, this is a busy world, who has time to read actual scripture? What we all need is nice little summary, someone else can put in the hours. In fact, perhaps this is where I can make my fortune: the condensed Bible! I’ll call it ‘the Bible lite’, or the electronic version; the i-ble.

Actually, I think it already exists, and it’s a rubbish idea. If you shorten it you take out the poetry and probably a lot of the prophecy, just keep the stuff in that makes ‘the story’ flow. I bet a lot of the women’s stories get axed as a consequence! So, don’t take this too seriously (as opposed to all other posts, which are gravely serious), but here’s my reduced 1 Samuel 1-5, for your enjoyment:

Chapter 1: Hannah wants a child she prays to God and gets one; enter Samuel future Nazarite.

Chapter 2: Hannah sings; Eli’s (the high priest) sons are naughty; God gets angry; Samuel grows.

Chapter 3: Samuel hears voices and it turns out it’s God; phew! But God’s going to kill Eli’s entire family; not so phew!

Chapter 4: Israel goes to war, the ark of the covenant is captured, Eli and his son’s die (big surprise) but their daughter in law gives birth; every cloud has a silver lining?

Chapter 5: The Philistines have the ark, but discover it comes with a large helping of terror and tumours. After passing it around to various unwilling cities, they soon decide it’s not worth the trouble.

So there you go, that’s it in a nutshell, no need to read it yourself now, if there? Well, okay, it doesn’t quite capture the feel of the whole text…

This was an interesting experiment. It feels a bit like a task out a textbook in school ‘read the first five chapters and then briefly summarise…’ It was amusing, and I’m all for Bible reading being fun but it felt a bit mechanical and that’s not really what reading the Bible is about is it? This exercise shows me that just knowing what it says isn’t enough. The feeling I got with this experiment in contrast to the one in my (very long) last post, where I wrote the whole thing out as a story, is markedly different. I feel sort of flippant about the first five chapters of Samuel, whereas I felt so emotionally engaged with the story of Joseph. So it’s not enough just to read, or just to regurgitate. The reading requires something of you, asks you to invest and to empathise.

Today’s experiment seems to have kept these stories distant and their protagonists imaginary. Perhaps a better way to do something like this would be to give each actor a sentence to say. Hannah’s might be “I have made a blessing into a sacrifice and so I have been more blessed” (see 2:18-21), or Samuel might say “How is it that I hear God? Who am I and what does he want with me?” Instantly I feel more engaged and I hear God speaking through these lives.

The Bible is a book about people. What an obvious thing to say, yet it seems to me like a revelation. It is a book, of course, about God, but all is expressed through the words, the lives, the experiences of people. It shows a glimpse of the Almighty, but it also shows us the breadth of humanity. And I, in my humanity, am discovering a new way to be with the Bible. There are so many voices in these texts, waiting to be heard. Perhaps this has a wider meaning.

We wait for the voice of God to speak to us like he does to Samuel; loud and clear and from the sky. But perhaps he is always speaking to us through the lives and voices of others, just as these lives written down in the Bible speak to us. Perhaps if we paid attention, we’d hear him everywhere…

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Alive. (Matthew 26-28)

January 15, 2011

I’m feeling a bit flummoxed with this post. I’ve just read Matthew 26-28, which contains the entire passion, anointing at Bethany through to Resurrection, and what do you say about that really? Except, wow, that’s all pretty amazing!

Or perhaps that’s not my problem at all, perhaps it’s that I’m not amazed enough. I’ve heard these stories probably more than any others in the Bible, they are familiar to many, whether Christian of not. In fact, I must admit, it occured to me that I could probably write something about this passage without actually having to read it. But then I reminded myself why I’m doing this blog!

So how do we engage with something so familiar? I suppose a good place to start is to imagine that you don’t already know the story, that you are there as it unfolds, with its incomprehensible highs and lows. To put yourself in the place of the women who stayed to the end, who saw Jesus, their beloved Messiah, die next to petty criminals (27-55-56). Or those men who had given up everything for Jesus, only to see him taken away by an armed crowd and told by their teacher not to even try to resist (26:51-54).

We emphasise Good Friday and Easter Sunday in our liturgies and celebration, but when I think about these people it is often the day inbetween that I wonder about. There is a gaping silence in the gospels when it comes to this day. We are told that Jesus is buried and that an armed guard is placed around his tomb (27:57-66), but there is nothing about this disciples; what they did or how they felt. There must have been fear; would they be next? There must also have been despair at the death of their Jesus, for surely, even with his opaque references to resurrection, they would not have held out much hope. After all, we are told by Matthew that when the disciples met the resurrected Jesus in Galilee still some of them doubted (28:17).

I remember one Easter Saturday doing Ignatian imagination meditation on this story. I imagined I was one of the women at the cross, who had then attended his burial, as Matthew tells us the two Marys did (27:61). Perhaps they helped to prepare the body. This left no doubt that he was dead. In this meditation I felt myself lie down in bed, utterly desolate. He was gone; this great redeemer, the man on which my hope was pinned, had died, just like any other man, worse.  I remember feeling that I too had died with him.

I have wondered why it was the women who stayed at the cross. Perhaps his male disciples had been known publicly and it was not safe to show themselves. But surely it also that the women, especially those like Mary Magdalene who were not also following their sons, needed to cling to their hope until the last. What would they do if he was gone? They were single women, what was there for them to go back to? Perhaps some of them had left lives they did not wish to return to, for others they could not. Jesus had treated them in ways they would not have dreamed, how would they go back to before?

When I think of these people, then I see how amazing this story is. Chapter 28 has life again as I imagine the two Mary’s, who were there at every stage, seeing that their redeemer lives. There was still a kernel of hope they had not allowed themselves to notice in the darkness of grief, and now it comes alive in them, as they are given the honour of being the first to preach the Good News. He lives. He lives.

I often feel that we see the resurrection as the ‘the bit after the crucifixion’ in the Church. Sure, we mention it often enough, but do we remember it? Do we feel it? Are we sufficiently amazed by it?

 Matthew’s gospel ends wonderfully, with words from Jesus’ lips; “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is the resurrection. This is the Good News, surely. Of course the cross is central to our, certainly to my, beliefs, but it is nothing without what comes after.

It life, vitality, dynamism with which this gospel ends.

So may you be given hope where there none. So may you be given life where there was death. So may you know that he is with you always, to the end of the age.

A great set of Psalms today! 29 is pretty awesome, or at least it communicates God’s awesomeness very well. The NRSV entitles it “The Voice of God in a Great Storm.” Pretty big stuff. I shall, however, pretty much just write about the penultimate verse of Psalm 27, because it’s the one that’s going around in my head. This may be partly due to the fact that I know a Taize song that uses its words, but also because these words are gloriously hopeful.

 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
 in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)

Other versions replace “I believe” with “I remain confident in this” (NIV) and “I’m sure” (The Message). The Taize song I love also uses ‘sure’. I like that.

The whole of Psalm 27 oozes confidence in God’s protection, love and justice. But this verse in particular has is something of such promise of it. When I have sung the song before I have almost thought of ‘the land of the living’ to mean the afterlife, but aren;t we in the land of the living?

Today I read these Psalms in the park I live near. The sun was setting on the frozen lake, families were walking and talking together. And this verse just seemed so perfect. Yes, I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. I shall see his Grace and creativity and mercy here, now. Not in only some promised land, but in this tarnished world.

For those of you who don’t know Taize (get to know!), I wanted to share the song with you. There are a few youtube videos of it being sung in the taize commnity, but none are as joyous as the one below, which was filmed on the underground in Belgium! I see the goodness of God in this video, in the smiles and the “alleluia” shouted on this busy tube on this busy day. May you see it too, in this land of the living.

The Ideal Woman? (Ruth)

January 8, 2011

Guess what dear reader? I read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting! Okay, so it was the book of Ruth, which means in my tiny-tiny-small-print Bible only two and a half pages, but still I feel a certain sense of achievement.

I’ve noticed in the past few years that people really love this book. It is not unusual to hear ‘ooh I love Ruth!’, whereas ‘oh I love Joshua’ doesn’t crop up quite as much. Of course there is the wonderful and often quoted declaration “Where you go, I will go/ where you lodge, I will lodge / your people shall be my people / and your God my God.” (1:16) More famous than the story perhaps, and a popular choice for weddings, apparently. I find that rather odd, as it’s said by one widow to another. Good sentiment though.

And I am of rather the same disposition as the Ruth-lovers. I like the book of Ruth, perhaps instinctively because it is one of the only two books of the Bible named after a woman.

Oh yes, I have been a feminist much longer than I’ve been a Christian; I wasn’t baptised until I was 23, but at the age of 2 I refused to build an ‘snow-man’, it had to be a ‘snow-girl’. We’ll have gender equality in my front garden, thank you very much!

But when I read the book this time, thoughts that have only niggled before seemed to bubble to the service. They centre around the role of Ruth in the story. It starts out very promisingly, with her beautiful speech promising loyalty to her mother-in-law and the God of Israel, even if it means living in poverty. This passage (1:15-18) paints a picture of Ruth a determined, strong and fiercely loyal woman, but when they get back to Bethlehem the picture changes. Ruth’s words after this point are almost entirely expressions of obedience and gratitude, or requests. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but it’s part of a wider narrative in which Ruth seems to lose her dynamism. It is Naomi who orchestrates the situation; who sends her to glean and later to lay at Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor (a possible euphemism apparently!). And it is Boaz, of course, who arranges the marriage. In fact, he gets Ruth as part of a package deal; he buy’s her late father-in-law’s land and also ‘acquires’ her as he puts it (4:9-10).

Of course, this is a cynical reading of the text. Boaz is obviously a generous and affectionate man, we see this in his dealings with Ruth when she gleans in his fields (chapter 2). So much so, in fact, that one of my favourite charities the Boaz Trust, who serve destitute asylum seekers in Manchester, have made him a model for welcoming the stranger. Which, of course, Ruth was as a Moabite woman. Many Israelites would have shunned her for this reason.

I suppose my problem isn’t with the treatment of Ruth, but with the presentation of her as a role model for women. After chapter 1 she is meek and obedient, she doesn’t speak unless spoken to and she never questions the instructions she’s given, even when she’s told to go to an older man in the middle of the night and risk being shamed. 

There is nothing wrong with being a meek and mild woman, but for those of us who do not have that natural inclination the Christian tendency to idolise this way of being can leave us feeling loud, inappropriate and unfeminine. Ruth, like Mary and many other young women of the Bible, is presented as blushing and obliging (though who knows it this was really the case). Her purity seems to be linked to a passivity. But I know there are many women, like me, who don’t fit this model; we love to debate, to passionately gesticulate, to challenge those around us, regardless of their gender. And while women like that can seem the most confident you know, many, especially Christians, can have an underlying feeling that they don’t fit the mould. Perhaps even that they aren’t how God created them to be?

But what is it to be a Godly woman? At the end of this book we are given a genealogy that tells us Ruth was great-grand mother of David; a mark of her significance. But there is another women mentioned, another widow who bore a son, and funnily enough, she is mentioned my previous reading, Genesis 38; Tamar.

As Boaz and Ruth marry, the town elders wish them well saying “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” (4:12) and later we see that Boaz is in fact of the line of Perez (4:18-22). So just as the widowed but redeemed Ruth takes her part in forming the line to David, so does Tamar. And so, as Matthew tells us in his first chapter, they are also ancestors of Jesus; part of the unfolding path the Christ (Matthew 1:1-16, esp 3-5).

And you thought genealogies were just boring lists, hey?

But why am I bringing up Tamar? The woman who pretended to be a prostitute so that her father-in-law (she was widowed) would sleep with her and give her a son? Not a fantastic role model, surely?

Well, actually, maybe she is. Okay, it all seems pretty off to us, and more than slightly of icky to us married ladies, but this was a woman who no one was looking out for. She was a widow, promised to be married to Judah’s youngest son (the other two had died on her, the second deliberately not impregnating her). The promise was not fulfilled, so where did this leave her? There’s a reason the law and the prophets and the words of Jesus and the New Testament letters all contain commands to care for widows; they often weren’t cared for. No male relatives could mean no money, no house. If Tamar was pretending to be a prostitute once, it was better than being reduced to being one forever once her father had died and she had nowhere to go.

So she takes matters into her own hands. She stands up for herself and when she is accused of “whoredom” she exposed Judah to himself; he is not only the kind of man who’ll take a prostitute, but one who will neglect his daughter-in-law and then says “let her be burned” when he hears her doing the very thing he has done (38:24). So he says “she is more in the right than I”. You go girl! Well, sort of.

Now, we need not take Tamar’s example literally. It goes without saying that none of us need to become father-in-law bedding fake prostitutes! But what I can see from this is that it takes all sorts. God doesn’t make women with cookie cutter; sweet and perfectly formed. Just as we have to deny society’s lie that there is an ideal look for women, when we can see that God created us in abundant and diverse beauty, so we can refuse to believe that there is one ‘ideal’ woman. Some of us are quiet, some talkative. Some confident, some shy. Some are firey, some gentle. And most of us a big fat mixture.

So, God made them all and gave them their place in the story of our faith. Loyal and obedient Ruth, defiant and assertive Tamar, strong and stoic Mary. And many more. Men and women can learn from these great figures.

Got that? Good.

Right, I’m off to straighten my hair… (it’s funny because it’s true).

Genesis 36-39 is a bit of a strange mixture. The story of Joseph’s first dreams and his brothers selling him into slavery (this family has issues!) in chapter 37 is sandwiched between the genealogy of Esau and the strange story of Judah and his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, in which she tricks him into sleeping with her so that she can have offspring. I’ll say it again; this family has issues! Then we have Joseph’s first experiences in Egypt, in which he is put in charge of his master’s entire affairs, only to be wrongly accused of adultery and thrown in prison. Don’t worry though, soon he’s put in charge of the prison too: bonus!

Yesterday I sat and read these chapters and, do you know, I couldn’t think of any thing to say about them. These stories are really famous, and undoubtedly rich in meaning and inspiration, but I just sat there with the theme from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, as sung by Jason Donovan no less, going around in my head. You know the one “any dream will do!‘. If you’re in the US, this may mean little to you; enjoy the cheese all the same!

Enough of that. I have come up with a few ideas… I could tell you a fun fact; that one of Esau’s descendents is called Eliphaz and another Tem, and the Eliphaz in the book of Job is Eliphaz the Temite. But there’s more! Job is from ‘Uz’ and that’s another of the descendents of Esau, meaning that it’s likely Job is from Edom. Does this means that he wasn’t a Israelite? But he was still God’s favourite? Pretty cool stuff here in the Old Testament about inclusivity, huh?

And I have other thoughts about how cool Reuben is for trying to save Joseph and risk the wrath of his, apparently homicidal, brothers. Or how Tamar could be seen as a strong woman asserting her right to offspring that men had denied her (a childless widow would have had a hard time in those days, still does now in many ways). Or how God’s is always with Joseph, whatever happens.

All of those things would make for interesting posts, I think but none of them really excite me. I don’t particularly want to write about any of them.

I was speaking to my husband yesterday about getting mentally exhausted; I think many of us tend to get this way. You can rest your body a lot but still be making mental lists and plans, or worrying, or engaging your mind more productively but still, working it hard! I think the most tiring thing of all is performing for others. In my case if I were to writw about one of the above topics I’d be doing my ‘I’m a really good Christian who’s always inspired by the Bible’ performance, or perhaps my ‘I’m a dedicated and thought-provoking blogger’ performance. But I’m tired of performing.

So instead I shall break the cycle and say I don’t really know. And that’s okay. And tonight, or today or whenever you read this it’s okay if you don’t know too. It’s okay if you’re tired, or unenthusiastic about something, it’s okay if Psalms don’t always set your world on fire, or you dreading going into to work. It’s okay not to be perfect all the time. We’re not perfect, in fact our very imperfection is part of the Good News of Jesus; we don’t need to be perfect because we’re not God!

There’s no “blessed are the extremely busy; for their’s is the blackberry of heaven” in the Sermon on the Mount, and no “woe to you who rest now, for you will be busy later!”. In fact, God’s big on rest, just look Genesis 2:3 it says God rested.

So give yourself a break. And I’ll try to give myself one too. Thinking is over-rated, I’m off to giggle and eat and watch TV…

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Great way to start a post hey? Well, I can’t take all (any) of the credit as a stole it from the beginning of 1 Corinthians, verse 3 to be precise.

The verse that ends today’s reading (chapters 1-2) is equally quotable: “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” The mind of Christ? Wowza. What does that even mean?

In these chapters Paul spends most of  his time contrasting the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God.He writes that the message of the cross is “foolishness” to those who do not accept Jesus, or as Paul tactfully describes them “those who are perishing”. I am well aware of how foolish and strange many of the most familiar Christian beliefs are. In my work I have spoken with international students who come from places where little is known about Chriastianity and are perplexed to hear the details: “you believe God was a human?” “well, yes, but also no…” “so you believe God was crucified?” “well yes…”.

My favourite question I’ve been asked is from a Muslim student here to do a PhD; “I’ve heard some Christians eat bread and drink wine and they believe that it symbolises Jesus’ body and blood, what kind of Christians are they? ” His tone implied that the thought it was some kind of sect, until I said “actually, we pretty much all do that, some more often than others, and some Christians believe that it’s actually the body and blood of Jesus.” Now that was an interesting conversation! The point here is not to imply that this guy was one of those worldly foolish types, but to show how alien and unintelligible Christian beliefs can be. This would also be a good point to mention that I have learned and will continue to learn much on my spiritual journey from other faiths and people of all faiths and none.

Paul’s writing can make it all seem pretty clear cut: those with human wisdom don’t understand the gospel, those with God’s wisdom do. But I worry about these conclusions; as I said in my last post, there’s nothing worse than a smug Christian. Okay, so Paul makes it clear that our boast should be in God, not in our own understanding (1:31), but we’re still affirming that we are the ones who have received God’s wisdom; we must be very very of some egos getting puffed up here.

Over this Christmas season (it’s not over until the 6th people!) it really struck me me how much I believe in Jesus; his birth and life, his death and resurrection and the saving grace that he has brought the world. How much I believe the doctrines preached by Christians (including Paul) for two millenia, even if I do shrink from a few of the add-ons. If I have any wisdom then it is through Christ Jesus and I feel it has been revealed to me by the Spirit, as Paul writes in 2:12-13. Believing these things that I do means that I disagree with others, not only with atheists, but with those of other faiths. And I must be true to this, because I would have no integrity if I simply pretended to agree with whoever I was with (though of course there is a time to speak and a time remain silent). But how do I do this with humility?

Perhaps if I never make these beliefs into beliefs about myself; about how I”m right, or I’m spiritual. It feels a bit scary to think about that; to toy with the idea of losing my identity in God’s. 

Though I find Paul’s binary languages about Christians and others (e.g. worldly wise and godly wise, spiritual and unspiritual) hard to accept, I do like how he describes his attempts to share God simply in Corinth;

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (2:1-2)

To know nothing except Jesus Christ. What a wonderful concept. Even as I write again I find the concept more than a little scary. “know nothing else? what about all that education I have? what about my theological musings? what about me?” This scared little voice is an unmistakably good sign; not about me, but about the idea.

To know nothing except Jesus. What would that look like? What would we know? Freedom, sacrifice, love, mercy, justice, peace, obedience, passion, forgiveness. What would we forget? Pride, arrogance, greed, money, materialism, selfishness, fear, sin.

Now wouldn’t that be something? Like to having the mind of Christ perhaps…

Happy new year, dear reader. And what better way to start my 2011 blogging with a nice little jaunt through the “woe to you”s and apocalyptic musings for Matthew 23-25? Hmm… this may prove tricky.

Well, it’s not all tricky. Unlike much of the gospels, reading these three chapters together actually makes a lot of sense to me. They don’t so much seem to be a collection of stories and parables joined by many a theme but generally hard to reflect on collectively, but rather as one piece; a prolonged and developing narrative.

However, it just so happens that the prolonged and developing narrative is on the stuff I really struggle with; the whole heaven and hell thing. Well, the hell thing really, the heaven thing is pretty peachy. But these are the kinds of passage that confuse me a whole lot. Is God really going to divide us up like “the sheep from the goats” (25:32) and send some into “eternal punishment” (25:46). It just doesn’t seem right. And I find the whole “God is not subject to human concepts of justice” argument slightly tenuous because a) isn’t the law “written on our hearts”? and b) the people who use that argument also often explain the cross totally in terms of human concepts of justice e.g. “sin can’t go unpunished” and “someone has to take the penalty”.

I think the part I most struggle with, perhaps slightly ironically as a committed Christian, is the idea that belief in Jesus is the only way to heaven, and everyone else if off to the place “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I think many of us struggle with the idea that, for example, George Bush has a one way ticket to paradise because he confesses his faith in Jesus but, say, Gandhi? Sorry mate, you’re heading for somewhere with a rather warmer climate. Yes, that’s a hard one to stomach, I prefer to believe, and perhaps this is a bit of a cop out, that the afterlife is God’s business and beyond human concepts altogether. That doesn’t mean I don’t want people to meet Jesus, no siree. Nor indeed that I don’t feel ‘saved’ and that my sin has somehow been covered, cleansed, washed away by my own relationship with him, I just don’t want to narrow down God’s plan and power to fit my own understanding and experience. But then I worry, is that just a very convenient way to escape a difficult truth, I mean shouldn’t I just believe what the Bible says?

But hang on one cotton picking minute! What does the Bible say? Is it really as clear-cut as it’s sometimes made up to be? Maybe not… It certainly not in Matthew 23-25.

These chapters build upon each other, with ideas about the relationship between this life and the next. 23 is what I think of as the “woe to you” chapter; the part where Jesus really sticks it to the temple authorities for not practicing what they preach and losing focus on what matters. A great example is verse 23: “For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith”, shortly followed by the killer one-liner in verse 24 “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”. That Jesus, always a joker!

Chapter 24 moves on to the apocalyptic predictions, the signs of the coming of the Son of Man, or “the really weird bits” to you and I. These readings are so strange and foreboding to the modern reader, but the apocalyptic was a genre of writing whose aim was to comfort the people. Where modern western culture may be inclined to see “the end is nigh” as a warning, ancient  (and to some extent current) Jewish culture would have seen it as a statement of hope. Plus, it seems, this section gives Jesus a chance to make sure his disciples know that once he’s gone they should not simply wait, but work and prepare for God. The parable of the unfaithful slave in 24:45-51 makes this crystal clear.

So then we have chapter 25, cram packed with parables that can be seen to be about the day of judgement, or the end of time. The parable of the ten bridesmaids, the Talents, the sheep and the goats, and the final story of the King who talks to the righteous and the accursed, from 25:34-46, which contains the famous lines “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Those who are taken into the kingdom are those who cared for the “least of these”.

So what’s missing here? On a second or third reading it occurred to me that there is no mention of faith or belief in these chapters, or if there is then what seems to matter is how that faith manifests in our lives. Controversial, perhaps. Of course, it’s different in John’s gospel and in the letters of Paul, there is certainly mention of faith there. But there is also usually emphasis on behaviour, of peace and mercy. Are we in danger, in the church, of focusing so much on faith that our actions and/or God’s call to justice and mercy, become and after thought? At least, often it’s one without the other; some churches look at personal behaviour but neglect issues of wider justice and perhaps for others the balance tips the other way.

The point is, I think, that ‘justification by faith alone’ is a powerful and profound idea, but it can be taken too far. There is nothing worse than the casual smugness of a Christian assured of their own salvation and just as sure of the damnation of others. Jesus’ descriptions of the “end of the age” (more cryptic than many would have you believe) are book-ended with a call to justice and compassion. The reason that the “scribes and pharisees” are criticised is partly because of faith, but also because of action and inaction.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know of church that preaches “if you believe in Jesus you can do what you like”, nor do I want a church that says “if you’re not perfect you won’t go to heaven”. But I do know of churches in which action comes after faith. In a way I see this; that we need God’s support and blessing on our doings and, of course, that Jesus’ comes first. But does this have to make belief more important? Can they not both be integral to our faith and to our salvation? If we declare Jesus as a our Lord and saviour but have no care in our hearts for ‘the least of these’, can we truly call ourselves Christians, is that Christ-like? No, I don’t think so.

In the amplified translation of the Bible the term “believe in” is extrapolated in two ways. In Matthew’s gospel it is “believe in and acknowledge and cleave to Him” and in Mark’s (16:16) “who adheres to and trusts in and relies on the Gospel and Him Whom it sets forth”. And various combinations of these words throughout the gospels. The words ‘cleave to’ and ‘adhere to’ are key for me here. They suggest that our belief can be more holistic, and can be based in the way we live as well as how we think. This chimes in with Jesus’ words in Matthew 23-25.

So, to believe can be more than to say and think, it can be to do, to live, in a way that clings to Christ and that relies upon God. A life lived in that way is assured for entrance into the kingdom or, as it is put in the parable of the talents (24:21), to “enter into the joy of your master”. I am not sure what this means, I am even less sure what the opposite means. But I trust that Divine justice is so much more than we could ever hope for. It also gives me enough of a kick to realise that this all applies to me too. There is a great Kirk Franklin song with a lyric that asks “tell me how can I love Jesus, when I’ve never seen his face, yet I see you dying and I turn and walk away?”

I hope in 2011 I can live my belief more fully. I hope and pray that for you too. And I hope you’ve enjoyed/endured this rather bumper addition of the blog; I’ve never written a post this long before, but don’t worry, I don’t it’s a sign of things to come!

I’ll leave you again with the inspiring and challenging words of Jesus:

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

A shared sorrow…(Job 17-18)

December 30, 2010

“My spirit is broken and my days are extinct.” (Job 17:1)

It’s funny, isn’t, how this resonates with so many of us. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had all I own and most of my family obliterated in the same moment, yet somehow Job’s words speak to some feeling in me. Some deep distress, even as I sit in my wonderful home, with my wonderful husband in the next room, with full cupboards and a healthy family. Middle class guilt perhaps, or something deeper. Something closer to the bone.

I think we all recognise, somewhere within, that deep sadness. It’s hard to admit it when things are going well, that we’re not happy happy through and through, but there it is. It’s why we all love sad songs and sad films, well some of us more than others. If someone recommends me a book and proceeds to tell me how tragic it is I run for the hills; why do I want to spend my leisure time having my heart-broken by the lives of fictional characters?? But I do love to indulge in a melancholy melody. The catharsis of hearing someone else’s lyrics mirror your own pain is a great release.

And that’s part of what Job gives us. I feel silly even writing it because I have had nothing to cause me suffering as Job has. Don’t get me wrong, I can put a suffering spin on my life if I want to; grew up in a single parent family with money worries in London, Dad never lived with me, hard time a school blah blah blah. Or the non-spun version; wonderful creative childhood with loving mother and dedicated (if absent) father, never wanted for anything although money was tight, very academically successful at school. It’s important to notice when my mind craves drama, or even trauma, and so concocts its own. But still, there is a deep longing in me. I often have moments of depression. Just moments (and I am grateful that they are so fleeting), but they are there.

Is it just me? I doubt it, or Leonard Cohen and Radiohead and Jonny Cash would have a much smaller fan base. I have a theory that most people’s favourite song is a sad one, in fact I’ve attached a poll to this post to test my theory, please take part in it! Because there is something seductive about sadness, but also because there’s a bit all of us that is sad.

There are many reasons for our personal melancholies, many stories attached to our sorrow. But I think, I really believe that there is one reason we all share. It is a deep longing. What some people would call being in original sin, I suppose, though I think that phrase has too many centuries of shame and dogma attached to be useful to many people. I think we sense that we are not as close to God as we could be, that we have made barriers between ourselves and Our Lord. We long for closeness we sense is achievable and yet we believe so many lies that few of us ever feel it for more than moments.

Perhaps this is why the experience of finding faith in Jesus can be so euphoric. Because he is a gateway to God for so many of us, because he has broken down barriers that we could not, or would not perhaps. But we Christians must be honest and say that this euphoria is fleeting; it is not a lifetime’s supply or a reward for ‘signing up’. I think the taste is enough to beckon us closer, though in the end the presence of God is bigger than anything we could feel, and present always; whatever our experience. Perhaps it is this sense, of God’s presence and yet the feeling of separation, that  causes our deep longing and sadness. This is certainly something that Job experiences acutely and expresses with a wonderful lucidity that taps into something we all know well. Don’t we? Perhaps I have made a personal experience universal, but I expect not…

And now for my first poll…enjoy…

 

Some days reading 6 chapters of Isaiah seems like a verbose and unintelligible mountain. Some days it seems like feast of poetry that you can really get stuck into! Today it is, blessedly, the latter. This probably has something to with the fact that I’ve done very little else all day and so don’t feel squeezed for time as I would on a normal Tuesday. Don’t you just love that hibernation-like time between Christmas and New Year? (if you have been working today, apologies for the smugness!).

Chapters 44-49 of Isaiah pick of the major themes of the book; God as judge but also redeemer, and God as the God. There is an eloquent piece of prose poetry in Isaiah 44:9-20 about the fashioning of idols out of material things. It’s quite beautifully written I think, and really gets to the heart of the futility of trying to make Gods out of the material world (which, of course, God has created). Indeed, the futility of idol worship is a recurring theme in these chapters. As is the assertion that there are no gods apart from the Holy One of Israel. 45:48 ends “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” 46:9 repeats this phrase and adds “I am God, there is no one like me.” 48:12b states “I am He; I am the first, and I am the last.” And again and again we are told of God’s power in creation and salvation.

So what’s new? The assertion that there is no god but God is pretty much stating the obvious to monotheistic ears, isn’t it? This is a given for those who follow the Abrahamic faiths and many more besides. But do we really think about what it means?

Most of us have heard sermons about making idols out of material things. Sure, we don’t fashion statues of gold or silver or cedar, but the way we celebrate Christmas more than hints at the importance of stuff in our lives. Perhaps we do lose focus sometimes, most times?

There is something deeply profound and endlessly repeatable about the statement that God is the god. I really think that if any of us knew that, really knew it, it would transform us entirely. We would be able to surrender in ways we only dream of (and are probably quite afraid of) now.

God is God. God is God. Leaving the descriptions aside, it is enough simply to reflect that He is God and there is no other. Nothing that is supreme, nothing that we can trust like that and, perhaps most wonderfully of all, nothing that we should fear. Because God is God, and there is no other.

I encourage you to sit with that idea for a while, perhaps in your quiet time if you have such a thing. Do you know it? Really know it? What difference would it/does it make to know this profound truth? How could it transform you and your life? Please share your discoveries here if you feel you can. And perhaps I’ll add a comment of two to this post when I’ve sat with it too.

What would happen if we all just let God be God in our lives? I don’t know, but I have a feeling it would pretty amazing.

Happy third day of Christmas, dear reader. I hope the first and second were suitably splendid. I went to a beautiful midnight service on Christmas eve. Wonderful. And, as you may have noticed, I took a little break from this blog. It wasn’t planned but it sort of just happened, you know how it is. I am glad I did too. It has helped be to see the fruits I am reaping from writing this blog, I’m sure I’ll write more about that another time. Another ‘note on the process’, perhaps.

For now, though, I shall ease myself into things with a note on Psalms 24-26. Well Psalm 24 to be more precise. Well Psalm 24:7-10, to be exact. For some reason I had made up this rule that I should try to include as much of what I’ve read in my blog each day, but we all know blanket rules about reading the Bible don’t work. Psalms are all individual poems and contriving to lump them in together doesn’t make me insightful, it makes me a clever-clogs. Plus, this blog is about my experience of reading the Bible in a year, and in my experience there are phrases, verses, images, that jump out when I read and there was one today:

7 Lift up your heads, O gates!
   and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
   that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is the King of glory?
   The Lord, strong and mighty,
   the Lord, mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, O gates!
   and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
   that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
   The Lord of hosts,
   he is the King of glory.

Really, I could just talk about verse 7 (and 9). There is something relentlessly joyous in this call to open up to the ‘King of glory’, something deeply rousing too. I can’t put my finger on why this language seems to stir something in me, but it does. “Lift up your heads, O gates!” who is the psalmist talking to here? Gates don’t have heads. Are we the gates? The gates of God, the gates for God. Are we the ‘ancient doors’? Do we need to lift ourselves up to God fully? Well, yes, of course we do.

I love the imagery of ancient doors being opened up to let God come in. I imagine huge heavy iron gates, scattered with rust and cobwebs. I imagine giant stiff hinges being reluctantly moved after centuries of inertia, creaks echoing all around as they are heaved out of their locked positions. And I imagine floods of light, light that has peeked through keyholes and cracks, falling in all around as the doors are opened.

I really feel that this is so much what worship is. Not only praising God, but also opening to God. Some of us Christians like to lift up out hands when worship, and more to lift up our heads. Is this a small gesture of a deeper welcoming, and a more passionate looking to God? I hope so.

And a worship song comes to mind as I read and reflect on this. It’s by a guy called John Mark McMillan, perhaps you know him, I think his most famous song is ‘How He Loves Us’. This song is called ‘Skeleton Bones’ and has so much imagery that resonates with passage I’ve picked out today. It begins ‘peel back our ribs again and stand inside of our chest, we just wana love you, we just wana love you, yeah’. As it builds to the chorus we are called to “separate those doors and let the son (sun?) of resurrection in” and then it bursts into “come let us adore the son of glory dressed in love, open up your gates before him, crown him, stand him up.” Wonderful stuff, I think. And just a hint of a reference to O Come All Ye Faithful in the chorus, so perfect for the season.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy.