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?

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Dear reader, I had written you a lovely little post, but then it somehow disappeared into cyberspace. Alas. But I shall not be defeated by the machine and, very luckily, I had written today’s experiment in a separate file. It’s a word fall (something I think I’ve made up, but probably haven’t) and the idea is to reflect the way the words of the psalms seem to tumble out of the heart, sometimes desperate, sometimes praising, usually both.

I have picked the words that pop out at me and assembled them like they’re tumbling down the page. Here’s psalm 30:

 

Psalm 30

extol

    cried

        healed

           soul

               restored

                                    sing praises

                                          holy name

                                                 anger

                                       favour

                                   weeping

                                 joy

                                               prosperity

                                                       favour   

                                                                 hid

                                                    dismayed

                        cried

                            death

                     praise

                         gracious

mourning

               into

                  dancing

                                      thanks

                                           to you

                                                 forever.

Amen!

Today I read Matthew 20-22. The thing that seems to recur here is Jesus letting people know, disciples and Pharisees alike, that those who believe they are the greatest are invariably not. In 20:26-28 Jesus tells his disciples that if they desire greatness they will become servants; pretty counter-intuitive stuff. Then in 21:28-32 we have the parable of the two sons, where Jesus says to the chief priests and elders “truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Pretty strong stuff there, as is the parable of the wedding banquet, 23:1-14.

One of the most infuriating readings of these passages of scripture, in which Jesus debates with temple leadership and later with Pharisees (22:15-22) and Sadducees (22:23-33), is to simply say “Oh, look at those first century people, how wrong they were! Good job we’re not like them isn’t it?” Even worse is the extrapolation that Jesus was criticising first century Judaism en masse, that he as tell ‘the Jews’ all the stuff they’d been getting wrong. There is danger of casual antisemitism when dealing with these texts.

So let’s get a few things straight. First, Jesus was Jewish and so were all of his first disciples and the ‘last supper’ was a passover meal so it’s unlikely that he was rejecting Judaism. Second, part of Jewish culture was and is debate, so the fact that Jesus is often found debating with groups like the Pharisees doesn’t mean they are some sort of evil villain figures in the gospels, but rather that he was engaging with as fellow believers, and often ‘astonishing’ them with his arguments (22:33). For those of you who know all this twice over, sorry, it just can’t be said enough.

So, if the message of the parables of the two sons and the wicked tenants and the wedding banquet don’t just apply to Jews of first century Jerusalem, if we can’t read them and simply see ourselves as the people who ‘got it’ and so get to be in Jesus’ club, then what can we learn?

The whole “us and them” mentality seems to be being attacked here. Those Jesus was criticising were perhaps those members of the temple leadership who treated religion like a members only club; you’re either in or your out. And what’s more, we’ll tell you who’s in and whose behaviour or status means your out.

Thank goodness there’s no churches like that nowadays right? Erm…well…maybe there are a few. And I could have a nice long rant about churches that would describe themselves as ‘biblical’ and use that very status to exclude. I am deeply suspicious of any claim to knowing who’s in and who’s out of the kingdom of God. Jesus makes it very clear that people who interpret scripture in this exclusive way are rather missing the point.

But if I spent this post going on about other people and how bad they were at listening to Jesus I wouldn’t really be heeding my own advice would I? So how does this apply to me? Who do I look upon and feel superior to? Who do I seek to exclude from the kingdom of God? Perhaps those very people I have mentioned above, with whom I differ theologically. Or let’s turn it around, how do I think of myself? Am I confident that I’m in the club, confident that my soul is safe, whilst speculating that others aren’t?

I hope not. But I can’t be sure that these thoughts enter my mind. And this kind of judgement is a big deal, the biggest perhaps, because it’s a judgement not on personalities or behaviour, but on souls. If you think you know who’s in and who’s out then beware “for with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:2). And I don’t think it’s just about knowing “who’s going to heaven”, most of us would admit that’s beyond the limits of our vision, but also about who’s really close to God, who really gets it. I suppose the point is, if you think you know that, you probably don’t get it.

So are we prepared to leave judgement up to God? This doesn’t mean not challenging each other, we see that debate is vital in Jesus’ interaction with various groups; as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another, after all. So it’s not that I have to say to those who I see as exclusive “go ahead, I affirm your actions!”, but at the same I must address these issues in a spirit of humility, remembering the log in my eye (Matthew 7:3). I can only address my fellow human beings as what they are; equals in the sight of God. If I think of myself as more useful or of higher standing in the sight of God, especially if that’s simply by the fact that I’m a Christian, then how am I any different from those who Jesus admonished?

It is difficult to find the balance between affirming who you are in God and getting an ego about it. It is difficult, too, to challenge and admonish your brothers and sisters without having a sense of superiority. Difficult, but very very important.

If you like gore, you’ll love Judges 1-5, or 3-4 more specifically. Chapter 3 sees a king so large that when he was stabbed to death his belly fat “closed over the blade”. Nice. But wait, it gets better! Chapter 4 sees Sisera, the head of King Jabin’s army stabbed through the head with a tent-peg “until it went down into the ground.” These are not chapters to read over dinner… okay, so not that many people read the Bible over dinner, but if you ever do, don’t read these.

There are some good woman-power elements to these tales though. The tent-peg assassin is Jael; a woman of Israelite extraction who lures Sisera into her tent where he thinks he’ll be safe. When Barak, the rather dull Israelite general, turns up looking for Sisera she lead’s him to her tent saying “come, I will show the man whom you are seeking.” Do you think she said it with a wry smile on her face? Like “you won’t be expecting this”…

Deborah too, can’t forget to mention her. We are told in chapters 2 and 3 of the judges God raises up to judge and defend Israel, and in chapter 4 that she, Deborah was now a judge. It’s said very matter-of-factly; there is no explanation of why a woman is a judge, which suggests that it wasn’t the weirdest thing in the world. And is it she who tells Barak to go into battle against Sisera. Barak, of course, won’t go without Deborah. Some see this as a sign of his weakness, but how about reading it as a sign of Deborah’s strength; he know’s she’s a good person to have by his side. She seems like quite a formidable woman.

As a feminist I feel like I should spend this whole post on Deborah and Jael, but for me the most striking feature of these chapters – fat kings, tent pegs, woman protagonists and all – is the fluctuating fortunes of Israel. The previous book, Joshua, was all about the Israelites’ successful conquests of just-about-everywhere and so is most of chapter 1 here. But then the winds change. The Israelites forget their promises to God (2:1-5) and their fortunes quickly change. They are unsuccessful in battle and given into the hands of their enemies. But God hears their cries when they are oppressed and answers them, sending them judges to remind them who they are and help them organise (2:18). But even this doesn’t last long and again and again the Israelites forget their covenant and fall into ruin (2:19, 3:12, 4:1).

The funny thing is, God keeps hearing their cries. They mess up again and again and He doesn’t say “oh I give up! you people are hopeless! keep your other God’s for all I care, I’m going to find some other people who will really appreciate me!” No, every time his children cry out for him He turns to them, even knowing all their future screw-ups He cannot but hear them when they call.

So it is not God who leaves the Israelites but the Israelites who leave God. And every time they turn back there He is. Of course, God was there all along, but you get my drift…

He’s always here; waiting to hear us cry out.

Job’s frustration is almost palpable in chapters 9-10. He is questioning God, but at the same time he is struggling with the fact that you cannot question God, not really. Well you can, but you won’t get an answer, and if you did you probably wouldn’t  want to hear it; “If one wished to contend with him,  one could not answer him once in a thousand.” (9:2). There is no level playing field here, no arena in which Job can meet God and have it out once and for all. As he puts it “There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand on us both.” (9:33). In Job’s present experience God is like a parent who oh-so-annoyingly says “I tell you when you’re older”, be he needs to know now! And despite all of his assertions to the contrary, he does question God.

Chapter 10 are a little like a letter from a spurned lover. “I don’t understand why you’re being like this!”, “why are you treating me this way?” (see 10:2, 10:16).Verses 9-12 read like a “baby, remember the good times”:

9 Remember that you fashioned me like clay;
   and will you turn me to dust again?
10 Did you not pour me out like milk
   and curdle me like cheese?
11 You clothed me with skin and flesh,
   and knit me together with bones and sinews.
12 You have granted me life and steadfast love,
   and your care has preserved my spirit.

But it all turner sour. The message translation of verse 13 reads “But you never told me about this part. I should have known that there was more to it…” Yes, Job, you should have!

For me these chapters communicate brilliantly the human frustration of a relationship with a transcendent being. God will never explain Himself to us. Perhaps some people think the Bible is his way of making himself known, but wowza is this a complicated explanation! And find me a time when Jesus directly answers a direct question. No, I sometimes imagine if you asked Jesus something straight forward like “so shall we go left of right at the cross roads?” he give you answer that began with something like “there was a man with two goats…”

So I see Job’s frustration, I feel it often. I empathise with him when he starts to get a bit sarcastic:

3 Does it seem good to you to oppress,
   to despise the work of your hands
   and favour the schemes of the wicked?
4 Do you have eyes of flesh?
   Do you see as humans see?
5 Are your days like the days of mortals,
   or your years like human years,
6 that you seek out my iniquity
   and search for my sin,
7 although you know that I am not guilty,
   and there is no one to deliver out of your hand?

I like a nice rhetorical question, especially a slight spiky one. Job knows that God does have human eyes, that he is not subject to time. It’s all his way of say “I DON’T UNDERSTAND!!!” grr, arg and all that.

But what if God did answer our questions? What happens when we are sure of things? Are we loving and open and humble when we think we have all the answers? There’s another slight spiky rhetorical question for you. So in a way in our unknowing God is saving us from ourselves. There is a phrase my husband loves; “freedom from the know; freedom in the unknown”. This makes me think about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in a different way too, like God knew what we’d be like if we thought we had it all sorted. We’d want to be like Him. But we can’t, as Job is finding out.

It’s a paradox that we can be with God always, that we can talk to Him, hear Him, but never fully know, never fully understand. Now we see as in a mirror dimly, and all that.

The wisest people I know are the ones who find peace is their incomprehension. But we need Job, who feels none of this peace, to recognise those parts of ourselves that struggle like this too. It relieves me that this kind of struggle is ‘biblical’; that there are these questions preserved in scripture. It helps us accept our questions, rather than torturing ourselves with them. And it helps us see that not all questions, however important they may be, have answers…

May none of your questions and all of your prayers be answered.

Amen.

photo by Brittany G on flickr

Tonight there are gales blowing in the streets of Manchester. Walking home I saw autumn leaves, which had been neatly swept to the side of the streets, surge up like an orange army and dart around. As I watched them dance frantically, and felt them hit me in the face a few times, I was reminded of the irresistible power of God.

As I come to the end of the book of Joshua I get the sense that it is written to remind the Israelites of the same. At various points they are told “not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (21:45). They are told that it was God, not them that fought and won the battles,  that their success were because of their obedience to and faith in the Lord.

In Joshua’s final speech in Chapter 24 (if the book of Joshua were a film this speech would end it accompanied by some rousing music) he reminds the Israelites of their history from Abraham through to their slavery in Egypt and deliverance to the ‘promised land’. He also reminds them that if they are not faithful to God then they can be cut down just as they were built up.

Although the vision of God who fights battles and obliterates nations is not one I hold dear, I do see the power of this narrative. It is giving the people of Israel an identity in God and ensuring that the Lord is at the centre of their lives. It is reminding them that is not upon themselves that they rely, but upon God; that His power moves through us, but that doesn’t make it our power. Something we could all be reminded of.

So, though Joshua is unlikely to ever be my favourite book, I’ve come a journey since my earlier posts. I’ve realise that me wishing that they had brokered peace-keeping agreements and had group-hugs with their neighbouring nations can led me to look at the cultural context rather than the more enduring message.

The power of God moves through us. Can we yield and dance like leaves in the wind…

I am off on retreat this evening for a couple of days and I have no idea whether there will be internet access so you may have to survive without my blogging panache for a couple of days. Shock horror.

I haven’t yet read Isaiah 18-22 so I thought I’d just briefly reflect on my experience so far…

Reading this book is hard! There is an impulse to make it into a purely intellectual exercise and lose the devotional element. There is another impulse to ignore all the smiting and murder in this book, to pick the verse that I like, that fit with who I want God to be. There is yet another impulse to snuggle up and watch tv rather than grapple with ancient prophecies. But I want to do it, I want to know what the Bible says, all of it, not just the bits that whatever church I’m going to at this time happens to pick out.

Having said that, doing this also helps to me to realise why scripture is read in community; it’s hard to grapple with on our own. I’m glad I’ve chosen to write a blog with it too, it makes it feel more like a conversation than a lonely pursuit. I really appreciate all comments, so keep them coming.

Finally, it’s good to apply myself to something, to make a commitment to do something like this everyday is a big thing. I get tired pretty easily and this is the kind of thing I usually give up on. But not this time. I want to see this through…even though I pretty much know how it ends 🙂 

Hold me to that!

Matthew 3-4 is a bit of a whirlwind. At the end of chapter 2 Jesus is a child just returned from exile, but then we are launched straight into the beginning of his ministry. By the end of chapter 4 he is preaching the good news to great crowds and healing all kinds of afflictions.

To inaugurate this new phase we meet John the Baptist. Now here is a man living for no one but God. He wears camel-hair and a leather belt and eats locusts and honey. 3:1 tells us he “appeared in the wilderness”, which makes him sound even more wild. I imagine him with a massive beard and a slightly wired expression. Now I’ve heard a lot of Christians talk about  being counter-culture, but I can’t help thinking if he popped up in a local church today he wouldn’t be taken entirely seriously. But then he doesn’t go to the synagogues does he? The people come to him, flock to him and to his news that “the kingdom of heaven is near.” His news offers hope and his baptism a fresh start.

Enter Jesus. What do you say when the Word made flesh asks you to baptise him? This is the moment in this chapter that really struck me today. The two sentences exchanged between John and Jesus. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel we are told that these two men are cousins, both born in exceptional circumstances; John to the elderly and apparently barren Elizabeth and Jesus to the maiden Mary. John is said to have leapt in the womb when the pregnant Mary entered. Knowing this adds a tenderness to their exchange 30 years later at the river Jordan. When had they last seen each other? Had they grown up together? Had they studied together? Prayed together? Had John witnessed those elusive years between childhood and ministry of which we have little record today? Or had they never met until this moment? Either way I sense a connection, a mutual knowing.  A knowing of who each other were, and perhaps what was to come for both of them. I find it very moving.

When Jesus returns from exile in the desert there is news that John has been arrested. A hint of his own future destiny. How did he take the news? We are not told. But we are told that he withdraws to Galilee, where he is to call his first disciples and begin his ministry. Are these events linked? Is John’s arrest an impetus for his own emergence? I don’t know. But I like to remember that Jesus was a member of a family. He was special, so special, but still he was ordinary somehow. He had cousins and aunts. When I think of him this way he becomes more real to me. And that can only be a good thing.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/4203154432/

The Prince of Peace!

October 23, 2010

Today I was meant to read Isaiah 7-11. However last night I fell of my moped and am so shaken I can’t concentrate on reading! But have no fear. Dedicated blogger that I am I’d like to recommend that you read Isaiah 9:2-7 and then listen to this beautiful piece from Handel’s Messiah:

Couldn’t have put it better myself…  

Some days are they heavy. They weigh you down. Troubles, imagined or real, seem to mass around you, like an army swarming just beyond the horizon.

We are not like David. We aren’t kings (unless you are in which case welcome to my blog  your majesty), we don’t have enemies plotting against us, most of us don’t really have enemies at all. But when David calls out to God for protection and strengh, part of my spirit cries out too. Especially on the heavier days.

Psalms 3-5 are all appeals to God in times of adversity. In fact psalm 4 is a “confident plea” to God. I like that, I love that it’s confident. David is not sayign “hi God, um, are you there? um, yeah, well so you see I sort of need your support…um…” His words are assured; “the Lord hears when I call him” (4:3b).  I wonder if he always felt this confident, or if one of the jobs of the psalms was to remind him of that God is and will be. They certainly remind me.

The image that has struck me today is that of God as shield (3:3, 5:12) . Now, it may suprise you to learn that I am not experienced in ancient weapons and hand-to-hand combat. Shocking, i know. But I can imagine the job of a shield… It takes the greatest impact from the blow you will recieve. Though it doesn’t stop the blow completely it saves you from severe injury. So instead of blood there are bruises.

Sometimes I’ve tended to think of God as shield meant that He’s shut out all the troubles of life. But I think the above description is more familiar. On the heavier days I’m not protected from everything. I still feel weighed down and irritable. Life’s bumps still shake me. But I also feel God’s protection, as if His presence is a padding; a barrier between me and the blows. When I imagine this I don’t see a great shield fit or battle. I see myself small and above me the clouds of heaviness, but between us is a great shaft of light. I still see the clouds, they still press in but somehow their power is blunted by the presence of light. God doesn’t wrap us in cotton wool, because the tough times shape us don’t they? But he does soften the blows, though we may not always know it.

In psalm 5 David writes “but I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter you house” (5:7a). The abundance of your steadfast love. What a sublime piece of  poetry, what a wonderful expression of the constancy of God in the inconstancy of life. I think the shaft of light on my dark days comes from the knowledge of this adundance. The very thought of God’s presence is a morsel of hope on the days when dark clouds seem to hang over me, for whatever reason. The psalms were no doubt written to praise but also to remind us of all that is available through faith.

“But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy.” (5:11)