January 30, 2011
Continuing from last week’s post on this subject, here’s the second part of Joseph’s story in my own words:
Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, betrayed brother, stood in his feasting hall as the empty plates were gathered. His brothers, each one, had sat at that table in front of him. And those brothers, whom he had tried to forget, were now readying themselves to leave again. He needed to tell them who he was, but how? Had things gone too far? Had he pretended so long to be a distant Egyptian that he had become one?
He couldn’t speak, paralysed with fear of another rejection, or was he afraid of their loving embrace? Whatever the case, neither could he bear to see Benjamin leave again. He’s mother’s son, his little brother.
He called his stewards and told them to load the brothers’ donkeys with as much food as they could carry, and to place their silver back in their bags.
“But in the sack of the youngest,” he added “place my silver cup.” He was plotting again, to keep Benjamin near, why could he not just ask him?
As he saw his brothers ride off he called his trusted servant, telling him of the missing cup. The servant rode out to the brothers. Stopping them, he asked “Has one of you repaid kindness with evil? My master’s silver cup is missing, and you have taken it.” Of course, the brothers denied it. Why would they come all the way back from Canaan to return the man’s silver only to steal his cup? “If any of us has it, kill him, and let the rest of us will be your slaves.” They said. But the servant would not accept such a boast, instead he said only the one who had stolen would be the slave. Very well.
One by one, oldest to youngest the men opened their sacks. They were not afraid, they knew themselves to be honest men. More the horror, then, when out of Benjamin’s sack fell the silver cup. The brothers tore their clothes. The boy they had sworn to protect, the brother of the one they had abandoned. How could their father bear it? Surely he would die of grief. They wouldn’t let Benjamin be taken back alone. Loading their mules up once more they all returned to Egypt.
When Joseph met them he saw that their faces were worn. They were afraid, they were shaken. These were not the boys from his youth, who had thrown him into a pit through their own jealous wrath. These were men, fathers, looking at their youngest brother with such love, such grief. But somehow he still clung to the pretence.
“What have you done?” he asked them. “I have invited you to eat with me and you have insulted me so deeply. You have abused my trust.” He pretended not to hear their pleading, though it echoed in his mind, and insisted that Benjamin be his slave. Perhaps when they were alone, perhaps then he could tell the truth.
But then Judah was there, close to him, asking for just a word. His eldest brother told him of his father Jacob, of how the man clung to Benjamin, of how without him there would be no light in his life.
“I promised that if anything happened to him I would be accountable.” Judah confided “I told him I would give my life for his. So take me, though I am not so young any more, take me as your slave and let the young man go.”
Now here was a change. The one who had sold Joseph into slavery would now give up his own freedom in place of his brother. There was a spark of jealousy in Joseph and then a rush of warmth. He could no longer hold himself together. The pretence was over.
“Leave me!” he cried to his servants. And almost before they left he had broken down. His cries carried over the evening air, but he no longer cared.
For a moment the brothers stood, perplexed. Here was this man, this powerful Egyptian, the object of their fright, balling like a child before them. What was going on? But then he spoke, not in Egyptian this time, but in Hebrew.
“It is I, Joseph. Your brother lives and prospers in Egypt.” Silence. “I know it is a shock, and perhaps I should have told you that first day, but here I am. Does my father still live? How I long to see him.”
Some of his brothers were jubilant. Others kept their eyes to the floor, were they crying?
“No, no.” said Joseph “Don’t be afraid, have no regrets. It was not you who sold me into slavery, but God. I was sent here so that I might foresee the famine. And in this I will save you and our father from poverty. And many more besides.” When he had finished this speech there were no more words. He fell on Benjamin and wept. They all wept and kissed and embraced.
The twelve were together again, and soon their father would join them.
and they all lived happily…ever after?
I hope you enjoyed this story, dear reader. Writing this really has given it more depth for me. Thinking about Joseph’s emotional state makes him more human, and more inspiring. His faith and forgiveness (two things I quite like, as you may have guessed by my username) are quite astonishing. To be able to see that all the bad times have led him there, and to have let go of all blame (Genesis:45:4-15). Amazing.
I’d really recommend this exercise, or at least the idea of considering the feelings of a character as you read. Suddenly they are not ancient patriarchs who did things we could never dream of, but people just like us. In this we see our own potential and our own flaws. Suddenly scripture is in the present. What a gift.
P.S. I really the picture above, I feel it encapsulates something of the reconciliation of the brothers, but with the presence of brokeness. Thank you nicolasnova at Flickr.
January 28, 2011
Dear reader, I’ve really enjoyed my experiments over the last week or so. Letting myself be freer and more creative in my responses to reading the Bible has really breathed new life into this project. Thanks God!
Yes, I’ve definitely felt more enthusiastic of late… and then there was 1 Corinthians 5-6. These are not two chapters that give me that ‘spurred-on by the word of God feeling’; more turned off by the word of Paul. I don’t react well when the chapter heading is “sexual immorality defiles the church” and as read I just kept thinking “stop being mean!” It makes me angry when I read lines like “drive out the wicked person from among you” (5:8). Is that how the Church is supposed to behave? To ‘hand over to Satan’ those who are not living right (5:5)? Aren’t we supposed to love them???
Okay, lady, take a breath. Aaah that’s better. Once I let my immediate (allergic) reactions die down I begin to see past the bits that make me angry. Paul is writing to a divided community in different time. In fact I read a great reflection commentary on 6:12-20 which opened up this whole reading for me. So here goes:
It is widely believed that Paul established the church in Corinth when he lived there for a year or so (Acts 18:11, AD 49-51?). He’s writing to them sometime later (AD 54?), when they seem to have more than slightly lost their way.
He had taught them about the freedom that we are offered in Jesus; he had taught them of a redemption that was beyond the law. However, they seem to have taken the whole freedom thing and run with it. So much so that they are now boasting about a man in their congregation who’s married his father’s wife (is his father still alive? is it his mum? too many icky questions). They’re also arguing in public, taking lawsuits against each other (6:1-11). So it looks like the early Christians weren’t so good at working on their public image; “come to church; you can sleep with your step-mum and argue with each other”. Erm, no thanks.
When I think about it like this, no wonder Paul needs to give them a good talking to. I’m still uncomfortable with the whole ‘throw the naughty ones out’ idea. Seventy times seven and all that. But then I guess you can’t forgive someone if they’re not sorry… Still, I think one of the most miraculous and inspiring things is when you stick by someone even when they’re behaving badly. When you just keep loving them. That’s a witness of Christ to me.
That aside, there’s something really important going on here. The beloved Spiderman quotation (beloved by my husband at least, he wishes he had spidey senses) goes “with great power comes great responsibility”, perhaps the same is true of freedom. Indeed, I think what it is to be free has been totally misunderstood in recent years (always? I duno, I’m only 26). It’s seen as an absence of constraints, a “I can do anything I want, I’m empowered” thing. I certainly saw it like that (within reason, not many people feel they are ‘free’ to kill others etc).
But perhaps instead of an absence it’s a presence, or the assurance of a presence. The deep knowing that God is and always will be with us. This freedom isn’t the kind that makes you want to go out and get wasted, it’s the kind that frees you from those needs for oblivion. But there are no rules; you don’t have to be a teetotaler to please Him either. He just wants your heart. That’s a big ‘just’.
A passage from ‘concerning worship’ in the Iona Abbey worship book (fantastic resource) reads “We owe our very existence as a community to the central Gospel conviction that worship is all that we are and all that we do. Either everything we do is an offering to God, or nothing. We may not pick and chose.”
Wow. Everthing? I was really struck by this, especially “we can’t pick and choose”. And it seems to resonate with what Pauls is saying when he asks “do you know that your bodies are members of Christ?” He is reminding the Corinthians that they’re not living for themselves, that their religion cannot simply be a mechanism for justifying their behaviour.
You are one with Christ. Do you get that? Do you get how major that is?
When we know this, when we enter into a community where knowing this is the premise for everything else, we open ourselves up to be challenged. Instead of reading Paul’s words as arrogant berating, I could see them as brotherly admonition (though he terms it fatherly in 4:15 but that’s not very Matthew 23:9).
It is okay for us to challenge each other, because we have all made a commitment to be changed each day from glory in glory.
Paul makes it very clear that there is a different standard for those outside the Church (5:10) and though he phrases it in rather derogatory terms (we know that there are good people who aren’t Christian!) I think his meaning remains true for us. If you have invested in the message of Jesus, if you have chosen the narrow gate, then you better be ready to have a long hard look at yourself. What is the church for if not to hold up the mirror?
Church needs to be a place where can safely, lovingly challenge each other, not because we know better, or we live better, but precisely because we’re all in the same boat. And sometimes the boat needs rocking.
Can you imagine a community where it was safe enough to challenge each other? Where criticism could be seen as an expression of love not attack? I’m not sure I’m secure enough to be a community like that, but I think it sounds very special. Perhaps Paul thought so too.
January 27, 2011
Mark’s gospel is the shortest, but man does he pack it in! Chapter one is a whirlwind tour through Jesus’ early ministry. At the beginning he is being prophesied, by the end of it he’s renowned, so much so that can no longer move freely around Galilee.
Every time I read this book its relentlessness strikes me. Chapter two slows down a little but it’s still story after astounding story. Bam bam bam. We’re being rapidly confronted with the irresistible call of Jesus; at least his disciples seemed to find it irresistible (1:16-20, 2:13-14).
Yes, there is a sense of divine momentum in this beginning. An irresistible outpouring of God.
So I thought I’d try another wordfall, like I used for my last post on psalms. I read Mark 1 and write down the words that seem to embody the feeling and the drama of the chapter, then assemble them like they’re falling down the page. Like God is being poured out with a graceful speed and a liberal scattering.
Son of God
time is fulfilled
a new teaching
lifted her up
they knew him
let us go on
make me clean
and people came to him from every quarter…
January 24, 2011
My plan for today’s post was to do a little experiment called ‘questions for God’. The idea being that I would read Job 21-22 and write down any tough questions it brought up for me. Questions I’d like to ask God, funnily enough. Sometimes I find that I avoid these questions when writing this blog, or refer to them briefly, partly because I can’t answer them and partly because they scare me. I thought this would be a good way to face them head on.
The problem is, Job’s done it for me. Chapter 21 is his tirade of questions directed at his mocking and, in his opinion, deluded friends. But early on he asks “as for me, is my complaint addressed to mortals?”; these are really questions for God (21:4). And they’re good ones too. “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” This pretty much sums up Job’s detailed inventory of the prosperity of the wicked in 21:7-16. Next he moves on to refuting the naive claims of his friends, starting with these questions that ring with irony:
17 ‘How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?
How often does calamity come upon them?
How often does God distribute pains in his anger?
18 How often are they like straw before the wind,
and like chaff that the storm carries away?
He is referring back directly to claims his friends have made (eg 15:20, 18:6, 18:12) and you can just hear his tone: ”Really? That’s what you think happens to the wicked is it? Hellooo!’ My favourite part is when he says “You say, “God stores up their iniquity for their children.” Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.” Too right! I’ve always thought the whole generational guilt thing was a bit unfair!
So, Job gets that off his chest, and his friends see his point, right? Of course they don’t. Eliphaz’s reply is sooo frustrating! First of all he lists loads of things that Job has done wrong, which is confusing because he’s supposed to be “blameless and upright” (1:1) so you get the feeling Eliphaz is clutching at straws somewhat. Then he says “Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you.” Oh, cheers, Eliphaz, I’m sure the blameless and upright Job hadn’t thought of that one! The point is that he’s still clinging to the idea that Job is suffering because he’s in the wrong, but we know it’s not like that, don’t we?
If we thought along the lines of Eliphaz then we would think that all rich and prosperous people were good and everyone who suffered disasters and loss was in the wrong. This is the kind of logic that led to some of the repugnant thinking about the Haitian earthquake from certain people who I hesitate to call Christian. It’s also the kind of thinking that can lead to a sort of self-satisfied malaise in those who have it good; something that Jesus wasn’t too keen on.
But knowing that life just isn’t that simple just makes everything more confusing, doesn’t it? I find myself reading Job’s words and thinking “yeah! yeah, exactly!” And, like Job, I want answers. The thing is, none will satisfy, even if they were a bit more complex than “bad things happen because you’re bad!”
These are questions for God and, as such, there is no real answer in our vocabulary. Except trust, I suppose, to trust in the bigger picture. But then I think tell that so someone who just lost their home to a flood, or their child to a bomb, or their arm to a diamond mine. This is tough stuff and it’s one of the fundamental questions of faith. What it all boils down to is, why doesn’t God just sort everything out?
You know, I sort believe He does sort everything out or that he is sorting everything out. That doesn’t stop me having a thousand more questions for Him though. Because faith isn’t mindless, it’s just not mind-limited. One big point is that we should never impose our trust on someone who’s suffering. Telling someone who’s just been diagnosed with cancer that it’s all part of the bigger picture is not always the best route to go down. If we can learn anything from Job it is that just being there with a friend and allowing them to feel all their anger and pain is probably the most useful thing we can do. We’re allowed to not know why things happen the way they do, in fact that not knowing might help us to empathise with others. Job’s friends have all the answers, and they’re not so helpful…
To be comfortable with an unanswered question in this age-of-reason culture is pretty radical. And I like being radical.
I ended an old post on this subject with the phrase “may all of your prayers and none of questions be answered”. I think I might make it my catchphrase!
January 22, 2011
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:
January 21, 2011
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…
January 19, 2011
Dear reader, in yesterday’s post I let y’all know that I would be trying out a few different things this week. I want reading and thinking about the Bible to be a creative act. So in today’s experiment I’ll write a story. Now, I’m kind of cheating, as it’s a story you’ve probably heard before. Well, you’ve definitely heard it if you’ve read Genesis 40-43. My idea is to read those chapters and then write out in the story in my own words, without referring back to the text. Here’s the result:
Joseph, the betrayed brother, the beloved son of Jacob now found himself wrongly imprisoned in a foreign land. He had found favour with the prison warden, who gave him charge over other prisoners. But sometimes favour just feels like extra work though, doesn’t it? He still dreamed, still hoped in God, on the brighter days.
Now there came a time when employees of the Pharoah were thrown into jail, and Joseph was to wait on them. These men were nice enough, the wine-taster and the baker, and he got to know them a little, enough so that he noticed one morning when their expressions changed for the worse. The men had dreamt dreams, but who would interpret them?
Joseph knew, unlike others around, that it was not a special skill you needed to interpret dreams, but a touch of faith. So he told them that he, with God’s help, would reveal their dreams meanings, and somehow they believed him. So each in turn told their dream. The first of thee vines and a cup held by Pharoah himself, the second of three baskets and bread pecked by the birds. The first dreamer found joy in his interpretation, and this had made the second brave, but he would find despair. For one would live and one would die, and on the third day, like so many proofs after, it came to pass, just as Joseph had said.
“Remember me.” was Joseph’s simple request to the wine-taster, the living man, and for a while hope fluttered in his heart. Any day now he would be free by command of the Pharoah, his innocence would be known and, perhaps, he would return to his father. But the day was long in coming, and just as he had begun to forget his hope, his touch of faith paid off. He was called to his destiny, but first he needed a shave.
The Pharoah had dreamed dreams, dreams that the fate of a nation, of a world. Seven sleek and fat cows being eaten by seven starved ones, seven healthy ears of corn devoured by seven hungry ones. No one knew what it meant, until Joseph was remembered, and called. Of course, he did not know either, but God did and he knew God.
There were to be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of scarcity. The only way to survive was to plan; they would need to collect a fifth of all that was produced in the next seven years. Joseph knew this, he had always had a knack for organisation, with his father, with his former master, even in prison. Somehow the Pharoah saw this in him. Joseph, was, after all, the only one who could interpret his dream.
And then it seemed to happen all at once. From being prisoner Joseph was suddenly second in the land. This Hebrew boy was given a grand home and a chariot, power and authority, and a wife, a beautiful wife. He loved her, and she bore him two sons. He began to forget the pain of the brothers who had left him for dead; his family was here now. He wanted for nothing. But still, a part of him ached.
Perhaps he was not surprised when, in the time of famine when all were coming from near and far to find food, he saw the ten figures approaching. Men from the land of Canaan, Hebrews, he was told. But he knew already who they were, and he was overcome. With what? Anger. Grief. Perhaps worst of all, love.
There they were, his brothers. Bowing before him now, just as in his dream. The thought flickered across his mind that without the dream its prophecy wouldn’t have come to pass; it was that which pushed his brother’s jealousy over the edge, that made them abandon him.
He longed to be recognised, but when they looked up at his face they did not see. How could they? He was grown and he was alive. How would they see their brother’s ghost in the face of this Egyptian. His name and his language had changed, he wandered what part of him, the beloved son of Jacob, still remained.
It was then that he panicked. Where was Benjamin? His mother’s only other son was not among them, had they killed him? Or left him for dead too? He had to know, so he concocted some story; they were spies and to prove their story they would have to bring their brother back. But they should leave a brother as collateral.
He saw their fear of him, they called him themselves his servants, and then he heard them speak. He had not heard his mother tongue for many years, just the familiar tones brought tears to his eyes. And what they were saying; that this misfortune was a punishment for their mistreatment of their brother long ago. How true it was, yet they did not know and he could not tell them, not without Benjamin. He went away to weep, his control could stand no more.
When he returned he selected Simeon as their guarantee and sent them home, but not before he had ordered for their bags to be filled with wheat and their money returned to them. Of course, they could not know the reason for this. Yet.
And then Joseph waited. Meanwhile the brothers travelled home. Reuben repeated what he had been saying for many years. If only they had listened to him and cared for their little brother; God would not have punished them so. It was perhaps Reuben, the firstborn, who had carried the most guilt all these years; he could not stop it and now he watched his father wither away with grief, clinging unhealthy to Benjamin; the only son of his beloved Rachel left in this life.
And, of course, Jacob would not give up his youngest son to this unknown Egyptian, however hungry they were. His sons pleaded with him but it was only when the food ran out that he yielded. He was bereaved, he said, as he watched them leave again. Since the day they had returned with the torn cloak of his dreamer son he could not bear to watch his sons leave.
When they returned Joseph was waiting. He ordered them to come to his house. Now course, they were afraid and they began their interaction with him by offering gifts and explaining the mistake with the money; they had meant to pay for his grain. They were not thieves, they were his humbled servants. But they were surprised by his easy manner; he had received the money, they need not worry. They were to eat with him, and their brother, Simeon, was returned.
They joy that Joseph felt on seeing Benjamin seemed to blind him. When his brothers were seated around their table, ordered from oldest to youngest, he longed to take his place among them. But it was not yet time. Instead he made his excuses and rushed away, to weep again, like he had done these many weeks, waiting. He had been trying to stifle his hope, afraid that the brothers would never return. But they did not leave Simeon as they had once left him. Perhaps they had learned.
So Joseph took his place at the Egyptian table, but he sent portions to his brothers, and the biggest by far to the little one, whom he had once seen in his mothers arms and was now grown. He would spoil him for all those times that he had missed…
To be continued!!
Well, that was fun. I hope you enjoyed it. But was it a good experiment?
Yes, definitely, I feel like this story, which is very familiar to me, has been refreshed. Writing it out like that made me really connect with the emotions involved, especially for Joseph, but also for Reuben and Jacob. I also noticed that, for me, the dream interpretation and the getting all rich and stuff is not the remarkable part of the story; it’s the family stuff that really gets me. I got a sense of Joseph’s longing for home even through his great success. It also hit me how every misfortune led him to the amazing place he finally finds himself.
Wow, I’m actually raring to go now, can’t wait to read the next part, think I’ll probably use this exercise again. But there’s a whole week of wonder to come before then. And I wonder what I’ll do tomorrow with the Psalms…
Dear reader, this is my 70th post. Go me! Although I had originally intended to post every day that hasn’t really happened, as you know. This is partly health, partly work, partly fun stuff getting in the way, and I think that’s fine. But I must admit I’m not really ‘raring to go’ with this blog at the moment. When I began it was the first flush of enthusiasm; a new project is always enlivening (unless it’s a let’s-clean-the-skirting-boards-with-a-toothbrush project of something of that ilk). But as winter set in and I realised I wasn’t suddenly going to go viral and become and internet sensation, I felt slightly less enthusiastic.
What I’m realising with this process is that it’s not just about learning what the scripture says, which was my original intention. It’s actually teaching me about my relationship with the Bible; my prejudices, my favouritisms, my cynicism. This is something of real value, and something I hadn’t really thought about before. But it’s obvious really, that our state of mind affects how we approach, and so how we absorb, the words in this book.
Recently I’ve been feeling a bit stale, a bit stuck around this project. I’m reading dutifully, but not joyfully. I suppose that’s a common experience with Bible reading. And the principle of self-discipline – ploughing on when we’d rather be watching Friends repeats – is a good one, but I’m wondering what’s to be done? I’m wondering whether reading the Bible could actually be…fun… dun dun der!
I love being playful, irreverent even, but somehow I don’t include this part of myself this with the process of reading the Bible. But why not? There are jokes in there! Hebrew scholars tells us there are lots of puns and plays on words in the Old Testament, which we sadly lose in translation. And then there’s the New Testament, there are loads of jokes in there. Why do you look at the splinter in someone else’s eye when there’s a log in your own? Classic! And Paul’s not adverse to a joke or two either, honest! But I always come back to the idea that, finally, our experience must profound. Even if that means it’s profoundly boring.
So, dear reader, what to do, what to do? Mix it up a bit of course!
And that’s what I did with good old Paul and his letter to the Corinthians. I have definitely learned about my prejudices to Paul through this reading. In my head his letters speak in a serious and self-satisfied tone. So I decided to counteract that with my first mixing-it-up experiment. There’s nothing like a bit of silliness to loosen things up.
I read 1 Corinthians aloud in a number of different voices. First, as a Blue Peter presenter, then in a sort of swanky advert voice (“you too can have a sparkling new X”, that sort of thing), and finally, and a bit more seriously, in the voice a nurturing, caring mother; something I rarely think of Paul as!
So did it help? Well at first I thought maybe not. It amused me to read the words of Paul in the voice of an overenthusiastic children’s TV presenter, sure, especially saying things like “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person” in a relentlessly cheerful manner. And perhaps I heard the words differently than before. But I found myself asking, what insight in the words am I gaining here? And the answer was, pretty much, none.
But do I need to gain insight every time I pick up the Bible? Surely to expect a daily epiphany is a bit much? My experiment wasn’t geared in that direction, rather it was meant to bring a bit of life, and a bit of me into my relationship with this book. What reading 1 Corinthians 3-4 aloud in these different voices did was nothing dramatic; I havent suddenly fallen madly in love with Paul and all that he was. To be frank, whatever tone I read “I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” in it doesn’t lose its patronising edge (4:16). But it did something; shifted something. I helped me to enjoy reading the Bible, with a pinch of a irreverence, but all the same to engage in a new way. And the voice of the mother helped me to consider the idea that Paul wrote in a spirit of love. I invite you to give it a try. Can you think of some out of the box voices? Please share them!
I think the word relationship is a good one to apply to how we interact with the Bible. Whether we’re acquaintances or long-term lovers, there seems to be more going on than the dynamic of a person and an inanimate book. For my part, I believe that the Bible is alive, speaking to us in new ways and revealing the ever-newness of God, if we’ll listen. That’s why it’s so important for me not just go through the motions. Like in every relationship, I need to put the work and mix it up if things are going to last.
So over the next week (month? year?) I’ll be trying a few experiments different ways of responding to what I read. Jesus came to give us life in all its fullness, why should we limited and uncreative in our approach to the book that tells us this good news?
Oh, and if you’re unfamiliar with the ‘blue peter presenter’ genre, enjoy:
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.