February 23, 2011
Dear reader, I have made a discovery! I have always thought of ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ as a very New Testament saying, but guess what? It’s in the Old Testament! Psalm 37:8-11 reads:
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight in abundant prosperity.
Who knew? Well, maybe you did, but I didn’t and I’ve enjoyed discovering it.
I’ve always found that phrase, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ (or the land) a bit tricky. What does it mean? I mean, the meek couldn’t exactly rise up and take the earth by force because then, well, they wouldn’t be meek! In fact, Eddie Izzard puts it a lot better than me (if you don’t like swearing, sorry!):
haha… now where were we…or yes the meek shall inherit the land. You see the thing Eddie isn’t really getting is that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, loves a bit of paradox. It likes to make you go, huh? The Beatitudes are all like that, turning things on their head. The poor get a kingdom? That doesn’t sound right! And here is Psalm 37 too we’re being reminded that all is not as it seems. We’re told don’t worry about the wicked, yes they look they’re in control and triumphant but, you know what? When all’s said and done they’re not (watch our David Cameron!). And it’s the meek that will inherit the land. An unexpected outcome, no? Because God is not subject to the ways of the world. Oh no siree!
And today, for a change, all of the psalms I’ve read (36-38) speak to each other on this point. Psalm 36 begins with a criticism of ‘the wicked’ but then contrasts this with the ‘steadfast love’ of God saying “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings”. Here even those called ‘wicked’ have a chance; an unexpected outcome again. (and if you, like me, find ‘the wicked’ a difficult term then perhaps think of them who have turned from God for the time being, rather a group who you have a right to judge). Psalm 38 is an appeal to God from one who is facing his own brokeness and sin and seeing that enemies are lining up to rub his nose in it, but who turns to God even in his iniquity, trusting that he won’t be forsaken, whatever his circumstances now. So even when things look rubbish, God can still be trusted, another idea to induce a ‘huh’?
The blessing of the meek and the declaration of hope in God whatever the circumstance is a call to vision beyond our sight.
Can we really believe in a world that different? Jesus did… Oh us of little faith.
February 21, 2011
Dear reader, it’s been a while. Have you missed me? Well, okay, I suppose 6 days isn’t really that long, but since this was originally a daily blog it feels like an awfully long time to me.
I’ve been very tired recently and am determined not to make blogging another stick to beat myself with, so I gave myself a little break. It may also have been to do with the incredibly low level of inspiration I’ve got from 1 Samuel 11-15, in which we learn about the misguided as short-lived reign of Israel’s first king; Saul. The dominant thought that arises while reading this rip-roaring war-fest is ‘seriously, this guy?’.
God anoints Israel’s first king and, well, he’s not very good! Perhaps this is because God didn’t want Israel to have a king. As I wrote in my last post on this book, it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. But then we’re used to flawed protagonists in the Bible, aren’t we? I mean apart Joseph, Daniel, Mary and Ruth I can’t think of many irreproachable characters, can you? (yes, Jesus too, obviously!).
The bit that really gets me, then, is not any of Saul’s rashness, but what appear’s to be God’s! In Chapter 15 Samuel tells Saul that the Lord has ordered him:
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
So what does Saul do? He kills everyone, adults and children alike, but spares the King takes the good cattle for his troops and to sacrifice to God. And for this heinous crime he’s told that that’s the end of his anointed kingship.
Any one else find it difficult to believe that God ordered the killing of entire people? I mean, as the kids say, WTF? (excuse my implied language).
And I’m afraid I don’t have a snappy wrap-up or turn-around. I feel I need to read more about these stories to understand them better but as it stands I find this section of the Bible hard to get fired up about, at least fired up in a good way. But I needed to write something, just to get back on the bloggin wagon, I knew it wouldn’t be pretty, but here it is.
I wanted to be honest about that with you guys, because this is a blog about experience, not insight. And right now I’m finding it hard, perhaps you find some of the Bible hard too; that’s okay. But it that could all change tomorrow. Bring on the psalms.
February 15, 2011
Dear reader, today I read Genesis 48-50. I guess, on finishing this rather long book I should feel a sense of satisfaction, perhaps even closure. But instead I feel a bit…hmm… Yes, like that.
This is because, dear reader, I just don’t know what write about. There is some nice heart-warming family time between Jacob and Joseph in chapter 48, Jacob’s ‘blessings’ on all this sons (most of which read more like admonitions!) in chapter 49 and then a sort of ‘wrapping in all up’ bit in chapter 50. I enjoyed reading but nothing jumped out at me.
So, what to do when you don’t what to write? Read!
I read commentaries and sermons on this passage and I found out something very interesting. In 50:15, following Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers say ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ A justified fear, seeing as they left him in a pit to die and have been living from his provision since their reunion.
But the ‘what if’ that we read in English translations is not ‘what if’ at all in the Hebrew; it is the word lu. In all other translations in scripture lu becomes ‘if only’ or ‘would that’. But here it can’t be that can it? Then the translation would be ‘if only Joseph still bears a grudge against us…’ Why would the brothers desire Joseph’s wrath?
Well, two reflections (well worth a read; here and here) that I read suggested that in some way the brothers may well have wanted this. They desired to be punished and so have their guilt assuaged. Joseph offers them forgiveness, but this is a difficult thing to accept.
I really recognise this symptom of guilt, don’t you? This feeling that we deserve retribution, that somehow it would be easier to take that than to fully accept we are forgiven. How hard it is to really accept forgiveness? To see that the past is forgotten, redeemed, washed clean.
This Sunday morning I was standing in church waiting to take communion and I was thinking about what that sacrament meant to me. They sermon had been on Matthew 5:21-26, all about being reconciled with one another before we approach God. And I had been thinking about a certain relationship in which I struggle with feelings on anger.
As the bread and wine came around it struck me that communion didn’t fix me, but it reminded me that I was forgiven. Jesus came so that we might be free from sin; and that freedom only comes if we are forgiven by God. And we can only fully live our freedom if we are aware of God’s forgiveness.
A difficult thing to really accept at the core of our beings; isn’t it? But it is a truth. And for a fleeting moment on Sunday morning I felt it, I felt the freedom of knowing that was nothing hanging over me, no list compiled to be read out at the end of time. There were no grudges being held in heaven.
Aaaah, what a relief!
February 13, 2011
Dear reader, today’s post is very short and, I hope, a little sweet. As you know, it’s valentines day tomorrow and so how apt that I should be reading Paul’s advice on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. However, I must admit, it’s not very romantic!
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ 2But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. (7:1-3)
I can’t imagine any one having that read at their wedding! Now, of course, it’s taken out of context. Paul was actually encouraging the Corinthians, who’d convinced themselves to give up marriage, that the union was good in the eyes of God, that it was fine for them to be married. Though he, believing that Jesus would come again in his lifetime, erred on the side of caution advising those who weren’t married to stay that way.
No, you’ll not find much romance from this chapter of Paul. But don’t despair, I have a found us a verse about love, one to keep in hearts (our real hearts that is, not over-priced chocolate covered or stuffed velvet ones!). And I have found it in the less likely chapter 8, which is all about whether or not the Corinthians should eat food offered to idols. Nestled in the very specific advice, which can feel irrelevant to us now, is this wonderful phrase:
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (8:1b)
Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to act from a place of love, rather than one of superior knowledge, and so he says “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (8:2-3). He asks them to act from a place of humility.
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” I know in my own marriage this is a verse to remember. When we think we’re in the right, when we think the other person simply doesn’t understand; will I act from my ‘knowledge’ or in love (which is always God’s love)?
May tomorrow not be about cards and chocolates and flowers, which will fade so soon (and cost so much!!) but instead may it be about building each other up with a hundred little blessings; making a home of love.
February 12, 2011
Today’s chunk of Bible is the fabulous Mark 3-4. The gospels are fan-flipping-tastic aren’t they? I could write an extended post about each passage but, don’t worry, I won’t. I’ll pick a theme. And today’s theme is…seeds. That’s right; seeds!
Yes, in chapter 4 Jesus tells no less than three parables that mention seeds, and in each the seeds either represent the word of God or the kingdom of God. I’ve been struck by this seed-fest before. I mean, you’ve gotta admit JC liked the seeds. Whilst cycling home tonight I was thinking ‘what is it about seeds?’ I began listing in my head the different qualities of seeds; what are they like? As I did this I realised the many amazing and apt qualities of seeds. Unsurprisingly, Jesus chose his metaphors well.
So here are a few observations about seeds and, perhaps, about the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is like a seed (4:31). What are seeds like?
They have a lot of potential.
They need to be nurtured and nourished.
We think they’re predictable, but we’re often surprised.
They feed us.
They are a renewable resource.
They are natural.
They’re small and unassuming…at first.
They are often self-propagating.
We can plant them.
They need the right conditions but…
Sometimes they germinate despite of, not because of us.
In the cold and dark times they hide just beneath the surface;
They are patient.
Eventually, they bear fruit.
February 2, 2011
‘Because there is no other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.’
A response taken from the Anglican liturgy of Evensong.
Today I read 1 Samuel 6-10. I’ve always been fascinated with what happens in chapter 8, it seems to be a hinge on which Israel’s future turns.
War torn Israel asks Samuel for a king. God has given them tribes and judges, a more diffuse, perhaps even more democratic (in the wider sense of the word) set up, but they want a king “like other nations.”
It is quite clear from this telling of the story that in asking for this they are rejecting, whether consciously or not, God’s kingship over them (8:7-8). Why?
Reading the chapters preceding, it is quite perplexing. The Philistines had victory against the Israelites, yes, but when they stole the arc of the covenant their luck certainly changed (1 Samuel 4-5). In chapter 7 we are told that God “thundered with a mighty voice” against the Philistines and Israel’s land was recaptured; that’s pretty decent stuff (kind of). But then I noticed that just before this victory they had asked Samuel to ‘cry out’ ceaselessly for them. Is it, then, that they trust not in God’s deliverance but in Samuel’s prayer?
Perhaps they can’t quite trust what they don’t see. Perhaps they think they need an intercessor, that there is no way to follow God without following man (and we ain’t talking ‘full God, fully man’ here; just man).
At first I thought this choice was all about not trusting themselves to hear God, to be guided by God. While I think that’s part of it I think there’s something else going on. They want a ruler, they want someone to tell them what to do. Why? Perhaps because they don’t trust each other to be guided by God.
As well as a rejection of God, I see this choice as a rejection of community. In the systems of clans and judges there is room for debate, for consensus perhaps; but with that room comes messiness and effort. It is, I think, the harder route.
When you try to live in community, when no one person is ‘in charge’, then you have to be open to listening to others and to questioning yourself. You can’t just follow the rules, you have to engage with them, test them, even challenge them, or their interpretation. You have to be willing to change.
When someone is telling you what to do from on high you don’t need to wonder if it’s right or wrong, you don’t need to inquire into yourself; you’re just following orders.
In this, latter, model there is no personal responsibility. There is no group ownership of faith. Is there really what you could call a faith community?
From my impression, the early Christians seemed to embrace community living (Acts 2:43-47). There are natural leaders, apostles, of course, there are different roles within community, but there is still engagement of all. This is key for me. And I worry, sometimes, that many just go to church and listen to a sermon and believe it, rather than engage with it. The more I read the Bible, the more sure I am that there could ever be one person who ‘has all the answers, but I’d still love there to be. I still look for a teacher other than Jesus (Matthew 23:8).
There is a telling verse near the end of chapter 8. The Israelites hope that “our king may govern us and may go out before us and fight our battles.” I think they were afraid of the almighty, unpredictable force that has been going out before them. They want something they can pin down, someone they can hear physically, not something they have to stop and listen to ‘in their hearts’. I think that they would rather just have a nice predictable human who they can see and touch; they think it will be easier to obey him. That once they have the right leader then everything will be sorted; life will be easier. They look to another, rather than within themselves.
Enter Saul… but that’s a whole other post.
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.