And we’re back the letters of Paul. In Romans 3-4 he’s continuing his argument that relationship with God is not only open to Jews, but also to Greeks (by implication to all) and that faith, not adherence to the law, is what now matters in one’s relationship with God. At least that’s what I think he’s saying; I don’t know if it’s the translation or if my brain’s still recovering from the weekend’s stresses but it seems to me that Paul’s prose is some of the most wordy writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of deciphering.

I did find one part pretty darn clear though. 3:9-19 is encouragingly entitled “None is Righteous”. Wait, it get’s better! “Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive…” Nice. I don’t know about you but last time I checked “the venom of vipers” was not under my lips (3:13).

Like much of Paul’s writing, in fact much of the Bible, this passage can seem extremely harsh at first. The implication here is that we are all sinners, that none can follow the law to the extend that would make them righteous before God. That’s hard to hear, we know that some people live better lives than others, so why isn’t Paul giving them any credit?

Somehow, though, I find the sentence “there is no one who is righteous” profoundly freeing.  When I don’t hear as an attack, but as an offering of wisdom, it becomes quite wonderful. No one is righteous. I can’t be righteous. When I accept that, though I don’t stop trying to do the right thing  or ‘be good’, I can stop hating myself for not attaining some insane vision of perfection. Because what Paul’s saying isn’t “you’re a bunch of sinners and there’s no hope for any of you!” I think it’s more like “we’re all a bunch of sinners, but there’s still hope for all of us!”

I’m not perfect, and the gospel is not that God will make me perfect. It’s that in all my imperfection He still sent Jesus to live and die for me. For us. And when I can accept that imperfection, there is freedom. Freedom from those horrible voices within all of us that tell us we’re not good enough, that we’ll never be. If I can turn around and say to those voices “yeah…and?” they lose all their power. Not that I shouldn’t try and improve on my faults, but that they are not what define my life. If I can shift focus (and I often can’t) away from making myself into the perfect person and onto serving God then everything begins to change. So acknowledgement of my imperfection can make room for God’s sublime perfection in my life.

With this knowledge there are moments when I realise that there is no state that I need to attain, no amount of gold stars I need to collect, to be welcomed by God, and to be serious about living for God. When I remember this there are new horizons of promise that open our before me, because I am not limiting what God can do through me by some crazy idea that I have to be perfect, or at least much better than I am, before we can get started.

The moments when I really know this are rare, so I’m I have Paul to remind me. Even if he does have a rather forceful way with words. Well, nobody’s perfect…

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Good old Paul. Good old verbose, passionate, occasionally infuriating, often inspiring Paul. What the New Testament be without him? Well, very very short for starters.

These first two chapters bring up the mingled feelings of affection and frustration I have with the letters of Paul. I love his sheer bombasticy (not a word, but should be), his zeal and his directness. Even his salutation is a nifty summary of the gospel with references to Jewish heritage as well as a welcome to the Gentiles. He doesn’t waste time, our Paul. No sooner has he given effulgent thanks for the Roman Christians and slotted in a couple of verses about the power of the gospel than he sets off on hot subject number one; the guilt of humankind. ‘O here we go!’ says a naughty little voice in my head.

This stuff makes difficult reading for me if I’m honest. I didn’t grow up in the church and I had to work hard not to be completely thrown by words like ‘wickedness’, ‘evil’ and ‘impurity’. Not that they just occur in Paul, of course, but they are rather densely clustered here! Yet if I can get through the language laden with hundreds of years of human baggage there are so many gems in this reading; so many truths.

Before I go any further, though, let me deal with the big homophobic elephant in the room. Verses 26-27 make me profoundly uncomfortable. When these passages are read as ‘homosexuality is a sign of human degradation’ it makes my skin crawl. For me this a prime example of a culturally specific part of the Bible that we don’t need to take literally, just as we would no longer tells slaves to obey their masters or women to keep silence in church (if you would do either of those things then this might not be the blog for you.) This was a time when there we no space in society for same-sex couples to develop a loving, monogamous relationship and build a family. Now, thank God, there is in many countries. The Message translation of this text puts in lots of modern conservative Christian thought that’s not there but it does also say the problem was “all lust, no love”. That’s a sign of us going astray but it can happen to straight people as much as gay people, believe me, I know! So I’ll attempt to put this archaic aspect aside and concentrate on the more eternal truths to be found.

Paul writes that God’s divine nature is revealed in his creation; that though He is invisible he can be seen in the glory of the world (1:20). Later in, chapter 2 he tells us that those who obey the law without knowing it will be rewarded. He says that the law is not just something you hear and obey but something that is written in our hearts (2:15). He is writing this to break down distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, a favourite campaign of his, but more than this he’s illustrating the universality of God’s call, God’s truth.

But still, it’s not all peachy. We have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, he writes in 1:24. In the same verse he mentions about idol worship – worshipping the creature rather than the creator. This speaks to me of how easy it to reduce God to our parameters of understanding, rather than submit in awe to the Mystery we will never solve, but can somehow serve.

The lies are easier sometimes, aren’t they? We have swapped golden idols for money and images in magazines now. The perfect body, house, relationship, life. We worship ideals dictated more by commerce that anything else. I’m guilty as charged here. I once went to a great Christian arts campaigns night about fairtrade and one of the most striking things I wrote was the sentence “help us who love things more than their Creator”. When I buy something to cheer me up instead of leaning on God am I any better than the people with their secret golden gods? I can only answer no.

Paul really nails it in for me when he warns against judging others in early chapter 2. “Takes one to know one” says the Message translation. I don’t think I’m a very judgemental person, but I totally am on this front. When I see someone driving an immaculately clean 4X4 in the city or who spends more on his/her appearance than I spend on food, I judge. And Paul, with all his strictness and zeal, reminds me of my profound imperfection, reminds me that I fall short daily.

Now, this is a depressing ending to my usually breezy posts, unfortunately we haven’t got to the part of Romans that says “don’t worry if you’re not perfect, be Jesus is, yay” (not sure if that’s quite word-for-word…). But yay all the same. It doesn’t mean I don’t need reminding that there’s (a heck of a lot of) room for improvement. Indeed, if I didn’t need that much of the Bible would become pretty redundant, especially good old Paul. But somehow it’s easier to face my own imperfections when I know that they’re not the be-all-and-end-all. God is the be-all-and-end-all, even gentiley old me knows that. It’s written on my heart.

Isaiah 1-6, phew, that’s a lot to take in. Highlights include the old favourites; “they shall beat their swords into to ploughshares” (2:4); “Here am I; send me!” (6:8) and of course the Sunday morning favourite “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” Each of these verses deserves a treatise of its own, each of them have blessed and will bless me and you and us. But to cherry-pick these 21st century friendly (if any Bible verse can be called such) lines would really not reflect the ambience of the chapters as a whole, would it?

Here’s the general drift: God is angry. Majorly angry. Wrathful, if you will. As with huge swathes of the Bible (see recent posts on Job and Joshua) it all seems a bit harsh on first reading. Most striking to me is the vitriol against the “haughty” daughters of Zion; “the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.” Oh matron! Sorry, serious times are going on down in Zion, this is not the time for Carry On references…

The truth is that I find it hard not to make jokes about verses like that. I feel compelled to somehow defuse my middle-class, western, liberal (oooh I hate that word!) discomfort with these verses of desolation. So I’ll write “swords into ploughshares” in nice writing and put it up somewhere and forget the slightly threatening tones of the song of the unfruitful vineyard (5:1-7).

Or at least, that’s how I used to feel. Thankfully, my eyes were opened to the ferocious appetite for social justice that lay within the biting words of Isaiah – especially by great Christian campaigning groups like SPEAK. I used to find “righteous anger” a bit of oxymoron, and I would read passages like Isaiah 1, which describes the desolation and degeneracy of Judah as if it said “God has punished you so now you’re like this” rather than “look what you’ve done! now you’re like this”. But prophecy is truth-telling’. The people of Judah wonder why everything’s gone so wrong and Isaiah’s not afraid to tell it to them straight; you accumulate with no view to the future, you neglect widows and orphans, you live in opulence and take from those who have nothing. So greed begets greed, violence begets violence, oppression begets oppression. From Exodus to the gospels God is the God of the oppressed; when you become the oppressor it’s very hard to stay in tune with Him! So in Isaiah God’s turning that great old break-up line on its head; “it’s not Me, it’s you!”

This is heart-breakingly apparent in the song of the unfruitful vineyard when the gardener asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done?” The voice of God, like a forlorn parent regarding their misguided progeny. It’s been almost 3000 years but still the alarming revelation that blessing, security and even salvation don’t guarantee a faithful heart, or a people dedicated to compassion. See also the Conservative party front bench (oh no she didn’t!).  

 5:8 incisively illustrates how one can be isolated by ones own greed:

 Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!

This could be a message for any Western nation in the days of climate change and decreasing bio-diversity 

So though I’m left rather shell-shocked by it all, I’m glad it’s in there. Sometimes it seems that social justice is on the fringes of the Church. In fact I once heard a ‘celebrity pastor’ (now there’s an oxymoron) from the US say that if your church teaches social justice issues you should leave it. I’m not sure what Bible he was reading! Maybe the Tea Party Translation (oh no she didn’t!)

And it’s also nice to know that along a good, and very necessary, telling off there’s also hope. More on that next Saturday I’m sure (for unto us a child is born!) But for now “swords into ploughshares” ain’t bad…not bad at all…

photo by the talented Sterlic http://www.flickr.com/photos/sterlic/

Testing times… (Job 1-2)

October 15, 2010

Today I begin my journey into a book of profound poetry that wrestles with that most timeless issue; unjust suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? A first reading of Job’s first chapters might give you a rather disturbing answer; because Satan tells God to do it…huh??

A brief(ish) synopsys: Job is very good man who also happens to be pretty loaded and very fertile – 10 children (7 of them sons; big bonus for the patriarchal Israelites), about a billion cattle. It didn’t go to his head mind you, he’s well holy, even offering sacrifices just in case his children sin at their dinner parties. So, as you may have guessed, God’s well pleased with his man Job and likes to tell the “heavenly beings”, and among them Satan, all about him. Satan is not impressed; “of course he’s good and holy; he’s loaded! Take away his cattle and children, then you’ll see, he’ll curse you.” Rather remarkably, God agrees to this! So in the space of about 5 minutes Job loses everything (except his wife, but that doesn’t seem to be much comfort to him as he calls her a “foolish woman” in chapter 2). Job responds by tearing his clothes, shaving his head, and worshipping. Nice. Another Heaven scene occurs, God boasts about his devout Job again, but Satan’s not having any of it; “yeah yeah, but if you took his health…then he’ll curse you.” Astonishingly, God agrees again… But again Satan’s plan fails. Job says wisely (to his ‘foolish woman’) “Shall we receive good from God and not receive bad?” Pretty impressive stuff (apart from the sexism, which we’ll put down to post-traumatic stress for now).

What’s not so impressive, rather perplexing, is the exchange between God and Satan. If we read Satan as ‘the devil’ then this is pretty worrying stuff! So who is he? Well he only pops up in three verses than aren’t Job in whole Hebrew Bible (Zech 3:1-2; Chron 2:11) and is not to be confused with Satan in New Testament. In Greek Satan is used interchangably with “the devil”, it’s less clear cut here. Satan is present among “the heavenly beings” and the Hebrew “ha-Satan” (the satan) can be translated as “the accuser”, or commonly “the prosecutor” in the context of Job. “ha” shows that a name is a title bestowed on a being, not the being’s names itself.  David M. Carr (An Introduction to the Old Testament) actually says ‘satan’ comes from the Hebrew “to roam” so it could just mean  a roaming spy, a position in Yahweh’s divine council that informs God of His people’s wrong-doings… though you wouldn’y think God needed spies…

The main thing is that this doesn’t have to be read as God being manipulated by the Devil (phew!) ‘the satan’ seems to be part of the Heavely court in this narrative. Perhaps it is a device to show us a “thought process” of God – if He can be said to have such a human thing – and introduce the very pertinent question “do you worship God because of what you have been given or because He’s God?”

Whatever answers the book of Job ends up giving us (stay tuned to find out!), we can pretty safely say that the authority begins and ends with God. God gives the Satan power; he doesn’t have on his own. And at the end of Job (spoiler alert!) the Satan is not there, it’s just Job, his friends and God, implying that the ultimate authority over suffering rests with God. But then again, that’s pretty hard to swallow too, isn’t it? I suppose that’s why our Holy Scripture has a 42 chapter reflection on the nature and causes of suffering slap bang in its middle.

The Epilogue to this heavenly tale is too moving to be ignored. Job’s friends hear of his suffering and set out to “console and comfort him”. When they arrive they mourn with him; “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word with him, for they saw his suffering was very great.”  Later they debate the meaning of suffering, but for now they just sit, they don’t try to do anything for Job, they’re just with him. Wonderful. It seems God had not taken all of his riches after all…

And what a way to begin. Genesis 1-2:3 is wonderful isn’t it? True poetry; “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the water.”

And from that came sky and light and tree and birds. Even “great sea monsters monsters” get a mention. And finally, but never finally, us. “Let us make humankind in our own image…male and female he created them”. These first 34 verses are so profound, so potent with meaning and significance that I have few words. I’m sure I’m seeing them as is a dark mirror dimly. They effect me very much like John 1 does. There a rhythm to these words that seeps truth into your pores. Read it, read it now! It tells us of a God who brings light from darkness, fertility from barreness and who gives us the gift and responsibility of his creation.

I didn’t know until recently that many scholars agree that this and Genesis 2:4-3:24 are two different accounts of creation, but it makes sense to me. It’s feels awkward to fit these two together. Creation has a different order and the depictions of God really contrast . In the first story God is he but seems more mysterious and formless than God in the Garden of Eden, who talks with Adam and strolls through his creation. I’m not saying these are different Gods, not at all, but different aspects definitely. And it’s nice to have them side by side, as if one of the first messages of the Hebrew scriptures is a pluralilty of experience and understanding; something I feel the Church could do with embracing more and more.

The story of Eden is one we all know, or we think we know. There is no apple, Eve is no whily minx (she isn’t even called Eve yet, just woman). It is certainly one we recognise. Wanting the one thing we can’t have; knowledge not always being a blessing; shame that drives us away from God.

But I suppose what I want to say today is don’t forget the first chapter of Genesis, or see it as a prologue to Eden. Genesis 1 tells us we were made in the image of God. That’s really important. I don’t think it matters if you don’t take the six days literally, I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that we are part of God’s creation, which he called good “indeed, it was very good”.

There is prevelant theology that we are inherently wicked, which some verses of scripture, especially from the psalms, seem to back up. That idea that our innate nature being displeasing to God always troubled me. Indeed, the week before I was baptised I broke down into floods of tears at my house group because that very thing was being discussed and I was worried that I shouldn’t get baptised in a church that held this idea as true. Needless to say everyone was very loving about it and I took the plunge that Sunday. It is nice for me, then, that here in Genesis 1 I find an ally. God created us in his image and called us good; could we really be capable of changing the very nature of God’s creation? We can forget it, corrupt it, we can live in a state of sin that separates us from it, absolutely – that’s what I think the Eden story is about to a large extent – but change it? Change God’s creation inherently? There’s nothing about that in chapter 3. Toil and conflict? Sure? A state of irrevocable wickedness? Not so much.

So I am thankful for this first, deep mystery, that of creation, into which our Bible gives an insight. God created light out of darkness. I look out of my window now and see sun on autumn leaves and blue sky. And I am thankful to the creative God in whom I believe and whose work I could never reverse, however badly I screw up. And who will not turn away from me even though I hide in shame. Before God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, he makes them clothes…