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!
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…
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.
January 3, 2011
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Great way to start a post hey? Well, I can’t take all (any) of the credit as a stole it from the beginning of 1 Corinthians, verse 3 to be precise.
The verse that ends today’s reading (chapters 1-2) is equally quotable: “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” The mind of Christ? Wowza. What does that even mean?
In these chapters Paul spends most of his time contrasting the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God.He writes that the message of the cross is “foolishness” to those who do not accept Jesus, or as Paul tactfully describes them “those who are perishing”. I am well aware of how foolish and strange many of the most familiar Christian beliefs are. In my work I have spoken with international students who come from places where little is known about Chriastianity and are perplexed to hear the details: “you believe God was a human?” “well, yes, but also no…” “so you believe God was crucified?” “well yes…”.
My favourite question I’ve been asked is from a Muslim student here to do a PhD; “I’ve heard some Christians eat bread and drink wine and they believe that it symbolises Jesus’ body and blood, what kind of Christians are they? ” His tone implied that the thought it was some kind of sect, until I said “actually, we pretty much all do that, some more often than others, and some Christians believe that it’s actually the body and blood of Jesus.” Now that was an interesting conversation! The point here is not to imply that this guy was one of those worldly foolish types, but to show how alien and unintelligible Christian beliefs can be. This would also be a good point to mention that I have learned and will continue to learn much on my spiritual journey from other faiths and people of all faiths and none.
Paul’s writing can make it all seem pretty clear cut: those with human wisdom don’t understand the gospel, those with God’s wisdom do. But I worry about these conclusions; as I said in my last post, there’s nothing worse than a smug Christian. Okay, so Paul makes it clear that our boast should be in God, not in our own understanding (1:31), but we’re still affirming that we are the ones who have received God’s wisdom; we must be very very of some egos getting puffed up here.
Over this Christmas season (it’s not over until the 6th people!) it really struck me me how much I believe in Jesus; his birth and life, his death and resurrection and the saving grace that he has brought the world. How much I believe the doctrines preached by Christians (including Paul) for two millenia, even if I do shrink from a few of the add-ons. If I have any wisdom then it is through Christ Jesus and I feel it has been revealed to me by the Spirit, as Paul writes in 2:12-13. Believing these things that I do means that I disagree with others, not only with atheists, but with those of other faiths. And I must be true to this, because I would have no integrity if I simply pretended to agree with whoever I was with (though of course there is a time to speak and a time remain silent). But how do I do this with humility?
Perhaps if I never make these beliefs into beliefs about myself; about how I”m right, or I’m spiritual. It feels a bit scary to think about that; to toy with the idea of losing my identity in God’s.
Though I find Paul’s binary languages about Christians and others (e.g. worldly wise and godly wise, spiritual and unspiritual) hard to accept, I do like how he describes his attempts to share God simply in Corinth;
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (2:1-2)
To know nothing except Jesus Christ. What a wonderful concept. Even as I write again I find the concept more than a little scary. “know nothing else? what about all that education I have? what about my theological musings? what about me?” This scared little voice is an unmistakably good sign; not about me, but about the idea.
To know nothing except Jesus. What would that look like? What would we know? Freedom, sacrifice, love, mercy, justice, peace, obedience, passion, forgiveness. What would we forget? Pride, arrogance, greed, money, materialism, selfishness, fear, sin.
Now wouldn’t that be something? Like to having the mind of Christ perhaps…
December 12, 2010
The more alert among you may have noticed that I’ve changed the tagline of my blog to ‘Reading the Bible in a Year, or However Long it Takes…’ This is because recently I’ve been a bit slack on the whole ‘daily’ blog thing. Busy-ness and illness and forgetfulness conspire against this little endeavour of mine. I keep catching myself in the middle of the evening think “aaw! I haven’t done my blog…arg!” (yes those noises actually occur). And sometimes I make myself do it. But sometimes I simply don’t.
Tonight I am tempted to do a botched job. I’ve read most of the chapters of Genesis I need to for my next post, and I could probably produce some ideas about the way Jacob marrying two sisters who compete for his affections by producing male heirs and getting their servants to do likewise makes me feel a mixture of sad and uncomfortable. The problem is that I would be producing it for the sake of writing a blog post. There would be nothing thoughtful, certainly nothing prayerful about it. Not that all my posts have been so, but then that’s kind of the point.
I find myself asking ‘why am I doing this?’ Is it so a few people can be impressed by piety and commitment as I post my daily musings on scripture? Or is it because I really want to form a relationship, to wrestle with, to listen to the Bible? If it is the latter then forcing myself to skim read and write late night ramblings will not fulfil my purpose. But wait! That could be a cop-out. Am I just making excuses about how I can’t possibly keep this up as a daily practice, how it actually makes me a better Christian not to? (I don’t really buy into this hierarchy of Christians malarkey, but you catch my drift.)
With any spiritual practice – and I do like to think of this process in that category – it easy to do two things; to make it into a chore so that there is no life, no joy in it and to make the fact that it’s become a chore an excuse not to do it so often, or even at all. But getting on with the Bible is like any relationship, you start out fresh as excited and then at some point you have to start putting some work in. Things don’t stay new unless they are cultivated. And it is easy to feel like you don’t have time to read, to reflect, to pray, to sing, when you’re not making any time. Now, you may be a really and truly busy person, but me? I’ll be honest, I can make time to watch Strictly Come Dancing so I have no real excuses.
So, dear reader, I promise you this: that you will receive a blog post, and I will make time for the Bible, every day this week. Honest. And thanks for reading because knowing that one or two of you actually enjoy this is making me stick with it.
And what about you? I wonder if there is anything that you once loved that is feeling like a chore for you at the moment? Prayer, meditation, a friendship, your job, your hobby even. How could you breathe new life intoit? Perhaps by taking a break, or by clearing some room around it, so that it’s not just another thing on your list.
Or perhaps there’s something you used to do but you gave up on because it became a chore. Do you ever miss it? That way of praying? That instrument you were learning? That bible study? That friendship that really started getting on your nerves? That place of worship, even? Perhaps you could return to it, just as an experiment, just to see if it really was a chore, or if you talked and busied yourself out of something nourishing. I’d be interested to hear what happens…
My prayer for us this week is that even in this season of 1000 commitments we make time for whatever gives us joy.
Let’s not let life get in the way of living.