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 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 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 12, 2011
I love the book of Job. Before reading chapters 19-20 I had a nagging feeling that it was all getting a bit repetitive. You know, Job cries out about his suffering and his friends tell him that God punishes sin, so he must have sinned! When I’m not really engaged it can feel like a bit of a circular argument. But reading today I see this book unfolds its insights gradually, giving glimpses of hope along the way in its exploration of the biggest questions we have.
So in chapter 19 we have Job giving one of his best ‘not fair, it’s all God’s fault!’ speeches. He’s really getting it all off his chest here: there is no justice (19:7), God breaks him down (19:10), and (my personal favourite) his breath is repusive to his wife (19:17). All in all, he’s not happy. But then in the midst of all this there is one of the most famous, moving assertions of hope given in the Bible.
He turns to his friends, with their accusations of his wickedness, and says “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at last he will stand upon the earth. ” (19:25) Despite all of his suffering, all of anger at God, all of his questions, Job holds onto a deep conviction that he things will made right, that he will be redeemed.
This is a knowlede that is central to the Christian faith. “I know that redeemer lives” takes on a new potency in the context of the resurrection. Some even see this passage as prophetic; that Job’s hope too is in Jesus. I’m unsure about this, and mainly because it seems an unnecessary imposition on an already moving text. The idea that hope in God can be present even in times of crippling trail is big enough for me. Job’s words jump off the page, they sing themselves into being. They offer us too the option of faith, whatever our circumstances.
And it is a challenge as well. I know that my redeemer lives. Such certainty is rare in this fickle world. Job seems to ask us if we too know. Do we know that this too shall pass? That though all else dies our God lives and loves and frees us eternally?
To deeply know this; isn’t that what it’s all about?
Handel used this passage in Messiah and his music communicates the hope and peace given through this knowledge, in Christ Jesus, in a way few can:
January 9, 2011
A great set of Psalms today! 29 is pretty awesome, or at least it communicates God’s awesomeness very well. The NRSV entitles it “The Voice of God in a Great Storm.” Pretty big stuff. I shall, however, pretty much just write about the penultimate verse of Psalm 27, because it’s the one that’s going around in my head. This may be partly due to the fact that I know a Taize song that uses its words, but also because these words are gloriously hopeful.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)
Other versions replace “I believe” with “I remain confident in this” (NIV) and “I’m sure” (The Message). The Taize song I love also uses ‘sure’. I like that.
The whole of Psalm 27 oozes confidence in God’s protection, love and justice. But this verse in particular has is something of such promise of it. When I have sung the song before I have almost thought of ‘the land of the living’ to mean the afterlife, but aren;t we in the land of the living?
Today I read these Psalms in the park I live near. The sun was setting on the frozen lake, families were walking and talking together. And this verse just seemed so perfect. Yes, I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. I shall see his Grace and creativity and mercy here, now. Not in only some promised land, but in this tarnished world.
For those of you who don’t know Taize (get to know!), I wanted to share the song with you. There are a few youtube videos of it being sung in the taize commnity, but none are as joyous as the one below, which was filmed on the underground in Belgium! I see the goodness of God in this video, in the smiles and the “alleluia” shouted on this busy tube on this busy day. May you see it too, in this land of the living.
December 28, 2010
Some days reading 6 chapters of Isaiah seems like a verbose and unintelligible mountain. Some days it seems like feast of poetry that you can really get stuck into! Today it is, blessedly, the latter. This probably has something to with the fact that I’ve done very little else all day and so don’t feel squeezed for time as I would on a normal Tuesday. Don’t you just love that hibernation-like time between Christmas and New Year? (if you have been working today, apologies for the smugness!).
Chapters 44-49 of Isaiah pick of the major themes of the book; God as judge but also redeemer, and God as the God. There is an eloquent piece of prose poetry in Isaiah 44:9-20 about the fashioning of idols out of material things. It’s quite beautifully written I think, and really gets to the heart of the futility of trying to make Gods out of the material world (which, of course, God has created). Indeed, the futility of idol worship is a recurring theme in these chapters. As is the assertion that there are no gods apart from the Holy One of Israel. 45:48 ends “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” 46:9 repeats this phrase and adds “I am God, there is no one like me.” 48:12b states “I am He; I am the first, and I am the last.” And again and again we are told of God’s power in creation and salvation.
So what’s new? The assertion that there is no god but God is pretty much stating the obvious to monotheistic ears, isn’t it? This is a given for those who follow the Abrahamic faiths and many more besides. But do we really think about what it means?
Most of us have heard sermons about making idols out of material things. Sure, we don’t fashion statues of gold or silver or cedar, but the way we celebrate Christmas more than hints at the importance of stuff in our lives. Perhaps we do lose focus sometimes, most times?
There is something deeply profound and endlessly repeatable about the statement that God is the god. I really think that if any of us knew that, really knew it, it would transform us entirely. We would be able to surrender in ways we only dream of (and are probably quite afraid of) now.
God is God. God is God. Leaving the descriptions aside, it is enough simply to reflect that He is God and there is no other. Nothing that is supreme, nothing that we can trust like that and, perhaps most wonderfully of all, nothing that we should fear. Because God is God, and there is no other.
I encourage you to sit with that idea for a while, perhaps in your quiet time if you have such a thing. Do you know it? Really know it? What difference would it/does it make to know this profound truth? How could it transform you and your life? Please share your discoveries here if you feel you can. And perhaps I’ll add a comment of two to this post when I’ve sat with it too.
What would happen if we all just let God be God in our lives? I don’t know, but I have a feeling it would pretty amazing.