A grudgeless God.

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!

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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:

 

Happy new year, dear reader. And what better way to start my 2011 blogging with a nice little jaunt through the “woe to you”s and apocalyptic musings for Matthew 23-25? Hmm… this may prove tricky.

Well, it’s not all tricky. Unlike much of the gospels, reading these three chapters together actually makes a lot of sense to me. They don’t so much seem to be a collection of stories and parables joined by many a theme but generally hard to reflect on collectively, but rather as one piece; a prolonged and developing narrative.

However, it just so happens that the prolonged and developing narrative is on the stuff I really struggle with; the whole heaven and hell thing. Well, the hell thing really, the heaven thing is pretty peachy. But these are the kinds of passage that confuse me a whole lot. Is God really going to divide us up like “the sheep from the goats” (25:32) and send some into “eternal punishment” (25:46). It just doesn’t seem right. And I find the whole “God is not subject to human concepts of justice” argument slightly tenuous because a) isn’t the law “written on our hearts”? and b) the people who use that argument also often explain the cross totally in terms of human concepts of justice e.g. “sin can’t go unpunished” and “someone has to take the penalty”.

I think the part I most struggle with, perhaps slightly ironically as a committed Christian, is the idea that belief in Jesus is the only way to heaven, and everyone else if off to the place “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I think many of us struggle with the idea that, for example, George Bush has a one way ticket to paradise because he confesses his faith in Jesus but, say, Gandhi? Sorry mate, you’re heading for somewhere with a rather warmer climate. Yes, that’s a hard one to stomach, I prefer to believe, and perhaps this is a bit of a cop out, that the afterlife is God’s business and beyond human concepts altogether. That doesn’t mean I don’t want people to meet Jesus, no siree. Nor indeed that I don’t feel ‘saved’ and that my sin has somehow been covered, cleansed, washed away by my own relationship with him, I just don’t want to narrow down God’s plan and power to fit my own understanding and experience. But then I worry, is that just a very convenient way to escape a difficult truth, I mean shouldn’t I just believe what the Bible says?

But hang on one cotton picking minute! What does the Bible say? Is it really as clear-cut as it’s sometimes made up to be? Maybe not… It certainly not in Matthew 23-25.

These chapters build upon each other, with ideas about the relationship between this life and the next. 23 is what I think of as the “woe to you” chapter; the part where Jesus really sticks it to the temple authorities for not practicing what they preach and losing focus on what matters. A great example is verse 23: “For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith”, shortly followed by the killer one-liner in verse 24 “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”. That Jesus, always a joker!

Chapter 24 moves on to the apocalyptic predictions, the signs of the coming of the Son of Man, or “the really weird bits” to you and I. These readings are so strange and foreboding to the modern reader, but the apocalyptic was a genre of writing whose aim was to comfort the people. Where modern western culture may be inclined to see “the end is nigh” as a warning, ancient  (and to some extent current) Jewish culture would have seen it as a statement of hope. Plus, it seems, this section gives Jesus a chance to make sure his disciples know that once he’s gone they should not simply wait, but work and prepare for God. The parable of the unfaithful slave in 24:45-51 makes this crystal clear.

So then we have chapter 25, cram packed with parables that can be seen to be about the day of judgement, or the end of time. The parable of the ten bridesmaids, the Talents, the sheep and the goats, and the final story of the King who talks to the righteous and the accursed, from 25:34-46, which contains the famous lines “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Those who are taken into the kingdom are those who cared for the “least of these”.

So what’s missing here? On a second or third reading it occurred to me that there is no mention of faith or belief in these chapters, or if there is then what seems to matter is how that faith manifests in our lives. Controversial, perhaps. Of course, it’s different in John’s gospel and in the letters of Paul, there is certainly mention of faith there. But there is also usually emphasis on behaviour, of peace and mercy. Are we in danger, in the church, of focusing so much on faith that our actions and/or God’s call to justice and mercy, become and after thought? At least, often it’s one without the other; some churches look at personal behaviour but neglect issues of wider justice and perhaps for others the balance tips the other way.

The point is, I think, that ‘justification by faith alone’ is a powerful and profound idea, but it can be taken too far. There is nothing worse than the casual smugness of a Christian assured of their own salvation and just as sure of the damnation of others. Jesus’ descriptions of the “end of the age” (more cryptic than many would have you believe) are book-ended with a call to justice and compassion. The reason that the “scribes and pharisees” are criticised is partly because of faith, but also because of action and inaction.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know of church that preaches “if you believe in Jesus you can do what you like”, nor do I want a church that says “if you’re not perfect you won’t go to heaven”. But I do know of churches in which action comes after faith. In a way I see this; that we need God’s support and blessing on our doings and, of course, that Jesus’ comes first. But does this have to make belief more important? Can they not both be integral to our faith and to our salvation? If we declare Jesus as a our Lord and saviour but have no care in our hearts for ‘the least of these’, can we truly call ourselves Christians, is that Christ-like? No, I don’t think so.

In the amplified translation of the Bible the term “believe in” is extrapolated in two ways. In Matthew’s gospel it is “believe in and acknowledge and cleave to Him” and in Mark’s (16:16) “who adheres to and trusts in and relies on the Gospel and Him Whom it sets forth”. And various combinations of these words throughout the gospels. The words ‘cleave to’ and ‘adhere to’ are key for me here. They suggest that our belief can be more holistic, and can be based in the way we live as well as how we think. This chimes in with Jesus’ words in Matthew 23-25.

So, to believe can be more than to say and think, it can be to do, to live, in a way that clings to Christ and that relies upon God. A life lived in that way is assured for entrance into the kingdom or, as it is put in the parable of the talents (24:21), to “enter into the joy of your master”. I am not sure what this means, I am even less sure what the opposite means. But I trust that Divine justice is so much more than we could ever hope for. It also gives me enough of a kick to realise that this all applies to me too. There is a great Kirk Franklin song with a lyric that asks “tell me how can I love Jesus, when I’ve never seen his face, yet I see you dying and I turn and walk away?”

I hope in 2011 I can live my belief more fully. I hope and pray that for you too. And I hope you’ve enjoyed/endured this rather bumper addition of the blog; I’ve never written a post this long before, but don’t worry, I don’t it’s a sign of things to come!

I’ll leave you again with the inspiring and challenging words of Jesus:

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

I’m having an interesting time with Genesis. I had thought it was a book I’d really get on with, that I would relish the search for deeper meaning in the epic tales of God’s power and purpose. Turns out I feel like that about bits of it. From creation to Noah is fab for me, lots that I’ve thought about before, lot’s to work with. After that, not so much. Until (unless I’m unpleasantly surprised in a few weeks) the story of Joseph, which I love love love!

I know, I know, I’ve written about playing favourites with Scripture before, but this is how it is with me right now. I mean, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all have their moments – entertaining or wrestling with angels is pretty darn cool – but when I’m reading 3 or 4 chapters at a time these moments seem rather fleeting; flickers of light between negotiations for land and goods or, worse by far, questionable treatment of women.

I am referring, in the instance (see precious posts for more), to the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, right in the middle of Genesis 28-31. The meeting of Jacob and Rachel, echoing the story of his mother’s meeting with his father, is quite romantic really. He sees her, he waters her flock (which she keeps herself, by the way, girl power!), he kisses her and weeps. All very promising. So he meets her father, who seems nice at first but turns out to be a bit of tricky so-and-so. Jacob agrees to work for Laban (daddy) for 7 years in return for his daughter, but when he finally gets to spend the night with her he wakes in the morning to find it’s her older sister Leah. Downer! Laban says he can have Rachel too, as long as he works another 7 years! Well, how generous of him.

Now, there are ways of reading good intentions into all this. Jacob does not shame Leah by putting her away, but honours their marriage. If you can call marrying her younger sister as soon as he could ‘honouring’! But really, he worked hard to earn the love of Rachel, and we see the lovely line So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (29:20). He obviously cared for and valued her above money, because, it seems, he chose her over 7 years of wages, which is nice. And Laban, although revealed to be mighty slippery in later chapters, may simply have been looking out for the dignity of his eldest daughter. How would she cope with the stigma of being unmarried while her younger sibling went off to play happy families? So perhaps their intentions weren’t enitrely dishonourable.

But 29:31-30:24 is the passage that really leaves me sad. It’s probably best if you just read the whole thing, but the general gist is that rivalry for Jacob’s love and for status seems to be fought over via the ability to produce sons. Leah produces heirs first, indeed we’re told that  God opened her womb because she was unloved (29:31). When Rachel cannot conceive she gives her maid to Jacob and Leah follows suit. All the time there is a sense of tension, of competition between the sisters. We see this in it’s most extreme and bizaare expression the strange exchange about mandrakes in 30:14-18. Any one know the esoteric meaning of mandrakes??

Is this spirit of desperation and competition really that in which the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel were conceived? Great! It’s just all a bit uncomfortable, isn’t? Not just uncomfortable, but almost tragic. Leah is such a tragic figure to me. She who is given into the bed of a man she does not want her, let alone love her. We hear her voice constantly in these passages saying “now this time my husband will be joined to me” and “surely now my husband will love me” and even after the birth of all her sons “is it a small matter that you have taken my husband away from me?” This level of desperation breaks my heart as I read.

But what do I expect? For the Bible to provide me with flawless role models, perfect in the sight of God? Or amazingly functional families? What planet am I on? If the Bible teaches us anything it is that people and societies aren’t perfect.  So there will be bitterness and rivalry and double-dealing. But the question is where is God in this?

Where is God for Leah? He is the one answering her cries. In the midst of these mixed up people, who feel their loves and rivalries so strongly, God is there. And God’s role in this story is in birth. He is bringing hew life, hope to both women. He is fulfilling the promise to Jacob and his forefathers to make his ancestors as numerous as the stars. God is creating, moving, producing. And whatever rubbish is going on around it, new life is coming into the world. An apt idea to reflect on this advent; that God brings life and hope in the midst of our dysfunctionality.

Is this good enough? Does it take away my discomfort with these passages? Not really, I’ve still got many a rant about the subjugation women and ‘land rights’ up my sleeve. But it does help me see past the brain stuff into the heart stuff. The thought of Leah’s joy at her first born child, in the midst of all her misery, is enough to inspire and edify me.

 

P.S. for those of you who read my last entry: I know it’s after midnight, but this still counts as Monday’s post, and I’m promise it wasn’t a rushed job!

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…