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!
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:
October 25, 2010
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…