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!

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.

Mark 1

             good news

  Son of God

         prepare

                repentance

                            forgiveness

                                                                 baptised

                                                                             Spirit descending

                                                               pleased

                                  wilderness

                                                 tempted

                                                             angels

        time is fulfilled

                                repent

                                                believe

                                                                                                   fishermen

                                                                                                               followed

                                                                                              immediately

                                       Sabbath

                                               authority

                                                        a new teaching

                                                 fame

                                                                                                                          fever

                                                                                                                                      lifted her up

                                                                                                                           left her

                                                                               sunset

                                                                    gathered

                                                          cured

                                                cast out

                                                              they knew him

                                                                                                         morning

                                                                                                                         dark

                                                                                                            he prayed

                                                                                                                             searching

                                                                                                              let us go on

                                                    make me clean

                                        freely

                                              proclaimed

                                                                 and people came to him from every quarter…

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a reduced Bible company? You know, like the Reduced Shakespeare Company, but performing shortened and hilarious versions of books of the Bible? It was this thought that led me to today’s experiment (not on Psalms, that’s tomorrow; I was getting a little ahead of myself) on 1 Samuel 1-5.

After all, this is a busy world, who has time to read actual scripture? What we all need is nice little summary, someone else can put in the hours. In fact, perhaps this is where I can make my fortune: the condensed Bible! I’ll call it ‘the Bible lite’, or the electronic version; the i-ble.

Actually, I think it already exists, and it’s a rubbish idea. If you shorten it you take out the poetry and probably a lot of the prophecy, just keep the stuff in that makes ‘the story’ flow. I bet a lot of the women’s stories get axed as a consequence! So, don’t take this too seriously (as opposed to all other posts, which are gravely serious), but here’s my reduced 1 Samuel 1-5, for your enjoyment:

Chapter 1: Hannah wants a child she prays to God and gets one; enter Samuel future Nazarite.

Chapter 2: Hannah sings; Eli’s (the high priest) sons are naughty; God gets angry; Samuel grows.

Chapter 3: Samuel hears voices and it turns out it’s God; phew! But God’s going to kill Eli’s entire family; not so phew!

Chapter 4: Israel goes to war, the ark of the covenant is captured, Eli and his son’s die (big surprise) but their daughter in law gives birth; every cloud has a silver lining?

Chapter 5: The Philistines have the ark, but discover it comes with a large helping of terror and tumours. After passing it around to various unwilling cities, they soon decide it’s not worth the trouble.

So there you go, that’s it in a nutshell, no need to read it yourself now, if there? Well, okay, it doesn’t quite capture the feel of the whole text…

This was an interesting experiment. It feels a bit like a task out a textbook in school ‘read the first five chapters and then briefly summarise…’ It was amusing, and I’m all for Bible reading being fun but it felt a bit mechanical and that’s not really what reading the Bible is about is it? This exercise shows me that just knowing what it says isn’t enough. The feeling I got with this experiment in contrast to the one in my (very long) last post, where I wrote the whole thing out as a story, is markedly different. I feel sort of flippant about the first five chapters of Samuel, whereas I felt so emotionally engaged with the story of Joseph. So it’s not enough just to read, or just to regurgitate. The reading requires something of you, asks you to invest and to empathise.

Today’s experiment seems to have kept these stories distant and their protagonists imaginary. Perhaps a better way to do something like this would be to give each actor a sentence to say. Hannah’s might be “I have made a blessing into a sacrifice and so I have been more blessed” (see 2:18-21), or Samuel might say “How is it that I hear God? Who am I and what does he want with me?” Instantly I feel more engaged and I hear God speaking through these lives.

The Bible is a book about people. What an obvious thing to say, yet it seems to me like a revelation. It is a book, of course, about God, but all is expressed through the words, the lives, the experiences of people. It shows a glimpse of the Almighty, but it also shows us the breadth of humanity. And I, in my humanity, am discovering a new way to be with the Bible. There are so many voices in these texts, waiting to be heard. Perhaps this has a wider meaning.

We wait for the voice of God to speak to us like he does to Samuel; loud and clear and from the sky. But perhaps he is always speaking to us through the lives and voices of others, just as these lives written down in the Bible speak to us. Perhaps if we paid attention, we’d hear him everywhere…

Listen up! (Job 13-14)

December 2, 2010

One could quite easily get to Job 13-14 and think “alright Joby mate, change the blooming record, I mean you’re talking but all I’m hearing is ‘moan, moan, moan, moan moan moan moan!” But let’s have a brief recap. Job was a prosperous man with many livestock; they all died. Job had 10 children; they all died. And none of this was spread out, it was like bam! There goes your life Job, hard luck. And Job, good chap that he, is responded by saying “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed me the name of the Lord.” Impressive stuff. Well,at least he had his health, right? Wrong! He then gets afflicted sores all over his body. Ouch.

And at first his friends were incredibly sensitive. They sat with him in silence for a whole week. But when Job starts speaking, boy do they chip in with their two pence. I wonder if they spent that time in silence preparing their pearls of ‘wisdom’ for when the chance came. Last week I wrote about how Job’s suffering had put him on the defensive so that he didn’t hear comfort in his friends’ words. This week I’m realising that perhaps it’s Job that needs to be heard.

In chapter 13 Job asks to be listened to, or to be let to speak, no less than six times. He needs to speak out his grief, his anger, his confusion, his desperation. He needs to make his case to his friends and to God. He does not need a theology lecture or an oration on the nature and causes of suffering.

I have a good friend who likes a bit of moan. And quite right too, he/she (identity preserving non-gendering going on here) has had it rough in a lot of ways. When we spoke I used to try to help him/her look on the bright side, or to put the other person’s view across if they were in conflict. This did not go down at all well and my ‘advice’ fell on deaf ears for the most part. Then one day I was telling friend about something that was upsetting me and I made some over-the-top melancholy statement I knew not to be true like “men always leave me” or something as daft. This friend tried to reason with me “now you know that’s not true; you’ve had a great life, etc etc…” This was perfectly correct, but I did not need correction, I needed sympathy. I needed someone to hear my pain and comfort me. Of course, this had to happen more than once before I realised that I treated my friend exactly the way I didn’t want to be treated. Now I  try to just listen and allow them to me in whatever place they are, perhaps offer some advice if asked, and when I do that the conversation is much more satisfying on both ends.

Job reminds me that we are not rational when we suffering, and for the most part we know that. As Job put it 13:1-2 “look, my eye has seen all this and my ear has understood it. What you know I also know; I am not inferior to you.” We don’t need teachers, we need friends. Luckily, friends are teachers. Like my friend who needs to talk about their not-so-peachy life and taught me a very important lesson. To open my heart and close my mouth, if you like. Perhaps we can all learn from Job’s pleading.

But his friends aren’t the only ones who Job needs to be heard by. He need’s God’s ear too.  And he needs to hear God. There are so many questions in 13:21-14:22. Does God hear them? And does God hear us now? I’d really like a booming voice from the sky saying “yes I do!” just to be sure, wouldn’t you? But that’s not the deal…okay it is at the end of Job, but not for us.

If God’s speaking is subtle then God’s listening is too. He doesn’t hear us like we hear our friends; at the end of the phone at the end of a busy day. He doesn’t receive in Dolby Digital surround sound. But he does hear us I think, somehow, we are heard. It’s just really hard to connect with that truth sometimes, to feel heard by this transcendent intanglible being.

All the more important to listen to each other then…

Reading the gospels in massive chunks is and interesting challenge. All I really want to write about tonight is 11:28-30, in which Jesus talks about rest, but it seems like cheating. There is some difficult stuff in these chapters, a lot of stuff that I don’t understand. But what’s the point of setting out to read the whole Bible if you only focus on the bits you like?

So, I shall have to admit that Jesus uses a lot of strong and difficult words  in Matthew 11-13. He tells unrepentant cities that they will be judged heavily (11:20-24); warns that bad trees bear bad fruit (12:33-37); uses the refrain ‘this evil generation’ whole lot; and says that ‘evildoers’ will be thrown into a fiery furnace on several occasions. Scary stuff.

He also tells a lot of parables in chapter 13. It turns out that the kingdom of heaven is like loads of stuff! A mustard seed, yeast, a net, a merchant… Jesus is concerned that we know that God’s kingdom is powerful and valuable, these stories entice us to go after this kingdom. They come thick and fast, and in varying degrees of comprehendibility. It’s like an onslaught of cryptic wisdom! When Jesus asks the disciples if they have understood all his parables in 13:51 they say “yes”…but I’m not convinced they really did…does anyone?

But among all the warnings and woes, parables and prayers, Jesus makes what is, for me, one of his most powerful speeches;

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  (11:28-30)

When I read these words it’s like my whole being breathes out. Relief floods me. God is offering me refuge, rest.

These gentle words defuse the otherwise harsh impact of much of what he is saying in chapters 12 and 13. His warnings of wrath are preceded by an offering; an offering of another way of living. An option for the world-weary to choose rest.

A God that offers rest. That’s the kind of God we need. Yes he is angry with the spiritual blindness of many, yes he doesn’t mind telling them how it is, but he is not a God who demands only submission. He also offers to take our burdens.

 The world demands constant activity, unceasing productivity. We are valued by how much we do, not who we are. Being “self-sufficient” is something to aspire to. Being busy has become synonymous with being a good person.  But Jesus’ measure is very different. He asks if you are with him (12:30), he asks if you value God’s kingdom above all else (13:44-46).

Accepting the invitation to lay down your burdens is a radical thing to do. To stop implies a deep trust in God; that he will do even if you don’t. It also requires you to stop caring about what the world thinks for a minute, or a day.

So rest a while. Be still and know that He is God. Trust that life will go on while you pause. How better to choose the ways of the kingdom of heaven?

Tonight there are gales blowing in the streets of Manchester. Walking home I saw autumn leaves, which had been neatly swept to the side of the streets, surge up like an orange army and dart around. As I watched them dance frantically, and felt them hit me in the face a few times, I was reminded of the irresistible power of God.

As I come to the end of the book of Joshua I get the sense that it is written to remind the Israelites of the same. At various points they are told “not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (21:45). They are told that it was God, not them that fought and won the battles,  that their success were because of their obedience to and faith in the Lord.

In Joshua’s final speech in Chapter 24 (if the book of Joshua were a film this speech would end it accompanied by some rousing music) he reminds the Israelites of their history from Abraham through to their slavery in Egypt and deliverance to the ‘promised land’. He also reminds them that if they are not faithful to God then they can be cut down just as they were built up.

Although the vision of God who fights battles and obliterates nations is not one I hold dear, I do see the power of this narrative. It is giving the people of Israel an identity in God and ensuring that the Lord is at the centre of their lives. It is reminding them that is not upon themselves that they rely, but upon God; that His power moves through us, but that doesn’t make it our power. Something we could all be reminded of.

So, though Joshua is unlikely to ever be my favourite book, I’ve come a journey since my earlier posts. I’ve realise that me wishing that they had brokered peace-keeping agreements and had group-hugs with their neighbouring nations can led me to look at the cultural context rather than the more enduring message.

The power of God moves through us. Can we yield and dance like leaves in the wind…

For hours today I have been trying to crystallise something to say about the Sermon on the Mount. There should be something, right? The Beatitudes, The Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule, the narrow way… Saying there’s some good stuff in here is like saying Mother Teresa was ‘quite nice’; it doesn’t really cut it. In fact, I just wrote 900 words about this passage, but that didn’t really cut it either. To be honest it’s all a bit too much. There are 24 sections of teaching here and although some relate to each other, some feel quite disjointed. It’s just relentless. I don’t think I’d ever read it all the way through before and I invite you to read if for yourself here. Quite an experience, no?

Taken as a whole, it seems to shake you up, Jesus is coming at you from all angles: What is your heart’s intent? What is you treasure? Where is your focus? What do you worry about? How do you think of others? And perhaps that’s its purpose. This was the beginning of his ministry. He’d just chosen his first disciples, excitement is stirring all aroung and crowds had begun to follow him. So the message is here is “yes, follow me, but if nothing is changing inside of you then calling me ‘Lord’ isn’t going to save you” (esp 7:21). He is not just interested in our loyalty but in the fruits that our lives bear. He is not content with us listening to him if we don’t put his words into  action (7:24-27). Right at the beginning of everything he’s asking us to have a good long look at ourselves… What do you see?

If you feel a bit shaken up too then remember that this whole thing begins with the comfort of the Beatitudes, which are surely aimed, among other things, to bolster the disciples in the face of trails to come. I leave you in the capable hands of Arvo Part:

Forgive me loyal blog readers! I come to you ashamed of my grave failure. A combination of uncooperative internet connection and non-existent inspiration means that there was a great gaping hole where yesterday’s blog post should have been. But fear not; I have returned!

Yesterday around this time I began to write about Joshua 11-15. If you’ve read my other posts on Joshua you know the deal by now. I made dry comments about the rather barbarous tone of this book but tried to restrain from another “what’s going on with all the killing??” rant. I then made a joke about not wanting to ever have to read them passages out in church. They’re full of long lists of unpronounceable names. Then I racked my brains for something more substantial to say…

It was difficult. I tried going down the ‘cultural context’ route; this text would have been important to those who it was written for, affirming their right to the land in which they lived and the faithfulness of their God. But I’ve said that before. When it came to bringing something out for myself, or even better for all of us, I was stumped. So I decided to think it over and finish later. And conveniently forgot.

The truth is I still haven’t thought of anything, nothing genuine. I’m sure Hebrew scholars could tease out a morsel, even a gem, from these chapters. Perhaps you can (please share) but I can’t. But that’s okay. I’m not writing this blog to feign wisdom. So I will share with you that there are parts of the Bible that simply don’t inspire them and even make them think “what is this crazy book?” as a friend of mine put it last week. And I think it’s okay to admit that there are parts of the Bible that leave you cold or confused…though somehow not finding inspiration here still feels like failure.

The poetry of the psalms is even more sublime when contrasted with the drawing of land boundaries and lists of victories in Joshua 11-15. I feel that just by reading Psalms 6-8 I hear the voice of God saying “see, it’s not all bad!”.

In these songs of supplication and praise, beds are drenched with tears, refuge is taken and God’s majesty is praised. Quite a rollercoaster. That such stark contrasts of emotion are established as scripture soothes my anxiety at my own varying responses to the words and promises of God. They show me that I don’t need to choose between showing weakness and confusion and affirming the strength and glory of God. Quite the opposite; in David’s vulnerable, impassioned cries I am exposed to a raw and direct relationship with God. The intimacy of these words beckon me closer, closer to the Beloved to whom they are addressed.

Perhaps this is the problem I have with book of Joshua. It describes the people of Israel when they are invulnerable. It is the story of an unrelenting victory. Though God and his promises are constantly mentioned there is little time for personal doubt,or even rejoicing. These people are on a mission, and they are winning. How can I empathise with that? How can I connect with that? I like my heroes flawed and my plot lines fraught. I like songs of salvation and supplication, not inventories of conquered territory. I doubt I’m alone in this.

And it’s okay. The book of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament weren’t all written with one purpose. Why do i expect to get the same things from Joshua as I do Psalms? It almost seems arrogant for to expect to be granted a new revelation each day. The scripture is not my servant. I am God’s servant. I am reading the Bible and writing not to be served but to better serve.

So perhaps it is I who needs to move from the ridiculous to the sublime From an attitude of entitlement to God’s wisdom and an openess to God’s words and a willingness to be confused or comforted.

I’ve heard a preacher say that the Bible should read us, rather than us read the Bible. If it was reading me today I think I would be exposed as someone who wants to find something to say about everything, but who is truly blessed when rendered speechless.

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

If reading Genesis yesterday made me sad, then reading Joshua 6-10 makes me feel utterly shell-shocked. If you don’t have time to read it, here’s a brief summary; the Israelites kill everyone. Everyone. Men, women, old, young, animals too (unless they take them as ‘booty’). Oh, except the Gibeonites, but that’ s only because the Israelites aretricked into guaranteeing their lives by a treaty (9:1-26). Again and again we’re told that the Israelites left no one alive, even those in retreat, even those inside their own city walls. The last passage of chapter 10 is just a list of places the Israelites destroyed and it ends:

 So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded. 41And Joshua defeated them from Kadesh-barnea to Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, as far as Gibeon. 42Joshua took all these kings and their land at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel. 43Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal.

I’m sorry, ‘as the Lord God of Israel commanded’ and ‘because the Lord God of Israel fought for them’. I don’t recognise this God. Where’s the mercy, where’s the compassion?

The strangest thing is that in the middle of all this Joshua and the Israel renew the covenant with God on Mount Ebal. As part of this ceremony Joshua reads out “all the words of the law”. How about “thou shall not kill”, did he read that out? Huh, huh??

As you can tell I am rather perplexed. This is the kind of text that is used to justify war, even to call wars ‘holy’. It is the kind of text that seems to say God can, will, does take sides in human battles. I can’t help remembering George Bush and Tony Blair saying that God told them to go to war in Iraq. How is this different? And how can I engage with it as scripture?

They say history is written by the victors, but this isn’t true of the Bible. These stories of Joshua weren’t written at the time he lived, but later when Israel was a weaker people. The tales of triumph, of the power of God being with them, would have bolstered a people who were often invaded and occupied, even exiled. Okay, I’d prefer it if they were bolstered by peaceful and loving stories of God’s mercy, but then I am a bit of hippy when all’s said ans done… Their times were brutal in many ways, and they lived in constant flux, with only a few years of dominance in the land they felt was given to them by God. I can never shout for joy when I read this stuff, but I can sympathise with its original audience. It wasn’t written for white middle-class me who lives in a peaceful land (although it’s a land at war in other lands), it was written for them. But this is my book too now, our book – what does it say to us?

Despite all that follows I still like the story of the fall of Jericho. I love the imagery of the magnificent power of God to break down obstacles. I love that the Israelites are told not to “utter a word” for seven days (6:10), until they all shout at once and watch the walls. I like the feeling of collective empowerment and partnership of God. But I don’t like the killing, and I hope I never will. But that’s okay. I knew reading the Bible would be challenging, I knew that writing about every bit of it – not just those that resonate with me – would be even more so. For me if this blog is nothing then it has not at least be honest.

Still, there’s something rousing about the story of Jericho, something exciting and strengthening. So I leave you in the capable hands of Mahalia Jackson whose preformance here helps me to forget the all my reservations and enjoy for a moment the wonderful, all-prevailing power of God …

 

It feels strange to read the first two chapters of Matthew in mid October. Sure, the ‘Christmas gifts’ (the same stuff that’s been there all year but now have superfluous packaging) are appearing in the shops and very soon you won’t be able to walk down a high street without hearing White Christmas, but no one’s actually going to mention baby Jesus until at least mid December are they really. And it’s a shame, because what a story. What a light it shines for us.

There’s no road to Bethlehem, no manger in Matthew, but the essentials remain. Jesus was born “and they shall call him Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us.'” (1:23). I know very little about Orthodox Christianity but I do know that they celebrate the incarnation much more than the traditions I’m familiar with. We seem to focus our hope on the death of Christ, whereas, I think (please correct me if I’m wrong) Orthodox Christians see redemption in God’s coming to Earth. And what a profound blessing that is. He comes as a baby; you can hold God in your arms. What intimacy, what Grace.

And immediately he faces such human challenges. Jesus and his family are forced to flee to Egypt for fear of their lives. Indeed, Matthew devotes a whole chapter to these events; much more than to the pregnancy and birth. He wants us to know about the danger and hardship of the first years of Jesus’ life. This is both comforting and challenging. Comforting because it tells us of the intimacy with which God has experienced human suffering. Challenging because Jesus’ story begins among the outcasts, and it stays there doesn’t it? And so it asks us who have never fled how we will respond to the homeless, to the asylum seeker, to the outcasts everywhere.

That question won’t always be a the forefront of our minds as Christmas commercialism takes over in the next month or so. In fact the slughter of the innocents and the exile to Egypt often gets lost altogether in that no man’s land between Christmas and New Year.  But I shall try to remember, that after the wise men’s presents came murders and exile. It’s not all tinsel and trees… But even in the darkness, God is with us.