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 21, 2011
Dear reader, it’s been a while. Have you missed me? Well, okay, I suppose 6 days isn’t really that long, but since this was originally a daily blog it feels like an awfully long time to me.
I’ve been very tired recently and am determined not to make blogging another stick to beat myself with, so I gave myself a little break. It may also have been to do with the incredibly low level of inspiration I’ve got from 1 Samuel 11-15, in which we learn about the misguided as short-lived reign of Israel’s first king; Saul. The dominant thought that arises while reading this rip-roaring war-fest is ‘seriously, this guy?’.
God anoints Israel’s first king and, well, he’s not very good! Perhaps this is because God didn’t want Israel to have a king. As I wrote in my last post on this book, it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. But then we’re used to flawed protagonists in the Bible, aren’t we? I mean apart Joseph, Daniel, Mary and Ruth I can’t think of many irreproachable characters, can you? (yes, Jesus too, obviously!).
The bit that really gets me, then, is not any of Saul’s rashness, but what appear’s to be God’s! In Chapter 15 Samuel tells Saul that the Lord has ordered him:
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
So what does Saul do? He kills everyone, adults and children alike, but spares the King takes the good cattle for his troops and to sacrifice to God. And for this heinous crime he’s told that that’s the end of his anointed kingship.
Any one else find it difficult to believe that God ordered the killing of entire people? I mean, as the kids say, WTF? (excuse my implied language).
And I’m afraid I don’t have a snappy wrap-up or turn-around. I feel I need to read more about these stories to understand them better but as it stands I find this section of the Bible hard to get fired up about, at least fired up in a good way. But I needed to write something, just to get back on the bloggin wagon, I knew it wouldn’t be pretty, but here it is.
I wanted to be honest about that with you guys, because this is a blog about experience, not insight. And right now I’m finding it hard, perhaps you find some of the Bible hard too; that’s okay. But it that could all change tomorrow. Bring on the psalms.
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!
February 2, 2011
‘Because there is no other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.’
A response taken from the Anglican liturgy of Evensong.
Today I read 1 Samuel 6-10. I’ve always been fascinated with what happens in chapter 8, it seems to be a hinge on which Israel’s future turns.
War torn Israel asks Samuel for a king. God has given them tribes and judges, a more diffuse, perhaps even more democratic (in the wider sense of the word) set up, but they want a king “like other nations.”
It is quite clear from this telling of the story that in asking for this they are rejecting, whether consciously or not, God’s kingship over them (8:7-8). Why?
Reading the chapters preceding, it is quite perplexing. The Philistines had victory against the Israelites, yes, but when they stole the arc of the covenant their luck certainly changed (1 Samuel 4-5). In chapter 7 we are told that God “thundered with a mighty voice” against the Philistines and Israel’s land was recaptured; that’s pretty decent stuff (kind of). But then I noticed that just before this victory they had asked Samuel to ‘cry out’ ceaselessly for them. Is it, then, that they trust not in God’s deliverance but in Samuel’s prayer?
Perhaps they can’t quite trust what they don’t see. Perhaps they think they need an intercessor, that there is no way to follow God without following man (and we ain’t talking ‘full God, fully man’ here; just man).
At first I thought this choice was all about not trusting themselves to hear God, to be guided by God. While I think that’s part of it I think there’s something else going on. They want a ruler, they want someone to tell them what to do. Why? Perhaps because they don’t trust each other to be guided by God.
As well as a rejection of God, I see this choice as a rejection of community. In the systems of clans and judges there is room for debate, for consensus perhaps; but with that room comes messiness and effort. It is, I think, the harder route.
When you try to live in community, when no one person is ‘in charge’, then you have to be open to listening to others and to questioning yourself. You can’t just follow the rules, you have to engage with them, test them, even challenge them, or their interpretation. You have to be willing to change.
When someone is telling you what to do from on high you don’t need to wonder if it’s right or wrong, you don’t need to inquire into yourself; you’re just following orders.
In this, latter, model there is no personal responsibility. There is no group ownership of faith. Is there really what you could call a faith community?
From my impression, the early Christians seemed to embrace community living (Acts 2:43-47). There are natural leaders, apostles, of course, there are different roles within community, but there is still engagement of all. This is key for me. And I worry, sometimes, that many just go to church and listen to a sermon and believe it, rather than engage with it. The more I read the Bible, the more sure I am that there could ever be one person who ‘has all the answers, but I’d still love there to be. I still look for a teacher other than Jesus (Matthew 23:8).
There is a telling verse near the end of chapter 8. The Israelites hope that “our king may govern us and may go out before us and fight our battles.” I think they were afraid of the almighty, unpredictable force that has been going out before them. They want something they can pin down, someone they can hear physically, not something they have to stop and listen to ‘in their hearts’. I think that they would rather just have a nice predictable human who they can see and touch; they think it will be easier to obey him. That once they have the right leader then everything will be sorted; life will be easier. They look to another, rather than within themselves.
Enter Saul… but that’s a whole other post.
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…
January 21, 2011
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…