The answer.

February 10, 2011

Dear reader, a short but efficient post today, 2 for the price of 1 no less!

Yesterday I read Job 23-24. Basically, Job has a good old rant at God, whom he feels deserted by and at the world’s injustices. It’s a very good rant, the kind of rant where you find yourself thinking, ‘yeh!’ as you read. Oh yes, I can really get on board with Job’s outrage and indignation. The fact that there are people making clothes for the West who can’t afford clothes for their children, or picking crops who can barely feed their families seems very close to Job’s complaints in 24:10-12.

Funnily enough, I didn’t consider writing a post that just said ‘yeh!’ Maybe I should have. I was tired and not feeling so well so I thought I’d wait until today, read Isaiah 61-66 and try to write about them both. Afterall, last week’s posts on these books fed into each other quite well.

Well, dear reader, I get the feeling that if I wasn’t still feeling slightly off-key (and also cooking a meal for 15 students) tonight, I may very well be able to come up with a creative and insightful posts synthesising these two passages. As it is I’m struggling.

But there is a grain, a little seed of something that I’ll share with you.

The passage in Job questions why there is oppression, why there is hunger and deprivation and why those who oppress and steal seem to be rewarded in their earthly lives. The passage in Isaiah begins with these famous words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

These words speak of a God who won’t stand for the very injustices that Job rants against. And these are the words that are read by Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth at the very beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-21). When he had read these words he said “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

So, perhaps, there are no answers to Job’s rants, no adequate ones any way. None that tie everything up and sort anything out.

Except Jesus.

Not that Jesus sorted out the world, so that there’s no oppression or hunger, if only that were true. But that he has come to set us free from this world. He has died and rose again so that all, no matter what their earthly state, might live fully and eternally.

This seems so simple that I find myself wanting to qualify it with lots of disclaimers like “this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for a better world” and “I’m not suggesting that we should say to people who are deep in suffering “cheer up, Jesus died for you!””.

But I’ll try to ignore those impulses leave it at this: Jesus came. And just as Job knew, somehow, mysteriously, in the depths of darkness, that his redeemer lived, just as he trusted in a final, unending justice (23:10), so can we in Christ Jesus. In him there is freedom.

Amen.

Pursuing Peace…

February 8, 2011

Leader: Go in peace, to love and to serve;

All: We will seek  peace and pursue it.

 

Dear reader, I must confess, I don’t pray every morning. Not formally at least. My mind almost always moves towards God, always greets Him, but I don’t always make time to sit down with Him.

But this morning I did sit down, and I decided to use the morning service from the Iona Community to structure my prayer. I don’t do this often, but when I do there is a richness that comes. The response above is taken from the ending of the service, and this morning these were the words that stayed with me. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that by some graceful synchronicity these words are taken from Psalm 34 (part of today’s Bible dose):

11 Come, O children, listen to me;
   I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 Which of you desires life,
   and covets many days to enjoy good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil,
   and your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Depart from evil, and do good;
   seek peace, and pursue it.

Seek peace, and pursue it. Pursue it. I don’t know about you but pursuing is not a verb I associate with peace. In my mind it seems almost predatory. Thinking about this made me realise that I have been thinking of peace as rather a passive thing. A gentle thing. A quiet thing. But can peace also be dynamic, can it be loud and lyrical? Maybe.

I really like this quotation from Baruch Spinoza, a 17th Century Dutch Jewish theologian;

Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.

How interesting. Peace, then, isn’t something that simply arises when conflict stops (I found a great blog post on this subject) but it us a quality, a state to be cultivated and sought after. To be pursued.

But what does that look like?

Well, it must, on one level, mean us as a community speaking truth to power, as the prophets did before us. It must mean crying out against injustice and violence. It must mean speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves.

But it’s not just about breaking down, it’s about building up. It must be about the creation of something new, and this creation surely starts closer to home.

In my church every Sunday morning, as in many churches across the world, the middle of our service is punctuated by ‘the peace’. We stand up and offer each other our hands saying “peace be with you”. Some people even look me in the eye as they say it (in England too, this is quite a rarity). It’s a wonderful moment and I’ve never really thought about it until now, but it really forms the centre of our service; the bridge between the unfolding of the Word and sharing of communion. In the middle of our worship we stop to wish each other peace. Do we know what we’re wishing for?

This act is an important one, its power is not to be dismissed. But I wonder in what others ways we pursue peace as a community? Is it really on our radar?

And there is a peace even closer than this. Closer than the community and even the most intimate relationship. It is the peace within. In John 14:27 Jesus tells his disciples at the last supper “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” We are given peace by God himself; how many of us receive it?

We don’t live in a world of peace, not on any level. I learnt this weekend (at the SCM Still Small Voice conference) that globally there have been less than 30 minutes of peace since the outbreak of World War Two. 30 minutes.

On a community level our egos and our precious ideas make it hard for us to really hear each other, however hard we try. And individually which one of us does not wish for a quieter mind? That we could switch of the voices of criticism that sometimes swarm around us?

It occurred to me today that without peace, there can be not freedom. It seems to me that this works on all levels; material, communal, emotional, spiritual. Without a clarity, a strength of stillness, how can we be free? While there is still violence, internal or external, how can we be free?

Peace is not easy. That’s why it must be pursued. But perhaps not to pursue it is, ultimately, harder work.

Today I read Psalms 33-35.

 

Thanks for AuntieP on flickr for the beautiful photo.

Wowza, how frikking amazing is Isaiah? I’m like ‘you go prophet-dude’ you tell them people how it is!’ In fact, you tell us people how it is! Though I have found parts of this book pretty dense and in need of some major contextualising, chapters 56-60 are just so bloomin rousing! Yesterday I wrote about our questions for God, here God throws some pretty tough ones at us!

Now, each raises its own questions. 56 about who we exclude, 57 about how we turn away from God. But for me it all centres around the wonderful Isaiah 58 (59 leads on from it pretty resoundingly). Have you read it? If not, or if you need a refresher then go and read it, definitely read it instead of my ramblings. What are you waiting for? Go! Now!

Great stuff, huh?

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Yes! This is amazing, and it really hits home doesn’t it? It couldn’t be clearer; God is not interested in you piety for its own sake (58:2-5), he asks us ,what are we doing for the hungry, the homeless, the oppressed, the persecuted? And you, know, I’m often at a loss to answer.

I’ve recently been using a book of blessings by John O’Donohue called Benedictus (it’s so wonderful, I highly recommend it). It’s blessings are mostly in the form of poetic prayers, but there is one called ‘At the end of the day: A mirror of questions’. These are questions to help you reflect on the day that God has given, and they really get to the heart of things. One of them reads ‘What did I do today for the poor and excluded?’. It’s a striking question, mostly because it implies that I should be doing something for the poor and excluded every day. Do you do that? I know I don’t, but since it’s has been in my mind it keeps asking and, I pray, it’s spurring me to change. I want to have answer for this question, every day. Not a big answer, not an impressive answer, but answer all the same. Because I really believe that this is a question from God.

It might be to talk to a homeless person rather than avert my eyes or just quickly slip them some change, it might be to give to charity, it might be to write to my MP, it might to volunteer somewhere, it might be to offer my support to someone who is lonely or in need, it might simply to pray. These are all little answers, some bigger than others. And I do believe that prayer is certainly doing something, though we also need to partner with God in answering our prayer; we can’t just pray for a nice world, we have to at least try to make one.

So, what have you done today for the poor and excluded? For the hungry? For the orphan? For the bereaved? For the naked? For the homeless? What have you done to ‘loose the chains of injustice’?

If we all had little answers for this everyday, perhaps it would change the world. 

A nice piece of synchronicity means that in Isaiah 50-55, like yesterday’s reading from Job, we find words used in Handel’s Messiah. Like those words from Job, it is also a passage for which many Christians see the interpretation as ‘obvious’. The song of the suffering servant (chapter 53) is used in Handel’s Messiah and by many Christians over the centuries, to reflect on the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday, and I can see why. The song ends with “yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Sounds a lot like Jesus to me. But when you read this chapter in its context, this interpretation doesn’t seem so obvious.

A traditional Jewish interpretation of this text, and now the view of many Christian scholars, is that it personifies the nation of Israel and its sufferings under occupation and exile. The voices who speak here are the kings of the powerful nations, struck by the resurgence of God’s people. This actually makes a lot of sense to me. Not only is Israel named as the servant in previous chapters (44:1, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3), but the kings are mentioned in the preceding verse 52:15;  “kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” This leads straight in to the first line of 53; “who has believed what we have heard?”

Yes, when I read 53 as a whole, rather than certain verse or half verses, and especially when I read it in its place within Isaiah, I see that it may well be about the suffering nation of Israel in exile. But so what? Does that make it less powerful? Less relevant to Christians? I don’t think so, not at all.

Isaiah 50-55 is striking in that it is awash with contrasts. The suffering servant songs of 50:4-11 and 52:13-53:12 occur between shouts of jubilation and hope. In 52:7 we read the beautiful lines

7 How beautiful upon the mountains
   are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
   who announces salvation,
   who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

and in 55:1 there is what the NRSV entitles “an invitation to Abundant Life:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.

There is something vital for us to learn from this song of hope and suffering, or of hope that comes out of suffering. Something about patience, endurance, something about every experience forming who we are.

One reason I’m reluctant to subscribe to the Jesus-as-suffering-servant model is that I’m wary of presenting Jesus’ suffering as a substitute for our own. You know, the whole “Jesus: he suffers so you don’t have to!” slogan; it just doesn’t float my boat. Plus it’s totally not biblical; hello! John the Baptist, Paul, Stephen – there was definitely some suffering involved in following Jesus. He died that we might live, he didn’t suffer that we might live it up.

So there is something we have to face in the fate of the nation of Israel, in their rejection, exile, oppression. We have to face the idea that being called to follow God doesn’t mean an easy life, far from, it means more is demanded of you. It also requires faith when hope seems absurd.

But that’s easy for me to say. I’m not in Congo or Kashmir or Cote d’Ivoire or Queensland right now, for me it is likely that this talk of suffering will only ever be relevant on an existential level. I know nothing of war or coups or natural disaster.

So I think there is another reason we must face this image of the suffering servant. We must face it lest we become like the powerful kings who are startled when they realise that those they had thought of as below them are those who God loves. We must know that’s God’s love is for the oppressed, and we must live our lives in honour of this. If the Bible teaches us one thing it is that the rich need to watch themselves!

So may we know that in every suffering, there will later be song. And knowing this may we be a part of helping others to sing.

Amen.

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.”

What can I say about Judges 17-21? No, seriously, what can I say? It’s pretty bleak, and very brutal. There are two stories really. Chapter 17 tells us of Micah and Levite. In short: Micah steals his mother’s silver but then gives it back because she curses the person who stole it, then she is happy to have it back so turns it into an idol. Okay… Then Micah meets a wondering Levite who is “going to live wherever I can find a place” so  he employs to be his priest. Then in chapter 18 the Danites, who are on the look out for territory and spy some where the people are “quiet and unsuspecting” take Micah’s priest and idol for their own and when Micah complains they threaten to attack him. All unpleasant enough, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The second story is not one I want to recount; it’s a bit like the story of Sodom only without divine intervention and with some war and kidnap added on the end. Both this story and chapter 34 of Genesis, which I read yesterday, involved rape, and I don’t want to brush over that fact. Especially today’s which is horribly disturbing in every way. This is the stuff that reminds us not all of the Bible was written to instruct or inspire us. Some is written to show how far astray humanity can and has gone.

I began to write an exploration of the statement that ends the book; “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” I wanted to explore whether having a king made them any better, but more than that whether any one could ever really think any of this was “right”. But I don’t know where those ideas are leading… I seem to go around in circles. The fact is that I’m heart-broken by what I read in these chapters, especially chapter 19. It is a similar feeling to reading or hearing about the atrocities committed against women in the Congo or other parts of the world in which rape is used as a weapon of war.

These stories force me to face the darker side of humanity. They don’t, as others may suggest, prove to me that we are innately wicked and that is why Israel behaved this way without God to guide them (you may like to read my post on Genesis 1-3 for my thoughts on that subject). But they do confront me with the inescapable truth; that parts of the world and parts of ourselves that seem so so far from God, and there people who have forgotten or never knew that they were made in his image. And I am not talking about atheism. There are countless humanitarian and compassionate atheists in this world, I’m talking of a much deeper forgetting.

Perhaps this is not the inspirational post you signed up for (I do see and appreciate the subscriptions, thank you), but then the Bible’s not really what any of us signed up for is it? Not all of it. We signed up for ‘Love God and Love your neighbour’ perhaps, or ‘I am the Way the Truth and the Life’, or ‘freed from the letter of the law to live in the spirit of the law’, but not many of us signed up for facing rape, murder and kidnap. But perhaps those of us who are privileged enough to only read about such trauma have the duty to face it, to remember that it is not just archaic horror recorded in a book, but present in the world today. It is something that we should care about, something that should break our hearts open. Jesus did not take kindly to those who bubble wrapped themselves into cozy lives and tried to keep the worst of the world out. So perhaps Judges 17-21 has done me a service today, strange though it may seem.

But, to end, I do believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. And there are lights all over the world including the Heal Africa Hospital who, among many other things, seek to heal the women in the Congo who have been abused like our nameless woman in chapter 19. May God bless them.

 

 

Risky (risque) title. But what’s blogging for if not being a bit controversial? And Samson does end his own life by bringing a building down on top of the people he sees as the oppressors of his people. More than that he does it after praying to God to give him strength for this very act. Okay, so there’s no actual bomb, although Samson himself is unpredictably explosive.  But I’ve started at the very end, let’s go back a little.

Judges 13-16 (I read 12 but it probably won’t get much of a mention, sorry!) recounts stories from Samson’s life; his birth, his marriage, his loves, his mistakes, his death and a lot of very angry bits in between. He rips apart a lion, kills 30 people in a rage over lost linens and he rips an entire city gate from its posts and bar up from the ground and carries it off (that’s actually pretty cool). But here’s my personal favourite:

Then he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, reached down and took it, and with it he killed a thousand men. (15:15)

No, this is not the synopsis for the new Incredible Hulk film, it’s the Bible. But I must admit I imagine Samson pretty much as the Hulk with dreadlocks: “Samson angry. Samson smash skulls with donkey jaw.” You know, that kind of thing. He certainly seems more Goliath than David!

But he’s a judge of Israel. Unlike the other judges mentioned in this book, it is stories from his personal life, rather than his political and military action, that are related here. Why? Are they meant to inspire? Are they meant to warn? Or to show that even the Nazarite, the one chosen before birth and set apart for God (chapter 13) is deeply flawed and falls short of what he is meant to be?

Well I think it is partly that, but there’s a problem. Pretty much every time Samson goes on enraged rampage we are told that “the spirit of the Lord rushed on him” (14:6, 14;19, 15:14). So the going to see prostitutes (16:1), abandoning his wife 15:19-20) and general weakness for the ladiiieees (notably Delilah, who is instrumental his downfall, of course) can be put down to character flaw, but the violence? Apparently that’s from God.

Struggling with this as I have been today, I read a Bible study book which, though helpful in parts made some quite questionable points. One was the comparison of Samuel to a “good pair of scissors”; God’s tool purchased for a special purpose, his “implement of salvation” if you will. Erm, is there something I’m not getting here? It seems to me like Samson gets angry and kills people because of personal feuds not for the greater good. And I’m not sure I even believe in violence for the greater good at all, unless there are exceptional exceptional circumstances. Even though we are in the context of Philistine dominance, does this justify the apparently indiscriminate acts of violence Samson engages in?

A big question is raised here for me: can violence be condoned, let alone inspired, by God?  I feel uncomfortable saying I don’t believe what the Bible says, but I can’t believe that God’s spirit inspired someone to kill 1000 people with a donkey’s jaw bone! That ain’t the Holy Spirit I know, no siree. And I don’t think he killed for any honourable reason by the way; it was all vengeance, which I heard was supposed to be left up to God.

The same Bible study calls its section on chapters 14-15 “The Need for Conflict”. Hmm. He uses the quotation “There is in truth no such thing as harmonious co-existance between the church and the world, for where there is no conflict the world has taken over” (Michael Wilcock). Hmmm. The argument goes that the Israelites do not cry out under Philistine rule but God raises up Samson “to create conflict” any way; “The message to today’s church is clear – conflict is necessary part of our message.” Well it’s not clear to me matey!

Okay, so in a way I agree. We need to be a prophetic (and by the I mean truth-telling) voice, calling for justice and compassion in a world that gets it wrong a lot of the time. But aren’t we supposed to bless the world too? Isn’t the best evangelism to live in a way that exemplifies God’s love and blesses others through that love? Love can be tough, but it rarely involves donkey-bone-beatings. Sorry, I’ll stop with donkey bone now, it’s just such an odd little biblical detail!

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should never get angry. I used to think there was no such thing as ‘righteous anger’, it seemed like an oximoron. Often when I read the papers or see atrocities on the news it is heartbreak rather than anger I feel. But when I hear the Eton educated George Osbourne tell us “we’re all in this together” while he cuts benefits and fails to bring in taax evaders I get angry. And I think that’s okay, as long as it spurs action. Though I think Hulk, sorry Samson, and I have different ideas about what that action should be.

There are still people in the world who think that anger at injustice should be expressed through indiscriminate killing. Some even believe that this expression is God’s will (of many different religions not just the stereotyped ones). Perhaps the tale of Samson’s life is a tale of someone who got it wrong. He felt the spirit of God move within him and he mistook that for a licence to kill. Chapter 16 tells of a man brought down low, reduced to a shadow of his former (rather Hulkish) self whose last desperate act is to bring others down with him. How can this message be that the church should follow his lead? How?

My prayer is that the Spirit of the Lord moves us all into action where we see injustice and evil. But I don’t see Samson as a role model, I prefer his mum actually. But like I said yesterday, it’s hard to find an upstanding role model in the Bible. Well, there’s a pretty good one in the gospels actually, but that’s another day’s post.

Sometimes it’s hard for to find a clear cut lesson from the Bible too. But there’s always a lot to chew over, to meditate upon, to wrestle with. How do we express anger? How do fight injustice? How do we respond when God’s Spirit moves in us?

Good questions, any one got any goo answers?

 

P.S. I’ve had a big crisis (and an extended facebook discussion!) as whether to keep this title or not. I don’t like the thought of offending any one. It’s just what comes to mind for me, and I’m trying to be honest about my experience of reading this stuff. Peace.

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!

I must confess that I’ve spent my blogging time today sleeping and reading. The sleeping was necessary for brain function and the reading was mostly about Romans 13-14 (except a little Harry Potter indulgence) but it all makes for a very short post.

There are two things I want to mention. The first is that Romans 13:1-7 with its statement that “whoever resists authorities resists what God has appointed” could be used to say that Christians should not be involved in campaign and resistance to injustice…I mean it could be used like that, unless you’ve actually read the rest of the Bible! All of the prophets were directly criticising and challenging those in authority and as Isaiah tells us to speak out for those who can’t speak from themselves. 7 verses in Romans can’t change the sweep of the entire Bible. So there. In case you’re interested, I read this interesting article and about the context Paul was writing in, which I found through textweek.com; an amazing resource for preaching and bible study!

The second thing I’d like to say is that verses 8-10 pretty much sum it all up for me:

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 10Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

‘Love is the fulfilling of the law’ how awesome is that? Actually awesome, not ‘oh my days I love your t-shirt, it’s awesome!’. Yes. Chapter 14 fills in some details of what this love may look like in action; not judging and thinking about how your behaviour affects others. And the details are useful, but the love is the thing that gives me hope. God’ s will is not fulfilled through governments and wars, but by love in action. Some call it cheesy; I call it true!

Writing this blog is a big commitment. I don’t always feel like reading the Bible, let alone writing something interesting about it. Today is one of those days. I’m so tired and my brain is not really working. I don’t have much to say and I have 6 chapters to read. Arg. So part of me thinks “oh I’ll just do it tomorrow” . But that’s how it starts isn’t it? When we commit to something and we love it at first but slowly life gets in the way and it becomes a chore, so we let slip, just a little at first… It could be making effort in a relationship, or doing bible study, writing a book, getting fit… So I thought I’d share with you that I’m felling like this. I’ll try to keep going though, because this important. Perhaps just to me, but important all the same.

So I won’t write much, but I will write about Judges 6-11. It seems to be mostly about the human relationship with power. First we meet Gideon, the weakest member of the weakest clan, who God gives the power to defeat Israel’s enemy. As soon as he has succeeded he seems to get blood lust, vengeance is his, not God’s apparently (8:1-21).

But Gideon is a kitten compared to his son Abimelech, who kills his 70 brothers (Gideon got around a bit it seems). After this act of mass murder he is made king of Israel; great choice guys!

His only surviving brother hears this and tells this parable:

8 The trees once went out
   to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree,
   “Reign over us.”
9 The olive tree answered them,
   “Shall I stop producing my rich oil
     by which gods and mortals are honoured,
     and go to sway over the trees?”
10 Then the trees said to the fig tree,
   “You come and reign over us.”
11 But the fig tree answered them,
   “Shall I stop producing my sweetness
     and my delicious fruit,
     and go to sway over the trees?”
12 Then the trees said to the vine,
   “You come and reign over us.”
13 But the vine said to them,
   “Shall I stop producing my wine
     that cheers gods and mortals,
     and go to sway over the trees?”
14 So all the trees said to the bramble,
   “You come and reign over us.”
15 And the bramble said to the trees,
   “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you,
     then come and take refuge in my shade;
   but if not, let fire come out of the bramble
     and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

Cool story huh? It’s like something from Lord of the Rings (is that blasphemy??). This parable reminds me that we have to question the motivations of those in power and those who put them there. Are they fruitful? Or are they brambles? And if they are brambles what are we doing about it? Are we moaning at the TV or are we doing something useful?