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.

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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. 

The Ideal Woman? (Ruth)

January 8, 2011

Guess what dear reader? I read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting! Okay, so it was the book of Ruth, which means in my tiny-tiny-small-print Bible only two and a half pages, but still I feel a certain sense of achievement.

I’ve noticed in the past few years that people really love this book. It is not unusual to hear ‘ooh I love Ruth!’, whereas ‘oh I love Joshua’ doesn’t crop up quite as much. Of course there is the wonderful and often quoted declaration “Where you go, I will go/ where you lodge, I will lodge / your people shall be my people / and your God my God.” (1:16) More famous than the story perhaps, and a popular choice for weddings, apparently. I find that rather odd, as it’s said by one widow to another. Good sentiment though.

And I am of rather the same disposition as the Ruth-lovers. I like the book of Ruth, perhaps instinctively because it is one of the only two books of the Bible named after a woman.

Oh yes, I have been a feminist much longer than I’ve been a Christian; I wasn’t baptised until I was 23, but at the age of 2 I refused to build an ‘snow-man’, it had to be a ‘snow-girl’. We’ll have gender equality in my front garden, thank you very much!

But when I read the book this time, thoughts that have only niggled before seemed to bubble to the service. They centre around the role of Ruth in the story. It starts out very promisingly, with her beautiful speech promising loyalty to her mother-in-law and the God of Israel, even if it means living in poverty. This passage (1:15-18) paints a picture of Ruth a determined, strong and fiercely loyal woman, but when they get back to Bethlehem the picture changes. Ruth’s words after this point are almost entirely expressions of obedience and gratitude, or requests. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but it’s part of a wider narrative in which Ruth seems to lose her dynamism. It is Naomi who orchestrates the situation; who sends her to glean and later to lay at Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor (a possible euphemism apparently!). And it is Boaz, of course, who arranges the marriage. In fact, he gets Ruth as part of a package deal; he buy’s her late father-in-law’s land and also ‘acquires’ her as he puts it (4:9-10).

Of course, this is a cynical reading of the text. Boaz is obviously a generous and affectionate man, we see this in his dealings with Ruth when she gleans in his fields (chapter 2). So much so, in fact, that one of my favourite charities the Boaz Trust, who serve destitute asylum seekers in Manchester, have made him a model for welcoming the stranger. Which, of course, Ruth was as a Moabite woman. Many Israelites would have shunned her for this reason.

I suppose my problem isn’t with the treatment of Ruth, but with the presentation of her as a role model for women. After chapter 1 she is meek and obedient, she doesn’t speak unless spoken to and she never questions the instructions she’s given, even when she’s told to go to an older man in the middle of the night and risk being shamed. 

There is nothing wrong with being a meek and mild woman, but for those of us who do not have that natural inclination the Christian tendency to idolise this way of being can leave us feeling loud, inappropriate and unfeminine. Ruth, like Mary and many other young women of the Bible, is presented as blushing and obliging (though who knows it this was really the case). Her purity seems to be linked to a passivity. But I know there are many women, like me, who don’t fit this model; we love to debate, to passionately gesticulate, to challenge those around us, regardless of their gender. And while women like that can seem the most confident you know, many, especially Christians, can have an underlying feeling that they don’t fit the mould. Perhaps even that they aren’t how God created them to be?

But what is it to be a Godly woman? At the end of this book we are given a genealogy that tells us Ruth was great-grand mother of David; a mark of her significance. But there is another women mentioned, another widow who bore a son, and funnily enough, she is mentioned my previous reading, Genesis 38; Tamar.

As Boaz and Ruth marry, the town elders wish them well saying “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” (4:12) and later we see that Boaz is in fact of the line of Perez (4:18-22). So just as the widowed but redeemed Ruth takes her part in forming the line to David, so does Tamar. And so, as Matthew tells us in his first chapter, they are also ancestors of Jesus; part of the unfolding path the Christ (Matthew 1:1-16, esp 3-5).

And you thought genealogies were just boring lists, hey?

But why am I bringing up Tamar? The woman who pretended to be a prostitute so that her father-in-law (she was widowed) would sleep with her and give her a son? Not a fantastic role model, surely?

Well, actually, maybe she is. Okay, it all seems pretty off to us, and more than slightly of icky to us married ladies, but this was a woman who no one was looking out for. She was a widow, promised to be married to Judah’s youngest son (the other two had died on her, the second deliberately not impregnating her). The promise was not fulfilled, so where did this leave her? There’s a reason the law and the prophets and the words of Jesus and the New Testament letters all contain commands to care for widows; they often weren’t cared for. No male relatives could mean no money, no house. If Tamar was pretending to be a prostitute once, it was better than being reduced to being one forever once her father had died and she had nowhere to go.

So she takes matters into her own hands. She stands up for herself and when she is accused of “whoredom” she exposed Judah to himself; he is not only the kind of man who’ll take a prostitute, but one who will neglect his daughter-in-law and then says “let her be burned” when he hears her doing the very thing he has done (38:24). So he says “she is more in the right than I”. You go girl! Well, sort of.

Now, we need not take Tamar’s example literally. It goes without saying that none of us need to become father-in-law bedding fake prostitutes! But what I can see from this is that it takes all sorts. God doesn’t make women with cookie cutter; sweet and perfectly formed. Just as we have to deny society’s lie that there is an ideal look for women, when we can see that God created us in abundant and diverse beauty, so we can refuse to believe that there is one ‘ideal’ woman. Some of us are quiet, some talkative. Some confident, some shy. Some are firey, some gentle. And most of us a big fat mixture.

So, God made them all and gave them their place in the story of our faith. Loyal and obedient Ruth, defiant and assertive Tamar, strong and stoic Mary. And many more. Men and women can learn from these great figures.

Got that? Good.

Right, I’m off to straighten my hair… (it’s funny because it’s true).

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.”

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 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?

There’s a lot of hope in Isaiah 29-33. Some wonderful lines read:

18 On that day the deaf shall hear
   the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
   the eyes of the blind shall see.
19 The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
   and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (29:18-19)

Then again there’s a bit of doom:

12 Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel:
Because you reject this word,
   and put your trust in oppression and deceit,
   and rely on them;
13 therefore this iniquity shall become for you
   like a break in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse,
   whose crash comes suddenly, in an instant;
14 its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel
   that is smashed so ruthlessly
that among its fragments not a sherd is found
   for taking fire from the hearth,
   or dipping water out of the cistern. (30:12-14)

But then just after that there’s more hope:

18 Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
   therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
   blessed are all those who wait for him. (30:18)

And so it goes on… I don’t know about you, but I’m getting mixed messages here. Or am I?

Isaiah makes it clear in these chapters that God wants relationship with His people but he also wants justice and peace in the world. The relationship is almost contingent on the adherence of his people to that vision of justice. In this part of Isaiah there is a lot of criticism for those Israelites who are putting their trust and hope in the Egyptian regime, rather than depending on and serving God (30:1-7; 31:1-9). There are also many passages that describe a day when righteousness will govern and peace will rule:

 16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
   and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
17 The effect of righteousness will be peace,
   and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust for ever. (32:16-17)

So is the destruction threatened in order to make way for this new way of being? That doesn’t seem right to me; destroying to build. We use the phrase “God gives and God takes away a lot” (probably comes from a paraphrase of Job 1:21), but would be really apply it on this scale? A God who destroys nations?

I don’t have an answer for this one. I don’t know if I believe in a God who punishes. I don’t know if I believe in the model of the cross that says that punishment was taken out on Jesus so we don’t get it, either. And that is just one model, if you haven’t heard others then ask around because Christian thought is rich and varied.

I guess I do believe in a God who can’t stand injustice, though, and I do believe in a God that continually offers hope of a final justice. I do believe in a model of the cross that says Jesus made that possible too. He is my righteousness, and all that. But mostly reading Isaiah 29-33 all in one go is a bit too much for my mortal mind to get hold of. So I’ll leave it for you to ponder… How does our God move for justice? If He does move that way at all? What would righteousness look like in this world?

God bless.

Good reader (if I’m a blogger can I call you a blogee? I hope so) I do apologise for yesterday’s lack of post. Various family and churchy things made for a packed day and body things made for much tiredness at the end of it. But this is not the first time I’ve skipped a day so I suspect it won’t be the last. For fear of the apologies become a tiresome feature of this blog I’ve decided that this will be the last one. If there’s another day’s absence then assume that I have a good reason and that I’m heartily sorry. Of course there are so many of you who hand on my every word that I shall try to make these occurrences rare as can be…

So, Isaiah 23-28. Primarily it leaves with a furrowed brow an expression of “whaaa?”. Whoever wrote this Bible reading plan in their wisdom decided that unlike other days when I read two-three chapters, when reading Isaiah I should take on six at a time. A little too much I feel, especially as I struggle to understand one chapter at a time with this one! But I’ll have a go…

Chapter 23 ends a long sections of oracles of destruction of pretty much everyone; Moab, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Ethiopia and Jerusalem too (it’s very equal opps that way), with an Oracle concerning Tyre, which will be made like a “forgotten prostitute”, apparently.

Then we get the big one; the impending judgement of all the earth, which God is “about to lay waste to”, this desolation is very equally distributed too;

2 And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest;
   as with the slave, so with his master;
   as with the maid, so with her mistress;
as with the buyer, so with the seller;
   as with the lender, so with the borrower;
   as with the creditor, so with the debtor.
3 The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled;
   for the Lord has spoken this word. (24:2-3)

Well fair enough, at least it’s all even handed…but hang on…what’s this in chapters 25-27?  Judah’s song of victory? Israel’s redemption? Suddenly the wrath seems to not so evenly distributed…

On that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
   he sets up victory
   like walls and bulwarks.
2 Open the gates,
   so that the righteous nation that keeps faith
   may enter in. (26:1-2)

12 On that day the Lord will thresh from the channel of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt, and you will be gathered one by one, O people of Israel. 13And on that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. (27:12)

So is it that God’s destruction was just to bring down the proud, rich nations? Or did he bring everyone low but it was only Judah and Israel that were humbled (26:16), only they that continually trusted in him? I don’t really understand…

But of course I don’t. I’ve never lived under occupation, or in a region where my land and family are constantly threatened by surrounding empires. I’ve never lived in fear of losing my livelihood, or even my life. These aren’t words of some puffed up mega-state, they words offering hope to a people who have a history of conquest or oppression by Egypt, Assyria and later Babylon. What sounds to me like a rant basically telling other states that they all had it coming, is actually an offering of hope for a vulnerable people. Of course I don’t understand!

Some parts of Isaiah are inspiring and uplifting, beautifully evocative and poetic. In fact if you read as poetry it’s all pretty stunning even the “you’re all going to die a horrible death because you’ve been very naughty” parts. But I can’t connect so much with those parts on a non-literary level because they’re not written for me in my warm house with my laptop, tv, wardrobe full of clothes and cupboard full of food. It’s hard for people who’ve lived lives like mine to understand the anger and need for divine justice that is expressed in Isaiah 23-28, though that need is still felt by many throughout the world today. Perhaps, thoough, reading these chapters can help me sympathise and through their poetry give me a taste of the longing for God’s intervention that I will (thankfully) probably never understand.

And it is the duty of us who don’t suffering in these ways to try to understand, because if we don’t how are different to Egypt and Assyria?

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 …