Meek Expectations.

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.

 

Photo from flickr.

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Continuing from last week’s post on this subject, here’s the second part of Joseph’s story in my own words:

Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, betrayed brother, stood in his feasting hall as the empty plates were gathered. His brothers, each one, had sat at that table in front of him. And those brothers, whom he had tried to forget, were now readying themselves to leave again. He needed to tell them who he was, but how? Had things gone too far? Had he pretended so long to be a distant Egyptian that he had become one?

He couldn’t speak, paralysed with fear of another rejection, or was he afraid of their loving embrace? Whatever the case, neither could he bear to see Benjamin leave again. He’s mother’s son, his little brother.

He called his stewards and told them to load the brothers’ donkeys with as much food as they could carry, and to place their silver back in their bags.

“But in the sack of the youngest,” he added “place my silver cup.” He was plotting again, to keep Benjamin near, why could he not just ask him?

As he saw his brothers ride off he called his trusted servant, telling him of the missing cup. The servant rode out to the brothers. Stopping them, he asked “Has one of you repaid kindness with evil? My master’s silver cup is missing, and you have taken it.” Of course, the brothers denied it. Why would they come all the way back from Canaan to return the man’s silver only to steal his cup? “If any of us has it, kill him, and let the rest of us will be your slaves.” They said. But the servant would not accept such a boast, instead he said only the one who had stolen would be the slave. Very well.

One by one, oldest to youngest the men opened their sacks. They were not afraid, they knew themselves to be honest men. More the horror, then, when out of Benjamin’s sack fell the silver cup. The brothers tore their clothes. The boy they had sworn to protect, the brother of the one they had abandoned. How could their father bear it? Surely he would die of grief. They wouldn’t let Benjamin be taken back alone. Loading their mules up once more they all returned to Egypt.

When Joseph met them he saw that their faces were worn. They were afraid, they were shaken. These were not the boys from his youth, who had thrown him into a pit through their own jealous wrath. These were men, fathers, looking at their youngest brother with such love, such grief. But somehow he still clung to the pretence.

“What have you done?” he asked them. “I have invited you to eat with me and you have insulted me so deeply. You have abused my trust.” He pretended not to hear their pleading, though it echoed in his mind, and insisted that Benjamin be his slave. Perhaps when they were alone, perhaps then he could tell the truth.

But then Judah was there, close to him, asking for just a word. His eldest brother told him of his father Jacob, of how the man clung to Benjamin, of how without him there would be no light in his life.

“I promised that if anything happened to him I would be accountable.” Judah confided “I told him I would give my life for his. So take me, though I am not so young any more, take me as your slave and let the young man go.”

Now here was a change. The one who had sold Joseph into slavery would now give up his own freedom in place of his brother. There was a spark of jealousy in Joseph and then a rush of warmth. He could no longer hold himself together. The pretence was over.

“Leave me!” he cried to his servants. And almost before they left he had broken down. His cries carried over the evening air, but he no longer cared.

For a moment the brothers stood, perplexed. Here was this man, this powerful Egyptian, the object of their fright, balling like a child before them. What was going on? But then he spoke, not in Egyptian this time, but in Hebrew.

“It is I, Joseph. Your brother lives and prospers in Egypt.” Silence. “I know it is a shock, and perhaps I should have told you that first day, but here I am. Does my father still live? How I long to see him.”

Some of his brothers were jubilant. Others kept their eyes to the floor, were they crying?

“No, no.” said Joseph “Don’t be afraid, have no regrets. It was not you who sold me into slavery, but God. I was sent here so that I might foresee the famine. And in this I will save you and our father from poverty. And many more besides.” When he had finished this speech there were no more words. He fell on Benjamin and wept. They all wept and kissed and embraced.

The twelve were together again, and soon their father would join them.

and they all lived happily…ever after?

 

I hope you enjoyed this story, dear reader. Writing this really has given it  more depth for me. Thinking about Joseph’s emotional state makes him more human, and more inspiring. His faith and forgiveness (two things I quite like, as you may have guessed by my username) are quite astonishing. To be able to see that all the bad times have led him there, and to have let go of all blame (Genesis:45:4-15). Amazing.

I’d really recommend this exercise, or at least the idea of considering the feelings of a character as you read. Suddenly they are not ancient patriarchs who did things we could never dream of, but people just like us. In this we see our own potential and our own flaws. Suddenly scripture is in the present. What a gift.

 

P.S. I really the picture above, I feel it encapsulates something of the reconciliation of the brothers, but with the presence of brokeness. Thank you nicolasnova at Flickr.

Some days reading 6 chapters of Isaiah seems like a verbose and unintelligible mountain. Some days it seems like feast of poetry that you can really get stuck into! Today it is, blessedly, the latter. This probably has something to with the fact that I’ve done very little else all day and so don’t feel squeezed for time as I would on a normal Tuesday. Don’t you just love that hibernation-like time between Christmas and New Year? (if you have been working today, apologies for the smugness!).

Chapters 44-49 of Isaiah pick of the major themes of the book; God as judge but also redeemer, and God as the God. There is an eloquent piece of prose poetry in Isaiah 44:9-20 about the fashioning of idols out of material things. It’s quite beautifully written I think, and really gets to the heart of the futility of trying to make Gods out of the material world (which, of course, God has created). Indeed, the futility of idol worship is a recurring theme in these chapters. As is the assertion that there are no gods apart from the Holy One of Israel. 45:48 ends “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” 46:9 repeats this phrase and adds “I am God, there is no one like me.” 48:12b states “I am He; I am the first, and I am the last.” And again and again we are told of God’s power in creation and salvation.

So what’s new? The assertion that there is no god but God is pretty much stating the obvious to monotheistic ears, isn’t it? This is a given for those who follow the Abrahamic faiths and many more besides. But do we really think about what it means?

Most of us have heard sermons about making idols out of material things. Sure, we don’t fashion statues of gold or silver or cedar, but the way we celebrate Christmas more than hints at the importance of stuff in our lives. Perhaps we do lose focus sometimes, most times?

There is something deeply profound and endlessly repeatable about the statement that God is the god. I really think that if any of us knew that, really knew it, it would transform us entirely. We would be able to surrender in ways we only dream of (and are probably quite afraid of) now.

God is God. God is God. Leaving the descriptions aside, it is enough simply to reflect that He is God and there is no other. Nothing that is supreme, nothing that we can trust like that and, perhaps most wonderfully of all, nothing that we should fear. Because God is God, and there is no other.

I encourage you to sit with that idea for a while, perhaps in your quiet time if you have such a thing. Do you know it? Really know it? What difference would it/does it make to know this profound truth? How could it transform you and your life? Please share your discoveries here if you feel you can. And perhaps I’ll add a comment of two to this post when I’ve sat with it too.

What would happen if we all just let God be God in our lives? I don’t know, but I have a feeling it would pretty amazing.

Just a little observation for you today, from Genesis 32:22-33:17. Here Jacob wrestles with God and is then reunited with his twin brother Esau. What links these occasions? Many things probably, but what I noticed was a few lines in the text. When Jacob, now Israel, has wrestled with the man/angel/God he names the place where it happened Peniel, meaning the face of God because ” I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Then later when he meets Esau, who he had greatly feared yet who welcomes him graciously, he tells him “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favour.”

Jacob does not only see God in his visions and visitations, but in the face of his brother, in the greeting filled with forgiveness and love. It shows me God is not only to be seen in religious experiences, but in all of life.

What’s more, though Jacob had seen God twice before, it is only after this meeting with his brother that he can begin to settle. God has been with him throughout his fleeings from this place and that, but it is seeing God’s face in his brother’s that truly moves Jacob, and that perhaps changes him most of all.

May you look for and behold the face of God in the places you most fear.

Amen.

A note on the process…

December 12, 2010

The more alert among you may have noticed that I’ve changed the tagline of my blog to ‘Reading the Bible in a Year, or However Long it Takes…’  This is because recently I’ve been a bit slack on the whole ‘daily’ blog thing. Busy-ness and illness and forgetfulness conspire against this little endeavour of mine. I keep catching myself in the middle of the evening think “aaw! I haven’t done my blog…arg!” (yes those noises actually occur). And sometimes I make myself do it. But sometimes I simply don’t.

Tonight I am tempted to do a botched job. I’ve read most of the chapters of Genesis I need to for my next post, and I could probably produce some ideas about the way Jacob marrying two sisters who compete for his affections by producing male heirs and getting their servants to do likewise makes me feel a mixture of sad and uncomfortable. The problem is that I would be producing it for the sake of writing a blog post. There would be nothing thoughtful, certainly nothing prayerful about it. Not that all my posts have been so, but then that’s kind of the point.

I find myself asking ‘why am I doing this?’ Is it so a few people can be impressed by piety and commitment as I post my daily musings on scripture? Or is it because I really want to form a relationship, to wrestle with, to listen to the Bible? If it is the latter then forcing myself to skim read and write late night ramblings will not fulfil my purpose. But wait! That could be a cop-out. Am I just making excuses about how I can’t possibly keep this up as a daily practice, how it actually makes me a better Christian not to? (I don’t really buy into this hierarchy of Christians malarkey, but you catch my drift.)

With any spiritual practice – and I do like to think of this process in that category – it easy to do two things; to make it into a chore so that there is no life, no joy in it and to make the fact that it’s become a chore an excuse not to do it so often, or even at all. But getting on with the Bible is like any relationship, you start out fresh as excited and then at some point you have to start putting some work in. Things don’t stay new unless they are cultivated. And it is easy to feel like you don’t have time to read, to reflect, to pray, to sing, when you’re not making any time. Now, you may be a really and truly busy person, but me? I’ll be honest, I can make time to watch Strictly Come Dancing so I have no real excuses.

So, dear reader, I promise you this: that you will receive a blog post, and I will make time for the Bible, every day this week. Honest. And thanks for reading because knowing that one or two of you actually enjoy this is making me stick with it.

And what about you? I wonder if there is anything that you once loved that is feeling like a chore for you at the moment? Prayer, meditation, a friendship, your job, your hobby even. How could you breathe new life intoit? Perhaps by taking a break, or by clearing some room around it, so that it’s not just another thing on your list.

Or perhaps there’s something you used to do but you gave up on because it became a chore. Do you ever miss it? That way of praying? That instrument you were learning? That bible study? That friendship that really started getting on your nerves? That place of worship, even? Perhaps you could return to it, just as an experiment, just to see if it really was a chore, or if you talked and busied yourself out of something nourishing. I’d be interested to hear what happens…

My prayer for us this week is that even in this season of 1000 commitments we make time for whatever gives us joy.

Let’s not let life get in the way of living.

Tonight I’d like to write about the f word. Forgiveness. While there is a lot of other stuff going on in Matthew 17-19 my username is faithforgivenessfreedom, so you can probably guess its a biggy for me. Well, it’s a biggy for us Christian types in general, our souls kind of depend on it. Jesus makes this very clear in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35). He tells us of a man who was forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents (a talent as worth more than 15 year’s wages of a labourer) but would not forgive a debt of 100 denari (a denarius was one day’s wage). When his master hears of this he sends him to be tortured and Jesus tells us “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” This speech to me is so radical and so scary. It probes my soul questioningly. Do I forgive like God forgives?

There’s a lot in these chapters about our treatment of others. Of children (18:1-5, 19:13-15), of fellow Christians (18:15-20), of the poor (19:21), of course of God. This parable itself asks us how we will regard the freedom given us through God’s forgiveness and sacrifice. Will we be like the servant, so untouched by this unparalleled generosity that it doesn’t touch our daily lives?

The story is told just after Peter’s question ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ and Jesus replies ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ or ‘seventy times seven’. That’s a lot of second chances. Do we follow that? If a friend kept hurting you, even if they were sorry every time, could you let them back into your life after they’d done seven times? Seventy seven time? Four hundred and ninety times? (that’s seventy-times-seven, in case you were wondering). I don’t know if I could, to be honest.

So why is this huge demand placed on us? We know that the relieving truth of Jesus is that we don’t need to perfect to be accepted by good, we don’t need to have got it all right. As he says in 19:26 “for God all things are possible.” But still there is this demand. This command. To forgive as you are forgiven. Or is it to for forgive because  you are forgiven?

I suppose this is where the freedom part of faithforgivenessfreedom comes in. We are free from the bondages of our mistakes and so we are expected to free others. Holding on to the past in out hearts not only binds them but us too. We cannot be free without forgiveness. We cannot forgiveness without freedom.  Another rich paradox of the Christian tradition.

For me, the journey of faith must keep revisiting forgiveness. Asking for more and asking help to give more. How many times will we ask? I expect a lot more than seventy times seven.

It seems to me that chapters 11-12 of Romans (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=157726670) see the conclusion of one train of thought and the beginning of another. Chapter 11 brings to an end the long theological extrapolation that Paul has been performing since early in this letter. The fate of Israelites and Gentiles are settled, the idea of an ‘elect’ comes up (which I find rather unsettling), and we end with an amen. Then a much less intellectual more instructional section begins. Suddenly Paul’s letter doesn’t seem so wordy, in fact the langauge becomes quite elegantly economical.

I could read Romans 12 over and over again. It’s the kind of chapter I feel that every Christian could do with reading every morning. It’s all in here: “let love be genuine” (9); “extend hospitality to strangers” (13b), “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (15); “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (17a) and much more. If “love thy neighbour” is Christian conduct in brief that this is the extended version.

Before this list of compassionate qualities Paul asks his readers “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (1b). To be a living sacrifice.

When I was younger I didn’t really think of myself as christian but I liked singing so I was in the local church choir. Somehow, although I was tired from Saturday nights out in Croydon or distracted by passing notes to my best friend about our latest crushes, the liturgy of that church has stayed with me. When I came to faith while at university these word “to be a living sacrifice’ (from the prayer after communion) returned to me. I wanted so much for my life to be God’s and I understood somehow that I would live more fully if I gave my life. But what did that look like? How would I be if I surrendered to God? Well I think Paul has a good shot at imagining this in 12:9-21. It’s an inspiring read; I recommend it. So I’ll make this a short post and give you time ponder Paul’s words.

I’ll leave you with the prayer I’ve loved so much:

Almighty God,
we thank you for feeding us
with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies
to be a living sacrifice.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to live and work to your praise and glory.
Amen.

 

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 …

 

I am a big fan of making pop songs into worship songs. My new favourite is Madonna, Rain. No, seriously;

Rain; feel it on my fingertips, hear in on my window pane, Your love’s coming down like rain. Wash away my sorrows, take away my pain, Your love’s coming down like rain. 

Come on, if it was by Tim Hughes you’d love it…

That song’s been going around in my head today, and it has helped me think about today’s passages. Genesis 4-7 makes me sad. Cain and Abel, Lamech’s disturbing song (4:22-24), the declaration that God was “sorry that he made humankind on the earth” (6:6), the decision to start over; the flood.

I suppose Noah’s Ark is often told as a positive story of a righteous man who is chosen by God to make a fresh start in a turbulent world. It’s a Sunday school favourite. But the beginning of this story and its preceding chapters don’t fill me with enthusiasm. Even for Noah, is this a great deal? Stay in an ark for months and months and return to an obliterated land… oh cheers!

How did it go so wrong so quickly? From Eden to oblivion in 3 chapters? What does that say about us? What does that say about God?

There’s a great phrase that Rob Bell uses; the stories of the Bible aren’t important because they happened, they’re important because they happen. When a Bible story disturbs me I know it’s because it resonates with something happening now, inside me or in the world. Usually both. So I ask how do these things in Genesis 4-7 happen? Well, humans still kill, we get angry, we forget God. The world makes me sad sometimes, that’s why these stories make me sad… God doesn’t wipe us out though. But maybe there’s a different kind of flood coming.

When I remember that God is Love, and when I remember that this story happens the water starts to feel different. The story starts to be about cleansing and renewal, not smiting and destruction. Washing away sin seems very loving really… Your love’s coming down like rain…

If you read this story as literal then it’s hard not to see it as extreme. Of course some would take the ‘don’t question God’s justice, they all had it coming’ stance, but I don’t. I can only see this as a story about the power of God to renew, however dark it has become. I see the flood like a baptism of the earth, a promise that there is nothing good that cannot be salvaged. Creation is good, humans can be good, we were created good.  Just as everything can been corrupted, everything be cleansed. It may take retreat, labour, loss but transformation is always possible. When I relate this to the gospels, to Jesus’ washing away of sin, then the message comes alive even more.

Rain is what the thunder brings, for the first time I can hear my heart sing. Call me a fool but I know I’m not I’m gona stand out here on a mountain top til I feel Your rain… who knew Madonna was so deep?

photo by  cosmonautirussi on flickr