Thursday, September 20, 2018

Yahweh and the Satan


I am continuing to teach on the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, and this week in class we were looking at the fascinating book of Job. The titular character is a righteous man — that is, he is habitually committed to acting justly — who suffers great loss. He has some amazing friends, who come and weep and sit in silence with him for seven days and seven nights, before together they try to make sense of his experience. But their perspective is limited. The one listening to the story, however, is aware of noises off stage, in the wings. We are introduced to Yahweh and a host of heavenly beings, including the Satan, or Accuser. Whereas Yahweh is presented as taking delight in his creation — from Job, to the ostrich flapping its wings though it will never fly — the Satan is presented as a vindictive trouble-maker. Why on earth does Yahweh even draw Satan’s attention back to Job, a man Satan appears to have considered untouchable until now? Perhaps it speaks of Yahweh’s love for both; a holding-out to the hope that even this rebellious son might repent, with the help of a trustworthy role-model [1].

In chapter 3, Job gives voice to raw anguish, even suicidal thoughts [2]. In the following chapter, his friend Eliphaz responds. In the manner in which he responds, we get insight into his own fear of what might befall without (the semblance of) order. Eliphaz falls for the temptation to both blame the victim for their misfortune and to attempt to problem-solve for his friend. The former takes a negative stance, and the latter a positive stance; but both are misplaced. As he continues, Eliphaz recounts a night-time visitation, from a spirit who calls into question the goodness of both mortals and their Maker (Job 4:12-21). Eliphaz believes that he has seen, and heard, and given voice to Yahweh; but these accusative words insinuated into his sleep surely belong to the Satan?

In chapter 7, Job speaks again. He uses words David will also use, in Psalm 8 (and others in Psalm 139), but to opposite effect. David is amazed and comforted that Yahweh should be so interested in human beings; whereas Job is deeply discomforted by that same attention. What accounts for the difference? Certainly, circumstance might. But one member of the class brought this insight: if Eliphaz wrongly attributes the voice of Satan to Yahweh in chapter 4, has Job not also wrongly attributed the attentions of the Satan to Yahweh here — in contrast to David rightly attributing good attention to Yahweh?

Throughout the Old Testament, good and evil are attributed to God. Certainly, good and evil exist in the world. In Genesis chapter 2, God prohibits the humans from eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; but in chapter 3, the serpent claims that this is because God does not want them to be like him, experientially both good and evil. That is to say, God recognises both good and evil in creation, but it is from the mouth of the serpent that the idea originates that God is both good and evil. And in this belief, the humans are deceived. Nonetheless, very consistently in the record of Old Testament scripture, both good and evil are presented as coming from the hand of God. There is, as yet, no clear distinction between Yahweh, from whose hand comes good, and a rebellious element in creation from whose hand comes evil. Therefore, it is no surprise that Eliphaz and Job alike should struggle to differentiate Yahweh from Satan, even though as a story as a whole the book of Job presents us with the Old Testament’s clearest differentiation, between a violent Satan and a Yahweh who opposes him — but refuses to play by the same rules, to overpower with a display of force.

But this changes with Jesus, and his followers. First, Jesus makes a very clear differentiation between himself, as the Son of the Father, who comes in order that humanity might experience life — and, indeed, will lay down his own life, if need be, for this to happen — and the Satan, who comes only and always to steal, kill, and destroy. Second, Jesus moves from resisting the temptations of the Satan to actively driving the unclean or demonic spirits back. They are forced to obey his exercising of Yahweh’s sovereignty, which always operates to bring life and freedom. That is to say, in the New Testament there is both fuller revelation that God is not the One from whom evil comes, and fuller revelation that God is actively opposed to evil in all of its manifestations.

This also ties in with how we understand ‘the fear of the Lord’. Jesus tells his disciples that, rather than fearing those people who can kill them, they should fear him, or the one, who, having killed them, can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:5). The one of whom he speaks is routinely assumed to be God. But Jesus does not say, ‘Fear God, who, having killed you, can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ He says, ‘fear the one who…’ Who kills and destroys? Not God, but the Satan. We are not to fear God, but to fear with God, to fear that which God fears — evil and death, and the carnage they create in God’s good creation — and to respond as God responds.

This has significant implications for how we read the Bible. Where destruction is attributed to God, we need to ask, in the light of Jesus, whether in fact this is wrongly attributed? Asking such questions may be deeply unsettling for some; but to do so is not to reject Scripture, or to leave us without any confidence: rather, it is to recognise that we cannot simply read Scripture at face-value. Jesus himself told his contemporaries that they studied Scripture diligently, confident that by so doing they would be saved, yet failed to recognise him and the God whom he represented. Moreover, within minutes Jesus tells Peter that he has had a genuine revelation from the Father and has embraced and given voice to the opposing kingdom of the ruler of this world — and has not realised. If that is true of Peter, why not of others, such as the psalmists who praise God and curse their neighbour with the very next breath?

Over the past days, I have been wrestling with the concept of fearing God. Certainly, we are presented with this idea in Scripture. Psalm 103, for example, repeatedly states that God show mercy to those who fear him (103:11, 13, 17). Mary, told by the angel sent by God ‘Do not be afraid’, even takes up this theme in her own song (Luke 1:50). The root of this holding-on to Yahweh’s mercy is his own self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. God makes no condition here of our needing to fear him. However, such fear accrues itself to God where we are shaped by centuries of not being to differentiate between the voice of God and the Satan; thus needing to be met, repeatedly, with the promise of mercy.

When Yahweh finally does speak (Job 38-42), having listened to Job and his friends talk at great length, listening to understand their pain and ‘where they are coming from’, it is not to answer their questions but to meet the longing of the heart to know God more fully than before. Yahweh confesses to love and care deeply for creation, to be captivated by it, to love even rebellious creatures in the hope that they might come to know peace and return that love. For perfect love drives out fear. And God is love. Little children, do not be afraid of our loving Father.


[1] Certainly, from a Christian perspective, Job is an archetype for Jesus, the innocent man whom God allows to experience suffering, but then vindicates.

[2] This resonates deeply with our own context, and how we respond matters greatly. For some, the problem of pain may be a factor in keeping them from engaging with the church, but, I would contend that how we respond to suffering is a far greater factor in people who have been actively involved in our congregations leaving church. I am training ordinands, who, as clergy, will be the public face of the church, and Readers, who will share responsibility for how local congregations engage with the Bible. This is why I am passionate about these texts.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The fear of the Lord


With September comes the start of a new academic year. This term, I am again teaching on the ‘Wisdom Literature’ of the Old Testament, as an investment in women and men who have, among other things, been called to help local communities grow together in wisdom.

There is a recurring phrase in the Bible — focused on, but not restricted to, the Wisdom Literature — that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This is almost always understood as meaning that piety, reverent respect for God, is the prerequisite starting-point if we want to be wise. But that does not make sense, grammatically, or theologically.

It does not make sense grammatically, because the fear of the Lord is a construct pair of nouns, and these follow a rule that the ‘construct’ (in this case, ‘the fear’) belongs to (‘of’) the ‘absolute’ (in this case, ‘the Lord’). In other words, the fear is the Lord’s, not ours, not our piety or disposition towards the Lord.

Moreover, the traditional interpretation does not make sense theologically, because it makes human beings the origin or source of wisdom; which makes perfect sense from the perspective of humanism, but not from a Christian perspective.

There are many other construct pairs we have no difficulty reading, rightly, as belonging to the Lord: the name of the Lord; the arm of the Lord; the eyes of the Lord; the word of the Lord [1]; the spirit of the Lord; the angel of the Lord; the mountain of the Lord…but we baulk at the fear of the Lord, because it stretches us too far.

There is debate as to how best to understand the Hebrew word translated ‘fear’. We slip and slide around it, not least depending on the context in which we find it. Some argue for reverence or awe while others argue for gut-wrenching fear in the ‘plain’ sense of being afraid. Neither seem appropriate for God: of whom would the King of the Universe stand in awe? Of whom or what would he be afraid? Yet I would suggest that both make sense.

There is a school of thought in biblical interpretation that says that, where a word might be understood in two ways, we ought to hold both in creative tension. If we go with awe, we might understand the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom as telling us that the source of all wisdom is the reverence with which the Creator holds creation; the awe God experiences in watching how everything unfolds in response to the divine command ‘Let there be…’ or, to paraphrase, ‘Go, explore!’ This would fit well with the Lord’s extended speech on the theme of creation, from divine and human perspectives, in response to Job. It would also fit with the spontaneous speech of Lady Wisdom on creation in Proverbs 8. In this sense, we grow in wisdom when we enter-into what God has already initiated, flowing not from human posture but divine posture. In this sense, we might work back from creation to Creator, and discover that awe for God is not the beginning for human wisdom, but the end, the goal.

But there is another school of thought in biblical interpretation that says that, where a word might be understood in two ways, we should go with the harder saying, the one that stretches us more. And if the idea that God has awe for creation is stretching enough, the idea that God might experience fear is even stretchier. We don’t like the idea that God might experience fear. After all, if God is afraid, how can God rescue us when we are afraid? On the other hand, in what sense is a God who cannot identify with the human experience of being afraid good news?

As we look at the references to the fear of the Lord in context, we discover that the Lord experiences fear in relation to two things in particular: evil (expressed in a variety of ways, including injustice), and death. Why would the Lord fear evil and death? Because of the carnage they cause in the world, and to the people to whom God is a parent, both father and mother [2]. What is striking is the Lord’s response to experiencing fear: not cringing or cowering or trying to secure a compromise agreement, but wisdom — that is, concrete instruction in concrete justice. Not lashing out but reaching out; calling people into partnership in standing against evil. This is seen in the torah and the prophets, in the interpretation of the Wisdom Literature, and, ultimately — for Christians — it is embodied in the person of Jesus. And any Christian who thinks that God cannot be afraid of evil and death needs to square what it means to believe that God is fully revealed in the man Jesus who cried out in the garden of betrayal and from the cross of execution (and who taught his disciples to pray that they be delivered from evil). God knows fear first hand: and, at the right time, moves towards that of which he is afraid [3], trusting that it will not have the final word. This is, as the New Testament describes it, the wisdom of God, foolishness from a worldly perspective.

Perhaps it is time to meet, and learn from, God who knows both awe and fear?


[1] Right about here, you see the penny drop, and the lights go on behind students’ eyes. It is a moment that teachers live for.

[2] Indeed, this entirely reasonable parental fear of what could happen to their daughter or son is, in my pastoral experience, a recurring motivation in parents bringing their children to be christened. If we can embrace the idea that God experiences fear, we can say to such parents, God shares your fears of what can happen, and so God has given wisdom and calls us to choose life: this ritual is not a magic talisman to ward off evil, but a commitment — between God, the church community, the parents and god-parents — to shaping the world for the good, for justice.

[3] Not every time is the right time to move towards evil and death. There are times Jesus moves away, evades them, just as some of the records of the fear of the Lord in the Old Testament speak of avoiding evil while others speak of extending justice.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What the mountain isn't


In my previous post, I reflected on what it means to throw a mountain into the sea. I have been thinking about that ever since, and want to continue that exploration, and in particular to question and revise something I wrote then, the idea that the mountain creates firm ground on which to stand.

In the Bible, mountains stand for encounters with God. But the encounters themselves are anything but solid. Moses meets with God in cloud and thick darkness, from which lightning flashes. Elijah finds himself on a mountain shaken by rock-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, before encountering God in the sound of sheer silence. Jesus’ disciples find themselves caught up in a cloud so filled with light as to be blinding. The point is not the solidity of the mountain, but the mystery of God’s presence, at once revealed and hidden, utterly disorienting and life-reorienting. We walk by faith, not by sight. True, ‘the Lord is my rock’ becomes perhaps the foremost insight of David; but even this is shaped in the context of his being on the run for his life, reduced to hiding in caves.

Human beings have an overwhelming urge for solidity. We need to know where we stand. We need to construct a world that is predictable. The thing is, the world is not predictable, in that sense. The control we crave is an illusion. Our lives are complex and fragile, within a greater mystery that extends far beyond the grasp of our imagination.

Solidity has its place, of course; but it also has its limits. Without solidity, your home would not stand; but in an earthquake, solidity is your enemy: it will kill you; if you can’t get out, your best bet for survival is to stand in the doorframe, the aperture. Or, to consider things from another perspective, solidity gives us ice; but ice is not better than water, or steam; it has its place, within something bigger.

The faith that throws the mountain of our encounter with God into the sea of chaos does not (necessarily) establish a firm place to stand but aligns us again with a covenant-partner in whom we may discover that mystery is greater than chaos (which may, indeed, be counterfeit mystery).

Matthew 14:22-33 records Jesus walking on the sea. Mark and John also record this (Luke does not) but Matthew alone records Peter walking on the sea. This is regularly held up as the benchmark of faith. In fact, it is the opposite.

Jesus, we are told, made his disciples get in to the boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the sea. This carries some force. It is both an instruction and a command. And it will turn out to be demanding, due to a strong wind being against them. During the night, Jesus, who had gone up the mountain to pray, came to them walking on the water. The disciples were terrified, believing it to be a phantom. Jesus speaks to reassure them: ‘take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter does not take this to heart. Instead, he questions Jesus: ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Jesus said, ‘Come.’ But this is not an instruction; it is a concession, a concession made to Peter’s doubt and lack of faith, as Jesus makes clear when they are back in the boat.

Peter, the everyman, finds himself in the boat, pitched from side-to-side by the rolling waves, desperate for solid ground. From his perspective — however counter-intuitive it might be — if this really is Jesus and not a phantom then the sea is, in this moment, more solid than the boat. Peter puts more faith in the apparent solidity of the water than in Jesus’ instruction to those in the boat to not be afraid, and his earlier, unrevoked, ongoing instruction to them to get into the boat and go on to the other side.

We desperately want to be in control, and when the familiar is buffeted enough — when the fisherman has had enough of the boat — we call out for God to intervene on our terms. And sometimes God is gracious enough to do just that, and to catch us when we fall. But it is not the firmness of the mountain that holds us, it is the hand of God.

Not for the last time, Peter is a deserter. And yet he will learn to live as the rock (Petros), the one who is present to God even when being present to God means to be in the dark, even when it means to be bound and taken places against his will, even unto death.

Long before Peter, Noah discovered that the mountain does not provide solid ground until (long) after the flood has subsided. Further back still, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters, as a dove awaiting a place to land. But the boat will reach the shore, the ark come to rest on the mountain, the world will unfold in all its complexity. The mountain is our touchstone, but God alone is our hope.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Of break-ins and break-throughs


We had a wonderful time at New Wine United (2018, Week 2) last week. These summer gatherings are a happy place for me, somewhere where many of my worlds (places we have lived and friendships we have made over the past quarter of a century) collide in creative ways. We loved listening to dear friends share what they had learned from God. We loved singing songs of worship written in our own days, in the context of our own lives. We got home on Sunday night, and I went in to work on Monday morning expecting to catch up with news, to work through emails and laundry…but instead we had to deal with the aftermath of a break-in to the Minster in the early hours of that morning: two broken windows; two shattered doors; a ladder, giving access to the bells, ripped from the ringing-chamber wall; desk-drawers and filing-cabinets forced open, and paperwork strewn all over the floor. A lot of damage, a huge amount of mess – shards of glass everywhere – and nothing taken: the intruder, arrested on site by the police, was almost certainly only after money, and found none.

Welcome home!

It is one thing to meet with God with thousands of other people who have come away on pilgrimage together for that very purpose, and another to meet with God in the come-down.

That is where moving mountains comes in. Jesus spoke about it, and we sing about it, but my sense is that we often think of the mountains as the obstacles we face and seek the faith to overcome. That’s a powerful image, but it is one that comes from The Lord of the Rings, not the Bible. Jesus makes a wholly other point.

In the Bible, mountains are most often places where God is encountered – and more than that, of encountering the God who rescues his people from slavery. (Sometimes smaller mountains represent surrounding nations over which God reigns from Mount Zion, raising his own people above them – which is an extension of the same imagery.) Moses receives his call to set his people free at a mountain, and later God descends on the mountain to call the people into covenant relationship with the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Elijah meets God on the (same) mountain, dejected and resigned and about to be re-commissioned into God’s plans to deliver his people from evil. Peter, James and John are caught up in a profound religious experience on the mountaintop, a vision of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, receiving instruction for his own mission to bring freedom to captives.

In Matthew 17, Jesus descends from the mount of the Transfiguration – this profound encounter where the voice of God speaks directly to his disciples – and is met by a desperate father whose son is afflicted by a demon. Jesus delivers the child of that oppression, and when asked about this by his disciples responds that dogged, mustard-seed faith can tell a mountain to move from here to there, and it will. In other words, the kind of faith that has an impact on the world appropriates the experience of encountering God – as liberator – and brings that with us into the place where that experience is currently absent but required.

In Luke 17, Jesus says something similar but dissimilar, about faith uprooting a tree and planting it in the sea. In the Bible, the sea often symbolises chaos that opposes God – with God regularly defeating the sea by parting it or walking on it – or (related) barriers that would prevent God’s people from entering into the fullness of freedom. The context in Luke 17 is forgiveness, with the sea representing the chaos that division results in, and a tree being the focal-point for both repentance (seeking forgiveness and reconciliation) and forgiveness (extended, in order that reconciliation might be experienced). The cross, in the Gospels, and the tree of life in the Revelation of John, would be such trees.

In Mark 11, Jesus brings together the mountain and the sea, telling his disciples that faith can move this mountain (the this is important) into the sea. The context is that Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the final time: within a week, he will be crucified. Staying with friends in Bethany, on the Mount of Olives across the valley from Jerusalem, he looks across at the temple mount, synonymous with God’s presence, and speaks of the need to move this mountain into the sea. The conversation is prompted by Jesus cursing a fig tree – a symbol of God’s people – for not bearing fruit when he came to it. The wider context is full of warnings that if the people do not receive him, it will be too late: the temple will be destroyed. The people as a nation do not repent, and in AD70 the Roman army would destroy the temple, as Jesus had foreseen. The point Jesus makes about throwing the mountain into the sea is that there is no advantage in having a place of encountering God if you cannot bring that to bear in the face of chaos – creating firm ground on which to stand. Indeed, if we do not do this, we will ultimately lose the experience of encounter we had previously known.

What, then, has this to do with break-ins and break-throughs?

We need the mountain-top experiences, but we need to keep proclaiming the God who sets us free in the dark valleys.

Faith does not guarantee problem-free lives, but the promise of a covenant-partner who stands with us in the challenges we face, bringing to bear the resources at his disposal.

If we do not exercise this faith, circumstances will sweep it away from us.

My immediate response to the break-in was not to bless the intruder. My immediate response was not charitable. The temptation was to give free rein to anger, to vengeance, to discouragement – and so to find myself taken captive by these intruders.

To be honest, yesterday, in the moment, I could not throw the mountain of my week at New Wine United into the sea of shattered glass and splintered wood and scattered paper. But today I could. Today, I could ask God to show mercy on the intruder – and on me. Today, I could call out to God to come and set me free, that I might bring the goodness of the kingdom of heaven to bear in the mess.

That is what it looks like to move mountains, to throw them into the sea. Even to hope for repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

Update: now read part 2

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Lament


July has been a very full month, and my writing has been focused elsewhere. From 2-12 July, I took part in a clergy consultation at St George’s House, within Windsor Castle. Our theme was God: Some Conversations, considering how we speak about God in the context of various challenges and potential opportunities facing us nationally and globally, including the state of the Church, the future of healthcare and the NHS, the arts, Brexit, democracy in a ‘post-truth’ Information Age, organised criminal gangs, and environmental issues.

As part of my contribution to the consultation, I presented a paper on lament. If you are interested, you can link to it here.

As it turned out, lament was a theme we returned to over again in the course of our deliberations, noting that it was missing from our public discourse. We also observed that evil often counterfeits good, and that, in the absence of a robust practice of lament, the tabloid press holds out a counterfeit version: endless daily tales of woe, framed by outrage and identifying scapegoats to blame. In contrast, genuine lament acknowledges our pain – and inability, at times, to rescue ourselves – and recognises the pain of others, showing empathy; leads to an appropriate accepting of our own responsibility, and repentance; and always, even in the most apparently hopeless of situations, holds fast to hope.

I came to Windsor with a hunch that lament would be one necessary and helpful way to frame God-conversations and came away with that sense very much affirmed. Come the autumn, I will want to explore this further.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Enemies


Holy Communion: 1 Kings 18:41-46 and Matthew 5:20-26

The back story to our Old Testament reading is this. The king, Ahab, had made a marriage alliance with his neighbour to the north. His wife, Jezebel, had brought with her the worship of her gods, Baal and his consort Asherah – who controlled the rain, and the fertility of the land – along with a systematic marginalisation of Israelite worship. A hostile takeover bid. Ahab leads a realignment from trust in the god who had rescued a people from slavery and established a society based on freedom from fear, to deference to gods who wished to enslave them once again.

In a direct show-down, Elijah, a prophet of the Israelites’ god Yahweh, declares that there will be no rain on the land except by his word. Elijah goes into hiding for three years of drought. During this time, Jezebel schemes that the companies of the prophets of Yahweh – the forerunners of monastic communal life – be rounded-up and killed.

After three years, Elijah presents himself to Ahab, and proposes a contest, between himself and the prophets of Baal and of Asherah, to decide once-and-for-all where the loyalty of the people should lie. It is a resounding victory for Elijah, who then personally carries out what was always going to be the outcome, the execution of the defeated side in the battle. Then, the land released, Elijah calls up rain.

This is unambiguously the realm of enemies, and of warfare between opposing rulers. We might substitute gods for nation states, or diametrically-opposed political philosophies.

Against this backdrop, it is remarkable that Elijah instructs Ahab to eat and drink, and then to hurry home. In other words, his concern is that his enemy should celebrate the breaking of the drought that was – at least in the worldview of the story – both caused and prolonged by Ahab’s policy. His enemy should not miss out on the celebration. And at an even more fundamental level, Elijah – for three years on the run – demonstrates concern that his enemy should reach shelter.

That is a mind-blowing way to treat an enemy.

It is a way that – with absolutely no guarantee – might just turn an enemy into a friend.

It is a way of righteousness – of seeking to live in right relationship – that exceeds tradition and inherited wisdom; and triumphs over self-interest – and, ultimately, over self-destruction. The righteousness of freedom, found in the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Compass


Morning Prayer: Judges 5:1-31 and Luke 13:22-35

After the victory recorded in Judges 4, the song of celebration. This is a political telling, that sets what has taken place in a very particular context. Though all the tribes of Israel benefit from Barak’s victory, only some of the tribes came out to fight alongside him. Others are left – or, ought to be – with great searchings of heart. This is a song of judgement on Israel, as much as a song of triumph. A warning to those who put attending to their own concerns ahead of helping their neighbours, who are also their sisters and brothers.

And having honoured Deborah as the mother of Israel, and Jael as most blessed of women, the song turns to the mother of Sisera, who intuitively knows that something has gone wrong but who – encouraged by her ‘wisest’ ladies-in-waiting – desperately holds on to the false hope of business-as-usual, the powerful exploiting others; powerful women condoning the exploitation of other women by powerful men.

The song concludes with the hope of a lasting freedom, a return of light after the darkness of night.

In the Gospel reading we see a summary of Jesus’ activity of going through the towns and villages. Like the judges of old, he is calling people to his side, in the Lord’s cause. And as the judges found, there were many who wanted the benefits of deliverance without its cost, who turn up for the party after the dust has settled. Others make a cautious, half-hearted response; but these, too, are left with a great heart-searching to be done.

Jesus is the latest in a line of those sent to gather the people together, only to find them resistant. Yet he holds on to a vision that people will gather from east and west, from north and south – whether they are the ones you would expect or not. A people defined not by tribal self-interest, but by a bigger story. One that scorns death; that does not fear laying down a life it cannot keep in exchange for life that cannot be lost. On those who sit in darkness, in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, a great light has dawned...

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Glory


Morning Prayer: Judges 4:1-23 and Luke 13:10-21

Judges 4 is one of my favourite chapters in the Bible.

Deborah sits under her palm tree in her glory, which is to be the one to whom all Israel comes to judge their disputes.

Jael stands at the entrance of her tent in her glory, which is to be the one through whom the Israelites are saved from their oppressor Sisera.

And in the Gospel reading, the woman in the synagogue is unable to stand, bent over by accusation, by voices subtle and not-so subtle that keep putting her in her place. Except, of course, that this is not her place, was never meant to be. Jesus cuts through the crap, and restores to her her own glory –

and follows it up with an explosive parable in which he describes God as a woman.

In a world where women are so often kept in their place, the glory of Lappidoth is to release his wife into the fullness of her glory and not seek to contain, constrain or control, but be content to stand in her shadow. The glory of Barak is not in defeating Sisera, but in walking in Deborah’s shadow, her as his helper just as God is Israels helper. The glory of Heber is not in an alliance with King Jabin, but, like Lappidoth, in his wife being queen of her own realm. And the glory of Jesus is in restoring a woman constrained for eighteen years.

Here’s to the women. And to the men who know them as sister.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Highlands


Mountain hare,
deer, golden
eagles – a nesting pair,
right on the road side.

Tiny flowers,
scattered jewel-like in the grass,
wink yellow, mauve,
and violet eyes.

Gorse, in bloom;
fern, scrub heather;
a slow worm
writhes across our path.

The sea, electric blue
and eau de nil,
turned mercury
by late-afternoon.

And all day long
the skylarks rise up,
up, high above the meadow,
and sing their song.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The flowing river of history


Morning Prayer: Joshua 4

As the Israelites cross over the river Jordan, Joshua gives instruction that one representative from each of the twelve tribes take up a large stone from the river bed and carry them into the first place the people will set their camp in the land, as a perpetual memory to what the Lord their God has done for them.

But Joshua himself takes up twelve stones and sets them up in the middle of the river itself. Why?

Joshua is of the half-tribe of Ephraim, Ephraim being the younger of Joseph’s two sons. In Genesis 48, Joseph presents his sons before his own father, Jacob known-as Israel, for his blessing. The blessing Israel proclaims relates to the boys’ as perpetual memory of his own name, his history and that of his ancestors. Israel also declares that the younger son, Ephraim, will be greater than his brother, Manasseh.

In short, Joshua understands his own heritage as being to secure the remembrance of the descendants of Israel. While they are all to have a vested-interest in the remembrance of what God has done, Joshua’s role is to remember who it is that God has acted for.

And while the people are instructed to set up the stones of testimony where they can be seen, where their children can walk up to them and around them, laying their hands on them and asking, ‘What do these mean?’ Joshua sets his memorial up where it will be covered by the waters.

These are the people God found overwhelmed by water—in a world where the waters represent chaos, and the land represents stability and a future, a purpose, tied to tending the earth from which we came and to which we return.

These are not a people who are anything in their own might, but a people rescued, again and again.

Yes, the people were to remember God. But in order to do so, they would need help not to forget themselves.

How easily we forget ourselves. And so perhaps, in the footsteps of Joshua, the role of the public leader is not to do the work of telling God’s story to the people for them, but to do the work of reminding them—and God—who they are.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Driven out


Morning Prayer: Joshua 3

The unfolding account of the partial conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites is troubling. We are rightly wary of people who believe that God is on their side, validating their victories. It has been said that history is written by the victors—but that is not the case in scripture. History is written as a process by which to make sense, of victory and of defeat.

As the people prepare to enter the land, from which God promises to drive out from before them seven other tribes, we are told that the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. It is an important detail, and not simply to emphasize a river-crossing miracle. What is implied is that it returns to within its banks in due course.

Before his death, Moses had spoken to the people about faithfulness and infidelity, and corresponding blessings and curses. Blessings are the release of life in its fullness. Curses constrain life for a season, to restrict the multiplication of evil. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks of the people being driven out by God among many nations. If they return to the Lord their God, he would restore their fortunes and gather them again from all the peoples among whom he would scatter them.

This is the backdrop to understanding God’s action in determining to drive out seven tribes before the Israelites, for God’s concern for humanity is not restricted to one people. The tribes that had settled in Canaan would be driven out, as the Israelites themselves would experience. They would be pushed out beyond their banks, as a response to infidelity. But not a permanent condition. This is not sanctioned ethnic cleansing, despite the lives that would be taken at Joshua’s command, but God at work in and through history. Just as the Jordan would return to its banks, so driven-out people might return, if they call on the Lord of all the earth.

Sacred texts exist to help us make sense of defeat as well as victory. Neither condition is total, or for ever. There is hope to be keep alive in defeat and moderation to be kept in mind in victory.