Sunday, March 31, 2013

meditations for Easter

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Lo! the Sun’s eclipse is over, Alleluia!
Lo! He sets in blood no more, Alleluia!

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal, Alleluia!
Christ hath burst the gates of hell, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!
Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

Christ the Lord is Risen Today, full lyrics here

But I'll still believe
though there's cracks you'll see
when I'm on my knees I'll still believe
and when I've hit the ground
neither lost nor found
If you'll believe in me
I'll still believe

Mumford & Sons, Holland Road

The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God's wounds can speak,
And not a God has wounds, but thou alone.

-Edward Shilito, Jesus of the Scars

And, if you’re lucky, someone in the car will recognize the bravery of the act. If you’re lucky, there will be a moment of holy silence before someone wonders out loud if such a question might put a damper on Easter brunch.

But if you’re not—if the question gets answered too quickly or if the silence goes on too long—please know you are not alone.

There are other people signing words to hymns they’re not sure they believe today, other people digging out dresses from the backs of their closets today, other people ruining Easter brunch today, other people just showing up today.

And sometimes, just showing up - burial spices in hand - is all it takes to witness a miracle.

-Rachel Held Evans, Holy Week for Doubters

               He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”
-Matthew 13:33, Common English Version

He speaks desperation. He dies his body. But he is pregnant
with mystery: he gathers the cosmic collection of every hopeless
sigh, every loss, every hatred formed against another,
every embittered soul, every unloved and unlover.

-Micha Boyett, Daughters of Jerusalem

O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in your Church that Spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-a Collect for Easter, Book of Common Prayer

Monday, March 25, 2013

skipping ahead, for now

As you might imagine, I'm getting pretty behind on my Lent Bible-reading adventure thingy. I'm just up to Ezekiel, should have finished Luke yesterday (and trust me, I really wish I was in the New Testament already.) Realistically, I don't see how I can catch up in six days, so I'm going to skip ahead to the Gospels and focus on those this week, then return to my good friend Ezekiel and 'dem bones (tangent: that was almost Nicky's name, because I thought Zeke would be the cutest nickname ever, but when he was born he looked more like a Nicolas) next week and finish up from there. I really want to keep blogging about it too, but it may be a little slower than before. This whole night shift thing is taking its toll, and in my spare time I like to do things like sit on the couch and stare off into space (and occasionally other stuff like tickle my kids and make food.) And, to be honest, I don't want to spend Holy Week with the Minor Prophets (sorry, Minor Prophets, but I need some Jesus, fast, or I might call the whole thing off.)

So for now, it's on to Matthew. Happy almost Easter :)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: Psalms

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshuaJudges and RuthMore on Judges1 & 2 SamuelKings and ChroniclesEzra and NehemiahEsther, & Job.}

Poetry and Violence (originally posted in November 2012)

Psalm 3. A Psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.
LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, "God will not deliver him." 
But you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from His holy mountain.
I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.
Arise, LORD! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.
From the LORD comes deliverance. May your blessing be upon your people. 
In all the years I've been in a relationship with the Bible,  I've often turned to the Psalms for comfort. The words are so beautifully put together, and some so familiar that when I read them, it's like coming across an old friend.

 I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.  (Psalm 121) 
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.  (Psalm 23) 
I waited patiently for the LORD, he inclined and heard my cry. (Psalm 40) 
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  (Psalm 91)

and this one:
you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
Arguably, some of the most beautiful poetry ever written is contained in the Psalms.

But as anyone who has read them knows, the Psalms are not just a collection of beautiful words. They are a collection of the words of David. Sometimes I get frustrated by all that David in the text.

(Seriously, David, I'm trying to get some comfort here, trying to read some beautiful old words and you have to come along and ruin my morning with your violent Tony Soprano fantasies.) 

What I used to do was just ignore the parts I didn't like, or just employ a little snark to balance them out. I had no use for them; I have no enemies whose heads I wish to dash against a rock.

Of course, he was a man of his time, with his own cultural constraints. If someone was chasing me down I'd probably be praying for some protection too.

I've been looking for the humanity in the Bible, and it's opened up a new richness in the text that I didn't see before. Now, I appreciate seeing all that David in the text. It's the human condition--we are capable of such beauty, such poetry....and also such violence and anger.

David spent so much of his time fleeing from people. He grew up in the country, tending sheep and writing songs, and was thrust into the public eye at a young age. He loved God and wanted to please Him, but messed up  over and over. I look at his story and wonder if he missed the simplicity of his early days. I wonder, in his later years, how often he picked up the harp.

The lesson here for me is this: we're all David. Living in different times, with different ways of solving problems, but with the same fundamental problems of the human heart. Poetry and violence all mixed together, longing for communion with God.

The Bible is so much more interesting with the humanity left in. Maddening too, just as my own humanity is to me at times.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

just because

Just because I had an early meeting, and now I'm gathering tax documents and folding laundry, crossing t's and dotting i's, and days behind on my reading,

just because I want to remember how Silas runs with his arms bent up high, a little like Sid the Science Kid,

and because Nicky-boy ran and jumped up on me when I picked up him from school,

and because Silas likes to wear hats,

and because of her lashes, and little yellow dresses, and grass that's starting to turn,

and just because my boys play together so much now,

and because a nice old man gave them a walking stick. Pick one out, hijo, that's right, go ahead! Because honorary grandparents exist all around.

Because it's a windy first day of Spring, and I miss them while I cross things off my list. Just because.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: Job

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshuaJudges and RuthMore on Judges1 & 2 SamuelKings and ChroniclesEzra and Nehemiah, & Esther.}

This may come as a surprise, but I've come to love the book of Job. It validates the feelings of anyone who has ever suffered and wondered. There's something comforting about finding out that many of your deepest, darkest questions are contained in a book written thousands of years ago; that people were scratching their heads about the same things back then.

The book addresses many of the fundamental questions of the human experience. Why do people suffer? Why some and not others? How should we respond when tragedy falls? And the big one: why do bad things happen to good people?

The book reads like theater, so that's how I like to imagine it. The characters appear, and say their pieces, and an invisible narrator gives insight from a chair in the shadows, to the side of the stage. All the while, an uncomfortable tension hangs in the air, and we're all sitting in the audience biting our fingernails, hearing our internal conflicts voiced by the self-assured, the wounded, the pitiful, the glib, knowing they're getting to a deeper truth about the human condition that we'd rather not dwell on too much. Eerie echos of Ecclesiastes show up in Job's words, or maybe it's the other way around: is everything meaningless, are we chasing after the wind, do we simply work and go to our graves and then.......cease? What can we know? We begin with assurances and end with a big question mark, and the audience shuffles out, unsatisfied. I'll explain why I think that in a bit, but first here's the rundown:

The Characters:
  • Job: a "blameless, upright man who fears God and shuns evil" (1:1)
  • Job's children: seven sons and three daughters
  • The Adversary/Satan ("the adversary" is the literal translation)
  • The LORD
  • Job's wife
  • Job's three friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar
  • Elihu: a friend of Job who shows up later in the text
The Events:
  • Job is blameless, wealthy, and pious: so much so that he offers sacrifices on behalf of his children in case they sin.
  • The Adversary goes before the LORD. The initial reason for his visit isn't clear, but for some reason the LORD asks him if he's considered Job, and describes him to The Adversary, offering him as an example of righteousness. This is the first puzzling moment of the book (why did the LORD offer him up?) but there are plenty more to come. The Adversary responds that Job only worships the LORD because his life is good; if harm comes to him then surely he would curse the LORD. The LORD gives The Adversary permission to do whatever he wants to Job's family and possessions, but not to touch Job. Essentially, this is a bet, with a human plaything.                                                               
  • Job's sons, daughters, and livestock are all killed in one day. 
  • Job hears of his great loss, falls to the ground and utters these admirable words: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD" (1:21). Then we're told, "in all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong." 
  • Unsatisfied, The Adversary returns to the LORD. He argues that Job wouldn't remain faithful if his own health was affected. So, the LORD gives The Adversary permission to afflict Job, with the condition that he spare Job's life.
  • Job gets "painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head", and again responds in a admirable fashion when his incredulous wife (who, interestingly, is also spared) suggests he should just "curse God and die". He responds: "Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?" (2:10) And again, we are told that Job does not sin with his lips.

  • Job's three friends come to him, and sit with him in his sorrow. They sit and say nothing for seven days and nights. (I really love this detail.)
  • Job starts to talk. He wishes he hadn't been born. He utters poetry; one can imagine his weak gravelly voice raising in sorrow, in shock.
  • Job's friends start to talk too. Eliphaz goes first, and tiptoes around the idea that Job must have some un-repented sin in his life to have such calamity fall on him. He asks: do the innocent perish? don't those who sow trouble reap it? can a mortal be more righteous than God? He encourages Job to seek the LORD's forgiveness: "Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; Therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty. For He bruises, but He binds up. He wounds, but His hands make whole" (5:17-18). Bildad follows suit, insisting that Job must need to repent. "If you were pure and upright, surely now He would awake for you", he says (8:6). Repent, and the LORD will restore you, he promises. 
  • Job doesn't accept the premise on which his friends are operating: essentially that good things happen to the righteous and bad things happen to the unrepentant.  He insists he's innocent, over and over. We see a shift in Job's tone. Remember how earlier the narrator says Job didn't charge God with wrong? He does now, in no uncertain terms:
    • 6:4 For the arrows of the Almighty are within me; My spirit drinks in their poison; The terrors of God are arrayed against me.
    • 7:11 Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
    • 7:20-21 Have I sinned? What have I done to You, O watcher of men? Why have you set me as your target, so that I am a burden to myself?
    • 9:16-19 If I called and He answered me, I would not believe that He was listening to my voice. For He crushes me with a tempest, and multiplies my wounds without cause. He will not allow me to catch my breath, but fills me with bitterness. If it is a matter of strength, indeed He is strong. And if of justice, who will appoint my day in court?
  • That last line hits me like a punch in the stomach. Yes, the LORD is powerful, Job says. His friends have been emphasizing this point, and Job agrees with them. But, he wonders, and this is probably the biggest question of the book: is justice possible?
  • The idea of a court meeting emerges, and the themes of justice and power come into play. Job wonders how he could approach the LORD without a mediator. He's powerless, and suffering, and oh so aware of the LORD's powers and yet insists he would plead his case before Him. This is a cry for a Messiah, a wish for a way to approach this LORD who punishes, in this case, to simply prove a point. In chapter ten, Job begins to describe all that he would like to say to the LORD, if he could. He wonders why the LORD would fashion his body only to destroy it. He's wrestling here with whether the LORD is truly good or not. We see a cadence in the text: these are your attributes, show yourself to be good/ but this is what you've done, it doesn't make sense/these are your attributes, show yourself to be good. Back and forth, forth and back. Surely, surely. This is faith: the insistence that something else is going on, something we don't understand.
  • Zophar responds, again urging repentance. He introduces another theme: we can't understand everything. He asks, "Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than heaven--what can you do? Deeper than Sheol--what can you know?" (11:7-8).  What can you do, what can you know?

  • And so it goes on. Job acknowledges the mysteries of the universe, the unknowable things of God. He says, I know, but then he asks why again. The cadence continues in rich and descriptive poetry. In chapter thirteen, we see Job come to a stubborn new conclusion (I love how this book shows us his process, his wondering): "Though he slay me, yet I will trust Him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him" (13:15). He's not giving up on his faith in the LORD, but he's not admitting to things he hasn't done either, which is baffling to his friends. And so the questions continue, chapter after chapter.
  • Elihu enters the scene. He's more harsh with Job than the other three friends, who suggest Job needs to repent in a much more gentle manner. Elihu lays it out bluntly: "What man is like Job, who drinks scorn like water, who goes in company with the workers of iniquity, and walks with wicked men? For he has said, 'It profits a man nothing that he should delight in God'." Job is messing with the beloved ideal that if you follow the law and do right, God will bless you, and Elihu doesn't like it one bit. Because, let's face it: if you have to let go of that ideal, life has a lot less certainty, and you have to face your fears. But this is what Job has managed to do. He's looking his fears in the face, and yet not letting go of his faith.
  • Finally, the LORD responds to Job "out of the whirlwind, and [says]: 'Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me" (38:1). I really recommend reading chapters 38 and 39; there's just no way I can do them justice here. The LORD asks Job question after question, like: by what way is light diffused, or the east wind scattered over the earth? Does the hawk fly by your wisdom, and spread its wings toward the south? And the grand finale: Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it. Boom.
  • The LORD is sounding a lot like Job's friends here. Job answers, meekly, that he is vile and cannot answer. "I lay my hand over my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer. Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further." (40:4-5) Then, the LORD goes on to question Job some more.
  • Then, something happens that is kind of shocking. Job repents
                   I know that You can do everything, 
                  And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You
                  You asked, 'Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?'
                  Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
                  Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
                  Listen, please, and let me speak;
                  You said, 'I will question you, and you will answer Me.'
                  I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
                  But now my eye sees You.
                  Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (42:1-6)
  • Then, another surprising thing happens: the LORD rebukes Job's friends! He tells them "you have not spoken of Me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42:7) and commands them to offer up sacrifices and have Job pray for them. 
  • As the book closes, we learn that the LORD gives Job twice as much as what he had before. He gains more livestock than he lost, and again has seven sons and three daughters. He lives to see them grow and have grandchildren. So Job died, old and full of days. The curtain falls, the actors take a bow.
So we in the audience, what lessons do we take home? Are we meant to? The LORD answers Job's questions with more questions, and Job finds a strange comfort in this. 


I don't find much comfort in the LORD's response; if anything He's even less approachable after His tirade of questions. And to be honest, the hasty happy ending feels contrived and empty. Nevertheless, I find a sacred space between the lines (and I'm finding, as I make my way through the Old Testament, that's often where the sacred space exists.)

Here's my comfort: this book is not the last word on God's character. It is a wondering, a question mark, a universal throwing up of the hands. I see this book as an amazing product of the imagination, a historical treasure, and an incredibly brave statement about how much we don't know. Is it to be taken literally? Are we the playthings of heavenly beings, bound to suffer and then grovel in the dirt when we have the courage to ask why?

That sacred space between the lines whispers no, no, no. Imagine we're living alongside Job. It will be a long time before we meet the God who weeps with us, who bleeds for us. We don't even know He's there yet, and so we cower before this tyrant of our imagination. There's so much we can't explain. We see hints of mercy, but who dares to believe it? Who would ever believe it was Him, unless He showed us?

I've heard plenty of sermons about Job: how it's a lesson to praise God in all circumstances, how God rewards the faithful, how God is God and we are not.....the thing is, I don't think that's what this book is about at all.

When you turn poetry into a formula, you kill it. We used to say jokingly, leave a little room for the Holy Spirit and tsk-tsk about sitting too close in church or slow-dancing at the prom, but isn't that just a good motto for life? Leave a little room for the Holy Spirit; leave the poetry to speak to us as it will. We may hear different things; we carry different burdens to the cross.

This book is a collective wondering; it asks the questions that were bound to come up eventually and have never yet gone away. And I suspect that, like all good art, it's supposed to make us feel something more than it's supposed to make us able to explain something.

When you're hurting, I mean really low, do you want someone to give you a chipper, trite answer or do you want someone to sit with you in your sorrow? Do you want to know why? Absolutely. Will any answer ever really satisfy your grief? No.

Sometimes, poetry is the best we have to offer, because despite what we know or think we know, we still wonder all the time. Even the staunchest fundamentalist wonders, in his or her moments of solitude. Job's friends seem afraid to admit any doubt at all, and so they channel that fear into certainty, while Job asks the deepest questions of his heart and freely admits his fear. That is why I love the book of Job. It is poetry in response to human suffering, and poetry is where I hear Him.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Weekend Reading

Hello! I'm giving thanks today for Benadryl (because I slept last night), this big cup of coffee in front of me (because my body wonders what the heck), and a gorgeous day outside (light! aaaahhhhhhhh!) Lots of adjusting going on around here, still, and our days all together are that much sweeter. We have big plans to find some good food at the farmer's market, but first here are some posts and such that I came across this week. 

A little musical happiness:

I got up out of bed. My fingers trembled but wasn’t His command to love one another anyways and I tapped out an email to that person whose words had bled me open. I sent an invitation to dinner. Not a rebuttal, not an explanation, not a defense. I invited their whole family to come over and sit across the table. Instead of having a break down or breaking fellowship – I asked if we could break bread.

Margaret Feinberg: Minor and Major Confusion: 5 Tips for Reading Prophetic Literature --I'm tackling Isaiah at the moment, so tucking this away for reference. And, I'm more than ready for the hero to show up, so I inhaled her post Just Give Me Jesus: 7 Things to Remember When Reading the Gospels.

Simple Mom: How I keep my (natural) beauty routine sane --how to swap your shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, lip balm and face wash for baking soda, apple cider vinegar, olive and coconut oil, and lanolin--hey I still have 1/2 a tube of that stuff :) I already use olive oil as a face cleanser and it works really well, but I'm curious to try these other things.

While this product may be an extreme example, it points to the profound influence of Western individualism on our reading of the biblical text. Passages that were originally written for groups of people, and intended to be read and applied in a community setting (the nation of Israel, the various early churches, the first followers of Jesus), have been manipulated to communicate a personal, individual message…thus leading the reader away from the original corporate intent of the passage to a reaffirmation of the individualistic, me-centered, and consumerist tendencies of American religious culture.

Grow a pretty wheatgrass centerpiece, or Easter garden. What a perfect shade of green :)

There are many reasons I find myself challenging Christians of all traditions to return to the centrality of the table, as we do weekly at our church. It anchors us experientially in the presence of Christ, for whatever else is different about our respective traditions. It delivers us from the tyranny of personality (even for those as large as my own) when it is the Lord’s Supper that is the climax of every Christian celebration. But beyond all of this, it reassembles the Church. Every time we come to the table, we participate in the prayer of John 17 in our unity, not only within our local Church but within our global one.

Sarah Bessey: In which God does not want to use me
May our daily work and our voice and our words and our prayers matter in our homes and our churches and our neighbourhoods (right there is the whole world). But we are not “used” – not that. Instead when we love God, when we are free, when we are walking with, then we are a sign and a foretaste of how it was meant to be in the Garden, perhaps, God’s way of living overflowing organically: the disciple, the friend, the daughter, the son, the brother, the heir, the beloved.

I'm off to plant some wheatgrass, study for the upcoming week at work (still pinching myself), read some major and minor prophets, and soak up some sun with my family. Happy weekending!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: Esther

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshuaJudges and RuthMore on Judges1 & 2 SamuelKings and Chronicles, & Ezra and Nehemiah.}

Instead of writing about Esther myself, I'd like to link to a great series on the book: Rachel Held Evans' Esther Actually. I learned quite a lot reading it--about the historical context, details I never noticed before, and the feast of Purim which commemorates Esther's bravery. Esther is a fascinating book. Here's an excerpt from one of the posts in the series, but really, read the whole thing; it's worth it.

As we discussed last week, the book of Esther is a diaspora story. It is meant to help the scattered Jewish people come to terms with their identity and their faith when they are in exile, when they no longer have an independent homeland or temple. What does it mean to be Jewish--to be the people of Yahweh--when the Jews are being ruled by violent, opulant, and godless pagan kings? Is God still on the throne when the fate of his chosen people seems left to the whims of kings like Xerxes? How are the powerless to respond to power?  
This, I believe, is why we encounter that strange juxtaposition between darkness and comedy in the book of Esther, and why, perhaps, we never read God’s name. Power, the author seems to be saying, is ultimately an illusion. Beneath the golden chairs and packed harems and drunken parties and patriarchal edicts are a bunch of sinful, insecure, and weak people...people whose attempts to puff themselves up only make them look silly.  
In fact, you will notice that those with the most power in the story are the ones who behave with the most weakness. Not once in the story of Esther, for example, does Xerxes actually make a decision on his own. He is coaxed and coddled by his advisors, by his eunuchs, by Haman, and ultimately by Esther.  Major decisions in Persia are made not after prayer and fasting, but on whims, in response to petty personal sleights, by the of casting lots. It is an empty, foolish power. 
This would all be terribly frightening were it not for the quiet, and at times hidden, hand of God, working all things together for good. I suspect that this is why the Jews dress up in costume, feast, celebrate, and laugh in response to a story about their near destruction as a people. 
They laugh because they are in on the secret: that they serve a God who uses indentured eunuchs to change the course of history, orphan girls to reverse the decisions of kings, and rebellious pagan queens to put it all in motion. 
They laugh because they know earthly power - be it patriarchy or the Persian Empire -  is just a big show. In the end, it is God who uses the weak to humble the powerful. It is God who makes all things new. 

Reading the Bible for Lent: Ezra & Nehemiah

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshuaJudges and RuthMore on Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and Kings and Chronicles.}

After Cyrus the Great overthrows Babylon in 539 BC, making it part of his enormous empire, he decrees that captives there may return to their native lands. This of course includes the Jews, and some of them make the trek back to Jerusalem and begin the process of rebuilding the temple there. There's a tender scene as the people gather to lay the foundation of the temple:
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD.
            "For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel."
Then, all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the father's houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (3:11-13, emphasis mine)
The process is halted until the reign of King Darius of Persia, and the rebuilding is resumed. Ezra is a priest and scribe living in Babylon under the reign of King Artaxerxes, and a direct descendant of Aaron (7:5) who returns to Jerusalem to oversee civil and religious matters there. We read that he has "prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel" (7:10). He's there to clean house, so to speak. He urges the importance of exclusivity after learning that the "people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the people of the lands"; they've been intermarrying with them. Ezra is devastated (see 9:3-15), and wonders how Israel can be blessed when they've violated the LORD's specific instructions to remain separate. The people weep and confess, and then they make a covenant to "put away all these wives and those who have been born to them" (10:3). And so they do (I have to say, "those who had been born to them" sounds a bit more cold than "their children". Can you imagine?) This is how the book ends. It's sort of an in-between time for Israel, so it seems fitting that the book ends without any real resolution. 

Nehemiah is a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, and is also allowed to return to Jerusalem to help build the walls surrounding Jerusalem, after he tells the king about the state of things there. The temple had been rebuilt at this point, but the city's walls are in a state of ruin (Nehemiah 2:13) and the people can't defend themselves effectively from outside attackers.

Nehemiah reminds me a little of Joshua: he's charismatic and good at stirring up the people to action. He encourages the people as they rebuild the wall, even as they have to fight off attackers while building (see 4:18-22). Persevering against opposition is a recurring theme in the book; amazingly, they rebuild the walls in just 52 days.

The rebuilding of the wall is a motif, or backdrop, for Nehemiah's work of setting things to right. He works for justice and a return to the Law. Underneath all this work is the same idea and longing that's been present all along in the Old Testament: if we do right, if we return to the LORD, He will bless us again.

In chapter eight, Ezra reads to the people from the books of the Law, and they gain a better knowledge of it because it's explained to them by Ezra and others who understand it. The people weep, and Nehemiah tells them "Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." (8:10)

After this celebration the people repent, perceiving their history a little differently in light of reading the books of the law and considering how they've strayed from it over time. There's a nostalgia to it, although our reading so far demonstrates that the glory days never really existed. Nevertheless, I get. It's what we humans do. We mess up and hope for better, and set up impossible standards to try and avoid ever messing up again.

I wonder why we're so stubborn about that. One of the reasons I can't look away from Jesus is that I don't think humans could have conceived of grace on our own. Law, consequence, punishment, cause-and-effect: we get those things. That's our default.

The people dedicate the wall, and "separate all the mixed multitude from Israel", and Nehemiah leaves for a season. When he returns, the people have begun to break the laws again: breaking the Sabbath, ignoring temple laws and intermingling with foreigners. As the book comes to a close, Nehemiah is once again setting things to right, reforming.

There's a great hopefulness to these books, and a great sadness. Both end without resolution. The ever-present question is echoed here too, into the void: can we ever be good enough? Energy, building up, loss, rubble, sackcloth, repentance, understanding, energy, building up, loss, rubble. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Weekend Reading

This week brought some changes that are both daunting and exciting. I started night shifts again (I just might be crazy, yes) so that I can work on labor and delivery, all the time. I've seen amazing, beautiful births and have had to pinch myself. My favorite moment so far: giving a baby her first bath about an hour after her birth, wrapping her up, looking at the proud, spent parents resting and thinking this is actually my job. This is really happening. I feel so blessed, and oh so tired. We're in transition. Yesterday, Ricky extended all kinds of grace my way; I know once I get used to this it won't be so hard to shift gears, but I have to say I'm so grateful for a partner who doesn't reinforce my own unhealthy mama-guilt. When we give each other room to pursue dreams, it means we pick up what slack is left. We're working it out. I have to remember how to be present in my tiredness--in that way it's kind of like having a newborn; each time we've had one I've had to learn it all over again. All that sweetness and exhaustion mixed together.

This weekend, grace looks like blanket forts, pizza, fifteen minute power naps, quiet reading time, and the way my head fits right into the space between his neck and shoulders. It means sending him out for that beer with a friend; it means the chai he brings home to me. It looks like dragging Silas' mattress under the blanket fort and smiling at each other on the couch as little boys giggle to each other, surrounded by a mountain of stuffed animals. It means smiling through the tired because one of my dreams is coming true.

I'm actually all caught up on the Bible for Lent reading, and working on several posts for that right now, but in the meantime here are some posts I bookmarked over the past few weeks. Happy weekend :)

Kelle Hampton- Those Hot Pink Jeggings

Journey Mama- You can't have everything.

Rachel Held Evans- Ashamed

this poem by Amber C. Haines

another installment in Micha Boyett's One Good Phrase series

A Courageous Biography of C.S. Lewis

Dear Mom on the iPhone, I Get It- Fried Okra

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: Kings and Chronicles

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshuaJudges and Ruth, and More on Judges, and 1 & 2 Samuel.}

I'm feeling like my posts are starting to resemble book reports, so for this one, I thought I might just share a list of interesting bits of story, anecdotes, and details I found while making my way through the books of Kings and Chronicles.

First, here's how the handy notes in my Bible describe these books:
First and second Kings are the history of the monarch from Solomon to the Exile. Solomon's glory, the building of the temple, the division of the kingdom, the destruction of the two kingdoms, and the rise of prophecy (Elijah and Elisha) are important themes in these books. Faithfulness to God is described in social and political terms as well as religious.
First and second Chronicles were written after the destruction of Jerusalem to try and answer the question "Why did God choose to punish his people in such a way?" The answer is found in history. God's people were unfaithful and what happened in social and political history is an expression of God's judgement on an unfaithful people.
The Reign of Solomon

  • While David's reign was characterized by war, Solomon's was characterized by peace and prosperity: "Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan as far as Beersheba, all the days of Solomon." (1 King 4:25)
  • It took Solomon seven years to build the temple (the one that David envisioned) and thirteen years to build his palace.
  • Solomon's famous for being wise. In 1 Kings 3:9 he asks the LORD for wisdom, and in 4:29 we learn that "God gave Solomon wisdom and exceedingly great understanding, and largeness of heart like the sand on the seashore."
  • Remember the story of the two women and the dead baby? (See 1 Kings 3:16-28 if not, it's a classic.) I never realized these two women were prostitutes.
  • One of Solomon's wives was the Pharaoh of Egypt's daughter. She had her own personal palace.
  • Speaking of which, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (seriously, who has the time?). This is pretty much his Achilles' heel. We're told his wives "turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David." (1 Kings 11) So the LORD  raises up adversaries against him.
  • Solomon reigns forty years, and his son Rehoboam succeeds him.
Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah
  • Ahab becomes king of Israel, marries Jezebel (an archetypal evil queen without a single redeeming quality) and "does more to provoke God to anger than all the kings of Israel before him." (1 Kings 16:33) Ahab and Jezebel worship Baal, and Jezebel is making prophet-killing her own personal hobby. Remaining prophets, we're told, are hiding in caves.
  •  Elijah is one of those prophets you can imagine to be scraggly, wind-worn and a bit wild. He stands up to Ahab and Jezebel in a bold way, challenging their high priests to a showdown on Mt. Carmel. This was my absolute favorite Old Testament story as a child. It's found in 1 Kings 18 and 19. 
  • After Elijah's victory on Mt. Carmel, he's despondent and alone, hiding in a cave. I love this part: it's one of those delightful little portraits of God that has stuck with me, especially when I wish I had a cave to hide in. God has Elijah look for him: in a strong wind that breaks the rocks on the mountain (not there), then an earthquake (not there), then a fire (not there), then a still small voice. That's where He's found, and He tells Elijah what to do. For some reason, that one little passage does more to make me trust God many, many pages of the Bible combined.
  • Both Ahab and Jezebel eventually die quite violent deaths. 
  • Don't mess with prophets. Don't mock their hairlines. Just don't do it.
Then he went up from there to Bethel, and as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, "Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!" So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the LORD. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. Then he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. (2 Kings 2:23-25)
Good Kings, Bad Kings
  • Israel and Judah endure many bad kings, and prosper under a few good ones.
  • We find one queen in the text who reigns without a king: Athaliah reigns over Judah for six years. She's found  in chapter 11.
  • The few who "do what is right in the sight of the LORD": Jehoash, Amaziah, Azariah, Jotham Hezekiah, and Josiah. 
  • King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captures Israel and takes its people captive, "except the poorest people of the land" (2 Kings 24:14)
  • Judah is also taken captive later, by the same king.
By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. Psalm 137:1

  • these books are a re-telling of the histories found in the books of Samuel and Kings, but from a different perspective, trying to see what went wrong, what mistakes led Israel and Judah to lose the LORD's favor and fall into captivity.
  • This verse is often quoted as an argument for a national return to godliness in the USA:
"If my people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14) 

  • a few observations about his verse:
    • this is the LORD speaking to Solomon, after his dedication of the temple. He's repeating the all-important theme: if you follow the LORD and do right, you'll be blessed, and if you don't, you'll be punished.
    • "My people" refers to Israel here; this is a covenant between the LORD and Solomon.
    • ultimately, this is a way for Israel, looking back in its time of captivity, to explain why such bad things have happened to them. They broke the covenant, thus they are being punished.
These covenants are ultimately hopeless; people can never live up to their side of the covenant for long. There are times of better leaders, and renewed energy, and emphatic promises, but ultimately people fall short and will continue to do so. That's what I take from these books. A yearning for a better way, for hope, is tucked in between the lines of these stories: the inspiring, the entertaining, the absurd, the revealing.

Next up: Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Bible on The History Channel

Have you heard of this series? Very rarely, I find myself wishing we had cable. This is one of those moments, even though I'm barely keeping up with the reading as it is. Maybe I'll order the box set once I'm done reading.

There are some gorgeous pictures on the website, and a few video clips.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: 1 & 2 Samuel

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshuaJudges and Ruth, and More on Judges.}

Now we come to the time of Samuel, David, and Solomon. In many ways these are the glory days for Israel: unification, the building of the temple, great wealth and military strength. Here are some stories and themes from the books of Samuel that stood out to me.


Samuel was the last of the judges of Israel, as well as a prophet. His is a well-loved story. Before he came along, his mother Hannah was the "better loved" of two wives, but was childless. This caused her great sorrow. (There's a great line where her husband, Elkanah, tries to comfort her and asks, "am I not better to you than ten sons?", not in this culture, Elkanah. Sons are pretty much the most important thing.) One day, Hannah goes to pray at the temple and makes a promise to the LORD:
O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head. (1 Samuel 1:11)
Hannah conceives, and names the child Samuel, meaning "heard by God." She keeps him until he is weaned (I believe this was about age five in those times) and then presents him to Eli, the high priest at the temple. So Samuel grows up in the temple, under Eli's care, and we also learn that Hannah and Elkanah have three more sons and two daughters.

As a character in this story, Samuel is a figure of hope, for Hannah and for Israel. Hannah longs for a child and Israel desperately needs a leader to unify them. Samuel is special; he hears from the LORD although "the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no widespread revelation." (3:1) His first direct word from God is that He is going to destroy Eli's household for its wickedness, but Samuel is honest about what he heard. We read:
So Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel had been established as a prophet of the LORD. (3:19-20) 
So, Samuel enters the scene as a central, unifying figure. He will be greatly influential in Israel's future.

Golden Tumors and Rats

This story's a little random, but too interesting (not to mention bizarre) not to share. Israel goes to battle with the Philistines, and the Ark (which held not only the Ten Commandments and other sacred items but carried the actual presence of God) is captured by the Philistines. This brings them nothing but trouble: they are stricken with tumors and their land is ravaged by rats. So, they decide to try to get rid of the Ark, but they want to make sure they send it away with a trespass offering in an effort to prevent any more punishment. (6:3) They make golden images of their tumors and rats for this offering, and place the Ark on a cart pulled by two milk cows, and send it in the direction of Beth Shemesh, so the Israelites can reclaim it.

The people of Beth Shemesh rejoice at the return of the Ark, and sacrifice the two cows as a burnt offering to the LORD. So all seems well, but then we're told in 6:19 that the LORD kills 50,070 of the men because they looked into the Ark, "and the people lamented because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter."

This is a good example of the type of story where it's useful to think of the human perception of God as an evolutionary process. It seems a little like a father spanking his children for playing with a hose and getting water inside the house on a hot summer day. Again we see that this LORD is not slow to anger in the slightest, not rich in mercy. Because of that, I choose to take it with a grain of salt.


In chapter eight, we learn that an aging Samuel has made his sons judges in Israel. They're not like Samuel, though: they're dishonest and take bribes. The people of Israel beg Samuel to have a king to rule over them "like all the nations." (8:5) Samuel doesn't think this is the right course of action for Israel, but as he prays, the LORD tells him to basically give the people what they want (the LORD really resembles an exasperated parent at times.) To make a long story short, Saul is crowned king. However, after a few years as king, makes a big mistake. He and his army attack the Amalekites, and are given orders from Samuel that the LORD wants them to "utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey" (15:3). Saul seems to have no problem killing the infants and nursing children, but he leaves the king alive, and keeps the best of the livestock. When Samuel confronts him ("what then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and this lowing of oxen which I hear?") Saul says the animals are for sacrificing to the LORD, and gets this verbal smack down from Samuel:
Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king. (15:22-23)
We've seen this before. Any deviation from the exact instructions given results in very bad news. Saul begs for forgiveness, but Samuel is resolute. He proceeds to "hack Agag to pieces before the LORD" (15:33). Saul's days are numbered.

David & Saul

David is anointed king by Samuel long before Saul gives up the throne. The Spirit of the LORD descends upon David from the day of his anointing, and the Spirit of the LORD departs from Saul, and he's troubled by a "distressing spirit from the LORD." (16:13-17:1) Saul asks for someone to play soothing music to help calm his troubled spirit, and David is brought into the court. "And so it was that whenever the spirit from God was upon Saul, that David would take a harp and play it with his hand. Then Saul would become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him" (16:23). Thus Saul and David's tumultuous relationship begins.

David proves himself over and over to be a wise and capable leader, while Saul continues to rule the nation officially. Saul is suspicious of David, and tries to kill him repeatedly, and even gives his daughter Michal to David in marriage with the hopes that she can help bring him down (Side note: David brings Saul 200 Philistine foreskins as a bride price for Michal, after Saul demands just 100.) Saul also tries to get his son Jonathan to betray David, but Jonathan and David are dear friends. Jonathan helps him escape Saul's wrath on more than one occasion.

Samuel dies, and Saul is facing yet another battle with the Philistines. The LORD isn't responding to his inquiries about how the battle will go, so he disguises himself and visits a medium to call up Samuel from the dead. Samuel foretells Saul's death:
Now Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" And Saul answered, "I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may reveal to me what I should do."
Then Samuel said, "So why do you ask me, seeing the LORD has departed from you and has become your enemy? And the LORD has done for Himself as He spoke by me. For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day.
Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. (1 Samuel 28:15-19)
Samuel's prophecy comes true. Saul is badly wounded in battle, and falls onto his own sword. Three of his sons, including Jonathan, die as well.


David becomes king of Judah, but Saul's son Ishbosheth becomes king of Israel. I had to research the difference between Judah and Israel: here's a brief explanation. Later, Ishbosheth is murdered, and David rules over both kingdoms.

The dream of a temple begins with David, and is later fulfilled by his son Solomon. The LORD tells David, "Moreover I will appoint a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own and move no more; nor shall the sons of wickedness oppress them anymore..." (2 Samuel 7:10).

David, like so many characters in the Old Testament, is a complex person. He's a poet, a musician, a warrior, a womanizer, a loyal friend, a father, a deceiver, a worshiper, a person capable of sincere repentance. He impregnates another man's wife and then has him killed. Still, Samuel calls him a man after God's own heart. It could be that in spite of all of his shortcomings and mistakes, he knew how to access an inner place of contrition and brokenness, of wanting to do right. There are shades of grace here.

As 2 Samuel winds down, David's family is rife with conflict. His son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, and her brother Absalom, David's son, kills Amnon for it. Tamar is left desolate (2 Samuel 13). Absalom goes on to attempt to steal the kingdom from his father, and Israel is split for a time. Absalom dies: he's riding his donkey under a tree, his head gets caught in the branches, and he's left hanging there. David's men kill him when they discover him hanging in the tree. David's sorrow for his son is great; he had asked the men previously to "be gentle with him for my sake" (2 Samuel 18).

David goes on to fight more battles. At the end of the book, Israel has again been struck by a plague, and David again repents of his sin and pleads for mercy on the people, saying, "surely I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father's house" (24:17). So we see David once again as a shepherd, a sacrificial leader.

David pays for an offering to the LORD, and builds an altar, and sacrifices his offering. "So the LORD heeded the prayers for the land, and the plague was withdrawn from Israel." (24:25) And so the book comes to a close with one last heroic act of David. Later, in Kings, we read over and over about the kings who didn't do right like David or did do right like David. David eventually becomes a sort of larger-than-life moral yardstick; a legend.

Next will come the rule of Solomon: unprecedented wealth and excess, a long season of peace, and ultimately more tragedy.

Friday, March 1, 2013

more on Judges

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshua, Judges and Ruth.}

I came across a post about the book of Judges this morning. The author was able to glean a lesson about the consequences of doing whatever is "right in our own eyes", as the text says Israel did, over and over, which I can appreciate, but I'm still scratching my head and wondering if this LORD is my Lord, because of some of the commands He gives.  I  agree that when we only do what seems right to us, without consulting a greater wisdom, it usually turns out very bad. The thing is, the Israelites' greater wisdom (the Mosaic laws) still seems pretty unjust to me, even if it contains more justice than some of what we read about in Judges (rape and murder ad nauseum.) Her reading is decidedly more charitable than mine, but we both acknowledge the difficulty of these stories.

Here's her post. I'm chewing on it.

In related news, Ricky read something to me this morning from Brian McLaren's book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith. It speaks to my question: is the LORD of the Old Testament the same God that we now serve?  Another way I've seen this described is: did Jesus change God's mind about humanity or did Jesus change humanity's mind about God? (And, I would add, is that still happening?) Here's what McLaren has to say:
I'm not saying that the Bible is free of passages that depict God as competitive, superficially exacting, exclusive, deterministic, and violent. But neither am I saying that those passages are the last word on the character of God. I am not saying that the Bible reveals a process of evolution within God's actual character, as if God used to be rather adolescent, but has taken a turn for the better and is growing up nicely over the last few centuries. I am saying that human beings can't do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and the Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors' best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. (Kindle loc.1786, emphasis mine.)
I'm chewing on this too.

If you care to comment, I'd like to know where you land on this, or if you've landed for that matter. I lean more toward McLaren's point of view, but I wouldn't say I've fully landed. Feel free to de-lurk :)
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