Category Archives: Bible Study

More thoughts about John 10:11-18

So the Good Shepherd cares and the hired man doesn’t. The Good Shepherd can die for the sheep because the sheep belong to him and because he was given the power from God to take his life up again if he dies for the sheep.

I am still struggling with this passage!

Here’s the thing: I think the hired man isn’t being given proper credit. I work for a living and don’t often enjoy my job. But I do it as well as possible out of my own integrity not just for fear of not getting paid. On the other hand, I wouldn’t die for my job. I’m definitely not a first responder or brave like that. On the other other hand – that’s a pretty high bar. I’m not sure it is fair to judge the hired man as bad for not giving his life, to say he is only in it to get paid. I bet he likes the sheep, or some of them. I bet he has sunshine-y beautiful days where it is just plain fun to lead the sheep to still water and green grass.

Let’s not judge the hired man too harshly ok?

But let’s rejoice, absolutely rejoice, in complete amazement that Jesus knows us as completely as God knows Jesus. It is “The Message” version that shimmered this passage to me:

“I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

And this knowing and loving — this being seen and understood — is for everyone! Somehow to me being seen and known and loved (anyway) is the true gift from God.

FTGOG

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Interrupted by the Cross

Believe it or not the same week in which my pastor preached on Christ crucified, like Paul did, in a completely random way I was trying to find “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ” by Fleming Rutledge via my library for reasons having to do with the Festival of Faith and Writing in April. I only found a sample of the e-book but have asked my library to get it. But the sample is amazing. The sermon and this book together are bringing me — hope. I have been so angry for a over a year, at the awful awful world, at people, at some medical stuff going on with me, everything has made me angry. And living with that anger, being on that edge and needing that control all the time, is exhausting.

Rutledge writes ” Understanding the cross and resurrection as a single event, undertaken from within the Trinity itself, is of utmost importance … The scandalous “word of the cross” is not a human word. It is the Spirit-empowered presence of God in the preaching of the crucified One. The Holy Spirit … inhabits the message and empowers the speaker, so that the proclamation of God’s act in Christ is the new occasion of creation, issuing from the Trinitarian power of the originating Word itself.”

The world — as completely horrible as it seems to be — may in fact be in the midst of being made new. Not with worldly power in any way (not politics, or privilege, or people/mob power and certainly not with hate and anger); but the generative power of God…

For some crazy reason it gives me a feeling of calm. If God is trying to fix the world, then however powerless I am, its okay. I can do my best not to make the world worse and call that a victory.  It is an acknowledgment — by God no less — that the world was/is broken and needs fixing. This is a horrible world. Paul would nod and maybe even roll his eyes: Of course it is. But for so long it just seems as if no one was listening. Or they would listen in the wrong way like: yep that is it exactly, that is why I am just doing what I need to do and the rest of the time eat, drink, and be merry. Which I just can’t seem to do. I can’t seem to not care.

This world: brutal. Beautiful. Both.

But one day only Beautiful.

 

Mark 8:31-38 and the cross

After I have shared a scripture in storytelling form (by heart), afterward there is this beautiful peace in my mind and heart. It can last a week or so. It is just the most quiet calm feeling. My brain, heart, body was working so hard to learn the passage and after, suddenly, a welcome silence.

Last Sunday I shared Mark 8:31-38 and it went well (I think). For the first time I used a lapel mic and that gave me more freedom to turn, although I kept my feet planted. (Some storytellers move all over of course, and maybe some day for some story I might. But I like to feel grounded.) I turned first as Peter taking Jesus aside to rebuke him; then turned the other way to show that Jesus, when rebuking Peter, was not doing it in front of everyone. Their argument was in private. In verse 34, Jesus calls the crowd and the disciples back to him (and Peter) and says, that to follow him, you have to deny yourself, and pick up your cross and follow him.” So I tried with my turning to show the various movements of the story.

Now what is “your cross”? What is my cross? What does that even mean? Does it mean face your fears? Or maybe find your joy? Or speak truth to power? Or change, move, learn, grow, do … something? Something unique to us or something everyone can do (if only we all would), like just … what? The cross was an extremely painful death, and one with shame in it. I read this murder mystery a couple weeks ago and there was a scene of the death of a death row inmate. Painful. Justice? In this particular mystery it wasn’t justice. And the inmate had a family member there, who was deeply shamed and deeply grieving a life lost, “wasted”. Her life too was shamed and wasted. Perhaps Jesus’s death on a cross was intended by the Romans, rather like our death penalty, not just to deter crimes of rebellion against the state, not just to inflict a terrible death, but to shame the “criminal” and the criminal’s family? How did that work out for the Romans?

The cross then for me – should I expect to be facing something equally painful, equally hard?

Which, you know, I don’t want to especially.

And I wonder if too many of us hear “pick up your cross” to mean “pick up your cross like a sword and swing it at people”.

I feel that it is Easter that changes me, you, the world…. Hold on to your cross and feel it, and sorrow. Envision what things would be like without that to bear, without that sorrow. Envision how to create that world, full of love and joy and hope and trust. Easter is coming.

Mark 8:31-38 and suffering

So I’ve been working on learning Mark 8:31-38 by heart, and, if you read my previous post, then you know the huge impact the rhetorical questions here made on me, how they made the passage come alive, in a whole new way.

But another thing is slowly swimming up in my mind about this passage, which is so familiar that it can be hard to hear. Jesus says he must suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again.

The order of that strikes me: He is suffering first.

His heart is broken at the brokenness of the world, at this “adulterous and sinful generation” that has not kept faith with God’s rule of love. Out of suffering, everything else will follow, including the redemption.

Was it just chance that he put the order this way? How does the story change if he is rejected, then suffers, then is killed? That’s just the story we would expect isn’t it? Of course you suffer when you are rejected, aren’t listened to, are not believed. And then that escalates to killing. Sure, that’s the proper plot.

But Jesus suffers first, and not perhaps bodily harm, but (I think) because his heart just aches for us, for the widow and the orphan and the sick and the dying and those in chains and those in loneliness and those in madness and those in prison and … everyone.

I’m not eager to suffer, I don’t know what my cross is that I have to take up, but certainly my heart aches when I hear of another school shooting or mass shooting or impulsive suicide and then yet more inaction on commonsense gun laws. My heart aches with the thought of another hurricane season and what might happen to places still not fully recovered from 2017’s season. From violence and wars and heart-breaking stories of refugees. To simple stories of families breaking apart and illness and the ordinary suffering of life. This is only the tip. I limit the news that I take in.

Yet suffering is what happens to Jesus, what happens to him first. Perhaps the suffering heart is the most important thing. Let’s have soft hearts this week, let’s have soft hearts together, as foolish as that may be in this world. That may be a cross we have to carry, in order to fully follow Him. Broken hearts may be what we give in return for the priceless gift of life itself.

Mark 8:31-38 and gifts of God

In a few weeks or so I’m the layreader at church, and so I’ve been working on learning Mark 8:31-38 by heart. Telling the story — feeling the power and witness of the history of storytellers before me — is so much more powerful than reading. Some readers are excellent at putting expression into it and that is a wonderful thing. But going one more and making eye contact makes the story come alive. And learning it by heart enriches the storyteller, and brings the story to life.

As so often I started out pretty bored. This story is so familiar and it doesn’t seem to offer much. Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd who he is and what is going to happen and it doesn’t seem to be good news. There doesn’t seem to be a puzzle to sort out or a misdirection to unveil or anything except truth — I’m going to suffer, they are going to reject me, they are going to kill, says Jesus. Then I’ll rise again.

As anyone would, expecting a savior and getting this bad news, Peter thinks it is time to speak frankly. Unfortunately for Peter, it was Jesus who got to keep talking, seeming to make a bad situation worse. As often as we chuckle about how Peter and the disciples never seem to understand what was going on, in this passage at the beginning I feel that Peter thinks the same of Jesus, something like hey I love you but let’s get the story right. These visionaries. You have to watch them like children or they will just go off script and say anything.

Worse, now it wasn’t just himself Jesus was talking about being killed, but the rest of them. What sort of hope was this? What sort of saving was this?

I’ve spent about five or six weeks with this passage, and reading The Story of Mark  by David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, which break downs this gospel in a narrative analysis. One little passage talks about Mark’s technique of using questions, often rhetorical questions, and often duplicate or double questions asking the same thing in different angles.

Anvil falls.

Suddenly for me (at least for right here-and-now) I have found my center in the story in verses 36 and 37.

“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

These are rhetorical, double questions, because if you are dead, it does you no good to have all the world’s riches. Of course. And no matter how rich you are, you can give nothing to live longer, to not die, to be alive in the first place.

Life is a gift.

When I do this as a tell, I’m going to deliberately tweak the words just a tiny bit:

“For what will it profit you to gain the whole world, and forfeit your life?”

“Indeed, what can you give in return for your life?”

I want each of my listeners to feel as if they were there, in the crowd, listening to Jesus and going from crossed arms and “I’m not going to follow you if that means dying or even just suffering” to “following you will be the richest and most joyful life I could have, the most alive I could be.”

And how I pray for that joy to fill us up, all of us, with an abundance of love.

 

My Story 4

Oddly, I keep remembering the first time I got mad at the church. I have always had a sort of temper, but I rarely remember whatever I was angry about. Honestly, I just don’t. My husband loves this about me.

I do remember the first time I got mad at the church so clearly because I was so eager to learn more about God and had started trying to study the bible. And it was Christmas time. And the adult Sunday school class was about the nativity story. Great, I thought, this is an excellent place to start. I’ll start at the beginning. Isn’t there a song about that?

So it was interesting to learn that there are only two nativity stories, one is in Matthew and one is in Luke and that they are distinctly different.

It was interesting to learn that Matthew’s Joseph plays a large role, and a lot of it in dreams. There’s a sort of mystical quality I liked about Matthew’s version.

It was wonderful to have to more accessible Luke story, and to wonder how uncomfortable the trip to Bethlehem must have been for Mary. I started to imagine the story, imagine the stable — likely attached to a house — being rather cozy and warm.

And I got really angry when the third or fourth class was about pulling it all down. The teachers told us that Jesus is extremely unlikely to have been born in winter. There was a sort of ancient history of creating “birth stories” for beloved people in that era. Politically for Jesus to “compete” with other religions, he had to have a mysterious Godly birth. Nor can the two versions of the story be easily compared. And all the dream stuff in Matthew, so clearly made up! And so on.

I was absolutely furious. None of that was important to me. What was important to me was the story.

And I was scared. I didn’t realize it then or for many years. But I didn’t want my newly found faith to be made frail; I didn’t want to sink back into the despair that had left me open to God’s zapping love.

The gift this anger gave me was my first “Christian” poem. And many many poems thereafter….

 

Here’s my “first” poem:

 

Angel Dreams

It started as a dream for Joseph

No, actually, it started as a deal

He and Mary’s father discussing dowry and dickering

like for a horse.

And then discovery of damaged goods.

 

So, okay, it started, for Joseph, as just business as usual.

It turned into a dream.

A dream with angels, a dream of freedom for Israel.

Imagine being chosen to protect God’s son!

 

Hear what I think:

God picked Joseph because he listened

He listened to angels in a dream. How long had God

searched for a girl willing to say yes and

a man willing to listen?

 

Reality started on a cold night, in a stable,

or maybe not cold or a stable. This I know:

Giving birth hurts.

Turning dreams into reality hurts.

Hear the cries of pain, the pleading for it to be over,

See the blood, the mess, the ugly cord connecting

God’s son to Mary, and there’s Joseph,

holding the knife

carefully, carefully, barely breathing, cutting Him free.

I know, warm or cold, inside or outside, Joseph and Mary shared

a look between them of wonder and amazement.

God big enough to create himself so small inside Mary

and is now helpless before them.

Joseph’s all ready to die to protect Him.

Even though right now he’s so scared he can barely breath, and

with just the tip of his finger he touches God’s soft, warm, helpless red face

gently, gently.

___

The best bible studies are discussions, where all sorts of things get discovered together, and no one’s voice is silenced and no one’s questions are wrong. But no one is left afraid of losing faith either.

The word for where I’ve found myself is “literary” (not “literal”), where I use all my tools of being an English major: themes, characterizations, narrative, motifs, patterns, plot, everything.

Wonderful things arise!

(And perhaps check out stuff I’ve written about Matthew and Luke and so on: for example:

For example: https://rrussell10.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/christmas-luke-2-vs-john-1/)

 

Back to Matthew 20:1-16

So back to Matthew 20:1-16 — time to look at what comes before and after. And time to confess that I am a little bored with this passage. What is up with that? I’m also “stuck”. I have it pretty much by heart, which is good because I tell it on the 24th. So I have time to keep polishing and to find some guinea pigs to let me practice. Yet, I’m feeling a little stuck, as if there is some vitality to this parable that I am not getting. May be that’s what the feeling of boredom is about as well. This parable isn’t zinging with me.

So what comes just before it, in 19:27-30 is Peter saying, “hey we’ve given up everything for you, what are we going to get?” And Jesus gets mysterious yet again. “Peter, you and the other 12 are going to get thrones! At the renewal of all things — the end? the beginning? — you will be a judge! And everyone who has left their home and their people to follow me, will receive hundredfold — and eternal life. But maybe not everyone, maybe some of the first will actually be last.”

This sort of seems very concrete, but also very — “do x and you get y” — which almost sounds like a bribe or a payment. I reject any notion that God is a vending machine in the sky or Santa Claus. So this passage makes me feel uncomfortable. I myself do not love Jesus in order to gain something after this life. In fact, loving Jesus and worshiping God and studying the bible enrich my life right now, can bring me feelings of joy and gratefulness. So far, even in the storms of life or when I’m angry at God for the suffering I see around me, so far anyway, I can feel deep down that certainty of being held in his hands. Of being beloved. I don’t need to be promised more in the after; certainly not a throne.

I mean actually — a throne!? Judging? I wonder if this is really a reward for Peter and the others! Maybe it is a warning. “Stick with me, and eventually you will have a lot of work to do.” Yikes!

What has prompted Peter to even ask about what’s in it for him? (And don’t you love the honesty and human-ness of Peter to be recorded saying this!) It is story of the Rich Young Man, and Jesus saying about camels and eyes of needles and the rich. Since back then, being rich was (as I am told), considered a sign that God favored you, the disciples were astonished. If the rich — those favored and blessed by God already — would not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, then who could?

“For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible,” said Jesus.

I hear an echo of Sarah here, a hint of laughter in the air. I like the idea of the disciples not asking these questions out of greed or whining or fear but maybe out of confusion, out of a need for hope maybe. I like the idea that this conversation is taking place with Jesus with laughter in the air — maybe laughter of like “thrones, ha, he’s going to put us on thrones” or maybe laughter like “I’m so embarrassed to be in this conversation” or maybe laughter like “what crazy thing can we get Jesus to say now.”

And besides laughter, perhaps we and the disciples are also hearing more than a hint of the power and glory and grace of God. Not our will or our doings, but God’s grace and mercy.

Well good news, I’m not bored with this anymore. I am feeling some zing! I love finding something unexpected in the Bible.

FTGOG

 

 

 

“Doubting” Thomas

So everyone seems to get down on poor Thomas (John 20:24-29). Yet he wasn’t there when the rest of them got to see Jesus come into the locked room. So he refused to take their word, thinking they were delusional. Totally rational call on Thomas’ part, I think.

I’m thinking of how Thomas might have felt, being the only one not feeling and knowing the amazing astonishing beautiful news that Jesus was not gone, he was back, he loves them still. To be the one not breathed on: “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ” Thomas had more than doubts, he had been left out.

I relate. I feel weary sometimes with feeling left out, with longing for more connection with people and with God. Sometimes the days are an endless slog of work and worry. Where is the breathe of God? Where is the joy?

For me, no doubt a good nights sleep will take care of things. Here’s a prayer for those out there feeling wonderless: remember Thomas. Jesus showed up again, just for him. Thomas opened his heart and let him in. May it be so with you and me too.

The beginning of John 9:1-41

So here’s the beginning verses:

As he walked along,
he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him,
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 

Now on one level it is a very clear thing — in those days the reason someone might be born blind was because of a punishment for sin. Jesus is saying no, that’s not it. And that was considered (I am told) a radical thing to say and believe.

Yet would Jesus’ reason for the man being born blind might really be comforting? God made this man born blind so that eventually he will be healed by Jesus and thus show and serve God’s glory? Isn’t that really mean of God? Isn’t that God using bad for good; isn’t that unfair?

The man born blind makes no complaint. He’s glad to be healed, he’s frustrated at the confusion of his identity post-healing (as you would be), he’s frustrated by being asked over and over how “that man” healed him and who (and where) “that man” is. He ultimately believes “that man”, Jesus, to be the Son of Man (a declaration of being the Messiah) and worships him. You do not worship someone who is only human. The formerly blind man ends up seeing very clearly indeed.

So if he has no complaint about being used by God to reveal the glory of God, perhaps I should not either. It might be patronizing of me. Or it might be me stuck in this endless loop I seem to be in about wanting the world to be fair and nice and just and safe and good and when bad things happen, I don’t blame people*, I blame God.

Here’s what I imagine. Imagine the man’s mother, so young and hopeful and delighted to be okay after giving birth, and delighted to have her baby and delighted he is nursing and thriving. Except unlike other babies, his eyes don’t seem to learn to track. He doesn’t seem to recognize the light when it shines in his face. She holds him to the sun, putting her hand gently over his eyes and moving her hand away, and he laughs because he feels her hand, and the strength of her arm holding him, and the breeze blowing against his face. But his little eyes don’t get upset by the bright shine of the sun. It might take more months before she admits that he can’t see, that he will never see her face, he will never be the son they so longed for, that all he can be (in that place and time) is a beggar, an object of mercy and charity, or in bad circumstances, an object to ridicule and even steal from, take his money right out of his cloak spread on the ground. Imagine the tears she shed, no matter how many other children they had or have, because this child is facing a literally dark future. Imagine Jesus telling her — it was all set up just so I could prove that I am.

Would she be angry at Jesus/God?

Would she be glad to know why this happened to her son, and that it was set up as an honor?

All we end up knowing from the story, is she and her husband are afraid.

Would it help me in suffering, to know that it is for the glory of God? I hope so. I think it might. I pray that I never need to know. I think fear is a pretty honest and appropriate response to seeing the power and healing of God!

 

*Mostly. Sometimes, some things, sure. But not for being born blind, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story of Jesus and the blind man

In reading aloud John 9:1-41, which I don’t know if I can learn by heart, I’m struck by the man who was formerly blind. I’m struck with how impatient he gets, how annoyed he is. The response to the miracle of his being able to see isn’t to rejoice — which should be the response, don’t you think? He was blind and now can see. It sort of echoes “the sheep/coin/son was lost and now is found”, doesn’t it? No, instead the response is endless repetitive questions from everyone, and scarily the Pharisees call people to give testimony. (Is this like some sort of trial? I shall have to learn.) The man who was formerly blind has to endure all this, but when he is ultimately tossed out of the community Jesus finds him. And he worships him.

And as a storyteller that is the first of my problems — all the “he/hims”!

Take a look at this snip:

“Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” “

The Pharisees are not saying that the formerly blind man is not from God, but that the man (Jesus) who performed the restorative actions is not from God. But then, on the other hand, how could he not be from God, others say? It is a miracle. But it is a mess of pronouns!

So how do I inflect my voice? Or use my hands? Or turn perhaps — how will listeners not get confused?

And so I start! FTGOG