Category Archives: Bible Study

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.

Advertisements

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

Luke 2:25-38 and joy

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=350805862

So I think perhaps Simeon and Anna were joy-struck. Somehow (the Holy Spirit…) of all the babies they had seen brought to the temple for blessing, this baby, Jesus, stirred their hearts and made them think he was the one: a light, a blessing, a sign. Not just another life, not just another good life. Perhaps not a “good” life at all because being “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel” does not sound safe and secure and happy to me. There’s going to be conflict, so much so that Mary will suffer, because we suffer when our children suffer. This child was the one.

And they are delighted. They were struck with relief and thankful joy to have lived long enough to be in the presence of the babe who would go up and bring Israel’s light to the whole world. It is not a gift for them that is making them happy, it is a blessing for the world.

Just as Luke’s angel declares to the shepherds “good news of great joy for all the people”. You can hear it as just one set of people or you can take that “all” seriously and I take it seriously indeed. This joy is a love for all — a radical love that has no boundaries, that has no limits, that wants everything made whole, that shares and grows and is full. An abundant love.

This harks back, so my footnotes say, to Isaiah 49:6:

[The Lord] says,

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant

to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

It would be too easy to just save Israel. God wants the whole world to be saved. Saved from battles and strife and hunger and pain and suffering. Saved from economics that separate and hurt. Saved from a yardstick that only measures by “worldly riches”. Saved by giving.

I think it says a lot that Simeon and Anna were full of joy and thanksgiving at this news from the holy spirit, instead of bitter and anger that it didn’t come sooner. By their joy, the good news of redemption was already a treasure they had, yes? Just as we do: The Kingdom of Heaven is near at hand, Jesus will grow up to say. Not yet, but here.

FTGOG

Luke 2:25-38 an old man and an old woman are joyful

Luke 2:25-38 (Simeon and Anna);

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=350805862

This is actually one of the stories that I think I am supposed to like — look they knew this child was the Messiah and they died happy — but to me it is one of the “spooky” stories that do not quite make sense. In fact, miracles of healing don’t trouble me — God can do miracles. All sorts of stuff that might seem spooky is fine by me. But this story has people not really making sense, it seems to me.

Simeon is looking forward to the consolation of Israel — what? The Holy Spirit rested on him and revealed things to him? This is so confusing. Since he was guided by the H.S. to be at the temple when Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus there for circumcision and presentation, on the eight day — really? It is about 6 miles, but they were on the road for so long to get to Bethlehem and Mary has just given birth. This is true dedication, right? Is Mary ever going to catch a break?  And where was Simeon before the H.S. told him to go to the temple? And…. how about something more like this.

“Simeon rose early that morning as he typically did, and said his prayers. This room was chilly in the morning air, but the day would be warmer. Shepherds would bring some spring lambs to the city, farmers might bring some vegetables and fruits. Slowly the sounds of his household pressed upon him — the women in the kitchen, eternally working to feed everyone. Simeon knew he had work to do that day. He raised his hands again and closed his eyes and said a final blessing and suddenly a shaft of dawn’s light broke into the room through a slit in the covered window. He opened his eyes and was amazed at the brilliance and dazzled. Suddenly he knew work could wait. Today he would go to the Temple first thing, be a part of the daily quorum of prayers. His heart lighter, he dressed quickly and ….”

See doesn’t that make more sense? {{laughing}} I know…that was a bit silly …the Bible doesn’t work that way. We are just told — as in a classic storytelling opening — “Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, …” where he was when the Holy Spirit inspired him and what it means to be Guided by the Holy Spirit just are not explained.

Maybe that is part of the point? The Holy Spirit needs us to listen and see and do, not fret and question? And with the classic story start — Now there was — his chops to authority are authenticated, at least to the people that first heard this. We’d want to know where did he go to school, and if it wasn’t Princeton Theological Seminary, why not, and what did he study, and …..that’s why I think this is a “spooky” story because I don’t understand who Simeon is and what is motivating him. I think the people then and there and those later that heard the story, woudl absolutely know who he was.

What Simeon does is to hold the baby and praise God and to give a prophesy, a word from God — motivated by the love of God.

And that’s enough for now, for the glory of God.

 

 

Matthew 1:18-25

Let’s review: A man, Joseph, whose life is turned upside down. A vulnerable girl. The time cues in the story; the “now” of the story. The holy spirit. Family and relationships — particularly healed relationships.

This is a lot for just a few verses!

Perhaps what strikes me today, right now, is the “dream-ness” of this. We don’t know at first Joseph has fallen asleep — was he turning over his “Mary problem” as he was lying in bed, the way one does, an endless night of worry, the same thoughts churning in your mind, over and over? We don’t know. We are told:

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…”

And then later “when Joseph awoke from sleep”…

Now there is another biblical Joseph, who also dreamed, back in Genesis. I seem to keep connecting this nativity story to Genesis. Joseph’s dream made his brothers so angry, they sold him to folk who took him to Egypt. And then his dreams caused him him to rise in influence with Pharaoh. Joseph was a famous dreamer, this is the merest bare bones of the hint of the story (Genesis 37 and others). But what that Joseph did most of all was help Israel survive, because what man intended for evil, God turned to good (Genesis 45:4-5). The line of David does not spring from Joseph, but without Joseph there would have been no house of David.

Likewise, without this Joseph, Mary’s husband, son of David, there very likely would not have been survival for this child. This Joseph protected the son of God, gave him a name, gave him a trade and a family. Jesus will be the start of a new relationship between God and man, a re-genesis perhaps. So it seems appropriate for there to be another Joseph critical in ensuring the survival of this new start.

FTGOG