Tag Archives: bible

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/)



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?







1 Samuel 9

Just this morning I read an article about reading the bible. It suggested that try as we might, the verse numbers, the footnotes, all of the extras that are there to help us understand, they also “clutter up” the story. The sweep of the story, the connections, the form of literature that it is, as well as other factors, can all be lost when we add clarity. As an experiment of sorts, for 1 Samuel 9 online, I choose the option to omit verse numbers and so on. And I just read and kept reading. And it does flow in a more natural story-like way, and the narrative actually explains itself.

For example, we start off with “There was a man of Benjamin….” and any number of bible studies that I have been a part of stop right there and explain that the tribe of Benjamin was a small one and not powerful, and which son of Jacob Benjamin was, and so on. But if you just read, then all of this is in the story, revealed or reminded to the audience in a certain way, with a method. The original folks who listened to this story, of course, were much more familiar than we are with the story of Jacob and the tribes of Israel. Yet, the narrative itself tells those of us who aren’t so familiar what we need to know. It is very curious indeed that for all I say, as most Biblical Storytellers do, to “trust the story” it turns out I haven’t trusted the story as much as I thought I did.

Let’s start with trusting the story, that the narrative has a point to make by starting out in way that feels like folklore or myth — the son of a rich man, Saul, is sent by his father, Kish, with a boy to find some missing donkeys. Not only is Saul the son of a rich man, we are immediately told that he is more handsome than anyone else and taller — “head and shoulders above everyone else”. This is a great start to a tale! And just before this, remember, we read about the Lord and Samuel agreeing, however reluctantly, to give the people a King. Well then! Wouldn’t a King need to be the best, more beautiful, tall, and rich? I think we should be thinking “aha! Saul sounds right kingly if  you ask me.”

Saul and the boy head out and travel through the hill country of Ephraim, the land of Shalishah, and eventually Shaalim but did not find the donkeys. I can’t help but wonder how long did this take? Where are these places? And he then passes through the land of Benjamin and reach Zuph. And I have all these questions, but I keep reading and it turns out that Saul has questions about the journey himself. Saul says to the boy who was with him, “Let’s turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us.”

The text addresses the very tension that was building in me as I read — what are you guys doing? Why are you still traveling around looking for donkeys?

When I start to read this out loud, just the first two verses, I cannot stop it from sounding humorous. It feels as if it is meant to be funny, to me. I can imagine other people might tell it differently and maybe since I’m a woman, and of mature years, a story about a rich man and his handsome son just strikes me as immediately eye-rolling and, well, funny. I found my right hand spread up and out with “a Benjaminite” and then my left hand, up and out, “a man of weath” and a little shoulder shrug. These may not be opposites but the coupling strikes my ear as funny, and also as a way the storyteller can immediately signal to the audience that there is something “small” about the tribe of Benjamin and yet that Kish himself and his son are extra-special.  And then Saul being extravagantly described, since the Bible really doesn’t describe anyone very much, just seems both funny and fishy to me. It is a signal to the audience, to the reader — something this good-looking must be good, right? Or something this good, might be hollow really?

Of course how one starts out telling a story isn’t necessarily where you end up. But I’m starting with humor. I invite you to read the whole chapter, see what it is like with and without verse numbers and if you think it is funny.  I’ll pick up again next time and carry on.

For the glory of God.

(my footnotes: A Short History of Bible Clutter; Bibliotheca (is it different to read on paper verses online? I generally read online but have my study bible open and next to me as well. Is this changing the flow of the narrative?); ESV Reader’s Bible.)



Thinking about the Bible

At Sunday School, we’ve been in the midst of a series of lectures on the bare bones basics of classical Calvinism with some notions of where modern theologians might have moved on. There’s a tremendous amount of food for thought. And that “theology stuff” which is so much harder for my brain than exegesis on biblical stories. The first strand of the first lecture was about the bible. Not the familiar — there are 66 books over more than 1000 years, untold authors, oral traditions, cultural milieu, etc. — not that sort of information about the bible. This lecture was explaining that in the reformed tradition, Sola scriptura is one of the principals that from Luther on has been what reformed means. Scripture alone has authority over all — not a Pope, not a council, not tradition, not scholars (while all such things may inform the reading of scripture and be important, scripture is first). This is a fundamentally different way of approaching Christianity than the medieval Catholic church (or for all I know many modern “non-reform tradition” churches today).  It was a perfect storm event in history — without the printing press and rise of literacy would sola scriptura have taken off? Without sola scriptura would literacy have spread like hotcakes — even educating women and children and ordinary folks? The course of history might be different.

Yet the terrible danger is that if everyone reads scripture for him or herself, errors and mistakes will be made. Dr. Douglas was crystal in his lecture that sola scriptura didn’t mean and doesn’t mean magical or superstitious thinking; and that education and church and studying together is important. Nor is the bible, in the reformed tradition, going to tell you which job to take or who to marry.

It means the bible is the way that God/Holy Spirit uses to bring us knowledge of “the fundamental things of salvation”. What do we need to know about God? What is our relationship to God? How might forgiveness and reconciliation work? How might God talk to us? How might we learn about God and “God stuff”? Those sorts of questions.

Somehow this was new information for me; or I’d never listened before? I certainly am inspired by scripture. I love studying it, praying it, imaging it, arguing with it, studying it…. I had not really thought of this as being such a part of history. And frankly now I am feeling — properly scared?

Dear God, let me always try to read your Word with all my heart, all my mind, all my strength, all my soul. Let me be alive as I read your Word and never be asleep or afraid of your Word. Let me rest in your Word, and feast on it, and find it richer than honey! Amen.



Psalm 6

I’m off schedule; but I’ve been thinking about backs, bones, health, aging, limping, hope, joy, God, justice, mercy  — in other words I have been reading the Psalms. I want to deepen my prayer practice this year, and selfishly too — not just to connect with God but to allow myself to slow down, listen, heal, be. “Time outs” from the busyness of everything.

And thus Psalm 6 a few days ago, for some reason keeps echoing: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” And as this psalm goes on the poet describes despair and desolation that I am delighted/relieved/blessed to say I have not experienced. My prayer at once is for those who perhaps — right now — are in this state (“…weary with moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eyes waste away because of grief….”). Go God, be with them them, wipe away the tears, provide the healing, may your strength to endure be known to them.

Bone-deep terror would be horrible, would be a living death. Let our bones be strong. Let our bones heal and carry us and dance and leap for joy.

FTGOG, amen.

Christmas: Luke 2 vs John 1

Obviously it isn’t really a “vs.” situation; both are scripture, both are beautiful, both are full of wonders. But with my mind on the incarnation, I realize that I love Luke 2:1 – 20. I love the concrete and specific time and place details, the journey on a donkey to one’s hometown, the mixed feelings — “we’re just going because we have to, we wouldn’t be traveling in Mary’s condition otherwise, we don’t care if we’re at home in some sense” — the cold shepherds doing their job, the beautiful angels doing theirs. I love this story. Every year, honest, I see more and more richness in it.

However John 1 is very very poetical, yes? For years I didn’t even understand it as a Christmas story. “In the beginning….” Our church did a Jesse Tree one year and I was like, why are we going all the way back to Genesis? And at Easter, at the Saturday night service, we go all the way back to Genesis. I’m a little slow to the party, eh? “In the beginning….” Jesus/God/Holy Spirit — all there always. Relationships all the way down. But as beautiful as the language is, and as rich as it is, the story of Luke 2 makes more sense to me, at least this year.

This year, I appreciate and want to be grounded. I want to know where I am, and where I am going, and where all my people are. This year I lined my creches up in a row. This year of oddly warm weather creating tons of dark and dreary rain, I don’t think about light and candles so much as: how noisy was the stable? Did any of the hay in the manager scratch the baby? Was Mary too weak to hold him? When she nursed him, all through that first night in between bits of sleep, did Joseph help, holding her up, keeping them warm, watching over them with a tired smile and keeping them safe? When the shepherds showed up in the early hours of dawn, and people of the inn and the village started getting around for another day, were they all smiling and careful around a  new mother, a new baby? Did Joseph’s cousins come by? While everyone else shook their heads at the shepherd’s story of angels, Mary treasured their words and pondered them in her heart.

And that does bring us back to words: Words from Caesar, words from shepherds, words from Angels. And then “in the beginning”, the Word from God, the Word now given to us in the flesh, in a way to understand it. (Words in dreams and rulers and wise men if you look at Matthew.) The gift of the Word, the gift of God’s son, gifts of God just because He loves us that much. The wonder of it all might lie in the moments of silence.


Interrupted by pain and healing

Advent is waiting for God to be born in human flesh and human bones and the whole beautiful mess. God chose to join us, to walk among us, to suffer, to heal, to love us in the flesh. The Incarnation is amazing!

Since my back went out, I’ve been thinking about bones and incarnation. It was pretty brave of God to come down here, to be flesh, especially knowing what was going to happen. That much love…recently I was told: God’s love is like the biggest waterfall you can image. And what we do is hold a cup out and take a tiny sip. When what we could do is stand so we are flooded and covered with water! This image made my heart leap. In the midst of my healing — my wonder and awe only increases for a God being so loving as to be incarnated, encased in flesh, to be in some sense less than God in order for us to be more than human in some sense —

As my back heals, I’m going to think about bones:

God pulled Jacob’s thigh bone out of joint and he walked with a limp the rest of his life — but he saw the face of God in the face of his brother (his enemy) after that.

Ezekiel’s dry bones, brought back to life….

What other bones might I find in scripture?

Bones — a mineral, that gives our body a framework, that are vital, that are “living stones”, yes? When things go “down to the bone” they go deep, they go to the core, they hurt. When you have only the “bare bones” you have an outline or a plan that needs fleshing out. When you walk with a limp you are vulnerable, you are noticeable.

Many things to think about bones. And many many thanks for being on the path of healing!


Interrupted by Summer

I will be wrapping up my discussion of “my” bit of Acts pretty soon; I’ll be working on comparing and contrasting The Prodigal Son story and the story of Jacob in Genesis 27 – 36:8. I’m reading Kenneth E. Bailey’s wonderful book “Jacob and the Prodigal” and preparing to lead a 4 week class this fall for adults at my church. Whew!

In the meantime — today — here’s part of an essay I wrote for the class I am taking, back in June.

Well – theology is hard! That’s the first insight that I have gained. But I think I have figured out that, for me at least right at this point in my life, perhaps “theology” can be yet another lens to read scripture or “read” church with. In the previous unit, “forgiveness” became such a lens – everything from scripture to tv shows had (still has) something to say about forgiveness. And the lens we use to see the world will transform the world.

So the lens of theology seems to be about theories – all overlapping and non-exclusive – about what exactly Jesus did for us. He healed the brokenness between God and humans; He freed us from sins; He heals us personally; He freed humans from death; He paid the price for our sin; He earned us God’s forgiveness; He restored order to the world. He healed the breach between humans. He fills us and the world with love. He has turned us around from worldly values of power, to true abundance and grace. Who is Jesus? How does the triune Godhead “work”? What is the role of the rites of the church? To some extent all these theories are just words, yes? But it turns out that a surprisingly concrete way that this theology way of thinking has affected me is with music. I love Christian music, I listen to it all the time, I sing along in the car. Now I can hear Chris Tomlin in “Waterfall” sing

“…your love is like a waterfall, running wild and free; your love is like a waterfall, raining down on me” – now I can “see” baptism in this song, I hear that God brings life to our dry desert roots. “Dancing in the rain” indeed! I just loved this song before. Now it is even richer.

Chris Tomlin again: “At the Cross” – “At the cross, at the cross… When your love ran red, and my sin washed white, I hold onto you… Jesus.” This is more than forgiveness of sins, it is a beautiful way of putting the price paid for justice, the love that was the motivation, not just some strange deal.

“Drops in the Ocean” by Hawk Nelson is my current favorite.  “I am for you, I’m not against you. If you want to know how far love can go, deep and wide, look at my hands, look at my side. Can you count the times of day you are forgiven, more than the drops in the ocean.” Forgiveness again. Love as the motivation again. A sense of awe for this amazing gift and freedom – for the amount of love it took to offer all of us such sweeping forgiveness and continuing forgiveness. And the price paid – the pierced and bloody hands and side – the price paid is not neglected.

Michael W. Smith’s magnificent “You Won’t Let Go”: as the title says, we don’t need to be afraid, he keeps us close, he lights the way, he is an anchor for our soul – even if we’re battered around. No matter how frail I am, or if my mustard seed of faith fails, He is faithful, and nothing can separate me from His love. What a joyous, marvelous song/prayer/praise this is. This is perhaps speaking to the question of Who God is rather than what it is Jesus/God has done for us. But knowing that He’s got me in all my mess, that He’s a faithful anchor is very reassuring.

From Kari Jobe’s song “Steady My Heart” – “I’m not going to worry, I know you got me, right inside the palm of your hand, each and every moment just as you plan…. Even when it hurts, even when it’s hard, even when it all just falls apart.” God in the richness of the three will steady my heart. He’ll anchor my soul. He’ll wash my sins white. He’ll more than resurrect me, he’ll be with me here and now, no matter what.

Is Jesus “man” or “God”?

In my theology class, we are studying briefly the creeds and such — how were these formed, how did the early church work, and that sort of thing. One of the big essential things hammered out was the “trinity” — there is only one God, but clearly incarnate God in Jesus was quite different from God the creator/father and both of those quite different from the Holy Spirit. There could be much — very very much — to study and think about here. But you all know I’m all about my little bit of Acts that I’ve agreed to learn by heart. So imagine my shock when it turns out to be one of the critical passages in the Jesus-was-just-a-man / no-he-wasn’t / yes-he-was debate!

And I was even more shocked because I just hadn’t understand that before, and by now I’ve read and said it maybe a hundred times. This stuff is like an onion and keeps unfolding and I love it when that happens.

So…. Peter is talking, as you recall, and starts out: “….Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to by God….”

a man!?!

then further down in that same passage:

“…this man, handed over to you …..”

It turns out some folks in the 300’s or so were like: hey Peter fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, says that Jesus is a man, says that God says that Jesus is a man.

Now there are many many counter scriptures — and to be crystal clear the debate “ended” with the concept of the trinity, one God with three Persons — or as I like to think of it a braid with mystery interwoven.

Regarding “my” piece of Acts, however, I think it was a debating style of Peter. The crowd has said, you folks are drunk and crazy and be quiet. Peter is eloquently countering that in many ways. In “my” part, he starts out as if he conceding: Ok, this man, who God was pleased with, who God was guiding, you killed him, by the hands of those outside the law. Imagine those in the crowd maybe with arms crossed, but sort of nodding, okay Peter has his spin on this God-stuff but he’s starting to sound more reasonable.

Then Peter just little by little makes it clear that Jesus was more than a man, even more than a man just attested to by God himself. Because God raised him up, freed him from death — the language changes from:

“this man” (Acts 2: 22 and 23)


“this Jesus” (Acts 2:32 and 36)


“My Lord” (Acts 2:36)

Since I grew up Unitarian Universalist, I realize fully that the debate over “Jesus: man or God” (and what even is meant by the little word “God”) continues. From what I have learned however, it was a much bigger thing, a huge question of the early church, a depth and height of controversy that we can’t imagine today.

When I go present this by heart, will I say “man” in a questioning way? Will I be able to shade my tone to imply that perhaps there’s more to it? Will I just say it plainly, as I have been practicing, as the crowd might have heard it plainly at the beginning?

Fascinating how one word can suddenly change things!

Seeing and hearing what God has attested to

In Acts 2: 22-39 the words “see” and “hear” are used a lot. In verse 22, listen to what I say. In verse 25, quoting David, “I saw the Lord….” David again, “foreseeing….” In verse 32, the Israelites both “see and hear” what the Holy Spirit has poured out on the crowd.

There aren’t as many as I thought when I thought of this blog. But I think the evidence that Peter wants the Israelites to weigh to understand that Jesus is the Messiah includes what they have seen and heard directly. It reminds me, I think intentionally, of when Jesus in the Gospels is all but begging the disciples to see and to hear. If someone tells me that there are really zombies, but I know that I have not seen or heard them, nor do I know anyone else who has. There is no evidence. I can think that the person is just playing a game, but I can’t take what they say seriously. Right?

For the Israelites in the crowd, the ones Peter wants to listen, they have been sensible. They have heard reports of this Jesus, of his deeds of powder, wonders, and signs, they perhaps even saw healings that he worked with their own eyes. But they felt they could not trust what they saw or heard. They knew the world didn’t work that way. Or they feared trouble or disappointment. For whatever reason, they have not believed. Now, says Peter, it is not too late. You don’t have stay in your rut of disbelief. You can change.

Again, I seriously think that Peter isn’t yelling at the crowd or browbeating them, or anything like that. I think he is trying to work out a logic for them to hold on to, and thus join in believing. And I think part of that is insisting that they weigh what they know, what they have seen and heard. He isn’t talking to them about blind faith. He’s giving them some dense things: what they see and hear, what David in his role as a prophet saw and heard and did. What witnesses have seen. What is factual — our ancestor David is dead and his tomb is with us. What is factual — God raised this man Jesus up. “We are all witnesses.” (It is different for us, isn’t it, two thousand years later? or is it the same?)

And Peter is giving them the gift of being able to change their minds.