Isaiah 08-The Bible as a Stumbling Block

Keeping our hearts open to God’s light.

The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”

The Lord spoke to me again:

“Because this people has rejected
    the gently flowing waters of Shiloah
and rejoices over Rezin
    and the son of Remaliah,
therefore the Lord is about to bring against them
    the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates—
    the king of Assyria with all his pomp.
It will overflow all its channels,
    run over all its banks
and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
    passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
    Immanuel!”

Raise the war cry, you nations, and be shattered!
    Listen, all you distant lands.
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
    Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
10 Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
    propose your plan, but it will not stand,
    for God is with us.

11 This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:

12 “Do not call conspiracy
    everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
    and do not dread it.
13 The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
    he is the one you are to fear,
    he is the one you are to dread.
14 He will be a holy place;
    for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
    a trap and a snare.
15 Many of them will stumble;
    they will fall and be broken,
    they will be snared and captured.”

16 Bind up this testimony of warning
    and seal up God’s instruction among my disciples.
17 I will wait for the Lord,
    who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob.
I will put my trust in him.

18 Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.

19 When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? 20 Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. 21 Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.

Since this is our first dealing with Isaiah, here’s a very brief background before we dive into the text: Isaiah was a prophet writing during the decline of Israel and expansion of Assyria around 700 BC.  He took a wife (the prophetess), and had two sons, the second of whom is named here.  (His son’s name means “quick to plunder,” and is part of Isaiah’s prophecies.  How’s that for some family-name baggage?) The chunk of text this chapter comes from specifically is warning the King against certain alliances, and the wrath of God if Israel doesn’t listen.  But, the beauty of all these OT prophets is that their words transcend their time, hence they’re included in our Bible.  Yes, Isaiah was warning against the Assyrians, but he was also talking about the coming Messiah, and many of his messages (my favorite being for “complacent women” in another chapter) still have wisdom to share with us today, so let’s talk about it.

Here, God is calling Isaiah to stand apart, to not be like the people of Judah or Jerusalem who have placed their trust in the wrong things. This distresses God.  These nations have “rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah” (8:6), a stream in Jerusalem and also a metaphor for God’s love and gentle commandments.  As a punishment, God is allowing the King of Assyria, characterized as the “mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates,” (8:7) to attack Israel.  Isaiah allows for a ray of hope – not all will be lost because God is with us (also the meaning of Immanuel, another name for Jesus, and why I chose to read this chapter).

What I find most interesting is that God will cause not only opposing nations but his own people to stumble.  In 8:14 he says: “For both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.  And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.”  But isn’t God also our hope and salvation? 8:13 just affirmed “the Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy.” So why would our holy God make his own people stumble?

Here’s my take on it: I don’t think he’s causing us to stumble at all, I think it’s our own fault.  God’s commandments are based in love. Yes, even the Old Testament ones, and when we wield them like a weapon we misuse his gifts to us, and end up harming ourselves even more than those we set out to harm.  This gets back a little bit to reading the Bible holistically and in context.  It’s important to read the Bible for the greater truths of love and acceptance, practices that will bring us together, rather than getting hung up, or, if you will, stumbling upon, the passages that divide.  When a Christian says “I hate Muslims” or “Gays can’t be Christians” or “Women are less than men” because the Bible says so, they are stumbling.  The word of God has become a trap and a snare for them, because their heart isn’t open to His light.

Now, before anyone calls me a hypocrite for hating on conservative Christians with that last paragraph let me just state that I don’t hate them.  Also, I believe in their belief in God.  I just think they have a lot of spiritual maturing to do.  The reason I call them out so much is because their actions are leading to the harm of others.  Intolerant attitudes lead to inequitable societies, and this often leads to violence.  That is unacceptable.  Here’s another parenting metaphor for you. Let’s just assume I’ll have one per blog-post, shall we? You expect a small child to misbehave sometimes.  Maybe a lot of times.  That small child still loves you and you still love them.  But if that child starts hurting someone else, you’re going to step in and stop it, right?  I can’t go around putting conservative Christians in time-out until they’ve thought about what they’ve done, but my earnest hope is that all of us will become a little more thoughtful about our actions, and how they impact others.

The best way to change minds is to lead by example.  “Here am I,” Isaiah declares in 8:18, “and the children the Lord has given to me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty.” In these last few days of Advent, as we prepare for Jesus’ return, let us think about how we can be signs and symbols from the Lord Almighty.  I want to prepare a world for Him that is kind, and equitable, and worthy of returning to.  That starts with acceptance and love.  Big actions, like charity work, are great.  But kind words for a trying neighbor or coworker, holding the door for the woman in a headscarf, not staring condescendingly at the non-binary person in line…all of these seemingly little actions also add up and make the world a better place.  Through these mindful little actions,  the stone upon which we once stumbled can become the foundation for our Faith, and a platform from which we can be an example to all the world.

Matthew 14 – An example of Jesus’ Humanity

It’s not a moral or spiritual shortcoming to have fear, or doubt, or sorrow.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

I love it when things like this happen – just last post I was talking about reading the Bible looking for Jesus’ humanity, and here is a perfect example.  You’ve probably heard of both miracles written here – feeding the crowd and walking on water, I certainly have, but I never paid attention to where they fell in the timeline of Jesus’ life.  They happen right after John the Baptist is beheaded. While both miracles are awe-inspiring, what really moved me upon this reading were the two small allusions to Jesus’ own personal grief.

First, 14:13: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” Isn’t this our first instinct when we feel loss?  When I lost my cousin, who was just six weeks younger than me, I was doing my study abroad in Italy.  I was walking to my first class of the day with a friend and my cell rang.  It was mom, which was immediately confusing because it would only be about 4 am her time.  She told me what happened, and all I could think about was getting away, out of the street where all these people were.  I just dropped my stuff and turned back to the apartment.  Fortunately my friend was there to gather it all up for me, but I think if I had been alone I would have done the same thing – just focused on getting away as quickly as possible.  And that was just a crowded street where no one was seeking me out. I can only imagine how much more Jesus felt the need to have a moment alone when everyone around him is constantly calling his name.

Second, in 14:23: “He went up a mountainside by himself to pray.” Again, he is seeking comfort.  Have you ever prayed in sorrow? Even angrily? That totally counts.  We don’t know what his words were, if they were angry, or full of loss, or seeking guidance, but I certainly can imagine any or all three of those.  Also, I love that he went up a mountainside to pray – into the solace of nature.  Sometimes if I’m getting overwhelmed I’ll leave the girls with my husband (or if he’s not here, in front of an Elmo’s World) and just step outside to be alone for a few minutes.  It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or freezing cold or dark, just being outside and hearing the wind in the trees or looking at the sky seems to help, and it often leads me to prayer.  So I love seeing that Jesus seeks out nature as a part of his spiritual practice, as well.

Writing this post, I’ve come to a realization.  I’ve only read nine chapters so far, and three of my posts have been about either doubt or grief.  Doubt seems like the opposite of faith, but here it is, all over the Bible.  Grief is the opposite of joy, something we’re “supposed” to have if we believe in Jesus, but it looks like even Jesus grieves.  There are a lot of passages in the Bible (we’ll get to them) that basically say “do not worry” or “stop crying,” and personally I’ve always felt I’ve come up short in my own Faith when I give into doubt or grief, but now I’m beginning to think not so much.

I think God recognizes our human emotions.  I use a lot of parenting analogies because God is our Father and also I’m in the thick of small-child parenting, but they work well, so here’s another:  I know Marienne is afraid of getting her hair washed.  She hates the water over her head.  Now, I know that it’s not going to hurt her and there’s nothing to really worry about, but I also recognize her fear as something real to her.  I try to help her overcome her fear, but I don’t belittle it.  I think that is the lesson we can take away here. It’s not a moral or spiritual shortcoming to have fear, or doubt, or sorrow.  God knows our hearts, and is here to show us we do not need to be afraid, but only when we are ready to learn that lesson.  Marienne will eventually grow out of hating hair-washing.  Maybe one day we’ll all grow out of being doubtful.  But both processes are a journey, and there is no need to rush things.

***

I’m going to bounce back and forth a bit in readings the next week or so.  Sunday is still in Advent, so I’ll read Isaiah 8, where Immanuel (another name for Jesus) is listed in prophecy.  Then back to Matthew 1 on Wednesday since we’ll officially be in the 12 days of Christmas, then back to Isaiah 9 with another Jesus prophecy.  Then on the last Sunday of the year I’ll jump back to Matthew 2, and we’ll have rounded out the early chapters of Matthew.

Matthew 11-Jesus speaks to John the Baptist

Even John the Baptist had worries and doubts.

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[e] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

One of the beautiful things about Jesus is that he can be many things to many people.  For example, I have a friend who taps into the mystical side of Jesus and is a big believer in the laying on of hands to heal sickness in Jesus’ name.  I feel awkward doing that, but by no means do I think she is wrong or weird to do so – that’s her Jesus.  At least at this time in my life (who knows what will change down the road), I’m more interested in finding the humanity in Jesus.  He’s a BFD, like, the BFD, and I find that overwhelming sometimes.  I in no way want to downplay his divinity, but I just find his human side easier to identify with.  All this to say, I often read the Bible, especially the New Testament, searching for little tidbits that speak to the living, breathing person being written about.  The one who got hungry, and tired, and annoyed, who had friends with whom to share joys and sorrows, who doubted, and who may have been a little bit like me.

This chapter doesn’t speak so much to Jesus’ humanity as to John the Baptist’s, which really struck me, because he’s another I’ve always thought of “more than” me.  Jesus even says in this chapter “there has not risen anyone higher than John the Baptist.” (11:11) Yet Jesus also says “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [John the Baptist].”  Just to be clear, Jesus isn’t trashing John, its just that John is part of the old covenant, and Jesus ushers in a new covenant with God.  And this passage is all about Jesus conveying that message to what must have been a worried John.

As the beginning of the chapter informs us, John is in prison at the time of this event.  It gets into the details of why elsewhere, but basically he was saying stuff about the king’s wife that they didn’t like.  He’s in jail because he displeased the king.  His whole mission has been to prepare the way for one greater than him, and here he is, stuck in prison.  He knows Jesus is out there (he’s already baptized him), and he suspects Jesus is the one for whom he was preparing.  If I were John, I’d be suffering a moment of doubt right now. Out there is the person who is supposed to usher in a new age, change the world, and here John is, the main messenger of the age, languishing in prison.  What thoughts might have been going through his head, with all that time to just sit and think in a dreary cell.  “Is Jesus actually the Messiah? Has all my work been for nothing? Why am I still stuck here? Is there more I need to do? How will I do it from here? Did I understand God right?”

So John sends his disciples to straight up ask Jesus if he is the one they’ve all been waiting for.  And Jesus whole response is an acknowledgement of John’s job well done to completion.  First, Jesus addresses John (through his disciples) directly.  To paraphrase 11:4-6: “Look at all these miracles, dude.  Don’t lose faith.”  Jesus is recognizing John may be feeling a little discouraged right now and bolstering him.

Then, as John’s people were leaving, Jesus turns to the crowd.  This next section of Jesus’ speech seems to speak not only to the crowd, but to John.  “What did you go out in the desert to see?” He asks both parties in 11:7, “A prophet?” For the crowd, that means John the Baptist.  For John, I think it means Jesus.  Then, Jesus publicly affirms John’s importance, within earshot of John’s disciples.  “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you,” Jesus quotes from Malachi.  I love that quote.  It acknowledges both John’s and his own importance, and I think it is a quote John would appreciate hearing.

Most of the rest of the chapter can be read as giving John validation and closure.  Again, Jesus isn’t knocking John’s work saying those in the kingdom of heaven are more important, he’s saying “look, the old order is over.  You’ve done it, you’ve brought it to a close.  Now I’m here to start the new one.” He calls John the new Elijah (11:14, and high praise), and denounces those who didn’t listen to him (11:18), and calls woe unto the cities that don’t repent.  John was all about repentance, and I like to think it’s Jesus way of not only speaking to the crowd, but conveying a special message to John, one that basically says, “You did all you could, buddy.  Some people just don’t get it, and it’s not on you.”

Jesus closes by praising God and offering a sweet, gentle, comforting invitation to follow him.  Of course those words are for us, but could they also be especially for John? Why not? “Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (11:29) Start to finish, this was a message for John.

And I can only imagine how John must have felt receiving it. Here he was, worry, worry, worrying in his cell, and Jesus sends him an answer to all his questions, asked and unasked.  I’m here. You did it. You may rest. If this isn’t an example of Jesus’ love then I don’t know what is.  I find it comforting as well, to know that Jesus loves us just this much, if not even more so.

Matthew 03-The Bible in Context

Advice for reading through uncomfortable passages.

 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

So far the subtitle of this blog could be “leaning into your discomfort.” Now here comes John the Baptist, talking about repentance, which I’ve always thought of as an uncomfortable act.  People used to self-flagellate and wear hair shirts as a way of repenting. Yikes.  Now I’ve never done that, but my general conception of repentance has been an idea of feeling really sorry. But my beloved NIV footnotes describes repentance as “a radical change in one’s life as a whole.”  And that sounds like a much healthier and more effective definition than mine, and way better than whipping you’re own back bloody.  But even so, radical change, in the sense of repentance, requires examining our current beliefs and actions, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable.

That in and of itself isn’t any huge revelation.  I think most Christians of any stripe talking about repentance are expecting it to go hand in hand with at least a little bit of self examination.  But if we’re talking about radical changes in behavior through self examination, let’s talk about some radical evolution of thought at the same time, and how reading the Bible in context can guide us on our spiritual journeys of radical change.

I listened to a new podcast for the first time ever last night, called The Bible for Normal People.  In the episode I listened to, host Pete Enns brought up the fact that the Bible needs to be read in context.  To paraphrase, he reminds us that the Bible pre-supposes cultural norms that simply aren’t true for most people today.  Just recently I’ve had two brief comment/social media discussions about the importance of Biblical context, and even touched upon it a few posts back, in Malachi 02. Basically, it’s important to remember that while the Bible is a divinely inspired book, it was still written by humans.  Well-intentioned and seeking God, for sure, but fallible and imperfect nonetheless.  They were influenced by the culture of their time.  Sometimes that means that rules and cultural norms that applied to them simply aren’t applicable today, such as polygamy and slavery, which Pete Enns listed as examples.  So it’s important to remember that when we read certain passages, especially those dealing with rules and behavior.

Let me be clear-I’m not advocating a complete rejection of all Christian ideals and traditions.  Far from it.  What I am advocating for is doing away with dogmatic rule-following for the sake of rule-following.  In this chapter John the Baptist does the same thing, calling out the Pharisees and Sadducees in 3:7-10.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two influential and educated groups of Jewish society who were strict rule-followers, and tended to be separatist and elitist – not really things Jesus will be down with when he gets into his ministry.

In order to not be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, I think we need to dig deeper into the Bible than just the surface meanings of the texts, and look for the universal truths. I believe that our primary responsibility is one of love and acceptance, and to find Biblical proof of that I started this blog.  The Bible is a vibrant treasure trove of guidance, and to see it as static does it a disservice.  It is there to be used as a tool in our spiritual journey, as we examine our thoughts and actions to see if they are in keeping with Christ’s true teachings.  The Bible was at one time used to provide justification for slavery.  You don’t see many advocates for that, anymore, and yet the Bible hasn’t been thrown out. Changing our minds on topics like gay marriage, women in the priesthood, and more doesn’t mean that we’re throwing away the Bible.  As long as we are thoughtful in our opinions, seeking God as we form them and reading the Bible for it’s deeper truths, then I see no problem with new interpretations.

Self examination can be really uncomfortable.  So can repentance.  But it doesn’t have to mean the end of joy and love.  Instead, it can be the starting point for it.  Next time you read something in the Bible that makes you uncomfortable (the verses that get my hackles up are always the ones admonishing women to be subservient), examine it.  Remember the context in which those verses were written, and look for the greater truth.  Doing so will bring you into deeper conversation with God, into a deeper knowledge of yourself, and into a deeper knowledge of your own faith.

***

I’m totally not ignoring Jesus’ first lines of the Bible, like literally the first words he ever speaks, as our Bible is arranged.  I just really like the telling of this story in Mark even better, so I want to discuss it a little later on, and keep the focus of this blog post on reading the Bible in context.  Don’t worry, he talks a lot in Matthew 11 and we’ll discuss what he says next post.

Psalm 126 – Faith in Times of Doubt

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

 

Isn’t this a beautiful psalm?  I think it sounds like Shakespeare.  He used dreams and dreaming in so much of his own writing.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is basically one giant dream.  The first half, especially, sounds like something a triumphant heroine would say in closing.  So now I’m wondering if Shakespeare had any favorite psalms.  If I had to take a guess, I would think this to be one of them.

But why would this psalm be suggested reading for Advent? My beloved NIV footnotes actually came up short (gasp!) on any clues.  But I found a clue when reading different versions of this psalm online.  And I’m so sorry I cannot remember which version or where exactly I found this note, because I really appreciated the insight and wanted to link it.  126:6 says “those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy.”  The whole reason they’re going out weeping is because they are using what grain they have left, the grain that they also eat, to plant.  Of course, you need to plant in order to have food in the long run, but if you don’t have enough grain to get you through the short run, what good is it?  So, as these farmers go out to their field, using up most of what’s left of their food supply, they have many troubles on their mind.  Can I make it to harvest? Will it be a good harvest? Will it rain enough? What if it rains too much, and there is a blight? What if there are locusts this year? A whole myriad of things can effect a harvest.

Planting becomes an act of Faith in a time of doubt.  These farmers may be weeping, but they do it anyway, and God rewards them with the joys of harvest.  Same with the streams of Negev, mentioned in 126:4.  This time my NIV footnotes came through for me.  Negev was a desert region (surprise, surprise) that had seasonal springs.  In the summer months they dried up, but in the winter months the waters returned.  So again, they require Faith through hardship of those who rely upon them.

What does this have to do with Advent?  Advent is a time of preparation, of waiting.  I for one can get anxious over preparations and waiting. This psalm is a reminder that on the other side of that anxiety is joy untold, we just have to have Faith.  Now this isn’t to say that Faith will cure life’s hardships.  One of my favorite church signs of all time said “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  But if you go through life’s hardships knowing God is with you, believing in a joy that is so great you’ll think it can’t be real, you must be dreaming, then those hardships will be easier to bear.  It may feel like the world is against you.  Hell, maybe the world IS against you.  And it is okay to feel sad or overwhelmed or anxious or whatever.  Look at those farmers, they were weeping. But don’t stop planting that seed, building that tower, persevering through your act of Faith, because that is what lays the foundation for an outcome of joy.

***

Next week I’ll be reading about John the Baptist according to Matthew.  There’s three chapters where he is mentioned, so it’s perfect to round out the last full week of Advent.  These chapters are Matthew 3, 11, and 14, if you want to read along.

Malachi 04 – Privilege? White Privilege?

Turning our hearts to others and examining ourselves.

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Arrogant. Evildoer. Wicked.  This whole chapter is a warning to “those people.” But who are these people, exactly? I thought that perhaps knowing the original Hebrew words might help me gain a fuller understanding of what these undesirable traits might actually be, and how to avoid them.  I don’t know a lick of Hebrew, fortunately, I have Google and a plethora of results came back when I searched “Classical Hebrew Arrogant” and so forth.  My favorite new reference is a Hebrew word study site.  The layout is a little dated, but it had some great information on it. If you’re reading the Bible and wonder about a word, it’s a great place to check.

I’ll sum up my half hour of internet digging in a few sentences.  Arrogant pretty much means what we think of as arrogant. Wicked most directly refers to cheating, as in, a merchant who uses false balances. “Evil” has many translations in the Bible, and many of them mean “harm” more so than “bad.”  The example I liked best comes from a particularly long essay on the subject. It talked at length about the giving and receiving of “evil” names.  Basically it refers to slander, or a person trying to harm another’s reputation, not cast a spell upon them that would turn them evil.  Likewise an evil report can just mean bad tidings, not malicious misinformation. So what it boils down to is the arrogant, the wicked, and the evildoer are those who bring harm to others, either through false dealings, slander, or just plain bad behavior.

I started writing about how the evildoer and the wicked of the Bible are those who harm others, and how it is important to truly consider if someone is actually hurting others before condemning them (gay marriage critics, anyone? Sorry, couldn’t resist that jab).  But then I realized I need to take one more step back and examine how my actions might be harming someone, turning me into the arrogant, wicked evildoer.  One of the best, and hardest, pieces of Jesus’ teachings to follow is found in Matthew 7:5.  You’ve probably heard it: “You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.” In other words, study your own actions before you start seeing the fault in others.

Being in an interracial marriage with a husband vocal in social justice, I have a lot of conversations about white privilege, institutional racism, and implicit bias – all of which can be harmful phenomena.  They are uncomfortable topics for a lot of white people, including some of those closest to me.  I get it.  We all want to believe that we are “good people;” and living in a society that is invisibly structured to exclude certain members of that society makes us complicit to a crime we didn’t even know we were committing.  It’s jarring to realize this, and can make people defensive.  I like to think I’m pretty sensitive to these things, again, being married to someone who is both Black and Native and now being a mother to two mixed-race children.  But even from that close-up vantage point I have had to step back from time to time and reevaluate how I was reacting to things, how I was being part of the problem and not the solution.

Verse 4:6 tells us a prophet will come to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents.” This means we’ll be truly thinking of others, in tune with each other’s needs.  This is empathy! We already know what that is, we don’t need a prophet to start doing that, we can start now.  Sometimes that is easy – comforting a friend through sorrow feels natural, and doesn’t require a lot of self-examination.  Sometimes, though, we need to recognize when what we are doing (or not doing), may be harmful to others, even by proxy, and then see what we can do to change that.

My plea today is for you to join me in identifying your positions of privilege.  I don’t want you to feel guilty about it, but I do want you to identify it.  Perhaps you are white.  Perhaps you are wealthy.  Hell, perhaps you’re just middle class, that’s a privilege.  Perhaps you are able-bodied, and have health insurance through work, and don’t deal with mental illness.  You get the idea.  Again, don’t feel guilty about any privileges you may have, but do see where they may make you blind to those that don’t have them.  Let’s use an example from recent headlines.  There were two men, both fathers, accused of murder in separate incidents.  The white man was humanized, with news sources using his name, calling him a father in the headlines, and showing pictures of him with his family.  The black man was simply called an “Arizona man,” and his mugshot instead of any photos of him with his family were used.  Just through subtle differences in reporting, the white man was made to seem sympathetic while the black man was made to look criminal.  Now, I hope you are never accused of murder, but there are many small instances of our society all working in similar ways against people of color, and just like a dripping faucet, those instances add up.

If you feel yourself getting angry, flustered, or defensive right now, try to examine why. If there’s anything marriage has taught me, it is that often the most important time to reach out a hand for understanding is when you are angry: don’t fight the person, fight the problem. One time I read a post on Pantsuit Nation one time after the Women’s March.  A black woman had been belittled on the metro on her way to the rally.  Not by any counter-protesters, but by her fellow marchers.  She was angry, and hurt, and the pain came through very raw in her writing.  My immediate reaction was to jump in and say “not all white people are like that” and basically defend myself, separate myself from the others, listing off all my shining non-racist characteristics.  Many others had already done that.  But that would only make me feel better, and wasn’t what this woman needed to hear.  She needed the space to tell her story and be heard.  Some others commented as much, I decided just to “love” the post.  Just holding space for her was the best I could do, even if it was hard.  So I did it, and vowed to keep examining my own actions, learning where I can make changes so as to not contribute to racism, institutional or overt, and help shine light on where it still exists.

We’re going to mess up, we’re going to make new, sometimes painful, discoveries.  But the important thing is to keep going, keep searching, and keep “turning your heart” to those around you, and you will see God turn his heart to you in return.

***

Yay! A whole book down and Advent isn’t even over!  I’ll read Psalm 126 next and then find some passages on John the Baptist, since he was also sent to prepare the way for Jesus and seems like a fitting Advent figure.  I’m not sure which yet, I’ll let you know on Friday.

Malachi 03 – Tithing

Bringing God His toolbox.

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.

“I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

13 “You have spoken arrogantly against me,” says the Lord.

“Yet you ask, ‘What have we said against you?’

14 “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? 15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’”

16 Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name.

17 “On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. 18 And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

There are some really beautiful passages in here. I actually love the imagery of God as a refiner of silver and find it really hopeful instead of condemning.  Maybe the process won’t be pleasant, but if we go through God’s fire we come out silver on the other side.  Maybe even the worst of sinners can go through that fire and come out silver on the other side.  With faith, anything is possible.

But what I really want to talk about tithing, which is the focus of most of this chapter.  Done correctly, it is bringing a full 10% of the fruits of your labor (then grain, now money…usually) to God.  Usually to a church, but again, I think God sees our intention and if donating to a charity is more comfortable for you than donating to a church, I don’t think He would mind.  Finally, tithing is separate and apart from offerings, which are givings beyond the 10% tithe.

Is 10% a lot? I go back and forth on this.  Sometimes it seems like not so much, other times it really really does!  We’re on a tight budget, but even so, I could probably rearrange some spending to clear up 10%.  Somehow we seem to make do when we need to – we’ve shouldered whole new expenses with each kid, probably waaaaay more than 10%, doing the same thing we were doing before kids.  Sure, we would definitely hit a wall at some point, but I don’t think it’s only 10% away.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a great tithe-er.  I’ve done it extremely intermittently in my life.  In this chapter, God specifically says “test me in this, and see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing there will not be room enough to store it.” (3:11)  I’ll see as I keep reading, but I remember being told this is the only directive in which God challenges and permits us to test him.  So I’ve decided to try it.  Actually, I decided to try it two weeks ago when I read ahead a bit.  And I found the same thing was true then as in the past when I’ve started tithing.

I know some people will roll their eyes and others will just say it’s a coincidence, but  I really do believe God provides for us when it comes to tithing. He doesn’t want it to be a hardship.  Would you demand payment from your children if you know it meant them going hungry? Of course not.  Let me give you a few concrete examples from my own life:

Let’s start with my newest resolve to tithe.  Actually, let me back up, so you know what kind of money I’m talking about here.  While my husband and I run the farm together, our primary income, for now, is still my husband’s contract work as a software developer.  I don’t pull a paycheck.  What I do pull is a household allowance from Chris’ paycheck.  So I have $800 a month for groceries, dog food, diapers for two, gas, savings, and incidentals, for a family of four plus a farm manager (who lives in-house) and two dogs.  Like I said, we’re doing OK but there’s not a lot of extra wiggle room!  So, my tithe would be $80, or $40 per paycheck.

Getting back to tithing, I decided I wanted to start doing it again two weeks ago.  That day, I saw a friend in Charlottesville requesting donations through Venmo for help with refugees who were passing through the area.  This is a very boots on the ground movement, I don’t even know if it’s an official charity or organization, but I wanted to donate because I know how passionate this friend is when it comes to social justice and I knew the money would be well spent.  Now I haven’t used Venmo in forever, I didn’t even have the app installed on my new phone, which is now close to 6 months old.  But I vaguely remembered having $30 left in it, so I was going to donate that plus $10 more and call it my tithing for the pay period.  I installed Venmo, opened it up, and there was $70 in it.  I had forgotten that I hadn’t used all of my birthday money mom had sent me to cover babysitting.  So there was the whole $40 without any pinch in my budget.

Let me give you another example from two years ago.  Money was extra super tight then.  Like, pick which bills to pay tight.  But it was around Christmas and I was super pregnant and emotional and really wanted to do something tithe-y.  So I wrote a $40 check out to the Church that Sunday with a prayer and the resolve to eat a lot of ramen noodles.  Later that week I got a nice big reimbursement check from the insurance company for some medical expenses I had already paid, then they had renegotiated.

Another time, when we were moving, I was in tithing mode.  I was cleaning out some old old papers and found $100 I had stashed away in college as emergency money.  That covered two whole months tithing back then.

With those examples in mind, let’s talk about what this chapter – and that bit in chapter 2 about unblemished animals – is asking of us.  No one I know of is taking uncut bulls to donate to the church anymore, but I think the meaning is still pretty clear – God doesn’t want our cast-offs and leftovers.  As I said, he doesn’t want to unduly burden us, but he does want to see we’re making an effort.  If you were fixing the sink, and asked your (fully capable) child to bring you your toolbox, but they only come back with a few nails, would you be pleased? No. You’d send them back to do what they were supposed to do.  That is why God asks us for the full tithe.  He wants to see a good faith effort on our half.  He isn’t asking us to fix the sink, just to bring him the toolbox.  And he’ll reward us for our efforts.

Is tithing right for you?  I hope so. Let’s dream with some rough numbers.  The United States of America has a GDP of 19.39 trillion dollars.  That’s the value of all the goods and services produced, so it includes household incomes as well as corporate and business profits, but we’ll include it because a lot of businesses do charitable giving.  Just 10% of that would be 1.93 TRILLION dollars of charitable giving.  Right now the US as a whole (again, individuals and organizations) does a little over $390 billion, only twenty percent of the tithing possibility.  Can you imagine the good that would come from adding four times as much charitable giving? It’s not going to happen anytime soon, I know, but it can start to add up.  My $40 isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it is a beginning, small but good.