Archive for October, 2017

Trust Issues

Posted: October 31, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that I have trust issues. I walk with my keys gripped in my fist late at night, I diligently cover my pin at cash points, and I lose hours of sleep to running worst case scenarios for even the most innocent of interactions. It’s not that I assume all strangers are bad, it’s more that I don’t know that they are not, and I’d rather be safe than sorry. I doubt that I’m alone.

The problem is, while sensible precautions are all well and good, this constant suspicion is exhausting, and it doesn’t feel very christlike. Especially not when I remember that Jesus shared his last meal with a man he knew was about to deliver him to his death. I’m sure he didn’t trust Judas, but neither did he hold him at arm’s length.

Sometimes circumstance will leave us vulnerable to being hurt, but if we spend our lives anticipating that hurt, we suffer from it whether it ever really happens or not, and it threatens to colour the way we way perceive and relate to those we should be treating as fellow bearers of the image of God.

I turned to the Bible for help this morning…and found myself sorely disappointed. Google ‘bible verses trusting others’ and you are rewarded with verse after verse declaring that to be a really bad idea. It seems many of the biblical authors also erred on the side of pessimism, although I can hardly blame David for being a bit grumpy about people when he was hiding in a cave because his old mentor was trying to kill him.

There is some good news though, because these verses about not trusting others are often accompanied by a call to trust God, and therein lies our hope. We cannot know that others will not betray or us or let us down, but we can hold on to the promise that God will not, and that can ground us enough to ease our anxiety and allow us to greet others with love not fear.

And so I leave you with some verses which I suspect will be familiar, but which we need to hear again and again, until they become the pattern of our thoughts.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. (2 Thessalonians 3:16)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

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Fall in Love

Posted: October 26, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

I have talked before about my enthusiasm for the Ignatian tradition. One of the aspects of Ignatius’ thinking that I am only just beginning to grasp is the importance he places on desire. The church has often spoken of it as something to be mastered or repressed, but he believed that our truest desires were given to us by God, and so we ought to listen to them.

This poem, attributed to the Jesuit priest Pedro Arrupe, captures something of the beauty of giving in to those God-given desires, of following them and allowing them to change us.

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

~ Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ

I love this poem because I want it to be true. I want everything I do to be an expression of love, but I know that all too often duty gets in the way, and the things that have seized my imagination have to wait for a tomorrow that never comes.

If something of that resonates with you, perhaps you could take some time this week to think about the things that you have fallen in love with. Ask yourself how often you allow those things to decide everything, and if that is often enough. If you feel you are able, commit to living out of love more often than out of duty.

 

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I Have Seen (And Held)

Posted: October 19, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

About a month ago I wrote about my response to saying the words “I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” during Evening Prayer, and I ended by promising myself that I would open my eyes to goodness. I want to come back to this from time to time, to share the goodness that I have seen. It would be a beautiful thing if you would share the goodness you have seen too, so please do comment on these posts.

 

I can’t think about the goodness of the Lord without thinking about my son. Not only is he a most excellent creation and so a supreme example of that goodness (I do concede to some bias on that point!) but he has also opened my eyes to goodness I had forgotten.

Two weeks ago I confessed that I’m not really at one with nature. About an hour after posting that blog, I took the little one for a walk to the park, and the look of pure joy on his face when he saw me kick up the autumn leaves made me think I’m missing out. I used to love seeing the trees change colour, but these days I’m normally too busy to notice. I need a toddler who has only just discovered the crunch of fallen leaves under his feet to make me pay attention.

A couple of days after that we went into town, and he stopped in the middle of the street to dance to an oompah band. Some days I would love to do a little jig or turn a cartwheel, but my sensible grownup head won’t allow it. People mind less if you’re dancing with a small child though, so I have rediscovered the joy of acting like a fool in public.

In some ways it’s easy for him. He doesn’t have an endless to do list scrolling though his head. He doesn’t have to think about how what is in the fridge. And he doesn’t know that five hundred people were killed by a bomb in Mogadishu three days ago. But surely those tasks and stresses and disasters make it all the more important that we do seek out goodness, so that we can retain some balance and hold onto some hope.

I want to learn to be more aware of joy and beauty for me, but I also want to do it for my son. At some point he will start to become aware of all the worry and sadness of the world, and I want to be able to teach him to still take pleasure in autumn leaves and oompah bands.

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Back to the Texts of Terror

Posted: October 11, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Two weeks ago we tackled the violence in the Old Testament, and last Sunday we took on the violence in the New Testament. I don’t know if that makes us brave or foolish, but it I’m pretty sure it leaves us in need of some light relief. Thank goodness we have a retreat planned soon!

The three passages we looked at did not contain any acts of violence, but rather violent language and violent imagery, and they were chosen because they appear to endorse or allow violence, and open up difficult questions about fairly weighty topics. We were never going to resolve holy war and eternal damnation and oppressive institutions in one evening, but I at least wanted to suggest some hopeful readings of some troublesome passages. By the end of the evening it was clearly that I largely succeeded in opening a large can of worms and giving everyone a nasty headache.

I can’t put the worms back in the can, and we’re going to need to come back to at least one of these issues in greater detail, but for now it may be helpful for me to explain why I said I was more comfortable with these passages then I had been a week earlier.

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Matthew 10:34

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Sometimes reading the Bible feels like eating grapes. It’s all going well and then you comes across a sour one that sets your teeth on edge. This verse is definitely a sour grape, as it appears to make the way of Jesus a path that leads to violence, against everything we have come to expect.

However Matthew goes on to say that family members shall be set against one another, and while it is possible for relatives to come to blows, I would be suprised if the Roman authorities permitted Jewish households to keep weapons, which perhaps suggests that the sword is not literal, and that this is more about disagreement than violence.

Then there is the fact that the verse does not say who wields the sword, and we know that persecution was the reality of the early church, all of which makes we wonder if Jesus was prophesying opposition to believers, rather than permitting or promoting violence against nonbelievers. 

It’s also important to balance this verse against Jesus’ promise that “peace I give to you…not as the world gives” in John 14:27. Perhaps the truth is that he cannot promise the peace that is an absence of conflict, which is the best the world can do, but he can offer a peace that is the presence of God, which is something far greater.

I don’t feel easy about the idea of persecution, and I would resist any tendency to accept division between Christians and others as inevitable on the basis of this verse, but I do at least feel satisfied that this is not a call to arms, and that it does not deny the ultimate promise of shalom.

 

Matthew 13:42

“They will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This passage is one of the most troubling in the whole Bible, as eternal torment is the most extreme violence imaginable, and yet it is preached on street corners with an alarming glee. The notoriety of the hellfire-and-brimstone brigade means it is virtually impossible to be ignorant of this imagery, but it also means that may of us have trained ourselves to walk past it.

The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears several times in Matthew but only once in any other gospel, and so some scholars suspect that it reflects the perspective of the gospel writer more than the message of Jesus, that Jesus perhaps used it once and the gospel writer liked it so much he added it as an interpretation to a number of Jesus’ other sayings. I can’t say if that is true or not, but we only have to look at the variety of theologies in the church to see our tendency to take an idea and run with it, so it is at least plausible. We would still have to deal with the fact that Jesus said those words at all, but a single usage wouldn’t justify an entire theology of hell, especially as we know that Jesus was prone to rather colourful language that was never meant to be taken literally, the eye-gouging and hand-chopping of Matthew 18 being a key example.

I also find it interesting that all other instances of this phrase imagine the weeping and gnashing happening in an outer darkness rather than a fiery furnace, and in the Psalms the wicked are said to gnash their teeth at the righteous. That makes me wonder if this is the place where those who reject God are not punished, but rather left to their own devices. It still sounds like a deeply unpleasant fate, but implies less violence on God’s part.

Most significantly for me, there are a number of other passages which suggest that God wishes for all to be saved. 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 both suggest a universalist desire, and although these do not come directly from Jesus and so must be weighed accordingly, they do reflect the expansiveness implied by Jesus’ insistence that he came for whoever would believe. And so I wonder if the fiery furnace and the outer darkness are a hypothetical future that will not be realised. In order for faith to be meaningful it has to be a choice, and so there has to be an alternative, but perhaps in the end no one will choose it.

I want to believe that all will be saved, that (as one theologian whose name I can never remember put it) there is a love so strong that in the end nobody can reject it, and while this verse and others like it trouble that hope, they do not extinguish it.

 

1 Peter 2:18

“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”

This verse has always made me uncomfortable, because it does nothing to challenge the violent system of slavery, but in fact seems to endorse it by setting out rules as to how to live within it. Paul does marginally better in Ephesians 6:9 by calling masters to show kindness to their slaves, but it still seems woefully inadequate.

This is where context is important. Dating New Testament letters is tricky, but they were likely written in the years leading up to or following on from the First Jewish-Roman War. It was a dangerous time, and rebellion ultimately led to disaster in Jerusalem. Whether the letter writers had learnt from the destruction of the temple or could see catastrophe on the horizon and wished to avoid it, it seems likely that this was a call to bear with difficult circumstances until they could be changed without causing greater harm, rather than a lasting instruction or ringing endorsement of slavery.

The other thing that makes me uncomfortable about this verse is the knowledge that it took a long time before the church challenged the institution of slavery because of passages like this, and the certainty that there are other institutions and ways of thinking that we have similarly failed to disrupt. Perhaps we have forgotten that the Bible contains a trajectory towards liberation and a promise that the Spirit will lead us into all truth, both of which point to there being more for us to learn and change.

Setting this passage in context encourages me that this was not an endorsement of slavery, and while I am left with a sharp discomfort at the idea of all that remains to be challenged, it feels like a positive one as long as it leads me into action.

 

Bonus: Revelation 19:21

The rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.

I was asked on Sunday night about violence in Revelation, and I had to confess that I wasn’t even close to getting my head round that. It may be hypocritical of me to ignore the bits of scripture I struggle with, but it also feels irresponsible of me to introduce passages about which I have nothing constructive to say. However, I have done some reading on Revelation this week, and these are my initial thoughts.

Firstly, the churches are praised for meeting persecution with endurance, suggesting that retaliation would be seen as wrong, and therefore that human violence is to be discouraged. Whatever else Revelation might be, it is not a manifesto for a holy war waged by human hands.

Secondly, while divine violence is portrayed in fairly graphic terms, it is truly redemptive and the endpoint is the shalom of the new heaven and new earth. I would like to think that redemption can happen without violence, and that the battles of Revelation are purely metaphorical and written for dramatic effect, but if evil must be met with violence then this complete victory is the only thing that could justify it.

Revelation is a really dense book, and it relies heavily on symbolism and context that is not apparent to a twenty first century reader, so it would be a significant project to try and get a handle on it, but that glimpse has at least made me a little less frightened.

 

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The passages we have looked at over the past few weeks are ones I have worried over for years, and have largely tried to ignore in the hope that…well I’m not sure what I was hoping for really.

Tackling them head on has been difficult, and there is still work to be done, but I do at least feel confident that my instinctive discomfort with these texts is justified, that readings which glorify violence are not true to the God I know and worship, and that alternative readings are possible.

So that is why, even though I may not be entirely comfortable with every aspect of these passages, I am more comfortable with them than I was a week ago.

I Have Seen (And Heard)

Posted: October 5, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my response to saying the words “I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” during Evening Prayer, and I ended by promising myself that I would open my eyes to goodness. I want to come back to this from time to time, to share the goodness that I have seen. It would be a beautiful thing if you would share the goodness you have seen too, so please do comment on these posts.

 

I have never been someone who most often experiences God in the great outdoors. Watching the shadows pass over the hills or the colours shift in the sea is certainly good for my soul, but somehow it doesn’t amaze me. I think there is a part of my brain that says Of course the world is beautiful. God made it. That’s how it’s meant to be.

It is when I look up at a towering cathedral, or listen to a sublime piece of music, or read a poem that pierces my heart that I am truly amazed. Then there is a voice in my head saying How could another human being create something so wonderful? And the answer always comes back Because we have in us the divine spark of our creator God.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so suprised by the things we are capable of. Perhaps I should think Of course the things we make are beautiful. God made us. That how it’s meant to be. But we are not quite as we were meant to be, and so there is a wonder in something of beauty coming from something capable of such ugliness.

All of this is to say that I most often see the goodness of the Lord as it is reflected by humanity, because that is where it catches me by surprise. And so the first thing I want to share is a recording of Allegri’s Miserere, a setting of Psalm 51 and a piece of music that makes my heart soar.