Archive for November, 2017

Good News of the Old Testament

Posted: November 29, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

On Sunday night we ventured back into the Old Testament, our last exploration there for a little while. Way back in September we tackled some of the violent passages, then two weeks ago Simon helped us recognise that there is really a mix of different voices, and on Sunday we focused in on some of the more positive messages. Essentially, we were searching after the good news of the Old Testament.

One place we could have started was with a motif that runs throughout the Old Testament, the declaration that the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. We in fact started from a couple of slightly more obscure entry points, but in many ways those words are the gospel before the gospel, and so I simply offer them to you to meditate on.


I trailed the idea of the good news of the Old Testament in September by reading a passage from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book Not in God’s Name, and so that is where we picked up from. Sacks argues that Abrahamic monotheism emerged as a sustained protest against the oppressive and hierarchical societies of the Ancient Near East, that its declarations that all are created in the image of God and a society is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable were bold and radical, that this truth was lost in years of war and conquest but was rediscovered by the prophets in their words of justice and mercy, and that to commit violence in the name of the God who told Abraham that all peoples would be blessed through him is to commit blasphemy.

What Sacks alerts us to is the fact that we are called to continue that tradition of sustained protest, to challenge injustice and inequality, to be a prophetic voice in the world. As we said on Sunday, this does not mean that we should resist for the sake of resisting, and we must be open to learning from the world and challenging the church as well as the other way round, but it does mean we must be willing to be countercultural.

It was great to be able to identity so many examples of that on Sunday. Men and women who were inspired by their faith to challenge slavery, to improve workers’ rights, to fight for religious tolerance, against all the odds and in the face of much opposition.

Of course we have to acknowledge the mistakes that have been made too, the times that scripture has been read in a way that has led to hate and not to love, but Sacks is confident that “we may and must reinterpret them”. It sounds like a stunning proposition, but it is what Jewish scholars have been doing for centuries. It’s what Jesus did when he left “the day of vengeance out of Isaiah 61.  And it’s what we’ve been doing over these past few months, challenging the narratives that trouble us and the way they have been used to trouble others.

The work of Jewish mysticism called the Zohar says that “those who love the divine word penetrate beneath its outer garments to its soul”. We need to get to the soul of scripture and let it transform us and teach us, show us the word of God not just the words on the page.

This brings us back to the idea of good news. I think the fact that we find this tradition of resistance in the Old Testament, particularly in the concern for the vulnerable in the laws and the prophets, is extraordinarily good news because it tells us that God’s heart has always been for love and peace and mercy and compassion. It tells us the outer garments may be torn and tarnished in places, but the soul of scripture is beautiful.


So that was the first part of the evening. We then turned to explore another book I have read recently, The Year of Living Biblically, in which the author A.J. Jacobs attempts to follow as many biblical laws as possible.

After the violence, the law is probably the second most troubling thing in the Old Testament. It doesn’t help that Jesus’ position on it was about as clear as mud. He said he had not come to destroy it and yet he frequently broke it, so we can’t just junk it but we don’t need to follow all of it either.

One way of understanding Jesus’ claim that he came to fulfil the law is to say that he came to reveal its purpose, and so we might talk about following the spirit rather than the letter of the law, but that doesn’t necessarily help very much because it’s not always clear what the spirit behind the letter is, or how close to the letter you must stay in order to keep the spirit.

A practical education seems a really good idea, and so we took advantage of Jacobs’ experience by discussing some passages from the book in groups. We touched on the freedom that comes from acknowledging a God who is bigger than us, the humbling effect of prayer, the blessing of Sabbath rest, and the greater connectedness with one another and the earth that comes when we practice thankfulness, amongst many other things.

When speaking about Sabbath, I shared that I live in hope that I will find the sweet spot where I have a strong enough rhythm to keep me in good practices, but I don’t weigh myself down with so much ritual that it becomes another task. I could say the same about prayer and reading scripture and diet and exercise and…the list goes on.

I think it’s that sweet spot Jesus was calling us to when he said “my burden is easy and my yoke is light”. A yoke was a way of talking about the particular way in which a rabbi interpeted the law, and it seems important that Jesus did not say that he would remove that yoke althogether, but rather that it would not weigh us down. He does not want to scrub out the law completely and leave us without any kind of pattern or purpose, but instead invites us to take hold of the things that root us and nuture us and give us meaning.

The things we identified as being good and beautiful about Jacobs’ experience were less to do with specific practices and more to do with the ideas behind them, and so we find ourselves once again with the soul of scripture. The good news this time around is that the Old Testament is full of practices and so it is full of ideas, and perhaps if we can tease the two apart we will find words to live by.



Christmas is coming…

Posted: November 22, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Your chocolate calendars may say December 1st, but the liturgical calendar says December 3rd. Either way the season of Advent is soon to be upon us, and so I’ve been nosing about the internet to find some good material. I’m not quite sure what the blog will look like over Advent yet, but I hope some of these ideas may help you find a good rhythm as chaos threatens to creep in.

Pray As You Go A number of us already use this app, and for the past few years Pray As You Go have teamed up with Sacred Space to provide an Advent Retreat. Here is the link to this year’s.

Loyola Press Lots here from the Jesuit tradition, so perfect for those who are keen to engage with more Ignatian spirituality. They have advent calendars, art based reflections, a Jesse tree (remember that from last year?), prayers…the works!

The Meaning is in the Waiting I still haven’t finished the Lent book I started as a teenager, but this year I am attempting an Advent devotional. If you would like to join me on this journey, here is the book I have chosen.

Family Advent Devotional I’ve seen a sample, and this looks like it has some lovely material for using together as a family. It is a printable resource, which means no waiting for a delivery, so great for a last minute panic!

Advent Challenge Sign up to get three challenges for each day of Advent. I won’t know until I’ve seen the first one, but these things are generally good for engaging the whole family.

Advent Conspiracy If Christmas is already getting you down, and you need a fresh appraoch to this season, the four tenents of the Advent Conspiracy may be a breath of fresh air.

Do Nothing Christmas Is Coming So popular it’s sold out on Amazon, if you can get hold of a copy in time, this book may also encourage you to slow down and take time out.



Dissonant Voices

Posted: November 16, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

On Sunday night we returned to our exploration of the Old Testament. Last time we were there, we found ourselves confronting some of the more violent passages. We challenged some of the traditional readings and started to hint at some counter narratives, and it was those alternative voices that we went back to listen to.

Arguably the dominant theme of the Bible is covenant, the relationship between God and creation, and so that is what we took as our starting point. We began by looking at three distinct covenants of the Old Testament – the Noahic, the Abrahamic and the Mosaic.

The first is found in Genesis 9, and is between God and the whole of creation. The second is given in several forms in Genesis 12-17, and promises land and blessing to the faithful descendants of Abraham. The third is given on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-24, and sets the terms of the relationship between God and the people of Israel.

There seems to be a narrowing of the recipients of the promise, and an increasing conditionality to God’s blessing, a mirror image of the widening reach and expansive grace of the new convenant given in bread and wine. Put like that, it sounds like a steady diminuendo followed by a sudden crescendo, the Bible is far more dynamic than that.

To demonstrate this, Simon suggested five key words that describe the covenants of the Old Testament, as given in the passages above and as developed by subsequent generations, then gave us a selection of passages that stretch our understanding of them.

PEOPLE At first glance the covenant seems to be about defining a chosen people, and yet verses such as Isaiah 56:3-7 and Jeremiah 16:19-21 speak of God bringing in all the nations and embracing those who the law rejected.

LAND The promise of land as an eternal inheritance continues to hold significance for many, and yet Leviticus 25:23 rejects the idea of ownership, while Joshua 23:16 and Jeremiah 2:7 together suggest that the promise was conditional and the conditions have not been met.

RITUAL The sacrifices and festivals that formed the basis of religious life were seen as central to the maintaining of the covenant, and yet Amos 5:21-24 and Isaiah 1:11-20 have God rejecting these practices and asking instead for justice and reason.

KING The Davidic kingdom is often seen as the highpoint of Old Testament history, and yet 1 Samuel 8 makes clear the God never wanted to give Israel a king because kingship is by nature violent and exploitative.

TEMPLE The temple became the centre for all ritual worship, and yet 2 Samuel 7:1-13 sees God deny David’s attempt to build him a house, while in 1 Kings 8:27 Solomon questions whether the house he has built can really contain God.

Of course that brief summary doesn’t capture the richness of our discussion, but I hope it may at least jog a few memories or prompt a few investigations. At the very least it demonstrates how quickly the idea that we can ever say “the Bible says” collapses, an important thing to remember when we find what “the Bible says” troubling or confusing.

That’s not to say that we can simply dismiss the bits we don’t like without giving them a second thought, but it is to say that we can challenge them and look at them from different angles, because that is exactly what the biblical writers themselves were doing.

The dissonance of the Bible can be rather disconcerting, but it reminds us that the scriptures are a conversation we are invited to join, rather than a lecture we are commanded to listen to, and so it can also be incredibly liberating.