Living the Lord’s Prayer

Posted: June 15, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

In case you haven’t already heard my confession, I grew up in an Anglican church. I realise now that we were so low that we were practically falling out of the bottom of the church, but we still used certain patterns and prayers in our worship. The repetition of these meant that I learnt them at a very young age, and they still come back to me very easily, even after twelve years away.

As much as I value the freedom of more informal worship, I still have a great fondness for those patterns and prayers, as they were significant in shaping and expressing my faith. They taught me that there were many ways of speaking with God, and gave me words when otherwise I would have had none.

At the heart of our worship was always the Lord’s Prayer, and so I have prayed it many times. I have also prayed it many ways, and am building quite a collection of different translations and interpretations. And yet nothing has brought home what it means to pray it so much as the meditation that Ruth offered as she led us in worship on Sunday night.

The prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples is a bold prayer that demands more than simple assent. It must move us to action and transform our attitude, or it is nothing but noise and wasted ink. It must be the spirit in which we pray all our prayers, and as we seek a life of prayer, it is the spirit in which we must live all our lives. Of course I already knew that, but it hit me with greater force than ever before on Sunday night.

I began by talking about my childhood in the church, because I have been thinking recently about what patterns and prayers I will bring my own child up with, and these threads of reflection have become tangled together. The Lord’s Prayer has to be at the top of the list, but I want him to understand the fullness of it and live in that understanding, not just say the words to please his parents.

But I cannot want that for my son and not for myself. I too must understand the fullness of it and live in that understanding, and so I will be dwelling in this meditation in the coming weeks, until I have absorbed it as completely as the words it reflects on. I offer it to you now as Ruth offered it so us on Sunday, with an invitation to dwell in it with me, that we may not just pray the Lord’s Prayer but understand and live it too.

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I cannot say “OUR” If my religion has no room for others and their needs.
I cannot say “Father” if I do not demonstrate this kind of loving relationship in my daily living.
I cannot say “WHO ART IN HEAVEN” if all my interests and pursuits are in earthly things.
I cannot say” HALLOWED BE THY NAME” if I, who am called by His name, am not holy.
I cannot say “THY KINGDOM COME” if I am not willing to give up my own sovereignty and accept the righteous reign of God.
I cannot say “THY WILL BE DONE” if I am unwilling or resentful of having His will in my life.
I cannot say “ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN” unless I am truly willing to give my life here and now to His service.
I cannot say “GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD” without expending effort for it or by ignoring the genuine need of others.
I cannot say “FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES AS WE FORGIVE OTHERS” if I continue to harbour a grudge against others or anyone.
I cannot say “LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION” if I choose to remain in a situation where I am likely to be tempted.
I cannot say “DELIVER US FROM EVIL” if I am not prepared in the spiritual realm with the weapons of prayer.
I cannot say “FOR THINE IS THE KINGDOM” if I do not give the King the disciplined obedience of a loyal subject.
I cannot say “FOR THINE IS THE POWER” if I fear for what my friends and neighbours might say.
I cannot say “FOR THINE IS THE GLORY” if I seek my own glory first.
I cannot say “FOREVER” if I am too anxious about each day’s affairs.
I cannot say “AMEN” unless I can honestly say, cost what it may, “this is my prayer”.

(Written by Ruth Bortner and Lela Wegman)

On the Eve of an Election

Posted: June 7, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Today is June 7th. That would be a perfectly innocuous statement except for the necessary implication that tomorrow is June 8th. And that means tomorrow is election day.

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Politics has a way of bringing out the worst in us at the best of times, and the heightened atmosphere of an election only compounds the problem. Anger. Suspicion. Tribalism. It makes for quite a heady brew, and it can be difficult to know how to avoid drinking it in the first place, or how to sober up once we have.

In my last blog, I suggested that the Sermon on the Mount may have something to teach us about how we ought to approach the Bible. That came out of a conviction that it says so much about character and conduct that it really ought to speak into every area of our lives. If my hypothesis is right, it should have something to teach us on this election eve, so here are my thoughts on how we may approach tomorrow in the light of the Sermon on the Mount…

 

I suspect that most of us will have already decided which box we will be ticking tomorrow, and I trust that our decisions have already been shaped by our prayer and our discipleship, but the pencil has not hit the paper yet. As we prepare to cast our votes, we must remember that Jesus’ words are the surest foundation on which we build (Matthew 7:24-27), asking how we may act with wisdom and use our democracy to advance the kingdom he preached. We may also take heed of the advice that “by your fruit you will know them” (Matthew 7:16), paying attention to the actions and not just the words of our elected and would-be-elected politicians.

But it’s not just about us marking a piece of paper in a little box, because voting is a participation in our society, with all it’s differences and disagreements. When it comes to dealing with those whose political beliefs do not line up with ours, we must remember that Jesus calls us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and to resist pronouncing judgement on others (Matthew 7:1-2), holding our convictions with a humility that allows us to listen to and seek to understand others.

And it’s not just about tomorrow, because on June 9th we must all decide how we respond to the results of the election. If things don’t go our way, me must take hope from the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) and from the assurance that we do not need to worry (Matthew 6:25), trusting that we follow a God who can turn things upside down and there is no situation that cannot be redeemed. We must also continue to act as salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16), keep praying for the kingdom (Matthew 6:10), and never cease from asking and seeking and knocking (Matthew 7:7-8), because we are a people of hope and perseverance.

 

I end with a prayer from this reflection published by Baptists Together.

God of every time and season,
Whose reign and rule extends beyond any earthly realm;
In the midst of the uncertainty,
The debate and expectancy of a forthcoming General Election,
Help us to centre ourselves afresh on you;
Not to escape the issues and argument,
But that we might be engaged
With wisdom and faithfulness
That reflects our identity as your people.
 
Protect us from indifference
That we might promote attitudes of grace
And seek to uphold the narratives of truth and goodness.
And may we not become so consumed
With the agendas of our own concern
That we forget the lives and needs
Of a world that extends beyond our immediate horizons.
 
We pray for those who seek office
And those to whom this responsibility will be given
May we never take for granted
The service that they offer
Or the freedom we have
To determine those who govern us.
 
Help us to act wisely;
To listen prayerfully;
To debate honestly;
To disagree graciously;
And to seek the ways of your Kingdom
In the decisions we make together.
 
Through Christ our Lord and King,

AMEN

Reading the Bible in the light of Jesus

Posted: May 31, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Last month we spent part of our prayer and planning meeting talking about where we wanted to go next with our teaching series on the Bible, and one of the questions we highlighted as being most important was What does a Jesus centred reading of the Bible look like? There are a number of ways to take that, so two weeks ago Simon started us off by looking at how we can read the Bible like Jesus, and last Sunday I tried to get us thinking about how we can read the Bible in the light of Jesus.

As was rightly pointed out at our prayer and planning meeting, if we want to place Jesus as the centre of our reading of scripture, we need to know who he is. And if we want to know who he is, we must make the scriptures about him the centre of our reading. Just as our character is revealed in the way we act and speak, so Jesus is made known to us through his words and deeds as recorded in the gospels, and that is then where we must start.

Not even I am foolishly ambitious enough to have attempted a complete overview of the life and ministry of Jesus in the space of little over an hour, so on Sunday night we turned our attention to the Sermon on the Mount, looking for the attitudes and principles and practices that are modelled and depicted by Jesus, and how they might shape the way in which we read the Bible. Here are my thoughts, as well as contributions from our discussions.

  • the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) reverse our expectations – the Bible will often be counterintuitive
  • they also challenge the idea that blessing is the result of obedience and the belief that the kingdom comes through force – we must prioritise the prophetic voices of mercy and justice
  • the call to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) demands that we are wise and useful – scripture must lead us to that
  • Jesus’ treatment of the law (Matthew 5:17-48) turns the focus from action to attitude – we must look beyond the letter to the spirit and ask not just ‘what does this say I should do?’ but ‘who does this say I should be?’
  • the words on divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) hint at Jesus’ heart for the vulnerable and the dispossessed as they offer greater protection for women than existed at the time – we must listen for the voices in the Bible that speak of compassion
  • the call to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) is radical and distinctive – if this is the ultimate ethic of Christ then scripture must lead us to generous and impartial love
  • Jesus’ words about righteousness (Matthew 6: 1-18) are a call to humility and integrity – Bible study is not a place to show off
  • the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) is the centre point of the sermon and framed in communal terms – relationship with God is at the heart of all discipleship but it is worked out in relationship with others which perhaps suggests that Bible reading should be a corporate as well as private activity
  • the prayer also calls for the coming of the kingdom of heaven – if we are to recognise and encourage its breaking through to the kingdoms of earth then we must look to the scriptures to learn what it is like
  • the section on treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-24) calls us to ask what our treasures are – this may encourage us to really value scripture
  • the verses about worry (Matthew 6:25-34) question our priorities – this may prompt us to look to scripture rather than possessions for comfort
  • Jesus’ caution against judging others (Matthew 7:1-5) is an important corrective – scripture is so often used to criticise others but that is not what it is given for
  • the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) is another guiding ethical principle – it is against these that we must measure every interpretation of scripture
  • the warning about false prophets (Matthew 7:15-20) is also a wise word with respect to scriptural interpretation – we must think carefully and critically when reading or hearing the arguments of others and judge them by their fruit

 

That was a fair blast through three fairly dense chapters, but they say much about the conduct and character of Jesus, and the conduct and character he calls us into. The Jesus we see revealed through the Sermon on the Mount calls us to read with humility and gentleness and integrity, to practice discernment and expect challenge, to seek the spirit of the words and let the words transform our spirit, to pay attention to the voices that speak of compassion and justice and mercy, to look for hope and encouragement and signs of the kingdom, and to read in such a way that we grow in wisdom and love.

While preparing this, I was reminded of a song by DC Talk called Red Letters, named for the fact that some Bibles print the words of Jesus in red ink. The chorus says There is love in the red letters / There is truth in the red letters / There is hope for the hopeless / Peace and forgiveness / There is life in the red letters / In the red letters. I think the Sermon on the Mount gives us good reason to declare that we find all of these things in Jesus, and as he is the Word of God then any word from God must surely be characterised by these same things, so that our engagement with the scriptures may be framed as a quest for love and truth and hope and forgiveness and life.

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Thinking differently about genre in the Bible: Part Two

Posted: April 26, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

In my last post, I suggested myth as an alternative way of understanding the genre of the Bible. Here I want to finish our look at genre with another approach which suggests a different set of categories.

 

Old Testament scholar Water Brueggeman (whose book ‘The Bible Makes Sense’ we used at our weekend away last year) talks about the Bible containing primal, expanded and derivative narratives.

The primal narrative is “that most simple, elemental and nonnegotiable story line that lies at the heart of biblical faith”. Gerhard von Rad says that for Israel, this was the exodus from Egypt, as expressed in Deuteronomy 26:5-9, Deuteronomy 6:20-24 and Joshua 24:1-13. According to CH Dodd, it was for the early church the death and resurrection of Jesus, as recalled in 1 Corinthians 1:23, 1 Corinthians 3:1 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. In both cases, the primal narrative is the recitals of a saving act of God and a declaration of faith.

The expanded narrative is “a more elaborate and complete presentation of the same theme found in the kernel” which is “confessional not reportorial in character”. In the Old Testament, Exodus 1-15 is a fuller presentation of the Israelites’ delivery from slavery. And in the New Testament, the gospel narratives expand the life and death of Jesus. These stories come to be seen through the lens of the central theme and so proclaim the same faith even if read separately.

The derivative narrative is the subsequent history of the community which testifies to the power of the basic narrative and supplements it with tradition. In the Hebrew scriptures, this is the story of Israel after Moses and Joshua. In the Christian tradition, this is the story of the early church. It contains the literature of institutionalisation, mature theological reflection, and the instruction and vocation of the community.

In short, and doing very little justice to Brueggeman, the primal narrative is the story that changed everything, the expanded narrative is everything that led to it, and the derivative narrative is everything that came from it.

So how does all of this effect the way we read the Bible? Well, I like Brueggeman’s model because it prioritises purpose and allows for different genres within each category, allowing for more nuanced readings of texts which can make use of the genre markers we looked at before without getting fixated on them. I also like the fact that Brueggeman applies the model to each testament, so that we see how both Israel and the church used the same pattern in response to the revelation of God, because this breaks down some of the barriers between us and the Hebrew scriptures.

But there’s also something else I think this can teach us, which is perhaps best demonstrated by way of a brief activity.

Think for a moment about your own primal, expanded and derivative narratives. What is the central story in your relationship with God? What brought you to that place? How has it impacted on your life since?

Now think about why you chose those stories and how you choose to tell them. Do you include every detail? Do you apply any filters? Do you add any commentary?

Thinking about how we tell our stories may help us to  may offer some insight into how the Bible was written. Because the truth is that we all interpret and shape our experiences, especially when we have a primal narrative that makes sense of everything around it.

An example by way of explanation. Part of my derivative narrative is my experience of leaving university. I prayed about whether or not it was right for me to go, and the words “you don’t have to be here” came to me really clearly. And yet when I told that story afterwards, I said that God had told me to leave. I always knew what God had said, but I interpreted those words as meaning I should go, because I needed to feel that I had definitely done the right thing, and so that was how I told it. It was some years before I felt confident enough in my decision to acknowledge that what God had really done was give me a choice. I didn’t intentionally lie, but my experience was filtered through my conviction that God was interested and active in my life (which was rooted in the experience of healing that forms my primal narrative) and my belief that God had a fixed plan for my life (which came from the theological understanding gathered during the Christian upbringing that forms part of my expanded narrative).

I don’t imagine that the people who wrote the Bible set out to write these distinctive strands of narrative – they are a filter we’ve placed on the text – but I do suspect that they interpreted and shaped their experiences and inherited stories in just the same way as I have done. I think that answers a lot of questions we have about the Bible, and I hope it also reminds us that our story is an ongoing part of the story that began “in the beginning”.

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Thinking differently about genre in the Bible: Part One.

Posted: April 26, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Last month, we started thinking about the different types of literature we find in the Bible. You can catch up on what we learned in a series of blog posts starting here. Last Sunday, we spent some time thinking about a couple of alternative approaches. Read on if you want to find out more.

And for those of you who were there on Sunday evening, the quotes I gave you came from this article. Even if you weren’t there, I think it’s worth a read.

 

When we first talked about genre, we acknowledged that there are some issues with the historicity of the Bible. It’s difficult to get away from the fact the Bible contains inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and while attempts have been made to reconcile them all, these involve some really contorted readings. It can be troubling to realise that Biblical literalism cannot be maintained without an exhausting degree of mental gymnastics, but I believe there are ways of understanding the Bible that don’t require us to turn a blind eye to its fallibility or reject it out of hand.

First up, I want to propose that the Bible might be better understood as myth. Before you spit your tea out or throw something at the screen, that doesn’t mean that I think it is pure fantasy. It means I believe that the Bible reveals deep and universal truths and finds its meaning in something more significant than simple historical accuracy. Neither does it mean that we must put the Bible on the same pegging as other mythologies. CS Lewis believed that Christianity was unique in being the true myth, and while I would follow Tolkien in suggesting that there is some truth in all myth, I would certainly declare that the Christian myth is uniquely truthful because it contains a unique truth in the person and life of Jesus.

If the biblical stories are intended to tell great truths, then maybe we can begin to understand the inconsistencies and the inaccuracies we find in them. The Israelites at the very least elaborated on their activities in Jericho because they believed God was building them into a great nation and that was the story they needed to tell, and the gospel writers place Jesus’ death on different days because they understood its relationship to the Passover to be a significant part of the story but understood that relationship differently.

Reading the Bible as myth helps us to understand these apparent errors as narrative techniques, and points us past them to the reason behind them. You may remember that I have used those examples before, as a way of talking about the way we approach history, but for me using the category of myth is more helpful and more positive, as it means recognising the Bible for what it is not apologising for what it is not.

It may also offer a sort of answer to a question that was raised in our first session on genre, about how we transition from a seemingly poetic account of creation to an apparently historical account of Israel, both of which we find in Genesis. Where does the poetry end and the history begin? It seems impossible to know, as the text itself doesn’t tell us, but if we see the entire narrative of Genesis as being aimed at establishing the nature of the relationship between God and the world, then perhaps it’s okay for us to answer the question by suggesting that those distinctions don’t really matter.

The idea that the Bible is not a straightforward textbook is not a new one. In fact, biblical inerrancy is a relatively late concept which came about as a kind of hardening of the religious position in response to the Enlightenment. But it can still be a difficult concept for us to get our heads around. The broadly evangelical church I grew up in had got as far as seeing the six days of creation as six ages, but I think there was a reluctance to extend that approach beyond the first few chapters of the Bible, because it felt like a slippery slope towards dividing the Bible into true and false.

However, the point of this approach isn’t to say this bit is fact and this bit is metaphor and this bit is just made up, and then to make a judgement value on that basis, although sometimes that will be important. The point is to suggest that the Bible is the story of the relationship between God and God’s people, as told by those people in the way that best captured the beauty and the mystery of their experience, and that its real meaning lies in what it says about the nature of God and the world and what it means to live in it.

I understand that the word ‘myth’ comes with a whole load of baggage that means some people may find it unhelpful as a way of talking about the Bible, but I hope the ideas behind it may still prove interesting and valuable. I’m still not sure it’s precisely the right word for what I want to say about the Bible, but I’ve used it here because it comes close and it’s provocative enough to challenge us and get us thinking.

What I’m really trying to suggest is that if we can set all other questions aside for a moment and read the Bible as a story, and let it fascinate and engage us as all good stories should, we might find ourselves moved and transformed, and perhaps even invigorated to get back to the nitty gritty of biblical scholarship.

 

We also looked at another alternative approach, but I’ll save that for another blog. And in case you’re wondering, the picture is because when I typed ‘myth’ and ‘bible’ into Google images, a variant on this was the first thing that come up and it amused me. That’s a good enough reason, right?

 

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A night like no other

Posted: April 13, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

It’s Maundy Thursday evening, and as usual it finds me in reflective mood. Holy Week began on Palm Sunday, but the passion narrative starts here, with Jesus sharing a final meal with his disciples before heading out into the darkness, knowing that he walks towards those who will capture and kill him. To draw on the language of the Passover meal, this night is different from all other nights, and I feel that difference somewhere deep within.

I get a lot of guilt at Easter, and it has nothing to do with eating too much chocolate. It’s not even entirely to do with the stark reminder that Jesus suffered unimaginable pain because the world I am so much a part of had gone so horribly wrong. It comes instead from a sense that I am doing Easter wrong.

The earth shattering significance of the cross and the tomb weighs so heavily on me that I feel I should be marking every minute of it, and from Thursday to Sunday I feel guilty for every moment not spent in prayer and contemplation.

It’s almost as if the cosmic event is being reenacted somewhere, and I feel an echo of the confusion and grief of the disciples, and suddenly the normal things of my everyday feel grossly inappropriate. How can I go to the park while my lord hangs on the cross, or pop to the shops as he lays in the tomb?

And yet at the same time, I know how the story ends, and so I find myself dipping in and out without actually living it. I think that’s why I found the Easter episodes of Rev so affecting, because for three days I didn’t know if the resurrection would come. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, do try and watch the end of the third series of Rev.)

The whole world should stop and mourn for what it has become and what its creator has done to redeem it. That’s what happened on that first Good Friday, when the earth shook and the sky went dark. I must confess to an immense disappointment each year when the hours of the cross end and that doesn’t happen, and more than once I have had to fight back the urge to stand in the middle of the high street and scream out ‘don’t you know what just happened?’

Perhaps it’s just that my upbringing in a more liturgical and sacramental tradition has left an indelible mark on me, and I need words and actions to mark the time. Or perhaps I need to find a way of doing Easter better, a way that answers rather than stifles the deep cry of my heart. Or perhaps this sense of being disturbed is exactly what I need on this night like no other, and I must surrender to it and see where it takes me.

What kind of book is it anyway? Part Four.

Posted: April 9, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

So far we’ve had an overview of biblical genres, and we’ve started looking at those genres in more detail here and here. We’re almost at the end, so settle down as we look at the gospels and the letters.

 

gospel

The gospels are a unique literary genre, with crossover from both history and prophecy, as they are part biography and part collection of teachings. Manuscript evidence suggests that the material that forms the gospels was passed down orally for a number of decades before it was written down. This may seem a flawed system to us, but in a culture that was predominately oral, the collective memory was far more reliable than we would ever imagine, and compared with other ancient historical documents, the gospels were written pretty close to the time of the events they record. At any rate, there must be a reason God chose to hand on his most important message in this way. He could have chosen to send Jesus to twentieth century Britain and have the crucifixion live tweeted, but he didn’t, and I’m not sure Instagram would have given us a better record than the gospels anyway.

The image at the top of this section says ‘the gospel’, but that is something of a misnomer. We don’t have a gospel, we have four gospels. It’s a blessing really, but we often treat it as a curse, as it means four rich pictures of Jesus, but also four attempts at interpretation. The disagreements that spring from this pluralism can be troubling, but no two articles or textbooks record the same event in the same way, and it is often the commonality rather than the discord that is most striking.

The differences that do exist come from different perspectives and different emerging theologies and ecclesiologies. The synoptics and the fourth gospel disagree over whether Jesus was killed on the day of Passover (when the paschal lamb was eaten) or the day before Passover (when the paschal lamb was killed). They all understood that there was an important relationship between the Old Testament story of redemption and the events of Good Friday, and they wanted to write it into the narrative, but they understood that relationship slightly differently and shaped the story accordingly. It doesn’t detract from the power or the truth of the story, but encourages us to think about what it means. That is why it is important that we avoid harmonising the gospels, and instead see them as whole and distinct narratives, with each author having their own insights to offer.

 

letter

The letters compiled in the New Testament were the means by which the diasporic church was held together. They were vital for communicating about belief and practice, and so they are loaded with theology, but their contextual nature means it is often in the form of practical advice, and while we do find credal statements, we do not have a complete and systematic doctrinal treatise.

Letters are occasional documents written at a particular time to a particular group for a particular reason, and so context is everything when it comes to reading them. Every text has a wider context that it can be set in, but while most texts at least give us the narrow context of the events they relate to, the letters are missing even that, as the writer takes for granted that the recipients know the situation and we only have one side of the conversation. It’s a little bit like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as we have the answers but not the questions.

The letters are divided into those written by Paul and those written by others, and presented in order of length within each division. That’s important to remember, because understanding develops over time, but we are reading it out of order.

All of this means we must read the letters with great care, not assuming that every word is meant for us, not least because the original writers probably never expected us to read them, but looking first for what they teach us about God, and then weighing the instructions carefully to decide if they are still relevant and helpful. They are a fascinating and edifying insight into how the early Christians expressed their faith, and the fact that they were kept suggests they were deemed to be important, but they make no claim to be an eternal handbook for the church, and we do them and us a disservice if we read them as such.

 

Well that’s a little bit on each of the genres recognised by a standard classification of the biblical texts. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be trying some of this stuff out by getting hands on with some texts, and we’ll be looking at some alternative approaches to the whole idea of genre, so watch out for more to come.

Before I sign off, I want to leave you with this. Following the discussion at our meeting two weeks ago, one group spoke about reading the prophets with open hands, that is a willingness to hear and accept what God may say to us through those ancient words. I love that, because it speaks of an eagerness that prepares us to receive from God, rather than an expectation that drives us to find our own meaning,

So may we approach the Bible with open hearts and open hands, and may God pour out blessings through scriptures written in faith and love.