Saturday, December 31, 2022

Folk and Biblical Wisdom

What’s the difference between common folk wisdom and biblical wisdom? Some of the sayings below are from Scripture and some are not. 

While the phrases may sound the same, meanings are changed when placed in a context of an ongoing faith journey with God. 

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Waste not- want not.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

The race is not to the swift, but time and chance happen to us all.

Never say never.

It’s love that makes the world go round.

What goes around comes around.

Early to bed, early to rise makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

Salt and pepper are married.

When everyone walks out, a friend walks in.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Don’t cry over spilt milk.

The early bird gets the worm.

Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in morning, sailors to warning.

Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.

When I study, God speaks to me; when I pray, I speak to God.

God helps those who help themselves.

Don’t teach a pig to sing; it frustrates you plus it annoys the pig.

Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved.

It is never too late to have a good relationship with yourself.

It’s not the gift that counts- it’s the intention. 

The Lord loves a cheerful giver.

Silence is God’s first language.

A friend is someone with whom I may think aloud.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

All is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Laughter is the only respite from grief.

Don’t burn any bridges.

Better late than never.

Flattery will get you nowhere.

Pride goes before a fall.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Go eat your bread in gladness.

Not to decide is to decide.

Wisdom is the better part of valor. 

Patience is a virtue.

Kick a dog and it’ll bark.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

You can’t judge a book by its cover.

Beauty is only skin deep-

but ugliness goes all the way to the bone.

A live dog is better than a dead lion.

All you need is love.

The love you make is equal to the love you take.

Observe the ant, you lazy bones.

I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.

I never was what I used to be.

Wisdom is vindicated by her children.

Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.

You reap what you sow.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Love your enemies.

Make love not war.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Art of Biblical Paradox: Is God Loving or Punitive? (5)

Throughout Scripture, covenant with God is an act of God's initiation. It's a free and undeserved gift of God, celebrated in the Psalms with thanksgiving and rejoicing: We are God's people and the sheep of God's pasture. Psalm 100:3 There is no one good enough, strong enough, fast enough, or smart enough to first choose God. It is God who first chooses and sends us. John 15:15-16 

John's Gospel, the most unique of the Four Gospels, is the fruit of two full generations of church life. Its focus is not on the limited judgments of Christians or church leaders.* Only in John does Jesus make clear that judgment belongs to the Holy Spirit. It does not belong to any Christian or church, or,  amazingly, even to God or Jesus. **It is the Spirit giving the wisdom, discernment, and redirection to the disciples and consequently, God's people. We choose, with the Spirit’s help, to move toward what is promising or what is fruitless, what makes for consolation or desolation. 

This speaks to a forgotten theme in New Testament study and in the discipleship of Christians. It is about my communion with God when I am faithful or unfaithful. The Spirit is the One who walks beside me, step by step. The Spirit is comforter and counselor. As I grow in love, I can even lose all fear of punishment. (See I John 4: 16-19)  I choose my spiritual reality and state of mind, my actions or neglect of action. While God's love and grace are always present, I do not always choose to live in God's love and grace.***

God does not have a hidden agenda, does not devise trap doors so that we will lose our way. The witness of John is clear: while we don't choose the right, the Spirit is present to redirect and to encourage, not to punish. 

* See Matthew 18:16-18

**See John 8:15, 22; John 16:8-11

***Attributed to Julian of Norwich, 14th Century mystic and spiritual guide. She is credited as the first woman to write a book in the English language, Revelations of Divine Love. The second edition called the Longer text came decades later.


Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Art of Biblical Paradox: Is God Loving or Punitive? (4)

How can the God of the universe be loving but also a punisher? The question makes for challenging teaching and preaching. Yet, both themes are there as clearly as Exodus states: 20:5-6: "... for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."

This passage incapsulates a paradox of Scripture. God is faithful to those who are faithful to God. God blesses those who bless God and God curses those who are unfaithful to God. God loves those who love God. Lest we relegate this theology to the Old Testament, the theme continues through much of the New Testament, and, to us, the church. 

Is God's patience really exhausted like ours? Is it our job to placate God so that God won't lose his temper? This is hard to teach and preach, and very difficult to hear among those who see the paradox. Those for whom love is a stranger or the word "love" is used as a cover for guilt, shame, or control. For example, God surely knows about those who are children of family violence, those of dysfunctional or alcoholic families, and victims sexual abuse. God knows about those with the stored trauma of life-threatening circumstances. Given this, how can people  really trust God, a Higher Power, who has an angry streak? 

It matters how we frame it. Really. The Lord's discipline is mentioned throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament, several times in Hebrews: My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.’ (1) God reproves those whom God loves. (2) 

One of the sharp critiques of this view is in Job. Job's so-called friends enter the scene of Job's losses of house, business, home, family, health, etc. They all spout their views of why God is allowing Job, a faithful servant of God, to suffer such loss and grief. In the end, they repent of speaking wrongly for God, and are commanded to make sacrifices to ask for Job's prayers to forgive their folly. (3)

In Luke 11, Jesus makes the most direct and sharpest contrast between the love of human fathers and the love of the heavenly Father: "So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11:9-13)

It is a matter of emphasis, framed by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and his story. The good news of the incarnation is not that God is thinking up new ways to to harden and hurt us, but that God is with us, taking the blows that life dishes up. God is with us in the hell and heaven of human existence. God's living and loving presence- the Holy Spirit is given to us.  God chooses to dwell among us, literally, God pitches tent with us. (4) 

Life is really hard enough. The life of Jesus Christ invites me to transformation, which is a shop-worn term, often used without real content. The loss of ego, the false self, the non-enduring, changes me. That's inevitable the longer I live. I will lose my place, my status, career, health, friendships and family. All will happen, sometimes sooner than I expect. 

The question is, how can I reframe and relocate myself in the incarnation of God's love in Jesus Christ?  

1) Proverbs 3:11.

(2) Revelation 3:19

(3) See Job 42.

(4) John 1:14

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Biblical Art of Paradox: Does God Really Need a Rest? (3)

What's the point of Sabbath?

God is perfectly happy being God and doesn't need anything from us to make God happier. (1) Do you think  the Ten Commandments mention of God resting on the seventh day of creation is there to prove a point?  The texts which come to mind here are from Exodus and the Gospels.

The first is Exodus 20: 8-11: "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it."

The second is John 5: 17-18: "But Jesus said, “My Father has never stopped working, and this is why I keep on working.” Now the leaders wanted to kill Jesus for two reasons. First, he had broken the law of the Sabbath. But even worse, he had said God was his Father, which made him equal with God." CEV

In Matthew 12 and Mark 2 the question is not about the importance of the sabbath, but, what kind of behavior is lawful. More importantly, who decides what is lawful or not? In both instances, it is Jesus who is Lord of the sabbath. He is the one authorized to overrule even Moses (Torah). Matthew has already dwarfed the primacy of Moses earlier (chapter 5), when Jesus says repeatedly, (6 times) "You have heard it said, but I tell you..."

The question of God's needing rest is not tangential when it comes to the Ancient Near East. The fertility gods were worshiped by the Canaanites because they were thought to provide fruitful land.  These gods hibernated during the winter and rose again in the beginning of the growing season. In an agrarian economy, having fertile land made it possible to settle and survive. The fertility god Baal,or Baalim mentioned throughout the Old Testament, is one such god of the land. 

There is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. (2) Elijah baits the false prophets, challenging them to call down Baal to strike the would-be sacrifice with fire. Elijah gives them a very long time mockingly noting that Baal may be meditating or resting. When nothing happens and it's Yahweh's "turn," the sacrifice becomes a cinder. The false prophets meet a gruesome end. Yahweh is the one who "neither slumbers or sleeps." 

Here I am addressing the theology of sabbath, what it says about God as different from us. God is God, the ruler of heaven and earth, Lord of all the powers of the universe. God does not grow faint or weary. Regarding the sabbath, one can believe in its importance for all creation without God literally lying down and taking a nap. 

The institution of sabbath observance underlines the importance of all humankind and creation resting on the seventh day. It's about God giving us rest because we are not God.  Further, we can rest chiefly because God is always at work. While God's creatures need sabbath, God does not.

(1) I am indebted to the insights of Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, Westminster John Knox Press,     2007, especially p. 1-12.

(2) See I Kings 18.

(3) See Psalms 121:4.

The Biblical Art of Paradox: Prologue (1)

Scripture is a collection, a library of different kinds of literature from different people, languages, eras, and locales. It represents diverse writers who were influenced by a variety of forces within and outside their faith communities. 

The Bible as a whole develops themes, but their formation is not necessarily smooth and without  discontinuities. For example, differences and similarities exist between the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, the Bible is full of messy characters and families, unfaithfulness, and stories of violence, gore, and mature audience material.* 

What makes a writing Scripture or Canon is an agreement, a consensus of a particular faith community as it looks to past precedent and experience. The Canon of the different branches of Christianity is an example. There some books included in one branch not included in others, though the respective Canons of Orthodox, Anglo-Catholic, and Protestant agree on the vast majority of books. 

Just because a book is Canon does not wipe out the tensions within Scripture. Having faith does not require me to ignore paradox. Practically, muting the different voices makes for boredom. The gap between our knowing and doing, our best self and real self, our ideals and the Christian vision, is real. Teaching and preaching that pretends otherwise is a salt that has lost its flavor. **

Within the canonical books that all Christians share, there are tensions within the text of Scripture. The diversity of thought within the Scripture is a  reflection of differences in transmission from orality to written and edited. Minority voices are included but sometimes hard to find.

The four Gospels are an example of Scripture including multiple voices and how each tell the story of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, but do so very differently. There is room in the Christian Canon for the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and John, very different in content and style***

This diversity of thought can challenge the tendency we have to explain away paradoxes or differences by imposing a uniformity that isn't there. The objective of including all voices is not to diminish, but to allow another voice to inform and transform. Sitting with dissonances is not time wasted. It usually leads to more choice, open doors, and broader horizons. 

*See Judges 3-4.  Kings 21 tells the story of dogs licking up the blood of King Ahab, and eating (alive?) Queen Jezebel. Ezekiel 16 and 33 contain X-rated descriptions of Israel, Judah, and their enemies. Revelation features images of birds feasting on human carcasses, streets flooded with blood.

**Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."

***The word "synoptic" means to see as one. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are considered the Synoptics. Notably, Mark however, omits Jesus' birth and childhood found in Matthew and Luke.  

The Biblical Art of Paradox: A Faith Excursus (1)

Holy Scripture is the primary source of belief and practice, but it is not the only one.* My journey with Scripture is like metamorphic rock or mineral. Over time, the material is not destroyed (igneous), or continually settling (sedimentary), but by the forces of severe heat, pressure and movement, it is transformed.** Minerals are sifted out due to heat and pressure. 

Life has formed and shaped me but so has Scripture. Scripture teaches me new things about myself and  my relationships to God and others. This is serious, because hearing words as God's Word brings new life and possibilities and re-creation, often unexpected if not also unwelcome, by my biases.

My faith journey is not a straight line. The goal is not to make it one. But the jagged lines are not wasted time. I learn lessons that are unforgettable. The faith of my 12th or  or 52nd year has not entirely survived intact. How could it?

Deepening faith does not mean that I check my intellect at the door before studying Scripture. Or that I'm required to suspend asking questions. It does mean that I discover a more authentic faith to share with others. For me, growing faith includes doubt, acceptance of mystery, and, mostly, trust in God as the One and Only, who loves all unconditionally.  The end of faith? To know as I am known, to love as I am loved.

*In the United Methodist tradition, three other guides exist: Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Scripture being primary, it is interpreted, in part, through Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

**Geology has always fascinated me since hunting for rocks, minerals, and fossils in my youth. 

Oldies but Goodies