E100 day 12- dream on dreamer

So, anyone who was a lived through the 80’s or 90’s can’t help but have the tune to the Lloyd-Webber musical Joseph running through their minds when they read passages from Genesis 37 onwards.

Yesterday it was all about the first dreams and the technicoloured coat, and the really bad move that it is to put your dreams before your older brothers… just as a general principle you shouldn’t tell them you’re going to rule over them, especially if they outnumber you and you live in a society where sibling rivalry and untimely death aren’t far apart.

Today, the story has moved to Egypt (is it just me or does that place have a seriously bad rep in the beginning of the Bible?). Joseph has been sold as a slave and he’s working for Potiphar.

Now, two interesting thoughts here- firstly, God blessed the whole household because of Joseph. That’s pretty cool, eh? If we’re ever wondering about the bonus side-effects that might come along when we commit to following God and prioritise our relationship with him, here’s one possible one: everyone around you gets blessed. Joseph was still a slave (though in a fairly elevated position) so its not as though it was an immediate release for him, but by being faithful to God and faithful in his work, the things he was responsible for were blessed. Notice I’m not using words like ‘prospered’ or ‘succeeded’ because I think we automatically see those things leading to financial or material success… blessing is less tangible and also less immediately obvious. It might be a sense of warmth, welcome or peace rather than a new office, but which one will lead to a more motivated team and a greater level of support?

Secondly, Joseph turns down the lady of the house. Now she may have expected any slave of the house to be her property, she may even have been legally right to do so, but Joseph knew his principles and he stuck to them, in the face of temptation (Potiphar’s wife is always stunningly beautiful in your mind and in every picture… well done Joseph for resisting the sneaky but gorgeous bird… but what if she’d been 50yrs his senior, overweight and with stinky breath? Now it becomes a case of well done Joseph for thinking of a way in which you can talk your way out of the situation without insulting her). Unfortunately, either way, Mrs Potiphar isn’t happy, and so Joseph is thrown in jail for attempting to ‘make sport’ of her.

And in the midst of all this, he has only his dreams… that somehow his family will bow down to him. I reckon that Joseph would have been content to just get home, and to be the one bowing down. But maybe he still needed to learn something about grace and forgiveness, maybe he was still bitter (and it’d be hard to blame him for that).

But down in the prison, the same things are happening- Joseph is faithful, and things around him go well, and someone notices, and he gains responsibility. Interestingly, success comes to Joseph not when he dreams, but when he works. Eventually he is summoned to the court of Pharaoh, and there he interprets a dream, but wisely starts by saying ‘I can’t do this, only God can send dreams and only God can help me to understand them’- which is a measure of his wisdom… he’s experienced what happens if you just spout these ideas out, and now he’s learnt.

I’m just hoping I don’t have to be thrown in a pit, sold into slavery, transported to another country and then imprisoned in order to learn wisdom.

Genesis chapter 12- trust, promises and being an idiot

This morning I was talking about Abram’s journey, God’s promise and how things went pear-shaped in Egypt in two different places- the first was with a group of parents and children at our ‘Early Bird’ breakfast service, which involved telling the story and pausing for questions, while distributing toy animals and people to represent the increasing size of Abram’s household as he journeyed, and the second was with one of our congregations in a more normal situation. The ‘script’ for the story journey isn’t really intelligible, so i won’t post it here… but you can have a look at what i said later in the morning…

This week in our Bible readings we’ve been looking at the story of Abram (as became Abraham), and his descendants… we’ve been reading about promises, trust, betrayal, loss and above all God’s consistent love.

If the snapshot of last week was about how we’re created in the image of God, and our failure to live up to that, then this week is about God’s first steps to bring reconciliation- God starts to make peace with us, in the first instance through a relationship with one man- Abram.

God could have appeared with power and wonder in the city of Haran, causing all people to fall on their faces… but that isn’t the nature of God- thinking back to the garden of Eden, God’s relationship with Adam and Eve was that he walked in the garden, looking for them- not swooping over or summoning them into his presence. And so here, and repeatedly through Scripture and in our own lives, God comes at the most personal level that people can respond to- Abram hears God’s voice, see’s God and walks and talks with him; Jacob dreams of him and wrestles through the night… if we’re wanting to know God and are wondering why we struggle to hear him, the simple question is are we expecting to- are we waiting and listening, and are we responding when God has spoken to us? A friend shared that often people ask him what God might be saying to them… and the first answer is ‘this- the Bible’. This is one thing that God has said to us all, and if we’re struggling to know what God wants us to do, how to live etc… have we failed to look at his Word, and to apply it to our lives?

So, what is revealed in this passage that was true for Abram, and is also true for our lives?

Firstly- God made a promise. Abram didn’t ask for it or extract it… God started this. And Abram was willing to respond. A couple of questions I had as I read this- Did Abram know exactly where he was going? (No) What was God asking him to do? (Leave his familiar surroundings and step into the unknown) How do you think Abram felt as he left his hometown? (a mixture of feelings, but definitely nervousness was in there).

Few of us have probably had that direct call to leave our homes to follow God, but there is a parallel that we can each draw- when we come to faith, or commit to follow Jesus as a disciple, or actively decide to deepen our faith at some stage of our lives, we are making that step of leaving the known, and stepping into the unknown. God never told me where I would end up when I came to faith 26years ago- not in terms of place or the things I’d do. Its been a case of trusting him and seeing a short distance ahead- enough to continue things but not so much that I have my whole life mapped out in detail.

And then, as Abram is journeying, he pauses in Canaan- this is the place I shall give to your descendants… that’s great, but where do I go? Might be an answer, but Abram has grown to trust God, and so he worships- through the narrative of his life we hear of 7 different places where he stops, builds and altar and worships God- he’s not limited to one place, he certainly isn’t constrained by others, and his response to the things God puts before him is to worship. God is beginning to show Abram the answer, the promise, that Abram can trust him, and so he worships God. When God reveals something to us, either of his character or his promises to us, our human instinct may be to analyse it ‘how will that fit with everything else I’ve got going on?’ ‘how will my family/colleagues etc view this?’… but God asks us to trust him, and put him as the foundation in our lives that everything else rests on- not competing with them for time, but looking at everything from a perspective that starts with God- so we worship and pray and share our faith because to do anything else makes no sense; but we do worship and pray and share faith in the place and with the people around us, for them…

But in the midst of this, Abram feels that God’s promise is falling apart- there is a drought which leads to a famine- he can’t feel the presence of God and is uncertain of what to do… he’s no longer sure of the promise and can’t wait- maybe he feels the pressure of providing for his household, maybe there are others giving advice and so he goes to a place where he might find food- Egypt. Note that God didn’t say ‘don’t go there’, but neither did Abram ask for direction… as I read this I reflected that this might be one of those things that are neither perfect or terrible… its all in how we act in a situation like this. And that is where the problem comes. Abram now compounds his doubt that God would provide for him, with a fear that God will not protect him. And rather than holding back or waiting… he comes up with a plan which involves lying and deception- from right back at the beginning we know that God hates lying- that’s what led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the presence of God.

In Egypt things get confusing- the lies don’t seem to cause too much of a problem, at least not immediately- Abram isn’t killed, Sarai ends up living in the palace, Abram is even treated well… but of course there’s one basic problem- Abram’s wife is now living with another man, and this has been caused by deception, and how is God’s promise going to be fulfilled in this situation? All too often, we resort to our own human thinking when God’s plan doesn’t seem to be working out, or at least not from our viewpoint… Abram is confused, and resorts to old habits. Its interesting to see how God responds… not with fire, brimstone and destruction- with something that Pharaoh understands and the Egyptians will respond to- we don’t know whether Pharaoh had ignored a recurring dream or other signs, but he seems to have understood immediately that the cause of the diseases affecting his house is his connection to Sarai and knows that she is Abram’s wife… And in a way that foreshadows the events of the Exodus, Abram and his household leave Egypt, with more than they arrived with…

Abram was in the middle of things, and its hard to keep your perspective there- you have to balance the immediate with the long term, the personal with the big picture. As we look at the Bible we can more easily see the whole big picture- the beginning of God’s restored relationship with humanity, starting with Abram and his descendants, the promise of a blessing for all people that would eventually come in the form of Jesus, and the restored relationship with God that is now available for anyone who asks.  For us, here in Bishop’s Tawton, its important to know that we are within that narrative, each of us, and this church, that God’s promises to Abram hold true for us, that He will be with us, will lead us on, and will bless others through us if we trust him.

Have a good week, huge blessings

E100 day 10- and now, presenting… the same guy but with a limp and a different name

What’s in a name? I mean, really… what is in a name? Does it really define anything about someone? Some names have meaning because of their origin- usually traced back to the country that they originally came from.

Andrew apparently means strong, while Andy means balding and facetious… who’d have guessed? But more significantly, who decides? I was Andrew as a (really not very sporty or strong) child, and then became Andy before I became bald, and as for the facetious bit…

In the Bible, and Genesis chapter 32 is one example of this, people sometimes change their names after an encounter with God…

So Abram (exalted father) became Abraham (father of many), and now Jacob (he grasps or deceives) becomes Israel (he struggles with God)… but what is in a name?

I was watching the film ‘Life of Pi’ the other day, which has a great section about how the main character gets his name… he earns it and in doing so casts off the names that others have given him… it demonstrates something about him, rather than the things other people have put onto him.

When we give someone a name, we might put some thought into it, and have good intentions, but we don’t, and can’t know how that name will affect the person- so Jacob could have been intended as a gentle joke, or a warning (you were born grasping your twin brother’s heel, don’t always be grasping those in front of you), but it seems that it became a description of how he behaved. It wasn’t until this second encounter with God that he is truly changed- he grasps and grapples with his opponent, in the late night wrestle-fest, but neither has the upper hand, until God touches him on the hip, as if to say ‘you struggle and fight and do all you can in your own strength, and you refuse to give up, which is truly admirable, but you must know that my strength is beyond your understanding, so now be still’. And Jacob, who is now becoming Israel, lies there, with no clever words, no tricks- he knows that he is powerless. And when he is powerless, God blesses him.

I’m just hoping that God doesn’t have to dislocate my hip to get my attention…

E100 day 9- how a good night’s sleep can change everything

Today we’re looking at the story of Jacob- the famous younger twin who cheats his older brother out of his birthright and their father’s blessing- the smooth-skinned (and smooth talking) brother of Esau, who was ‘an hairy man’.

You can find it all in Genesis 27 onwards for the full story, but I want to focus on a short passage- where Jacob stops for a rest. At the end of a long day running away from his family he goes to sleep. And he dreams. And in his dreams God speaks to him. This isn’t something I’ve experienced- my dreams tend to involve aliens and chase sequences rather than divine encounters, but I’m aware of enough people who’ve had similar experiences that I’m willing to accept this as legit. 

So God speaks to Jacob and basically says ‘I’m on your side- follow me as your father and grandfather did’. Which is a lot nicer than anything anyone who knew Jacob was likely to say at that time. God then repeats the promise he made to Abraham- I will bless people through you and your offspring, only this time on a larger scale- I will bless all people… not just a few.

Jacobs initial response is that of the smooth talker- If God helps me so that I have enough food for the journey and protects me, then he’ll be my God- sneaky move there, Jacob… getting God to be your provider.

The only thing is what happens next… if you read on into Genesis 29, you’ll see that Jacob basically stops conning people, and as he becomes more honest people take advantage of him, people accuse him of trickery when he’s done nothing… but eventually it all works out; and the best of it is that Jacob has become a blessing to his family and a changed man.

And it all started with one dream.

 

E100 day 8- testing, testing… can you hear me?

Abram has become Abraham… woohoo! Amazing… but he still doesn’t have any kids. He’s been given this promise by God that he’ll be the father of a nation, but so far all that’s happened is he’s got a longer name, and some flocks of sheep and goats. Not quite what you’d expect.

And now, at last, tada- a son is born, in Genesis chapter 21– thats 9 chapters and 25 years since the first call, the first promise. And maybe Abraham had at times asked ‘can you hear me?’, or wondered whether his prayer link to God was working…

It’s easy to look back at times like that and call it a test- God was testing you, it was a testing time for my faith… but when its happening to you now it rarely feels like a test… it feels more like something you want to stop- you’re not thinking about how well you’re coping, just about getting through.

And here in chapter 21-22 we see another situation that’s often called a test- God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (the one who is the answer to the promise, remember?)… and we look at it and whisper ‘its a test, a difficult one, but a test, and I’m sure Abraham will do fine’; while if we’re honest we’re thinking ‘so glad that God hasn’t asked this of me’.

I have a think about tests, and the thing is that I don’t really like them. And I particularly don’t like surprise tests. I’m really not keen on surprise tests being dropped on you by people who love you. And so I struggle with the idea of God dropping these tests on people like Abraham and the rest of us. I may be right out of whack here, but I struggle with this.

Maybe I prefer continual assessment- everything is a challenge, opportunity or test… in every situation we can flourish, shine, scrape through or completely flunk it… And rather than God being there like the examiner, waiting to see how we’ve done, God is there alongside us, helping us through…

I guess its all to do with my perspective, my understanding of God- first of all, that He’s there, present, and cares about my existence. Those two understandings are fairly huge in themselves. Then I would add that not only does God care about my existence, but is aware of and cares about everything in my and your lives. That God loves and knows (and still loves) each person and all of the universe. And its from that perspective that I view and try to come to terms with the narrative that we’re looking at in the Bible- I know its not a neutral stance, and it lacks intellectual rigour, but its my stance and hey, this is my blog…

Anyway, I’m going to go and check whether the microphone is plugged in, and have a chat with the Man… and hopefully I’ll remember to try and listen to Him too.

E100 day 7- trust me… don’t look down, just trust me

It’s the kind of thing you say to someone stuck in a tree, or at the top of a cliff… but as you say it you know they’ve already looked down, and that’s the problem. The problem isn’t the branch they’re on, its the lack of branches below it… its not the cliff or the ledge… its the ground at the bottom, and the distance in between.

As Woody Allen (who despite everything else and all the weirdness was a clever writer) said-

‘It’s not the falling I’m bothered about, its the sudden deceleration at the end I’m afraid of’

Or maybe it was-

I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of landing

I can’t remember which, and I’m going to be really old fashioned and not check it out on quotepedia or anywhere else (if you want to, feel free, and please let me know which one’s correct)

Anyway, the link from this to Genesis chapter 15 is?

Don’t look down- don’t worry about what might happen, the thing you fear, don’t focus on your worst case scenario… instead look at the now, the place where you are and listen to the voice that says ‘I am here with you, and I have a plan, and it will be ok’. Sometimes in life we’ve heard those words and struggled to trust them, sometimes we may even have given someone that reassurance while knowing that this is a new definition of the word ‘OK’.

Abram (note, still not Abraham) is listening to God, who is saying ‘I’ve got a plan for you and your family, it’s a big plan, and it involves some tough stuff but they’ll inherit this land’. And all the time Abram is thinking ‘I don’t have any children, and the missus and I aren’t young anymore… is this one of those interesting, blue-sky thinking plans?’

The answer is yes and no- yes, because it was something that Abram and Sarai didn’t think possible, and no, because it was as simple as possible- you’re going to have a child and he’ll start the dynasty that will become Israel and through whom the world will be blessed.

Just in closing, a thought- what was so special about Abram and Israel? A friend expressed this really well just the other day… they weren’t special except in one way- they understood that there is one God of everything, rather than one god for every different thing.  That was it.

E100 day 6- lets make like a banana

‘and split.’

Ok, so that may not have been how God spoke to Abram when he invited him to leave his home and journey to a new place (Genesis chapter 12 if you want chapter and verse), but it certainly worked.

We were thinking about how we hear God- and of course this led to what kind of voice God has… the consensus at the table seemed to be a deep voice that was sometimes loud- though it has to be remembered that the round table conference I was facilitating was my children at breakfast…

We could get the idea, too, that God could speak with written words- just as we know what someone is telling us to do by reading a letter or note… that was fine.

The harder one is/was thinking about how we hear God speaking in our hearts… is it simply that we have enough knowledge of the Bible (God’s Word) that we’re able to know what God would have us do in a given situation- the whole ‘WWJD’ thing- by reading the Gospels and reflecting on them I can try to do what Jesus would do today in this place… but that doesn’t encompass the idea of relationship- that’s just knowledge and imitation, really. (Don’t get me wrong- knowing about God and imitating Jesus isn’t a bad idea, its just not the same thing as knowing God and being guided by Jesus).

Abram seemed to know God, and heard God speaking into his life- whether audibly or in his heart. Abram also seemed to continue to get to know God as he journeyed- putting time aside for it.

Abram didn’t always fully trust God or get things right (see the whole Egyptian episode where he pretended his wife was his sister…).

But God still spoke to Abram and worked in and through him.

All of which gives me some hope, even when I slip up.

E100 day 5- stop your babbling!

So am I already failing in my attempt to post every day, or am I instead simply recognising that I just won’t do it because of other commitments? And rather than trying to force myself into it and feeling guilty for failing my own expectations, it may be better to do what I can, to enjoy doing it, and to do it well…

‘Slacker’ I hear you reply, ‘you’re a vicar and you only work one day a week.’ Which may be true, but all that coffee doesn’t just drink itself, you know.

Anyway, enough of that, and back to where we should be- Genesis chapter 11, looking at the tower of Babel. Or rather, looking at the ruins where it stood, or maybe even just looking at the pile of materials that never got turned into a tower… first question I have, did they actually build much of it?

Second question, what on earth is going on here? We were trying to think it through… people are trying to do something, based on their own confidence, and God seems to be unhappy about it… are we to understand that God doesn’t like the idea of humanity achieving anything without his input, which seems rather petty, or is it something else? Is it to do with arrogance, with seeking to make ourselves into gods and masters of our own destiny, with a refusal to acknowledge that the heavens are beyond our reach?

And the whole language thing- God decides to cause confusion to stop humanity from doing anything further… rather than reading this as, again, petty God wanting to stop us from achieving, maybe it’s that God saw their first plans and understood that if people no longer acknowledged anything as having authority over them, then what would stop them from destroying the whole world on a whim… I don’t know, I’m just thinking here.

And then I’m reminded of how this passage is bookended by the events of Pentecost- on that day people from all over are able to understand each other because of the power of God’s Holy Spirit… the day of unbabbling, when foreign languages no longer divided them… and when it happened, all heaven broke loose and thousands of people recognised the truth of God in their lives.

Which was pretty cool.

E100 day 2 things go wrong

Guest blogger Lois, aged 4 writes…

‘The snake was a trickster’

And she even typed it too.

So, we were reading Genesis Chapter 3 this morning, and there are some parts that the kids knew- the story of everything being fine in the beginning, and the trickster snake and how things went wrong. And then, as we were reading it through, there’re a couple of verses towards the end that ended up being paraphrased… for several reasons

Firstly, my wife wasn’t too sure that the kids (aged 7,4 and 1/2) would understand the whole bit about pain in childbirth and graft in the field… or that if they did understand it we would want to have the discussions that might follow on- after all, this was over breakfast.

Secondly, how often do you quote or refer to bits of the Bible that talk about God’s love, or forgiveness, compared to those that talk about God’s judgement or justice? I know which ones I prefer to focus on… am I just a lame grace loving wishy washy as-close-as-makes-no-difference universalist? We don’t like the bits where God tells folk off… just as in the Gospels we all prefer the parts about Jesus healing or feeding to the ones where he challenges folks to leave their livelihoods and families in order to follow him… We like God to be under our control, to be tame… we don’t like the idea that we’re subject to Him or that He has authority over us- oh, and when I say ‘we’ here, I’m talking about those people who’d call themselves Christians- those of us who wouldn’t self-identify with that term might be quite happy with those passages because they reinforce our belief that God is quite clearly a control freak or a fascist (though of course if God doesn’t exist then the argument is only hypothetical for them).

Anyway, I’ve been challenged today about how we don’t like to acknowledge the things about ourselves that are wrong, that we do wrong or avoid doing… and we really don’t like to talk about them in front of someone else. So what am I going to do about it? Not sure, but I won’t be posting an online confession of all my faults, if that’s what you’re hoping for!

E100 day 1- in the beginning

So here we go… another 100 day challenge, looking at readings throughout the whole Bible that give an overview of the whole grand narrative- the big picture, the full sweep etc (or, in case you don’t go for grand epic sweep: a series of micro vignettes, photo-stills that demonstrate the multi-faceted progression of God’s relationship with the universe)…

If you’ve never heard of it, E100 is available to download either as a series of readings, or a book of reflections and discussion questions- the name stands for Essential 100, in case you were wondering.

The readings are in groups of 5- 10 groups from the Old Testament and 10 groups from the New, and we’re looking at them in our churches over the next 20 weeks, until the autumn. As i did last year, I’m going to attempt to post a reflection on each day’s reading, and of course, I’ll probably miss a few due to holidays and other things cropping up.

So, today, we start at the beginning, or rather, in the beginning- Genesis Chapter 1 & 2. And the thing that always strikes me is this- there’re 2 accounts… yup. In chapter 1 God calls things in to existence culminating in the creation of man, and in chapter 2 God creates man before plants or animals. Hmm, did God create the world twice? (version 1.0 crashed around the second week and had to be re-banged) Or was the writer of Genesis suffering from short term editorial disorder (where wordcount is more important than content, and you don’t realise you’ve said the same thing twice)? Some reckon this is suggestive that two writers/groups of editors each wanted to put a slightly different version in… me, i’m not exactly sure about that, but i know that they both make amazing reading.

Maybe the writers/editors weren’t having an argument, but instead wanted to emphasise some different things- the first chapter speaks of the wonder of the universe and the work of God (including word and Spirit), while the second makes me think about the relationship between humanity and God and the closeness between God and humanity- the God of chapter 2 understands human loneliness and responds to Adam’s need… the God of chapter 1 makes stars with a word… I need God to be able to do both those things, and so I’m glad that even here, right at the beginning, its there in black and white.