Week 2: Pentecost's cost

Ibrahim was not only my friend but the best footballer I have ever seen. We met while working together digging a field, planting grass clump by clump for what would become a makeshift running track for the football team. After a day’s sweat in the field, we would lace up our boots and play for a couple of hours. And every night he would float around the pitch answering the laws of a different space and time. Always two seconds ahead, two yards too quick.

Ibrahim was a Muslim, albeit a slightly confused one. His father was the local Imam, an important man. Over the course of many months where you could almost literally see the inner conflict, Ibrahim became a Christian. I vividly remember the moment when we prayed together for the first time in the middle of this huge dense scrubland, overlooking the shores of Lake Victoria. We prayed a faltering, formulaic believer's prayer, the kind that would make me cringe nowadays. But somehow something happened and Ibrahim became a strong Christian. He believed and kept believing.

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Chapter #24 Prov 10-31: What's your torah?

Another sidestep from the narrative this week as we look at the rest of the book of Proverbs. We read back in February of the book’s prologue, the ideological war between Lady Wisdom and the Harlot, Folly. Having established that Wisdom is the path to life and Folly, to death, these remaining chapters explore the best ‘pearls’ from Israel’s finest.

Proverbs is inspiring to its readers because it is real and down to earth. Life isn’t clear cut and the right path is rarely obvious, and Proverbs never pretends any different. This is the beauty of all the ‘Wisdom’ literature captured here in the Old Testament. Whether it’s Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs, truth is ambiguous and depends on the situation at hand. Decisions aren’t straightforward and, in the vein of King David’s legacy, though doing the ‘right’ thing is important, when things are a bit hazy, it’s the direction of the ‘heart’ that counts.

In that sense, Proverbs is not a blueprint for life. It is simply an assortment of sayings. There are, naturally, some common themes: hard work will pay off; being lazy can make you poor; those who do right will end up better off; talking too much is not always good for you; money can ruin you; and so on. But the assumption that wisdom is not found in a set of universal rules, but must be sought in each specific situation, is a powerful counter-force to the thrust of the Torah.

Week 1: The Spirit of Pentecost

I wonder what you think about the holy spirit. Or should that be the Holy Spirit? Or holy Ghost, or the 3rd person of the Trinity? Perhaps you think about miracles, perhaps about worship songs, perhaps even about creation and ecology. Or perhaps you feel slightly non-plussed and that the holy spirit is either an irrelevance or even a delusion.

I ask because as we take the plunge back into the world of Dr Luke, the Holy Spirit takes centre stage. While we have come to know Acts as the Acts of the Apostles, Acts is really all about the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Luke more than any other New Testament writer emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit. We didn’t have much time to look at this in Luke but just have a look back at Luke 1 – 2 and you will see the Holy Spirit everywhere. And as we move into Acts and its story which roves all over modern day Turkey and eventually into Europe and Rome, behind everything and everyone stands the Holy Spirit. So before getting going on Luke’s part travelogue, part history, part commentary, we would do well to spend a little time reflecting on the Holy Spirit.

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Chapter #23 2 Sam 1-24: A fallen halo

The story continues this week as we look at all 24 chapters of 2 Samuel. Whoever split the book of Samuel in two did so to mark the end of Saul and let the 2nd book tell, undiminished, the story of Israel’s best-loved king.

While the conflict of 1 Samuel juxtaposes David against Saul - a bright light against a flailing has-been – 2 Samuel, without the baddy to make the goody look good, lets the enduring king’s halo slip down somewhat. And this is where the narrative truly gives us hope. Because we are not to be dazzled with a perfect sovereign, but with a normal man, who’s head is just as easily turned.

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Chapter #22 1 Sam 16-31: Check your heartbeat

1 Samuel 15 ended last week’s section with the Lord’s rejection of Saul as King. This week, chapter 16 opens the second half of 1 Samuel with the Lord’s anointing of David as King, a move that will provide a violent tension till the death of Saul and the end of the book.

From a storyline perspective this saga is bittersweet. On the one hand, civil unrest lingers on like a bad smell, fuelled by the aggressive debacle over leadership. There is, however, in David, some hope for a better future. He may be young and unlikely, but he has guts, resilience, and, most importantly, humility.

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Chapter #21 1 Sam 1-15: When hope is gone

Having whizzed through the epoch of the Judges we’re back into slower history again with the accounts of 1 and 2 Samuel. This week we’re looking at 1 Samuel 1–15 which is the story of the prophet Samuel, the Ark of the Covenant, and the rise and fall of King Saul.

Samuel is important in Israel’s history as the last of the Judges. As a powerful prophet his reputation as a leader was clearly strong, but his sons – like many a Judge’s son before him – let him down. To add insult to injury (and somewhat ironically) Samuel himself, in his childhood brought a damning message to Eli the Priest on account of his wayward sons (Chapter 3). With this all clear from the first few chapters of 1 Samuel it is understandable that Israel, without lasting quality in Priest or Prophet would look for a King.

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Chapter #20 Ruth 1-4: Against the odds

As the epic histories wind ever on, our attention is drawn right in to the very personal situation of a particular Israelite family. Set in the time of the judges, Ruth provides a narrative of hope against the background of the Judges account that laments Israel’s failures so bitterly. With this tiny book we find, I believe, something brilliantly subversive. Here, amidst tales of male heroes routing their enemies we find Ruth, a foreign women, hailed to Naomi as ‘better to you than seven sons’ (4:15). Amidst the Law of Moses – which on several occasions shocked us with its sexist bent – and the tales of Joshua’s cultural genocide, this small story is a beacon of hope; like a tiny grain of yeast that could work through all the dough.

The story of Ruth is simple enough. A desperate Moabite widow with no protection or financial future captures the desires of a gentleman of Bethlehem and he ‘redeems’ her, he ‘buys her back’. A classic ‘chick-flick’, the drama has a happy, and apparently very romantic, ending.

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Chapter #19 Judg 1-21: The Republic of Heaven

Back into the History section again and we have to adjust to a change of pace. Whereas Exodus to Joshua covers a period of maybe sixty, seventy years, Judges deals with several hundred. And it is a totally different style to what we’ve read so far. Flitting here and there, re-telling the legends of old, never quite saying anything but often implying much, we’re found laughing, crying and, much of the time, staring blankly in confusion at why such a large section of Israel’s history would be remembered this way.

What I like about Judges is the brutal honesty about the state of life after Moses and Joshua. Ever since Exodus we’ve been reading Israelite experience through the lens of its leadership as they desperately work to create a Yahweh-identity among the wandering community. Now they’re settled and their leaders have gone we see the uncertainty this giant family has in their Suzerain. Only one generation need pass and he is forgotten.

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What's the Word?

This is a creative re-reading of John's Gospel. It's very different from most of the rest of the Bible commentary on this site. So if you'd find it helpful, here's a little post to give a bit of explanation as to what on earth it's all about.

In the beginning, when it was dark, and the deep ocean of possibility lay still and tranquil, there was God; hovering, brooding over the surface of all that was about to be, deep in prayer, deeply dreaming. Then came the Word. Spoken from the aeons of memory in visionary motif it leapt like breath from her mouth and called to the sea. ‘Be made’ his shimmering eyes proclaimed, as the waters stirred and took shape. Torrents danced to the left and to the right as citadels of liquid life spiralled around their heart. In the energy, the ecstasy, the love of this communion, the spirals tightened like a spring. God, invested in this shrinking potential, became like the most imperceptible dot on a horizon; like the first speck of sunrise at a new dawn. Then the whole universe was filled with light; from one end to the other, as far as there are ideas to imagine and worlds to create. The sound of the Word was deafening. The Spirit of life flowed like a membrane over what had become and flooded existence with oceans of presence. And God saw all this and sang with joy, because it was good.

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Chapter #18 Psalms 42-89: Songs that shape

As we leave Israel to settle herself in new surroundings, we sidestep again for a week to the co-current Psalms that run alongside the normal readings. Following from the last post on the Psalms back in January, we’ll look specifically at Book II and III, Psalms 42 – 89.

With two children demanding entertainment, my mind has been thrown back to the songs of my childhood. Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, Row, Row, Row the Boat all come flooding back. There is a tradition in Britain of some really quite random nursery-rhymes that are still sung today, generations after their composition.

Yet one of the amusing features of this hallowed collection is the depressing end to which so many of the characters succumb. The forever broken Humpty Dumpty, the starved and frightened Little Miss Muffet, a serious head injury to Jack, a perpetually frustrated Incy Wincy Spider, a King without a nose and my sister-in-law even claims to have learnt a song about a Mummy ladybird who returns home to find her babies have all been eaten! One can’t help thinking, ‘who would burden little children with such mordant woes?!’