I’m going to try a new feature on Progressive Redneck Preacher this week. I’ll see how its received, and decide whether to continue it or not.
On my personal facebook page I write down my gut reactions to Bible verses as many times a week as I am able. I started doing so a few years ago just as a way to keep me faithful in reading and wrestling with Scripture. Right now I use Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer‘s list of readings for each day to guide my reading of the Bible. Since I started posting my thoughts on what I’m reading in the Bible, I found on those rare days I either skip a day of reading or don’t write down my thoughts for the day, quite to my surprise, there are always several people who message me and say “Where’s the Scripture thought for the day, Micah? It really helped me last week”.
So I’m going to try this week and, if it goes well this week, to post some of the reflections I’ve had this past week. If I get a good response, I may continue this feature later on Progressive Redneck Preacher.
Right now I’m organizing my reflections around the part of the Bible to which the reflection is responding. In Common Prayer, a reading is assigned each day from the Psalms, the Hebrew Scriptures (which many Christians still call “the Old Testament”), and the New Testament readings. So I’m going to organize my reflections by these three parts of Scripture. I’d encourage you not just to read my thoughts but to look up these texts in your own Bible, reading them in the translation of your choice.
If you are not sure which translation to use, and looking for suggestions, I have two I’d recommend, which I alternate between when I do my regular Bible reading.
The first is the Inclusive Bible. This was translated by a group of Roman Catholic priests. It intentionally takes verses which can either be translated in a way that seems exclusive of women, minorities, and GLBT people or in other ways, picking the more inclusive approach to the text. I find reading some of these texts I have heard my whole life in this translation a pretty eye-opening and liberating experience. I find it causes me to see God with new eyes, while also seeing the life situation in which I find myself wrestling over Scripture in a new light.
The second is the Common English Bible. In a way, this version is exactly the opposite of the Inclusive Bible. Individuals connected with N. T. Wright and his now not quite so new “New Perspective on Paul” are involved in this translation. Anyone who has followed their work will know these scholars are not trying to be more liberal and modern in their interpretation of Scripture but in fact more ancient. Their emphasis is on the Jewishness of Jesus and of the early Christians, and trying not to read into the Scriptures issues that developed later in Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation that were not on the Bible authors’ minds. Whenever possible they try to translate the Scriptures in ways that reflect the older Hebrew ways of thought which were the eyes with which the early Christians and Jesus saw the world, long before alot of the theological debates the divide Christianity’s many denominations ever happened. The down side of this translation is the translators often fail to use the more inclusive translation in texts related to women, GLBT people, and certain minorities. That said there are important ways in which they make the teachings of Jesus “pop” and help us see a little more in a fresh way how the Bible authors would have looked at these texts. For instance, many texts have a more communal emphasis in this translation than, say, the New International Version which was heavily influenced by the American evangelical movement with its individualistic focus on the born again experience and, because of this, readings from this translation often share the sort of emphasis on the poor, marginalized, and oppressed that religious progressives like myself already see as central to the Scriptures, even in translations that don’t underscore it.
Whichever translation you read, I’d encourage you too to not rush through these texts as you read along with me. Perhaps even using practices like lectio divina, and imagination visualization (sometimes called “Gospel contemplation” or “Ignatian meditation”) can help transform this approach into an experience of prayer, intimacy, and communion with God. For information on these approaches to Scripture, see http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-what-how-why-of-prayer/praying-with-scripture/
Please tell me your thoughts on this feature. I hope it blesses you and encourages you.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Readings from the Psalms
Psalm 32’s ‘blessed is the nation God is for’ gave me the wrong idea when we sang a version of it at my home church growing up. I assumed it meant MY country, the USA, was the good guys picked for God’s team and to quote King Curtis all the rest ‘the sorry people’. Now it sounds ironic as I read it. On the one hand, who is God’s nation? A peculiar people, pilgrim and strangers in any nation. It’s a call to question whatever land we live in, and whether they are in fact making this earth as it is in heaven. It’s not just even being the tribe of Christian but being those who seek to make this world a place where the way of Jesus — of justice & compassion — is more fully lived out. How are we doing at this?
Psalm 37 calls us to be still, quieting ourselves before God. For me my mindfulness practice and prayer help me do this, so I can face anger, hurt, disappointment from a center of peace and stillness however life shakes me. It takes regular practice and I have to say I’m still ‘not there’. How do you live this out?
As the end of my chaplain residency and entering the ranks of the unemployed hits me, I am flooded with fear and uncertainty, Psalm 41 reminds me if I do my part I can trust God to guide me where I need to be and for God to provide my needs.
Psalm 46 invites me to praise Jesus, recognizing whatever I face, God’s got it!
Psalm 53 invites me to acknowledge there are none who do good or are good & I can’t. I know too many good hearted people of love and compassion. To read this as the conservative background I grew up taught me to — as an indictment on all as intrinsically broken, devoid of goodness, worthy to be shamed — that I cannot do anymore. It’s not just seeing so much goodness. It’s the rest of Scripture which teaches me God called all God made good and invites us to praise God at how wonderfully we are each made. It’s Jesus telling us to see Him within even the least of these. But even as I say this I face these words are a prayer that do speak a truth, albeit an incomplete one if made to stand on its own, out of context. Yes, in all no matter how broken is beauty and goodness. But also in all of us even the most compassionate, charitable, & giving there is selfishness, lust, & greed. We are not worthless with no good in us but all of us must face that none of us are without fault. We must remain ever open to critique and self examination. We need grace and if we need grace, we must extend it too
Psalm 59 invites me to pray that God slay my enemies. Though there may be days I’m tempted to do so, I can’t answer that invitation with ‘Yes’ for Jesus teaches me to love the enemy, to pray blessings upon them, & to do good to them. At one point I would join in these prayers by praying for God to destroy the enemies within me of greed, selfishness, lust, fear. But now I wonder: are not those also parts of myself that I cannot destroy but only convert by learning to find out what real healthy need in me they are crying out for, helping it be met in a non-harmful way, using the temptation to evil they bring as a path to healthier choices motivated by love? Even these “enemies” we can only kill with kindness it seems. How do you make sense of such prayers of cursing?
Hebrew Scripture Readings
Judges 6 invites me to realize that only idols need people to defend them, not the living God. When you are tempted to defend God’s honor as if someone is questioning or dishonoring God, you act as if God is a dead statue or dead idea unable to speak and act to reveal God’s self. God doesn’t need us to prove or defend God’s existence. God simply calls us to love as God loves, & witness to the love of God we’ve experienced.
Judges 7:1-18 was always used as a lesson that victory depended on God not people & popularity in the church I grew up in. As I read it today I am struck by Gideon’s doubt and fearfulness. God doesn’t chastise him for these but rather reaches into his life in ways that reassure him. I wonder if its his fear and uncertainty that allows Gideon to be humble and not rush ahead of God’s plan. I love that because I am so often fearful and full of doubt. Growing up in church so often the message I got was that was a sign of weakness and lack of maturity. Clearly Gideon’s tale shows us this is not what God thinks. God wants us to acknowledge and face those fears, being honest with God about them. God wants us to know they are not barriers to being God’s partner in healing this world but gifts: uniquely sacred spaces where we can encounter God & ourselves in new ways and also resources we can lean on to support the hurting all around us.
Judges 7:19-8:12 has a contrast: Gideon moves from trust in God to having it all be about himself. If we forget where we’ve come from, that’s easy to fall into.
Judges 8:22ff. I notice first God’s call to not have anyone seize power over others. Gideon resists kingship as do the early prophets of Scripture because of how putting one human in the place of power over others necessarily creates abuse, discrimination. The power should come from God at work in all the people. Yet how quickly they ignore this voice and set up a tyrant to oppress them! They’d rather have power over others, even though that power that crushes them, than learn to work together to listen for God in the voice of conscience, in the cry of the needy, in the common good. We still struggle over this, at times blindly promoting our political agenda, our group’s sense of entitlement, our own religious gurus, a defense grounded in the gun not in addressing the hopelessness and poverty that is the root of so much crime and terror. God’s call through Gideon is to stand against all oppression and discrimination, to work together to find that of God speaking in each other, & find ways ahead that marginalize none and draw us all together
for the common good.
Judges 9 is a reminder to me that leadership seized by will to power, which oppresses others, will end in flame. Yet leadership given through a life poured out as a servant to all, aimed at esteeming others as yourself, will last. I’m struck by how this connects with the contrast between Jesus and Satan. The Bible does not really tell us what Satan is, let alone where Satan comes from. But the story church tradition tends to repeat extrapolating beyond what the Scripture says is that he was an angel who sought to seize all power from God by force, and his (her? It’s?) end will be fire. Jesus we are more clearly told in Scripture leaves heaven to earth as a servant, pours out his life for all, leads by example in compassion, & though crushed to the earth rose in glory and is now over all. Whether you believe the traditional image of Satan to be literally true or not, both stories picture the two ways of leading we can choose. Lets strive to lead as Christ, servant of all, so like Christ we can bear fruit that lasts well beyond us.
Readings from the New Testament
Acts 17 reminds me of how radical the Gospel was in the early church and ought to be still today. We hear Jesus is Savior and Lord, & begin to debate the Trinity, once saved always saved, or the historicity of the Gospels. Early Christians preach Jesus is Lord and the people riot because his Deity wasn’t a question of theology in their minds, but deeply political to them. It was the claim that Caesar was not rightful Lord and Savior of the world, son of the gods, as he claimed. It was a statement that God opposed his tyranny and oppression of others and that imperialism was one of the great evils God is at work to deliver us from. It was the claim that God’s way is found in resisting such oppression as Jesus did — in being a servant to all, in welcoming the outcast, in helping the destitute find food and healthcare. No wonder people rioted! Sadly saddling our prayer ‘Jesus is Lord’ with our doctrinal debates often keeps us from hearing this original meaning and questioning in what ways we allow oppression and empire to surface today. Let’s rediscover Jesus is Lord as a way to stand against oppression of all kinds and point to the healing way of Jesus for this world.
Acts 17:16-34 calls into question our doctrinal formulations that like idols often envision God as so distant and untouchable. Instead we are God’s children. Ultimately as St Irenaeus said the image and glory of God is a human being made fully alive. So if I want to encounter God I have to know God is not far off but already present in your life and mine. This is why Jesus, pointing to others around us, says what we do or don’t do to another we’ve done to Christ. That of God dwells in each person we meet as they already are children of God. Sometimes we need to lay aside the cookie cutters our dogmas try to fit others into and embrace those different from us with love and curiosity knowing in the uniqueness of their life and story God is present to us ready to speak when we will listen.
What stands out to me as I read Acts 18:1-11 is how different ministry looks in the early church. Paul isn’t paid a big salary. He works a normal job as do others so he stays on the same level as, not exalted above, those he ministers to. The ministers are diverse — including both Jewish and Greek cultures, with Priscilla a woman pastoring just like Paul. I wonder what it would like to put more of this into practice in ministry today.
Two things stand out in Acts 18: first, no one speaks up against the real religious discrimination being faced by early Christians. Sadly when the Roman persecution of Christians ends centuries later, Christians choose to become the persecutors themselves. I think the real lesson God would have us learn from the history of Jews and Christians being persecuted is that God is not praised by people of faith bullying, attacking, firing, or kicking people out of their homes due to differences of faith. Not only that, we must be the ones to speak out against religious discrimination & for separation of church & state to honor those before us like Christian martyrs who died from religious discrimination. Secondly I notice again pastor Priscilla teaching a male preacher the message of Christ. That she can do this shows me we are misreading Scripture if we quote it to treat women as second class Christians.
O God who speaks in the whisper of the wind,
in the rush of thunder
in the falling of rain,
in a baby’s first cry,
in the voice of conscience
and the cry for liberation,
There is yet more light and truth to break forth from Your Holy Word
help us hear your word speaking in Scripture
echoing in our hearts
thundering in the cry of our neighbor in need
and groaning in your worn and battered creation.
Help us hear. Help us trust. Help us act on your call, and believe your promise.