Archive for the ‘God’ Category

Bless, blessing, blessed: the definitions

December 9, 2018

Bless, blessing, blessed.  These are such common words in the Bible and in conversation. They are also words than carry big concepts. Concepts that shape how we understand the world and God’s presence in it. So how do we start to get some sort of understanding of what these words mean? One place, of course, is the dictionary.




  The definitions overlap and yet there are also a variety of meanings within each definition. Each of these words can be something we do, something we ask or something we receive, something we give. God can be involved, or not. Context and the intent of the speaker matter.  The dictionary really didn’t clear much up for me. How are we supposed to use this word? What does it really mean?                    

When you read the Bible, it seems to me that Israel and the early Christians had the same problem. It’s one of several big conversations we find in the Bible, along with “What is salvation?”, “What is God like?”, “What do bad things happen?” What does it mean to be blessed, to be a blessing, to bless? The text goes back and forth on these questions. The people of God have always debated and wrestled with these questions. 

If we step back and try to look at the big picture, can we gain some clarity? I think so. Our first clue about blessing comes early, when God blesses Abram. 

“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12:1-3)

Here, we may be tempted to think that God’s blessing is about making Abram into a great nation and making his name great. But if we read carefully, the blessing is about something different than fame and wealth. It’s repeated, which is our clue that it is important. “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” and “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

Abram is blessed not simply because God wants Abram to have land, descendants and wealth. Abram is blessed so that through that blessing everyone else is blessed. The blessing is for others. Abram is to extend the blessing by what he does.

This is a remarkable charge to Abram. This is not how tribes, and kingdoms, and empires act. In the Bible, we find  Israel struggling with the idea that they don’t exist simply for themselves and their own well being. In the “real world” tribes, and kingdoms, and empires exist for their own well being. Actually they existed for the well being of the royalty and elites. The well being of peasants didn’t matter to the elites as long as the peasants healthy enough to grow food and do work for them. 

All of us, from kings to peasants look and round and see that there is only so much land in the world. Only so many resources. Only so much rain. What if I don’t have enough [ fill in the blank] because you have some also? 

God sees something else.  God’s intention, right from the start, is that there is enough. Abram’s blessing isn’t supposed to stop with Abram and his family. Abram is charged to pass on the blessing. There is enough so that Abram, can share the blessing. There is enough. 

Abram, if you read his story, struggles with this. He’s only human. We all fear being hungry, enslaved, homeless. The nation of Israel struggles with this. They have Torah and later the prophets to help them remember how to live generously, blessing each other. But it is hard. Israel gets confused and thinks the blessing means God likes them best. They worry that there is not enough for everyone. They worry that some other nation will be bigger, stronger, wealthier. 

All these centuries latter, we worry about the same things. Is there enough? Will someone take what is ours away? We get is so wrong that Jesus has to take a few loaves and fish and feed the multitude. But our fear runs deep. The disciples see Jesus feed everyone and they still don’t believe. We so misunderstand how blessing works and what it means to be blessed that Jesus has to preach the shocking and bizarre Sermon on the Mount. 

I wonder. What blessing do you have, do I have that we are supposed to share? What blessing does our city have, our state, our nation? What if we lived to share our blessing? What could the world look like?

Plot Twist

October 14, 2018

We don’t often talk about plot twists in Biblical texts, but the book of Job has a couple worth noting.

Job’s friends are well known for their unhelpfulness. But as unhelpful and annoying as they are, they do seem to accomplish one thing. As Job listens to their assessment of his  situation and their suggestions for how to fix things, he realizes that they are wrong. All along Job has contended that he doesn’t deserve what has happened to him. His situation initially is expressed as despair. What can he do? Almighty God has acted and Job has no recourse. But as Job talks with his friends, he moves from despair to demanding to be heard. Perhaps in having to defend himself against his friends, Job realizes he can present his case to God. He’s terrified of course and fully expects to die, but he insists and persists. It is an important shift, from despair to demanding to be heard. Job uses courtroom language, he has a case to present. Job speaks less to his friends, and speaks more to God.

“But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God…Let me have silence, and I will speak. and let come on me what may. I will take my flesh in my teeth, and put my life in my hand. See, he will kill me: I have no hope; (or though he kill me, yet I will trust in him) but I will defend my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. Listen carefully to my words, and let my declaration be in your ears. I have indeed prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated.

“Only grant two things to me, than I will not hide myself from your face; withdraw your hand from me, and do not let dread of you terrify me. Then call, and I will answer; or let me speak, and you reply to me. ” (13:3,13-18, 20-22)

The book continues with Job and his friends continuing to talk until chapter 31 which ends “The words of Job are ended.” And so we might think the book is over, or we might be expecting God to now respond. But no, oh no, there is one more friend- Elihu. He has waited to speak out of respect for his elders but now he scolds the friends and Job for six more chapters.

Then finally, finally, God shows up. After 37 chapters of all these men talking, trying to explain God and God’s ways, God shows up. And God’s response is essentially, “I’m God, creator of all that is and I’m not explaining myself to you.” And Job’s response is “Yes you are God and I am not.”

In some ways the exchange between God and Job is an unsatisfying plot twist. We don’t get the answer we want. At least I don’t get the answer I want. Why do people suffer? For Job it appears to be enough that God shows up.

We do learn what is not the answer to the problem of suffering- the common belief that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. This is clearly said to be wrong. Not only by Job. God makes it quite clear, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42: 7)

There are many things we could and should discuss, but a couple of points seem important today. We are clearly warned away from simplistic, mechanistic explanations about suffering. Do good and you are rewarded, do bad and you are punished is not an adequate explanation. It seems wise to avoid that line of reasoning.

Job has spoken “what is right”. But what of all that Job has said is the “right” part? Are Job’s speeches demanding a hearing and justice what God affirms? Or is it what Job says in response to God’s revelation to him. “See, I am of small account: what shall I answer you? ” (40:4) “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you: therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (42:3,6).

Or is it all okay? Does the creator of all that is understand our frustration, our anger when we don’t understand, when we feel like God isn’t treating us fairly? Does God come to us in the midst of that anger and despair, in the midst of our questions? The book of Job tells us yes. But God does not come with tidy answers or a formula to be applied to life. But with the presence of God’s own self. I wonder if what Job got right, is that Job was honest with God. No false piety. No theological abstractions. Job trusted God to hear him in the very midst of Job’s bewilderment, his pain, his anger. And Job was right about that. God heard. God hears. God responds.

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