20 February 2017

Paying attention to the details in a story

At Campus Edge we've just started looking at the Elijah and Elisha stories. These are wonderfully odd texts, so it makes looking at them more closely both useful and interesting. There's much to discover, as was made more obvious when I started reading Thomas L Brodie's The Crucial Bridge, which has pointed out a lot of the details and patterns in the text. I was so excited about what I'd been reading that I shared the insights with Matthijs, and I am looking forward to sharing them in the studies I lead.

It always fills me with delight when I can understand the Bible better because someone passes on what they've learned from paying attention to the text. Alan Jacobs's recent reflections on Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God is another example of someone whose paying attention has filled me with delight and has made me wonder further about what the Bible actually says. Jacobs suggests that, on the basis of what is actually written in the text, Solomon's building of the temple was more his idea than God's. It's a fascinating thought - not one that had occurred to me before, but one that does correspond to the disquiet I've had about Solomon and his holiness: how could someone so wise and dedicated to God spend so much more time building his own palaces than God's temple and be so led astray by all of his wives?

I encourage you to read all of Jacobs's thoughts about the building of the temple - both David's role in it and Solomon's role. He argues that it was Solomon's idea to build a temple, and that the temple was even a misunderstanding of what God wanted. Jacobs notes:
Solomon clearly believes that the Lord wants him to build the Temple, perhaps because that’s what David told him; but, again, God’s declaration in 2 Samuel 7 says nothing about a commandment to build, and here in 1 Kings 5 he has still not said to Solomon, or to anyone, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” The whole idea is Solomon’s.
God wasn't interested in a temple: he was interested in obedience. The prophets would reiterate this idea years later. According to Jacobs, 
Solomon seems to get this. When the Temple is completed and he utters his great prayer of dedication, he indeed emphasizes the necessity of obedience. But he also repeatedly suggests that now that the Temple is built it is time for the Lord to fulfill all his promises to David’s “house” — as though by building the Temple Solomon has asserted some kind of claim upon the God who made the whole cosmos and raised up Israel and put him, Solomon, on his throne.
This fascinates me because it echoes the claim that Israel seems to have: You, God must do something for us, at least partly because we have this temple and we sacrifice to you. (Or because we took your ark with us - cf. 1 Samuel)
Jacobs concludes with the following: 
I don't mean to bring too much of a hermeneutics of suspicion to this party, but this looks suspiciously like an inversion of the Mosaic law: rather than God giving the law to Israel, Solomon gives the law to God. And the leverage that he hopes to bring is the promise that the Lord will be honored by the nations as God through the magnificence of “this house that I have built.” Look at  what I have done for you! Aren't you grateful?“ The Temple is a magnificent technological achievement, and Solomon insists that its purpose is to glorify God, since "this house … is called by your name”; but it certainly seems that Solomon is hardly indifferent to his own power and glory.
I don't think it takes much effort to recognize how we often relate to God in the same way: Look at how good I have been - therefore you must bless me. Fascinating how a close reading in the text can be verified by other texts and can also help us recognize some of our own bad theology.

13 February 2017

A prayer

I was asked to do the congregational prayer in church yesterday, as well as to do the offering announcement (for Campus Edge). As part of Campus Edge's mission to encourage the development of community, this semester we've been studying love and sexuality, recognizing how hard it is for us to be a loving community to each other, especially in the area of sexuality where there has been a lot of hurt both from and within the Christian community. As part of Campus Edge's desire to do intellectual inquiry, we've been studying the book of Ecclesiastes and its sometimes too realistic view of how difficult and meaningless life can seem. These aspects of the ministry are included in the following prayer, as well as other prayer concerns related to university life.

Almighty God, we come before you with our thanks and our concerns. We thank-you for the work that you are doing in this church and in the ministry of Campus Edge. We know that you have been guiding this church as we remember our identity. We trust that you will continue to be with us and with the calling you have given us and the people you have given us to encourage. 

We pray for the world. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by what is happening in the news. We pray for those areas affected by war and famine, shootings and floods. We think especially of Yemen, Somalia, Israel-Palestine, and especially Syria. Bring comfort to all those who are suffering in these places. May those fleeing their homes find a safe place to continue their lives and may these countries become once again places where people can flourish. 
We pray also for all those who are foreigners in this place – we think especially of the international students at Michigan State. We pray especially for strength, comfort, and wisdom to those whose connections to home and their own futures feel more precarious because of the recent travel ban. 

We bring before you the church. We pray for the wider church and how our witness to You is tarnished by all the ways we fight with each other about what it means to follow Christ, especially when it comes to things we are passionate about, like politics. Help us to work together to take care of the weakest among us and to protect each other from danger. 
We pray specifically for the work of your church at MSU. We pray for those who attended the apologetics event with Ravi Zacharias – may it lead to further questions and people knowing you more. We pray for all the ministries, including Campus Edge, reaching out to those on MSU's campus: that we might provide places where people find fellowship and support as well as space to ask questions about faith and know You better. 

We bring before you the communities of which we are a part. We pray for our families and friends, for the community of this church, for those participating in Campus Edge, and for the wider community of Michigan State. We pray for the illnesses and suffering that we know about and for those things we don't know about – whether that be surgeries or cancer, financial troubles or relationship troubles. Whether the suffering be physical, emotional, or spiritual. 
We pray especially for those who are questioning You – that they might not feel alone but instead be comforted by knowing that many before them – from the author of Ecclesiastes to numerous saints – have wondered about the purpose of life and your presence and role in it. 
We pray also for those for whom sexuality has been a burden and a cause of shame and suffering – whether that be infertility, pornography, one's relationship status, one's attractions to others, or other things that are simply too difficult to name. May they – may we all - know your grace in this complicated area of our lives. Give us the courage and wisdom to know how to be honest and open with each other, to listen well, encourage each other and to be a strong community to each other. 

Knowing that you hear all of our requests, we pray these things in Jesus' name. Amen.