Anger, Christianity and Twitter (Matthew 5:22)

Okay, this post isn’t really looking at a specific Bible passage as normal, but I need to write this. Maybe it’s because it’s something I think Christians need to grapple with immediately, maybe because it’s something that exposes my own weaknesses, but either way I need to get it out there.

Yesterday, I was watching the TV show Come Dine With Me, a competition where four disparate strangers cook meals for each other and vote for the best. And because this is reality TV it has elements of the freakshow about it.

Anyway, one of the contestants was introduced singing in a church choir, and during her meal she insisted on starting with a prayer and singing a hymn. Uncomfortable for her guests, sure, but the best was yet to come as she embarked on what looked unpleasantly like bullying one of the other guests. Sure it was ‘justified’, because she always “Tells it like it is”, but whatever her defence, it still resulted in one of those cringe-worthy where Christianity gets…

I was going to say “misrepresented” but I can’t. Because this sort of thing keeps happening. On TV we could write it off as selective editing to create the juiciest story, but communication technology has moved on. Now people expose their lack of love and grace directly, without the excuse of a filter.

And so one of my favourite comic book writers was called an “ignorant fool” this morning, because she disagrees with a particular Christian’s stance on an issue. I’m not going to say what that issue was, because I don’t want this post to become a debate over a specific talking point. I’m not suggesting that people aren’t allowed to disagree with each other – I believe in freedom of speech, even if I don’t agree with you – but I’d suggest that calling someone an ignorant fool is far from being a good witness. Quite the opposite, in fact.

What makes this worse, what really set me off, was that fifteen minutes earlier, the Tweeter in question had written a nice piece about how he’d been saved by Christ and his life had been changed. Which is awesome, but there’s a painful disconnect between the two tweets posted within minutes of each other.

And I was going to jump in. I was going to question this guy’s attitude and go in all guns blazing, because I like the writer who was under attack, I respect her interactions with her fans, and I didn’t want her to get the wrong impression of Christians.

In rushing to defend my point of view, I was ready to be snarky and judgemental. Heck, I’ve done it before; attack a writer I like and I’ll get mad; attack the Prime Minister in a funny way and I’ll give you a retweet. This whole situation exposes my hypocrisy as much as anyone else’s. Not that I think I’ll ever agree with this government’s policies, but like I said, calling an individual a fool isn’t the best witness.

The Bible verse that came to mind is Matthew 5:22: “But anyone who says “You fool!” will be in danger of the fires of hell.” Jesus is emphasising that anger and mockery are dangerous things, as dangerous as the ‘big’ sins.

This is a key verse for social media. Back when Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, giving in to your anger and calling someone an idiot wasn’t particularly public, witnessed only by people within earshot and those who heard the gossip about it later. And yet that was bad enough for Jesus to make that point I just quoted.

Nowadays if you want to attack someone you can do it on social media – call someone a fool on Twitter or Facebook and it’s not a relatively private thing, it’s out there to be seen by thousands of people, and it’s permanent, because even if you delete it, someone somewhere may have cached the message. God removes our sins as far as the east is from the west, but Google doesn’t. If you lash out at someone, it can potentially been seen by around a third of the world’s population. Exaggeration? No, that’s just the internet for you.

So any time someone goes online and calls someone a fool because they somehow think they’re standing up for Jesus, they do so in the shadow of the cross, and they do so in an environment where a mistake or an angry moment can be seen forever. It becomes just another piece of evidence that all Christians are judgemental and bigoted and angry. And people turn away from Jesus because, well, they might respect him as an historical figure, but why should they follow him – look at how his followers treat ‘outsiders’. Look at how his followers treat each other.

“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Ouch.

One of Jesus’s main bugbears was hypocrisy that drives people from God. Double ouch.

Of course, often lashing out is hidden in terms of defending the faith, of standing up for what we believe in the face of opposition. But that’s the thing – no-one’s saying don’t debate, no-one’s saying don’t disagree, no-one’s saying you have to compromise your beliefs. But it’s the attitude in which these things are expressed that’s the problem.

Because all this talk of witness and social media is about the external stuff, and there’s no point sorting out the external when the internal is still screwed up. If our initial reaction is to show anger, not love, is to show hatred instead of grace, then something’s wrong and it needs fixing before Christianity gets wounded by any more friendly fire incidents. Jesus works less through angry tweets and more through fixing hearts. In an ever-more connected world, that’s a lesson the church needs to learn – that I need to learn – all over again.

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Jesus And His Messed-Up Family Tree (Matthew 1; Genesis 49)

One of my motivations in writing this blog is to have a space in which I can ask some of the random questions I have about the Bible. Not the huge questions, like “why suffering?” but the odd questions that sometimes spring to mind, like “exactly how tall was Zaccheaus?”.

And because I’m from the UK, and am therefore (technically) subject to a monarch, I started wondering why Israel’s royal family, and therefore Jesus’s descendents, don’t follow the usual rules for that sort of thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with the eldest son not automatically getting the inheritance or the crown, but when something seems to break the rules, it’s normally worth asking why.

The kings of Israel were mainly from the Tribe of Judah. Now, this is interesting because the really good stuff, like wealth and blessings were supposed to pass from father to eldest son, and yet the kudos involved in being the royal line goes to Jacob’s fourth son. This sticks out like a sore thumb – Judah isn’t the eldest (that’s Reuben), he’s not the favourite (that’s Joseph), he’s not even the youngest-and-therefore-ironic-choice (that’s Benjamin). What’s going on?

The answer is in Genesis 49. Jacob’s dying, and he gives his final blessing (or otherwise) to each of his sons, something that effectively acts as something of a prophecy for their descendents.

So Reuben loses his birthright because he slept with the mother of his half-brothers. The next two brothers, Simeon and Levi, miss out because they killed a bunch of people responsible for raping their sister (which I guess is understandable, although it shows a tendancy to turn to violence when angry).

And so fourth in line is Judah, and he gets to father the trible of royalty – “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs.” His name also goes on to define the people as a whole – the word “Jew” comes from Judah.

(Which I guess immediately spelt trouble for King Saul, who was from the Tribe of Benjamin…)

None of this should really come as much of a surprise. There’s a bit of a tension in the Bible when it comes to inheritance going to the first-born son. It’s how society worked, but Genesis keeps undermining this – of Abraham and his descendents, Isaac wasn’t the first-born. Nor was Jacob. Nor was Judah. They’re all descended from Seth (Adam and Eve’s third son) and Shem (Noah’s second son). There’s even ambiguity over Judah’s first-born. And when it comes to David becoming king, he’s the youngest of eight brothers.

Anyone would think that God’s plans often overrule social conventions.

Now, when Jesus comes along, as ultimate fulfillment of Jacob’s royal prophecy, he is the first-born (albeit ‘adopted’ by Joseph). But even his family tree isn’t simple. It contains five women (which wasn’t common): Mary (fairly obviously), and Tamar (a very dodgy story that doesn’t paint Judah in a good light – interesting…), Ruth (not an Israelite), Rahab (not an Israelite but possibly a prostitute) and Bathsheba (who married David after they had an affair that lead to the murder of her husband).

The fact is, Jesus’s family tree is full of some very dodgy and awkward stories, and yet rather than try to gloss over this, Matthew draws attention to it. Why?

Because maybe it’s not about worth, or at least worth in the way that society judges it. If one of the central themes of Christianity is grace, then maybe Jesus’s family tree immediately highlights this theme right at the beginning of the New Testament. We all fall short of the glory, but God can use us anyway.

Think of that next time you’re feeling bad about your past. Grace – and love – can overwrite anything.

Walking on Water Again (Mark 6:47-50; Job 9:8-11))

20120717-073737.jpgBit of a quick one today, because I’ve blogged about Jesus walking on water before. I don’t have a lot more to add, except for a possible reference that made me go hmm…

See, the miracle narratives are there to show us who Jesus really is, and so they often contain references to the Old Testament (like, for instance, the calming of the storm); effectively they’re telling us that Jesus is God.

That’s what walking on water is all about – sure, it’s an easy way to get from A to B, but it doesn’t end there. Maybe this is most clearly seen in Mark’s telling of the story.

Job 9 tells us how God’s power sets him apart from the created order:

“He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. He is the maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. When he passes me, me I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.”

It’s the last line that jumped out at me; God’s power makes him unfathomable, unknowable. Job’s picture of God isn’t a force of nature, he’s the power behind nature itself. Walking on water is an expression of this power.

So the passage from Mark reminds us that Jesus has divine power. Fair enough, but maybe it goes deeper than that. Because Mark makes a quick, almost throwaway reference to Jesus being about to walk past the boat.

(Stop me if I’m reading too much into things.)

See, Job describes God walking on water and not being seen or perceived when he passes by.

Mark talks about Jesus walking on water and making himself known.

God goes from being unknowable in his power to being present, approachable. He gets in the boat with us and walks alongside us. It’s the miracle of the incarnation in a nutshell and an evolution in the way we relate to God. And it would be typical of Mark, who often makes tiny references that nevertheless open up new avenues of interpretation.

As always your thoughts are appreciated!

Breaking the Chains: Paul and the Earthquake (Acts 16:16-40)

20120716-130054.jpgSo, earthquakes.

I’ve been in an earthquake myself. It was the great Dudley earthquake of 2002, and it measured 4.7 on the Richter Scale. The epicentre was about half a mile from my parent’s house, so obviously it was a dramatic experience, to feel the ground shaken like that. It could have been worse though, some people had slates fall off their roof.

As far as my life goes, the Dudley earthquake wasn’t a big deal. I wouldn’t say that was true of the earthquake experienced by Paul and Silas in Acts 16, but here’s the thing – the earthquake is less important than we sometimes think when we read this story.

Some background – when Paul and Silas are arrested, it’s partly because of their Jewish background. There had always been a tension between Judaism and the Roman Empire, and Philippi, where all this took place, was very, very Roman. Paul and Silas are the victims of a degree of anti-Semitism here. However, they both have Roman citizenship, and it was totally illegal to imprison Roman citizens without trial, to the extent that somewhere like Philippi could end up in real trouble if they broke this law. We see this the morning after, when they’re released with an apology.

So it’s really the story of a miscarriage of justice, but in the middle of it there’s another story, the story of an earthquake that breaks the chains of the prisoners, releasing them from the stocks in which they’d been held. And yet Paul, Silas and their fellow prisoners don’t take the opportunity to escape. Why not?

What if it’s about more than the earthquake?

What if it’s about something else instead?

What if the earthquake wasn’t so much about Paul’s freedom as it was about freedom for the jailer?

After all, he’s the person here with the most to lose. Paul and Silas can get themselves released the second they mention their Roman citizenship, but the jailer? Well, if any prisoners escape, he’s responsible. And that means he could get executed. That’s why he’s about to fall on his own sword – in his mind it’s the honourable way out. Paul and Silas are spiritually free even though they’re chained up; the jailer is chained by duty, expectations and fear. We never learn the guy’s name, but God loves him enough to make sure he hears the gospel in a particularly spectacular way.

And don’t forget the other prisoners. They’ve spent the night hearing prayer and worship. Maybe some of their spiritual chains were broken too.

And that’s the church’s job, one of them at least – to help God break some chains, even for those we think don’t deserve it – after all, the other prisoners were probably guilty. Paul and Silas’s actions in the prison, even the earthquake, are acts of grace. The power of Paul’s witness and the love of God liberated those around them, and I’m not even sure that Paul expected it to happen, because God brings liberation to the least expected people at the least expected times. That was Paul’s story, and now it’s the story of the jailer.

That’s why the work of our churches is so important. When we’re following what God wants us to do, we’re not only knowingly building his kingdom – through our services and our ministries and our relationships – but we’re also involved in a story and a mission that we don’t know the ending of, that is going on throughout the world. We’re joined with believers throughout the world in a beautiful, networked kingdom, and we don’t know or see the half of what God is doing.

But when we catch glimpses of it, it’s amazing.

Look To The East: What do directions mean in the Bible?

When I first started this blog I wanted it to explore some of the more obscure bits of the Bible, to kick around some less familiar ideas. Well, today’s post may well come across as obscure and playing with some odd ideas. Feel free to correct me in the comments.

See, the Bible has a weird relationship with the East.

Not a specific country or political entity, just the direction.

For instance, the Tabernacle and the Temple both faced to the east (so I guess when you entered them, you walked westwards. Keep this in mind.)

The wise men saw a star in the east and travelled from the east to find the infant Jesus.

The Messiah, when he arrived, was meant to come from the east; specifically the Mount of Olives (which is to the east of Jerusalem).

The east is the source of blessings and divine salvation. Which is cool.

But wait – people who travelled to the east found themselves either in trouble or causing trouble:

Cain was exiled to the east after killing Abel. (Shameless plug – I talk about this more here.)

People travelled east to build the Tower of Babel. (Another shameless plug.)

When Abraham and Lot decided to go their separate ways, Lot went east and ended up in Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Israelites were exiled to Babylon, in the east.

There’s a tension here, almost a paradox: good things come from the east, but if you travel to the east you end up in A Bad Place. What’s going on here?!

Well, this is where things get a little complicated. Because maybe this tension isn’t about geography as such, but about time and movement.

Here’s what I mean: write down, in a line and in order, the following years: 1945, 1066, 1914, 1966 and 1666.

Done that?

Now, my list goes in ascending order from left to right. That’s because I’m English. I speak English, I think in English, and I write in English. And as English is written from left to right, I perceive time as moving in that direction too – left to right, west to east.

Okay, but Hebrew is written from right to left, and low and behold, that’s how time progresses in Jewish thought – right to left, west to east. (Check out this Scientific American article on the subject.)

Hmm.

See, it’s not that good places were in the west and bad places in the east; it’s all about the direction travelled, but the direction travelled temporally, not physically. You face east to see the past and the present, the realms of memory and experience. You look ‘east’, to what’s gone before, to see God coming, but when you see him, he’s travelling towards you and if you want to stick with him you’ve got to move yourself, travel towards the west, towards a future with God.

If instead you move to the east, you’re moving away from God, to a place that God has left. And it may be an attractive place, or an exciting place, but God ain’t there no more and sooner or later you’ll find yourself in trouble. You’re living apart from God’s blessings, away from his ongoing work.

So travelling to the west is, maybe, symbolic of moving into the future, in the direction of God’s ongoing story. It’s a dynamic thing.

Travel to the east, however, is travelling into exile, into captivity, less dynamic and more static, away from God’s salvation. Moving east is a bad idea because it’s moving away from God.

It’s a theory anyway.

However it works, it’s an important lesson – even seemingly unimportant details can teach us something. The geography of the Bible is practical, sure, but it’s also full of symbolic value, where rocks, trees and points of the compass have layers of meaning, informed by language and history and divine revelation. Abraham and Moses and Peter and Jesus walked through a theological landscape, a landscape we too can learn from.

So look to the east. You never know what you’ll see.