“Who do you say I am?”

Last week I asked what book of the Bible I should choose if we were to try a follow-along-Bible-study. There were some great suggestions and I was really torn. But with prayer, it seemed to me we should start at the very beginning – with the gospel. You might roll your eyes and wish I’d picked a juicy Old Testament nugget. And I was so close to going with Judges or with Ezra! However, sometimes even the most theologically savvy Christian needs to go back to the beginning and to re-remember who Jesus is.

The gospels are absolute gold mines of wisdom. I am also a crazy history nerd and there’s a lot in the gospels that we miss because we’re not 2,000 year old Jews. So, I’ve chosen the gospel of Mark as our first follow-along-Bible study (acronym FAB – how awesome is that?).

It’s commonly believed that Mark was the first gospel to be compiled, and on which both Matthew and Luke were partially drawn. It’s shorter and it’s written in “fisherman’s language” – that is, unlike Matthew which has quite dense Jewish references, and Luke which is quite polished and lyrical, Mark is clear, simple and down to earth.

The date of this gospel could be anywhere from the mid-50s AD to the late 60s. Clement of Alexandria (writing in the late 100s AD) claimed that it was written while the apostle Peter was in Rome (this was in the 50s or 60s). The early church historian Eusebius (writing in the early 300s AD from memories of earlier church fathers) claimed that Peter actually came to Rome when Claudius was emperor (which would have been more in the early 50s). Church tradition says that Peter was executed in Rome during the reign of Nero (around the mid-60s). There’s no way to tell for sure. What’s interesting though is that while there’s lots of academic reasons for chasing a date, we should remember that even in the 60s, this was a mere 30 years after Jesus’ death. That’s like having a memoir written today for John Lennon or Ronald Reagan. It’s really not that long between events and writing.

Who was Mark? That also is a mystery. Popular tradition has it that he was Peter’s interpreter. This mainly comes from Papias who was a Christian leader in 120-ish AD – within 100 years of Jesus’ death. Papias was born after Jesus died but is said to have been a disciple of the apostle John and so had many memories of a direct eye witness who was close to Jesus. Papias is quoted by Eusebius as saying “Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lords sayings and doings.” And that “he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no mis-statement about it.”

So Mark himself had not known Jesus but was writing down Peter’s memories some time in the mid-50s to 60s. At this time, there was no other gospel (as far as we know). It had spread by word of mouth as the first Christians spread from Jerusalem with the first persecution that had started with the martyrdom of Stephen (as told in Acts 7). There were some letters. 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Philippians were all in existence before there was a formal gospel.

With the early church and the converts stretching to Rome, Mark’s gospel in its fisherman’s language and easy style, is targeted at Gentiles. He explains Jewish concepts and leads the reader through an exploration of who Jesus is, from the perspective of a Jew but to readers who have no messianic tradition.

It has a strong and fast-paced narrative style. As we go through, notice how many times Mark uses terms like “Immediately…” as the next thing happens – it appears 42 times in Mark (compared to only 5 times in Matthew and once in Luke). He uses several other devices deliberately designed to draw the reader in and lead us to the truth of Jesus. We’ll talk about these as we go through.

So, once a week, we’ll take a chunk at a time and look together at this gospel. If you have any questions about the setting, authorship, historical context and date or anything I’ve talked about here, feel free to post. This is meant to be as open and interactive as you want.

If you want to read a commentary, there are some that read as easily as novels. My absolute favourite is Mark: The Servant King by Paul Barnett. It’s a brilliant read. King’s Cross by Tim Keller is also good. If you want to go crazy with reading, David A deSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament is a chunky text book but one of the most interesting I’ve read. It includes lots of historical, literary and cultural context to all the New Testament books.

My prayer for all of us is that we will get to know Jesus again, and get to know him more. I pray that we will be drawn together and to God. I pray that we will find some online community with respect and gentleness – because the reason we are all here is Jesus. It is he that brings us together and binds us all.

Which book of the Bible should I choose?

What do you think?

I’m thinking about blogging through one book of the Bible – a chapter a week. People can follow on and post comments. That way anyone and everyone can engage and interact. Or, you can just follow along if you like.

The idea is to treat it a bit like an online Bible study. In the future this might develop as I find new and interesting ways to use features on my Facebook page, but right now I’d like to start this way to see how it works. I’d love to get some online fellowship going!!

SO – what book of the Bible should I choose? Is there a book you’d love to look at with other women? Is there a book you’re not that familiar with and would like to understand more? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or send me an email!

Ruth xx

PS if you want to engage on Facebook, here’s the link 🙂

https://m.facebook.com/meetmewhereiam/

Why “Meet Me Where I Am”?

Some of the best pastoral care I’ve had over the years has been within my church small group. I love everything about small groups – a group of women, meeting weekly, digging into the Bible together, praying for each other, eating an inordinate amount of snacks together, crying, laughing, learning and growing. Within a group of women like this, we truly do life together. We get each other. We can sympathise and minister to each other with all the raw honesty that is needed and without any “Sunday church politeness”.

The most troubling pastoral care I’ve had is when people have tried to meet me where they are, not meet me where I am. What do I mean by this? When someone comes to us with a pastoral issue, we can sometimes instinctively do any of the following:

  • Try and solve the problem without listening to the full extent of the issue;
  • Question the viewpoint (Did that really happen? Isn’t that over-reacting? I wouldn’t have taken it like that. That doesn’t seem to me to be that big of a deal. I know the other party and they probably didn’t mean it. Is the problem that your husband is away for work? Is the real problem that you’ve forgotten to take your antidepressants? Aren’t you being overly emotional?);
  • Jump straight to a Bible passage to try and make the person feel better.

All of these, as well meaning or as accidental as they can be, actually meet the person where we are. What do I think about this situation? If I would react in X way, but the person is responding in a Y way, I’m going to pastor as though you should be responding in X way, because that’s the way I understand the correctness of this situation.

This is problematic. And it can contribute to a feeling that churches are disconnected from reality. Great theology, but lacking in understanding and grace. Meeting people where you are inhibits trust (and actively promotes distrust). It makes people feel misunderstood and at worst, not cared for. It can build a picture that there is a disconnect between the pulpit and the pew – which is a sad assumption that the general populace have of the church anyway, without us accidentally contributing to it.

It can also become self-perpetuating. This kind of pastoring creates barriers. It stops open communication. It makes people feel they can’t be honest in revealing themselves. So they hide. They hide behind their polite-Sunday-face. And the issue gets hidden. Down deep. Where it festers and spreads like a cancer in the soul. And all the while, growing a resentment towards the church because you feel like they don’t get you and don’t hear you.

Women need to feel heard. And they need to feel valued. Good pastoral care is not reactive when a crisis has happened. Good pastoral care is walking through life with them on the good days, and sitting with them in the darkness on the bad days.

Great pastoral care is knowing people enough to know what to pray for them – on the good days and the bad.

Jesus didn’t meet people where he was – and if anyone had the right to do that, it was him. Jesus met people where they were. In Mark 5, Jesus went to find the demon possessed man. He didn’t judge the mans situation and how he got there and he didn’t question if things were really that bad. He met him where he was.

When, in Matthew 9, the woman who had been bleeding for years approached him secretly for healing, he didn’t judge her condition even though, in Jewish culture, it should have been personally distasteful to him. He met her where she was.

When in Luke 7 a woman come and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus does not judge her or question her or solve her problem with a vague scriptural platitude. He meets her where she is.

The reason I called this blog “Meet Me Where I Am” is because that’s my plea. And it’s my prayer for every woman. Real women have real problems. We have mental health issues. We struggle with our faith. We struggle with our confidence. Sometimes we snort when we laugh. Many of us have kids and now avoid jumping up and down. We struggle with our weight. We can’t wait to take our bras off at the end of the night. We love Jesus. We love the Bible. Sometimes we cry in the shower for no reason. We want to feel valued. We want to have a voice.

We love our churches. We have wonderful ministers and pastors and Christian sisters. But we want to be met where we are. We don’t want our pain to be questioned or a quick solution presented. We need pastoral care to be as important as the pulpit. We need theology and humanity.

And let’s not forget – women make up over half of our churches. If we support and nourish our women, we support and nourish the whole family. On top of that, women are seed sowers. We talk to everyone. We connect with people far beyond our immediate landscape. If we make our women feel valued, they will feel confident. If they feel confident, who knows how many seeds they will sow?

I have had the benefit of being around some wonderful ministers and I’ve been around some others with a few blind spots – nobody’s perfect. This is a general plea and prayer for all though. Meet me where I am. Meet all of us where we are. Let your growth in Christ-likeness include putting the self to one side when pastoring a woman. Resist the urge to solve or question. Just let us be heard. Be real with us. And let us be our real selves with you. The church will be enormously enriched by it.

A biblical story of a rubbish life with a beautiful legacy

There are a bunch of women in the Bible who had relatively naff lives before they came good. Rahab was a prostitute and a foreigner, but she picked the right side, had faith and ended up in the line of Jesus. Tamar was rejected multiple times and prostituted herself to her father in law before being restored and honoured. Ruth was a foreigner who endured loss and penury before marrying Boaz.

But there’s a woman in the Old Testament who had a pretty rubbish time of things and there’s no happy ending. In the midst of it though, there a moment of pure wonder.

Hagar was a servant girl to Sarai, bought in Egypt by Abram. When Sarai does not conceive a child, she gives Hagar to Abram (Genesis 16:1-2 and note they had not yet had their names changed by God to Sarah and Abraham). Abram agrees, sleeps with her and gets her pregnant, upon which, Hagar starts to despise Sarai. Understandable don’t you think? Her body had been given to Abram for his use as a surrogate mother, through no choice of her own. She had no power and no control over her own body or her fate. And it was at Sarai’s instigation. I think I’d have some deep emotional cuts too. Pain, injustice, despair, hopelessness, anger, betrayal…..

Sarai mistreats Hagar and Hagar flees. But in the desert, she meets an angel of God (Gen. 16:7-14). The angel prophesies over her and convinces her to return to her masters, which she does. The child she bears is Ishmael.

When Sarah and Abraham’s child Isaac is weaning, Sarah gets Abraham (because they have now been re-named) to expel Hagar and Ishmael. They head out into the desert and soon run out of water. Hagar can’t bear to see her son die and so walks away from him and just weeps. God sends another angel who encourages her and saves their lives with a well.

They settle around the Arabian desert and Ishmael has 12 sons and, in line with the angels’ prophecy, they become a great nation. However, they are not a great nation of the Bible or in the line of Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus says that the dynasty was anchored in Nabatea which encompasses parts of modern Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia among others, including the Sinai peninsula. Sounds pretty amazing, but Nabatea was conquered by the Romans and so the descendants of Hagar and her Ishmael only now exist in history books.

So when you pull the focus back to the longest view, Hagar has an imprint on history and Ishmael does pretty well for himself and his family. But in the narrative arc of the Bible, the Hagar’s story seems fairly incidental. In fact Paul, in the book of Galatians, uses her as an example of that which is old and superseded in comparison to what is new and ultimately God’s plan.

“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.” (Galatians 4:22-26)

What a legacy! Poor Hagar. I really feel for her. But…..but….let’s go back to that time when, in despair and pain, she fled to the desert.

In Genesis 16:11 the angel of the Lord says to her “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.”

Hagar gives God the name El Roi “the God who sees me” because, she says “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13).

As a woman, this resonates deeply with me. For me, Hagar’s legacy is not a dynasty in the Arabian desert, or a sign of the old covenant of slaves to the law. Hagar’s legacy is a meeting in the desert with God. The angel of God had told her to name her child Ishmael, which means “God hears”. Then, she doesn’t focus on who she has met, her focus is on the fact that he sees her.

For a lot of women, this is what we yearn for. To be seen. To be heard. To be understood.

Hagar was alone. She was in the wilderness. She had been used and mistreated. Her past was marked with suffering. Her future was uncertain.

There are many of us who could empathise with this. Most of us have lives that wax and wane between pretty ordinary, to quite good, to relatively rubbish and back to OK again. Many of us have pasts that have been marked by unspeakable pain. Many of us are facing a future that fills us with fear. But what marks us, as it marked Hagar, is an interaction with the God who sees us.

He hears us. He sees us. He has a future for us. He has a part for us to play in his plan. If this is all I can say for my life – that I have seen the One who sees me – then the rest of my life pales in comparison. My life will play out as God wills it. Who knows what will happen? Maybe my boys will have a million kids who end up founding a dynasty somewhere. Maybe I’ll end up being an example of something old and superseded. But if my life carries the same legacy as Hagar, then I am happy. I have seen the Bod who sees me. Who sees me.

Not all of us will be a Tamar or a Ruth or a Rahab. Most of us are a Hagar. Living ordinary lives. But we have met the God who see us.

He sees us. He hears us. He gets us. It is a wondrous and beautiful thing to be seen and known by him that made everything and holds everything.

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.