Bible Blog 5 – continuing my read through the Bible…

I am still ploughing through Exodus – fairly boring in parts, but there are some nuggets of interest. Here are some thoughts:

Exodus 21 – laws concerning slaves. This bit I don’t understand at all. It seems like God is saying that owning, in fact, mistreating, slaves is okay – as long as you don’t hit them so hard they die. This does not, in any way, reconcile with my understanding of the nature of God (which is why it’s so dangerous to read a snippet of the Bible and then say, “Ah, this proves such and such.” It probably doesn’t!) So, how to make sense of this bit? – I am open to suggestions. All I can think is either we just cannot, in our English version, thousands of years later, really understand what was originally meant by these words. Or, perhaps when they were written, the abuse of slaves was very extreme, and these words were a moderator, toning down the abuse, until such a time as society had progressed enough for everyone to be treated properly. Sometimes God allows people to progress slowly, and maybe society of those days wouldn’t have coped with being told “no slaves”. But I’m clutching at straws, really, I have no idea what this bit means. It seems especially ironic when you consider it was being given to people who, until very recently, had been slaves themselves.

Nor do I understand why they were told not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. I think this is the basis for Jews today not eating cheese and meat in the same dish, but I don’t know why it mattered.

Then we have the details of how to build the tabernacle, a special tent for God to ‘dwell in’. It’s very detailed – not especially thrilling to read. It does however raise some questions. The materials were costly and beautiful – why? God had better beauty in nature: flowers, sunsets, stars, seas. Why would he want a tent, even an expensive one? Obviously the point was that it was not ‘for’ God, it was for the people, so they had a special place to worship. I wonder if we’re missing that today. Perhaps having a place that is special, that’s our very best, is important. Maybe we physical beings need reminding that God is worthy of more than we can offer, and we should designate somewhere suitable to worship him. Yes, when we have no time, we can pray anywhere (when you have toddlers and babies, sometimes the only place you can think for a second is in the bathroom.) But when life is not so extreme, should we be making more effort? If we snatch times to pray when in bed, or at the kitchen table, are we missing something of the holiness of God? I wonder if other religions, such as Muslims who wash before prayer, have something to teach us here. Yes, we need to be careful that the ritual doesn’t become an end in itself, but I wonder if we have lost something by rejecting rituals so completely. Even our churches tend to be a bit shoddy. We have an attitude of “take the cheapest biscuits to have with coffee, it’s only church”. I think we should take more care to only bring the best, because it helps to remind us that the God who we claim to worship is worth our best. Always.

In Exodus 29 we have the consecration of Aaron and his sons. They are told to “…lay their hands on the head of a bull. Then you shall kill the bull…” We often have bulls in the fields near us. They are huge. These instructions are no simple thing. It also means the priests were in essence, butchers. They would smell like your local butchers shop – not especially pleasant. I wonder if they could wash the clothes they were told to wear?

Talking of smells, in Exodus 30 there is the recipe for a perfume. I read this weeks ago, right after I had visited Floris, the exclusive perfumery in London (see blog). So I was extremely interested that there was a special smell used for the place where people were to worship. The part of your brain that deals with smells is right next to the part that stores memory, which is why smells can evoke such strong memories. For me, one whiff of Old Spice aftershave in a supermarket, and I’m a little girl again, being hugged by my Dad. So, for people to have a smell that they associated with worship, would be very special. I guess that’s why they were forbidden to use the perfume anywhere else – it was only to be associated with God. Smells, memories, emotions, would all be intermingled when they came to their special place. I know some people light a candle when they pray. Maybe keeping a special scented one, not to be burnt at other times, would also be helpful. God never forgets we are physical beings, even if we like to sometimes. I’m not sure we should ignore all this as much as we do.

In fact, we tend to see gifts from God in mainly spiritual terms. But in Exodus 31, there’s a chap called Bezalel (unfortunate name) who is “filled with the Spirit of God” and is therefore intelligent, artistic, and a skilled craftsman.

I’ll post more of my notes next week. Thanks for reading. (If you sign up to follow my blog, you won’t miss the other things I discover.)

anneethompson.com

Bible Blog

I’ve decided to read through the Bible. I have, since childhood, read various parts of the Bible many times, but I have never read through it, beginning to end. So I thought it was time that I did. I don’t have ‘a system’ – I’m not that sort of person. I’m just going to read, in order, from beginning to end, as time/enthusiasm allows.

I will try to post each Sunday a short update about how I’m getting on. Partly to motivate myself, and partly because you might be interested. (If you’re not, you can just skip the blogs headed Bible Blog each week – I will still continue to post my newsy, family, travel blogs every Monday.) I’ll be honest about what I read and think, I won’t just regurgitate churchy views.

April 30th

I started at the beginning (which is actually, NOT a good place to start if reading the Bible for the first time! Better to begin in the New Testament, with Mark’s book.) Here are my thoughts/ramblings thus far:

There are two different stories about creation. I have studied these before, when teaching RS, so could really write a whole blog on them alone. However, my only comment here is I think it’s important to remember what question they are answering – they are not explaining HOW God made the world, they are explaining WHO and WHY. I think they are pictures, illustrating ideas, clearly showing that God was the creator. They were told at a time when there were lots of stories from the Babylonians, about dragons using things to create the world, so the point about God creating it from nothing, using just his word, is important. Personally, I don’t think it’s meant to be taken literally. Things like plants being created before light just seem too illogical.

Having said that, the first bit of Genesis is still weird. It is full of pictures and giants and strangeness. It is, on first glance, every bit as unbelievable as the myths that other cultures and religions have about how the world began. I think to understand it properly, you need to do further reading. One excellent book (I think) is Creation or Evolution, do we have to choose?

https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Creation-Evolution-Choice-Alexander-Denis-Author-Paperback/B0092GFUNA/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&qid=1493456743&sr=8-10&keywords=creation+evolution

After creation comes the flood. Most old cultures have a flood story, which is interesting – who knows, perhaps it really did happen. Certainly the instructions for building the ark (about the size of a multi-storey carpark) are detailed, if not especially interesting. After the flood, there’s a story about Noah getting drunk and his son having sex with him (they didn’t cover that little gem in Sunday School when I was a kid!)

There are many lists of genealogies. No idea why, they don’t make for an interesting read. However, recently I watched “The Good Lie”, about children being rescued in Sudan. One clip showed the children reciting all their ancestors. Perhaps in some cultures it’s important.

Next are the stories about Abram, Lot, Isaac. These seem more historically factual, they read like real events about actual people. One part that interested me was when Abraham plants a tamarisk tree. I did some research into what this was. It’s a tree that’s very unusual because it puts down very deep roots, and so can reach deep water tables. It uses a lot of water, so starves the surrounding soil of moisture, so other plants cannot grow near it. It also is able to take up salt, which it expels as a salty layer on its leaves. When they fall, this makes the soil salty, which again means no other plants can grow near it. So, it is a lonely tree, very different to other plants and not able to mix with them. It was introduced to the western states of America, where it flourished and is now seen as a pest, but hard to kill due to its deep roots. Now, Abraham is seen as ‘the father of the Jews’. It seems to me that the tamarisk tree makes a good metaphor for how the world views the Jewish race.

Another story I found interesting was the one where Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son. He feels that he wants his son to marry from his own people, so makes a plan. However, he also has a backup plan, he tells the servant to come home without a woman if she isn’t willing to go with him. So, he was doing what he thought God wanted, but if he was wrong, he had made a decision about what to do instead. He hoped he was right, that he was following God’s plan, but he didn’t assume it. Of course, when the servant did find the wife, Rebekah, it all proved to be what God wanted. But I found it interesting that Abraham didn’t know that for sure, he was just doing his best, doing what he thought was right. Which sometimes, is all that we can do.

xxx

Thanks for reading. I’ll let you know how I get on in the next week.

If you’re interested, why not sign up to follow my blog?
anneethompson.com

xxx

Understanding Stories

 

How well do you know the stories in the Bible? I’m guessing that anyone who lives in the UK knows at least some of them. Which of these do you know?: Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Joseph and his dreams, Moses and the Plagues, The Nativity, The Lost Sheep, The Prodigal Son.

As you know, I am rather keen on knowing what the Bible says, and have been reading it for most of my life. However, sometimes I read a commentary that shows how little I still know. This was true recently, when I was looking at the story of The Prodigal Son. I thought I’d let you know about the bits I have been getting wrong for the last 50 years.

Firstly, when you think of the story, where do you see it set? I have this image of a house surrounded by fields – so when the father runs to meet his returning son at the end, he is running down this long straight road. A bit like a farm on the American plains. This is so wrong! When the story was told, land owners, even wealthy ones, lived in small communities. They might send someone to sleep near the fields when the harvest was ready, but their home would be in a community. So, when we read this story, we need to be aware of all the friends and neighbours who would have been part of the story, even though they’re not specifically mentioned. (They weren’t mentioned, because everyone listening already knew this. If I write a story today, about a family eating roast beef, I don’t say that the food is served on a china plate, because anyone reading my story already knows that.)

So, what happens in this story? It begins with a man and two sons, and the younger one asks for his share of the inheritance, before his father has died. Now, in those days (actually, today it still holds true) this was in effect, telling his father, “I wish you were dead”. You would expect the father to be angry, to throw out his son and not give him anything. However, the father in the story doesn’t do this. He divides his money between both his sons. Which is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, in order for this to be legal, it would have to be done in a way that the community believed this was the father’s free choice – so he was protecting his son even though he’d been insulted. Secondly, the oldest son also took the money. He didn’t protest, tell his father he’d wait for his share. Nope, the money was divided between both of them. (Leaving the father in a very vulnerable position). The community would be angry at how the sons shamed the father.

Next, the youngest son leaves. This is where the community matters. In those days, it was very important to a community, that all wealth remained with Jews. If you sold property, you sold to Jews. If you spent money, you spent it with Jews. To lose money to non-Jews (Gentiles) was disgraceful. They actually had a ceremony, called the kezazah ceremony where a community would smash a pot filled with burnt corn and nuts in front of the individual, to show he was cut off from the community. We know that the youngest son lost his money amongst Gentiles, because he is later employed as a pig farmer (Jews don’t eat pork). He is working because the only way he can return to his community is if he manages to repay the money he lost. But we read that no one ‘gave him anything’ – so he’s not managing to earn money to cover his loss.

So, the son is in a pickle. He has lost his money to Gentiles, and he’s hungry and poor. What to do? Now, here comes an interesting bit. The story says he says to himself, ‘I will go back to my father and say, “I have sinned against heaven and before you”’. He then plans to ask his father for employment (so he can pay back what he owes, and no longer be in disgrace). He has a plan. Now, I always thought that these words meant that the son was sorry, and was returning to his father to ask for forgiveness. But no, that’s wrong.

This story was told by Jesus to the pharisees, who were annoyed because Jesus was eating with sinners. Pharisees would know the old testament extremely well (better than I do). So, when they heard the words, “I have sinned before heaven and before you”, they would recognise them at once. As you, if you enjoy old films, might recognise “I go to the hills for the sound of music”, or if you read, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. You see, the words spoken by the son are a direct quote from the story of Moses and Pharaoh and the plagues. They are the words that Pharaoh says when he wants the plagues to stop. Was Pharaoh sorry? Did he accept that Moses was right? No! He just wanted the problem to end. It was the same with the son. He had his plan all clear in his mind. He would go home, manipulate his father into letting him work for him, earn enough money to pay back what he’d lost, then his problem would be over, the community would accept him back.

However, that’s not how it turned out. Before he even reached the community, his father saw him and came running. He ran because he wanted to show the community that he accepted his son, that there was no need for the kezazah ceremony. Men in those days did not run. Mothers did, not fathers. The father is again breaking the mould, doing what is necessary, to save his son. When they meet, the son starts on his prepared speech – but he doesn’t finish it. He is overwhelmed by his father’s love and forgiveness. He stops and simply accepts what the father is offering.

Then we have the feast. I always thought there was a party to welcome the son home, which to my mind seemed a bit unfair, because he didn’t deserve one. But the friends came to the feast to honour the father, not the son. Another interesting twist is this, when the feast happens, the father (good man) is eating with the son (bad man). Which is exactly what those listening to the story had accused Jesus of doing.

Now we return to the older son, the one who had been the silent benefactor of his brother’s abuse of the father. He is outside, and hears the party, and asks what it’s for. The story is clear here, he is not angry because his brother has returned, he is angry because his father has accepted him back. He is angry and jealous and refuses to go inside. In those days, that would be another huge insult to the father. The father could be expected to be angry, to cast him out. (It would be like someone at a wedding standing up and criticising, in public, the parents of the bride. Not done.) Instead, the father again risks his own humiliation and leaves his guests and goes to find his son. He listens to his grievances and reminds him that he has all he wants. It is important to remember here, the banquet is for the father – to celebrate what he has done for the son – NOT to celebrate the wayward son. If the older son wants to truly be unified with his father, he must also accept his brother. Which is, I think, the point that Jesus was making to the pharisees. If they wanted to be part of God’s work, the shepherds of his flock, then they must accept everyone who God accepts; and God accepts sinners.

So, what is the point of this story for us? It tells us what it means to be reunited with God (who is represented by the father in the story). It tells us that there is no scheme that we might have that makes us good enough, all we can do is accept the amazing generosity of God. It tells us that ‘being a Christian’ is not a belief system, is not a list of rules, is not a hereditary condition. It simply means we have chosen to accept what God has done, we choose to accept being taken back. Which ties in very well with everything that we celebrate and remember at Easter. So I hope you had a great time.

Thank you for reading.

I learned all this through reading “Jacob and the Prodigal” by Kenneth E Bailey. Great book!

You can’t always trust what you read…….which is scary.

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Several months ago, a friend recommended a book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey. It sounded interesting, so I bought it, read it, loved it (many thanks Rev Hatfield). I have since devoured all Kenneth E Bailey’s other books, and was disappointed to learn he has died recently, so won’t be writing any more.

The books are interesting because Mr Bailey is a clever man. He has a knowledge of both middle Eastern culture, and also the languages the Bible was written in. He takes a passage, one that anyone who reads the Bible knows well, and puts in into context. He shows how people of Bible times would have responded to the things said and done, what the language is likely to mean, why things have been translated as they have.

So, take for example, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, who Jesus asks for a drink. I already knew that Jews and Samaritans were enemies, and that a man speaking to an unknown woman was unusual, but the book explains so much more. It points out the flirtatious nature of the woman’s initial words to Jesus, how she was assuming he wanted something more than water! It also shows how she tried to misdirect the conversation, to move it away from a personal discussion about her own faith. All very interesting.

My Bailey also spends a lot of time showing how words have been translated. He very often challenges why particular words have been used in the English translation, why passages have been broken up into certain chapters. He points out that sometimes whole meanings have changed because the end of one chapter has been placed at the beginning of the next one, which makes the reader assume it is part of something else. I’m not sure if I’m explaining this properly – but unless I copy vast chunks of his text (which will make this very long) I need to just give you an overview. Really, you need to read some of his books for yourself.

Now, the thing that has caused me a problem, is when Kenneth Bailey looks at particular translations. Why Luke would have used a certain word, and whether the translation is reliable. It is fascinating, especially if you speak another language, so have a feel for how direct translations are rarely possible between languages with different roots. (If you are someone who believes you can put a phrase into the Biblical language equivalent of ‘Google Translate’ and come up with a phrase you can trust, this article is not aimed at you!) However, it has left me with a slight insecurity. The whole church practice of taking a text – one verse that explains an ethos – seems very flawed when you realise how unreliable our translations are. How much can we trust what we read in the Bible?

There is great danger in thinking along these lines. Although the Bible never claims to be infallible – Christians do NOT claim that it was dictated word for word (which some other religions claim about their holy books) – it is what we rely on to learn about God. The Bible claims to be the word of God, to point the way to God, to explain something of the character of God. It should not therefore be dismissed as unreliable. Except, our translations ARE unreliable. As you read what Bailey writes, you realise that to take individual verses literally is actually a bit dodgy. It can give a very skewed idea about what Jesus taught, about how we should view God, about how the church should be functioning.

What then is the solution? I do believe the Bible is an important way that God teaches us. I do believe we can learn the character of God within the pages of the Bible, that it guides and shapes us. I am just not sure any more that we should take snippets and be confident that “This says such and such, therefore, we must behave in this way.” I’m sure there are people who will label me as ‘liberal’, who will dismiss what I am saying as ‘diluted Christianity’. But actually, I am simply one person who is trying to discover who God is. I now believe, that to take individual verses as ‘proof’ of something is dangerous. We might be heading off in the wrong direction. I believe that the only reliable way to use the Bible is to read LOTS of it. To look at individual passages in the light of all the others. That the whole Bible will give us a taste of the essence of God, and that will lead us into the right choices. But to base any action on a single verse is foolish. We should not be ignoring certain parts of the Bible, even the difficult boring bits, they were put there for a reason. They all work together to give us an overview, an understanding, of God.

Take for example the story of Jesus allowing the children to approach him, when he took them onto his knee and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
I have heard many sermons use this as a text. We are urged to come to God trustingly, openly, simply. Which might be right. But do read what else has been written guys, don’t just take that snippet. Children have lots of attributes: They are very selfish. They don’t plan ahead (“I need the toilet NOW”). They will eat sweets until they are sick. They believe in everything that looks true, including monsters and talking teddies. Are we meant to approach God like this? With no forward planning? No questioning? No regard for others beyond our own immediate comfort? I don’t think so. To know what was meant, you need an understanding of the whole.

Or look at the passage where women are told to “not speak” during church services because it is “shameful”. Yet according to scholars, “speak” is better translated as “chatter” and the “shame” is like, “a shame if I don’t do that”, a sort of “not quite proper” rather than a strong condemnation. Yet many English churches have used this passage to stop women preaching, ignoring the places where Paul refers to women prophets and female leaders in the early church.

When I discussed this at home, it was pointed out that some people like to keep things simple. They like to take things at face value, they would feel I was over complicating things. The trouble is, it is because people have taken things at face value, have used snippets of the Bible to set their direction, that Christians have done some terrible things. Wars, murder, oppression, all done with the backing of a few verses from the Bible, all justified as “God’s Will” because of things written in the Bible. If we study the whole Bible, learn the character of God, and use that as our guide, then I feel this is much more reliable. We are working with a translation people, written thousands of years ago and transcribed millions of times. YES it points the way to God. NO, each and every word cannot and should not, be relied upon. The whole “God won’t let us misinterpret his will” argument is rubbish too – try living in Henry VIII times. Which is a bit scary because it means that to understand God requires effort. To live as God intends us to live, whatever our age, means we have to work hard. We cannot simply clutch at a few random verses and announce we’ve “got it”.

Knowing God takes time. Perhaps a whole life time. Perhaps that is the point.

xxx

Thank you for reading.

anneethompson.com

xxx

Mary’s Story : Reposted, because it’s Christmas..

Mary’s Story

by Anne E Thompson

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I travelled to Bethlehem in a small cart. Every bump (and there were many) was agony. As I was jolted along, I was racked with pain. The baby’s time was near, you see and the pain was almost unbearable. Later, they would sing songs about a cute donkey carrying me. Nice thought! I don’t think there’s any way you could have got me on a donkey. As each contraction cramped every muscle in my torso, I huddled up like an animal and prayed for it to be over.

I could see Joseph, watching me as he walked alongside. He really didn’t have the first idea what to do. Oh, how I wanted my mother. I yearned for her to be there, holding my hand, telling me everything was alright and would be over soon.

When we arrived at Joseph’s uncle’s house, the women folk came and helped me inside. The room was crowded. All Joseph’s male relatives from miles around had come to the house for shelter and food. The women were busy cooking supper and the men were drinking wine and comparing stories. They all told Joseph how much he resembled his grandfather Matthan and laughed at old stories from years ago.The smell of fish and fresh bread was nauseating. I was so tired and so uncomfortable.
Joseph knew I was suffering and asked if there was somewhere quiet that I could go. There was no chance that we would get a place in the inn, they had filled up days ago. Somewhere quiet, in a little house packed with relatives? There were some fraught discussions and then his aunt suggested that the animal cave might be best. It wasn’t terribly clean, but it would be quiet and private and at least it wouldn’t smell of fish!

Joseph helped me go down, and a couple of the women came too. One of them examined me and told me the baby was a long way off yet, first babies always take their time in coming. This was not great news but I felt better having her there. I felt that she knew what was happening, had seen this before and it took some of the fear away.
I was frightened you see. I was horribly afraid that somehow I would damage my baby. My baby and God’s. I knew he was going to be special, I knew I had a great task ahead of me but it all seemed to be going horribly wrong. I trusted that God was still in control but He felt so far away. Could the baby not have been born in a palace, surrounded by comfort? Would these poor beginnings really be part of a plan? Could they really make this king accessible to the people? I had no idea. I was a mere girl, I had no education and my memory of scriptures was often fuzzy. To be honest, at this present moment, I didn’t even care. I just wanted this baby OUT! Special or not, my body was tired of carrying him, tired of being stretched and pushed, of fitting something inside that was now too big to be there. I needed this baby to be born and I was too exhausted to wait much longer. How I longed for sleep.

The pain in my back was terrible. Great waves of cramp that seared through my body, making me oblivious to everything else. I was vaguely aware that someone was sweeping the floor and moving the animals to a far corner. They had laid out a mattress and blankets for me to rest on but I couldn’t lie still for long. I felt better standing, rocking in time with the pain, trying to remember to breathe, in out, in out. Some one offered me water but I couldn’t drink. I wasn’t thirsty, I just wanted this baby to be born.

I could see Joseph with his big anxious eyes watching me. He didn’t know what to do. Someone suggested he should go into the house to eat and I nodded in agreement. There was nothing he could do and the poor man must have been tired too. He had endured such an emotional time lately. First there was his fear and anger when he first heard about the baby (now that was a difficult conversation!) Then he had to endure the smirks of his friends when the pregnancy became public knowledge. He never complained, but I know he felt embarrassed, wished that God could have chosen a different girl.

We had been travelling for five days, with hardly any rest and the last couple of days had been more chilly. I know he felt the burden of caring for me, watching for bandits on the roads and wondering if we would make it to Bethlehem in time. If the baby had come early I don’t know what he’d have done – left me with strangers on the road somewhere I guess and come to register on his own. One didn’t mess with a Roman decree…..

The pain eventually became almost constant. Joseph had eaten and rested but I continued to sway in discomfort in the little cave of animals. Every so often one of them would poop and although the women with me cleaned it up quickly the smell pervaded the atmosphere. I could hear the musicians gathering outside, someone must have told them the birth would be soon. That gave me hope, maybe soon the baby would arrive.

Then at last, in a final searing pain, the baby was born. I looked down at his blue waxy body as he wriggled on the blanket and I knew that he was mine. One of the women wiped him down with oil and salt and I held him in my arms while they looked for the swaddling bands in our luggage. How beautiful he was. His indigo eyes would soon turn brown and they gazed at me trustingly. I loved him with my whole being.
Outside, there was the sound of music and singing as the musicians heralded the arrival of a boy.

Joseph came and took him from me. He held the tiny baby in his giant carpenter’s hands, hands that spoke of hard work and safety. Then the baby started to mouth for food and Joseph passed him back. The women showed me how to feed him, but he was soon asleep. Then we gently wrapped him in the swaddling bands, securing his tiny limbs so he would feel snug and secure and his bones would grow straight and true. He was so beautiful. It was hard to remember what the angel had told me, that this was God’s son too. I began to wonder if I had imagined it, if it were all a dream. This baby did not look like God, he was a baby. My baby.
“If it’s true God,” I thought, “Let there be another sign. He is so little and I love him so much. Remind me again…”
I too needed to sleep. Joseph fetched fresh hay and put it in the animal’s manger, covering it with a soft blanket. I didn’t want him to put the baby there, I wanted to keep him on the bed next to me, but Joseph was worried I might roll on him in my sleep. Then he laid the baby down and told me to sleep. He looked deep into my eyes and brushed my collar bone lightly with his fingers.
“Soon you’ll be truly mine,” he whispered. I knew what he meant and felt myself blush.
I was so tired, I thought I would sleep for a week.

I actually slept for about two hours! I was abruptly woken by loud voices and a draft of cold air as the door was flung open. There, standing uncertainly in the doorway was a group of youths. Their clothes were dirty and exuded the strong smell of sheep. Joseph was with them.

“Mary? Are you awake?” he asked.
It would be hard not to be with all the noise from outside.

“These shepherds want to see the baby. They were told by angels where they could find him and they have come to look at him.”

I nodded and they trouped into the room. They seemed so big and clumsy in such a small space, I was worried they might hurt the baby. But they didn’t try to touch him, they just stared for a while and then one of them knelt and they all followed suit, kneeling before the manger, staring at the baby.

Then they told me their story, how they had been in the fields and an angel had appeared. They had thought they were going to die, to be struck down right where they were. The angel had reassured them, told them that a saviour had been born, the Christ who we’ve all been waiting for. They would find him lying in a manger. Then suddenly there were lots of angels, all praising God and saying he was pleased with people on earth. After the angels had gone, finding they were still alive after all, the shepherds decided to come at once and see for themselves. It was as though they couldn’t quite believe what they had seen and heard, they needed to actually see the baby with their own eyes.

I felt so humbled and so cared for. God had heard my thoughts, He was reassuring me. It was all His plan, not some terrible mistake. We were meant to be here. He even knew about the manger! I listened and smiled and treasured my thoughts.
The shepherds left as noisily as they came. I could hear them in the streets, shouting their news, telling everyone what had happened. They were so excited.
They had of course woken the baby who was now crying with a thin wail that jarred my nerves and was impossible to ignore. So I fed him some more and then we both slept. A tired, contented sleep borne from exhaustion and wonder.

After eight days, Joseph came and circumcised the baby. How he wailed! It felt cruel, though I knew it was the right thing to do, even in this strange place we must obey the Jewish laws. We also formally gave him the name Yeshua, the name we had been told to give him by the angel all those months ago. I wondered if Joseph minded, people would know it wasn’t a family name. I also had no one called Yeshua in my own family, though I did know a boy from my childhood with the name.

After forty days, we had to travel to Jerusalem, to pay for redemption at the temple. As Joseph was from the tribe of Judah, we had to pay five shekels of silver. We couldn’t afford a lamb, so bought two pigeons to sacrifice. It was nice to leave Bethlehem and to have some exercise at last, to see people and to take my baby into the world. I felt quite excited as I approached the temple, our holy place. I didn’t recognise anyone, but everyone could see we had a new baby and lots of the women came over to see him. I felt so happy!
We walked through the Beautiful Gate and up to the Gate of Nicanor.

Then something strange happened. As Joseph and I walked through the temple, a man approached us. He came to look at Yeshua and indicated that he wanted to hold him. That was a little unusual but there was something about him, something that made you sure he was a good man, someone you could trust. When he looked at the baby, he got all emotional and prayed, thanking God and saying that now he could die in peace. He blessed me and Joseph too and then he leant towards me and said something which was very strange. He said Yeshua would cause “the fall and rising of many in Israel” and would be “a sign that would be opposed so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

What does that mean? I know that he is God’s own son and that he is part of the plan to establish God’s reign on earth. Will he be opposed? Surely everyone will accept God’s annointed one, we have waited so long for him.

Then he said something that made me afraid. His face was very near, I could smell his breath. He said that a sword would pierce my soul. It made me very frightened, I practically snatched Yeshua away from him! I want my son to grow strong and be happy, will I suffer for this?

I knew I was tired, not getting enough sleep and it was hard to care for a new baby in a strange place without my mother to help me. I felt that I did not want to hear the man’s words, even if they were true.

The man left us and almost at once an old lady approached. She was ancient, her white hair showed under her mitpahath and she leant heavily on a stick. What I noticed most were her eyes. They almost sparkled! You could tell at once that she was a holy woman and also one who loved to laugh. As soon as she saw Yeshua she started to pray loudly, thanking God and telling people nearby that if they wanted Jerusalem to be redeemed, they should look to the baby. I was glad that no Romans were allowed in the temple, we would have been in trouble!

We finished making the offerings and then went back to Bethlehem. I didn’t know whether to tell Joseph what the old man told me. I kept thinking about his words, worrying about what they might mean. I was so tired, I decided I would wait and maybe tell him later.

The months passed and we settled into life in Bethlehem. We moved into a little house and Joseph worked on the many building projects that the Romans have introduced. Yeshua continued to thrive. He grew into a sturdy toddler and would walk around the room holding onto the stools and baskets. I loved to feel his solid weight when I carried him on my hip. He started to sleep much better at night and Joseph and I were thinking about having another child. Then everything changed.

It was one evening, still quite early but we had filled the lamp with olive oil and lit the linen wick. Joseph put it on a bushel basket, so the room was well lit and we could talk about the day. Suddenly, there was a banging at the door.
Joseph went at once and there, in the road, was a group of Persian travellers. They had dismounted from their horses and were peering intently into the house. They told Joseph they had seen a star and had come to worship the king.I was so glad I hadn’t gone to bed yet! We let them into the house and I went to get Yeshua. He was damp from sleep and his tired eyes looked blearily around him. I wondered if he would cry but he seemed fascinated by our strange visitors. They wore their hair in long curls and one had a band of gold on his head. It glinted in the lamp light and I could see Yeshua watching it intently. Their clothes were patterned with birds and flowers. We offered them wine, it was clear they were tired from their journey. I was embarrassed that we only had two stools to offer them, but they didn’t seem to mind and in fact insisted that I should sit on one with Yeshua and they were happy to sit on the rush mat. They didn’t really sit anyway, they wanted to kneel before Yeshua.

Then they gave him gifts. They were beautiful to look at. They gave him gold, signifying that he is a king. They gave him frankincense. The strong aroma filled the house and I wondered if Yeshua was to be a priest, even though he is not descended from Levi. They also gave him myrrh. Myrrh is costly but is for embalming a body. It was a strange gift for a baby and I wondered what it meant.

They told us their story before they left. In their Persian home, they were magi, watching the stars and foretelling the future. Many months ago, at the time of Yeshua’s birth, they had seen a special star which they knew meant a powerful new king had been born and they determined they would find him and worship him. Unfortunately, following the star caused them to go to Jerusalem first (I always knew that star gazing was a misleading activity!) They went to Herod’s palace and asked where the new king was. This was scary, Herod had shown he was not a king to be trusted and his cruelty was well known. I would not have wanted to visit his palace.

However, it sounded as though he had decided to be helpful. He asked the scribes to research the early scriptures and they discovered that the promised king was to be born in Bethlehem. The king told the Easterners and asked them to find the king and then return and tell him the exact location, so that he too could worship.

I wondered what would happen next. Would Herod himself come to visit my precious baby or would we be summoned to the palace? This was not a comfortable thought. I also wondered why the palace scribes had not come to visit us. Did they not believe the scriptures that they studied so diligently? Surely if they were truly expecting a redeemer they would also have come?
The men left. They planned to sleep in an inn and return to Jerusalem the next day. We could not offer them lodging in our tiny house and they seemed content to leave now they had seen Yeshua.

I returned Yeshua to bed and soon after Joseph and I also went to sleep.

I had not been asleep for long when Joseph woke me. He shook me awake, then went to light the lamp. I could see his face was tense and instantly turned to check Yeshua was well. He was sleeping soundly. Joseph told me I needed to get up at once, we needed to leave. He said that he had had a dream, like the dream when the angel told him that the baby inside me was God’s son. It was so intense and real that he could not ignore it. He said he had been told we must leave Israel, Yeshua was in danger, Herod planned to kill him.

I wondered why I too had not be warned and then I realised – God had told Joseph to take care of me and Yeshua. That was a hard task for a man, to care for a son that was not his own. So God was now telling Joseph alone what we needed to do, underlining his role, establishing him as head of our family. It was a kind act.

I began to pack our things but Joseph was hurrying me, telling me to only take what was essential.
We were to go to Egypt. Egypt! Could this be right? Was Yeshua not to be king of the Jews? I packed hurriedly and we left that very night.

What would the future hold? Would we ever return to our home town? The future was uncertain but I knew that something bigger than us was happening. Whatever happened, God had a plan and no one could alter the course of that.

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This account necessarily involves some imagination but I believe it is also as historically correct as possible (and a lot more correct than some of our Christmas carols!)
If you are aware of any historical errors, please tell me and I will modify it.
I used a variety of sources including:
The gospels of Matthew and Luke
Geoffrey Bromily (1995)
William Hendriksen
William Barclay
Joseph P Amar (university of Notre Dame)
Michael Marlowe
Tessa Afshar

Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy Hidden Faces by Anne E Thompson. An amusing novel, set in an infant school which explores the different faces that teachers wear. They have a public face, worn for the school. This is very different to the face they wear at home or with their friends, but which one is the real face?

Available from bookshops and Amazon:

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https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Faces-Anne-E-Thompson/dp/0995463204/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480505876&sr=8-1&keywords=hidden+faces

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Calamity Church

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Ever have those days when everything seems to go wrong? Church has been a bit like that recently…

At school, we used to sing the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” – do you know the one? All about brave soldiers marching forwards into battle, ‘See his banners go’, ‘Like a mighty army, Moves the church of God’ – all sung to a rousing tune. The sort of song you have to stand up to sing. Well, the church I attend isn’t like that. My bit isn’t anyway. Sometimes it’s more like Dad’s Army if I’m honest.

Take this week as an example. On Friday, we had the health inspector at Lunch Club. Now, in case you don’t realise, health inspections are very high stress. If you serve food to the public, you have to comply with certain laws, which is good. You have to attend a hygiene course, so you don’t poison anyone, which is good. You are given a ‘star rating’ so everyone can see what your hygiene standards are like, which is good. In order for all these excellent things to be effective, you have to also endure random inspections by the health officials. Which, when you are the leader of a group, is quite stressful.

So, this week I was cooking and knew an inspection was due. Arrived early and scrubbed the kitchen before I cooked. (Yes, we do ALWAYS wipe the surfaces, we do not every week scrub the tiles behind the taps, dig out every last crumb behind the bins, things like that.) I was mid cooking when the inspector arrived. A very nice woman dressed in white overalls. I explained that I was cooking, and would just strain the part-cooked potatoes which were ready for roasting, and then set her up with our files to read through, while I put the potatoes in the oven and got lunch to a position where I could leave it for a few minutes. I left the potatoes in the saucepan while I grabbed the folders for her to read, then turned back to find one of of the other helpers was mashing the potatoes – or at least, was trying to mash them, they were still hard as had only just come to the boil. I did not slap the helper (inspector was present) and rescued those potatoes that were still large enough to roast, then continued to cook lunch and answer questions and appear calm. All turned out okay, 38 people had lunch (very few commented on the potato shortage) and we retained our 5 star hygiene rating. But it did not feel professional. It didn’t feel like an army marching forwards.

Another unfortunate event was our film night. We found out that it’s possible to rent films after they have been in the cinema but before they are released on DVD. This makes for a good opportunity to have a ‘community cinema’ – a service for local people, somewhere friendly for them to spend a Friday evening, plus they come into the church building, meet some of the members, and hopefully discover that we are welcoming, church is less ‘odd’ than they might think. The first showing was this week. It had been advertised in the local press, fliers had been given out, ice creams bought for the interval, a new high definition projector bought to ensure film quality, we were all set. We just needed the film. Which was delivered later than expected. So no one watched it beforehand. Certificate 12A have changed since I was a kid (when we went to see things like The Sound of Music!) As I sat in the church building, behind a fluffy haired sweet old lady; while strobe lights from a party scene flickered across the stained glass windows and people on the big screen snorted drugs; I felt this might have been a mistake. In the interval, the pastor said how relieved he was that at least there had been no nudity. He spoke too soon….

None of which makes me feel much like a mighty army of God. But we try. We are called to be faithful, not to always succeed – which is just as well at my church! And, we do have some brilliant sermons. This week, the week of disasters, we had a sermon on the book of Job. You know the book? It’s about a man who has everything, nice family, health, possessions. Then God lets the devil take it all away, to see if Job will still worship God, if he will stay faithful. I have never seen the point of this book before. I have no idea if it’s based on actual events, or is a story to make a point – but previously I never got what the point was, it just seemed cruel. But this week, it was explained.

The book shows that God is worth following. Just because he is God. Not so we have an easy life. Not because it will guarantee health, or wealth, or safety for our family. Stop and think for a minute.

Sometimes Christians ‘sell’ God. We talk about becoming a Christian so you can know peace, joy, forgiveness, so you have someone in your life who cares. The book of Job illustrates that these are NOT the reasons we should follow God. We should worship God because he is worth it. Just because He is God. That is a huge thought. Huge.

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Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this, you can follow my blog : anneethompson.com

You might also enjoy my book – strong characters and light humour wrapped up in an easy-read novel. Why not buy a copy to give as a gift to someone you want to make smile?

Hidden Faces final cover 6 July 2016

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Faces-Anne-E-Thompson/dp/0995463204/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474882091&sr=8-1&keywords=hidden+faces+by+anne+e+thompson

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Clara Call Duck has a Problem

An Animal Garden Story

 Clara call duck was cross. It was a very cold February and lumps of ice had formed on the pond. Annie knew that soon the whole pond would freeze over. This was very dangerous because Mr Fox could then walk across the water. He was hungry and would like duck for dinner. Annie wanted the ducks to be safe, so she had put them all into a large cage.

The cage was very big. It was tall, so the call ducks could fly if they wanted to. It had fresh hay, so the big fat white Aylesbury ducks could sit and chat. There was food and big bowls of water. Most importantly, it was safe. There was strong metal fencing around the sides, across the roof and even under the mud and hay on the floor.

However, there was nowhere quiet and private and Clara wanted to build a nest.

On the first day, she laid an egg in the corner. But Annie collected it when she brought fresh water.

On the second day she laid an egg in a box of hay, but Edna, the East India duck laid her egg there too and then made a mess!

On the the third day she laid an egg at the top of the ramp. But Amy the Aylesbury duck knocked it, and it rolled all the way down and cracked on the hard mud.

On the fourth day, Clara found a tiny gap between the mounds of hay and a stool. There was just room to crawl underneath. Under the stool there was room to pull bits of hay to make a nest. Clara laid her egg, then crawled out to play with the other ducks.

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The East India ducks were too busy splashing water to notice the gap under the stool. The white Aylesbury ducks were much too fat to fit under the stool. When Annie brought food and water she was too busy to notice the gap under the stool. The boy ducks were too busy chasing everyone to notice the gap under the stool.

Every day, Clara crawled under the stool and laid one more egg. The clutch of eggs became more and more. When there were fifteen eggs, Clara didn’t lay any more. She sat on the nest and plucked lots of soft feathers from her tummy and made the nest soft and cosy.Then she spread her wings across all the eggs and rested.

When Annie came with fresh water, she noticed that Clara was missing. She looked in all the boxes and under all the ramps, but she couldn’t find her anywhere. She worried that somehow Clara had escaped.

After four weeks, the eggs began to hatch. It is very difficult to climb out of an egg but ten ducklings managed to hatch. When Annie came with the food, she was very surprised to see lots of ducklings! She quickly collected them all and put them in a large container with Clara, so they would be safe. She didn’t want an Aylesbury duck to sit on one and squash it!

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A Prayer:

Dear Father God,

Sometimes I have problems. Please help me to think of what to do.

Amen

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Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this, why not sign up to follow my blog?

anneethompson.com

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