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Samson

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(Judges 13-16)
It is hard to know quite what to make of the story of Samson. It is certainly entertaining: the long-haired, larger-than life Danite hero with his appetite for Philistine women uses his superhuman strength to get out of a number of scrapes largely of his own making, until the beautiful Delilah gets the better of him with her incessant nagging and extracts the secret of his strength. With his hair shaved, he is captured and blinded by his enemies. Perhaps there is redemption of sorts at the end when he pulls the house down on the oppressors of his people, taking thousands of Philistines to death with him.
But that story, no doubt told and retold with relish in ancient Israel, is set within a larger narrative in the biblical canon. It is the last in a series of accounts of saviours of ancient Israel found in the book of Judges, a list that includes heroes like Gideon and Deborah. Each story has been woven into a theological framework with a highly stylised introduction and conclusion. The LORD’s people forsake their God, who then allows their enemies to oppress them. When they cry out in distress, God raises a deliver to rescue them. Under his or her rule they enjoy a time of peace. That is exactly how the Samson saga begins: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.” (Jdg 13:1 NRSV). But then the pattern changes. Here there is no crying out for help. The people of God seem resigned to their fate. They no longer even look to God to save them. To the contrary, a little way into Samson’s saga, they are annoyed with him for provoking their oppressors with his personal vendettas and hand him over to appease the Philistines (15:10-11). But the LORD is determined to save them nonetheless.
Samson’s story starts well. His birth is announced by an angel: the barren woman will conceive and give birth to a son, who is to be consecrated to God. He is to be a nazirite, a vowed religious of sorts. Numbers 6 sets out the terms of the nazirite vow: to abstain from alcohol and grape products, to avoid corpses and not to cut the hair. The vow was usually taken for a limited period, but Samson, like Samuel and John the Baptist after him, was to be a nazirite from the womb to the tomb.
The LORD had great plans for Samson. He blesses the growing child, and the Spirit of the LORD begins to move him (13:24-25). But from this point onwards the story of Samson is an uneasy weaving of discordant narratives. There is the underlying story of God and God’s people, and God’s plan to rescue them from oppression. But there is also the story of self-centred Samson, driven by his appetites and desire for revenge. He does fulfil his calling somewhat by vexing the Philistines, but not because he is living out of the story of the people of God and God’s plans for them. It is always a result of personal vendettas. These stories intersect. The Spirit of the LORD is ever eager to work through Samson, coaxing him toward a confrontation with the enemy and coming upon him on a number of occasions to empower him to act as Israel’s saviour, as well as save his own skin (14:4, 6, 19; 15:14).
Twice in the narrative Samson prays. Dying of thirst after massacring a thousand Philistines with an ass’s jawbone, he cries out to God, referring to himself as God’s servant, and crediting God with the victory (15:18). God responds immediately by causing a spring to gush forth. In his last prayer, when the shorn and blinded Samson is providing entertainment for the worshippers in Dagon’s temple, he says: “Lord GOD, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes,” followed by a final “Let me die with the Philistines” (16:28, 30 NRSV). The divine response is implied in the answer that is given when the pillars are toppled so that the roof comes crashing down. Is this final request of Samson that of the noble hero? I hear in it the final act of revenge for a personal grievance. Even here Samson has not risen above his own story to consciously join God’s story. He is his own avenger, not Israel’s saviour.
Samson doesn’t give us much of an example to aspire to. Once we have been entertained by the superbly told tale, what stays with us? Perhaps we can find in Samson not who we should be, but who we are. As called, gifted people, empowered by the Spirit, out of whose story are we living? That story can be writ large, with great exploits, but is it at the end of the day about us, or about what God is stirring us to do in the world?
There is something hopeful about Samson’s story too. The Spirit of the LORD was patient and willing to work with a very flawed individual. Even his self-centred actions could be woven somehow into the divine tale. The shearing of his locks on Delilah’s lap was not the first time that he had played loose with his vows. He had hosted a drinking party at his wedding (14:10) and dug honey out of the corpse of a lion (14:9). It is only when his hair is cut that the Spirit leaves him (16:20). But immediately after we are told that his hair began to grow again. There is still the possibility of redemption. As Samson veers from one ‘incident’ to the next, the Spirit of the LORD is at work, finding the gaps and the opportunities, using Samson’s temperamental personality to disturb the numbed acceptance of the status quo where God’s people have resigned themselves to their life of un-freedom.
Will God’s will be done anyway? Samson’s story suggests ‘yes and no’. Even Samson’s eye for women can be the opportunity for God to upset the settled relationship between the Israelites and the Philistines. But by the end of the story there is still no real deliverance from the Philistine oppression, despite the accumulation of dead bodies. In the canonical context, we see how the whole system is failing. The book of Judges will now leave the accounts of individual saviour-judges to paint a shocking and depressing picture of life within the community of the people of God. Things are falling apart. This next part of the book has as a repeated refrain:”in those days Israel had no king” (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25). God’s chosen instruments, called, gifted and empowered by the Spirit though they are, are no longer effective in doing the work of leading God’s people. A new dispensation is needed.
I wonder whether our lives and mission are God’s story or ours? Is the power of the Spirit squandered on personal agendas, or are we truly those who bring salvation? Thank God, the LORD is creative in weaving the stories together. And shorn hair regrows.
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Ecumenical Christian

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I recently filled in an application form which had a box for ‘religious affiliation’. I was tempted to write: “It’s complicated!” I am Christian, a missionary disciple of Jesus. But which branch of the Christian family do I call home? The best way, really, to describe myself is as a practicing ecumenical Christian.
St Paul, annoyed with the divisions between Christians in the church in ancient Corinth, reminded them that “all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [with their perceived distinctive ‘brands’] or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). That pretty much sums up my own experience. As a member of the Christian household, I am blessed by a superabundance of expressions of faith in God through Christ Jesus, so many gifts of a loving God to God’s people. Christ is not divided, the Lord our God is one God, so why should I have to choose to be ‘in’ one camp and ‘out’ the other?
My move from South Africa to Ireland has given me the opportunity to learn so much from Catholicism, and for my word-based spirituality to be filled out with the richness of images and rituals. All the gifts of the Christian world, in whatever form, from whatever tradition, are God’s gifts to God’s people, and I accept them with gratitude. To paraphrase St Paul, all those who proclaim the Gospel of Jesus are God’s servants, working together, and we are all God’s field, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:9). What a wonderful building, what a beautiful, fruitful field!

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God of the generations,
when we set our hands to labor,
thinking we work alone,
remind us that we carry
on our lips
the words of prophets,
in our veins
the blood of martyrs,
in our eyes
the mystics’ visions,
in our hands
the strength of thousands.

This prayer by Jan Richardson is from In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season.

God of the gene…

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Lord,
if this be not your will, frustrate it:
Frustrate it fully and frustrate it quickly,
And move our heart’s desire
closer to the heart of your desire for us.
But if it be of your will,
Then continue to open for us
the generosity of heart, mind, and means
that are needed,
And may this generosity begin with us.

This prayer comes from The Heart in Pilgrimage: A Prayerbook for Catholic Christians by Eamon Duffy. What a powerful prayer to pray at the beginning and discerning stage of any project! It is so hard sometimes to know when to keep pushing that door, and when to look instead for the other door which may be opening.

The letter of James in the New Testament reassures us that “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you (James 1:5). If we are attentive, and open, willing to listen, we will be guided. James goes on to warn us to ‘ask in faith, never doubting” (James 1:6). Faith for James isn’t the power of positive thinking, but faithful action. When we have the courage to step out and act upon the wisdom given, not constantly second guess ourselves and the divine leading, when we commit ourselves, our time, our resources to where we sense God at work, we will meet with the incredible generosity of God.

Lord,if this b…

Spiritual Guidance of Children

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Image   I’m starting to read Jerome Berryman’s latest book, The Spiritual Guidance of Children (Morehouse Publishing 2013). While I was waiting for it to become available here, I’d do searches for it using its subtitle – Montessori, Godly Play and the Future. Crazy as it may sound, I only really noticed its title when I read the opening words of the preface:

“This book reframes ‘Christian education’ for children as spiritual guidance. It explores how best to transfer the whole Christian language system, which implies a way of life and spiritual development, from one generation to another.”

What does that reframing entail? No doubt I’ll discover more as I read the book. But right away my spirit responded with a delighted ‘yes!’ to that phrase. Spiritual guidance for children – we cannot operate within that paradigm unless we accept that they are already on the journey, their unique journey with God. On the other hand, we cannot think in terms of guidance unless we truly believe that we have something of value to offer them from the Christian tradition.

‘Spiritual guidance’ sounds like an attentive, respectful practice, one which cannot be done with a heavy hand but which is nonetheless intentional. From what I have already experienced of Godly Play, the method developed by Jerome Berryman, I know it will be both playful and profound. It sounds like something I want to be a part of, something the various generations do together. To quote from the preface again:

“This kind of guidance follows Jesus’ counsel that in order to be spiritually mature, we need to become like children and to become like children we need to welcome them, which in turn reveals him and the one who sent him. The language of the Christian people flows out of Jesus’ life and words, so it makes sense that this language can be used to guide us back to our source as well as toward our ending.”

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The seven gods who rule the world were born when God laughed. …After he had burst out laughing, light appeared. …He burst out laughing a second time: the waters were everywhere. At the third burst of laughter, Hermes appeared; at the fourth, [generation]; at the fifth, destiny; at the sixth, time. Then, before the seventh laugh, God had a tremendous inspiration, but he laughed so hard that he cried, and from his tears the human soul was born.

This is a translation of an Egyptian myth, which I found here, by Stephen Nichols in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. (I’ve changed ‘creation’ to ‘generation’ as the translation of the French “la génération” that he footnotes as his source, because I think ‘generativeness’ is at the heart here, not the static ‘stuff’ of creation.)

Hermes is the god of shepherds, land travel, merchants, weights and measures, oratory, literature, athletics and thieves, and known for his cunning and shrewdness. Most importantly, he is the messenger of the gods. (lifted from here). I like the way Wikipedia puts it: “Hermes is a god of transitions and boundaries.” He stands at the boundaries, not so much to enforce them as to transverse them. He’s the go-between. The boundaries are where play happens, where ‘is’ and ‘as if’ meet, where the sacred touches the ordinary.

I wonder what it felt like to live with this as one’s story of origins, as the story that tells its tellers who they are and what kind of world they find themselves in. If the world is born in laughter, then there is something playfully subversive about it. It doesn’t pay to be too solemn. When confronted with chaos, we laugh. Not the laugh of derision or cynicism, nor the laughter of madness, but a playful laugh. We play, and watch with delight as something new emerges. I love that human beings are an idea of God so ridiculously wonderful that God cries with laughter. We are the result of tears, but not of despair. It reminds me of the words of a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter: “I can cry until I laugh or laugh until I cry. So cut the deck right in half, I’ll play from either side.”

It is interesting to compare this to what we find in Genesis 1. There we also have the number 7, and God creating by expelling breath, but there is it a word, not a laugh. There’s also the creation of water, the setting of the boundaries, the marking of time (through the luminaries set in the firmament on the fourth day), the generativity bestowed on earth, plants and animals (let the earth bring forth …. With their seed in them …. Be fruitful and multiply ….) It is much more solemn, though. In Genesis 1 God knows what God is doing, and step by step executes the plan to make order out of chaos and to fill the void with life. In the Egyptian myth the creative process seems much more like we as human being might experience it. Out of delight, something new emerges. The Egyptian myth gives us another model of creativity, one that puts play and discovery and wonder at the heart of the process. It is like reading Genesis 1 through the lens of Proverbs 8, and identifying with Wisdom rather than God (which makes sense, since we are creatures before we are creators.) In Proverbs 8, Wisdom plays at God’s side and in the world, delighting in creation and in human beings. The bridge between the divine and the human realm is Wisdom at play.

The seven gods …