Each Monday I plan to write a reflection on my interaction with the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday; this week’s passages are Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, and Mark 12:38-44.
For those unfamiliar with the lectionary, it’s a prescribed set of Bible readings that various churches around the globe read and interact with each week. Usually churches follow a three year cycle with one year utilizing Matthew, one year using Mark, and one year reading Luke. John gets interspersed throughout each of those three years. I use the listing at Vanderbilt Divinity Library, if you want to look up passages and read along as well.
As I began reading, the interaction proved more difficult than I anticipated. When I read the lectionary texts, I read the Old Testament passage first, then the Psalms, then the letter, and finish with the Gospel. That’s not a statement about the “right” procedure for reading, but just an acknowledge of my habit.
I read through Ruth and Psalms 127, all the while getting my dander up and dreading writing today’s post. I moved to skimming through Hebrews 9 and Mark 12, hoping for easier passages to write about for this blog.
I had a light bulb moment as I thought about my desire to avoid Ruth and Psalm 127. As much as I talk about all Scripture being inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16), I act as though some parts are a lot more God-breathed than others. Some parts feel like they got more breath than others. And the parts that I don’t like, that seem difficult, that leave me feeling like I’m standing on a thin wire over a deep canyon, those I want to ignore and push aside in favor of more comfortable passages. I noticed the tendency in others before, but ignored it in myself.
In taking a step back, I realized a few things. I could have pulled out an easy reflection on generosity or hypocrisy looking at Mark 12:38-44. Here Jesus issues a warning against those religious leaders who like all the public honor and attention as they pretend holiness while simultaneously cheating and oppressing people, and this is in stark contrast with the generosity of the impoverished woman who places her last two coins in the offering box. There’s so much in this small passage, and it’d be easy to pull some reflections together here.
But, I think that’s too simple, and it would sugarcoat my reality. I’d be projecting holiness and pretending my life is better than it is. I’d be making it look like it’s simpler to read the Bible than it actually is. The reality is that I struggled this week as I read. Looking at Ruth and Psalm 127, I found myself getting angry and wanting to throw my Bible. “What in the world am I supposed to do with this God?”
Ruth 3:1-15, 4:13-17
I found myself frustrated with whoever wrote Ruth. My struggle with infertility totally made me bitter as I read. Most days I’m fine, but as I read, I found myself in a sneak attack of bitterness.
Ruth seemed frighteningly passive as she obeyed Naomi’s command to sneak into the threshing room while Boaz was sleeping. I got mad at Naomi getting all the glory and public recognition for the birth of the baby Obed. What happened to the faithful and obedient Ruth in chapter 4? Why did she suddenly disappear while Naomi gets all the attention? (And yes, I remember she gets her dues later in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, but I still got upset.) And I resented a society that sees the loss of children and the absence of biological children as a curse from God. “What are you trying to say to me God? Am I cursed? Thank you for rubbing my nose in my childlessness.”
I got so focused on myself that I forgot that while the Bible is a living word for me, it wasn’t written to me.
Now, with a few days distance, I can see more hope in the narrative and I can set aside the bitter-pants lens. For those worried about who will care for them in their advanced age, for those feeling neglected and abandoned, the emphasis on Naomi’s story may prove helpful and hopeful. God never abandoned Naomi, even with all evidence to the contrary (i.e. famine, poverty, the death of her husband, sons, and Orpah’s return to family in Moab). And in fact, God provided a community to care for her. God was faithful to her.
And if dealing with Ruth wasn’t frustrating enough, I flipped over to Psalms. Usually I love Psalms; I gravitate toward them to wonder at God or to cry out to God in frustration. They usually coat me like salve over a wound.
Not this week. Not Psalm 127. Particularly not verses 3 through 5.
3 Children are a gift from the Lord;
they are a reward from him.
4 Children born to a young man
are like arrows in a warrior’s hands.
5 How joyful is the man whose quiver is full of them!
He will not be put to shame when he confronts his accusers at the city gates. (NLT)
I was just like, “Really, God?!? Really?!? Couldn’t we be done with this whole biological children thing today? I’m so not prepared for this. What am I supposed to say about this? So, am I supposed to actually feel cursed?”
The reality is children are a gift. Let’s be honest too. People who are messed up have kids too, not just healthy God-fearing people. Children aren’t merely God’s handout to the fabulous. Life is more complicated than that.
Also, children are more than just a gift: raising children is hard and wrought with its own difficulties. But, children are still a gift and a joy, even as they can be difficult at times (particularly when you haven’t slept in what feels like months). And most of the parents I know are delighted and filled with wonder by their children. As they should be.
But, this psalm is a proverb not a promise. It’s a general statement, not a universal principle, nor a comment about me being cursed. I have to forcefully remind myself that this is a psalm with its own context and purpose, not a word directly for me. It’s a song people sang as they ascended into Jerusalem, and it’s a reminder their security comes ultimately from God, not their own fragile hands. This a great thing to rehearse and recall!
And yet, even as I know better, the psalm still wounds me. Maybe others, who have kids that have done something which makes them feel like objects of public disgrace, feel zinged by verse 5, “He will not be put to shame when he confronts his accusers at the city gates.”
I still feel injured by that one. But in a different way. Maybe it’s all the (hopefully) well meant comments on the infertility journey. The ones that tried to comfort, but somehow implied if we just did this or that thing differently, we’d get (and stay) pregnant. So maybe the infertility is my fault after all. Maybe part of me still feels like I’m less of a woman, less whole, because I haven’t been able to carry a pregnancy to term. And the God, who I’ve watched work miracles in others’ lives, seems silent on this front in my life.
Cognitively, I know that I’m not less than others. That infertility is not a badge of shame. That this is not my fault.
Emotionally, some days I feel this truth all the way through my bones. But, other days, shame wins. Last week, shame won.
And the Bible, the book that I love and depend on, became a vehicle for shame to come riding in upon. To be clear, that’s not the Bible’s fault; it comes from my baggage that I bring with me when I read.
So what’s the point of all this rambling on the Bible? I wanted to be a bit transparent about some of my process for engaging the Bible, and to be honest about my own struggles. And I wanted to hang in there with some challenging passages rather than jumping over them for the easy pickings to write about.
I want to also encourage you readers to do the same, and to be aware of yourself as you read the Bible too. Let’s think together seriously about what it means for all of the Bible to be God-breathed and what that means for how we honor and engage difficult parts of the Bible.