Week 39: Prophets’ Imagination

Unpacking the prophets’ imagination is especially helpful as our Living in The Story readings lead us through both the works of the OT prophets and the Revelation of John in our NT. Prophets persistently challenge status quo, counter conventional wisdom, and cast alternative visions.

Walter Brueggemann’s classic book, The Prophetic Imagination, reminds readers that Torah needs the prophets to name both the human brokenness and the divine remedies. Every society in every age needs prophets who will speak truth to all us stumbling ordinary people as well as to speak truth to power.

The great Jewish scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the nature and function of the prophets [as similar to the poets’ imagination]. Kelly Brown Douglas explored the prophetic work of Martin Luther King Jr. and especially noted the vision Dr. King cast in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech as a moral imagination.

The imaginative ministry of prophets continues to challenge inequities and injustices that harm and hold back God’s beloved. Prophetic, poetic, moral imagination: all these aspects describe how prophetic work imagines, envisions, and dreams alternative realities that allow for human flourishing . . .

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Week 38: Revelation

The Story of the human race has cycled through numerous apocalyptic ages throughout our history and when we are there, it feels like the end of the world. Our current Living in The Story texts lead us readers into Exile with Israel; their previous world has ended and things will never be the same.

At the same time, we encounter the experience of first century Christians after the destruction of the Temple and the defeat of Jerusalem; their world also had come to an end. During both these epochal ages, Judaism and Christianity evolved into something completely different. Something old died and something brand new emerged. A new creation was birthed into the world.

This image of birthing is helpful as we consider how to respond to apocalyptic times. When everything we know, everything we are is in transition, it can feel as if the whole earth is in labor. As I wrote during the traumatic summer of 2020, our world was embroiled in tumult with a deadly global pandemic, threats of economic collapse, climate crises, constant war, rising violence, ethnic conflicts, class divides, and waves of authoritarianism.

As I struggled to understand this societal chaos, I kept reminding myself, as bad as all this is, this is not the worst things have ever been. And I wondered, are we also in labor? Will something completely different be birthed into the world as we make our way through this painful birth canal?

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Week 37: Isaiah

The book of Isaiah is a tremendous work, long and meaty, full of fascinating prose and brilliant poetry. Isaiah shaped the entire theology of Israel during a critical turning point of their history. As they looked back at their experience of Exile, Jewish theologians sought to understand what had gone wrong within their covenant relationship with Israel’s God; they sought to learn from their mistakes and forge a new future with hope and faithfulness.


Scholars note three major and distinctive writings within the one book that carries the name Isaiah.

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Week 36: Laments

The story of Israel has now taken us to Exile in Babylon . . . Jerusalem’s destruction is complete. The walls are toppled, the Temple is razed, the last of David’s kingly descendants are executed, and God’s people are either slaughtered or marched across the Fertile Crescent. All they have now are their memories . . .

Where is God? they surely asked. What about God’s faithfulness? What about God’s promises? What about the covenant?

Living in The Story aligns the gut-wrenching Psalm 137 with the laments of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Lamentations because it is so breathtakingly honest. Psalm 137 cries out the full-throated grief of Israel in their devastation. This requiem gives language to the unspeakable pain of any parent whose children have been raped or enslaved, tormented or murdered. I can’t imagine the loss of so many people across the ages.

Laments give voice to the universality of human tragedy; they help us to be human . . .

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Week 35: Self-Destruction

I have a rabbi friend who says it’s impossible to know what Judaism was like before the Exile because during those several decades of captivity in Babylon, God’s people were changed forever. Rabbi Jeffrey points out that all the gathered writings we have today were written, compiled, and edited from the perspective of that dark experience and those deep transformations.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel was besieged, then conquered and scattered by the Assyrians around 722 BCE. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was besieged and conquered and carried into captivity by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Remember that our Living in The Story readings this week offer a hindsight perspective. As they relate the pivotal historical events that forever changed Israel as a people, these texts tell their story not in a current moment, but rather through the long angle lens of exile and return.

The people of Judah (now taking back the name Israel) had returned to their homeland and learned some valuable lessons. “We did this to ourselves” is the bottom line of their self-analysis, a self-reflection in the story line we read through the Kings, the Chronicles, and the prophet Isaiah. Remember all this is history within a theological perspective . . .

Reading these stories of the last days of Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem is sad reading indeed, maybe because it sounds familiar.

Back in the 1930s, the rich grasslands of the American mid-West were transformed into a Dust Bowl. It’s heart breaking to see the photographs of that stark, brown world. At the same time, Wall Street was collapsing and sending shock waves throughout every Main Street in the United States. Amid the multiple crises with joblessness, homelessness, and food scarcity, many people may have wondered if these were our last days as a nation.

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Week 34: Elisha

These Living in The Story essays talk a lot about how to read and reread, how to interpret and reinterpret Scripture. I hope you can tell the Bible is precious to me. I hope you can see how much I respect its power to reveal truth about who we are as humans; how much I believe that God continues to speak a current word through these odd and ancient words. I believe the Bible is true.

But then we still have some stories that are just flat weird . . .

The ancients who wrote these documents did not operate within our modern understanding of science, they did not conceive of history in the same way we do, they did not write their stories in line with Enlightenment standards of rationality. The ancients were storytellers.

Story is how we humans probe the truth of our existence, it’s how we discover and discern what is real and true about our shared humanity. Story is a time-honored way to make sense of who we are as humans, where we come from, why we’re here, and what is the meaning of life; it’s a way to watch for intersections with the Holy. As my theologian husband wisely said:

Sometimes folk tales have been incorporated into the text of the Bible. No one ever thought or intended that these folk tales should be taken as factual.

They’re morality fables: a talking snake, a talking donkey, a great fish that swallows and then spits out a man unharmed, rude boys getting their come-uppance from two mama bears, two thousand pigs rushing headlong over a cliff because a demon named Legion has been sent into them (don’t you know the people who first heard this tale chuckled at the similarity of the pigs to their hated Roman oppressors?).

Different genres are embedded within the various stories in the texts making up the Bible, and these stories bear witness to a people’s living faith in a living God. . . .

Faithful believers can believe in Creator’s overarching interconnection with creation without believing God personally manufactures tailor-made consequences for every action.

We can believe in Creator’s supreme power at the same time we believe in the human power of choice.

We can believe in Creator’s overarching movement for reconciliation and ultimate justice within creation all the while enduring the reality of injustice prevalent in our world.

And we can trust that all our stories (no matter how weird) can still be used by the Creator of The Story to offer hope: to point to and bear witness to God.

Read more at Charlotte Vaughan Coyle, Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace. (387-397) Resource Publications.


Living in The Story readings for Week 34

2 Kings 1-16

2 Chronicles 24-28

Psalm 12

Psalm 78

Psalm 79

Titus

John 14-16


Image credit: Bears savaging the youths. From a French Manuscript

Week 33: Elijah

A bright Elijah thread weaves throughout the Scriptures. Elijah’s story begins during a time when Israel’s story had become a sad history of rebellion and civil war. The united kingdom of David and Solomon had fractured into two separate nations: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. In First Kings 16, the storyteller says:

Now Ahab son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. And Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.

16:29–30

Ahab was breaking bad and his queen Jezebel may have been even worse; Elijah was the prophet God had sent to stand against them and challenge their wickedness. It was a thankless, dangerous job, and King Ahab disdained Elijah as the “troubler of Israel.” . . .

The bright Elijah thread even weaves into the story of Moses. Tradition has it that Mt. Sinai and Mt. Horeb are the same mysterious mountain—a numinous space, a thin place of intersection between heaven and earth. As the story goes, when Moses was on the mountain, he heard the voice of God in fire and cloud, in rumblings, thunderings, and quakings. In contrast, when Elijah met God on the mountain, this time God was present in the silence . . .

Centuries after the ancient stories about Elijah were penned, NT theologians read and reread their Holy Scriptures and interpreted the meaning and tradition of Elijah based on their encounter with the Risen Christ . . .

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Week 32: Solomon

It is a sad irony that the kingdom King David built was so short lived. David’s heir, Solomon, followed his father’s path of aggressive empire building, but then Solomon’s own son saw the kingdom rent by civil war. The expansive land and legacy of David and Solomon dwindled into the small nation of Judah consisting of only two of the original twelve tribes. A look at Solomon is a look at the temptation to foolishness even for the wisest among us.

One of the most famous stories about the newly crowned king is the story of God’s gift of wisdom as told in First Kings 3 where the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream: “Ask what I should give you.” The young Solomon answered with wise humility.

Humility is the foundation of greatness and it pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked [for] a wise and discerning mind.

And God gave Solomon great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt.

He was wiser than anyone else and his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations.

He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.

People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.

1 Kings 4

The nation of ancient Israel saw its Golden Era with the reign of Solomon.

But power corrupts, they say, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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Week 31: Wisdom

“All the psalms are part of Israel’s Wisdom Tradition, but Psalms 111 and 112 are some that sing and eloquently that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fearing the Lord. Surrendering to the Inscrutable. Awed by the Awesome. While, biblically, the “fear of the Lord” generally means submission, allegiance, and obedience, this “fear” also suggests an appropriate heart-thumping, knee-knocking, spine-tingling response. The fear of the Lord comes from faith that trembles at the majesty and marvels at the mystery.”


Wisdom is a tradition that stands in healthy tension with the covenantal narrative of the Law. When the Law offers “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” as the Word of the Lord delivered from the mountaintop and set in stone, Wisdom says yes-and; the “word is very near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart” (Deut 30: 14). When the Law’s Deuteronomic understandings say “you get what you deserve,” Wisdom argues “yes-but . . . sometimes life doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work.” When the Law thunders, “thus saith the Lord . . .” Wisdom hears the voice of God in the silences and in the still small voice, trusting that “when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” (Isa 30: 21).

When the Law reveals the will of God in the offering of the sacrifices, the duties of the priests, and the practices of the Temple, Wisdom also discovers the will of God in a mother’s love, a father’s devotion, and the faithfulness of a friend.

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Week 30: Confession

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions . . .

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise . . . .

Psalm 51

The church traditionally understands that King David wrote this song of yearning and remorse after his great sin against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. If you’ve been reading Second Samuel this past week, you’ve remembered this sad tale of David’s fall and the consequent undoing of his family.

Mercy is all there is for times like these, mercy that can stare us down, that will expose our hubris, name our deadly acts, and challenge our sinful attitudes so that we may be restored to life. This is the only way, facing the darkness within so that we might find the light; naming our brokenness so that we might be healed.

David cried out for mercy, compassion, and cleansing. So, of course, the God who is mercy, compassion, and steadfast love turned to David with that ever-amazing grace. With God nothing is unforgivable.

Even so, cycles were set into motion; Pandora’s box had been opened. God doesn’t wave a magic wand to eliminate the natural consequences of our actions.

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