Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Love Means Having To Say I Am Sorry

As a recent Catholic convert, I’ve been thinking a lot about confession lately. It has been almost a year since being confirmed at St. Peter’s in Columbia, SC, and Catholic faithful “go to confession” at least once per year. I did it just prior to the confirmation, dumping on the priest a bunch of shameful stuff I have done over the decades, and that was about a year ago.

 Of course all Christians believe in confession. How could we do otherwise, given 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” For most of my life I understood confessing my sins to mean simply bowing my head in prayer and saying something like, “I did _______, and I am sorry. Please forgive me.” I’m not going to even suggest that God never heard or honored those confessions, but there is some challenging scripture that seems to suggest a bit more complexity about confession.

 There is that instruction in James 5:16 – “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” There is often an interesting connection between healing and forgiveness in the New Testament. So, it became reasonable to me that we need to say those confessions out loud and within hearing distance of somebody else. And maybe we also need to pray for each other about those things confessed. But I don’t really know if this is a command or a law or just a bit of “fatherly” advice offered by James to his readers.

 And there is the “Our Father” in which we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” additional evidence of the importance of person to person interaction as a part of confession, and indication that we should not only let others hear our confession but that we should hear theirs and forgive them as well. It is not clear to me whether that “as” means “while” or “in the same way” or “to the same extent?” In the Matthew version of the “Our Father,” Jesus offers some additional explanation in Matthew 6:14-15 - “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” There is no emphasis on confession here, or even any request for forgiveness, but I suppose they are assumed. I believe that “trespass” is a synonym for “sin.

 Finally, there are those instances in Matthew 16:19 and John 20:23 in which Jesus gives Peter and the Disciples authority to forgive sins. I guess that, before becoming Catholic, I always just assumed that meant we all have some limited authority to forgive sins, and we do, of course, or would not have been instructed to do so, but I’m thinking this authority he gave them, the so-called Office of the Keys, is a bit different. Even if so, I might have once argued that it applied only to those who received the authority directly from Jesus. But now that doesn’t make sense to me. I have come to believe that Jesus founded His church and left somebody in charge with the authority and responsibility to hear confessions and forgive sins and teach and interpret and perform other specific duties and to ordain successors and that that authority and responsibility continue today.

 So, I am getting ready, and of course a big part of the confession process is the time spent praying and reflecting on one’s own life with the objective of determining what needs to be confessed. Overt and undeniable sins of commission, lying, adultery, theft, etc., would come to the top of the list. Hopefully, I don’t have many of those, but I have to be concerned also about the more subtle failures, the places I have fallen short, the things I ought to have done but didn’t. And it is easy, especially in a hedonistic culture that encourages self-esteem, to deceive myself, to convince myself I am a pretty good guy. In Leviticus 11:45, God tells the people, “You shall be holy, for I am holy,” and Peter quotes and repeats that charge to the early Church in 1 Peter 1:16. The gap between that and where I find myself is pretty wide. Thank God for the opportunity for confession, for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for penance, and for continuing conversion.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Holy Week Meditation

134 All sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ, "because all divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ" - The Catholic Catechism

The diagram below started with one I published earlier, Chaos to Church.  I had some feedback and suggestions on that one, and one thing led to another, and this is the current status.  A work in progress I would say, but an attempt to outline what The Church means by the Gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ.  I'm not going to try to explain  because the whole idea is that such an exhibit should be pretty much self-explanatory.  And, the less I say, the fewer errors I make.  As usual, I  welcome any feedback, comments, criticisms, or suggestions.

To get a readable version, just click on the diagram.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Chaos to Church

Below is a diagram which I developed a few years back after first hearing the term "henotheism" in a theology course at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and after some discussion of ecclesiology at that same institution.  Who else but me is going to try to express in a simple diagram on a single sheet of paper, with an even dozen Bible verses, the theological history of the Christian church?  Well, I did try to do that, for a confirmation class I believe, and just thought of the diagram a few days ago.  I know this will look crazy to many Christians and to almost all of other faiths, but I think this is a standard Christian understanding of the theological story the Bible tells.  Of course the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey might have said, is that The Church seems to some to have descended into chaos in the most recent few centuries, thus completing the circle.

And of course The Church has always had and still has its share of problems, often exhibiting shameful and very unchristian behavior.  But Jesus didn't promise that it would be perfect; only that, "the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it."  I am interested in any feedback this little exercise might generate.  You will probably have to click on the chart to get a readable version.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Luther, Good Works, and Favorite Bible Verses

In discussions among Christians it is common to be asked to share one’s favorite Bible verse. I don’t have a favorite movie, song, vacation spot, color, city, grandchild, or Bible verse. Except in the case of my one and only and therefore favorite wife, I just don’t think in terms of favorites but rather in terms of variety. A generous assessment of my failure to express favoritism might be that I am trying to be non-judgmental, except of course in the case of quantitative and objective things such as budgets, debts, and deficits. After all, it is still true that 2+2=4. But, rather than get involved in such an explanation when asked the favorite Bible verse question, I think I will, from now on, just settle on Ephesians 2:10, the last in the selection below, because it seems to me to encompass the meaning of the Christian life. Now, if I can just remember that verse!
Ephesians 2:1-10 NRS You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Lutherans put great theological emphasis on grace and faith over works. Google the word combination, “Lutheran we don’t have to do anything,” and you get quite a few hits focusing on that central element of Lutheran theology, that, as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians in the scripture quoted above, “…it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” But that is not the place to stop reading, for he went on to write my “favorite” verse. So, it seems that although we are not saved by good works, we are saved for them so they seem to be an essential element of salvation. Now if we could just figure out what they are.

Of course that Lutheran position contrasts with what Lutherans often see as a Catholic emphasis on good works as a means of salvation. Googling, “Catholic works justification,” yields numerous hits explaining how wrong the Catholic Church is in emphasis on “works” along with very able defenses of the Catholic position on justification. Catholics never argue that we don’t have to do anything.

Because of this apparent divide and a belief on the part of many theologians that separation of the Body of Christ into denominations is not a good thing, Lutheran and Catholic theologians have engaged in ongoing dialogue for a number of years in an effort to reach agreement on various theological issues that have been stewing ever since Father Martin Luther raised them 495 years ago, and one result of that was a 1999 Lutheran Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Of course such discussions and declarations are of little interest to average members of the respective bodies, but, as part of a seminary course, we read and discussed the 1999 Joint Declaration. That helped me understand why the average Catholic or Lutheran in the pews is not really very interested in the subject.

The opening statement in that ongoing discussion might be considered to have been a little pamphlet written by Father Martin Luther and delivered to Pope Leo X in 1520, three years after the posting of his Ninety Five Theses which got him in trouble. In that little pamphlet, Luther explored the relationship between works and salvation and tried to explain to Pope Leo X what “good works” are. During a History of Christianity course at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in 2002, I chose that pamphlet as the subject of a required paper. Here is that paper, after correction of a few minor grammatical errors pointed out by the professor. If the paper sounds very Lutheran, remember that I was one at the time and had not yet cast my vote in favor of greater and more visible Christian unity.

JANUARY 30, 2002
HT 102

JANUARY 30, 2002

I. Introduction and Background

Having taken a public stand, on October 31, 1517, against the abuses of the Catholic Church hierarchy of the 16th century, Martin Luther was under extreme pressure to recant or be declared guilty of heresy.[i]  Had he restricted his criticisms strictly to matters of theology, he might have been allowed to continue to toil in relative obscurity.  However, he had touched the financial nerve of the church by attacking the sale of indulgences on which the economic strength of the Church and the wealth of its leaders had come to depend. 

Luther’s positions, stated in the “Ninety Five Theses,” had been called to the attention of Pope Leo X who had authorized the most recent scheme for sale of indulgences and who was “one of the worst popes of that age of corrupt, avaricious, and indolent popes.”[ii]  Because Luther had support both from theologians, whom he had quietly convinced of the validity of his theses, and from Frederick the Wise, lord of Wittenberg, who wanted to be known as a wise and just ruler, Pope Leo X was not able to summarily squelch Luther.  Instead, he sent emissaries, first Cardinal Cajetan and then Karl von Miltitz, to pressure Luther into recanting.  Those efforts having failed, Luther was asked to write a conciliatory letter to Pope Leo X and agreed to do so and to send it along with a devotional booklet written especially for the purpose. The title of the booklet was The Freedom of a Christian and, in the accompanying letter, Luther said of the booklet, “Unless I am mistaken…it contains the whole of Christian life in a brief form, provided you grasp its meaning.” [iii]

The Freedom of a Christian is in two parts.  The first addresses the uselessness of “works” of any kind as a way to please God or to achieve salvation.  The second addresses the necessity of good works for the believer.  The focus of this paper is on Luther’s use of the term “works” and some examples and illustrations he uses.

II. Biblical (NRSV) Use of the Term “Works”

In the Old Testament, “works” used as a noun usually refers to the “wondrous” or “marvelous” or “wonderful” works of God.  There are examples in 1 Chronicles and in Psalms. In the Gospels according to Matthew and John, “works” refers to things done by Jesus or by His followers for God or in the name of God.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[iv]  In John’s Gospel, Jesus often speaks of doing the works of His father as when he spoke to his disciples in John 9:4: “We must work the works of him who sent me.”  Jesus further makes it clear in John 14:12 that Christians are to carry on the works He has been doing after he leaves:  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Finally, in John 6:29, Jesus states the essential truth on which Luther’s theology seems to be based: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  The belief of the Christian depends not on anything the Christian has done but solely on a “work of God.”

Most discussion of works both in the Bible and in The Freedom of a Christian focuses on works that are, at least from the human viewpoint, good.  Little is said of works that are obviously evil, though Jesus does say in John 7:7 that the world hates Him because of his testimony “against it that its works are evil.”  Both Galatians and Romans use “works” as an important theological term.  In Galatians it is almost always “works of the law” referring to compliance with the Jewish laws which, of course, was not an issue for Christians in Luther’s time.  The point in Galatians was that New Testament believers were free from requirements to comply with those laws.  In Romans, the meaning of “works” includes “works prescribed by the law,”[v] but seems to extend also to whatever a person does.  The letter to the Romans fully explores the relationships among works, grace, faith, and justification. 

Luther made no secret of his high opinion of the theological importance of Romans:

This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.  It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.[vi]

Paul’s epistle to the Romans is cited approximately twenty times in The Freedom of a Christian.  It is not surprising that Luther used the term “works” in the same way Paul used it in Romans.  For Luther, writing during a time when compliance with ancient Jewish laws was no longer an issue, “works” more clearly refers to all the things a person does.  That is a reasonable extension of thought since those ancient Jewish laws had applied to almost everything the ancient Jew did.  Just as clarification of the relationship between Jewish law and salvation through Christ was the goal of St. Paul, clarification of the relationships of works, grace, faith, and justification seems to have been Luther’s goal.

III. “Works” in The Freedom of a Christian

Early in the treatise, Luther makes the point that works of a religious nature such as praying, fasting, adorning the body, or dwelling in sacred places are in themselves neutral, neither helping nor hurting the soul.  “It does not help the soul if the body … fasts … it will not harm the soul if the body…eats and drinks as others do.”  He goes on to say that the reason such works, in themselves, are neutral is that they can all be “done by any wicked person” and are “things which hypocrites can do.”[vii]  Luther’s belief was that it is the spiritual condition of the person doing a work that determines whether the work is good or not and that it is only God who can make a person’s spiritual condition right for doing good works.  That belief seems to reflect the words of Jesus quoted earlier that the most important work is trusting Him whom God had sent. 

Luther used trees and fruit as a parable of Christians and their good works:
As it is necessary, therefore, that the trees exist before their fruits and the fruits do not make trees either good or bad, but rather as the trees are, so are the fruits they bear; so a man must first be good or wicked before he does a good or wicked work, and his works do not make him good or wicked, but he himself makes his works either good or wicked. [viii]

Luther illustrates this counter intuitive truth by an interesting and perhaps surprising example of a work pleasing to God.  The example is Adam’s tilling and cultivation of the garden in Eden.  Because Adam was created righteous, with no need of justification, and was given the gardening task by God, that task “would truly have been the freest of works, done only to please God and not to obtain righteousness…”[ix] 

Similar to the example of a tree and its fruit is that of a bishop and the official duties of his office.  The bishop is not made a bishop by the performance of those duties, but the performance of the duties is deemed valid because the person already holds the office of bishop.  In the same way, the free and willing good works of a Christian are valid because of the person’s Christianity, a gift from God, and in no way make him or her a Christian.[x]  Thus, for Luther, the important questions are not about “what works and what kind of works are done, but who it is that does them, who glorifies God and brings forth the works.”[xi]

Luther also mentions the good work of caring for one’s own body.[xii]  He refers not to a narcissistic or egotistic self centeredness but to caring for one’s body in order that one might be able to serve others through working to earn money and giving it to those in need, willingly and with no interest in reward.  Luther makes the point that it is because there is no need for good works to achieve one’s own righteousness and salvation, that the Christian is freed from thinking of his own needs and interests and is totally free to serve others just as Adam was totally free to till the garden in Eden.[xiii]

Motivation, in Luther’s theology, seems to be the key to good works, and pure and positive motivation seems to be possible only for those who are believers experiencing the grace of God.  “Any work that is not done solely for the purpose of keeping the body under control or of serving one’s neighbor, as long as he asks nothing contrary to God, is not good or Christian.”[xiv]  Luther follows these criteria with an expressed concern that “few or no colleges, monasteries, altars, and offices of the church are really Christian in our day” [xv] because people were seeking profit, in the form of salvation, in those institutions. 

Luther’s clearest statement of appropriate works and attitude toward works for the Christian seems to be this:  “Hence, as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.”[xvi]  This summary statement clearly connects and reconciles the Gospel teachings of Jesus about the works of the Father and the theology of works, grace, and faith expressed by St. Paul in the Epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians.

Thanks be to God!

[i] Historical details are taken from Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985) 1-28.
[ii] Gonzalez, 21.
[iii]Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 31 (Vol. 31, Page 343). Fortress Press: Philadelphia
[iv] NRSV, Matthew 5:16.  All Bible quotations in this paper are from the New Revised Standard Version.
[v] NRSV, Romans 3:28.
[vi] Robert L. Ferm, Readings in the History of Christian Thought (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1964), 340.
[vii] Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 31 (Vol. 31, Page 345). Fortress Press: Philadelphia
[viii] Ibid., 361.
[ix] Ibid., 360.
[x] Ibid., 361.
[xi] Ibid., 353
[xii] Ibid., 365.
[xiii] Ibid., 365
[xiv] Ibid., 370.
[xv] Ibid., 370.
[xvi] Ibid., 367.


Ferm, Robert L. Readings in the History of Christian Thought. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1964.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985.

Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 31 (Vol. 31, Page 345). Fortress Press: Philadelphia

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Catholic Hospitals, From a Child's Viewpoint, Then and Now

I clearly remember being warned by one of my peers, about sixty years ago at age 9, that when I grew up and got married and my wife was having a baby that I should make sure she does NOT go to a Catholic hospital because they would let her die rather than allow any harm to come to the baby. I’m guessing my friend heard that from his parents. At least we know it didn’t come from TV. Well, that was the Southern Baptist environment of the small East Tennessee town I grew up in, just one tiny and very suspicious Catholic Church in the entire county, its members probably all Yankee transplants brought in by Alcoa. Aside from the misconceptions about Catholicism though, it is pretty neat that even as little boys we were talking about our future responsibilities as husbands and parents.

Catholic hospitals are in the news now because the Obama administration has determined that they must provide “free” chemical birth control and chemical (maybe) abortions to their employees as part of the health insurance plans they offer. Of course the Catholic Church, as I, a relatively new Catholic understand it, is not opposed at all to birth control and family planning. It just teaches that sex is for married couples, is primarily for procreation rather than recreation or stress relief, and that is it fine for such couples to engage in sex on a schedule or even at an age that makes pregnancy unlikely so long as they are aware of and open to the possibility of new life resulting from the encounter. The Church is opposed to chemical or mechanical, maybe even electrical, prevention of conception for the purpose of recreational or therapeutic sexual encounters. And of course the Catholic Church, along with Southern Baptists, is staunchly opposed to abortions. (Yes, I'm aware that many Catholics don't practice what the Church preaches and that lots of Baptists drink.)

So, what is the administration thinking? Is the objective to test the resolve of Catholics? Is it to put the Catholic health care providers out of business as part of the federal takeover of health care in the United States? Or maybe they are just thinking that it will be a great tragedy if, in the future, nine year old boys will have to warn their peers not to ever have a girlfriend who works at a Catholic Hospital because, if they do, they may have to pay for the birth control pills!

Please, can we get a little relief from government overreach?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Self Esteem, Sackcloth, and Ashes

Channel surfing while on the elliptical machine in the gym yesterday I ran across a panel discussion from David Axelrod’s University of Chicago Institute of Politics.  One of the panelists was columnist David Brooks and he was saying that, in his opinion, what we have lost over the past fifty years or so is what might have been called a culture of effacement, a general attitude that none of us, in spite of different skills, educations, talents, accomplishments, and levels of wealth, is fundamentally better than anybody else.  The data offered by Mr. Brooks in support of his hypothesis was a Gallup poll which periodically asks the question “Are you a very important person?”  In 1950, 12 % of high school seniors responded “yes” to that question.  In 2005, 80% accorded themselves that lofty status.  It’s like in Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average.  You can hear Mr. Brooks’ comments at about 54 minutes in this video.

Of course there were obvious, though unmentioned by Mr. Brooks, 1950’s exceptions to that culture of effacement, but I believe he argued correctly that it was after that time that what might be known as the “self esteem movement” took root and we made a gradual shift to a culture of self aggrandizement and the accompanying narcissism, conspicuous consumption, and self righteousness which have become hallmarks of life in America today.  Even McDonalds, in a 1970’s effort to get us to eat more burgers and fries, began proclaiming that we “deserve a break today.”  They never identified the merit on which that deserving was based.

I recall as a young adult, at the beginning of the self esteem movement, that the phrase, “God don’t make no junk,” from Ethel Waters’ autobiography, I believe, became popular among the youth in our church.   Biblical evidence of mankind being created in the image of God and being loved by God and being wonderfully formed in the womb would be cited.  And of course all that is true, but, while it may be helpful in bringing a defeatist to a more optimistic outlook, it is not a message needed by the majority of us today who already tend to think quite highly of ourselves.  A much more important message might be about purpose, that as St. Paul wrote (Ephesians 2:10), “we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  Well, it is difficult to reconcile narcissism and conspicuous consumption and self-righteousness with that.  (Let me hasten to add that, lest you think I have become a socialist, the invention, development, and commercialization of products and services and the creation and growth and management of companies to accomplish that and to create opportunities for us to earn livings (jobs) serving each other are, in my opinion, very good and essential works indeed.)

During Mass this morning, listening to the reading from Jonah about his preaching to the people of Nineveh, I had a flashback to the Brooks comment.  It’s not obvious what the people of Nineveh were up to, but I am suspecting narcissism and conspicuous consumption.  Maybe even self righteousness.  The reason is that the response of the people to Jonah’s very simple message, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” was that they “…believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”

Many people of faith see the messages of the Bible as timelessly true in principle.  If they are, probably an excellent way to defuse the escalating class war currently being promoted by politicians and activists in the United States would be for us all to quit pointing fingers, tone down our narcissism, conspicuous consumption, and self righteousness, shift our focus to service and good works, and maybe even proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth.  Only the president, apparently, will need to go so far as to sit in ashes.

If we can’t do that or otherwise change the borrowing and spending track we are on to national bankruptcy, I fear that in forty years time, or maybe less, our grandchildren will pay a heavy price for the demands and wretched excesses of their grandparents.

And, if you can stand the salty language, Google "George Carlin on self esteem" for a rant by a man who probably really didn't think that much of himself.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reading the Old Testament Story

(Note: This is another in a series of postings of material used in a Confirmation class)

Attempts to read through the Bible, beginning with the creation stories in Genesis and proceeding through the inspirational and perhaps comforting accounts of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph, and Moses often get bogged down in the book of Leviticus which immediately follows. Here is my suggestion: For the time being, skip Leviticus which is all about the Priesthood and seemingly mysterious religious laws, sometimes prescribing the death penalty, and proceed to Numbers which focuses on what happened to the people during their wilderness wanderings. Of course some of these events will seem very mysterious also, but, just remember, it was a long time ago. Two themes will ring true even today, and those are the theme of complaining by the people and the theme of the steadfast love and faithfulness of God.

I suggest skipping Deuteronomy, lots of review of the past and speech making by Moses. Just make a note to come back and read it later and proceed to Joshua which describes the crossing of the Jordan River into the “Promised Land,” the defeat of Jericho, and the struggles which followed. Then read the book of Judges, about the early years in the new land before the people demanded a king.

Skip Ruth for now and read through 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings for the stories of Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, and the political upheaval and series of mostly infamous kings who followed Solomon. These books end in the defeat and occupation or exile of the Jews by Assyria and Babylon.

Skip 1st and 2nd Chronicles, a recap of the whole story written much later and with a different slant, and read Ezra and Nehemiah which tell the story of the release and return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple.

This chronological arrangement of the books Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah shows up at the bottom of the chart above, just above the arrow spanning the 1700 years from Abraham to Jesus. Other Old Testament books are positioned on the timeline to show the approximate setting, not necessarily the time during which they were written.

Maybe someday I will get around to positioning the Deuterocanonical books on the chart.