A Little Context For Me

Friday, May 29, 2015

Deborah - A Man's Shame Or An Inspiring Woman

I grew up listening to the story of Deborah, and I was always fascinated by this woman who poses far more questions than the Scripture answers. I wanted to know how she attained her position in a land ruled by men, how did she essentially become the commander of an army, and why, why, why was it always told as cautionary tale to the men and never an inspiring word to the women?

You can find her story in Judges 4 and then a recap in Judges 5 wherein she and Barak sing the song of their victory.  Now if you know anything about the book of Judges you will know that is odd that a woman takes center stage. This is a book of men about the doings of men, more significantly, it is a book of daring heroism, drama, sexploits, and raw adventures. This is not a book about housekeeping or cooking. It isn’t even a book about love, romance, marriage, or any of the other common Biblical themes for women, and yet, here is Deborah, a woman whose life plays out in the middle of the blood and gore without one mention of her domestic skills – possibly, not even a mention her husband.

We find Deborah in a time when God had “surrendered (Israel) to King Jabin of Canaan.” (Judges 4:2). The people of Israel had been battered and abused for over twenty years, and they had enough. They cried out to the Lord for deliverance, and so we are introduced to Deborah.

“Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, was prophetess; she led Israel at that time. She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.” Judges 4:4, 5

Let’s begin by explaining why I said her story may not include any mention of her husband, when it’s right there in the middle of the verse. Hebrew can be difficult language and there are few phrases in the Bible that still leave scholar scratching their heads, and this is one them. (Now before anyone gets too upset about that little fact, just know that these phrases usually have little or no bearing on communicating the message of the text. They do not affect the integrity of the story or any issue of faith and practice, they just leave us with some interesting “what-ifs” to entertain.) This phrase can have two different meanings one is obviously “wife of Lappidoth” as it is traditionally read.
However, it can also mean “woman of torches or wicks”.  Each translation is equally appropriate for this fiery woman, and furthermore, unlike other women of the Bible her husband is almost inconsequential to the story. If he was of any significance to our understanding of who and what Deborah was to her people his linage would have been included, but it is not because the story is not about him – it is about a woman who deserves recognition in her own right.

You may also notice another glaring omission, there is no record of Deborah’s children. None, nada, zip. Does this mean she does not have children? Who knows? The point it is it does not matter.
Deborah is a complete person unto herself and her God.

Aside from being the only woman judge remembered in the history of Israel, she is one of only two judges that were also a prophet. Based on this we can extrapolate that she experienced a call to prophecy, was a spokesperson for God, prayed to God on the behalf of the people, and her life functioned as symbol of a greater divine truth. None of this is specifically recorded in Scripture, however, these are the basic events and characteristics that set prophets apart from the general populace.

We are also not told how she came to be the leader of the people of this time. Although, it is highly unlikely that she rose to power simply by sitting beneath palm tree dispense sage advice. When we look at the other judges in the book of Judges, we find military leaders, assassins, and priests. We can almost certainly rule out the possibility of her being a priest – so that narrows the options for her rise to power. (I kind of like the idea of her being an assassin, but that’s probably just my twisted imagination talking.) By whatever means she attained this position, it is evident that the writer did not feel like he needed to offer any background to validate the people’s respect for her.

However, he did include clues as to how the reader was to see her. She prophesied Ramah, a place connected to the ministry of Samuel, the last judge of Israel. (I Samuel 7:17). Rabbinic teach explains that Ramah means heights and by placing the two of them in this geographic location, God was also locating them in place of spiritual heights.

Deborah summons Barak, a military leader, to rise up against their oppressors. Barak, either out of weakness of courage or faith, refuses to budge without Deborah by his side. If you were raised in a conservative church, you know that this is the point where the preacher would condemn Barak and see Deborah’s prophecy that Sisera would be killed by the hand of woman to be an act of judgement against his cowardice. But if you haven’t guessed, this is where I applaud Deborah for not flinching at the challenge and joining Barak on the field.

Again notice what is missing in the text – shock, hesitation, fear – Deborah expresses none of these things. She simply says she will go and informs him of the consequences, but even then he does not flinch. He wants her there with him. Why? Is it because she is a prophet and holy woman that is not unheard of in ancient cultures. Or could it be that Deborah’s background and experience, the part of her life that secured her position as a judge, was one of battle? I don’t know, and I am not claiming to. All I am saying is Deborah was woman to be reckoned with and the men of her day recognized that and honored her for it.

Deborah’s word proves to be true, and Sisera is killed by Jael..
After the battle, Barak and Deborah relate the events in song which the Bible specifically says they sang together. What I find to be so interesting is that Barak sang too. This is not the action of a man who feels shame. This is a man who is expressing gratitude and honor for those it is due, starting with God and his intervention in the fight, praising Deborah for rising up and proclaiming the “Mother of Israel”, celebrating the warriors who joined him on the field, and rejoicing over Jael’s bravery. We do not know who sang which verses, but we do know their voice combined to form the song, even if tradition attributes the bulk of it to Deborah.

Of all the songs of Israel, there are ten deemed to be the most significant. The first among them all is Moses’ song upon the deliverance from Egypt found in Exodus 15. The importance of his song is commemorated by the style in which it is written, “brick above tile and tile above brick” (Megillah 3:7), so that it stands apart even in the printed word. There is only one other song given this honor, and it is the Song of Deborah, connecting her to the tradition of Moses as prophet, leader, and deliverer of the people.

We have to stop treating Deborah and the other women of the Bible as bit players to men’s drama. The story isn’t significant because a man missed out on the chance for glory. The story is significant because God chose to use a woman of strength and honor to deliver his people. He used Deborah’s obedience to stop the oppression of his children and I think he wants to do that today, but it is not going to happen unless women stand up take their place, speak truth, and dare to ride out onto the battle fields of the day. And we can’t do it if we are not cooperating with the men that God ordained to be at our sides, discounting their role just makes us guilty of sexism. Deborah’s story shows us the value of working together with those who are different than us whether be men or women of different backgrounds like Jael. In her we find inspiration to dare, to dream, and even to celebrate our victories with no shame and no false humility so that others can see how God can use all to accomplish his purposes.

Me and Monet - A Confession

I have often compared my life to a Monet painting. Grand, impressive, surprising, and innovative – as long as you don’t get too close, because up close me and the Water Lilies are one massive mess.

When you do what I do for living, people have all sorts of crazy expectations. They think that you have it all together, that you have this puzzle called life figured out, and that matters of faith have stopped being a struggle – after all, how could anyone possibly be brazen enough to speak about these things if their own life isn’t in perfect order?

The funny thing is I have never claimed to have all the answers. I just share the ones I stumbled across in my attempts to survive, and I never cease to be amused from those who think I am flying when I know that I am falling. Maybe it’s the self-deprecating smile that confuses people, but when you have fallen as much as I have you learn to laugh or else you will have to cry – and I hate crying, especially in front of people.

The truth is I haven’t arrived. I haven’t found that place of zen like peace, I haven’t figured out how to solve life’s problems, and I still haven’t learned to walk in all things with grace.

I suppose today’s writing is a bit of a confession, a time to come clean, and just be real for a moment. Not because I want sympathy or pity, just because I think it is important for all of us to remember that no one has it all together. No one ever truly masters this thing called faith. Life is one big pop quiz after another, forcing us to live up to or betray those things we have professed to believe.

Do you trust God with your finances? Great! Here is a $1500 dental bill! Do you trust God with your kids? Good! Here is some rebellion and defiance. Do believe God has great plans for you marriage? Wonderful! Your spouse is going to do something incredibly stupid and hurtful, and he is going to have a stroke. How about your health? Let’s give you a terrifying lump in your breast.  How about your stuff? You know your house, your car, your phone, your computer? The air conditioner is going to die, the transmission is going to go out, let’s see if the fish want to make a call from the bottom of the lake, and here is a blue screen of death.

And I am not making any of that stuff up. It’s all happened, and it has all happened to me in the past year. The closer I get to doing those things that I really believe that God is calling me to the faster the hits keep coming. Sure, I do all the right things, I pray, I worship, I seek wise counsel, and I ask my friends to remember me in their prayers, but sometimes you just get worn out. The frustration leaves you too tired to fight, and life just keeps beating you bloody.

To make matters worse, I do know some right answers and that is the problem. I know them, in my head I know them, but I haven’t figured out how to move that knowledge to my heart. So a lot of the time, I just feel like I am faking it. Like I am spouting off all the write words without feeling it, and then adding condemnation to my frustration because I needed more to deal with.

To be terribly honest, the biggest issue in my spiritual walk that I am wrestling with is the fact I feel like asking God for anything is the surest way to be told no. I can make you a list of unanswered prayers, some selfish and some truly noble requests, and I am wrestle with the tendency to be bitter at what I try not to think of as His neglect. My knowledge of the Bible tells me there is some greater purpose and point to God saying no, but it doesn’t stop my heart from hurting.

Pride wells up, and I demand to know why I have been forgotten despite the fact I am working so hard to do what He has called me to do. I fight the urge to fancy myself a martyr when the clouds of despair roll in, thundering with self-righteous indignation and punctuated with the lightening of rage. All the while that still voice that retains some modicum of sanity inside me is protesting the storms I have allowed to boil inside me, flooding me, overwhelming me with doubt and fear.

But beneath it all is truth, like the rock submerged beneath the flood waters, obscured for a moment but never moving. I am often washed from it and most days I am fighting to find my place upon it again so that I can life my head above the waves. For I know that is the only place where I can truly breathe, the only place where I feel alive, and it is the only place that offers the hope of perspective to understand the chaos of my life.

What is that truth? He will never leave me or forsake me. He is there in the midst of the storm. Nothing in my life escapes His notice or care, my sorrows are His, and my disappointments pave the way for revelations of His grace. My anger does not intimidate Him, my pride does not fool Him, and my sadness does not scare Him. He is big enough to cope with all of me, including my doubts and fears as I learn that denial is not rejection and His silence is not neglect. For a while, I may have to simply hold that knowledge in my head, but I pray that with time I will learn to embrace it with my heart.

For only God is can draw close enough to see the chaos and mess of me while still knowing the beauty seen from a distance.  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Josh Duggar, Lena Dunham, and Why We Are All Wrong

First of all, I want to say I had no intentions of weighing in on the Duggar debate. I have never watched the show, I have never read any articles pertaining to them, and I have never been all that concerned with how many children people decide to have. For me there was simply no appeal in what they had to offer – in either arena of morals or entertainment. Then social media exploded!

I could not turn anywhere without seeing yet another article, blog, or video either demonizing Josh Duggar or attempting to turn him into a martyr, and then the private messages started pouring in asking me to share my views. Now, I do not have any grand answers for how this situation should be handled in legal terms, but I do have some observations about how both sides have handled it on social media.

If I asked just about anyone what they thought of a teenage boy who repeatedly molested his sisters and another girl, I would have gotten firm, etched in stone replies. He is sick. He needs mental help. We need to find out what abuse he was subjected to that would cause him to act out this way. Lock him up. Sure, the answers would have run the gamut from reactionary to ultra-compassionate, but few people would have been swayed from their ideas of right and wrong on this issue.

But this is the problem – most of America knows who Josh Duggar is. We have a name, we have a story, and we have dog in this fight. For some, this family stood for all things good and Christian, from their ultra conservative views on sex and dating to their outspoken stance one LBGT issues and abortion, Christians were relieved to have one of their own getting some positive press. For other’s these people were relics of an ideology and religion that made them little more than circus freaks and objects of scorn and pity for perpetuating antiquated ideas and values.

So what do I think about the Duggar situation?

I think that the whole situation stinks.

And I think that it reveals how hypocritical all of us can be.

If we were to be true to previous statements made by both the religious right and liberal left, we would all be behaving much differently.

The religious right would be demanding blood much as they did with the Lena Dunham case wherein she admits to exploring her sister’s genitals as a seven year old child and then coercing her sister into sexual acts as they grew older – acts that Dunham herself categorizes as predatory. (Later she declared her terminology to be comedic and in bad taste.) We held her up as an example of all that is wrong with the world today, and we condemned her actions evil almost beyond redemption.

Why has our response to Josh Duggar been so different? Simple, Lena Dunham is not our poster child for all things good and wholesome, but Josh Duggar was. And in receiving the news, we did what we do so well, we sank into our pits of denial and tried to find ways to vindicate our golden child.

Folks, that is not how this works. If anything, Josh Duggar and his family are even more accountable for their actions than Lena Dunham and her family. Why? Because they set themselves up as representatives of our faith and that comes with a level of responsibility and accountability that is not applied to those who do not profess to share our faith. To act as if his actions were of little or no consequence is inexcusable, and to use his request for forgiveness as a reason to ignore the past is irresponsible.

For while the eternal condemnation of one’s deeds is removed in seeking forgiveness from our God, the earthly consequences remain intact - this is what allows us to stand before the world with integrity and honor even in our failings! And when deny the magnitude of our sin, we deny the magnitude of God’s redemption and grace. Don’t make that mistake. Do not betray his gift of mercy by using it to circumvent the justice or compassion for those harmed by our sins, because the forgiven are not allowed to avoid the confronting the pain caused by their actions.

Please note, I am not even beginning to reference legal action here. I am simply addressing the moral and ethical teachings of our faith as applied (with bias to Josh Duggar and Lena Dunham). To impose that our standards on those outside of the jurisdiction of the Christian realm while excusing the violation of those standards by those within is to invert the teachings of Christianity and disregard the example Christ’s ministry upon this earth.

Am I suggesting that we ignore Dunham’s attempt to discount her actions since she does not share our faith? No.

I am merely stating that we cannot rail against one and not the other without rightfully being branded hypocrites. The only fitting response that we may make is that we be broken and grieved for both of them, and that even as we speak truth, we do so in love and in the hope of healing.

I am equally disappointed by my friends on the left as they have been almost violently vocal in their condemnation of Josh Duggar while remaining virtually silent about Lena Dunham. I know, I know, her actions have been explained away as mere childhood curiosity and if we simply had account of her deeds as a seven year old, there might be a case for dismissal. However, by her own admission these behaviors continued until the age of seventeen, encompassing the age of Josh Duggar’s actions.

Even more disturbing is the almost maniacal glee posing as righteous indignation on social media. I understand that Josh Duggar’s actions seem to be definitive proof of how dangerous the sexual repression of Christianity can be, but where is the compassion for the girls? Where is the concern for what he may have experienced that would cause him to act in such a manner? Where are the experts to defend him for childish curiosity? Is the compassion and understanding that you take so much pride reserved only for those who share your world view? Are Lena Dunham’s actions and boastful words of her exploits more palatable since she is a woman? Where is the outrage for her victim? How can his actions be more damning than hers?

My point is we are all hypocrites and willing to defend our own. We bend the rules when it serves our cause and excuse those who promote our agenda.  We withhold grace, mercy, and compassion according to our whim rather than our stated principles. We crow over the failures of those we do not love and we deny that those we do love are capable of wrong. I am not excusing this behavior for anyone of us, least of all my Christian brothers and sisters. I am simply acknowledging that it exists because that is the only way we will eradicate it from our lives.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Picking And Choosing - Why Levitical Law Matters To Christians

If you haven’t been accused of picking and choosing the parts of the Bible you choose to believe then you have probably been wise enough to avoid any online debates concerning our faith. However, if like me, you have a hard time keeping your big mouth shut then you have probably been hit with the “picking and choosing” argument a few times.

If you are not familiar with it, this is how it usually goes:

“Everyone picks and chooses which parts of the Bible to believe, or you wouldn’t be wearing the poly blend shirt.”

“No one really believes all the Bible, or you wouldn’t be eating bacon.”

“All you Christians are a bunch of hypocrites because you only believe the parts of the Bible you like and ignore the rest.”

The basis of the argument is that since Christians do not follow the entirety of the Levitical law we have negated the right acknowledge the authority of any of it. Therefore, eating pork, shaving your beard, or gathering eggs improperly automatically means that you cannot be against sexual sins or offer Biblical correction for Christians who commit them. For many Christians this argument is the equivalent of hitting a brick wall.

Most of us know that we are no longer under the whole of the Levitical law, but apart from a few Biblical scholars, few us know why we still adhere to some of the law while disregarding the rest. Allow me to save you the cost of seminary education, and help you understand why we can indulge in a great lobster dinner while still maintaining that sexual standards laid out in Leviticus stand without being hypocritical in our faith.

Fortunately, you don’t have to accept my word for it as the answers were written down by Luke in the Book of Acts and then reaffirmed by Paul. As always, grab your Bible to double check me as I will just be hitting the highlights.

We arrive at Acts just in time to see the ascension of Christ and hear his last words to those gathered around him that day. From there the Church is formed, the message is preached, and the message is resisted sometimes violently by those who find it too radical to be true, but this does not stop the Apostles and those who joined them. Instead of continuing to preach among the Jews, they take the message into the realm of the Gentiles. The response is staggering, and God confirms his inclusion of these outsiders in the New Covenant through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon those receiving the message of Christ, (Acts 10:44-48).

This amazed the Jews (or the circumcised) and for good reason. The Gentiles, while believing in Jesus, had not fulfilled the requirements of the Jewish Law, and yet here was irrefutable proof that God accepted them despite this. For a people whose whole life and relationship to God was manifest in the keeping the law, it almost seemed too easy. Besides that, Christianity was not seen as separate and distinct religion from Judaism, but rather it was viewed as a movement with this ancient religion.

So now you had problem: If Christianity was a part of Judaism then it would follow that all converts to Christianity should be required to uphold Jewish law. If, however, it was not then what were the requirements of law for these new believers?

The issues were hashed out at what would become known as Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. I will not take the time to rewrite the meeting notes here, but after some debate and the presentation of evidence by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, James the brother of Jesus declares;

“Therefore my judgement is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.”

His words became the basis for the letter that Paul and Barnabas would carry back to the Gentile Believers in Antioch. It stated:

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourself from these things, you will do well. Farewell.” Acts 15:28,29

The first three are simple to understand and define, as these things were all part of the rituals of pagan worship. What trips us up is that phrase “sexual immorality”, after all, if we look at the practices of various cultures we find that sexual morality can be seen as relative. So are we to understand these words?

I think first we have to look at the men who spoke them. They were Jewish with Jewish educations ranging from the most basic knowledge of Torah taught to all Jewish boys of believing families to Paul whose education was of the highest order as he studied that feet of one of the greatest Rabbis of his day, Gamaliel, (Act 22:3). Given this information, we can only conclude that their definition of sexual immorality must be based on their understanding of the Levitical law. The fact that this was not even a point of debate at the counsel confirms that a basic understanding of what these entailed was held by all present. Further discussion was not needed as they all derived their definition from a common source, and if we are to know the definition today then we must return to that source for understanding and application.

Furthermore, we find in Paul’s letter to Timothy a commendation for Timothy’s education in the sacred writings he has studied since childhood as they are “able to make you wise for salvation in Christ Jesus.” Paul concluded this section with these words:

“All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for the training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”                                                      2 Timothy 3:16,17

We must remember that at this time there was no New Testament. Therefore, Paul must have been referring to another set of sacred writings and the only known Scripture of his day, the Old Testament, and he is confirming their importance in our lives as Christians. Notice what he is not saying, he is not saying that we are obligate to follow the ritual law, nor are we disregard what these passages have to teach us in the light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Both revelations must be held in sacred esteem and tension serving to illuminate our understanding of each.

If we dive further into Paul’s teachings, we find that he demonstrates this sacred tension in his writings. He rejects salvation through the keeping of the law and celebrates salvation through faith that inspires us to righteousness as revealed in the love of Christ and frees us from the yoke of slavery. He explains how the Spirit guides in life opposed to the flesh and in a life that exceeds the demand of the law by inspiring us to love one another. However, this love is informed by the dictates of the law so that we can know if we are following the Spirit or our own hearts as the definitions of holy and unholy things can only be found in the pages of the law. (Galatians, really just read the whole book. It’s only six chapters you can do it.)

It is a thin line, I know, but a necessary one if we are to walk in righteousness as God has called us to while avoiding the pride that comes with performance and personal achievement. The law should never be the basis for pride, but a revelation of our own inability to please God in our own strength or in the obedience to our base impulses. It should ignite and fuel our love for a Savior who gave us this precious gift of his life and love so that we could walk in unity with our God. We would never know how desperately we needed that love if were not for the revelation of our own inability to faithfully fulfill the demands of the law.

So back to our original quandary: Do Christians pick and choose which parts of the Bible they believe?

Yes and no, we believe that the debate over which parts of the Hebrew Scriptures we should follow has been settled. We believe that the picking and choosing was done for us at the Jerusalem Council and if we are to be faithful to this new revelation in Christ that we must abide by the principles laid out for us in Acts 15. In doing so, we neither reject the right of the Levitical laws to inform our faith, but neither are we dependent upon the Levitical law for our salvation or the joy of knowing the love of our God.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Life Hurts When Your Friends Dine At The Louvre

Life hurts.

There is no way to get around that truth, and yet, how many countless hours do we spend trying to get around it? We cut people out of our lives. We avoid those hard conversations. We do the right things and say the right words trying to ward off some type of karmic debt to the universe that we all know we owe. We try to convince ourselves that if we follow the rules and try to be good the bad things will slide past us, leaving us untouched and unscathed.

For me it was never the big storms that shook me, but rather those small, little goads that seem to make a mockery of all the good you ever tried to do.

Sometimes it doesn’t seem like the battle is worth it, but if you are like me, you keep telling yourself to hang in there, fight the good fight, don’t give up, sorrow may last for a night but joy comes in the morning. So you grit your teeth, take a deep breath, and square your shoulders. You can do this, all you need is to dig a little deeper and everything will be okay.

Then the phone rings – it’s that friend. You know the one who screw up a one car funeral? The one who when given a good, better, and best option will go out of their way to find a bad one?

She’s all bubbly and happy, and you could tell all that from just the “hello”. She breezes by the formalities of polite conversation and you do your best to feign some enthusiasm as your dog vomits on the carpet. Reaching over the pile of past due notices on the kitchen counter, you discover you are out of paper towels and go to search for toilet paper, praying there is some on the house, while cooing one syllable responses only catching half of what she is telling you about her latest adventure.

The kids start screaming over something that sounds apocalyptic, but you are holding on to some desperate hope that it will only rise to Word War III levels. You scrub the vomit, trying to ignore the rage pouring from their bedroom, and manage an, “I’m so happy for you” into the phone.

The resounding sound of someone getting slapped sends you running towards the fray, and you give the kids that mean mama look and point them to opposing corners. Never missing a beat, you smile into the phone, “Isn’t that great?”

“I am going to get off here now. I am having lunch at the Louvre, and the noise is making it hard to hear.” She gushes and as she disconnects you realize what you have just heard…she is on a two month tour of Europe, having an amazing little romance with some French man, and she is having lunch AT THE FREAKING LOUVRE!

The world stops as your mind flashes through each and every bad decision she has made, every time she has been crappy friend, and how she has taken advantage of all your attempts to be a good person. The children notice the change, the freeze in terrified silence, and cringing at what they fear will come.

But you are a good mom, and you offer them a reassuring smile, blink back the tears of frustration and rage you feel forming in your eyes. “Are you two good?” you ask sweetly with just enough of an edge on your voice to let them know there is only one proper answer in this moment. They nod, but never blink.

Deep breath, shoulders squared, and that smile frozen so hard on your face, you feel like it could shatter, you stride to your bedroom close the door with soft deliberateness, lean against it, and slide to the floor. The smile turns to a grimace and you feel the tears splash down angry and hot, while you send vague accusations towards heaven about the unfairness of it all, even as you realize how incredibly petty you are being  - which only makes it all indescribably worse.

Wiping your eyes, a funny smell catches your attention, and you realize that you never dropped the toilet paper you had been using on the dog’s vomit.
I suppose that it wouldn’t seem strange that in that moment none of it seems worth the struggle, but then something amazing happens. There is a little knock at the door, and a timid voice asks, “Mama, are you all right?”

Then you remember why you do it all. It isn’t about you. It is about those little faces watching and wondering how you are going to handle this thing called life. It is about teaching them that life can be lived with integrity and grace. It is about showing them that you can rise above and thrive in the midst of craziness and chaos.  It is about living in such a way that they can see God’s grace and provision in the hard times, and putting action to that abstract thing we call faith. Life hurts and that is a reality that we must prepare them to face, but you can teach them that even in the pain and disappointment of it all they will never have to face it alone – or if you can quiet your heart enough to receive, they will teach you that great and beautiful truth.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My Apologies To A Friend And Brother

My apologies to all my friends who have ever been hurt by the Church.

My apologies to everyone who has believed in false doctrines and teachings that raised your expectations and then dashed them to the ground.

My apologies for a Church that is more concerned about being politically correct, their next building program, or the number of people they can pack in the pews than the people who sat in them.

My apologies for the lies we used to lure you into our buildings, only to tell you later that they were lies and it was not our fault you misunderstood.

My apologies for preachers who sell God’s grace like snake oil or the magic cure for all that ails you only to be trapped in wheelchair, the chemo clinic, or the darkness inside your head.

My apologies for those who blamed you for not having enough faith to receive healing when only you and God know how many times you cried out to him in the night.

My apologies for all the people who surrounded you in prayer when there was an audience and then never picked up the phone to call when no one was around.

My apologies to all of you have had your faith shattered and no one offered to walk through that dark time with you.

My apologies for spineless congregations who never stood up to corrupt leadership, and for the abuses that leadership doled as if it were their divine right.

My apologies for all for all the secrets you felt you had to keep hidden so that you could have friends within the community of faith.

My apologies for the way we have failed to teach the hard lessons of faith so that we might grow through adversity and not be demolished by it.

My apologies for presenting Jesus as weakling with no right to your trust to see you through devastation of this life.

My apologies for not showing you a God big enough to dream great dreams with and to dare great things for.

My apologies for every voice that was silent when protest should have been made.

My apologies for every hand that was closed when it should have been opened to give and to receive.

But most of all, I apologize for those who believed they could not love you when you failed to measure up to their idea of faith, who left you there alone when they should have been by your side – when they promised they would be until life got to real for their faith to weather. And I make one request of you, and that is to remember. Remember the God who loves you, the God who became flesh to suffer for you and to know what the pain of life on this earth truly is so that he you would never be alone in your suffering. He still want you and is waiting for the day that you remember and not all the people who hurt you in his name.

I can't erase all those things in your past, or even the things that you may live with for the rest of your life, but I can promise that I will do my best to never betray your heart as so many others have. I hope you remember, I can't imagine a world, this one or the next, without you.

Hannah - The Story Of A Brazen Woman

The women of the Bible will never cease to fascinate me. Living in a time and culture of total male domination, one would think that only the meek and the docile would be deemed worthy or remembrance, but with few exceptions, we find the women most celebrated to be those whose actions pushed the boundaries of societal constraints and refused to be silent in the face of injustice. One such woman was Hannah of I Samuel chapters one and two.

Too often we read this story at the mercy of our modern conditioning. We fail to see the historical and religious significance of her actions, and as usual present her as a pious soul who meekly turned to God in her hour of need. However, a closer reading of the text coupled with an understanding of the times reveals a bold and daring woman who was not just going to shut up and take what life, or God, had given her.

Her story opens with the introduction of her husband, a man with an impressive family tree, and her inclusion in a family where she was one of two wives. Unlike the second wife, Hannah was barren and like so many women the first wife was catty, constantly rubbing it in Hannah’s face that she was a failure as a woman. Despite this Hannah managed to be her husband’s favorite, meriting special treatment and receiving his feeble (and, oh, so male) attempts at comfort. This is our first tip off that Hannah was something special for in this day a woman’s value was often calculated based on the number of sons she presented to her husband. Love matches were a rarity, and marriage was more of business agreement between families than a romantic venture.

From this stand point it would be easy to say that Hannah was far more blessed than many other women of her time. For not only did her husband keep her as a wife, showing affection and consideration of her situation, he further blessed her with a double portion during the time for sacrifices to made.

To understand the emotional ramifications of what Hannah was experiencing we need to understand that barrenness was not considered a simple medical malfunction. Barrenness was a curse from God, often viewed as a judgement for wrong doing, and as Hannah was the only wife barren the judgement would have been seen as failing on her alone. This would have made her suspect among the other women and possibly held social consequence such as being ostracized and topic of small town gossip. Wrapping our modern minds around what she must have experienced is difficult at best.

The story unfolds as the family celebrates together, eating and drinking, while I can only imagine Hannah watching her husband blessing his children by his other wife and fending off the smug attitude of the other woman vying for her husband’s attention. The pain she must have felt knowing that all those present considered her to be a failure and a shame to their family was probably what pushed her over the edge.

For in verse nine we find that Hannah arose, leaving the festivities behind to go and pray at the Tabernacle.

I want you to really think about this for a moment – a woman, unescorted, goes to the Tabernacle! This is where the men gathered to make plans, to discuss battle strategies, to determine how to govern the people, and to do the bloody work of sacrifice. Women went there, but they went as a family to make the appropriate offerings together with their husbands or fathers. Just making that walk was an exercise in courage.

Or was it something else?

Verse ten literally said she was “marat nefesh” or “bitter of soul” - not the typical attitude we are encouraged to have when seeking an audience with God. But could you blame her? God was the one who opens and closes the womb. He was the cause of her disappointment and pain, and she knew this.

The writer of Samuel records her prayer:
“O LORD of Hosts, if you will look upon the suffering of your maidservant and remember me and not forget the sufferings of your maidservant, and if you will grant your maidservant a male child, I will dedicated him to the LORD for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.”

And with those words, she changed the nature of prayer forever – so much so that we do not even recognize them as radical as this has been the way we have been taught to pray since we were children, but to the fledgling nation of Israel, they are unprecedented.

The first words, the title of LORD of Hosts, had never been uttered until they fall from Hannah’s lips, here was a woman who recognized God’s sovereignty not only in her own life but in all the machinations of the universe.  Her prayer simultaneously exalts God beyond previous words spoken to him while declaring her need and right to be remembered as his handmaiden. The demand and glorification stand at odds with each other, presenting the divine tension between humanity and deity in stark contrast to the humility deemed fitting for a woman. Perhaps it takes one who has experienced such agonies to know that if God is too be great, he must be bigger than any pain we experience, and who knows pain better than one whose hopes and dreams have been ripped to shreds?

The Rabbis call her words insolent even as they laud her example as one who dared to speak their heart to the Creator. So impressive was this bold feat that the prescribed methodology for prayer was modeled not after the patriarchs of the Jewish faith, but upon the heartfelt cries of a woman. Daring to be this impassioned before God was a level of bravery that no man had dared to attempt, the fear and trembling of awe struck wonder had been erased as heartache compelled her to brazenness.

If her story had ended there, she would have been mocked and ridiculed as the drunken woman who dared to defile the sacred environment of the Tabernacle with profanity, but thankfully for us all, it did not. Eli confronts her, scandalized by her hysterics, demanding that she be proper before the Lord and in this holy place. Most women would have been cowed and accepted the harsh rebuke in silence, but not our Hannah!

She fires back him with both barrels, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.”

Now, read this as a woman who has been wrongfully accused, not as simpering milksop. Take her prompts for the proper tone and voice for her words. Remember that Hebrew is a very limited language in comparison to ours and know that words often have more than one related definition. She isn’t just saying she was slightly vexed. She deliberately chose a word that also means anger. She wasn’t just dealing with anxiety, once again she chose a word that can mean complain, as in legal complaint. She is letting Eli know that she is beyond just hurt she is MAD and with a just cause. Now plug in all that new knowledge and read her reply again.

Go back and read Eli’s response. Does it sound familiar? It reminds me of my husband when he knows that he had better not argue with me because I am going to go psycho crazy on him for even questioning my right to be upset. It’s the cautious pat on the head before hitting the door to avoid the fallout. It’s the placation in an attempt to defuse the ticking time bomb, but Hannah grabs on to it. You can almost hear her skipping away as she says, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.”

In Hannah we find far more than an abstraction of piety and humility. We find a woman with a voice, a backbone, and fiery spirit who will not be silenced or dismissed. She rejects cultural norms that would threaten to remove her from the provision of her God, and declares that her identity is ultimately found in him and her relationship to him as his servant. She reveals the true object of her faith as her Lord and Creator, not the men who appeared to have authority over her and recognizes God’s sovereignty to act on her behalf and her right to request it – even when it meant rebuking the spiritual leadership of a nation.

Women should read her story not as rebuke to pray silently and in humility, but rather, that we take our requests boldly to our King. We should not see her as proper, because she wasn’t, and should learn when to disregard propriety for the sake of honesty. From her we should draw inspiration to cast aside societal constraints when they stand between us and our need to have the Father act on our behalf, and most of all, we should be reminded that God remembers us and all the things that have wounded our hearts. He is there, waiting in those holy moments to respond with blessings beyond our imagination if we are brave enough to take even bitter souls before his throne in prayer.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Should I Have Been Nice? - An Emily Rant

I am supposed to act like this.

The other day I got a phone call from someone who wanted to comment on my one of my posts. His words were sweet and encouraging, full of praise and support for “dealing with life’s harder issues.” You would think that this sort of thing would make me happy, but the truth is the longer he prattled on the more irritated I became. He explained to me why he never commented, liked or shared any of my writings. He didn’t want to give people the wrong idea about him or that he might be dealing with any of the issues I address in my posts, but he sure did want to bless and encourage me, just not publicly.

I think it was about the eighth time he said, “thank you for being brave enough to take on these issues” that my unruly mouth slipped its leash, and I heard myself say, “I’m glad one of is.” Needless to say, the conversation was soon over.

When I feel like this!

I know. I know. I was more than just a bit rude, and I shouldn’t have been. There were far more tactful ways to deal with what his words were stirring up inside of me. My problem is I usually only remember that after I have spouted off something less than kind. Believe me, I am working on it, but give me a little grace because it is a work in progress. And if I want to be real honest, I will admit that it probably always will be.

I have been thinking about the conversation a lot, wondering why it made me mad and wondering how I could have handled it better. So far this is what I have come up with:

I started dealing with “life’s harder issues” at time when my marriage was imploding. My ex-husband’s addiction to pornography had reached epic levels, leaving him unable to hold down a job as it interfered with his viewing schedule. I had ceased to exist as woman in his eyes and was considered to be just another obstacle between him and what he really desired. The verbal and emotional abuse was escalating to physical and sexual, and death fantasies became my favorite escape – his or mine, I didn’t care.

The great thing about reaching this level is other people’s opinions no longer matter. Societal constraints become nothing more than spider webs to be slapped aside.

So I started asking questions, contradicting statements, and generally being rude. I would be lying if I said I didn’t find a certain amount of entertainment in people’s shock, but the truth is I wasn’t doing it for that. There were so many truths I need to know if I was ever to return to the land of the living as something other than a shell of a person, and even though I thought I was ready to check out of this world there has always been some part of me ready for a fight. And it soon became apparent that I was in the fight of my life.

The funny thing about questions is that if you want to know the answer there is a pretty good chance that half the people you know want to know the same thing, but just haven’t worked up the nerve to say the words out loud.  It didn’t take long before women started approaching me off to the side, with nervous glance to make sure that no one could overhear. They told me about how their husbands used porn, how there had been violence in their homes, how they had been given the same “stay married and pray” advice I had received, and how they felt like there was no one willing to talk about these things because it was all just too uncomfortable in the church setting.

However, it didn’t make everyone happy with me. I learned from a friend that when she started attending the church I was that she had been warned about me. I learned from another friend that it was thought I had drug problem, and I heard from a third that I caused my husband’s addiction to porn because I had emasculated him with my sharp mouth. Christians can be so sweet.

Every day now, I receive emails, text, and messages over social media from women and men who are facing the same issues I did. They have the same questions I asked and they are facing the same stony faced silence or that condescending “we will just pray for you, dear” attitude I got. I hear from people whose faith is being eroded by Christians who are misrepresenting God and how he responds to our problems. I talk to abuse victims who are terrified of the shame and stigma that comes with divorce. I talk to women who are experts at hiding bruises and men who are terrified of losing everything if the truth comes out so they never seek the help they need except through a stranger who happened to write a book.

Guys and gals, I do not have this covered! There is only one of me and so many of you! The conversations are icky and uncomfortable – you try talking to a 70+ year old man about his chronic masturbation problem, I know!  I have been there. You have try having a pastor contact you on how to deal with a woman in his church who has shown up multiple times with a black eye or swollen lip, or answer a 12 year old’s question about anal sex. I do it all the time, but not because I am an expert. The only thing I have going for me is the fact I lived through my hell and came out the other side scrapping for answers.

I get frustrated and angry that we have become so ashamed of this gift of sexuality that God has given us. My blood pressure boils when I hear some pat and cliché answer proffered to someone who is real need, and I get so tired of being shushed by those who are embarrassed to speak truth into other’s lives. God never did that to anyone! He was bold and truthful. Jesus didn’t look at the lepers or the man at the pool, pat their heads and say, “I’ll pray for you.” He acted and he acted in truth and love – and love without truth is no better than a dollar sympathy card.

Pawning off our responsibility to follow in Jesus’ example is crock and a coward’s way out of what we have been called to be. Expecting someone else to deal with the harder issues of life so we can avoid them is laziness, and the next time you feel tempted to avoid a few words that make you uncomfortable, I hope you remember the cross and humiliation washes over you until you choke.

Could I be a little nicer? Should I have been a little nicer to the man on the phone? Maybe, but maybe too many of us are worshipping “nice” when we should have been worshipping God.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Readers' Question: "How Do You Do It?" The Short and Long Answer Of How I Write

“Okay, Em...I have a book that I need to write, and I have had many false starts, always scrapping nearly everything. How do you do it??”

“How would you feel about helping me tell my story? I've been in therapy and I'm ready to share. NOTICE: This pertains to your path of sex Ed.
This also pertains to things I never told you or anyone but it might help someone.”

“Hey you should write my life story. It’s better than syfi.”

I received these three messages in the past week, and far more just like them since I released Scandalous. Since I know that if three are asking, there are far more of you who are wondering the same thing, but just haven’t said the words out loud, so I decided to respond to all in one fell swoop.

Let’s begin with whether or not I will help someone else tell their story – the answer is yes and no.

Yes – I will be more than happy to be a support and encouragement. I will also be thrilled to share with you the tools I used to make my book happen. Depending on the demands on my time, I might even read over what you have written and offer some suggestions.

And this is where the “no” comes in – this is your story not mine, and I currently have twenty of my own books in various stages of completion. They were given to me and I need to honor that gift by taking care of them first. I am not trying to be mean here, but I only have so many hours in a day, and my life is demanding.

Secondly, it’s YOUR story. It was given to you and you need to honor it by investing your time and energy into making it into something that the world can know. Plus, no one, not even me can, can tell your story the way you can. It needs your words, not mine, or will not be your story any longer. If you are truly passionate about sharing it you will find the words because the story will not let you rest until you do.

This leads to the first question – how do you do it?

First off, know that I never thought I would be a writer. I always kinda thought of writing as one of those things that only truly lucky or blessed got to do, and I never envisioned myself as one of those people. It was not until I was twenty seven years old that a teacher approached me with an assignment and asked me, “What have you written?”

I was completely baffled and scared to death that I had botched the entire project. Flustered, I demanded to know what was wrong with the paper he was holding in his hand, but he assured me that I had not done anything wrong. He just wanted to know what I had written for publication because “it’s that good.” I was shocked! No one had ever said that to me before, and I have been writing consistently since I was twelve for my own pleasure and sanity.

It is important that you know this for two reasons:

            1. I have no formal training in writing other than a few composition classes, so my approach                   isn’t textbook. (For instance, I hate outlines and refuse to make one.)

            2. If I can write without formal training, you can too.

So, how do I do it?

The short answer is I write. Every day, I write. I write piles of garbage and stuff you will never see. I write things I burn and things I tear up, and I write some stuff that I am sufficiently unashamed enough to put out there for the world to read.

The long answer is a bit more complicated. (Imagine that.)

I work really hard at thinking like a writer. For me that means that I am always looking for the right words to describe something I see, hear, or experience. It doesn’t mean I always write it down, but I am always playing with the words – always. If I see a pile of leaves, I wonder how many different ways I can describe it so that you will want to find that particular pile and jump in. If I see deer picking her way through my front yard, I am trying to figure out how you can experience the delicate way she lifts those elegant but powerful legs. People in the mall? I am constantly “writing” back stories for them all.

See, the work at the keyboard is only a fraction of what I am doing. The words you read are what made it through the winnowing process. A process that happens a lot as I am driving down the road describing what I see to a very disinterested and patient dog.

And that is another huge part of what I do. I am always talking it out. My furniture knows more about Genesis 1:1, a favorite passage of mine to teach, than most seminary students. I want to know how the words sound out loud. I want to know if they feel right, not just to the eyes but to the ears.

I also have people in my life who are great listeners. I tell them about what I am working on, and they challenge me to defend my views or ask questions concerning points that I need to clarify. An added bonus, I get really excited about my writing projects and sometimes I will blurt out the right phrase in the middle of a conversation. More often than not, it is the surprising stuff that falls out of my mouth that serves as the catalyst from idea to written word.

The biggest obstacles to writing that I have found to be true in my life and confirmed by other would be writers is that obnoxious internal editor we are all born with. He won’t catch a typo or the misuse of a homonym, but he is quick to tell you that everything you have just written is junk. (Mine uses stronger language, but I am trying to be respectful of my audience here.) This means the most useful skill you can learn as a writer is to shut down that mean little guy and keep writing. All first drafts are awful, or at least, you should believe them to be.

Give yourself permission to write junk. Go on and just get it on paper. Are you going to scrap it? Sure, you are, but scrapping it means just that – scrap it, don’t delete it. I have a file on my computer called just that “Scraps” and I keep all those false starts and things that have to be cut often for the sake of brevity there. I have learned it is a gold mine for future ideas, because once you step away from an idea for a while, you often go back to it and find it wasn’t so terrible after all.

Another major thing I do is to surrender to the words. This means that I often have an idea, sentence, or phrase that I cannot quit writing but have no idea where it is going. An example:

“Some stories are too painful to write, but you know that already, don’t you Charles?”

When I wrote that I had two major questions:

            1. What story is that painful?
            2. Who in the world is Charles?

So I kept writing just so I could answer those questions, and I am thrilled with where the story is going. Hopefully, you will get to read it soon.

However, just to be honest, Charles and Jaden (the characters of the book) have started becoming unruly and refusing to talk to me at this particular date. Instead of fighting with them, I have put them on hold and went to work on other projects. Sometimes you can’t force a story and you just have to set it aside for a bit. In a month or two, I will go back to what I have written and things will click. In the meantime, I am writing for the blog and bouncing between editing my first novel, writing two pop theology books, a revised edition of Scandalous, and seventeen fictional works.

Bouncing back and forth between tasks keeps me excited because I am always seeing progress, and I always have a reason to feel like I am accomplishing something. And it has the added benefit of letting me get some distance from the story for a better perspective. Not to mention, stories that I have set aside for a while tend to bubble up in my subconscious, often hitting me out of the blue with a great new plot twist or a revelation of something obvious I had missed that now needs to be addressed. I return to them with renewed energy and excitement that makes writing fun.

Nonfiction is a bit trickier. There are so many things you have to get right if you are going to remain true to the message you are trying to convey. These works go much slower for me and I don’t feel as “inspired” when working on them. Here is where that nasty internal editor plays havoc with my emotions and thoughts, but once again, it is a matter of writing in a steady, disciplined way. Don’t get caught up in trying to make it polished, just write and them after a few months break, go back and edit. Books aren’t typically written overnight, they can take years to hammer into shape and that is exactly what it feels like – hammering at an unyielding stone to get all extraneous stuff out while still maintaining the necessary points. But you can’t hammer on what you don’t have, so it is vital you give yourself something to hammer on and that means you keep writing.

Writing nonfiction is the closest I get to breaking my “no outline” rule, but instead of writing an outline (which I would just lose), I write my ideas on a mirror or sticky notes. I write out my sections in no particular order, print them off and then hang them on the wall. This way I can arrange and rearrange at random until I find the configuration that works. If I tried to stick to an outline, instead of writing what appealed to me in the moment, I would get so frustrated I would never finish what I started. Once I get the big chunks written and ordered, I then go back and fill in with my transition pieces so it doesn’t feel like it has been cut and pasted together – which it totally was.

Doing it this way keeps my big ideas in front of me, which I need because anything I can’t see doesn’t exist in my mind (just check my cabinets that need to be organized but I only remember that when I am digging for something for something I need to finish dinner and have no time). Also, it helps me to not be so repetitive, which I am horribly guilty of just check out Scandalous. I could have really cut some pieces of it for that reason, but oh well, too late now and I will fix it in the next edition. This was my first published book, so it was only practice, right?

I know this is starting to sound redundant, but that is what this whole process is – redundancy repeated ad nauseam. Keep in mind that all this is practice, this blog post, my rough drafts, the first editing, all of it practice, and you must give yourself permission to practice your art or you will never get better.

In the arts, there is a horrible myth that you are either born with it or you are not, and it has stopped so many people from even trying. When I was teaching oil painting classes almost everyday someone told me that “I wish I could paint, but I don’t have the skill.” As if they were supposed to wake up magically knowing how hold a palette knife, what reflected light was, or how to properly portray perspective, but with a little encouragement many of these people went on to paint pictures they now display in their homes with pride. Now, I hear the same thing from would-be writers as they fall prey to the same mentality.

The truth is writing takes practice just like any skill and if you are bad when you start, so what? I was, and I really hope Steinbeck was too, or I will just drown in depression because who doesn’t want to right like that? So stop trying to write a Nobel worthy piece, just write!

The good news is like any skill that is practiced writing gets easier with the repetition, and if you go at long enough there will be a day when someone asks you a question and writing out the answer isn’t work, it is like breathing.

If this is helpful, be sure to let me know. If you have further questions, ask those too and I will try to answer. If you have a great writing tip, please, share in the comments! Writers can always use another great idea.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"Jesus" Isn't A Trivia Answer

If you have ever played trivia games, you have probably experienced that one beautiful moment where your opponent stumbles over what you consider to be an elementary question. They fumble and stumble for the answer as that smug smile on your face grows wider and wider, waiting for the chance to crush them with your superior knowledge. Perhaps you even indulge in a taunt or two, throw them a vague hint, or just sit in arrogant silence, all the while glorying in their ignorance, because not only does it feel good to win – it feels amazing to have proof that you are the smartest person in the room.

We live in a world where so much of life is a game. We collect our tokens, we roll the dice, and we play every free pass we get hoping that we win this round. The world is full of winners and losers, and how you define that is by how much you earn, who you know, what you have, and who knows the right answers.

Unfortunately, this is also how many of us approach this thing called faith. Those of us who identify ourselves as Christians have no doubt that we have the answer – his name is Jesus. And even more unfortunately, we have treated this like the ultimate free pass. We win. We know we win, our Bibles tell us so, and so what is the point of anymore questions? Why bother with another go around the board when anyone with any sense can plainly see that we have already won?

But you see there are still questions, valid and necessary questions that need to be answered.

Somewhere along the lines we got confused. We started dividing up this world into winners and losers. We stopped looking at other people as teammates and friends, and we began seeing them as opponents and losers. We started keeping score and feeling smug about our victory. We taunt and even treat others with scorn when they are not as smart as we think we are. And we flat out despise anyone who dares to ask another question, because we are convinced they should just accept the answer we have to offer.

And this means that we stop asking questions. We stop seeking answers and understanding, hiding behind our free pass and using Jesus as our favorite excuse to remain in ignorance.

After all, questions can become rather risky. They threaten to expose how little we do know and if our identity is wrapped up having the right answer the very fabric of who we believe we are just might come unraveled if someone asks the wrong thing. People have this unnerving tendency to ask about things we don’t like to think about like sex, heartbreak, death, poverty, and where was God when my world fell apart? And they won’t accept “Jesus” as an answer. They want more.

They want to hear how Jesus became real to you. They want to know how he showed up when your life was in shambles. They want to know what he said when you asked that difficult question in your life. They want see if you are really know what you are talking about or are you just spouting off something you read on a cheat sheet.

And if we got honest – I mean down and dirty, scary honest – that is exactly what most of us are doing. We don't ask why we think he is the right answer. We just know that someone told us that he is, and by accepting it, we hoped that we could bypass all those awful and terrifying questions that world poses to us each day.

The thing is relationships don’t work that way. You don’t get to just pull out a free pass and say I won. You can’t do with people, and you can’t do it with Jesus. He has no interest in simply being your “get out of hell free” card.  He want you to know him and he wants others to know him through you. And how do you get to know someone? It’s when you have the guts to work through the questions together, when you trust someone so deeply that you can take them all the doubts and fears of this world with the assurance that you have someone at your side who will never leave. It is when you can freely ask him the hard questions about all the things no one wants to think about knowing that he will guide you to a true answer, not a cliché.

True faith grows through the questions, not through avoiding them, and as we seek the answers that strengthen our faith, we learn that questions keep us humble and in awe of our Lord. We learn humility in our being while still being able to claim victory in his. We stop seeing people as winners and losers, and learn to appreciate the questions of others as a valuable part of their journey to faith.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Defense For Scandalous Conversations - Ruth

Ever wonder how dirty were those feet?

Of all the things that Christians like, apart from Veggie Tales and pastel home décor, our absolute favorite thing in the world is a clear cut good guy – or gal, as is the case for the story of Ruth. We like simple and uncomplicated Biblical figures that we can point to as models morality and piousness, and ones without any messy parts to dodge in our flannel graph presentations of the Bible. For years, Ruth has filled the bill. Her story is sweet, simple and without all the blood, sex, and violence found in so many other passages of the Old Testament. This uncomplicated tale of humility, loyalty, and hard work has made her the ideal heroine for our daughters to learn how to be the proper Christian woman – or is it?

Too often it seems the first step in making the Bible proper enough to be shared in church is to edit out all the humanity. We don’t really want men and woman of flesh and blood. What we want are spiritual giants who manage to rise above the demands and pitfalls of mere humanity. It is easier that way and has the added bonus of not raising too many uncomfortable questions or possibly causing someone to see those all too human moments recorded in the Bible as appropriate. Most certainly we have done this with the men of the Bible, brushing by David’s murder of Uriah, glossing over Samson’s love of prostitutes, Noah’s affinity for wine, and Job’s tendencies to whine, but even bigger victims of this need for perfection are the women of the Bible. There are many, but today, let’s just consider Ruth.

To say that Ruth is a deep text with layers of subtext is an understatement, the foreshadowing of Jesus, humanity's need for a kinsmen redeemer, the famine in the House of Bread (Bethlehem), and arrival of a child whose descendants will sit upon the throne of Israel! We could get lost in this book for weeks and still have barely scratched the surface, but I am going to skip all that and jump to chapter 3. As always, grab your Bible and check me.

In chapter two, we have already been introduced to a very bold side of Ruth – oh, you missed that? Blame the flannel graphs. Ruth is gleaning, but she isn’t just following after the paid workers, she is up among the sheaves, a place she had no business being as she was essentially a beggar. This little fact was included for a reason, we needed to know that Ruth is no shrinking violet. She knows what she wants and she not afraid to ask for it, and that is going to be important in chapter three.

Definitely not a flower for Ruth

(I am tempted to break off this point and discuss how we have completely ignored how bold Ruth is so that we can glean a lesson of humility that would teach our girls their proper places in the Christian community and how easily we manipulate the Scriptures to support our personal agendas, but I am trying to stay on point.)

Now, Naomi is not a patient woman nor is she the type of gal who leaves things to fate, or God for that matter, and she decides that while Boaz’s favor towards Ruth is all fine and dandy, it needs a nudge in the right direction. And she knows what it takes to get a man’s attention – smell good, look nice, wait until his belly is full, and put yourself in place where he can’t ignore you…and if he happens to be a little drunk, so much the better. (Which he was, verse seven, “and his heart was merry.”)

Ruth did exactly what Naomi told her to do, and I don’t think we recognize just how scandalous all of this was. First off, we have an attractive woman going to meet a rich man alone, at night, after he’s been drinking, and she is going to uncover his feet………his feet, hmm.

Boys and girls, pause for a moment and try to consider this scene, not as one in a sacred text, but simply as a story of a man and woman. Don’t try to make them holy, spiritual giants, just let them be people for a moment. Don’t try to be too spiritual yourself, just be a human being for second and consider just the facts that have been presented.

Having a hard time with that? Consider these passages: Isaiah 7:20, does your Bible say “hair of the feet”? Is this man a hobbit or could it be referring to some other bodily hair? Ezekiel 16:20, that little phrase “offering yourself” literally reads in Hebrew as “spreading your feet.” II Samuel 11:8, says “wash your feet” but in verse 11, Uriah lets us know that he knew exactly what David meant. And while clean feet is a good start, Uriah seems to have no difficulty grasping that a little more attention to personal hygiene was being suggested. Exodus 4:25, ever wonder what circumcision has to do with Moses’ feet?

I could go on, but I think you are beginning to catch my drift. If you aren’t, go to your nearest teenager and ask them to explain it to you. They won’t miss it.

Boaz wakes up, startled by Ruth’s presence, and Ruth takes it to whole new level. She makes a gutsy move that would make any good Christian woman blush, “Spread your robe over your servant, for you are my redeemer.”

Now, we have softened this and made it pretty. Ruth is asking for his protection, right? Maybe not, there is reason to think she is asking for little more. Turn with me now to Ezekiel 16:6-14, pay special attention to verse 8. Is there any doubt that this is a description of a sexual encounter? The words are almost identical and there is no reason to believe that they mean something different in Ruth than they do here. Ruth was asking for protection, but was also making it plain that she wanted him to see her as more than hardworking field hand. She wanted him to see her as desirable woman.

And evidently he did, because after he get done praising God for her advances and explaining the legalities of their situation, he tells her to stay the night (verse 13).

The chapter ends with wily Naomi resting confidently in her knowledge of men. She had deliberately sent Ruth to arouse Boaz from his slumber, both literally and figuratively, knowing the power of a beautiful woman to inspire a man to action.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not note that there is strong resistance to this reading of Ruth. Many people flat out reject it as implausible, that godly men and women would never do anything sexually inappropriate, but a quick perusal of the Old Testament shows a number of holes in that argument. Others claim that only the perverse would see such a thing in the text as it is not specifically stated that Ruth and Boaz had sex.

And maybe, they didn’t. We may never know for certain, and that is not what is important. What is important is the fact that we cannot deny the sexual tension both in action and speech. Whether or not they had sex is beside the point, because there is no way to explain away the fact that that Ruth’s deeds were inappropriate and could have ended with her being labeled a harlot. Boaz could have publicly renounced her, a foreigner of a scorned country, who had dared to be lewd – where would that have left her? It was a risk and a big one.

What I love about considering this passage with its sexuality intact is what it teaches us about Ruth, as a woman and how she inhabits her sexuality. She is not afraid of her body and she is not afraid to take a risk to claim all the promises of protection that offered to her in this covenant land. Should she have done it? Probably not, God was more than capable of getting a message to Boaz, but the Bible isn’t big on recording what should have happened and offers stories of what did happen.

And what a message of hope here for women who have made mistakes with their sexuality, who have abused it for advancement and gain. All it takes to return to community is a Redeemer, and we aren’t having to wait for a man to complete all the legal steps, we have him - in the person of Jesus, we have him! He is ours, all we have to do is ask that he spread his robe over us and he will do it. No hesitation, no reluctance, or fear to do so because he has done it so many times past and he wants to do it again so that we have a chance to participate in his plan of salvation to the world, just like Ruth, but we miss this message when we deny the people of the Bible their humanity, their sexuality, and even their mistakes.

So let's start sharing their stories with all the elements intact. Let's stop trying to edit God's words as if we knew better than  what should and should not be communicated to the world. He gave us a great gift with his honesty, and we should be sharing it with the honor and integrity it deserves.