26 December 2018

Lo-Ruhamah: What's in a Name?

Hosea 1:2-8

What's in a name?
Any name would be sweet
unless you are burdened
with the name they gave me.
Two letters too many
and the Loved becomes the Damned:
"No-Mercy" they called me -
just fancy that!

"No-Mercy" - imagine
the awkward looks
every time I introduce myself.
Picture little me,
shunned by other kids,
the brunt of every bully's jokes,
a victim from the start
of my father's stupid choice.

What the hell, Dad?
Did you even
stop to think what it does to me?
"God told me" - whatever!
What about me?
You made me your message
but also made me messed up,
blessed me with childhood trauma
and chronic doubt in God.

But guess what:
I have learnt
to grow beyond my bitterness.
I have learnt
that I am more than this name.
And now, I forgive you.
I want to try to understand.
I forgive God
if this was really from his hand.

It took me so long to see
that God never hated me.
That for God
all along
they were just two letters.
And God was for me
all the time they called me damned,
waiting
to strike two letters off my name,
"No-Mercy" no more.

And maybe the message
that I bear with my name
is that God loves the damned
and wants them saved -
just like his people
who went astray,
who lost trust in a God
they thought was far away.

So I drop two letters
and I become
Mercy.

__________________________

[26. December 2018]

You know what they always say about choosing a child's name. Make sure it's not too hard to spell. Make sure it's not too easy to twist into something nasty by bullies (because children can be horrible to each other). Make sure the name has an appropriate meaning.

Recently there was that news item about a girl called "Abcde" being mocked by a flight attendant and more people were angry at the poor child's mother than the flight attendant. Well, a parent does have to think about the consequences of their name choice!

Enter Hosea who named his children Jezreel (i.e. place where revenge will happen), No Mercy, and Not My People. I am sure the children did not get away completely unscathed psychologically.

Anyhow, here some thoughts from her perspective.

And another thought: biblical prophecy is poetry. It may well be that Hosea did not actually give his children horrible names, but that the idea of him naming them like this gives an important message.


Picture by William Adolphe Bouguereau

31 October 2018

Deborah: Fight Like A Girl

Judges 4:1-16


When men run and hide
their heads in the sand
I'll fight like a girl.
When men stand and falter,
their hearts in their pants,
I'll fight like a girl.
When no man will rise
and take up the sword
I will arise
and fight like a girl.

And I will advise
and I will encourage,
steady their shaking legs
because a mother
knows how to teach little boys to walk.
And I will be there
to hold sweaty hands,
give that little push
into the right direction
because a wife knows the words
a man needs to hear.

Why should I not teach,
correct and encourage?
Why should I not lead
or show them the way?
Why should I not heed
God's call above culture?
Why hide my gifts
in the face of need?

Even if men did not
hide their heads in the sand,
I'd fight like a girl.
Even if men would rise
and take up the sword,
I'd fight like a girl.
Because God called a girl,
so a girl will answer,
and fight and lead
and teach and encourage
as God commanded her to.

___________________________________

[31. October 2018]

It's unbelievable that even today there are still people who, based on two verses in the Bible, believe women can't be pastors or, going even further, can't teach or lead or have any authority whatsoever over men.

Reading her story again (Judges 4) I feel Deborah pretty much does the job of a woman pastor. She advises Barak, passes on messages from God, she accompanies him when he doesn't want to go into battle without her, as something of a "pastoral presence" to encourage him. Deborah is not even the only example of a prophetess / teacher / female leader / woman in authority in the Bible. There are no good biblical arguments for excluding women from positions of authority and many good biblical examples of women who were called by God to lead.

Go Deb!

And people who say the Bible is rough on women have no idea either - so many strong women, so many women depicted as way stronger than the men in the story. The Bible is what makes me feminist, and especially the Old Testament stories are very empowering in my opinion.

Picture by Otto Semler

01 August 2018

Pharaoh's Daughter: Just Like Me


Exodus 2:1-10

Foreigners.
Outsiders.
With your strange religion,
your alien ways.
Taking our jobs.
Lazy ingrates.
Who knows what you're planning?
Who knows when you'll be more than us?
Who knows what you'll do?
What then?

Stereotypes
are like horoscopes:
broad enough to sound so true,
convincing enough
that you can't smell the lies.

But
I see you mourn your children.
You're just like me.

Stereotypes
are like horoscopes.
So easy to hate all of you,
for the actions of a few,
so easy to let fear
distort your features,
till you're no longer people
but monsters to be culled.

But
I see you mourn your children.
You're just like me.
Because
I've mourned my children too.

I know what it's like
when joy is replaced with emptiness.
I know what it's like
to have your hopes and dreams
smashed to smithereens
with your aching mother's heart.
I know what it's like
when your breasts weep milk
for a child no longer there.

I see you mourn your children.
You're just like me.

So you see,
I can't hate you,
can't watch them cull you like animals,
because you're not.
You're just like me.
I can't watch
as another child dies,
as another mother is left bereft,
because you're just like me.

We don't have to mourn this child.
You and I can both be mothers.
I can save us three.


______________________________________________________________________

[1. August 2018]

Some of what flowed into this:
  • Visiting my third home South Africa and experiencing the disconnect that still often remains between the races.
  • All the stuff here in Europe about refugees being turned away, deported, or talk about sinking boats on the Mediterranean to discourage more migrants from trying to cross over. The rhetoric is appalling.
  • Watching "Schindler's List" with my Ouma and seeing how horrible human beings can be (and they haven't changed one bit).
  • Islamophobic rhetoric which I often hear here in Switzerland (a lot of it from "Christian" circles which is sickening).
  • Reading a bit too many novels involving infertility / miscarriage / etc.
 Anyway I decided to look at Pharaoh's daughter from the angle of "What if she was desperate to have a baby but kept having miscarriages, and finding Moses for her was like an answer to that longing for a child?" Of course the Bible tells us hardly anything about her background; we only know she is Pharaoh's daughter, we don't know whether she has other children ("The Prince of Egypt" gives her a son), we don't know what moved her to adopt Moses except simply that she had pity for him (Ex 2:6). I played with the "what if" here. Thinking of how finding small connections to the people we're supposed to distrust or hate can open the door to compassion, break down stereotypes and remind us of their humanity.

There are so many stereotypes that you hear day by day. I included some common ones about immigrants in this poem. They sound correct enough that they're easy to believe. Stereotypes are often based on some aspect of truth which makes them so convincing. But they can make us forget the others' humanity, can blind us to the complexities of other people. It's all too easy to commit horrors against other human beings (see the Holocaust... the Nazis were normal people, not monsters) - and even to think it's okay or to think we're doing a good thing! (The people who killed Jesus thought they were doing God a service..)

We need to look beyond the stereotypes, generalisations and caricatures to the humanity of the people we're afraid of or being taught to distrust. In South Africa I heard a lot of things about all sorts of people but I saw all of them hanging out their laundry - and that to me was such a powerful reminder of how in the end, we are all human, with the same day-to-day hopes and fears. We need to stop generalising about each other and dehumanising each other, and start noticing the sufferings we have in common (e.g. child loss as I wrote about here) or the small details of life (like hanging laundry).

Pharaoh's daughter stepped beyond the stereotypes of her day and crossed a boundary by saving the life of a Hebrew child who her own father had commanded to be killed. She took a step towards dialogue by making the arrangement with Moses' mother that she should nurse him till he was weaned, and then let Pharaoh's daughter adopt him. What are the ways we can dare to dialogue with the people who are different from us?

Picture by Lawrence Alma Tadema.

28 April 2018

Womb of God


In the beginning
was YES.
The Yes of a Mother
to new life inside her,
the Yes of Love
and potential.

In the beginning
was Your Womb,
and I was nurtured,
enveloped by Your love.

In the beginning
was the life you gave me.

Thrust out into the world,
I stumbled,
helpless.
Cut was the cord
and I foundered,
reaching for You.

I lost sight of You.
I forgot
the warm walls of love
that once surrounded me.
I doubted
your unconditional Yes to me.
I feared sternness;
I ran away,
seeing my shame,
separated, I believed, from You.

But in the end
is Your YES,
a Yes that will never be taken back,
a Mother's enduring, unconditional love,
Your mark on me
that I belong.
In the end
there is no chasm
between You
and me.
Only Your arms
waiting
to hold me,
to put me to your breast
and nurse me to strength,
to lead me as I find my feet
and make baby steps
into a world
that you prepared for me.

There is no rejection,
no condemnation,
no separation.
Teach me to see.

__________________________________________________

[28. April 2018]

So I have been itching to write about God as Mother (a perfectly biblical image btw; if in doubt see here). And about God's uterus because according to the Bible God has a uterus. :-P (John 1:18 bosom = κόλπος = womb) Finally managed...

What flowed into this was thoughts on "original blessing" from this podcast I listened the other day, and the book I am reading ("Original Blessing" by Danielle Shroyer). The idea is that the concept of original sin distorts our view of relationship with God. We see it in terms of separation, and basically make our sin more powerful than God by seeing it as an insurmountable obstacle that even God can't overcome without sacrifice. The idea of sin separating us from God did a lot of havoc in my mind as a child and teenager (because it's in every summary of the gospel / evangelistic presentation). Even with the sacrifice of Jesus, you keep asking yourself: am I really good enough for God? Because at the basis of everything lies God's distaste with sin, and original sin means we are all born sinful (or "totally depraved" depending on which theological corner you're in) and need to be made good enough first. Of course I repeated the "sinner's prayer" a few million times, but I was never confident that it had really "worked", because shouldn't a sign of being "born again" be that I don't sin anymore? But I was still fighting with my sister and doing things I regretted later (and sometimes my "Christian zeal" made me a bigger bitch [sorry not sorry] than I would have been without).


Original blessing is what I have discovered in my baptismal practice (as a pastor): in the beginning, before we are able to respond or understand, God's love is already there. Meaning: the basis is not God's distaste with sin, is not our depravity or evil which needs to be put away first, but pure love. I love baptising children / babies because I believe this is such an important message, in this day and age where young people / teenagers are often insecure about their own value. The message of original blessing is that before everything else stands God's love. That's my understanding of it, at least. :-)

Of course God does not agree with evil - because God loves everybody so if I hurt someone else I'm hurting God, right? But even there: God does not want to destroy the "sinner" or wrongdoer but bring them home.

I recently read the "Revelations of Divine Love" of Julian of Norwich. And what really intrigued me was this concept of sin: that the biggest problem is not the wrong deed itself, but running from God because we are afraid of his reaction to our sin. The solution to sin would be running to God who can comfort and heal and forgive - but too often because we think God is stern and punishing, we flee. For a long time I saw God as angry and punishing and was afraid of making mistakes. It was very freeing to realise that God really and truly is love.

And for that I think the image of womb and birth and mother is fitting. As it says in Jeremiah: "Can a mother forget her child?" God never rejects us. He wants to bring everyone home.

Here's if you want something meditative: [click me!]

13 February 2018

Jesus' Sister: Family First

Mark 3:31-35

Family first -
isn't that how it should be?
Then why
do you put this rabble
before us, your closest kin,
and call them mother, brother, sister
while your mother, brothers, sisters
are stuck outside the door?

Family first -
isn't that the law of God?
Then why this affront
right out in public?
Why this reaction
that feels like rejection?
Are you forgetting
all you were taught
about honouring father and mother?
Are you forgetting
your mother who gave life to you,
your brothers who look up to you,
are you forgetting
me?

Once
you were my own big brother,
always there for me.
You played with me,
you taught me all I know,
you carved me little toys from wood,
defended me
and guided me.
Once
you were my own.

But now
I can't reach you
through the sweaty throng surrounding you,
the squirming, stinking masses
of hideous faces pressing you,
strangers, sick, unclean,
people who disgust and frighten me.
Now
you say that I must share you
with the likes of these.
And it hurts me
that you prefer
this unsavoury company
over me.

Once
you were my own big brother.
Once
you were my own.
NO, brother:
I don't want to share you.
I don't want this privilege
of being your sister
given to anyone else.
For it feels like I must lose you.
It feels like, when you love them,
there's less love left for me.
Like when you honour them
you're shaming me.


I know this is stupid.
I know this is selfish.
But this is what I feel.
Why?
Am I forgetting
that nothing can change
that I am your sister
and you are my brother?
Why do I deny them
an honour that won't cost me mine?
Why do I deny them
a privilege I got for free?

Family first -
but you say all are family.
Family first -
yes, but
maybe I need to learn
your family is larger than ever I thought.

_______________________________________________________________

[12. - 13. February 2018]

Yes Jesus had sisters. 😁
I find this scene very interesting: Jesus' family coming to look for him and unable to reach him because he is so surrounded by a crowd of people. Reading the Gospel of Mark this time around has made me realise how completely overrun poor Jesus was... everyone just rushing to him to get healed, pressing him from all sides, hardly leaving him a minute's peace, making it so bad he had to get in a boat and preach to them from water because they were thronging around him so... People believed he had gone mad, letting all those people come to him like that (Mk 3:21).

So Jesus' own family wants to get to him, but can't. Jesus is surrounded by people who were probably not all savoury characters. I don't know how comfortable you'd feel in a crowd of sick people... especially considering in those days no one really knew what to do about contagion. Then there were the "sinners", people who were deemed unclean because of their illnesses or way of living (and coming too close to those would infect you with "uncleanness" too), ...

Jesus calling these people family would have been a very shocking pronouncement.. and might have felt like an insult and affront to his immediate family. He was bestowing a great honour on those gathered around him - but in a culture where family has top priority (as was the case in ancient Palestine), that would have sounded like dishonour towards his own direct family.

And it got me thinking about privilege. And how very often, sharing something or giving a privilege to others results in the privileged feeling like they are losing out on something. It is very odd because it makes absolutely no sense; just because someone else can  have the same privilege does not mean you lose it or that it has any less worth. But I see that happening e.g. in discussions about gay marriage (people talking as if they and their marriages are being attacked simply by others being allowed the same privilege they already have), or in discussions about welfare etc. With welfare often the arguments go along the lines of "we worked for our money and our privileges, why give them for free to people, that will just make them lazy" etc etc. But God's system of fairness works counter to that: in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, all the workers receive the exact same salary, no matter how many hours they worked. And those who worked more complain - but they do not receive any less than what was promised to them. Why do we want privilege, to be "better off" or treated better, rather than aiming for equal treatment for all, unity, sharing?

So anyway those were my thoughts behind this...  as well as: Jesus' family is way larger than we can imagine. We spend so much energy on thoughts about who is in and who is out, who is "saved" and who isn't, how to "save" those who aren't... but Jesus tells these dirty sick sinners around him that they are his family. A majority of them probably did not understand his message. There are a few stories of people who came, received healing, and left again without having really learnt anything, e.g. the 9 lepers who were healed and went home, with only one turning back to thank Jesus and follow him. But Jesus calls the whole crowd his family. Isn't that food for thought?


Picture by Etienne Dinet.

15 November 2017

Rizpa: I Am Mother

2. Samuel 21:1-14


I am grief,
My heart torn with loss,
an aching hole
where once you were.

I am loss,
alone now, forsaken,
robbed of my sons,
bereft in a cruel sacrifice
done in the name of god.

I am love,
pouring from a shattered heart
flowing in tears
that can't bring you to life,
enveloping arms
to shield you from the sun and rain.

I am fury,
fighting for my children
against all forces of nature,
if must be: against god,
spitting in the face of death,
battling down decay.

I am fidelity,
more powerful than hate,
sharper than a sword,
stronger than death,
enduring all storms,
ignoring my own pain,
your protectress
beyond the end.

I am Mother.
My love never dies.
I would kill death
if only I could.

Where now is God?
Delighting over human sacrifice,
or fighting death with me?

________________________________

[15. November 2017]

I have been intrigued by the picture of Rizpa furiously fighting off the carrion birds to protect her dead family members.

Rizpa's story is a terrible one. After David's rule has been established, there is a famine, and David asks God why. The answer: there is "bloodguilt" on the family of Saul because Saul killed the Gibeonites, i.e. in the tribal system of those days, revenge was still pending. Now instead of asking God what to do, David asked the Gibeonites what they wanted - and they demanded human sacrifice. So David had all the remaining male descendants of Saul killed (except Jonathan's family).

Here's where Rizpa, Saul's concubine, comes in. She goes out to the corpses and defends them - throughout the harvest season! Rizpa remains mother even in death. I find that picture very impressive.

Interesting to note: the famine does not end after the men were sacrificed - but after they were given a decent burial. Not only they, but also Saul and Jonathan who had been dead for years. Which to me shows that God clearly did NOT accept the human sacrifice. There is a lot of ugly violence in the Old Testament, and this is one example of it. But God does not condone it. The hero in this story is Rizpa, who shows David what is to be done. The end of bloodguilt is not punishment and sacrifice but forgiveness and burial.

Rizpa fighting death made me think of how in Jesus God conquered death for us. I see God in her, in this story - not delighting over the murder of men innocemt of their forebearer's crimes.

17 October 2017

Sarai: Is This Love?



Genesis 12:10-20 | Genesis 20:1-18

So this is love:
to sacrifice myself,
my body,
my integrity
to protect you.
So this is love:
giving up myself,
endangering myself,
risking my own neck
so you can be safe.

I don't deny
that this is love:
to give, to risk, to sacrifice.
Yes, this is love:
to look for your best,
to want you to be safe.

But
is this love
when it is always me
sacrificing,
always me
giving,
always me
paying the price,
always me
losing out
in the end?

You ask me to lie
out of love.
You ask me to endanger myself
out of love.
You ask me
to claim I'm your sister
to protect you, my husband.

And now here I am,
in the chambers of a mighty stranger,
unfaithful by force,
unfaithful out of love,
trading my body
for your safety.
Is this love?

Now here I am
a piece of flesh
thrown before a hungry man,
while my husband
cowers safe and cowardly
far away from me.
Now here I am
without you to protect me,
because this is how I protect you.

My love
you got it all wrong.

This is love:
when a husband gives his life,
risks himself,
for the sake of his wife.
This is love:
when you no longer need
to sell my integrity for the sake of your own.
This is love:
when my life and my body
are as valuable as yours.

This is love:
when it's no longer just me
giving, risking, sacrificing.
This is love:
when it's no longer just me
looking for your best,
wanting you to be safe,
but you
looking for my best,
wanting me to be safe,
standing by me
no matter the price.

______________________________________________________

[17. October 2017]

This story appears twice in Genesis - either it happened twice, or there's two traditions that came together in the Bible. The same story also appears with Rebecca, wife of Isaac.

The first version of this story (Gen 12) goes like this: Sarai and Abram go to Egypt - and Abram gets a bit nervous because of Sarai's beauty, so he makes her lie that she is his sister, so no one will want to kill him to get at his wife. Meaning: Abram is not going to risk his life for her protection. He'd rather risk her (making her more "accessible" for other men as an unmarried sister) than risk the eventuality of someone trying to murder him for the sake of getting her. What ends up happening is that the Pharaoh gets attracted to her and takes her for himself.

Abram doesn't do anything to stop that, does not defend his wife. Sarai is basically being grabbed against her will to become a fling or concubine or wife of the Pharaoh, and Abram would rather stay safe and does not intervene. Isn't this terrible?! (Plus, Abram benefits from Sarai being taken by Pharaoh: Pharaoh does a deal with him, pays him a lot in livestock for Sarai's sake. Abram is making a profit and practically selling his own wife!)

Abram does not stand up for his wife. God, however, does. God is the one who intervenes, warns Pharaoh, even brings a plague over him and his family. God defends Sarai.

Writing this I had to think of the description of marriage in Ephesians 5, in particular verse 25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." Abram's relationship with Sarai in this story is one of one-sided submission of the wife to the husband; the husband is worth more, his safety is more important, it's okay to risk her life, to sell her, to allow abuse to happen to her, as long as the man stays whole. But that is not the way of the Gospel. Ephesians 5 is often abused to uphold a "hierarchy" of men above women. But I believe what it is actually saying is that men and women are of equal worth, and that a relationship needs to be one of mutual giving - not just the wife serving her husband and giving everything for him, but the husband sacrificing for her as well.

A husband should never let his wife get abused for the sake of saving his own skin. (And vice versa.)

Picture: The Egyptians Admire Sarai's Beauty, James Tissot.