31 March 2014

Woman at the Well: Thirsty

John 4:1-45

All my life, I have been longing,
for I knew not what.
I have been waiting,
looking, searching,
but I never find.

I thought my longing
was for security,
the strong arms of a man,
to hide in, protected.
But strength failed me,
and I was left
alone and thirsty again.

I thought my longing
was for riches,
a well-off husband
to grant me every wish.
But money failed me,
and I was left
alone and thirsty again.

I thought my longing
was for pleasure,
the touch of a man,
his warm, fond embraces.
But love failed me,
and I was left
alone and thirsty again.

So I thought my longing
was for a future
won by my man
who'd secure it for me.
But hope failed me
and I was left
alone and thirsty again.

So I thought my longing
was for normality,
a peaceful life
with husband, family.
But life failed me,
and I was left
alone and thirsty again.

I do not know
what this longing is
and try to sate it
with whatever I find -
but always I am thirsty again,
and don't know how to live.
Am I to die here,

Everyone who drinks of this water
will be thirsty again.
But those who drink
of the water that I will give them
will never be thirsty.

all my life I have been longing,
thirsting -
now you open my eyes.
I have been waiting,
looking, searching -
now you let me find.

My longing has always
been for you,
for only you can fill it.
Peace and security come from you,
treasures worth more than earthly gold,
joy that lasts eternally,
hope for a future with you.
For you are the one
who gives me life
and stills my thirst.

A fountain
is welling up in me,
a torrent
begging to flow free -
I cannot but share
this water I've found
that stills the thirst
of all around.


[16. March 2012]

A favourite text of mine... and a lesson I have found important to learn: only Jesus truly satisfies. We can work ourselves to death looking for answers and satisfaction of our needs in the wrong places - what we really need is found in Jesus.
I sort of based this around the Samaritan woman's 6 men (that's why every stanza mentions a man).

Picture by Henryk Siemiradzki

27 March 2014

Mrs Isaiah: Prophetess

A title, an honour?
A position above others?
Holier than the rest?
A special skill, unusual gift?
Reader of the future?
Seventh sense?

Called by God to be a servant
of the LOrd and His people
with all of my life.
I am a walking message:
actions, words,
even my children
whose names I did not choose.
I am one of you,
a woman of Israel,
hurting with my people
who won't hear or change.

Turn around, repent!
The future's not unchangeable.
God longs to save, be merciful -
if you but let Him.
Change your ways!

My life is a tool
in the hands of God,
a letter to the world.
Sharing in His longing
for all to be saved.
Sharing in their search
for peace and salvation.
Sharing in His pain
when they turn away.
Sharing in their fear
of judgement.

Here I am, o Lord.
Use me
and give me strength
to bear the consequences.


[August 2013]

In case you didn't know: yes, there are prophetesses in the Bible. Quite a few of them. Isaiah's wife is called "the prophetess" in Isaiah 8:3 but I don't think she's mentioned anywhere else.

So this pretty much reflects my understanding of prophecy, especially from reading Isaiah. People generally seem to see prophecy as a kind of "seeing the future" thing. I believe it's a lot more. If we only read the prophets to know "what's going to happen", we miss out the bit that applies most to us, namely their criticism of society. The summary of their message is very similar to the one of Jesus in Mk 1:15 "Repent!" - which means, "Change your ways!"

The prophets are not like Greek oracles. The Greek oracle says what will happen, and no matter how hard people try to prevent it, it happens anyway. The prophets of the Bible give a warning, and encourage people to change. The future is not unchangeable: God was going to destroy Ninive when He sent Jonah, but because they reacted to the warning and repented He changed His mind.

What I find really interesting about the prophets too is that they are not really different from the people. Most of them are speaking to their own people. They know that what they are preaching counts for them too. Jeremiah had to suffer together with his people. I think they also suffered for their people. In a way they were between God and people, knowing both and "hurting both ways", in a sense. And they care for the people just like God cares for them, because they are their people, and they aren't simply detached. To be able to criticise others, I think we need to have enough love that criticising does not turn into judging, and that when we criticise we do not enjoy the thought of the other being punished.

Another really interesting thing is that the prophet's whole life gets involved. Isaiah walks around practically naked for 3 years. (Isaiah 20) His children's names were messages (Isaiah 7-8). Serving God is a full-time thing. What we do and how we act says something. If our life says something differently from what we believe, then something is not right.

Picture by Gustave Doré, actually depicting the prophetess Deborah.

24 March 2014

Samson's Prostitute: To You... To Me

Judges 16:1-3

To you
     you're strong and powerful,
     vanquisher of your foes,
     avenger of your people,
     sent by God.
     This enemy ground
     holds no terror for you,
     for you
     who can walk out unscathed,
     stealing the gates,
     putting us to shame.

To you
     I am a piece of meat,
     a ware to buy,
     a bit of cheap fun
     for half a night
     to make you feel good,
     feel manly and strong;
     a pretty body
     you'll soon forget.

To me
     you are coins in my hand
     to pay tomorrow's bread;
     a stranger in my bed
     whom I have to please,
     pretend to love,
     for half a night;
     just another man
     I wish I could forget.

To me
     I'm what I never wanted,
     what I never thought I'd be.
     How did I come to this,
     to being your piece of meat,
     selling myself
     because there's nothing else,
     no way out?
     As long as men like you
     do this to women like me,
     this is where I'll be,
     condemned to shame.

To you, you are a hero
     and I your piece of meat.

To me, you are a customer,
     and I your piece of meat.

And to God?


[24. March 2014 - in class...]

This little story often gets overlooked because just afterwards, the Delilah thing happens. For a while I had no idea how to write about this - then suddenly I got this idea. Maybe because last night a missionary at our church told us a bit about human trafficking and prostitution and such...

In Sunday school (from my experience) Samson is often depicted as a hero (and, well, he does appear in Hebrews 11 which is a sort of "heroes table" - though Jephthah appears there too and I don't really like him either...) - but he had his problems. In particular, a "women problem". So he just pops by a brothel on the way to doing another heroic deed (taking the gates of the Philistine capital and carrying them faaaaar away - that must have made the Philistines, who were planning to kill him while he was with the prostitute, feel pretty stupid).

Well, what does one make of a story like this? First off: perfect heroes don't exist. Second: I don't find Samson much of a hero anyway (didn't obey God much - though he remembered Him in the end! Which shows people can change and there's always a chance to repent). Third: I tried to look at how the prostitute might feel. Not just about this story, but in general.

So: please pray for those stuck in the sex trade. Over here in Switz women from Eastern Europe are sometimes promised a job and tricked into prostitution that way. In parts of Asia, poor families resort to selling their children just to be able to feed the rest of the family. Please pray for those involved in helping them find a way out, and pray for more people to reach out and show them the love of Jesus. Pray also for their customers... there might even be some Samsons out there, with a double face - good Christian on the surface, but with a secret "women problem". Pray that they can also receive the help they need to stop visiting prostitutes (when demand ends, so does supply!), and pray that they can find better ways to spend their time, and find healing and forgiveness and a change of lifestyle in Jesus.

Picture by Gustave Doré

21 March 2014

Ezekiel 16: Honour and Shame

Ezekiel 16

In shame I was born,
in shame cast aside,
unwanted, unloved,
thrown out to die.

I was hopeless till you came,
I was helpless, I was nothing -
yet you saw past my shame
and lifted me.
You lifted me up,
up, up into glory,
a place of honour by your side.

You showered me with blessings,
you covered me with gifts,
you swore me your love:
you were mine, I was yours.
Ashes turned to beauty,
the waif became a queen -
but I forgot
what I had been.

Honour turned to pride,
beauty to a curse.
I abused your gifts,
I threw you aside.

Eagerly, hungrily I sold myself,
gave others what belonged to you,
turned honour in for shame.
I was falling,
falling down -
down, down without seeing
what I was doing to myself.

You made me look in the mirror,
you made me see my disgrace,
let me face the consequences
of my unfaithfulness.
Without you, I have nothing,
all my beauty falls away,
all the blessings turn to ashes,
all my glory becomes shame.
Without you, I am nothing -
a veneer of honour,
chewed up from inside,
a black hole of misery -
that is what's left of me.

In honour let me die,
head held high,
knowing it is right
to bear this punishment -
go on, I will take it;
let justice be done,
let me swallow the bitter dregs
I poured for myself.

my last vestige of pride
you banish to the wind
by lifting up my head
and saying I am free.

In shame I lie before you,
for I cannot comprehend
this painful grace.
Why do you stay faithful
when faithless I have been?
Why lift me back to honour,
forgiving me?

I see now
the glory is not mine.
I see now
all I have is yours.
I see now
my honour is you,
and being with you
the only way to keep it.
I am ashes at your feet -
but in your hands, I'm beautiful.
So take me in your hands,
mold me into something new -
make this unclean vessel pure
not to my glory
but to yours.


[March 2014]

This poem is about the "faithless bride Jerusalem" from a parable in Ez 16. After writing a paper on shame / honour cultures and the Bible last year, I still have the honour / shame topic in my head, and it hit me again when reading Ez 16, especially the last bit. The story paints a journey from shame (as an abandoned child left to die) to honour (being adopted and married by God) to shame (priding herself in her beauty, committing adultery and worshipping idols) where punishment reveals the shamefulness of her sinful actions. Jerusalem is even depicted as worse than Sodom (more shame). But then comes the turning point: new honour, a new covenant. And what does the bride feel at being forgiven and lifted back to honour? She feels shame:

And I will establish My covenant with you. Then you shall know that I am the Lord,  that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your shame, when I provide you an atonement for all you have done, says the Lord God. (Ez 16:62-63)

I considered this: there's something honourable about accepting punishment (stanza 7) and something degrading about being forgiven. In a Chinese TV series I watched once, some of the characters kept insisting on being punished. They actually cried out, "Punish me!" Because they wanted justice to be done and they saw that as honourable. Choosing to suffer punishment is something you can do for yourself. Being reprieved makes you dependent. It makes you have to face what was wrong, and repent; you can't stick your head high anymore, you are not in charge. That's how I'd explain the bride's shame at this point. But it's also the shame of realising she has no honour of her own, but all her honour comes from God and is found in Him alone. She ran away thinking she could do on her own; now she has to realise that all she has comes from God and His great mercy and grace. In herself, there's only shame - in God is honour.

If you find the whole honour / shame topic interesting, you should check out this article about a theology based on shame / honour (particularly relating to Chinese culture).

The picture is "Found" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti - a man finds out his childhood friend is now a prostitute, and she is ashamed.

18 March 2014

Samson's Wife: For a Short, Sweet While

Judges 14-15

For a short, sweet while
I thought you loved me.
You saw me - you wanted me.
We talked - you wanted me.
I thought you loved me.
Only true love
could overcome
the barriers between us,
differences separating us,
your parents' disapproval,
our people's enmity -
I thought,
for a short, sweet while.
Only a short, sweet while.

in these days
that should be celebration,
in this time that should mean joy,
here I am,
feeling hurt, unloved, pushed away,
less important to you
than games and riddles and secrets
and things you're hiding from me.
I don't think you love me at all.

Why did your feelings die so fast?
Why is it that
as soon as man has his woman
she is no longer interesting?

How can you not give me what I want?
How can you not show me the attention I need?
How can you not treat me like your wife?
How can you not love me as I thought you would,
for a short, sweet while?


[December 2012]

Then Samson’s wife wept on him, and said, 'You only hate me! You do not love me! You have posed a riddle to the sons of my people, but you have not explained it to me.' (Judges 14:16a)

As this awesome Bible women book says: "Turbulent for its beginning, the relationship Samson has with his wife is clearly not built on any sense of mature, self-sacrificing love. Instead, Samson refuses to explain a riddle to his wife, who then whines and pouts to get her way."

Basically I put myself in her shoes a bit while writing this.
Now how I understand this poem is: on the one hand it shows her thoughts and feelings, which are thoughts and feelings we might have sometimes too. On the other hand, she is not really reacting maturely. She goes from one extreme (he loves me) to the other (he hates me, he's lost interest), over just one small issue. I know that I sometimes react really hysterically over little things. Sure, I wouldn't say Samson is in the right in this issue. But true love would react differently and not go straight over to accusations and self-pity.

I must say it does a lot of good to write a rant like this. ^^ To rant about someone else's problem as if you're in that situation, to let out some feelings and then question what you've written, and learn from it. If you read this poem in a very empathetic way just now, read it again critically! I wrote it as Mrs Samson, finding her feelings completely justified - but at the end of it I knew I had to read it again under the aspect of "why is this reaction not ideal".

Picture by Rembrandt.

13 March 2014

Samson's Mother: Where Are You, God?

Judges 13

Where are you, God?
The world seems void of you.
The time you lived in our midst
is gone like a dream;
you seem so far away.
Holy places feel empty;
your silence echoes there,
and the ominous question:
do you even care?

Each does as he pleases
and chaos is king,
your people oppressed -
forsaken by you?
Other gods take your place,
gods of gold,
gods of pride -
we are locked in sin's cluthes.
Oh God, where are you?

Where are you, God,
in my little life?
In this world full of problems,
do you have time for mine?
Do you see my dreams of motherhood,
are you there to hear my prayers,
tear-stained whispers
in the silent night -
do you even care?

Where are you, God?
We seek and we wait.
Where are you, God?
Are we hoping in vain?
Few hear your voice -
are we deaf?
are you dumb?
Show us we're not forsaken.
Oh God, where are you?

Praise be to you, God,
for here you are!
You step out of the shadows -
you draw aside the veil -
you break your silence -
you show that you care:
for your people
and for me.
You give me a son -
you give us new hope -
you give us a sign:
you have always been here.


[28. February / 11. March 2014]

Did you know that Samson was also one of those children born to a barren mother? Samson's mother could not have children - then one day an angel appeared and told her she would have a son. I could have written about the rather interesting exchange between her and the angel, then her husband and the angel, but I ended up focusing a bit more on what I think is the general feeling in much of the book of the Judges. More than once, this kind of comment appears in Judges: "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes." (Judges 17:6, 21:25) Israel had their land, but it was in a mess, there were attacks from all sides, people were not faithful to God but did terrible things (as e.g. the story of the Levite's Concubine shows), picked up bad customs from the other peoples around them, etc. And sometimes God must have seemed far away, also to those who were faithful to Him and saw everything going crazy around them. "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." (1 Sam 3:1)

What also influenced this poem was watching Prince Caspian recently. The movie (more strongly than the book) shows a situation of confusion where Aslan seems absent, and the question is: "Do we act without him, or wait?" Acting without Aslan leads to disaster. But waiting and wondering where he is and why he doesn't show up and what he wants to be done, while everywhere around people are doubting, pushing, criticising, giving alternative solutions... that is hard too. And that somehow reminded me of the situation in the book of Judges.

Just because God sometimes seems distant, with things going wrong and us not feeling His presence, does not mean He is distant. He is always here, even if we don't see Him, don't feel Him, don't hear Him. Sometimes we just need to be ready to look, to listen, and to wait for Him. Sometimes we need to look at our lives, and ask ourselves whether it isn't our actions and our way of living that creates distance between ourselves and God (by hurting others, by taking idols i.e. putting other things above God, etc). And sometimes we just need the faith that God cares, and God is here, even when He seems invisible.

Picture by Rembrandt.

10 March 2014

Naomi: Bitter

Ruth 1 | Isaiah 54

Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me? (Ruth 1:20-21)

Call me Bitter.
Bitter is the cup
the Lord gave me to drink,
and I drank it
down, down,
down to its shuddering dregs.

Call me Bitter,
no longer pleasant and sweet,
for all my worth
is stripped away,
and I am nothing now:
childless and barren,
widowed and poor.
Bitter and bitterer
the dregs of my days.

If a woman's worth
lies in having a man,
somebody to love her;
if fulfillment can be found
only in his arms,
then what am I?

If a woman's worth
lies in having children
and bringing up sons,
if she can be complete
only as a mother,
then what am I?

In a world
where the worth of a woman
is measured by her men
- father, husband, sons -
there is no place
for me.
Call me Bitter.

And yet
o Lord
YOU are my Saviour
and you have seen my need.
And I can hear you whisper
my worth is elsewhere:
not in circumstances,
not in wealth and not in man,
not in husbands, nor in sons,
not in love, or duty fulfilled.

YOU, o Lord, are my worth.
You, o Lord, are my fulfillment.
In you, o Lord, I have husband and sons,
you are my riches and finery,
you make me sweet and pleasant again,
for you alone can satisfy.


[September 2013]

Naomi = "pleasant"
Mara = "bitter"

Actually I wrote this coming from Isaiah 54. Isaiah 54 hit me as a text which is all about "women's problems", actually: barrenness, widowhood, etc. It's actually talking about Jerusalem personified as a woman, but reading it I felt it can also speak to women who feel disgraced because of their circumstances - women like Naomi.

I think often we seek our worth in outside things: having a boyfriend or getting married, getting good grades, etc. In Naomi's days, being married and having children was what brought good status, as well as security. Nowadays a woman's worth is no longer as dependent on men as it used to be - but still I get the feeling that many of us (encouraged by the media) think we need a boyfriend, or need to be beautiful, or need to be successful and make a career, to be worth anything. What if you can't? What if something gets in the way and your plans are dashed, like Naomi's were?

We need our priorities straight. Of course, there's nothing wrong with depending on other people, or getting a confidence boost when it turns out a guy likes you. But I think we need to remember that our worth, our value as a person, does not depend on our circumstances or attainments - our worth comes from God who created us in His image. It's a worth that does not go away.

05 March 2014

Sincerely, Ruth

Ruth 1-2

My story is not yet over,
I am still here today
in other people who cross your way -
do you see me?

I am the widow who's lost everything.
I am the foreigner - different and strange.
I am the immigrant in a strange new world.
I am the refugee, left homeless suddenly.
I am the mourning one, uncomforted.
I am your neighbour,
waiting for your love,
wanting to be your friend.

Will you, like Boaz, welcome me,
invite me, accept me, help me?
Will you meet me with words of love,
of blessing,
and be a neighbour to me?

I want
your land to be my land -
will you help me?


 [May 2012]

Ruth was a Moabite, a foreigner. She had lost everything except for her mother-in-law. What I admire about her is how, despite having experienced so much trouble herself, she gave everything to help Naomi, her mother-in-law. But another thing her story impressed on me was how there's still many Ruths (not only women but also men) around us today. Foreigners, people who have had hard experiences, people who have lost everything, people who are trying to adapt to a new country.

So often, the reaction to foreigners is xenophobia. People are always complaining about immigrants and foreigners, here in Europe the far-right are harping on and on about "islamisation" and acting very coldly towards foreigners, especially Muslims, instead of showing them love and acceptance.

As a Christian I believe we are meant to meet foreigners - whatever their background, race, or religion - with love and acceptance. It's what Jesus would do. It's what Boaz did to Ruth - a woman from a country which had often been the enemy of his!

Look around you: are there any Ruths there? People who have been displaced, who are new in the area and still can't find the post office on their own, who have trouble with the language, who have a troublesome past behind them and need comfort, who are waiting for you to give them love and be their friend?

The story of Ruth is not just a story about a woman who lived long ago that we can read and think "nice story" and then put it down again. It should make us think today, it should make us realise what people around us, especially immigrants, foreigners, refugees, are going through and how we can help them.

Read Ruth 1-2
Take a look at how Boaz treats Ruth.
Where is there a Ruth today whom you can be a Boaz to?

I wrote this simultaneously in German and English, so as to use the German for a mini-sermon back in '12. Can't find the "decent" German one though, only the scrappy version, so... tut mir leid! :( Vielleicht taucht's noch auf...

03 March 2014

Orpah: Over

Ruth 1

It is over.
And I am alone.

Those days with you
turn into dust,
fade away
into cold spaces
where you used to be.
Our hopes, our plans,
like dead leaves fly
and I am left

Every memory
is a knife to my heart -
little things,
little words,
attacking me
when I least expect it,
paralysing me.

I want to forget -
I don't want to forget -
I want to stay
in this space you've left behind,
before your warmth fades away -
and yet I want to leave.

Can I turn my back
on all these years,
go back to the start,
like waking from a dream?
Can I run home
like a little girl,
cry myself out,
dry my tears
and begin again?

Or shall I walk this stony road
to its bitter end,
get used to this knife
digging deep in my chest,
trust in your God
to give me another chance,
trust it's not over yet?

It is over.
I want to go home.


[24. Feb 2014] [during Philosophy class ;)]

Orpah was Ruth's sister-in-law. Both lost their husbands. Their mother-in-law Naomi gave them the option - no, even pressed them - to go back home. Orpah obeyed and went home - Ruth insisted on staying by Naomi's side. In Sunday school I think we often hear that Ruth made the better, more godly choice by staying with Naomi, and Orpah, who disappears for the rest of the story, is seen more negatively. Perhaps she should have stayed with Naomi. What makes Ruth's choice good and admirable is her insistence on loyalty, staying loyal to Naomi even though it meant probably never getting a chance to marry again. Being a widow in those days wasn't easy; Naomi and Ruth were practically destitute without a man to fend for them. Orpah returned to her home, and by doing so probably had a better chance of finding another husband.

Ruth is the one we look upon (rightly) as good example in this story - and yet that doesn't mean what Orpah did was full-out wrong. But the options the two of them had show us a bit what it was like to be a widow back then: how you could either go home and start again, or stay with your in-laws' family and have less chances. Ruth in the end was rewarded for taking the harder road.

Nowadays in many parts of the world (but not all - that we must remember too!) women without husbands have better chances than back then. Still, losing someone is absolutely not easy and one can be placed before a similar choice Orpah and Ruth had, with how to deal with what is past and what lies before. I tried to illustrate that moment of decision here.

Usually when this scene is illustrated, you see Ruth clinging to Naomi, while Orpah moves away, sometimes in the distance (e.g. this one by William Blake). I chose the picture you see here in the end, because it's a rare one where you see the three women together, before going their separate ways. I don't think we can say Orpah loved Naomi any less.