23 January 2016

Woman with Issue of Blood: Untouchable

Mark 5:25-34 | Leviticus 15:19-30

I am a walking danger,
infectiously unclean,
can't touch or be touched,
for what I touch
I infect
with uncleanness.

I haven't felt a man's embrace
or stepped inside the temple courts
or hugged a child,
held a friend's hand,
these twelve long years -

I've gone to doctors
and spent all I had
till I'd spent myself dry -
to no avail.
Now here I am, bleeding,
worse than before.
Must I always be

I've heard of you from far away,
they say you heal, set captives free.
Can I believe that what they say
is meant for me?

But I'm unclean,
too unclean for the temple -
I must be too unclean for you.
But in my heart I know it's true
that you, Lord, are my only hope -
and this I know:
you'll heal me.

One touch,
one forbidden touch,
and you
will make me clean.

Can I dare?
I reach out my hand


[January 2012]

Read Leviticus 15:19-30 to see what rules there were concerning menstruation and unusual discharges like in the case of this lady.

It's quite complicated actually. Just try imagining it: every time you have a period, you can't touch anything or sit anywhere or anything! (On the other hand, it could give you a week off school... ^^) It might seem really strict, but in some ways it makes sense. As one of my Judaism handbooks says, it could give women a "time off" from their husbands. And keeping track of bodily fluids and things could keep diseases in check in earlier times when such things were more dangerous.

But such laws could also become very oppressive, especially for this woman who couldn't freely touch people and things without having to watch out, who couldn't even worship God in the temple.

When I first read about those laws concerning menstruation, I noticed that this woman did something really really crazy and risky when she touched Jesus' robe. Because actually, if I understand it correctly, a person touching her would become unclean. But the wonderful thing that happened instead is: Jesus made her clean.

We don't need to be afraid of our problems "damaging" Jesus or bothering Him too much or putting Him off. We don't need to be afraid! Because He can take all those things away. There's no problem too deep to share with Jesus, and no sin too dirty for Him to forgive. Unbelievable but true.

Picture from the Roman Catacombs.

15 January 2016

The Tenth Plague: Empathy

Exodus 12:29-32 | Wisdom 11:2-16

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31)

Only now I understand you,
only now I feel your pain.
Only now do I feel sorry -
     do you feel sorry for me?

It's something else when it happens to others,
to the outsiders, foreigners, the ones we don't like.
I could close my eyes, ignore it,
or pretend it was all right -
I did not know what it was like,
I did not care to ask.

But now I feel the pain you felt,
now I lose what you have lost,
now He has taken what we took from you,
and made me see what we did to you.

I did not care to ask,
I did not know what it was like.
had I stopped to imagine
myself in your place,
my son in your son's place,
perhaps then
I would not have let them do to you
what I didn't want done to myself,
would not have made you lose your sons,
for I can't bear losing mine.

Only now I understand you,
only now I feel your pain.
Only now do I feel sorry -
    do you feel sorry for me?


[10. January 2016]

This is about / written from the p.o.v. of the mothers of the first-born who died during the tenth plague in Egypt. I decided to write about them after seeing the picture (above) by Charles Sprague Pearce - I must admit I had never considered their point of view before!

I hope this is understood correctly... in no way do I want to say the Egyptian mothers "deserved" what happened to them. Instead I see it as them having to learn empathy the hard way. Reading Wisdom 11 I found interesting that the Israelites had to learn empathy in the desert when they were thirsty (v. 8). And the sentence "one is punished by the very things by which one sins." (v. 16) The Egyptians actually got away considerably better during the tenth plague, I realised, than the Israelites who lost all their sons (except those like Moses who were hidden or saved) during the pharaoh's decree. The tenth plague was not simply a blow from above - it was the Egyptians being made to experience exactly that which they had done to the Israelites before.

So I wrote this considering how a bereft Egyptian mother might look differently at the Israelite mothers who had lost their children under the decree. I doubt that these Egyptian mothers really played a major part in killing Israelite children - but even if one does not play an active role, one plays a passive one (as happened a lot during the Holocaust): not standing up, not protesting, not defending those who are being abused by the system. Often we only realise what is going on and how wrong it is, and that we should be doing something, once we are ourselves affected.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves (before it's too late) who are those suffering today who need our voice. Before, like the Egyptian mothers, we have to be taught empathy the hard way...

Picture by Charles Sprague Pearce.

13 January 2016

Jairus' Wife: Asleep?

Luke 8:40-56

They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, ‘Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. (Luke 8:52-53)

Is this a joke -
not taking us seriously
as thinking adults?
Do you think we can't see
the grim reality,
do you think it will help us
to pretend she's not dead?

Are you a fool
unable to face reality,
needing delusions
to find comfort from pain,
ignoring in vain
what cannot be undone,
as though calling death sleep
could wake her again?

Is this a comfort,
telling me she is in peace,
not in fear and not in pain?
Are you saying she is fine,
that I need not pine -
that death is not a threat,
but peace and quiet rest?

Is this a promise,
a still and gentle hope
that death is not the end?
That she will be returned to me,
and we shall reunited be -
that death's not irreversible
and sleepers will awake?


[13. January 2016]

Play Bach's "Sleepers Awake" after that last line ;-)

This is the result of talking about death and funerals these past two days, during a course on how to do weddings, baptisms and funerals. This morning my classmates and I had the opportunity to look at different texts (poetic and biblical) and pictures concerning death and collect our thoughts to them (as preparation for funeral sermons). Anyway all of that seems to have seeped in somehow and I found myself scribbling this during lunch.

In the background of this is on the one hand the story of Jairus' daughter - a girl who died and was raised back to life by Jesus. On the other hand I was thinking of the situations of families who have just experienced a loss. As a pastor one visits the family, partly to be with them in that time (some deaths are harder to deal with than others - I've been at three difficult funerals so far where someone died young, unexpectedly, or even before being born) and partly with the aim of organising the funeral (e.g. what songs will we sing, what text should the pastor preach on, plus preparing a short biography of the deceased which either the family or the pastor will share during the service).

One challenge is to not give the mourning family unhelpful answers. So: what with Jesus' statement that Jairus' daughter was "just sleeping"? Is that a helpful way to talk about death? In the texts and images I looked at this morning there were various different metaphors, ideas and images for death. So here I thought I'd look at this image of "sleeping". It can be taken as a kind of affront (stanza 1), or as an unhelpful delusion (stanza 2) - or as a comfort (stanza 3) or hope for resurrection (stanza 4). I believe in stanza 3 and 4. I also view this as a kind of "progress" from being closed off and suspicious (stanza 1+2) to opening up to the positive meaning in what Jesus said (stanza 3+4). Sometimes we also need to leave people time to get to that point.

And: I wanted to leave this all as questions. I think we need to give the bereaved the space to ask questions. And I believe the best way to understand what resurrection and life after death means is to ask questions, to imagine, to use images and metaphors, because until we are there we only see "through a glass darkly" (1 Cor 13:12).

Jairus' daughter's poem is here.

Picture by Carl Bloch - I love it: mother and daughter, and Jesus on his way in the background...

09 January 2016

Shallum's Daughters: Called

"Next to him Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs, he and his daughters." (Nehemiah 3:12)

A call has gone out: "Who will come
rebuild the city of the Lord?
Who will restore our ruined home
back to her glories from of old?"

I heard the call, and here I am,
even though I am no man,
to help rebuild Jerusalem.
I heard the call, and I obeyed -
so do not turn me now away,
but let me in God's service stay.

A call has gone out - who are we
to limit God in whom He sends?
On men and women equally
He pours His Spirit from His throne.
The giver of our gifts is He;
He chooses who fulfills His ends.
The work we do is His alone -
you looked for men, and He sent me.

I heard the call, and I have come
a woman working for her Lord.
So let us now restore our home
back to her glories from of old.


[2./9. January 2016]

Shallum's daughters are women included in the list of builders in Nehemiah 3. I find them a great example of how we need to drop gender stereotyping. There are no such things as "men's jobs" and "women's jobs" - I believe instead we ought to be thinking in terms of gifts and talents. There are certain gifts that are more common to the one sex or the other - but if someone has gifts and a calling, they are not to be suppressed because of our stereotypes. Because what God is interested in (I believe) is our gifts and calling, not the boundaries set by society. Often what we imagine as men's or women's roles are cultural - you can see that quite plainly when comparing with traditional roles in other countries (did you know that in many African groups it is traditionally the women who work the fields, not the men?).

I believe God gives His Spirit, as well as gifts and calling, on men and women equally (Joel 2:28-29). Women are sometimes given gifts that lead them to do "men's jobs" - and it would be a sin to bury their talents. Shallum's daughters helped rebuild the wall of Jerusalem after the return from the Exile. And I believe in doing so they were living out their passion for God - and listening more to God than to the dictates of their culture.

In the background of this is a little something I picked up while researching for my bachelor thesis about women in missions (there used to be controversies over whether women, especially single women, should be allowed to be missionaries at all):
"[T]hey would regularly pray for men – and for pioneer work, they usually meant men – but in a strange way, which they were slow to accept as a divine answer to their prayers, a considerable number of women usually completed the numbers." (Valerie Griffiths, Not Less Than Everything, 2004 - good book!)
God does not always give us what we expect! And very often in history, where men were expected, God sent women!
Another sentence I like to quote from my bachelor research is this one from "Miss Fielde", a baptist missionary to China (which I found in an old missionary journal from the 1870s!):
"A true Christianity can never debar woman from showing her gratitude to her saviour by setting Him forth as the true and sufficient Helper of her sex, both for the life that now is and the life that is to come."
 So yes... don't limit God. Don't tell women not to do men's jobs. Because firstly: men's jobs and women's jobs are culturally relative. And secondly: the Spirit blows where He chooses.

(I'm usually too lazy and uncreative to try meter and rhyme, but after reading some of Emily Brontë's poems last night I felt ashamed of the fact, so here's a rare one that rhymes and has a kind of tetrameter - with some irregularities of course because I'm too impatient for this kind of thing)

08 January 2016

Tamar: Unashamed

"There were born to Absalom three sons, and one daughter whose name was Tamar; she was a beautiful woman." (2. Samuel 14:27)

of my name:

my namesake:
a girl who was shamed.
A fallen woman,
violated, disgraced;
raped by her own brother,
then shunned, hidden away.
A story "not for children's ears",
hushed up, censored,
ignored or forgotten.
a heavy name to bear.

name me after

my namesake:
a girl loved by you.
A human being
with a life and dignity;
no less precious, no less pure
after all that she endured.
And I am named
to honour her,
this innocent so wrongly blamed,
a pure woman,
wrongly shamed.
a name I am honoured to wear.

of my name:


[8. January 2016]

There are (at least) 3 women called Tamar in the Bible. One is Judah's daughter-in-law, the other David's daughter who was raped by her brother, the third (the one this poem is about) the daughter of Absalom, who was the second Tamar's brother and most likely named his daughter after his sister. So as you may have noticed, this poem refers to her story too (2. Samuel 13:1-22).

What do your namesakes mean to you? My father is interested in the Napoleonic wars, so pretty early on he told me all about my namesake who was Napoleon's first girlfriend and became queen of Sweden. There's a novel and a movie about her, which I of course delved into. And simply because of the shared name, I felt somehow connected to her.
I've met a few girls who are named after women who don't appear in children's Bibles (because their stories include violence, sex or sexual violence). I had a Tamar in my class when I first heard the Tamar story. I know a few girls called Jael. What do you do with an uncomfortable namesake?

Writing this I was partly thinking about namesakes, but also thinking about the response to rape. Even today, victims of rape are often shamed, blamed or ignored. David's daughter Tamar, after being raped by her half-brother, disappears into seclusion - we don't hear about her anymore. She was "damaged goods" because she had lost her virginity - while no one really bat an eye about Amnon who had raped her (except Absalom, who killed him after David failed to react). So I wanted to move here from shame in the first part, to honouring her in the second part. Because putting shame on the victim is the wrong response. Rape victims are most of the time innocent and need support, not blame. They need to be appreciated and valued, not judged.

So I think it is right and good to be named after someone who suffered, who was judged, who was looked down upon - because the naming shows love, and honours the namesake. Absalom wanted to remember and honour his sister, and express his love for her - so he named his daughter Tamar. After what had happened, his sister was still just as precious to him as before.

I was influenced a bit by Tess of the d'Urbervilles while writing this. The sub-title for Tess of the d'Urbervilles is "A Pure Woman" (and as you might notice, in the second-to-last stanza "pure woman" comes up a few times - that was on purpose). Tess is an example of a girl who suffered under the reactions of the world around her after she was raped. She was judged because of her lost virginity - but in truth she was pure, purer than those who judged her. Excellent book, you should read it. ^^

Picture by Alexandre Cabanel.

07 January 2016

Wise Woman of Abel: Headless

2. Samuel 20:14-22

When all run around
in panicked circles
like headless chickens,
someone must keep a clear head.

Someone must stop,
someone must think
before the heads roll,
and prevent disaster.

When men run around
like headless chickens
women must keep their heads
and talk some sense.

Why don't you stop?
Why don't you think
before the heads roll?
Do you want it this way?

Let us all keep our heads,
let us think before we act,
let us limit the destrucion
instead of acting headlessly.

You want a head?
Here, have the one
you were hunting all the while,
but spare us ours
and start using yours.


[March 2013]

I suppose my latent feminism shows itself a bit here..
Just so you know: I don't mean to say men are all stupid. Just emphasising the "wise woman" here. The "wise woman of Abel" interrupted a battle by handing over the head of the person the whole battle was about... David's army (led by Joab) was after a rebel called Sheba - so they attacked the city he was in. The wise woman asked Joab what he wanted - and gave it to him. Thus ending a battle in which a lot of innocent people would have died, which is I guess what makes her actions wise.

I played a bit with head imagery due to Sheba's head being handed over at the end. ^^

Many people think the Bible shows only two types of women: Eves (sinful, seductive, sex objects, etc) and Marys (pure, saintly, meek, perfect, etc). When people tell me that the first thing I think of is the "wise women" appearing in 1 and 2 Samuel - e.g. the "wise woman of Tekoa", or the "wise woman of Abel". There are a lot more women in the Bible too who do not fall into the "pattern" of an Eve or a Mary (take Jael for instance, or Deborah). Sadly, people who do not read the Bible assume they know what the Bible says about women, when they only know the more famous bits or what tradition has emphasised. That's the nice thing about challenging yourself to learning about all the women in the Bible, though. You uncover stories you never knew before. I can only recommend it!

02 January 2016

Maacah / Micaiah: The Measure of Power

2. Chronicles 11:18-23 | 2. Chronicles 13:1-2

"My little finger is thicker than my father's loins." (Rehoboam, 2. Chr 10:10b)

Do you know my name?
Or have you confused me,
exchanged me
with someone else?
Am I truly your beloved,
or just another pretty face,
a number in your race
to be the mightiest king of all?

You measure your power
like the heathen kings:
by the women in your bed
and the children you produce.
And I become a means to the end
of proving your virility.

Do you know her name?
Or have you confused her,
exchanged her
with me?
Can you keep track
of all your beloveds,
all your wives and concubines,
all your mistresses and lovers -
or do we morph into one face,
numbers in your race
to be the mightiest king of all?

And we become
the means to the end
of proving your virility,
of proving your little finger
is thicker than your father's loins,
of proving you mightier than all the rest.

You measure your power
like the heathen kings -
why don't you seek greatness
in the ways of our God?
Our God who chose
an impotent man
and made him great;
our God who chooses
goodness over power
and weakness over virility.


[1. January 2016]

I've been wanting to write this for months...
Upon reading the story of Rehoboam, I was intrigued by the fact that in 2. Chr 11:21-22 says his son and follower Abijah was the son of Maacah (Rehoboam's favourite), but in 2. Chr 13:1-2 Abijah's mother is said to be Micaiah. That got me wanting to write about these women.

Rehoboam had a total of 78 wives and concubines, and 28 sons. Back in the day, it was normal in Ancient Near Eastern culture for kings to prove their power by collecting a lot of women. On the one hand, marriages secured allegiances with other kingdoms. On the other hand, the power of a king was believed to be reflected in his virility: having a lot of women and producing a lot of sons.

Especially after reading 2. Chr 10, which tells of Rehoboam's choice of power over mercy which he summed up with his statement in 10:10 ("My little finger is thicker than my father's loins" - something I read as a bit of a lewd joke hinting at that power/virility connection), I get the impression that Rehoboam is a pretty "macho" kind of guy. He goes with the culture of the surrounding nations and collects a lot of wives and concubines to prove how powerful he is - a kind of "arms race" (hence the "numbers in your race" bit).

The polygamy of the Israelite kings had its consequences... one being the confusion / conflation of Maacah and Micaiah, another the threat of the "throne prince" by his many brothers who had to be sent all over the country and kept satisfied (11:23).

But is that really how it's meant to be? I had to think of Abraham, the man God chose to begin His chosen people: a childless man (in the p.o.v. of the day: impotent, weak, unimportant). Also of how God called His people not to adapt to the culture of the other nations - the "natural" human way of thinking which brings us harm instead of good. They were to be something different, showing the world that there are other ways - e.g. that true greatness is not reached through power and force, but through mercy and kindness (which are central elements of the character of God).

Picture by Hans Holbein the Younger.