11 October 2016

Susanna: The God Who Questions Me

Luke 8:1-3

God used to be easier
when his views fit my own,
when he affirmed what I already believed,
when he moved within my stereotypes,
proved right what I already knew.

God used to be easier
when my enemies were his,
when he affirmed my prejudice,
when he approved of the boundaries
drawn up between "us" and "them".

God used to live
in this comfortable box
of the culture I knew
and the worldview I treasured,
among people I loved
who thought just like me.

But now
You have opened the box
and He runs wild and free,
challenging me
and who I thought He is.

This God questions my long-held beliefs,
challenges all I thought I knew,
tears down my prejudices
and won't let me be
the way I used to be.

Now God is teaching me
to touch those who once disgusted me,
to love those I looked down upon,
to open my heart to the ones I rejected,
to open my eyes to wounds I was blind to see,
to embrace those who once were repulsive to me.

For you touch the lepers,
you eat with sinners,
you mingle with rabble,
commune with foreigners.
You show me the God
I have misunderstood,
the God I only saw
through my own clouded lenses
that sought confirmation of my distaste
instead of seeking truth.

So let me follow You, my Lord,
overcoming all hatred, disgust and fear.
Let me follow You, my Lord,
my God who questions me.


[11. October 2016]

Susanna is one of the female followers of Jesus listed in Luke 8:1-3. Most likely she was a wealthy woman, since it says she contributed financially to Jesus' ministry. We know little more than that about her - so in this poem she is the "voice" for a particular issue of following Jesus that has been on my mind lately.

I believe what makes Christianity different is (or should be, if Christians were actually Christlike) the overcoming of boundaries, loving people who are unlovable either to our society (outcasts, people our culture looks down upon) or to ourselves (enemies, personal disgust). "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Mt 5:46-47)

Our faith should not affirm our disgust with certain people or groups, but challenge us to go beyond our feelings, also beyond what society says, to show them God's love.

I often hear this kind of argumentation in the context of calls to be "stricter", to push through some "biblical law" against "feelings" and "modern culture". You may have noticed I take this the other way round in this poem... The specific discussion I'm coming from is the ongoing (getting really tired of this) debates around homosexuality. Many Christians push for a "firm stand" for "what the Bible says". The truth is, though, that the Bible says much less about the issue than we like to think it does. Ultimately, I believe, if we are honest, our views on this issue are based much less on the Bible than on our feelings and our cultural norms, which lead us to back off from anything that doesn't fit the standard. That is a completely natural human reaction! The natural reaction to anything foreign and strange is defensiveness and rejection. However, Jesus calls us to go beyond our natural human reactions. Which means going beyond our feelings (of disgust or confusion or fear) to see the human being before us.

I believe that God loves all of us, as sinful as we are. His love calls us to love Him back. We love God by keeping His commandments (John 14:15) - and His greatest commandment is to love our neighbour (Mt 22:36-40), to love each other (John 13:34). Being holy and perfect like our heavenly Father means loving our enemies and the unlovable, even those undeserving of our love (Mt 5:38-48) - because that is precisely what God did by becoming Man and letting Himself be brutally crucified, forgiving His murderers. Love is the fulfillment of all commandments. Which is why love needs to be our priority - without love, we are not fulfilling all the other commandments either!

It's easy to look over the fence into other people's (and other Christians') lives and say what they need to be changing. And maybe they do need to do some changing - a changed life, after all, is a central part of being a Christian. But it's not always "the others" (the "sinners", e.g. LGBTQ) who need to change. Maybe we need to look in the mirror first and change too. More often than the "sinners" and outcasts of the time, it was the pious people, the "Bible-based believers" of the day, the Pharisees, whom Jesus called to repentance! Shouldn't that be food for thought? Where are we holding on to cultural norms and insisting on reading the Bible through a biased lens, instead of letting God actually challenge us? Where are we ultimately abusing the Bible for our own ends, to legitimise or explain our discomfort, instead of letting it question our assumptions?

I see a lot of conservative Christians accuse pro-LGBTQ Christians of not taking the Bible seriously, and instead adapting it to fit their own feelings, wishes and agendas. I must say I used to think that way too. But it's a lazy argument - one which can be turned around. Because I believe very often, we have used the Bible and used God to only confirm what we already believed, to confirm our prejudices (not just in this issue but also in others like race, support for war, etc.), and to legitimise our lack of love. But love is THE commandment of God. It is never right to legitimise a lack of love towards other people - because God calls us to love the unlovable, even our enemies. A lack of love is something we need to confess and pray about and wrestle with (maybe all our lives), but never something we are allowed to make excuses for.

Sorry. Probably stepped on some feet. Here, have a band-aid. <3

Picture by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze (Jesus healing a leper).

09 October 2016

Abigail: Disobedient

1. Samuel 25

I will disobey you,
my Husband -
I will ignore your command.
I will subvert your decision,
I will counter your wish.
I will disobey you,
my Husband -
and save us all.

How can I idly sit and watch
as your choice risks our destruction?
How can I stay silent and passive
in the face of such danger?
How can I submit
to the threat of war
when in my hands
lies the chance to make peace?

I will disobey you,
my Husband -
I will do what you refused:
I will share of our wealth
with these men who have asked us
before they take it by force.
I will disobey you,
my Husband -
and save us all.

I will not let my weapons rust,
my gifts of wit and diplomacy.
I will not bury God's gift of wisdom
beneath a false submissiveness
when I can use it now for peace,
to reconcile
and save us all.

God does not ask me
to submit without question
and obey you unconditionally.
God does not ask me
to sit silent at home
while all around me
the world crashes down.
God does not ask me
to quash my own will
beneath that of a man,
be it my husband
or my future king -

I will disobey you,
my Husband -
I will take initiative.
I will go out and save you
from certain death,
I will go out and save him
from the sin of murder,
I will go out and save us all.


[9. October 2016]

Recently I read this story again... David (on the run from Saul with a band of outlaws) asks the wealthy landowner Nabal to provide food for his men - in return for the protection they have given Nabal's shepherds. Nabal refuses. David is angered and decides to kill everyone on Nabal's estate.

This is where Abigail, Nabal's wife, steps in. She decides to override Nabal's decision and goes out to meet David with the provisions he asked for - thus preventing the massacre David had planned. She saves Nabal (and the servants, shepherds etc) from being killed, and saves David from bringing sin upon himself. Abigail becomes the mediator between Nabal and David, and becomes their "saviour" - all this by being disobedient and insubmissive!
(The help comes too late for Nabal, who is so frustrated with what Abigail has done that he "becomes like stone" and dies some days later. David, on the other hand, takes Abigail to be his third wife.)

This made me think of how conservatives like to talk about "biblical womanhood", i.e. what the role of women should be according to the Bible. According to conservatives ("complementarianism"), God has given men and women distinct roles: men shall lead, women submit and follow. The man is the head of the family, the woman should obey him. Leadership roles in the church also are reserved for men alone; women are not allowed to become pastors, preach or teach men. This is based mainly on a few texts in the letters of Paul (e.g. Eph 5:22, 1. Tim 2:11-15).

I believe this is a highly selective reading - and one that is not "counter-cultural", but clinging on to the patriarchal culture the Bible continuously subverts. The Bible is full of stories of women who dance out of this pattern of submissiveness and through their insubordination actually end up saving the day or fulfilling God's plan. Abigail is just one example. Others include:
  • Zipporah, who saved Moses' life by circumcising his sons (Ex 4:24-26) - something he for some reason had failed to or refused to do.
  • Deborah, who was a prophet and judge (leadership role), and in her story comes across as the strong woman warrior braver than the male captain Barak. Her husband hardly features in her story. (Judges 4)
  • Esther, who broke the rules and dared to approach the king unbidden to speak up for her persecuted people (Esther 5). Even as his wife, Esther was barred (on threat of death!) from coming to the king unless he called her.
  • Women in the early church like Philipp's daughters, the deacon Phoebe or the apostle Junia who did not stick to the traditional "women's roles" dictated by their culture, but served God in the church and in teaching and leadership roles.
There is hardly a single woman in the Bible who fits the "subservient" role conservative Christian leaders call "biblical". If we want to understand texts like Eph 5 and 1. Tim 2 properly, then we need to understand them in the context of the whole Bible, which includes stories of women disobeying their husbands, taking initiative and taking on roles conservatives like to reserve for men.

I believe true biblical womanhood is not unquestioning submission to your husband. Men can be wrong. We have been given gifts by God which we are to use. Marriage is about teamwork, not about my husband telling me what to do and me slavishly following without asking whether he's leading me in the right direction. Being a wife is not about simply doing all my husband wants, because there's a world out there and maybe his decisions harm us, or himself, or people out there. We are responsible before God and we can't hide behind submission - we have been given gifts to use them, when God calls us we are to follow (even if He calls us into a role our culture doesn't agree with), and when our husbands' decisions are harmful and we know it, we are in a position to do something. Like Abigail, like Esther, like many other women in the Bible who "disobeyed" - and in doing so, saved the day and did right in the eyes of God.

"Submission" is not about unconditional obedience, but about love, honour and respect - and sometimes love, honour and respect are exactly what call us to disobedience... (Btw for more on the correct meaning of "submit" in Eph 5, check out this article.)

Picture by Juan Antonio Escalante.