God is Love and God Loves You

Luke 13:10-17 (Homily)

The statements “God is Love” and “God loves you” are abstract concepts. I can tell you these things all day, but apart from concrete manifestation of that love in substance and action, both statements fall flat. We live in an era where words are tossed about, rapidly and thoughtless so. We say I love you to our friends and family and then in the next breath profess love to jellybeans. What then does love mean? In the predicament where there is little concern for the substance of language, the meaning of words, and the impact of nouns and verbs, how do I communicate to you love? What does “God is love and loves you” mean? A profession of love causing you to experience and believe that profession, means the profession needs substance, the landing has to stick; deed must follow word.

We encounter Jesus on the Sabbath teaching in a synagogue. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears having an ailment for 18 years. Luke explains: she is bent forward,[1] unable to raise herself up completely. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the woman. He only tells us that she’s suffered with this ailment for 18 years. For nearly two decades she existed in a curved-in state, unable to look up. Her eyes took in more of the ground than the sky; her face went unnoticed, turned toward the dust and dirt of her travels. The very face a mother adored, a lover loved, a child yearned for now hidden in plain sight. An identity hidden; she was merely a body in the crowd. 18 years nearly unseen. That’s a lifetime for some of you.

When she appears,[2] Jesus perceives her. In the midst of all the people attending the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus’s perception of her presence is identical to his question, “Who touched me?” in Luke 8, while being pressed in on all sides in a crowd. Luke loves highlighting Jesus’s divine attributes. One of those attributes is perceiving the people his society and the religious therein have ceased to perceive. Jesus sees those who have fallen through the cracks, those who have slipped off the grid, those who have been relegated to the fringe. Those who have been excluded and isolated? These he sees. And he doesn’t merely see, he perceives and he acts. Jesus loves these.

On any other day, that woman would’ve gone in and come back out without much notice. But not today; today, Jesus notices her very presence. And what does he do? He calls her to him. “Woman, you have been[3] set free from your infirmity.” And then he lays his hands upon her. In an instant (literally), she is set straight (again)[4] and (at the same time) is bestowing glory on God.

And, I am brought back to Genesis 2. The last time someone was this curved-in was when Adam felt the deep trial of isolation. In the presence of God, he longed for an other. As God gazed upon this turned in man, God said: it is not good that this man is alone. I will make a partner for him. And like the light and the dark on the first day, God pulled the man apart—taking one and making two. Just as light is its own substance and so too the dark, both the man and the woman were two complete individuals—they were equal but not interchangeable. Forever, in this swift movement of deft surgical precision, loneliness was lifted from Adam’s back and cast into the outer darkness to take up its kingdom where there is not. And God sat on his throne among the light, in the midst of the life of humanity in community in the cool of the verdant garden. And it was very good.

As Adam was set free from his infirmity of loneliness in divine intervention, so too this woman is set free. Jesus lays his hands upon her and separates her from her burden, from her isolation, from her oppression, from her exclusion. She now stands upright, for the first time in 18 years; she can see the bright light of day, the blue of the sky, the twinkling stars of night. As she stands upright, she gazes (again) into the eyes of those around her, to recognize and to be recognized in her identity. Jesus restores her to the dignity of her humanity articulated in upright posture. Not frail and hunched over, she stood tall and looked out, restored by the simple word and touch of Jesus the Christ, by his love. What was her life of burden and bondage is now relegated to the old age of what was; she is ushered into the freedom and liberty of the new age. And when that event of encounter happens with God, a thick and dark line is drawn in the sand between what was and what is and what will be; a line is drawn like the one created by the collapsing walls of water forever separating Israel from Egypt and their bondage and captivity.

In Luke’s brief story, he boldly describes the cosmic battle between God and the powers of sin and death. Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is chastised. He brings dignity and humanity to an old woman, and the ruler of the synagogue loses his mind.[5] After a stern, “Hypocrites!”, Jesus tightly correlates Satan (the powers of sin and death) to the religiosity of the rulers. According to Jesus, using the law to keep people bound in their burden and oppression is letting Satan have his way in the world. The law is good and can create and maintain freedom; but it should never be weaponized. When we love the law more than we love people, we are in the business of stripping people of their dignity and humanity. The law was made for humans, not humans for the law.

Back to the beginning, God is love because God is active and God’s activity is manifest in love loving, which is bringing freedom to the captives (in a real way). When I profess love, my love best look like this…

 

 

 

 

[1] More like “bent-forward-ing” the verbal aspect of the word doesn’t translate well into English.

[2] The word that is translated as “appear” in the text is technically “Behold!” which carries the same force of “suddenly there she was!” thus “appearing”.

[3] The perfect passive here has the force of an event that has occurred to the recipient that has ramifications into the present. In a sense, she will has been set free and will continue to be set free. Woe to anyone who attempts to reverse the divine action.

[4] Highlighting that she wasn’t always this way that at one point she could stand up straight.

[5] Quite literally, he is indignant, it’s the manner of his being in the current situation.

“Trees Planted by Streams of Water”

Proverbs 31, Mark 9:30-37: True Discipleship #LikeAGirl (Sermon)

Introduction

You either love her or hate her; but all of you are opinionated about her. She’s either revered as the ultimate example of womanhood or she is despised as nothing but oppressive idealism unattainable by human standards. In academic circles she’s rarely if ever the topic of conversation: she’s relegated to an inferior position; that’s just about woman’s work.

Personally, I’m fascinated by her, ever since becoming a Christian I’ve marveled over her. At multiple points in my life, I’ve tried to be her only to fail. I’ve meditated on and prayed through the poem multiple times. It is no surprise to hear that I wrote a 100 page thesis on her. My question leading up to writing my MDiv thesis was: Why? Why is she here?

In and through my intellectual digging, I discovered an answer I wasn’t expecting. Rather than being a checklist for the proper execution of womanhood and wifery or some abstract communication about the people of God, the Church, she is, from head to toe, the manifestation of hope. And not just hope in general, but hope specific. She is the hope of restoration: restoration of woman to God and the restoration of the relationship between men and women. And even more than those two things, she is the manifestation of hope for humanity: what it means to be a good disciple.

It is my contention that she is an expression of the hope for the reversal of the curse of Genesis 3. She is hope for the longed for reversal that is to be completed in the coming Messiah—the Messiah to whom all of the Old Testament points. It is my belief that she is the signpost on the way to through the metanarrative of scripture that points to what comes in Christ. She is the embodiment of the hope embedded in the protoevangelium (the first gospel promise) uttered way back when in Gen 3:15 when God cursed the snake: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,/and between your offspring and hers;/he will strike your head,/and you will strike his heel.”

She doesn’t just point to Genesis 3 when everything goes bad; but to Genesis 1 and 2 when everything was very good. The poem draws us back to the cool air of the garden, when woman walked alongside man and they communed together in the presence of God, as co-vice-regents of the earth. The Proverbs 31 Woman is fighting a battle, not just keeping house. The warfare imagery throughout the poem leads us, the reader, to see a woman, to see a person who is fighting against the chaos established by the fall. The Proverbs 31 Woman is pointing back to Eve and Adam, and at the same time pointing forward—through the chaos of the fall—to Christ—who is the very image of God his Father in his divine substance (God of very God) and of Mary his Mother in his humanity. When God walked the earth he carried her face into the world. The woman was not forgotten when God became man. To over emphasize the masculinity of Jesus the Christ at the expense of the femininity of the one whom he looked like, is to devolve into a very bad Christology and a malnourished and weak God-talk (theology). Let us talk rightly, for ourselves and because the children are listening.

V.10: “An excellent wife who can find?/She is far more precious than jewels.” The way this question is phrased in the original language expects a negative answer. Who can find this excellent wife? No one. She is so “rare” that jewels do not compare to her. Even if you could “find” her, you couldn’t afford her anyway! VV.11-12: “The heart of her husband trusts in her,/and he will have no lack of gain./12 She does him good, and not harm,/all the days of her life.” She is mature in age and in spirit. Their relationship has weathered the trials of the passing years; she is not young nor is she a newly wed. She operates in love towards her husband, just as in the New Testament those who are in Christ are encouraged to operate in love towards one another.[1] He knows that she loves him; there is no doubt, no worry, no wonder; he is confident in her love toward her. And in that he knows she loves him, his heart trusts in her. Much like a child trusts his mother.

V.13: “She seeks wool and flax,/and works with willing hands.” She can use a broad spectrum of materials to create things—she is capable, creative and astute. There is nothing wasteful about her handling of materials; everything is put to use in some way or another (v.13). V.14: “She is like the ships of the merchant;/she brings her food from afar.” She provides for her family. She’s not just making meals, she’s enjoying the bounty created by God and deemed enjoyable by Him.[2] She takes pleasure in the world just as God did and does; just as humanity did and should. V.15: “She rises while it is yet night/and provides food for her household/and portions for her maidens.” She is not given to too much sleep; she is not lazy. However, though she is diligent throughout her days, her work is not her lord (work is its proper place, under her dominion). She does not neglect her household—those who depend on her—for her own pleasures. Both men and women are to be active and care for others and not act like disinterested selfish slugabeds.[3] Oh, and by the way, she’s wealthy: she has servant girls! Even if this was about “works,” She does NOT bare that responsibility alone.

V.16: “She considers a field and buys it;/with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” She has investment-like foresight. She re-invests; she does not earn gain for gain’s sake. Her very fruitfulness (prosperity) is evidence that she is sowing righteous seed in righteous soil and continually replants the fruits of her hand.[4] V.17: “She dresses herself with strength/and makes her arms strong.” Strength is one of her foremost qualities. Her arms are strong for the task…she is able to get things done, especially in ‘planting’ a vineyard. She is not afraid of hard work or of labor. [5] Meek and mild? Think again! Think: Princess Xena. Think: Wonder Woman: Think: Amazon. Think: Frontier Woman. Weaker sex, eh?

V.18: “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable./Her lamp does not go out at night.” This is not about having a home-based business. This is creational language reminiscent of Genesis, “And God saw that it was good.”[6] She is a creature that was gifted to use her mind and her hands to make. And she uses this ability to purchase the oil for her lamp and keep a store of oil so that her lamp will not go out. She is, essentially, prepared with enough oil to provide light for a long time; she’s one of the wise virgins with a trimmed wick waiting for the Lord to return.[7] V.19: “She puts her hands to the distaff,/and her hands hold the spindle.” There’s more to the imagery here than sewing. What is the distaff and spindle imagery depicting? A valid definition for the Hebrew word translated as spindle is “district”.[8] She puts her hands to the district; she extends her hands and subdues the earth as the manifestation of one of the commands of God in the Garden (reversal of 3:16ff). [9]

V.20: “She opens her hand to the poor/and reaches out her hands to the needy.” She is caring for the poor and afflicted by “extending her hands” as was required by every Israelite (Deut. 15:11). She is the godly person for whom Micah seeks as he walks around the streets, for her hands stretch out and do “good” (7:1-7). She represents what it means to be truly human: caring for the disenfranchised; she is being used as what it means to love your neighbor as yourself;.[10] V.21-22: “She is not afraid of snow for her household,/for all her household are clothed in scarlet./She makes bed coverings for herself;/her clothing is fine linen and purple.” The poem covers many seasons, winter being one of them. The poem does not just cover this woman’s day, but this woman’s entire life. The reference to her household being clothed in scarlet is synonymous with her wealth; she is a wealthy woman and has clothed her household in good, warm clothing.

V.23: “Her husband is known in the gates/when he sits among the elders of the land.” Her husband sits among the elders so he is older, thus she is, too. Notice that there have been 12 verses since her husband has been mentioned. This woman is not defined by him and her service to him, but by her own qualities, V.24: “She makes linen garments and sells them;/she delivers sashes to the merchant.” She is aware that her deeds are worthy and, thus, she does not hesitate to capitalize on them. She is wise and can bring in her own income, which she uses to the benefit of her household.[11] V.25: “Strength and dignity are her clothing,/and she laughs at the time to come.” It is through her relationship with God, it is in her fear of the Lord (v.30) where these characteristics of strength and dignity are sourced. These characteristics are evident to everyone who meets her. V.26: “She opens her mouth with wisdom,/and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” And her words back this up; they are described as wise. Her outward appearance and inward manner are one in the same; she is not a white-washed tomb. The state and orientation of her heart is righteous for what flows out of her is righteous. In Mark 7, Jesus explains it is what comes out of and not what goes into that defiles a person; our Proverbs 31 woman speaks wisdom and thus is wise and you can only be wise if you know God (according to the Hebrew and our own tradition). She knows Torah (rare); she knows and is known by God.

V.27: “She looks well to the ways of her household/and does not eat the bread of idleness.” V.28-29: “Her children rise up and call her blessed;/her husband also, and he praises her:/“Many women have done excellently,/but you surpass them all.” “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” is akin to the statement of the husband in the poem in Proverbs 31, “Many women have done well, But you surpass them all.”[12] V.30-31: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,/but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised./Give her of the fruit of her hands,/and let her works praise her in the gates.” This is the key to the whole poem! It is her inner-beauty, her fear of the Lord that has been the eye-catching aspect of this woman from v.11 to v.30. Her strength and dignity come from her relationship with God; her wisdom, too, is of God (Prov. 1:7).

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,

nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

The proverbs 31 woman is a glimpse of a restored Eve and a restored relationship of Eve to God; thus, a glimpse of the restoration of the relationship of woman to man.[13] But it’s not only about that. If we take the creation myth of Genesis 2 seriously, and see it primarily as a story about the creation of (thus the necessity of) community in likeness and difference (which is the extinguishing of loneliness), then what we see here, too, is the restoration of Humanity. The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly the embodiment of the ideal humanity yanked out of the chaos and myths of the world–a world broken by oppressive and deleterious systems of abuse in manifold forms–and placed into the Reign of God. Located in the reign of God in the event-encounter with God by faith in Christ alone. And this Reign of God is marked by love and kindness, by mercy and divine justice in restoration and reconciliation, in freedom for all or freedom for none, in the solidarity in suffering and pain and grief and sorrow, in the equality and mutuality in community that lives the very thing believed: that the dividing wall has been torn down, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female (Gal 3:28). To be truly human, to be the faithful disciple in the world, is to act as the Reign of God is; to act like the Proverbs 31 woman.

The remarkable thing about our readings today is not just the fact that we read the Proverbs 31 poem and that you happen to have in your midst a self-proclaimed P. 31 scholar (*wink), but that our Gospel passage, from Mark, works with the Proverbs reading. Jesus spends time explaining to his disciples what it means to be a good disciple (and the Gospel of Mark is directed at such a specific message): If anyone wishes to be first, he must be last and servant of all people (9:35, translation mine). He then (immediately) snags a small child and places that child in the midst of his cadre of disciples. Jesus lowers himself, puts his arms around the child and says this, Whoever receives one such as this child on the basis of my name, that person receives me; and whoever receives me, does not receive (only) me, but the one who sent me (v37, translation mine). Whoever receives into their arms, intimately, one such as this child receives me. Receives one such as this child. And I am relocated to when I reached for and held my first born son, just born; receive one such as this child. According to Jesus, to be and do the will of God is to love like a mother.

Even Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians uses mothering imagery to explain what agape love (divine love) looks like to the men/husbands in Ephesus. In a discussion about what mutual submission looks like, Paul shorthands a quick statement to the wives: each to their own husbands as unto the Lord. (Full Stop.) He then turns to the husbands: y’all best sit down for this…Paul begins. What do I mean by love and mutual submission the women get, but you don’t because you’ve never brought a child into the world. The washing imagery of 5:25-28 is less to do with “baptism” and everything to do with the washing of a child by the mother.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

A regular practice of mothers in the ancient Greco-Roman society was to forgo their own cleanliness in order to wash their child. Just like our own bodies betray us in gestation, so to do our brains in consistently choosing the well being of our child over our own. It’s why mothers do weird things (because they’re tired and they’re in love). The men would’ve washed themselves first, but the mother would’ve washed the baby first. This Paul uses as an example for the men, they would’ve seen it practiced in their own homes and boy would that message had been radical. Paul knew that women understood “mutual submission”; not only because they had to endure it socially and politically but also because they couldn’t deny it relationally (as a mom). They knew instinctively what that agape love was.

If you’ve ever wondered why the women are always getting “it” in the gospels, if you’ve ever wondered why the women seem to understand what and why Jesus came, you now have your answer: the activity of God for the world has not only paternal but also significant maternal power. And if you know agape love you recognize agape love.

Mark 15, the women watch Jesus die; they knew. Mark 7, the Syrophoenician woman; she knew. Mark 14, the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany; she knew. Mark 5, the woman suffering from perpetual bleeding; she knew. John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well; she knew. Luke 10, Mary at Jesus’s feet; she knew. They all knew in the core of their being; they knew.

We see Jesus the man in his strong masculine form and forget that he’s God who is both male and female and thus embodies also the strength and dignity of the paradoxical gentleness and fierceness of the feminine. Both men and women, in Christ, justified by faith, are to receive and love all people unto the least, like a mother. It’s not reception as in tolerance; it’s life laying down neighbor love, the way a mother loves her child. Believe me, Jesus loves the whole world. He loves in the way that he bore the sins of the world just like a woman bears a child into it. In the same way she holds that child to her breast as she nurtures and sustains that child. In the same way a mother will lay her life down for her child no matter what the threat or possible destruction she herself will undergo.

Both men and women are encountered by God in the event of faith. Both men and women are called to be disciples of Christ marked by laying down of their lives and in bearing their crosses. Both men and women are brought unto death and into new life in Christ. Together.  Good news has come to the world in Christ Jesus this man who is God. And no longer bound to the systems and stories and lies of the world, believers are the ones who live into the world in a radical way; the one’s who know God and live as if they do. Today through the words of the poem of Proverbs 31 and in Jesus’s embracing a child, we are called to be the faithful witnesses of Christ in the world, to proclaim Christ crucified to the world in all that we say and in all that we do, and to love (radically) all people and the world as we have been loved (radically and unconditionally) by God. Let us love, let us love like a mother loves her child, love like the Proverbs 31 Woman, love like the women who knew, love #likeagirl.

[1] (1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5, Love your neighbor as yourself)

[2](DBI 297) “God not only provides, and provides abundantly for his creatures, but he also provides an immense variety of pleasurable flavors, textures, colors, shapes and smells, all of which indicate the joy and delight of the creator with his creation”

[3] (Prov. 6:6, 9; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30)

[4] (v. 16; Gen. 1:28; Mt. 25:14-30).

[5] “Both the arm and the hand are biblical images of power….[and] can represent power in action, either good or evil” (DBI 43)

[6] (Gen. 1:10b, 12c, 18c, 20e, 25c, 31b)

[7] (Mt. 25:1-13)

[8] (Moore 25-30; BDB 813; cf. Nehemiah)

[9] (Gen. 1:24, Gen. 2:18)

[10] (Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22;39; Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14)

[11] (Gen. 1:24, 28)

[12] “In order to understand what follows, we must turn at once to the final goal: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,’ is the cry of man when God brings him the woman. This exclamation, the expression of a recognition, the proclamation of a choice and decision made by man—the first saying of man expressly recorded in the saga—is not just a kind of epilogue to the creation of the woman, and therefore the completion of man’s creation, but it is with this express saying of man that the latter reaches its goal…The whole story aims at this exclamation by man. In this, and this alone, the creative work of God reaches its goal, for only now has man really been given the necessary help designed by God” (CD III I.41.3 291).

[13] Erika Moore’s Exegesis paper, “The Domestic Warrior: An Exegesis of Proverbs 31:10-31”. 1994. (14).

Some Thoughts on the Billy Graham Rule

A couple of weeks ago I had a bit of a rant on Twitter about the foundations for the Billy Graham Rule. (If you are (lucky enough to be) unaware of such a rule, I’ll send you out in to the inter-webs to read more: BGR.) I turned the rant into a “Moment” at the advice from one wiser than I about these things (h/t Travis McMaken*). In order to make the Moment available to a non-twitter audience, I have embedded the tweets below. Enjoy!

 

*You are encouraged to visit his blog: http://derevth.blogspot.com/p/about-die-evangelischen-theologen.html

Death to Life in Fertility to Birth

The following post is a conglomerate of four older posts that I did a few years back (the date of the introduction being early September, 2013). I’ve merged them here, as I feel they make a fine article to be taken as a whole. The introduction makes clear the goal and a quick glance into the method of my madness in terms of writing these posts. I want to be clear that while I do celebrate the event that is my ability as a woman to create, sustain, and nurture life in and from my body, I do not think that experiencing such an event defines womanhood; my theology leads me to believe that womanhood is made full in Christ (justified by faith in Christ) apart from any works I or my body may do. Enough with my caveats; I’ll let you read.

Introduction

“’Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.'”

Isaiah 49:15

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew 10:39

It’s not surprising that the topic of life is first and foremost on my mind. At some time, in the next 3-4 weeks, I’ll give birth to our third child. It is an exciting event; a new life will exist in the world, creating her own ripple effect in the lives of her parents, her brothers, her grandparents, and those she will one day encounter. The whole event is, simply, miraculous; there is a lot of joy and celebration that should surround such an event.  From the moment of conception, through pregnancy, to the culmination in birth the common theme is new life, and not incorrectly so for it is in fact a new life in the world.

But what is less spoken of, but I believe to be inherent in the event, is the death involved in order for this new life to come forth. For, to be sure, there is a death, a real death to self from beginning to end. This death lies in the fact of the lack of control that is part of the fertility and child-bearing process. There is nothing guaranteed within the process. No matter how much a book may claim otherwise, encouraging that you can in fact plan when you will conceive based on some temperatures and fluids, the fact remains that not only are these very factors out of our control, but even if all the elements align perfectly, there is still some portion of control lacking in the acquisition of the final product: conception and implantation.  Conception and implantation have no guarantees attached to them, for the threat of miscarriage is very real in the first trimester and even in the second, not to mention tubal implantation. Graduating into post week 20, and you still aren’t guaranteed a successful outcome, as I’ve heard a number of stories about how everything was just fine and then…Even now, at nearly full term, there is no guarantee that everything will be fine; even now I have not complete and total control over what will happen.  And so it is, from the beginning to the end, I am radically changed through the event of death and not of life; in this event, at every turn, I am reminded of my place (at God’s mercy) and the futility of my capability.

But though it is death, it is not death for death’s sake; but an event of death to bring forth life, to bring forth new life (an event of actuality that leads to possibility) and, typically, not only one new life, but two. I don’t mean to be callous in my math here but, yes, for the time being, I am excluding the man from the equation. While he participates in the beginning, the whole of the pregnancy is rather abstract for him, only becoming “more real” upon birth and at that moment the death he experiences–because of this new life–begins.  I say this as a woman who is married to a man who lovingly cooks for her during the first trimester when her stomach can’t handle it, understands as her expanding belly and increased number of pillows demands at least half of the bed, and cancels work trips and outings with friends because, “It’s just too close to the due date.” Not to mention a man who is as passionate about natural labor and childbirth as his wife is and knows his supporting role in labor; a man who held me, letting me hang my full weight from his arms during every late stage contraction as I tried for a VBAC with our second son, for 14 hours (roughly). So I don’t mean to say that the man isn’t part of the process, but for what I’m talking about here, life out of death as it relates to fertility, pregnancy, and the birth of the child, I’m focusing on her, the woman; because it is this journey, which is her journey and during which he plays a supporting role (albeit the primary supporting role). He stands apart from the event, looking on, watching, providing support when and where he can, but ultimately this event is between her and God. She will suffer death over and over again, which will bring forth this new life of her own and that of her child. He will be impacted but later, subsequent to her death and new life.

Plus, to be honest, I can’t speak from the man’s point of view. The only information I’ve been able to garner about the whole event from his perspective is from my husband. He’s willingly admitted the abstractness of the whole thing and we laugh when he asks, “Is there really a baby in there?” To which I like to respond, “No. A litter of Kittens.” About which we both admit that that scenario (though creepy, loaded with questions were it to happen, and perfect fodder for a B rated sci-fi movie) would be significantly easier than a real baby.  He’s also admitted a feeling of helplessness during our miscarriages. During our last miscarriage, as I lay on the bathroom floor in the fetal position, enduring 3 hours of transition contractions to pass the sack (etc), all he could do was lay with me unable to take my pain, to alleviate it, to stop my tears. I know it was no “easy” task to witness the woman he loves suffer excruciating pain and discomfort and sorrow and I’m sure there was a death in that for him; the line I’m desiring to draw is between the one who goes through the event and the one who witnesses the event.

While I’ve attempted to appease the allegations that could be brought forth against me for not including Him in my discussion of Her, I’m sure I’ve not exhausted all possible appeals. With that said, I want to get back to why I’ve started this post in the first place: the death and life in fertility to birth. I plan to look at three primary areas as they relate to the themes of death and life: pregnancy, labor and delivery, and infertility and loss. As a woman, I will be able to speak from experience of having gone through the bulk of these events–the good and the bad, the joyful and the sorrowful.  As a theologian of the cross, I will see these events through the lens that God creates out of nothing (not just in the beginning but now); that these events participate in that death and (re)creation; and how, in the depths of the fear, the realization of the loss of control, and deep insecurity, Jesus Christ proves himself to be true and real and  present in that suffering with us, not to “test” us but to to whisper to us, “I know. Take my hand. Follow me” and to be our strength when we’ve got none left to walk on.

Pregnancy

 “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children'” (Gen 3:16a,b)

When Martin Luther translates this verse from Hebrew into German, the first two parts of the verse read like this, “Und zur Frau sprach er: Ich will dir viel Mühsal schaffen, wenn du schwanger wirst; unter Mühen sollst du Kinder gebären.” Or, in English, “And to the woman he said: ‘I will create/make many toil/distress/difficulty when you are pregnant; under troubles/pains/toils you are supposed to give birth to children.'” The Hebrew supports Luther’s translation choices. The Hebrew word w’heronekh’ incorporates not only the idea of child-bearing, but, more specifically, the whole of the event from beginning to end:  including pregnancy and conception. If this were not so and if the word only referred to the act of child-bearing (the labor and delivery part, which is often the focus for many people), then the second of the first two statements to the woman would be redundant–the second being nearly unnecessary. In what God says to the woman as part of her curse to bear is that from beginning to end the event of bringing forth a child will be toilsome, hard, filled with sorrow, pain, difficulty, and distress; there is no part that goes unscathed by the curse. Bringing forth a child, in simple terms, will not be easy in any stretch of the imagination. Part of the battle ground between life and death will be her very body; as fast as she can rejoice, she will be able to weep.  All of it happening to her and in her and apart from her control–and there in lies her death, her pain, her toil–it’s not merely physical but also emotional and intellectual.

For this post, I’ll focus primarily on pregnancy (and not conception, I’ll save that for a later post), which makes sense because I’m 38.5 weeks pregnant. Pregnancy is, if you will, sort of on my mind. So what does death and life look like as a woman progresses through pregnancy? A perpetual (or what feels like a perpetual) loss of self, a handing over of one’s self to the event. Physically, this is somewhat more obvious. The pregnancy, and by this I really mean the growing life within the womb, takes over. A glass of milk is no longer merely some Vit D for the mom, it will go first to the child. Our bodies, literally, re-prioritize who is important; and the important person is the new life, the child. If we don’t ingest enough vitamins to cover both baby and mom, we, ourselves in our body, will suffer. Then there’s the ever present aversions (both smell and taste and touch) that pop up in an otherwise normally unaffected mother. With my second son I couldn’t tolerate the smell of Ham. Ham. It’s completely innocuous; it has no danger to it whatsoever, but I reacted to it like I would rotten eggs or rotten meat. There’s the nauseous hailing in “morning sickness”, which, by the way, is typically more of an all-day sickness that can fluctuate in correlation to, well, nothing really. It sort of does what it wants. Personally, I would be nauseous both full or hungry, both rested or tired. And speaking of rest, what’s that?? In the beginning, in those first few weeks, there is, typically, extreme exhaustion, no matter what you do. You could sleep all day and wake up and feel exhausted.  Physically, the woman is taken over. She is no longer in control of her body, and this is the beginning of the death of herself.

But it doesn’t end with the completion of the first tri-mester; no. way. As the pregnancy progresses so will her weight, her hips will spread, her belly will expand, her breasts will enlarge, her feet will change, her ligaments (all of them) will loosen and the once graceful and deft will quickly become, shall we say, a bull in a china shop. On a confessional note, I bump into more walls, door frames, and banisters than I care to admit. My large belly has actually turned on and ignited gas burners on our stove. My husband got nervous one night, because he was certain I’d burn my belly reaching up over the stove to get something down from the cabinet above. At this stage in the game I can’t actually just sit up from a lying down position, but have to sort of do this roll thing and throw in a grunt or two. And that’s just what I’m willing to share.  Every month that progresses by, she will lose more and more of herself and who she was. Every turn through out the pregnancy changes her, for good–there’s truly no going back to what was.

While the physical symptoms present themselves in such tangible ways, there are yet more concerns for the pregnant woman that lie just under the surface of the physical in the emotional and intellectual. Fear.  I am not only losing control of my body as it seems to completely hand itself over to this process of growing this life, but I am in the midst of a deep, spiritual awareness that I’m not in control and that awareness brings with it fear.  Humanity in general does not like to be out of control; we’d rather be God than confess that we need Him.  This truth is ever present in the life of the pregnant woman. What do you mean there’s, technically, nothing I can do to guarantee a successful result?! Fear (and anxiety, it’s sister) is the tantamount emotional and intellectual response to the realization that one is not in control. And fear is the exact emotion she will feel (some of us more and some of us less) during the entire pregnancy, for there is no definite to lay hold of; confidence is pure illusion.

For me, fear rears it’s head frequently. I remember remarking to a friend when I was pregnant with my first that I wish I had a window that I could look through to see if everything was okay with my baby. I want there to be something that I can do to ensure a good result: I won’t drink coffee or alcohol, I’ll avoid noxious odors and certain foods with old-wives tales linking them with miscarriage (from any culture), I’ll happily stop running and other activities that could result in loss or damage to the baby. But still, even if I do all of those things, there’s no guarantee. Even currently being 38weeks (almost 39) pregnant, I still have that lingering concern about whether or not everything is okay, and I have it everyday. Throughout the first trimester, I was concerned about miscarriage; then through the second trimester, concerned about late term miscarriage, still birth, the results of tests; and, now, as I approach the end of the third trimester, my concern lie in her movements throughout the day, what the outcome of labor and delivery will be, is she really healthy (mentally and physically), and will we be okay through the c-section/recovery. As I go through my day without taking hold of the concrete answers I desire, and made aware of my inability to do anything, I am thrust to my knees (sometimes very literally) at the foot of the Cross, asking for help to make it one more day, to take one more step through what seems to be a thick fog. Each breath accompanied by honest confessions of fear and weakness and heartfelt pleas for His mercy.  The more I progress through this pregnancy I made more and more aware that while the end will hopefully result in the bringing forth a new life into this world, there is something between here and there and that something is death.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

From conception to birth, the woman is thrown to the foot of the Creator’s throne, dependent on His will, His mercy, and His strength through her weakness. Everyday for nine months, she will make this journey; everyday she will hand herself over to the death of herself; everyday she will be much more different than the day before; everyday she will join her voice with Mary’s, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Everyday she will die, only to be raised up anew.

Labor and Delivery

O Lord, in distress they sought you;
they poured out a whispered prayer
when your discipline was upon them.
 Like a pregnant woman
who writhes and cries out in her pangs
when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
     we were pregnant, we writhed,
but we have given birth to wind.
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:17-19)

Femininity is often defined in terms more associated with a church mouse than that of a living, breathing, human being. Meek and mild are the boundary markers for interpretations on what is feminine: soft, smooth, gentile, maternal, quiet, proper, etc. It will be no surprise to you then that I would disagree with any definition of femininity that is based on such words/terms. In defining femininity, we must consider the very thing that biologically defines a woman: birthing. Thus, redefine femininity. Rather than meek and mild, it is strength, fortitude, and even fierceness that defines femininity. A woman in labor is completely feminine. A woman in labor is confronting death to bring forth life; no small task. And she confronts death alone. No person (apart from the Holy Spirit) takes her hand and guides her through it. It is here where the ferocity that is woman comes to the fore; she will (speaking in terms of an un-medicated labor and delivery) moan, grunt, even growl at death, bring it, Death! She’ll stare it down. My life for this one! A proper definition of femininity must incorporate this imagery.

Labor and delivery is earthy and visceral. I’ve yet to meet a husband, having witnessed his wife giving birth, who has not walked away completely changed in his opinion of what this woman can do and even is. Many male comedians have joked–in truth to a great degree–that if God came down and changed the roles (men now being child-bearers) that the human race would cease to exist. Men who have stood by, next to, or even those who have have held their wife during labor (my husband), and witnessed this process are forever changed in their own way–at the least his view of her is radically altered. Thus, in the process of creating a definition of femininity that incorporates the imagery of the woman in labor, the definition of masculinity is redefined. Chivalry become less about protecting her from danger and more about protecting her space to enter into this danger. His inherent ability and desire to protect (a generalization I’m willing to make having seen this “protector” spirit in my young sons) will be turned outward, toward the world, keeping the world at bay; in his presence she is safe, he becomes the source of comfort and soothing–he becomes the homestead–while she enters into this event and while she works and battles. He is not holding her, but holding everyone back. In light of modern birthing techniques, the husband often loses his role in this process, being relegated to the side and designated unhelpful or useless–a problem that needs a correction. Husbands are crucial to the process and the event this woman, his wife, will go through, for he is her first source of comfort, the one who knows her intimately, and his presence can represent to her that she is free to enter into this battle, to face death.

So, let us speak in terms of the theme of these posts, and let us look on the death and life in labor and delivery.

From the onset of labor to the completion of pushing, the woman submits to the event happening to them. The woman gives herself up (has to) to bring this other life into the world.  A woman who is laboring (naturally) will often look almost lifeless during the highpoint of contractions–slumped and limp held up only by the strength of her husband’s arms or still, inexpressive,  curled up on her side. Even delivery (pushing), the most primal of the process and invoking the totality of the activity of the woman–activity surfacing beyond all reason, in spite of all exhaustion–in itself, represents her total submission to the event–she has to push. She is face to face with death (her death), she will give the whole of herself to the process and afterwards is forever different.  She does not choose when labor begins, but it seizes her, and she can do nothing but die to herself to bring this child into the world. When you see her child, you see the death she went through in labor and delivery to move this child from her body in to the world. It is impossible to go through this process, this event and remain the same.  There is a new woman at the end of the event and not merely a new title to add to the others.

But let me not forget those of us who endure a different labor and delivery process; for those of us who endure Cesarian sections (a major surgery to extract the baby from the very lowest part of the abdomen) also go through the death into new life process. Having had three C-Sections, the imagery of being laid out on an operating table in a cruciform position does not escape my attention. My arms are stretched out to the side, and strapped (albeit loosely) down. My legs pulled straight on a narrow (and I mean NARROW) table. It is in this position, cruciform, that I will give birth. I don’t want to make a too-big of a deal about this nor draw a one-to-one comparison between her and Jesus’ death. But the imagery is there. During our last (and final) delivery, I walked (without Daniel) to the OR; everything about this small trek to have our daughter felt like dead woman walking. Each step down the cold hallway, barely covered by my gown, led me toward my confrontation with death. Without the lead-up that is the transition between early stage labor to a stage referred to as “transition”, you feel catapulted to deaths door in the event of a c-section.  As she is laid out, strapped, prepped, and as the curtain is raised–separating her from the gruesome scene below–she will close her eyes, breathe out, and say, “My life, for this one.” She will never be the same when the last suture is in place, and she will bare the scar of this confrontation, it will be the symbol of her new, of her different self, forever marked.

Labor Pains

I am sick today,
sick in my body,
eyes wide open, silent,
I lie on the bed of childbirth.

Why do I, so used to the nearness of death,
to pain and blood and screaming,
now uncontrollably tremble with dread?

A nice young doctor tried to comfort me,
and talked about the joy of giving birth.
Since I know better than he about this matter,
what good purpose can his prattle serve?

Knowledge is not reality.
Experience belongs to the past.
Let those who lack immediacy be silent.
Let observers be content to observe.

I am all alone,
totally, utterly, entirely on my own,
gnawing my lips, holding my body rigid,
waiting on inexorable fate.

There is only one truth.
I shall give birth to a child,
truth driving outward from my inwardness.
Neither good nor bad; real, no sham about it.

With the first labor pains,
suddenly the sun goes pale.
The indifferent world goes strangely calm.
I am alone.
It is alone I am.

Akiko Yosano
Infertility and Loss

And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” … [Hannah] was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Sam 1:8-11)

Affliction; this is the word Hannah uses to describe her childless state, her barren state, as she prays to God (actually, it’s more like pleading and begging). Hannah is afflicted with grief and sorrow. She is distressed and she weeps bitterly. She can’t eat, she laments (the deeper connotation of the word translated as “weep”), and she is not merely “sad” as a “feeling of blueness” as we would casually say, “I’m sad today.” It would be better to render the question from her husband, “why is your heart sad?,” as “why is your heart broken?”  Anyone reading who has suffered a broken heart knows that this feeling breaks through the floor of sadness into a realm that effects both the mind and the body in painful ways. A broken heart is described as such because the heart actually feels broken; there’s an ache or a piercing pain that seems to ricochet through the fleshiness of the heart muscle–it’s not merely metaphorical.  Hanna experiences this depth of broken-heartedness.

Over what?

A longing and a desire gone unmet.

Hannah is barren; she is without a child.  Hannah isn’t over-reacting about her childless state. The way the story is told seems more like a snapshot of her life at this one moment of her distress over being barren rather than a wholistic picture of what Hannah has been suffering–Hannah’s story practically opens the book of 1 Samuel. In v. 5 there is the mention that the Lord had closed her womb. And then from there, we jump right into her peaking distress and broken heart. In this way–the way the story is told–we miss out on the beauty that is the climactic point of Hannah’s distress and weeping. She is wholly consumed by hope deferred; hope deferred doesn’t merely occur because hope has been deferred once…but over and over and over again. Hannah has been pushed to the brink of the cliff that leads to despair, to death.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Prov. 13:12)

Hope deferred makes the heart sick and this sickness steals life from the victim. Hannah has spent who knows how long longing and yearning for a child. Think of the numerous months coming and going, each one delivering it’s “no” and “not this time” to Hannah’s heart–hope sprung, hope dashed.  And the deferral of her hope has made her sick: she can’t eat, she can’t stop weeping bitterly, she is inconsolable.  This is a picture of a woman who is not well, who is suffering intimately with the brokenness of a very fallen world. When hope has been deferred for so long and dashed against the rocks so many times, one begins to long for not-hope. The deferral of hope can make one so sick that they wish for hope to take flight and to vanish, never again to alight on the heart–for, to the suffering soul, to live a life vanquished of hope seems better than to have hope yet once again only to have it dashed…yet once again.

And so it is with those of us who have suffered with infertility or loss or both. In both infertility and loss there is a hope, a real, tangible, hope that blossoms and the real hope that is shattered into what seems like shards upon shards. And each time this hope is dashed, there is a death. And it is this death that leaves the woman a different creation the next day. Out of all the experiences surrounding fertility and birth, it is those who suffer from infertility and loss who get the one two punch of Gen 3–the curse rears it’s head both in the inability to get or to stay pregnant (pain increased) and the all to alert awareness that death still marches about the earth creating casualties, leaving scars. These are the women who will enter into the battle that wages to bring forth life (my life for this one), who will face death, and who will exit the battlefield marred.

And yet, out of this real encounter with death, with “no,” with “not this time,” there is life: for she is a new creation out of this death–never to be the same again. For it is she who has suffered death that knows what life is; it is she who has not born new life who understands–on a deep and visceral level–just how miraculous new life is; it is she who has wept bitterly and cried out for relief who knows from Whom joy and comfort come; it is she who knows the failure of the very thing she was uniquely gifted to do who finds her very person not in the sum of her working or not-working parts, but in the totality of The One who has born the brokenness of the world (and of her body) in His body and who has dealt death a death-dealing blow. And while she has not brought forth new life quantified in onsies and diapers, she is the epitome of new life, for it is she who declares even in this darkness: life.

 

My Body Broken

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is become a mother, specifically a stay-at-home-mom. When I found out I was pregnant with my first son, I knew that I wanted to be the one to stay home. My husband had a wonderful full-time job that provided for me to do just that–plus, I wasn’t pulling in anything substantial being a seminarian with a part-time job working with the Doctor of Ministry Department. I have to tell you now, still holding that positive pregnancy test and knowing I would stay home with my future baby, I was naive, a bit taken with the rose-colored glasses of new, budding motherhood. It would take just a few days to realize that this entire endeavor would be hard.

Between battling morning sickness, hoping that my fellow classmates wouldn’t notice my new diet of seltzer and jolly ranchers, and suppressing fear that my body was (again) rejecting because I was spotting over half-way through the first trimester, I was tossed back and forth on the waves of reality setting in: I was not my own, my body was not my own, I was being broken.

As I grew bigger and more uncomfortable, as I pressed through exhaustion and discomfort to finish up my second to last semester of seminary, and this finally giving way to going into labor on the morning of the 5th of December. My son was born at 9:42pm on the 6th of December; yes, that’s about two days of trying to give birth to my son. I couldn’t do it. The unique thing my body was gifted to do, I couldn’t do. I was rushed to the ER after a contraction left my son’s heart rate too low. A week later I sat on the floor of our bathroom holding my just bathed 9lbs of baby boy in my lap. My husband looked at me, “Why are you crying?” he asked. “Because…I’m a failure,” I was able to articulate while crying. “How can you call yourself a failure while holding our son?” I didn’t have a good answer. What I knew was that a reality was being hammered home: I was not my own, my body was not my own, I was being broken.

This reality would be made more clear, in a physical way, as I embarked on nursing and raising not just this new born baby boy, but his little brother 21 months later, and their little sister born just about three years ago.

But looking back and looking at my current situation (a stay-at-home-mom to a toddler), I realize that it’s not merely my physical body that has been broken, time and time again. For the past decade I’ve sat on the academic and occupational side-lines. I’ve watched class-mates and peers graduate years after me in seminary, get ordained, get doctorates, move to other countries and back to the states and (in one case) back to another country. I’m here. In deciding to be embark on the parenting that I wanted for my children, I had to push all my other dreams and desires aside. My research is painfully slow, my writing interrupted, my attention divided. I wrestle internally with envy of my friends who have far surpassed me academically; I struggle with frustration with myself for being unable to do everything in the pace I want to do everything. As I wrangle my toddler into her room to finish her i’m-gonna-scream-so-loud-so-every-neighbor-in-the-neighborhood-hears tantrum, another peer wrestles with an editor/publisher over another book. In the fullness that is my mind and soul: I am not my own, my body is not my own, I am being broken.

I’m not saying any of this to garner sympathy or pity; I willingly volunteered my whole person to this vocation, to this process of being broken over and over and over again. I gave myself–body, mind, strength, soul–to be broken; to be broken for these children of mine. IMG_20160621_113610055 For these, my children, I lay aside myself, my dreams, my desires, daily, and give them as much of me as I can. For these, my children, I close Luther and open the screen door to go outside and blow bubbles for my daughter because she asked me to. I can’t do anything else, because I love them.

And in this I understand God’s love for us, his beloved children. In this, I understand why Mark records in his Gospel that when all the men ran when Jesus was crucified, the women who followed him looked on from a distance (Mk 15:40-41). I know they didn’t run because they were of low stature and had nothing to lose; but I also think that love that drives to the breaking of one’s own body made innate sense  to them. To look upon the crucified Christ, to see the blood shed because of love made sense on a visceral level to a bunch of women whose whole life was devoted to bearing and raising children through the breaking of their own bodies. It makes sense to me and it blows me away: He gave himself fully and completely for us in ways that I’ll never understand or be able to do because of my frail and faulty human flesh. His “I love you, my beloved child” is more heartfelt than mine to my own children.

And as they were eating, [Jesus] took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:22-24)

More than a mother loves her very own Children does God love us.

And I am undone, I am broken.

 

A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and the Pastorals (part VII : 1Timothy 2:9-15)

LaurenRELarkin.com

I don’t know what I was thinking running this skimpy post; it’s like I was being lazy and quick. But, going back through this portion, I see that more needs to be said and  teased out to give you, the reader, a better understanding into why Paul is saying some of these things and the meaning behind what he’s saying. So, let me try writing this post again…

For information about the difference between the letters to persons and the letters to churches, click here; the intro to that post will provide you with information I should’ve provided here.

1 Tim. 2:8-15

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,but with what is proper…

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A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and the Pastorals (part VIII: 1 Tim. 5:9-16)

When I went to copy and paste this section (below) from my paper in to this post, I took a step back and noticed how lame this portion of my paper was. Not lame as in: not cool; but lame, as in: shoddy academic work. Yikes. This portion of scripture, after having studied it in greater depth a couple of years back, is powerful; the work I did on it in seminary doesn’t reflect that in the least. So, what was supposed to be a quick: copy, paste, edit, and release has turned in to a brand new portion of the paper. I will be relying heavily on Philip H. Towner’s TNICotNT commentary: The Letters to Timothy and Titus. It’s a work I highly recommend to anyone wanting to understand more about these short pastoral letters.

 

An interesting note, and not one that I think I’ve covered before, is that these letters (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) are personal letters. When we read them, we need to look at them throw this lens, they weren’t written with the intent to be read to the congregation at large, like some of our other letters (Ephesians, Colossians, Galatians, Philippians, Thessalonians). These are letters to two people: Timothy and Titus. Reading these letters without taking into account that the author of the letter was writing as a father to his sons will deliver to the reader coal rather than the diamonds that they are.  So, these letters while powerful and deep in theology are also chock full of fatherly advice, loving given to ears that were tuned in to listen and receive.  You and I have those people in our lives that we consider to be as fathers and mothers, and they have the unique position to guide and direct us without causing offence because our hearts are oriented toward them and we know, maybe even first and foremost, that their’s are directed toward us. When we remove this facet of these letters and uniformly and coldly apply certain aspects and concepts broadly and beat our parishioners over the head with them, we will not only send the sheep scattering (a grave problem in and of itself), but we will also miss out on the depth and richness of the spiritual father and son relationship embedded in the letters and, thus, we will lose out personally and dare I say spiritually.

So, I cease my prattling; and continue to the previously scheduled post.

 

1 Tim. 5:9-16

Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.11 But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry 12 and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. 13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busy bodies, saying what they should not. 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. 15 For some have already strayed after Satan. 16 If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.

(To note, Timothy is serving in Ephesus. For a brief history of the cultural situation of Ephesus, click here.)

The process of taking care of widows is not a new development in Paul’s letters, specifically here.  The tradition of the Israelites made provisions for widows in their community; also, the ancient Greco-Roman legal system.  Winter writes,

The Graeco-Roman world sought to make sure that a widow had security by giving her shelter with her dowry in the household (oikos) of her elder son, her other sons of her father.  Someone in that social unity became ‘the lord of the dowry’ (kurios or tutor mulierum) and accepted responsibility for her financial support….In Athens there was not only a moral but also a legal obligation placed upon children to care for both parents, and failure to do rendered them liable to prosecution in which ‘the prosecutor ran no risk of punishment’.  The Roman woman had similar security (Winter 126).

vv.9-10.  Towner makes mention that the “enrollment” referred to in v.9 is enrollment on to a list, but, as he points out, “nothing in the term itself reveals how formal the procedure was or in what sort of group the process determined membership” (345).  Paul, specifically in v. 9 (and also in v.10), lays out the terms for being a “real” widow, the women who needed the church to step in and care for them; this is less about, according to Towner, what type of ministry the widows should take up within the church. He writes, “But references to activities in v.10 are backward reflections on activities that determine character, not references to ongoing service. Furthermore, given the typical life span of that culture and day, the age stipulation would mean that these real widows were int he closing years of their lives, not at a point in which to take up new ministries” (346).

Behind the mention of age, comes the widow’s life itself. Like all the other times Paul speaks about what qualifies someone for something, marital fidelity is high on the list. The widow was to be, to quote Towner, “‘a one-man woman'” (346). Why is this important? Winter describes that the secular literature and some ancient legal sources discuss the lifestyles lead by widows of the ancient society, “It descried their lifestyle as ‘behaving promiscuously’ (katastrayniasosin) (5:11), i.e., they were guilty of stuprum.*  Roman law used this term to describe the sexual indiscretions of single women, widows, and divorcees, rather than adulterium, which was the term reserved for the indiscretions of married women” (124).

Oh, Grandma!

In the list of what qualifies as “good works” (done in faith), rearing children falls first, “…since typically the widow’s sphere of activity would have been the home, Paul inquires about her skills as a parent (this begins the enumeration of the good deeds).  Raising children successfully was one of the marks of the ideal woman in the Greco-Roman and Jewish world…” (Towner 118). In other words, she did her duties as wife and mother, well. The mention of hospitality is as it sounds and not as some would want you to hear it (did that make sense?). This is not about the cleanliness or beauty of her home, but the openwardness of her heart toward traveling believers, that she conducted her self well as the matron of the house, that–in this act–furthered the church’s mission (Towner 347).

About “washed the feet of the saints”, Towner writes, “Probably, however, the references is to an act that became a symbol for humble service, its metaphorical extension being suggested by the general application here to ‘the saints'” (348). And “helping those in trouble” is a reference to her station (widowed) and her ability to now help those in need, she is “strategically placed to actively bring relief to the afflicted of the community” (348), and she is quite free to do so. And the final “devoted to all good works,” “…provides a last open-ended condition that describes the acts of service by which the ‘real widow’ will be known” (Towner 348). Far from being a list of ministerial duties for an “order” of widows, this list highlights that the only things that separates these women from the other godly women in the church are: age, death of her husband, and her destitution. For all intents and purposes, Paul is advising Timothy: her faith and the work of the Spirit in her life qualify her for enrollment.

vv.11-12 Who does not qualify? The younger widows. Who are they? The terminology should be understood as: any woman who is a widow yet still of re-marriageable age (Towner 349). Why? Libido. Towner writes, “The language implies that the young widows had adopted a lifestyle characterized by sexual misbehavior and that this negated their dedication to Christ (cf. 1 Cor 7:34)–that is, their lifestyle contradicted their profession of faith. This pursuit of promiscuous behavior is clearly thematic and strongly suggests involvement in the lifestyle of the ‘new woman'” (350). So, if you are a young widow and still in burning-age, then you are not only encouraged not to seek enrollment but the elders of the church are encouraged not to let you on the list… at all.

So, the young widow should remarry. But, the language Paul uses for the desire to remarry while “on the list” is rather negative; her desire to remarry will bring condemnation. Why is this? For having abandoned their former faith. What does this mean? There’s a lot written about why and how the why is formed, but for your sake (and because this is a blog post) I’ll skip to Towner’s conclusion, which I think suffices:

It is possible to construe the distinction as turning on the alleged ‘vow’ not to remarry: vv. 11-12 depict remarriage as vow breaking’; v. 14 depicts the remarriage of those who have not taken the vow. In such cases those encouraged to remarry in v.14 are only those young widows who have not taken the ‘vow.’ But it seems far less complicated to reconcile the two views of remarriage around the issue of marriage to unbelievers, in keeping with earlier Pauline instructions (cf. 1 Cor. 7:39). Apparently, Paul envisions young widows led by their enjoyment of promiscuous behavior to marry unbelievers. Since typically the wife would adopt the religion of the husband, remarriage to unbelievers would involve actual rejection of the widow’s ‘first/prior faith in (commitment to) Christ.’ Indeed, Winter suggest that abandoning their Christian faith may have been a precondition of marriage to unbelievers. When Paul turns to encourage young widows to remarry in v. 14, he assumes marriage to believers (352).

 

It’s a rather merciful move on Paul’s part here in his advice to Timothy. By not accepting young widows on to the widows list and avoiding a vow to celibacy (as the requirement for her to be on the list is: no husband)–a vow which may be broken because of her marriageable age and her desire to marry–Paul seems to be protecting the young widows from falling from the faith.  If we look at it like this, I might be able to shed more light on the subject: if there is an existent atmosphere of promiscuousness within the culture at large, then those who have taken a vow of not engaging sexually and who are now feeling the overwhelming desire to engage sexually would be more likely to stray outside the church to fulfill their desires, thus denounce their faith and marry an unbeliever. The condemnation brought by the law in facing our temptations forces us into the dark and not into the light. So, by way of eliminating the presence of that law–a law that very well would be difficult for a young widow to fulfill  and, thus, bring death (because of her natural desires)–Paul offers her freedom and life. Freedom because she is free to burn and to remarry all within the church community (without shame) and wind up marrying a believer; life because now she won’t stray to marry an unbeliever (because of her shame).

v. 13  Young widows are excluded from the list not only because of the high chance they’ll burn and want to remarry and thus abandon their faith, but also because of their tendency to be idle, to gossip, and to be busybodies.

Ouch, Paul. Just…ouch.

At first glance, my feminist leanings get quite agitated. But, looking a bit more astutely, the reasons behind why Paul is saying what he’s saying are sound and probably are more based on his understanding human depravity rather than, strictly, womanhood.

Let’s look at this. What happens to you when you have no responsibilities and are bored? It’s a fair question. What happens to me is this: candy crush….oh! And, candy crush soda saga…yeah…annnnd…anything else that will alleviate my boredom but is not “work.” Without the internal nagging or the external need of something that has to be done (and even sometimes when there is that internal nag and external need), I will fill my time with fluff, or worse…your fluff. For all intents and purposes, an idle lauren is a dangerous lauren.

And so it goes for Paul and the young widows.  Towner writes,

…’idleness’ is described as something that has been learned, the die being that their enjoyment of church support with little to do has left them with time on their hands.

Their idleness or lack of direction is described as ‘going about from house to house.’…without household responsibility to occupy their time, these young widows were moving through the household terrain where they felt comfortable and had easy access. Probably one of Paul’s concerns was for the power they could exert among the women of the household with whom they would have chatted and gossiped. As C. Osiek suggests, this segment of the social structure (women in the household) operated according to its own rules of honor and shame, were adept at keeping confidences, and represented an influential power bloc that could determine or, equally, threaten the community’s stability (353).

An idle widow, is a dangerous widow.

And, to complete the picture, their idleness and flitting leads to gossiping, busybodiness, and saying things that should not be said. Gossiping we understand. Busybodiness is akin to being nebby (if you’re from Pittsburgh) or, for everyone else: meddling. The last phrase is a bit more opaque in meaning. There is the hint of teaching in the Greek, but that shouldn’t be over-stressed; if it’s anything, it’s casual conversation that might, in the slightest, be a means for learning something. But one of the best ways to understand what those things are that should not be said is: “spreading (perhaps inadvertently) elements of the false teaching as they went from house to house” (Towner 355).

v.14 So, the young widows are encouraged to marry, have kids, and manage their household (the greek verb implying “ruler of the house” and carries with it a great deal of authority (Towner 356)). And in so doing, give the adversary no room for slander.  What does this mean? Towner explains,

But the final prepositional phrase is causal and is better taken as explaining the potential cause/source of the opportunity Paul seeks to prevent; thus ‘give no opportunity to the enemy on account of reviling.’ In this case, an additional agent is implied, that is, some unnamed agent responsible for the act of reviling. This will be a person or people since the term used to describe the verbal attacks envisioned here is used o fpeople. Presumably, Paul means those outside the community, and he therefore has the church’s public reputation in mind (356-7).

The singular (“the adversary” or “the enemy”) is best understood as Satan, “…who operates against the community in concert with the criticism of those outside (as in 1 Tim 3:7; cf. Rev 12:10)” (357). And, as in most other places where Paul speaks about “roles” or “house-codes,” his biggest concern is the promulgation of the gospel and protecting the church, “…protection of the church’s reputation in the world has the promotion of the gospel as a significant goal” (357).  In all things, this should always be our goal as faithful believers–men and women. It’s a sober reminder: the proclamation of the gospel should always be my first and main priority, above and beyond any of my other personal interests and leanings.

v.15 The strong exhortative language from v.14 culminates (in my opinion) in v.15: because we’ve already lost some who have strayed after Satan. Turning away from Christ is turning toward Satan, “Paul’s employment of the polemical vocabulary reserved for the false teachers places their fall into the category of a ‘turning away’ from the apostolic faith (see 1:6), that is, apostasy…by pursuing a lifestyle marked by sexual promiscuity and rejection of traditional values (vv.11-13) they have endangered themselves and potentially the church’s reputation” (Towner 358).

v.16 Here Paul returns to the primary concern of the pericope: caring for widows (358).  Those women who had the means (financially and situationally) to care for the widows should do so. “If women take on the responsibility of helping widows, then the church (1) will be freed of the responsibility (‘burden’) to do so, and (2) thus enabled to care for the community’s ‘real widows'” (Towner 359).

In conclusion, I’ll quote Towner:

Paul walks the fine line between dealing with what might be regarded as a church-specific problem and the wider society’s evaluation of the church. The bottom line is that in this case, too, behavior adopted in the church or sanction by the church ultimately affects how those on the outside reared the church. In the case of the Ephesian widows–both from the perspective of the obligation of families to meet their needs and the perspective of how young widows live their lives–Imperial culture stood ready to evaluate the respectability of what would be perceived as Christian behavior (359-60).

It is always my opinion that in these portions of scripture, Paul’s first and primary concern is the proclamation of the gospel. When we begin to look at these passages of scripture through this lens, then what is exhorted takes on a life in it’s proper historic time period and also provides for us good markers to live by. None of this is about what a good woman who is widowed should do to be righteous or to be deemed a good woman, but about how she should act to protect the Gospel.

 

*”STUPRUM, civ. law. The criminal sexual intercourse which took place between a man and a single woman, maid or widow,who before lived honestly. Inst. 4, 18, 4; Dig. 48, 5, 6; Id. 50, 16, 101; 1 Bouv. Inst. Theolo. ps. 3, quaest. 2, art. 2, p. 252.” Taken from: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Stuprum