Faith in Santa

***SPOILERS for a long-standing Western Christmas tradition***

In the 1994 movie The Santa Clause, Laura and her second husband Neil are worried because their son Charlie not only believes in Santa, but believes his father Scott (played by Tim Allen) is Santa. The audience knows that, within the confines of this fictional world, Santa and the North Pole and elves and all the mythology is real, but this concerned couple doesn’t know that. Nor do they believe that Laura’s first husband Scott is Santa. As they see his habits and appearance change as Christmas approaches, they assume he’s trying to play into Charlie’s fantasy and take legal action to have Scott’s visitation rights terminated. In the waiting room while the judge and Charlie talk, Laura and Paul recount to each other the occasions when they stopped believing in Santa.

Around the same age her son is now, Laura desperately wanted a certain board game for Christmas. She received “dozens” of other presents on Christmas morning, but not the game she’d wanted. Neil, at the ripe age of three, stopped believing because he, too, didn’t receive a whistle that he’d wanted.

It’s a heart-felt scene, meant to allow the audience to step back into themselves long enough to relate to these parents who, despite playing the villains in this fiction, want to protect their son. They acknowledge that belief in Santa isn’t bad in itself, and Laura questions whether they’ve been too hasty in condemning Scott’s encouragement of Charlie’s belief. This conversation also sets up the final scene, when Scott, as Santa Claus, gives them each the gift that they stopped believing because of. He’s literally flying in his reindeer-drawn flying sleigh over their heads, after having spoken to them in the house a few minutes before, then parachutes down the game and the whistle to Laura and Neil, as well as other toys to other people in the crowd.

You’d think they’d have let go of this already. You’d think, as adults if not as children, they would have appreciated their other presents enough that the absence of one wouldn’t have mattered so much. True, Laura declares that Scott really is Santa in the previous scene, but there’s still a sense of Santa making things right by giving these gifts. And that infuriates me because we don’t have to receive everything we want in order to have a good relationship with our parents, friends, significant others, bosses, or anyone else. Why Santa?

You’d think Laura and Neil would have had more faith.

The first time I saw the movie, around age 7 or 8, I thought, “They stopped believing when they didn’t get one present they wanted? Where’s their faith. It’s one present out of dozens! It’s one year out of their whole lives!” And even as a child, I knew the same could be said of people’s belief in God.

Santa doesn’t have to get you every single thing you want in order for him to be everything that children believe he is: good, generous, kind, magical, real. But Santa does give children gifts. Good gifts, unless your people belong to the coal-giving persuasion of Western society. And God gives good gifts, too. There are the obvious ones like life and people to love and a planet that provides for our needs, but also ones like a breeze when you’re indescribably hot and a call from a friend when you’re ready to break apart and the awareness of a gorgeous sunset you would have otherwise missed. So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him (Matt 7:11, NLT).

God is not Santa. You don’t ask God for whatever you want and God provides, predictably and lavishly, risking your disbelief if God dares to deny you anything. God does not always provide what you want, and that doesn’t make God less good, less generous, less kind, less supernatural, or less real. Much like a parent not making you fried chicken every single day, even though it’s what you want more than anything else in the entire world, we often don’t want what we need or what would be good for us. And, sometimes, we just don’t get to have the good things we want even though it seems that everyone else does. When a storm comes, literally or figuratively, God has promised to be a parent and to be good to us, but we might still lose a loved one, a home, our health, our sense of security, and more.

This has happened before. It happened to Job. And God didn’t come right away to account for Job’s loss or to answer his questions. God didn’t even answer Job’s questions when God did come. Neither did Jesus appear to Thomas right away when Thomas expressed his famous doubt. Job waited an entire book. Thomas waited 8 days. And I think you’ll agree that these people experienced genuine, painful loss. Job lost his children, home, livelihood, and health. Thomas lost his friend and mentor, his lifestyle, his hope for the future and his country’s well-being.

Santa Claus’s ex-wife not getting the board game that she wanted at age 8, something she wanted more than the dozens of other presents she did get, that’s not genuine loss. That’s entitlement. That’s pettiness. That’s a small view of Santa. How little faith! How unsubstantial a belief if you can lose it so easily over something so slight.

It would be easy to shake my fist at people for not having more faith than Laura did in The Santa Claus, but life is not so easy. If you’ve survived on the planet long enough to read this, you’ve suffered. Your suffering is not insignificant. Your suffering isn’t dismissible just because it doesn’t look like someone else’s.

December holidays, when the world and everyone you encounter seems to be screaming at you to be happy, is a painful time for those who have lost. A person, a pet, a hope, a dream, a self of self, a livelihood, a home, an ability. Maybe it was recently. Maybe it was during this time of year. Maybe your loss just hits you differently when “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is stuck in your head and the trees have shaken off all their leaves and red bows on green boughs drape the doorways you must pass through.

If you had faith before your loss, I hope you kept it. I hope your view of God was big enough to include the possibility of pain. I hope you have never thought of God as a celestial Santa Claus, existing only to give you good things. I hope you don’t see God as a Krumpus, either. If you didn’t have faith in God before, I pray that you will search for God. The Bible assures us “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7). Search for God, and God will draw near to you.

God is good, but God is also so much more than we are. God doesn’t give us all that we want. God doesn’t “only give us what we can handle.” God doesn’t reward the wealthy with wealth and punish the poor with poverty. God demands we help one another, protect one another, seek justice for one another. God offers hope to all who suffer. God is very good and God wants to give God’s children good gifts.

Remember, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (Hebrews 11:1-3). By faith, by faith, by faith.

Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

A Question of Blessings

Sometimes strangers and I have weird conversations. Sometimes those conversations are deep and vulnerable and revealing and the experience is a gift. I had one such conversation last week with a man in a black suit coat, khakis, and glasses. I was crocheting behind the half-table we’d set up as check, out of the twelve tables of books and studies my co-worker and I were womanning at a Christian conference in Virginia. He walked directly to me from across the entryway.

“Hello,” I greeted him at the sweet spot of our closing distance. “How can I help you?” Such purposeful direction meant he was looking for something specific, probably either a book or a bathroom.

“Hi,” he said. “Do you have anything on praying the Psalms?”

We had over 1,000 books on the tables around us, well over 100 separate titles. We have hundreds more titles in our stock online, but not one book exactly matched what he was asking for. The book that came closest wasn’t one of the ones we’d brought to Virginia.

“No. I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t. Though, I wish we did.”

He shared that he’d been struggling to pray lately and had begun praying psalms, but was looking for a book to give him more direction. He had still experienced positive change in his prayer life, though, so he also wanted a study or guided devotional book that he could give to those he was counseling through their own struggles. I shared that, at various points in my life, I kept the same practice but had never read a book on the subject. He shared a bit deeper about his struggle and this ancient practice, being vulnerable with me, a stranger, about his spiritual searching. He wasn’t oversharing, but he was being honest in a rare way. It reminded me of a spiritual search I’ve been on for years.

Feeling surprisingly confident that he would hear my spiritual struggle, I shared that I can’t seem to understand blessings.

For years, I’ve struggled with this idea. How can these 2 things both be true: God blesses me and I bless God? What’s more, how can humans pronounce blessings on other humans, but also “bless the Lord” (Psalm 34; 103). What is a blessing, then? The best I could reconcile at that moment was that, when God speaks truth about Godself, God is said to be singing God’s own praises. God praises Godself. This isn’t arrogant, it’s just the truth of the matter. Only God is great, and it’s speaking truth to say so. Therefore, by the power of God, I can be blessed, bless others, bless food, and also bless God. God blesses Godself through me, who seeks to do as Scripture instructs and “Bless the Lord.” My willingness is the conduit by which God blesses Godself.

As I’s hoped, my fellow psalm-prayier listened. Then he considered, silent. Just was I beginning to regret my decision, he stepped into my wonder and searching. For several minutes we shared back and forth, building off one another’s ideas.

“If you bless someone,” he said, “that’s bestowing something. All they have, or all they are at that time, they give to you.”

“So it isn’t by an authority,” I realized, “but a gift from ourselves.”

“You know,” continued the man, “when a man asks for family’s blessing to marry, he’s asking for permission. But more than that, he’s asking for harmony. Harmony between the new family and the old, plus the different families coming together. It’s harmony.”

“And more than harmony,” I realized. “They will support and be devoted to helping that marriage work. Welcoming the new person as part of the original family forever is part of that. So is giving their full support to the betterment and success of the couple.”

“Yes,” he said. “A blessing promises support forever.”

Harmony, thriving, community. Now that I think of it, blessing sounds a lot like Shalom.

I have shared this struggle with at least 15 people over the past 5 or 6 years, former pastors and Bible study leaders and ministers and friends. But only this stranger ever wondered with me. Only he tried to find an answer with me, and he didn’t seek the easy ones. He took my struggle seriously, listened to me, and sought out understanding. I can’t say I’m done in my searching on this subject, but this man helped me travel miles further in 3 minutes then I’d gotten on my own in 5 years. Every moment spent in that conversation was a tremendous gift from God.

I helped him find a couple of books that we felt related to other spiritual interests. He even came back twice the next day, the first time to thank me for recommending a book of devotions for people struggling with depression, the second with a friend we was convincing to buy a copy of one of the books he’d bought the day before. I noticed his enthusiasm to bring people along on his journey. That was what had happened with me. He reminded me of Jesus’s apostle Andrew, who always seemed to be bringing someone to Jesus (boy with bread and fish, Gentiles, his brotherPeter). His openness and willingness to listen invited trust as well as community. And, perhaps most important of all, once someone trusted in him, he remained faithful.

If you’re somehow reading this, stranger, thank you. I hadn’t considered that blessings are like gifts, not words speaking principles into being. Like you said, Isaac blessed his two sons and, once he accidentally give Esau’s blessing to Jacob, he could not take it back. He had thrown his full support and harmony behind his deceitful younger son. Maybe in a couple of years we can publish your book on praying the psalms.

When Good Desires Go Unfulfilled

What do you want?

I’m in a Bible study on this topic called Teach Us to Want. As Christians, we often have this idea that desires are bad or selfish or sinful or can’t be trusted, that we must strip ourselves of our desires to be content.

First, let’s agree that not all desires are good. Also, not all motivations are good. However, many desires themselves are good, and can show us places God wants to work in our lives through our actions. For you, the desire that’s come to mind may be a relationship, a child, a home of your own, to travel, to be well, to preach, to publish, or something else entirely. And you may or may not have any confidence that that’s ever going to happen for you.

After some feedback about my last post, I want to encourage, specifically, single women who desire to marry. That may not describe you and you may be tempted to click away or to skip down to the starred paragraph for more biblical analysis of desires. You can do that. But I pray that, if you keep reading, you will find this encouraging for you unmet desires, too.

I’m not going to tell you all the “your time will come” stuff that people told me. I’m not going to quiz you on where you go to meet people or if you’ve tried online dating. I’m not going to say that God has someone out there for you. That might not be true and I don’t believe it’s kind to lie and promise that your deepest, most painfully unmet desires will come true. We don’t know that, you or I.

To be honest, as of the week before Tyler and I went on our first date, I didn’t have much hope that I would ever get married, that I would ever find someone who’d want to seriously date. I’d dated a few guys, been on occasional dates in the past few years, but I’d never had a boyfriend, never kissed anyone, and sometimes found myself wondering what was wrong with me. I overanalyzed every missed connection, finding fault with what I’d said or done, trying to feel in control over what I had no control over. “I was too nervous and came on too strong,” I chided myself. “I was too afraid and didn’t let him in soon enough.”

My most painful relationship experience was when someone changed his mind. He dropped me without explanation and without regret, for all I saw. In the aftermath, I wanted someone to tell me I wasn’t worthless. I wanted someone to say he was wrong to have treated me that way. I struggled when I realized that God loves him as much as he loves me, because God doesn’t favor any child above another, even when one hurts another. That works to my favor most of the time, but in that pain I wanted God to be more like my earthly parents, who would have been furious if they’d known how he’d hurt me. (If they’d known about him at all.)

My desire to marry hadn’t really wavered. But, even knowing that life is long and we should never say “never” to God, I was less and less hopeful that my desire would ever come true. Previous experiences, including more than one man who dropped all communication without explanation, had made me guarded. Who would hold out long enough to earn my trust, enough that I could let him in? I knew myself better, including my quirks and selfishness. How do people build lives together after so many years alone? How do marriages ever work, really?

I saw the examples of others who had married later in life and clung to theirs stories, but I also knew that, no matter how desperately I want to get married, it truly may not happen. That was—and still is—reality. I told myself that over and over, facing the waves of disappointment while there was still some hope, preparing myself so the possible, future, final realization wouldn’t devastate and embitter me beyond repair.

I’m so sorry for the pain of waiting. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not doing anything wrong. You are worthwhile. You’re wonderful. You wouldn’t be a growing Christian or a sweet friend if you weren’t. That is evidence of what so many people in your life see. That is evidence of God’s work in you and through you. And what a tower of ability you are! You can do so much. You do.

It doesn’t mean you don’t hurt. It doesn’t mean you don’t want someone to share in all these things with you. Loneliness really wears down on you, catching up with you at odd times. It’s like grief in that way. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself as much grace as you give to others.

A friend of mine frequently says that contentment is a daily choice. Every day while single, we have to choose to be content with where we are, the plan thus far, and fight to remember and act as though God has a plan for the future. Whether or not it’s a future I would choose, we fight to believe there is good in it.

*As I think about the thing we desperately want, I think of two women in the Bible in particular: Hannah and Jehosheba.

Hannah, you may remember, was the mother of Samuel, the prophet during Saul’s reign who anointed David (1 Samuel 1-2). But Hannah, for many long, painful years, was barren. In her culture, having children (especially sons) was a woman’s only public sign of worth.

Her husband didn’t understand, saying crap like “Why are you sad? Aren’t I better than having 10 sons?” He married again, probably so that he’d have children, and the second wife was cruel to Hannah. When Hannah went to Shiloh to pray for a child, she was so distraught than Eli, the high priest, thought she was drunk and yelled at her. Even here in an ancient text, we see men confused by emotions expressed by women and actively belittling their hopes and disappointments.

To Eli’s sort of credit, once Hannah told him she wasn’t drunk, just really upset and crying out to God—exactly what you’d expect to be happening in a place of worship, to be honest—he was like, “Sorry! I hope God gives you what you want.” And God did. God heard her and she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. When Samuel was still a boy, to fulfill her part of a deal she’d made with God, Hannah took her son to the temple to be raised by Eli in service of God. And then she had other children.

I’m thrilled for Hannah. She hurt, desperately, and had only shallow support around her as she struggled with this unmet desire. Eventually, she got what she wanted. But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, our stories go more like Jehosheba’s.

Jehosheba was the sister of the king of Judah and had married the high priest (2 Kings 11). When her brother died unexpectedly, her mother took the throne, killing all her grandchildren who might be heirs. Except, Jehosheba hid one of her nephews, smuggled him out of the palace, and raised him in secret in the temple. When he was old enough, Jehosheba and her husband presented Joash to the people as the rightful king, overthrowing Jehosheba’s mother.

Jehosheba had no children. In her culture, she was considered worthless, unblessed by God. The only recorded marriage between a princess in the line of David and a high priest, and they had no children. And yet, Jehosheba saved the line of David. Through her own initiative and courage, she rescued and protected her nephew, the great-grandson of evil King Ahab. She raised him to know God, and Joash became a good king who led his country to followed the Lord. We can see how she preserved the monarchy and blessed the entire country for generations! But she never had children. She was always barren. She got to help raise her nephew, but she never had children herself. She didn’t get the thing she likely wanted just as desperately as Hannah.

Wanting to have children, though far from a universal desire, is a good one. So was David’s desire to build a temple in Jerusalem. But, David was told no. Jehosheba eventually realized, though we aren’t told of the moment, that she would never have children, either.

If you are like Hannah, and after a long time you are blessed with what you desire, I will rejoice with you!

If you are like Jehosheba, I will mourn the loss of that desire with you.

I will mourn until you know for sure which woman you are, but I will also ply you with truth. You have other desires. God hasn’t forgotten those. You’re doing good work. You aren’t worthless or a failure if your desire doesn’t come true when or how you hope, or at all.

Remember, friends, that like Hagar realized in the desert, God sees you. God hears your cries of pain, and God is far from indifferent to pain. Jesus cried when his friend Lazarus died, even though Jesus was a few minutes away from bringing him back to life. Loss and pain are always sad, always hard. God understands that. God isn’t being cruel if God isn’t giving you what you want. God hears the crap other people tell you to try to placate you. God knows. God sees you.

You are not worthless. You are mighty. You are a child of God. You’re getting stuff done. You’re doing the work God has for you. I thank God for people like you!

Be Still and Know

Recently, a favorite song has been The Fray’s “Be Still.”

It begins, “Be still and know that I’m with you. Be still and know that I am here,” seemingly referencing Psalm 46:10: Be still, and know that I am God. I’ve listened to this song dozens of times in the past month, often dozens of times a day, and find it playing in my head in quiet moments.

Mellow and emotive, the song carries the listener through a variety of situations, following these descriptions with the simple assurance of the speaker’s presence. In the second stanza, he also promises to “say your name”. Then, in the third, encourages the listening to “Remember all the words I said.”

The situations are moderated by either “when” or “if”. The two “when” instances are:
-“When darkness comes upon you and covers you with fear and shame”
-“And when you go through the valley and shadow comes down from the hill”.

These things will happen. “Darkness” and “the valley”—presumably of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4)—will enter our lives. We will feel “fear and shame” and “shadow.” We will be threatened by them. We will have to face them. And when we do, we should “Be still and know that I’m with you.” That exact phrasing is repeated four times, “Be still and know I am” twice, “Be still and know” twice, “Be still and know I’m here” once, “Be still” once. The effect is lullaby-like, as a parent soothing a crying child. The lyrics don’t make it clear whether the speaker is a parent, a friend, a lover, or God, but the words effuse safety, reassurance, and love.

Wisdom is also obvious in the inclusion of four “if” statements:
-“If terror falls upon your bed and sleep no longer comes”
-“If morning never comes to be”
-“If you forget the way to go and lose where you came from”
-“If no one is standing beside you.”

Extreme fear, despair, losing oneself, and feeling utterly alone may not ever happen to the listener, but if they do, the promise is the same: I’m with you. So are the instructions: be still and know.

Don’t lose faith, the lyrics seem to say. Don’t let the world or your feelings lie to you, telling you that you have no one. You will always have me. I will always be with you. Even if nightmares or fear of the future keep you awake at night, you will have these instructions to sustain you: “be still” and “know”.

The singer infuses his voice with simple, straightforward sincerity. His voice edges in pain when he sings of fear, death, and abandonment the listener may and will face. He does not want this person to suffer. He loves this person. He is devoted. And he has no qualms about how difficult and painful and mean and bitter the world can be. It will be painful; when. It may be horrible; if.

Depending on my mood and what else has happened in the day, I imagine a parent singing these words, a spouse, a sibling. I imagine myself as the singer or recipient of these promises. But most often, I listen like I do a psalm addressed from God to God’s creation (to me): be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I’m with you. Be still and know I am.

There is one more assurance I want to point out. After noting that darkness will come and fear and shame will be felt, after giving the “be still and know” instructions, the speaker sings, “And I will say your name.”

In the Bible, names describe a person’s essence, who they are in a real and important way. Every time a person experiences a name change—by choice or divine decree—they are saying their character is no longer the same. Jacob (thief) became Israel (wrestles with God). Naomi (pleasant) becomes Mara (bitter). Simon (he has heard) becomes Peter (rock). Saul (prayed for) becomes Paul (humble). That last one has the additional layer of a person known by a Hebrew name becoming known by a Latin one as his ministry transitions from focusing on reaching Jewish people to Gentile people.

Asking for things in prayer by “Jesus’ name” is doing as Jesus instructed: If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it (John 14:14). But with this understanding of the use of “name” in the Bible, we can see that praying in Jesus’ name can mean praying in accordance with Jesus’ character. For example, if you ask for healing, you are appealing to Christ as healer, knowing Christ did heal many and loves people, so it is in his character to heal.

When we look at the phrases around the one I just quoted, we see shades of this: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). For God’s glory, not our preferred baseball team or convenience in the carpool line, will God grant prayers. And neither did Jesus act or speak except to bring glory to God. That is very much in Christ’s character.

As is restraint. Jesus did not save himself. He may not save you or your loved one like you hope. Even calling on Christ to save a life or to protect from harm—though fulfilling these requests would be consistent with his character—does not guarantee that Jesus will actually intervene as you’ve asked. Scores of books and sermons have analyzed the meaning and ramifications of “that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). I am by no means equal to them, but can attest that it feels awfully selfish of God—or at least feels like cold abandonment—to not receive the healing or help in my situation that I know another person received in their situation.

The singer promising to speak the listener’s name is an intimate and powerful action. Through this biblical lens, “I will say your name” becomes “I will remind you who you are.” And that, at least for me, is powerful encouragement.

On Mary Magdelene at the Tomb

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). —John 20:11-16

Mary had been at the cross. She was there until the very end, most likely. (As was John.) She may well have been one of the people who saw Jesus’ body go into the tomb. She may have had an hour or more with her dead friend and teacher as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus arranged for the body to be given to them and dress for the tomb. They had to transport his body.

No wonder it’s hard for her to picture Jesus as anything but dead.

And Mary has spent her Sabbath thinking about and preparing for her Sunday morning trip to the tomb to anoint his body. When you expect something so hard you don’t even imagine another possibility, of course any deviation is hard to comprehend. Especially your dead friend alive and speaking with you.

His body missing was devastating, but this isn’t a hard assumption to make. Christ was dead. His body isn’t where she last knew it to be. Therefore, someone must have taken it. Someone took it benevolently (the gardener) or someone took it malevolently (a robber or enemy). These are the possibilities in her mind, and they are evidence of her mind in crisis mode.

Mary is practical, maybe even a pragmatist. John wasn’t at the tomb at daybreak to care of Christ’s body as they hadn’t had time to on Friday evening. He’s not even there to support Mary and the others who are going, or to help move the stone for them. No one is there to offer this practical help, save Mary.

She came to care for her dead friend’s body. His body is missing. Someone must have taken it. But where, and why?

The fact that Mary seems to share this plea to the supposed gardener so quickly suggests to me that Mary has been thinking it through. Yes, she is grieving. Yes, she is devastated, gutted anew by Jesus’ missing body. But she is also working on the problem. Where could his body be? Is there any hope of getting it back? To the gardener, Mary offers to carry Jesus’ body away. I think she intended to move him herself, one way or another, despite the smell and loose limbs, both of which she’d prepared herself for on her long, mournful Sabbath. How beautiful, this willingness, this yearning to care for and to restore.

Caring and restoring. That sounds a lot like Christ.

Maybe Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus because he was kind of unearthly looking. Maybe he was still a ways off. Maybe Mary couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Maybe the new day’s sun was in her eyes. Maybe Mary still expecting death so much she simply could not recognize life. Maybe, like the disciples Jesus travels with on the road to Emmaus, Mary senses something is different. Something is good in a fundamental way, but she hasn’t yet figure out what. Maybe she stumbles on in spite of this feeling. Maybe she thinks this feeling, this heart-quickening leap, is hope that Christ’s body is not stolen forever.

The best, best news awaits her. The best revelation. And it comes with her name.

Because Abram Lied to Pharaoh

This week on “Things Katie Learned from the Bible”: The whole child-by-proxy/Ishmael thing was only possible because Abram had lied to Pharaoh.

Background. Abram (later renamed Abraham) was married to his half-sister Sarai (later, Sarah) [Gen 20:12]. They lived in Canaan and, at one point, a local famine became so bad that they fled to Egypt (Gen 12:10). If this sounds familiar, but not with these names, that’s because something similar happens to Joseph’s family later in Genesis (chapter 43).

Sarai’s really beautiful. And because of her beauty and of how terrible men can be, Abram’s afraid the Egyptians will kill him so they can rape Sarai. So, Abram instructs her to lie and say that she is his sister, not his wife. (12:11-13)

Egyptians do notice Sarai’s beauty, officials tell Pharaoh all about her beauty (not her, mind you), and then Pharaoh wants her in his harem. So, he gives a bunch of stuff and animals—and also male and female slaves—to Abram, and generally treats him well, in exchange for his alleged sister Sarai. (12:15-16)

Now God gets ticked and sends plagues upon Pharaoh’s household (12:17). Apparently God’s the only one (other than Sarai) who doesn’t want her to be raped. When disasters befall you, you naturally wonder why, and somehow Pharaoh figures out that these plagues are because he’s been lied to and then took a married woman into his harem.

So now Pharaoh is ticked and calls Abram before him. Basically, he shouts, “What the hell, man?” (12:18-19). If Abram explains, it doesn’t hold any more weight with Pharaoh as it does with me. Then Pharaoh, the most powerful person in the region—if not the world at that time—an absolute ruler with power to take anything he wants at a mere word…let’s them go. Technically, he tells Abram to take his wife and get out (12:19). That seems rather generous, but Pharaoh’s priority was stopping whatever illnesses and suffering had come upon his household, and he wasn’t interested in risking further suffering by harming Abram for being such a callous, yellow-bellied, faithless liar. And although Pharaoh is framed as a victim here, let’s not lose track of Sarai, the real victim.

Abram does as Pharaoh commanded, leaving with Sarai and “all that he had” (12:20). Although it’s not said outright, it’s very likely that the Egyptian slave Hagar was one of those given to Abram. After all, Abram came to Egypt poor and is now leaving well off, if not rich. And there’s no mention I’ve seen of them returning to Egypt at any point, though we know from Joseph’s story two generations later that slave traders traveled between Canaan and Egypt (Gen 37).

Some years later—before pulling this mess all over again in Gen 20 with King Abimelech—God promises Abram and Sarai that they’ll have a baby (Gen 15:5; 18:10). There’s some laughter along the way, some disbelief, but they’re excited. And, by the way, I’d eavesdrop on my husband’s in-tent meetings if he once traded me to another man. (Gen 18)

After a while of continued infertility, Sarai gets impatient. Presumably Abram is, too, because he agrees when Sarai tells Abram to have children with her Egyptian slave Hagar. Sarai is planning to claim those children as her own. (Gen 16:1-2)

Sarai has probably been working out for a while how she can be infertile and past menopause, but going to have a child. This Egyptian woman is not past menopause, and we know from Jacob/Israel’s many children by his two wives and their various slaves that having a child-by-proxy was a practice of the times.

But once Hagar is pregnant, after Ishmael is born, and even after Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac is also born, Sarah is incredibly jealous of Hagar. Hagar doesn’t act perfectly either. But on top of instructing her husband to repeatedly rape Hagar, Sarah mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away once and is sent away once. Hagar could have died both times, but apparently God is the only one who cares that Abram raped her and Sarah orchestrated it. God saves her and promises to bless her son (16:1-12; 17:20). Hagar names God, “The God Who Sees Me” (16:13).

Now, you may be a bit edgy, even outright upset, because I have twice stated that women were raped in these stories, one by a patriarch, and the Bible’s usual language for this [“laid with her by force” (Gen 34:2; Deut 22:25, emphasis mine); or “violated” (2 Sam 13:14)] is absent. So let’s have a little refresher on consent.

Consent means that both parties in any sort of exchange, but especially a sexual one, verbally agree to the proceedings and the way in which they will happen. If I’m exchanging money for vegetables at the grocery store, the grocery store and I both agree on the amount I’ll give, the number and kinds of carrots I’ll take, when possession will shift, that I’ll use modern and legal US currency. We also agree that I can return the uneaten, undamaged carrots and receive the same amount of money back, but I cannot return half-eaten carrots for the money. Neither can the store compel me to return the carrots once I have bought them. Both parties have power and rights and the ability to make choices about the exchange and terms. I have the power to refuse to pay the price the store demands and so to not buy the carrots. I have the right to return the carrots. The store has the right to refuse to take damaged carrots back.

In a sexual relationship, power is extremely important. “By force” is aptly used in the Bible to convey that the physical power between the people was not equal and was not used equally for a consensual exchange. However, that is not the only kind of power at play. And let’s remember that rape is sexual intercourse with a person when that person refuses or is incapable of giving consent. Someone incapable of giving consent might be unconscious, for example. A slave is incapable of giving consent to a master or other member of the oppressive group because a slave has no social power. Neither does a slave have the legal right to refuse anything that their master demands.

Remember Joseph? Potipher’s wife tried to compel him to have sex with her, and Joseph had the physical power to flee. However, he had no social power and no rights, so his word was not believed when she accused him of rape and he was jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. (Gen 39)

Therefore, a slave of any kind cannot consent to a sexual relationship with their master. Or to anyone the master “gives” them to. This includes Abram giving Sarai to Pharaoh and Sarai giving Hagar to Abram. There cannot be consent because neither Sarai nor Hagar had any social power to refuse. As a concubine, Sarai had no rights in Pharaoh’s haram. As a slave, Hagar had no rights in Sarai’s (really, Abram’s) household.

How else does this concept apply?

Well, let’s look at Esther. Yes, she became the queen and saved the Jewish people. But she did not have equal power with her husband. She did not have equal power with any Persian, particularly when the edict against Jews was written (Esther 3:12-15). Remember how afraid she was to go before her husband? Especially because she hadn’t been summoned in a month (4:11). Remember how long she prays and fasts before doing so, stating “If I perish, I perish?” (4:14; 16). She has some social power in the court, but her power is still no where equal to her husband’s. This is especially true when she first had her one night with the king (Esther 2). She’d been taken from her home and family by force (2:8). She had no rights and would never be allowed to leave, even if the king did not want her. Because she did not have equal rights and power to the man who eventually married her, she could not consent to a sexual relationship. Even when married they did not have equal power. Therefore, she was raped.

Let’s come forward in history a bit. Sally Hemings was not Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his slave. She could not consent. She was, therefore, repeatedly raped and forced to have and raise his children. When Jefferson was made ambassador to France during the Revolution, he took Sally with him to France, where slavery was illegal. She had no rights or power to refuse to go to France, and still had no social power once she got there. To conform to the letter of the French law outlawing slavery, Jefferson paid Sally a wage so small she wouldn’t have even been able to afford a trinket sold on the street.

When Jefferson was returning to Virginia at the end of the war, he gave Sally, and perhaps other slaves, the opportunity to stay in France as a free person. However, Sally chose to return to Monticello. Why? She was a pregnant 16-year-old in a country she did not know and in which she could not speak the language. She had no friends or opportunities, no means of supporting herself or her child, and Jefferson still owned her entire family. He could do anything to them in retribution for her staying in France. And even if he didn’t, she would never have seen them again if she’d stayed in France. She likely wouldn’t have survived in France. If she’d lived long enough to see the French Revolution, her life may well have looking a lot like Fantine’s in Les Miserables. So no, Sally was not Jefferson’s mistress. Theirs was not a love story. And neither was Hagar and Abram’s or Sarai and Pharaoh’s.

In another vein, have you read any books, or heard about any advertised, in which a Jew falls in love with a Nazi during WWII? There are a few. I know of one that won a major Christian romance award. The two main characters do not have equal power or rights, so true consent is not possible. I call shenanigans: this is not love, it’s rape. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Jews and many, many members of various marginalized groups spoke strongly against the book and against it winning awards. This book is romanticizing the rape of Jewish people who did—and did not—survive WWII. It’s winning awards at the expense of today’s very real, very alive Jewish community.

To return to my original point, the whole garbage fire of a situation in Genesis 20 is only possible because Abram lied to Pharaoh and risked his wife being raped, which he did because he was scared for himself.

Jesus the Killjoy

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” —Mark 13:1-2

Sometimes I get to a point in Scripture when I just want to laugh. This poor disciple! I can see him leaving a fantastic worship experience and being so overjoyed by God’s greatness that he sees it reflected in the structures around them. He wants to share it with someone, and surely Jesus will understand! Big mistake.

“Jesus, look how big and magnificent everything is! Isn’t it wonderful? I love Jerusalem.”

To which Jesus answers, “All these buildings? They’ll be torn down soon, stone by stone.” Which, to me, sounds a lot like Solomon shouting “All is vanity” every two seconds or a cartoon character intoning “Doomed, doomed, doomed!”

I imagine the disciple getting frustrated and answering, “Dang it, Jesus! Can’t you just enjoy this with me for like five seconds?” Or buddying up to James and saying, “Should have known better than to try to point something nice out to Jesus.” Maybe he follows it up with, “Christ is such a killjoy.” After which he grabs Peter by the shirt and mutters, “Forget I said that. Don’t go blabbing this to that John Mark kid who’s always writing stuff down.” And then there’s a tussle. James walks faster to get beside John, who is definitely staying out of it. Jesus is rolling his eyes. Andrew ends up being the one to break it up.

Jesus is right, though. Even if we assume the best of this disciple, that he isn’t impressed by the size of the walls and the buildings and doesn’t see them as representative of Israel’s greatness or humanity’s ingenuity or anything to do with the worldly at all. Even if we pretend that this disciple definitely saw the temple and its surroundings as a reflection of God’s greatness, provision, protection, and presence on Earth (as the temple was generally viewed in Scripture prior to this event) the disciple does miss the point: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7:48).

Jesus 1, Disciple 0.

But yeah, sometimes Jesus can really sound like a killjoy.

Looking for Women in the Bible

I’ve always been really fond of Anna. And Jehoshabeath. And Jephthah’s daughter. Women who are barely mentioned in the Bible but who made for themselves full, devoted lives and incredible strength.

Some of these women are remembered in various traditions. One has a festival in her honor, and a bestselling novel and miniseries has been based on another’s experiences. But I didn’t know about any of this when I was growing up. I’d read and read the Bible, and come across a few lines or maybe a chapter or two featuring a woman I’d never heard of: Tamar, Dinah, Deborah, another Tamar, Philip’s daughters, Shallum’s daughters, Abigail, Lydia. For many of these women, they are only recorded at the worst moments of their lives, like when some man raped or murdered her, when a husband’s foolishness threatened to get everyone killed, when they struggled for the opportunity to use the skills their society and family ignored. There are plenty of women who made bad choices, too—Jezebel and Delilah come to mind—but there are far more women who responded well to their difficult, dangerous circumstances. And remember, so many men in the Bible made bad choices, too.

So as I grew up, I read and I studied, and what did I learn? That the best I can hope for is a footnote in history. Because I am female, if I am remembered at all, it will be for what happened in the worst moments of my life. If I’m lucky, I’ll live and get married. If I’m unlucky, I’ll die or be vilified for the rest of the ages. Which is crap. Crap options, crap ideas of both the best and worst case scenarios, crap societal views on women that led me to believe this. But I did believe it, even though my mother and many others, I’m sure, never wanted me to.

At some point, I got fed up with this idea that I can never accomplish enough to build a legacy that my child self would have craved to read. I wasn’t convinced that no women deserve or have earned significant places in history, but I was convinced that women wouldn’t be remembered in the same depth or breadth. So I started really searching.

I would come home from church and read a dozen or more chapters, often in the the Old Testament, in a day. And I read throughout the week, too. The more I read, the more interesting women I found. Outside the books of Esther and Ruth, very few accounts were comparable in depth or length to the accounts of men located nearby. But I found so, so many women. They all had lives as full as mine, and they had not been completely forgotten. Their stories, fears, hopes, loved ones are seldom and sparsely recorded, but of the details we have, these women sound so interesting. And they had roles to play: saving kings, hiding spies, guiding prophets, being prophets, bargaining with God, rebuilding walls. We don’t even have all their names, but they made lasting marks during a culture and time when women’s contributions were little-noted.

I found these women in the Bible, so surely history holds many more. I began with the women dismissed as beautiful (Nefertiti, Helen of Troy, Sisi of Austria, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette) to examine what their lives might really have been like and what they may have valued. Then I looked for women who barely or never show up in lessons, like Hatshepsut, Jahanara, Empress Myeongseong, Elizabeth Marsh, Noor Inayat Khan, Ida B. Wells, Anne Bradstreet, Genghis Khan’s daughters, Keumalahayati, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Fatima Al-Fihri. As a preteen, my mother bought me literally every book in the Royal Diaries series (like the more popular My America series, both of which consisted of fictionalized diaries of women living throughout history). Today, I follow the #BygoneBadassBroads hashtag. And every day I fight to make my life more than a footnote, and where I can’t (which is most places), I try to elevate other women out of the footnotes.

Honestly, the vast majority of people, both women and men, are known only to their families and friends before they pass away. They are only remembered so long as those who knew them live. But it is incredibly more like that men’s work and contributions will be remembered and celebrated than women’s. It is infinitely more so for white people than…literally anyone else. That’s part of my concern in helping to elevate other women. There are some stages on which I just don’t need to stand because I’m white and we white folk are pretty crappy human beings by and large. I don’t want to add to that and I don’t want to take up space that would otherwise go to a person of color, particularly a woman of color. People of color have been central players in history and their stories should be remembered and honored in far more than footnotes. As do women’s stories. Thank you to all those who listen and search and elevate.

P.S. I’m always on the lookout for more interesting women in history and the Bible!

Complaining to Eve

I recently spoke to a woman who asked me if, when I went through a mild bout of depression last fall, I ever felt angry at God. I considered the question seriously, analyzing that time in my memory, what I wrote, how I prayer, how I spoke, and how I viewed God then versus now. I remembered that sense I often get of leaning against a sturdy tower with arms. [God is the tower, and sometimes I feel the arms reach around me in comfort. But the tower will never turn me away. (John 6:37; Psalm 32:7)] I didn’t think of that image much which I was depressed, but my fundamental understanding of God still matches it.

“No,” I told her. “I don’t think I was.”

We talked about ways we do place blame, and she mentioned that several people she knows want to have it out with Eve in heaven, and that she expects there will be a line.

Now, I personally hope that the heaven-bound will have let go of their complaints, no longer seeking restitution for the wrongs committed against them. However, I’ve been imagining that scene a lot.

Eve and Adam are standing beneath trees in the “New Eden” neighborhood of heaven, a line of people stretching out past the horizon, all waiting to air their complaints with the first people about their sufferings on Earth. By far, the longer line is Eve’s. People want to vent at her, blame her, and Eve takes it with gentle patience. Eve, who had no understanding of the depth and breadth of the consequences of her sin, explains again and again, apologizes again and again. We, at least, know what sin and death are. We rarely accurately predict the consequences of our own sins, but we have a much better idea than Eve did. And Eve didn’t act alone. Adam was with her, in charge of communicating God’s single rule to his wife, and is not recorded as saying anything to her as she sinned. And, when she handed him some of the fruit, he sinned it, too. And I’ll bet most people in his line just want to shake his hand.

One could argue that no sinner ever suffered as much as Eve. First, she experienced perfection without care or worry, then was driven from her home to a life marked (though not dominated by) pain, danger, and regret. Furthermore, she is the one blamed for everything from murders to lust to idolatry to menstrual cramps to natural disasters to cancer. And yes, she did introduce sin to the world, but her husband is not innocent.

If there is a literal Eve and a literal Adam who I might could visit and speak with in heaven, I would join the line. But once I arrived at the front, I think I would just hug her. And if Adam’s line wasn’t too long, I’d get into it for the sake of fairness. Hopefully I won’t be tempted to tell him off—but if people are telling Eve off then Adam should get his fair share, too. But I hope I’d just hug him. He suffered, too. They lost their relationship with God, their home, their innocence, their child Able, and ultimately their lives. And they are my family. In so many ways, even if the first humans look more like Lucy than me, I am just like them. I am a sinner. I do the wrong things. Knowingly, intentionally, I hurt others, hurt myself, try to hurt God. And, like the first humans, I will one day die.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, which is the 40-day period leading to Easter. During Lent, we consider Jesus’ journey to the the cross, the instrument of his torture and death even though he had literally never done a single thing wrong. (Mary, his mother, would likely have disagreed. Especially that time Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and didn’t tell anyone.) We also consider our own mortality and sinfulness. The ashes themselves symbolize both death and repentance.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Dust and ash (sin and death) are the final equalizers. The only difference that will remain is what we did with our sin. Did we look at the wrongs of our lives—the systematic ignoring of our Creator, the pretending we are in control, our imagined versions of fairness—and ask God for forgiveness? Did we ask for changed hearts that beat a new rhythm that brings peace and healing to all the world? Did we sit down and say, “I don’t know it all and I’m not in control and I’m okay with God being in control instead”?

Remember: we are dust. And to dust we will return.

When Saul Became Paul

Lately at work, I’ve had the occasion to read about Paul. A number of projects have involved the first-century builder of the church, and one thing has bugged me. I grew up thinking that Saul was renamed Paul on the Damascus road, at his conversion. I thought that God had verbally said to him “You, Saul, shall be named Paul” or something similar, as with Simon/Peter and Jacob/Israel. But I have been editing a book of sermons on Acts, and “Saul” continues to be used long after that story. And God isn’t recorded to have openly said anything about Saul’s name changing.

In fact, the first time Paul’s name is used as Paul is in Acts 13, four chapters and several years after Paul’s conversion. Specifically, he’s “Saul” in verse 7, “Saul, also known as Paul” in verse 9, and “Paul” alone from that point forward. Which makes me wonder what was happening in those verses of Acts 13.

Review time! I keep mentioned the Damascus road, which was a literal road from Jerusalem to the town of Damascus, and which Saul was traveling on when he saw a vision of Jesus that temporarily blinded him and changed his life. There were some more details in the few days after that, but most people refer to the Damascus road as being the point at which Saul’s life changed irrevocably, the point at which he became a Christian. He had been a proper religious Jewish boy, a scholar and leader, young but highly ambitious and highly esteemed by the who’s who of Israel’s religious elites. He had been actively involved in the murder of the Stephen for his faith in Jesus, and Saul is recorded as having “approved” (Acts 8:1) of the mob’s violence and Stephen’s death. In fact, Saul was going to Damascus in order to persecute Christians there (9:1-2). But he was interrupted. By a vision of Jesus. Who said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). And Saul basically said, “Who’s this?” And Jesus basically says “Jesus. The one you’re persecuting” (9:5). [Sass level: Jesus.]

So Saul spends some time with other Christians, learning and growing and meeting the who’s who of the early church, not being murderous, and probably confusing the heck out of all his old friends and mentors. And then he starts traveling and telling other people about Jesus and about what happened to him on the Damascus road and about everything he’s learned since that experience. And a few things he learned before that (which shows that your education can, actually, come in handy). Simon/Peter, who had been the leader of the apostles and one of the leaders of the early church, is thrown in prison in Acts 12, and now we’re at Acts 13.

Saul hasn’t sworn off preaching to Jews yet (though he will, despite not following through on it terribly well), but he and his good buddy Barnabas are traveling and preaching about Jesus to Gentiles (non-Jews). The Gentiles don’t have the cultural and religious basis that Saul and Barnabas have, and at this point in history there’s longstanding bad blood between the Jews and…everyone else. So these two good Jewish men preaching to and living among Gentiles was a bit of a stretch for them, a bit outside of their comfort zones, and there weren’t a ton of other early Jewish Christians preaching to Gentiles, either. Our pair of heroes get to Cyprus, and the governor invites them over to find out what all this Jesus hoopla is about.

Enter Bar-Jesus, a local mystic (called a sorcerer, actually). (Bar-Jesus means “son of Jesus”, and Jesus was a fairly common variant of “Joshua” at that time, so even without Da Vinci Code-esque conspiracies, we’re definitely talking about a different Jesus who fathered the Cyprian sorcerer than the Jesus who died on a cross outside of Jerusalem and rose 3 days later.) So Bar-Jesus shows up and tries “to steer the governor away from the faith” (13:8). And Saul gets ticked. Saul says some really choice words to Bar-Jesus, ending with, “You’ll be blind for a while, unable to even see the daylight” (13:11). And it happens. It happens immediately. Which probably prompts the governor to say a few choice words too. But the governor also believes Saul’s message and becomes a Christian.

Disability as punishment is a very gross concept. It reiterates ugly, hurtful stereotypes about disabled people. I know that in the Bible blindness is often used as a metaphor, etc. etc., but it’s still not okay. So I get a little ticked at Saul or God—not sure which was the chicken and which was the egg here, or if the answer is the same as the chicken-or-egg debate—for making Bar-Jesus temporarily blind in order to (a) teach him something, and (b) show God’s power to the governor of Cyprus. There’s a slim chance the blindness was metaphorical only, but those implications aren’t good either. I don’t have an answer for why blindness and other disabilities are treated the way they are in the Bible, so let’s acknowledge the not-okay-ness before we get back around to Saul’s name shifting to Paul.

Ready? Are you uncomfortable? Are you confused? You should be. If you aren’t, maybe reread that last paragraph and sit with it a bit more. Is blindness ever presented positively in the Bible, that you can remember? Tease out those implications.

Feeling uncomfortable now? Maybe even upset? Okay, good.

This Bar-Jesus situation is so similar to what happened to Saul on the Damascus road. Both men were doing what they felt so sure was right, but which was hurting other people. And they were both interrupted. They both became blind for a while, having to be led “by the hand” (9:8; 13:11). Maybe Saul remembers the positive changes in his life after he became blind on the Damascus road, so he says the same thing should happen in the governor’s palace to Bar-Jesus… and God agrees, or at least complies. Or maybe God was going to use the same method on Bar-Jesus that God used on Saul, so God told Saul, who explained this to Bar-Jesus. Maybe both happened simultaneously. We don’t know what happened to Bar-Jesus after Acts 13:11, but we are inclined to believe that his sight returned, just as as Saul said it would. I’d like to believe Bar-Jesus’s life also changed for the better but the Bible doesn’t tell us. What we do know is that Saul isn’t Saul anymore. He’s Paul. And the governor of Cyprus has become a Christian.

Saul cares so much for this stranger, this Roman governor, this Gentile, that Saul is willing to do about anything to make sure no one messes with him, no one tries to lead him astray. I’m thinking about Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-dum, in The Fellowship of the Ring, when he’s all, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” at the Balrog, the monster of fire and smoke threatening Gandalf and his friends.

Saul was once a Jew who embodied everything that good religious folk in his culture ought to be. He must have internalized the hatred of Gentiles so prevalent in his culture at that time. But now he’s a Christian, and after a few years of being a Christian, he cares about this Gentile so much that he uses all his power and influence to ensure that the governor isn’t hindered by Bar-Jesus’s opposition. And from that moment on, Saul is only known by his Greek name of Paul.

The Damascus road. The Cyprian palace. I think Paul’s life radically changed more than once. The first time, he became a Christian. The second time, he embraced his purpose.

Or something. I don’t know, the Bible is complicated.