Rizpah: Five months alone, totally alone

“I did something no mother should ever have to do: I sat with the dead bodies of my beloved sons for five months.

Oh, that the soldiers would have killed me instead of them! But it was not to be. My boys were dragged away and publicly executed under the orders of that treacherous King David. Their crumpled bodies were then abandoned, nailed to stakes some fifteen feet off the ground, offered up to terrorists of the earth and sky: vultures, ravens and hyenas. Carnivores, all.

Passersby mocked me as the crazy one. But I did not care. I spread out sackcloth—the cloth of repentance—and settled in to protect their remains. Human and animals be damned! As long as my boys lacked a proper burial, I would stay. Women friends brought me bread and water; with them I would not have survived….

But I was not without love—in fact, I was there because of love. I had known it in the arms of the boy’s father, Saul. I was his concubine, his royal concubine. He had married his wife for politics, but he loved me. And now he was dead. I knew down to the soles of my feet that my sons’ execution was nothing more than a grab for power.

I looked again at the bodies of my sons. I will not leave while you still need me, and will stay with you until you are at peace. Even then, I will look for you until the sun rises no more.”

———————

One of the bravest and most politically active women in the Bible, Rizpah’s story is found in 2 Samuel 21:1-14. And now, 3000 years later, as our society reels from mass shootings, wars, and various political scandals, her story is a powerful witness–especially in this Lenten season. (Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days; Rizpah was there for five months!) Both emerged victorious over the forces of evil; both endured great suffering; both practiced sacrificial love. Her haunting narrative is one of the saddest and most complex stories in the Bible. Sadly, it is one that very few people know.

(Because no actual words of Rizpah’s are recorded in the Bible, mine words appear in italics above, based on the details of bibical narrative, as noted above.)

Rizpah was King Saul’s “royal” concubine. Although Saul may had other concubines (a step below an official wife”), she is the only one on record. Although the Bible does not say so, the Bible seems to infer a special relationship between Saul and Rizpah, one that would involve both power and affection, and most probably, love.

Rizpah and Saul have two sons: Armani and Mephibosheth. The Bible does not specify their ages, but they appear to be in their late teens or early twenties when they are killed.

The first king of Israel–their father Saul–fights various bloodthirsty armies—the Ammonites, the Gibeonites, the Philistines, the Amelikites and others. Unlike some single-minded, “kill/conquer all” warriors, Saul seems to have both a hard and soft side. He kills as many people as he deems necessary, but occasionally lets some of his enemies live.

Surprisingly, God appears to be unhappy when Saul does not completely annihilate the enemy. In punishment, God inflicts Saul with a demon, and Saul begins to suffer the effects of what appears to be mental illness. He dies on the battlefield, falling on his own sword so that he will not be killed by the enemy.

Like Saul, Israel suffers. Year after year, a famine takes away both the harvest and the spirit of the people. Finally, David, who has been hand-picked by God to assume the crown, asks God why the famine will not relent.

God informs David that “there is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.”

David then approaches the Gibeonites,* asking, “What shall I do for you? How can I compensate you so that you will bless God’s legacy and people?”

And the Gibeonites reply: “The man who tried to get rid of us, who schemed to get wipe us off the map of Israel—let his sons be handed over to us to be executed.”

And the horrible deed is done. David hands over Rizpah’s boys, and also collects five of Saul’s grandsons from Merab, Saul’s daughter. The young men are hung as a group at the beginning of the barley harvest…and then their bodies are abandoned—until Rizpah takes matters into her own hands.

She shows up. She lays down sackcloth—a sign of mourning and repentance. Certainly she was in grief; some scholars believe she was repenting for Israel’s sins as well.

Day after burning day and night after cold night, she stands by the bodies of her sons, refusing to leave them until they receive a proper burial. When King David realizes, after five months, that she will not leave, he takes action. Not only does he collect the bodies of the seven young men, but he also retrieves the remains of Saul and his son Jonathan from the Philistines. He has their bodies buried in the land of Benjamin, the place of Saul’s origin.

We do not know what happened to Rizpah following the burial of her sons, or even if she was able to witness the burial. As women did not travel freely in those days, she probably only had the knowledge that their bodies no longer hung open to the elements.

Certainly she would have shed more tears. But she did so knowing that she had done all she could to protect and care for her children from conception to burial. Her persistence reset the moral compass for Israel as she called King David — the most powerful and acclaimed king in Israel’s history — to account.

Consider this:

This is a complex story, one of the most complicated in the Bible. Questions it raises make us cringe, on all sorts of levels, thousands of years after the event. And the fact that it involves a woman who is so faithful to her sons, even in the midst of what seems to be global retribution from God, is remarkable.

If we pass by Rizpah’s story, as most Bible readers do, we lose the story of an exceptional woman, a survivor, and more. In the midst of what could have been crippling despair, she takes an action—one that most of us would not be able to stomach.

Even though her beloved sons were gone, she did not lose herself in the grip of despair. She stayed connected with life; she fought the good fight. She enacted change from pain and is a most worthy model to those mothers who have lost their beloved children to those who suffer now when their loved ones have been massacred in school shootings or killed by drunk drivers or lost to the perils of drug addiction.

May we not forget Rizpah, nor her powerful actions. Her moral action changed the heart of a king and the soul of a nation. May we understand her story fully, and may it never fail to inspire us.

________

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

_________

Photo: Scott Gunn

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The Witch of Endor: Clairvoyant and Compassionate

Read the Witch of Endor’s story: 1 Samuel 28

Profile in history: Low

Classic moment

Bringing back Samuel’s spirit for King Saul. She also tells Saul he will die the next day.

Who was the Witch of Endor?

  • A woman from Endor who could summon the spirits of the dead
  • An independent contractor (paid by the session)
  • A woman living alone
  • An outcast

What did the Witch of Endor say?

Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the wizards from the land. Why then are you laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” 1 Samuel 28:9

Whom shall I bring up for you?” 1 Samuel 28:11

Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” 1 Samuel 28:12

I see a divine being coming up out of the ground.” 1 Samuel 28:13

“An old man is coming up; he is wrapped in a robe.” 1 Samuel 28:14

Your servant has listened to you; I have taken my life in my hand, and have listened to what you have said to me. Now therefore, you also listen to your servant; let me set a morsel of bread before you. Eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” 1 Samuel 28:21-22

Likely characteristics 

Skeptical; Countercultural; Wise; Clairvoyant; Intuitive; Hospitable; Compassionate

When did she live?

During Saul’s reign as the first king of Israel (Saul died about 1012 B.C.E; this story takes place then).

The Witch of Endor’s story

Imagine an old woman, living alone in a hillside cave, outside the small town of Endor. She is known by several names: fortune teller, medium, witch. An outcast, she supports herself through her remarkable ability to predict the future. Most jobs are closed to females; she exercises one of the few vocations in biblical times where a woman can earn a few cents.

On a night unlike all others, an old man stumbles to her door, asking her to roust a friend from the afterlife. She refuses, telling him that King Saul has banned such activity. For all she knows, the man dressed in rags is employed by Saul to find and arrest lawbreakers like her.

“There will be no punishment,” says Saul.  “Trust me.”

She takes a chance, inviting him inside.

“Who is it you wish to speak with?”

“Samuel,” he says. “Samuel.”

The woman raises the spirit of Samuel—and then screams—for she realizes that she is standing between two of Israel’s most powerful men—one alive, one dead.

Angry that he has been roused, Samuel does not lighten the mood. Instead, he announces that death will take the king the very next day. Samuel disappears, and Saul falls to the ground. Condemned to die, he is also exhausted, for he has not eaten in over twenty-four hours.

With surprisingly deep compassion, the old woman begs the exhausted monarch to stay for a bite of bread so that he might have strength for the morrow. First he refuse, then accepts. Knowing that by her hand will come Saul’s last meal, she prepares a meal that is indeed fit for a king.

As was foretold that night because of her action, Saul dies the next day on the battlefield. Knowing that his life is to end and not wanting to die by the hands of Philistines, he falls on his own sword, thus ending the tenure of the first king of Israel.

Consider this

Ostracized for most of her life, the witch of Endor has finally found a place where she can live in relative safety and practice her vocation. When the knock on her door comes, then, she is justifiably concerned, for she has learned who is trustworthy and who is not.

Before her stands an old man: alone and scared. But trusting her instincts, she takes him inside. And no wonder he has sought her out—the only person he could trust to give him reliable advice, Samuel, was dead. What could be worse than being chased by evil spirits, imposed by God?

Reaching outside her comfort zones for fear of arrest, she summons Samuel. And when he arrives, she is terrified. No wonder she screams. Yet she stays at the cave with Saul until he leaves.

Like Mary of Bethany washing and anointing Jesus’ feet with priceless oil, (John 12:1-8) the woman offers Saul her most valuable material resource: a fatted calf. Like Mary, who gave Jesus the strength to walk to the cross, the witch gives Saul physical and emotional support during his last hours. Like the Last Supper, she feeds his troops, providing the king and his men one last meal together.

What might we learn from the Witch of Endor?

  • Be insistently generous.
  • Consider all gifts to be from God and use them wisely.
  • People who seek healing are often hungry, in more ways than one.
  • Give what you can while you can.

For reflection

The Witch of Endor had a range of God-given gifts. What were they?

Why did Saul seek out this woman? Was it a reasonable thing for him to do? Do you think it was bravery on her part to conjure up Samuel or was she afraid for her life? Did God inspire them to come together? If so, why? If not, why not?

The witch had two of the most powerful men in Israel standing with her, even though she had to practice her vocation on the edges of town, in the shadows. In some ways she is like a prostitute, visited by men under the cover of darkness. What does it mean that this witch and several prostitutes have such a strong presence in scripture?

Have you ever agreed to help someone and then been terrified at the result? If so, why?

 

Posted in @Bible Gateway, #RallyRevGals, Hebrew Bible Women, Uncategorized, Witch of Endor Tagged with: , , ,

Cafe con Leche and Chesed

At age eighteen, I didn’t drink coffee. I was a tea drinker, specifically Earl Gray. But that changed in Puerto Rico one summer when I lived with a family who invited me to stay with them while I worked at their church’s Vacation Bible School. They’d given me the only private room in their small house. I’d have been happy with a cot in the corner, but they insisted otherwise.

We tried to make conversation the next morning, and it was awkward. My Spanish was mediocre, and they didn’t speak English. But then the coffee appeared: roasty-toasty coffee made on the stovetop using a thin white sock filled with coffee, sugar and spices. I swear there was joy in our cups. We drank it together, including the family’s little ones. Later I would learn that cafe con leche—coffee with milk—is a staple of Puerto Rican life.

One summer led to another. I came to know the Island as a place of joy and beauty, and the Episcopal Church there as an instrument of God’s peace. I stayed with the Sisters of the Transfiguration in Ponce, working with them in inner-city youth recreational halls, kneeling on their cold-stone floors, and (generally) losing to them in hard-fought evening canasta games. They were tougher than I was, getting up in the middle of the night to pray and to care for whoever came knocking at their door.

The Hebrew Bible uses the word chesed to describe such a state of being. Translation: Sacred kindness. It’s that same courage Ruth showed to her mother-in-law, Naomi, as she accompanied her through the wilderness, helping Naomi get home to Bethlehem before she died. It’s the same hospitality that Mary and Martha of Bethany so willingly shared with Jesus. It’s the same compassion showed by the witch of Endor to Saul as she called Samuel back from the dead to meet with the mentally disabled king.

The scope of disaster in Puerto Rico is deep and wide. Some have described the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as “apocalyptic.” I am sure that residents are demonstrating valiant acts of chesed with each other now, in what must be terrible suffering without food, water, fuel or electricity. Let us  join them on that road to recovery, for it will be slow.

Please keep Puerto Rico in your prayers for healing. Send a donation if you are able to any number of charities, including the American Red Cross, the Hispanic Federation, or the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund. And join this great effort by Forward Movement to to send “a hurricane of love” via notes of encouragement to Puerto Rico.

Most of the residents there have always known God’s peace. May such peace and chesed not leave them now in this terrible time of suffering—and may all of us respond as God would have us do.

Len Freeman Photo

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Crossing Boundaries: Awkward all Around

Ethnic boundaries: apparently even Jesus had trouble with them. Case in point: Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew 15:21-28. A woman from “the outside,” known as the Canaanite woman, spars with Jesus and convinces him to heal her daughter. And Jesus is oddly cranky about the whole thing, at least in the beginning.

(Note: The Canaanite woman to which Matthew refers is the same person that Mark calls the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30.Both Matthew and Mark emphasize that this woman is an outsider, both religiously and geographically.)

The conversation

The woman: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Matthew 15:22

Jesus: “I was sent only to the the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Matthew 15:22

The woman: But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Matthew 15:25

Jesus: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Matthew 15:26

The woman: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15:27

Jesus: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:28

Her story

Up until this point in his ministry, Jesus has concentrated on those people of the Jewish faith. But in this moment, in a strange and unwelcoming country, he faces a Gentile who identifies him as Lord, shouts at him, then kneels at his feet, begging him to heal her tormented daughter. Who is this strange woman? Why is she not accompanied by a man? To be out alone addressing a man to whom she was not related was simply not done. Yet she presses forward like a bulldog—and it seems she reminds Jesus of one.

When Jesus says that it is not fair to give food meant for the children (God’s children being the Jews) to dogs (Gentiles being everyone else), she throws his words back at him, saying that even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall under the table—implying that even a wee bit of Jesus’ power (even the leftovers) would heal her daughter.

He initially ignores her, reminding her and his disciples that he was sent only to the house of Israel, and that it is not fair for Gentiles to receive Israel’s due. Yet, in the end, he heals the woman’s daughter because of her faith. And he does one more thing: he heals the girl long-distance. She’s not there to lay hands upon; but in a rare long-distance display of power, he brings her to wholeness.

Consider this

Puzzling and off-putting, Jesus is initially rude and unwilling to share his healing powers with a desperate mother because she is not Jewish. Yikes.

Over the years, this story has understood in different ways: Jesus was only testing the woman; his ministry was changed because of her; the term for “dog” was the same as the affectionate word for “puppy,” this story symbolizes Jesus’ ministry to all the world, etc.

My reading: Jesus was rude, at least initially. Fully divine and fully human, here he expresses human emotions. And yet this story gives Jesus’ actions over his lifetime more credibility, rather than less. He gets tired. He was sent to the house of Israel first. And no doubt he is still grieving the recent death of his cousin, forerunner, and soulmate, John the Baptist.

Back to the woman: She loved her daughter and knew Jesus could cure her. And she knew who Jesus was, as evidenced by her statement, “Son of David.”  When Jesus and the disciples ignored her, she did not back down. When he refused her verbally, she did not flee. Like a master judo player, who uses the energy of his/her opponent to direct the opponent’s flight path, she engages Jesus, coming back at him with words he had already used, specifically the word “dog.”

Boldly, the woman persevered—and Jesus healed her daughter because of it.  And from that day forward, we see more evidence in Jesus’ ministry of reaching out “to the other side” — i.e. the Gentiles.

I like this story especially because it appears to be a direct reporting of a confusing situation. Jesus’  actions and words initially aren’t perfect. But the situation is resolved because of divine and human love finding each other and triumphing through awkward social mores, illness and fatigue. Boundaries that were initial stumbling blocks were crossed, taken down. Wholeness was achieved. Healing had occurred on all sides.

May we know that same love and healing—human and divine, crossing all boundaries—in and through us during these tumultuous times.

Photo credit: Scott Gunn. Subject: George

 

Posted in Bible Women, New Testament Women, Uncategorized, Words of Bible Women Tagged with: , , , , ,

Mary: I Walk With My Son

Jesus’ mother, Mary, is venerated by millions around the world, and will be particularly remembered next Tuesday, August 15th, on her feast day. Honestly, it took me years to relate to her, for she always seemed so untouchable, too far up on a silver platform for me to reach. Of course I knew her story; who doesn’t? But she remained emotionally out of my range, just way too well-behaved, too placid, too sacred. 

But the day came when I was writing a book about Bible women…and you can’t really leave Mary out of THAT lineup. So I did what I often do when I write: I put myself in her shoes. (Hey, I’m currently writing from the point of view as a rock in a new children’s book; how hard could it be to write about Mary?)

And then everything changed. I thought about her being unexpectedly pregnant and terrified as a young girl, and then running away to Elizabeth’s home in the hills. I thought about what it must have been like to have such a strange child as Jesus in the house. Apparently he was doing miracles at a young age—or else how would she have known he could change water into wine? I grieved with her as she stood in sight of the crucifixion, watching soldiers murder her beloved first born.

I thought about her most as an old woman, reviewing her life. And here’s what I pictured her saying in her final hours, (adapted from The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women):

+++

I told you I was old. That much is true, but there is more. I am near death, crippled and bedridden, lying with my face to the wall in John’s house. My own children visit, but as Jesus so wanted, John took me to his home. He and his wife have taken good care of me.

Early each evening John comes to me, telling me of what it was like to be on the road with Jesus; how my son would cure the sick and the lame, how he invited the little ones onto his lap, how he despaired when people would not hear about his father in heaven. He tells me about Jesus’ friends: Bartholomew and Nathaniel, Peter and Andrew, Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany and her sister, Martha.

He tells me tales of Jesus laughing, loving, being whole. If I close my eyes and just listen to his voice, it almost blocks the image of Jesus collapsed on that cross, then dead on the ground. As hard as I try, I cannot shake that image. No mother could.

Being a mother — Jesus’ mother — is who and what I am most of all. I don’t know why God chose me; perhaps I never will. I do know this, though: I want to see my son again. I want to look into his eyes and put my arms around him and talk to him without millions of people around. I don’t want him to leave me again. Ever.

+++

It must be getting late, for I hear John’s voice, although he sounds sad and distant. And there is something overriding his words: music. Lovely, light, elegant, vibrant music. I haven’t heard music like this since…since that day when everything changed, so long ago.

“Mary.”

That voice. I know that voice. This time I answer right away.

“Yes, Gabriel?”

The angel fills the room, much as he did long ago. Only this time he bends over me, lightly touching my shoulder.

“Favored one, the Lord is with you!”

I can barely turn my head because it hurts so much, but I do. And he is not alone. There is someone with him.

My son.

Jesus has come for me.

At once I am up and going, reaching for him with arms that are no longer brittle but sturdy, almost as strong as they were when I held him on that indescribably long ride from Bethlehem to Egypt. He catches me, enfolds me, and I am exactly where I want to be — with him.

John and his wife are in tears, but all they see is my thin, worn, used-up shell of a body, now devoid of breath. Can’t they see Jesus? Can’t they hear the melody? Can’t they see how happy I am?

He and I step out toward the music, now increasing in beat and pulse, calling us, welcoming me home. I have longed to hear that sound ever since I was a girl—so terrified, so alone.

Again I hear Gabriel’s words: “Do not worry, Mary. Do not be afraid.”

And I am not, for I walk with my son. It has been so long.

I walk–with my son.

+++

Thanks be to God for Mary,  for her powerful witness, and most of all, for her love.

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Cold Clear Water

A sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Elk River, Minnesota on July 2, 2017

Two images from today’s readings stand out like stoplights, blinking in the night. The first, from today’s Gospel, is simple and short. Jesus says: “Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

Hmmm… cold water. Cold water saves lives. Think of the millions of people today that yearn for cold, clean water. Think of the millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa who are dying because they lack that essential resource. And with an eye on that, let’s take a look at the other image in today’s readings, one of the hardest in the Bible to comprehend.

This story has always troubled me. Here’s Abraham, the man who God said would be the father of many nations, with his son Isaac, the crucial link in the Judeo-Christian story. God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and the old man takes his beautiful son up in the wilderness and straps him down to a rock. As he is about to kill him, God intervenes in the form of an angel, and stops Abraham from taking that horrible action.

What kind of a God would require such a sacrifice? What kind of father would respond in kind? People get jailed for a lifetime these days for such an action, and they should.

But that’s where we go wrong in interpreting the story. God did not desire or require the death of Isaac. God did not want Abraham to sacrifice his son. Far from it. We know that…or else Isaac would be dead and the Jewish-Christian community would not exist. If Isaac had been eliminated, our story would have gone down as well, for Abraham, Sarah and Isaac are our spiritual forebears, our spiritual ancestors.

God did want Abraham’s obedience. God required Abraham’s obedience. It is as if God was saying, “Trust me with all you have. I will not fail you. Follow me, lean on me, know that I will not abandon you and that I have set you and your descendants here for a purpose.”

That theme of obedience is echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans today. The wages of sin and giving into your worldly passions is death, says Paul. You’ve been slaves to sin, but in obedience to me you will find life, everlasting life. In obedience to me, you will find living water.

Living water. Hmmm… Isn’t that what Jesus told the woman by the well, that she could living water were she to recognize him? The woman who had been married five times and was living with a sixth man, not her husband? The woman who had been so humiliated that she went to the well at mid-day to avoid the gossips in town?

Hmmm… water… living water, cold clear water.

Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

In Jesus’ time and in Abraham’s time, giving a cup of cold water wasn’t a matter of walking over to a faucet and turning it on. You had to go to a well, often significantly outside of town. You had to fill a clay jar, either by walking into the well itself or by dropping your jar by a rope into the water or by finding a spring in the desert. You had to keep that water out of the sun. Jesus isn’t talking about warm water here, water that had drawn bugs overnight. He’s talking about cold water in a desert climate.

And that’s the point of today’s Gospel, today’s readings. Jesus is calling us to obedient and radical hospitality. Obedient and radical hospitality. Think of how good that cold water would have tasted to Isaac, tied down to the rock.

Well, we’re all tied down to rocks, aren’t we? Rocks of sin. Rocks of guilt. Rocks of fatigue and physical limitations. Rocks of pain and suffering. Rocks that separate us from each other, make us fear each other. Rocks that make it impossible to forgive. Rocks of passion, of greed, of fear.

Into the midst of that separation from God, that collusion with disobedience that Paul speaks of, and the fear that Abraham must have known as he strapped Isaac to those boulders, along comes Jesus saying those who give another a cup of cold water will receive their reward.

Kindness. Compassion. Welcoming. Stepping across boundaries. Reaching out with the simplest of life-giving gestures to another. Unbinding ourselves from the rocks to which we have been tied down and offering life-giving water. Taking a cup from someone who offers it to you.

What might that cup of water look like in your life? Is there someone you need to forgive? Is there a hungry or thirsty child that lives near you? Is there a way you might help those across the world in the name of God? Is there a way you might help keep water clean here in Elk River so that it might be available for generations to come?

May we, like Abraham in our own desert places, be obedient to God. May we always trust that God has in mind for us life and love and joy and health, not the death of our souls or the death of future generations.

Cups of cold clean water. It’s what Jesus would want.

________

With thanks to Dr. Rachael Keefe for her inspiring thoughts in the preparation of this sermon.

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“Why, this is so WARM!”

My mother-in-law, Gertrude, was one of the nicest people I’ve known. When she stayed with us, she swept the patio every day. She wiped down the counters and sink every night after dinner. She said she couldn’t do a lot, but she could do those things. One day she held our newborn son as he slept in her arms for three hours. She sung to our babies. I didn’t know much about being a mother at first, and she reminded me of the sweet voice of song.

My own mother had died some forty years before. I swore I’d never call someone else “Mom.”

But I did, for my mother-in-law was so dang nice to me.

One day, when I was about seven months pregnant, I made a casserole for dinner. And when I tasted it, I knew it was bad. It tasted like dead fish and moldy kale and rotten tomatoes all mixed together. Eyeing her across the table, I knew I had her. Even though she was always complimentary about what I cooked, I knew that, finally, that wall would come down.

She took a first bite. I could see her wince. She took a second bite. And then, when I thought the wall would finally crack, she smiled at me and said, “Why, this is…this is…so WARM!”

Warm. Well, she was right about that, for it had just come out of the oven. Temperature was the only positive trait it had. But she had named it. And God bless her for that.

And God bless her for being an extra hand with the kids. My older son cried for four months after he was born. He had about thirty good minutes each morning, laying in the sun and moving his hands to trap the sunbeams. But he cried for the other twenty-three and a half hours unless he was nursing, sleeping, riding around, or being carried upside down like a football on my arm. He saw a lot of the floor in his early days (which probably accounts for why he is an introvert today).

Gertrude would go grocery shopping with me when she was in town. And I picture her now, old and white-haired and panting, running the shopping cart up and down the aisles to keep her grandson from crying. It still makes me smile. She tried so hard.

She loved all of us, I know. But as mothers do, she particularly treasured her son, Len. One day when we were at Canobie Lake Park in southern New Hampshire, Len asked me if I wanted to ride the Yankee Cannonball, the oldest wooden roller coaster in America.

Are you kidding? I’m such a wimp. About heights. About caves. About lots of things. Alone, he headed for the ride. Several minutes later, I turned around to chat with Mom, but she was gone.

And then, looking over the crowds, I spotted a familiar hunched-over woman, back curved but chin high, clutching her black purse under her arm, following her son. She was close to eighty years old at that point. She’d had two heart attacks. She’d just broken two ribs by simply turning her head and shoulders while backing her car out of the garage. But she was going on that ride. She remembered the joy she had riding it as a girl—and this time, she would be with the one she loved the most.

I think she figured there were worse ways to die. If her heart gave way on the ride, so be it. As she got off, she had one thing to say: “It was a chance to ride with my son.”

God bless you, Mom. God bless you for being kind to me, for raising the son you did, and for showing us how to ride the heights with those we love.

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Women of Easter: At the tomb and beyond

Without the sun to heat the Earth, this planet would be dark and cold. And without the women at the tomb on Easter morning, perhaps Jesus would have had to (choose one): 1) wander the streets of Jerusalem looking for his male friends 2) knock on Peter’s door 3) hike to Bethany to see Martha and Mary.

But the women were there. Each gospel tells the story differently–but each gospel notes that the women–and only the women–were initially present.

Note these common denominators:

  • Women were the first to approach the tomb after the Sabbath
  • Women were the first to be addressed by the angels and/or Jesus
  • Women were the first to see Jesus after the resurrection
  • Women were the first to spread the news about his resurrection
  • “Woman” was the first word spoken by the angels (in John) after the resurrection
  • “Woman” was the first word spoken by Jesus (in John) after the resurrection
  • The disciples did not believe the women—except for Peter and John, initially, who ran to the tomb after Mary Magdalene had sought them out.

Here are the differences between the gospels:

Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” find the tomb empty, hear an angel say that Jesus has risen, run to tell the disciples, and are met by Jesus. (Chapter 28:1-10)

Mark has two endings: #1) Mary the mother of James, Salome the mother of James and John, and Mary Magdalene find the tomb empty. They are told by a messenger that Jesus has risen and are so stunned that they say nothing. Fear seems to be the bottom line in Mark’s first ending. #2) Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene; she goes to his distraught companions and tells them he is alive and well, but they do not believe her. (Mark 16)

Luke: “The women” went to the tomb and could not find Jesus’ body. Two angels, full of light, ask them why they are searching out the living among the dead; they return empty-handed. Luke names the women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the “other women with them.” The words seemed to the disciples “an idle tale,” and they initially did not believe them.” (Luke 24:1-12)

John: Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, sees the stone moved away, and runs to tell Peter and “the beloved disciple.” The men run to the tomb, go inside, find nothing and return home. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene; she runs to tell the disciples. (John 20:1-10)

Bottom line: The women were there for Jesus. They did not let him down, even when they thought they had lost him completely to the powers of evil. They cared for him when he was alive, they stood with him when he was killed in front of them, and they showed up to take care of his body after death. What a joy it must have been to see him face-to-face. What a joy it must have been to have the power of death beaten back, trampled underfoot. What a joy to understand first-hand what it meant to be in the presence of God. Bravo, sisters, bravo!

Photo: Marla Hanley Collection.

Posted in #RallyRevGals, ChristianCentury, Mary Magdalene, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , ,

Women of Holy Week: Mary Magdalene

Over sixteen years ago, I had cancer (and have been blessedly cancer-free since then). Walking within sight of the valley of death is a pretty scary place. But I believe in angels. So I looked for an angel during each chemo treatment, each medical procedure, each visit to the hospital. I expected to find one, and most of the time I did. Twice I was disappointed.

Once the angel was a cleaning women. Other times they were nurses or doctors; sometimes, other patients. They all had one thing in common: they understood pain and fear. They weren’t hothouse flowers; they knew about dark places.

And so did Mary Magdalene.

 In John 20, my favorite account of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene has the courage to peer into the darkness of the tomb because she has known darkness herself.

Two angels are there, and ask why she is crying. (This bit of scripture has always struck me as odd, by the way….as in, really? After all that has happened, they don’t know WHY she’s crying? Are they “slow learner” angels, unable to understand the gravity of the situation or have they just been flown in from another part of the universe…not knowing what has happened on earth???) At any rate, she answers,  “They took my Master, and I don’t know where they put him.”

Next we hear her frustration, speaking in somewhat of an irritated tone, with the one she supposes to be the gardener: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away!”

(As in, how many idiots do I have to talk to here? Just tell me where you’ve put him and I’ll take care of it!)

Whatever turmoil she may have been feeling,  it did not hold her back from entering into the darkness to find answers. Others were too scared to come. Peter did not see anything and went home. Yes, she was grief-stricken. Yes, her stomach was most likely upended. Yes, the darkness threatened to surround and engulf her.

But she went ahead anyway. Perhaps what gave her the strength to move ahead was the knowledge that she had already faced much so darkness within herself–and would not leave unfinished the relationship with the One who had healed her. She was loyal to Jesus in a way the others weren’t: she would see things through.

In the first century, emotional and physical maladies were seen as demons. We don’t know the details. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, leprosy, epilepsy, eating disorders…there could have been a combination of many things. Certainly her distress would have been overpowering, her isolation unbearable. Certainly she had indeed known solitary confinement within her soul.

What mattered was that Jesus had healed her. Her long sentence of turmoil-filled heartbreak was ended. For the first time in years, she was a free, fully integrated person—with a new group of people to love and a reason to live: Jesus. No wonder she was so loyal to him.

And perhaps that’s why he loved her. She was strong, rugged, and grounded. No dandelion in the wind she; no being puffed away by the first wind to come along. Both her feet and heart were strongly rooted–most likely because she had known her own demons and had been healed. For those who remember the Velveteen Rabbit, Mary Magdalene was an exceptionally strong such rabbit.

I do not believe it’s a stretch to say that Jesus depended on her. He expected to see her at the tomb; he knew that she would be there. Jesus must have been within earshot when Peter looked in the tomb, but he chose to make himself known first to Mary Magdalene, the outcast.

She showed up. She was there for him—and he for her.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

______

Barbara Dundon Photo, Morris Arboretum

This lovely fern reminds me of Mary Magdalene: exquisitely beautiful and strong; with perfectly ordered new growth after a long winter.

Posted in @Bible Gateway, #RallyRevGals, ChristianCentury, Mary Magdalene, Uncategorized, Words of Bible Women Tagged with: , , ,

Women of Holy Week: Pontius Pilate’s Wife

Bottom line: What is your dream life telling you? What is your intuition telling you? Save your soul by speaking up.

My goodness. Dreams in scripture are a big deal. They’re all over the place in the Old and New Testaments…twenty-one of them to be exact,* not including various visions…and only one is reported by a woman.

The woman is Pontius Pilate’s wife. Remembered as a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church, she is also seen as a possible secret follower of Jesus in later non-biblical writings.

Had her dream been acted upon by Pilate, the course of religious history might have turned out very differently. Jesus would not have faced torture and death on the cross, the Last Supper would have been a pleasant event, and Jesus would have had years ahead of him to rustle this old world into better shape.

You remember the mob frenzy that occurs. Pilate throws the fate of Jesus and a common criminal named Barabbas to a crowd. “Who should I free?” Pilate asks. “Barabbas or Jesus?”

But before the crowd can respond, Pilate is handed a note from his wife.

“Have nothing to do with that innocent man,” it reads, “for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him!” Matthew 27:19

As the crowd shouts, Pilate shakes his head, ignoring her plea.

The crowd shouts, “Free Barabbas!”

“What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

“Let him be crucified!”

“Why, what evil has he done?”

The mob is unrelenting. “Crucify him, crucify him!”

Pilate, a coward, acts to satisfy the mob. Releasing Barabbas, he sentences Jesus to die. And thenhe washes his hands of the matter. Done, finished, time for lunch.

Pilate wasn’t a believer; he was a thug.

His wife said she had “suffered a great deal” because of her dream.  Was she filled with fear and dread, knowing that God’s son was about to be murdered by her husband’s hand? Was she worried that she would be beaten for saying something? Did she fear Pilate would be charged in hell for killing Jesus? Did she think the people would revolt against Pilate if Jesus died?

We’ll never know what went through her mind. But we do know enough about other dreams in the Bible to know that, most likely, it was God speaking to her. Here are some other examples of dreams: God telling Joseph to go ahead and wed Mary even though she was pregnant before marriage (Matthew 1:18-24); God telling Joseph to leave Bethlehem for Egypt so Jesus would not be slaughtered, etc. (Matthew 2:13-15); Jacob seeing armies of angels descending and ascending by ladder from heaven (Genesis 28:12), etc.

Pilate’s wife did the right thing. She raised her voice. She spoke up. She said something in response to a dangerous situation. (Much like those signs at airports: “If you see something, say something!”)

We cannot control the outcome of everything we seek to influence. But we can raise our voices to report what is going on in our souls—whether our beliefs come from prayer, meditation, or dreams.

And that is what Pilate’s wife did. She told what was going on in her soul.

When I hear hear her story, I am reminded of a great phrase in the 1869 hymn, “Christ for the world we sing.” Here it is, at the end of the first stanza: “…sin sick and sorrow worn.”

By speaking out, her soul was not “sin sick,” nor “sorrow worn.” She had released a great burden; she had opened a dark and troubled place in her soul to the light of Christ.

Pilate didn’t listen. But God and all of heaven heard. And God acted, through the resurrection, to right what had been done.

After Jesus was crucified, Pilate was reportedly banished to the south of France, where he committed suicide. But we trust that when the end came for his wife, she was received joyfully into God’s presence,  ready to meet the One she had tried to save.

What are those hopes, dreams and God-inspired concepts that lie deep within you? What do you suffer from in your soul that you need to release? How might it be a loss for the world if you don’t speak up? How might it be a loss for you? If you need help in expressing such sorrow, is there someone you might consult?

What might we learn from Pilate’s wife?

Stand up for the innocent. 

Do not hesitate to act against injustice.

Communicate with our families.

Pay attention to dreams and intuition, and to our inner lives.

Do not leave inspiration nor troubles locked in our souls; leave them in God’s hands instead. 

_________

*http://overviewbible.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/infographic.bibledreams.png

_________

Photo: Scott Gunn

Posted in #RallyRevGals, ChristianCentury, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , ,
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