Friday, 30 March 2012

37. Lois and Eunice - maternal praying power

We hear a lot today about 'Dads and lads', and probably rightly. Sons have a different sort of relationship with dad than with mum; societal/gender factors, nurture/ nature; whatever.

But where Christian faith is concerned, the New Testament church leader, Timothy, had been given a pretty good start by two important females in the family - his mother and his grandmother.

St. Paul pays them tribute when he recalls Timothy's 'sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you' (2 Timothy 1: 5). 

How do we get healthy faith living in us, which goes on living in us? Research suggests that those who have childhood faith are much more likely to have active spiritual lives as adults than those whose childhoods didn't include such exposure.

Timothy was lucky (blessed is probably a better word...) Although his father seems to have been an unbeliever, faith in Jesus Christ was transmitted down the maternal line - twice over. How many other Christian leaders have been similarly blessed by faithful mothers and grandmothers who prayed, lived and witnessed to the saving love of God in Christ so effectively that it would have been difficult for it not to rub off on their children...? (St Augustine for one...)

Now that's what I call parent power.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

36. Lydia - church in your home.

I wanted to call our first baby Lydia, but it was a boy, and by the time we'd had a girl we'd assembled other choices, chiefly Kezia, Eve, Susannah and other unusual female biblical names (we had a short 'Camilla' phase but mercifully that passed...)

I've never really had a purple phase, though I do love the Jenny Joseph poem, 'When I am an old woman I shall wear purple' - hopefully there'll be a little bit of time left for that...

Lydia was a 'dealer in purple cloth' who happened to be out one day when the apostle Paul was looking for a place of prayer on the Sabbath. I'm presuming he was after Jewish men with whom to share the way of the Lord, but he found only women gathered by the town river (Acts 16:13).

Paul spoke; Lydia listened. 'The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message', we are told. And the next verse has her whole household baptised and Paul and his fellow worker, Silas, invited to Lydia's house.

I normally spend a bit longer on baptism preparation to be honest; but I guess if you have just seen the light and are sitting by a large river...

In a lovely little addendum to this pearl of a story, after Paul and Silas have been beaten for sharing their faith, they are asked to leave the city and they find shelter...guess where? In the home of Lydia, where a thriving little house church has taken shape.

Can we please give all our lovely Anglican church buildings over to a sympathetic, wealthy British HeritageTrust thingy and go back to meeting in homes for fellowship, prayer, teaching and breaking of bread?


Oh, alright then...

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

35. Joanna/Junia - not a man after all.

It was news to me that the Joanna mentioned in Luke's gospel is thought by some to be the same as the Junia of Romans 16; she who was 'outstanding among the apostles.'

I'm not really into conspiracy theories but I find it worryingly easy to believe the scholars who say that for the first 1300 years of the church's history, Junia (female) was celebrated as such an apostle, but that afterwards it was claimed she was a man (how else could she be an outstanding apostle? Apostles were all men....does not compute...)

So given that 'he' (Junia) has now been reclaimed as a woman, one might get rather excited about Junia/Joanna after all.

Here are her credentials as a woman of faith whose life coincides with the earthly ministry of Jesus, and whose faithful service continued alongside her famous co 'apostle', Paul.

Being wealthy she gave of her own means to the band of disciples as they followed Jesus from place to place. When the men fled, she probably stood at the foot of the cross keeping the dying Christ company and she was there in the garden of resurrection - telling the male disciples the great news but being disbelieved (Luke 24:10). After Pentecost she appears in Rome, still serving alongside other co-workers in the gospel.

We get a snapshot of her commitment pre and post-Easter therefore. She was there through everything. She didn't know it at the beginning, but for all her self-sacrificial service, she was on the winning side...

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

34. Pilate's wife - he'll never listen...

A disturbing little detail can get right under your skin. A look, a gesture, an unresolved threat that follows you into your dreams.

Take the nightmares of Anglican ordinands in training: appearing in the pulpit with hardly anything on; being laughed at in assembly; singing Evensong with laryngitis...

Pilate's wife 'suffered much' in a dream about Jesus of Nazareth. The timing was the thing - they were just about to lead him out to crucifixion, this strange prophet, this miracle worker with the haunting stare....

Will her husband listen to her warning, sent in urgency: 'Don't have anything to do with that innocent man...' (Matthew 27: 19)?

He will not.

Suffering can be picked up on a different frequency, like those high pitched whistles only dogs can hear. It's like a menace leaking out, a warning of darkness to come, a low level rumble of evil. 

Dream as premonition. It's happened to me before.

'Behold the man', the Christ who had to 'suffer these things before entering his glory' (Luke 24, Emmaus road conversation).

And behold the woman who suffers on his behalf. Thank you Pilate's wife.

Monday, 26 March 2012

33. Mary of Bethany - learning to adore.

Mary, sister of Martha, is twice associated with the feet of Jesus.

One the first occasion she sits at his feet 'listening to what he said' (Luke 10: 39) in a kind of private tutorial indicating a departure from the traditionally female domestic sphere. Only Jewish men 'sat at the feet of' their Rabbi learning to be disciples.

'Oh, but there were only twelve disciples, and they were all men.' Yeah, right.

Then she moves from learning to adoration. How else would you respond after Jesus has raised your brother from death, and he is sitting there, larger than life, eating and drinking at a dinner party in Bethany. Mary's adoration is expressed in her pouring a pint of very expensive anointing oil (nard) over Jesus' feet and wiping them with her hair. Such waste.

But devotion to the Lord is never waste. The prophetic nature of her act is not lost on Jesus. He is Lord over life and death but will soon die himself. Things may be happening in a slightly strange order, that's all. Today his body is anointed for burial since on the day of resurrection, at dawn, as the women approach to do the same, it will be too late.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

32. Martha - beyond housework.

Why do images of 1950s housewives always have them looking so HAPPY?

Martha wasn't at all happy in the kitchen that day. Her head in the clouds sister was sitting at Jesus' feet doing nothing important, while she had to slave away at the oven. 

It was about time something was said. 'Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!' (Luke 10: 40).

That should do it; isn't he always telling us it's more blessed to give than to receive?

Oh. He's come down on her side. That's not fair. Aren't all housewives 'worried and distracted by many things?' How would he know?!

That seems a long time ago now. Everything pales into insignificance when someone you love is gone. If only Jesus had got here sooner...he could have healed our brother.

But he's here, at last! 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'

'I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?' (John 11: 25-26).

'Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.'

There are more important things than housework after all.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

31. The woman who anointed Jesus - the fragrance of forgiveness

I remember the story from  Sunday School, circa 1974, and was puzzled by it then. 

In an impromptu after dinner appearance, an un named woman anoints Jesus' feet with perfume and tears. It's about the injustice of God's generosity and is thereby subversive, like Jesus. And when the powers that be sense subversion it doesn't always end well.

Jesus has been invited to dinner. Simon, the host, is a Pharisee and no doubt thinks he's being generous and hospitable to this strange itinerant preacher called Jesus. But while the men are 'reclining' after dinner (first Century Palestinian version of retiring to the smoking room in Edwardian England) a woman who has 'lived a sinful life' comes in and begins to weep at Jesus' feet, wiping them with her hair, kissing them and pouring perfume on them.

She's invading male space. Her actions are intimate, emotional and quite, quite embarrassing. If you're Simon. Clearly Jesus must be spiritually blind: 'If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is...' (Luke 7: 39).

But Jesus thinks differently. If two debtors have their debts cancelled, which one will love their master more? The one whose debt was greater. 

Oh, the unfairness of God! This woman's extravagant gestures are evidence she has already tasted forgiveness. 

With his cold hearted judgmentalism, Simon has barely dipped his toes in the shallows.

Friday, 23 March 2012

30. Jairus's daughter - 'To Life!'

There are numerous stages when parents rue the growing up of their 'little girl.' If you're not careful it happens too fast. 

Blink and they're top to toe in pink and borrowing your nail varnish. Then they want a phone and soon they're calling their boyfriend and going out in your heels.

Twelve is a funny age - not exactly child - not woman. Jesus was similarly suspended between childhood and adulthood when his parents 'lost' him in Jerusalem, only to find him having adult conversations with the religious scholars in the Temple.

Poor Jairus, the Synagogue leader is frantic about his 12 year old. She's gravely ill, at death's door, and Jesus has got caught up healing some woman who held onto his cloak. The dreadful words 'don't bother the Teacher' now come through. It's too late - your daughter is dead.

On the cusp of being grown up, the little girl once more a baby in her parents' heart. Our baby is dead.

But death is no barrier to God's healing and salvation (same word in Greek).

Jesus tells the mourners to be quiet, enters the house and reassures the parents 'the child is not dead, only asleep' (Mark 5: 39). 

How his call from death to life was experienced by the little girl we can only conjecture. Perhaps she felt the powerful warmth of his hand and heard his words 'Talitha koum', Aramaic for 'Little girl, arise.' She immediately stands up and walks around. Jesus notes she'll be hungry.

The call to life originates with Christ. It is addressed to our whole selves, body and soul. He makes the first move and we respond.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

29. The haemorrhaging woman - touch, don't look

I'm not keen on being cheek by jowl on the London Tube - I think it's the nearest I've come to that crushing feeling you get in big crowds. I generally like people, but not up too close and personal - the shoving, the unfamiliar smells, unwittingly looking up someone's nostril etc.

You feel people touching you without meaning to. Jesus knew it as a daily experience.

But there's touch and then there's touch. The sick woman today just needs to touch Jesus' hem, so powerful is his capacity to heal. Her internal condition is painful and shameful, making her a religious and social outcast. The Old Testament scriptures struggle with women that BLEED.

Intentional touch is like a conversation. She asks: He responds. It's all happening at the subliminal level; he doesn't see her or hear her - but he feels power going out of him.

He desires to know 'who touched my clothes?' (Mark 5: 30)

A daft question given the crush...but no. Something has happened. A transaction of faith.

The woman is terrified coming forward. 

Using a term of endearment hardly ever recorded in the New Testament, Jesus says 'Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.'

The power of touch and the tenderness of response.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

28. The Syrophoenician woman - inventing our liturgy

Mothers and daughters - sometimes a tricky one...

This mother was desperate. And desperate mothers will do most things to get healing for their children. 

Her daughter is demon possessed (my modern mind's thinking 'how on earth did that happen? Doesn't she mean severe epilepsy or something?)

Anyway, she's got nowhere else to go so without probably realising it, she does a perfect prayer in her desperation:

'Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me' (Matthew 15:22) (Basically, she, along with blind Bartimaeus, invents The Jesus Prayer).

Me, I couldn't resist this plea, but we read in one short sentence: 'Jesus did not answer a word.' The disciples have to urge him: 'Lord, send her away for she keeps crying out after us.' So this woman is repeatedly calling out, begging, but Jesus appears reticent. 

It gets worse. Jesus says that his mission is only to the 'lost sheep of Israel.' She is a non Jew. The woman persists, kneeling before him, getting personal: 'Lord, help me!'

At this point Jesus is, shall we say, enigmatic, to say the least (rude, if we're being uncharitable). 'It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.' The cultural/religious set up was that the Jews 'owned' the Messiah, although this was going to change radically after the resurrection and Pentecost. Will this un named foreign woman force the hand of Messiah?

She comes right back: 'but even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from their masters' table.' And in so doing, beautifully prefigures Anglican Eucharistic liturgy - 'We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table...' - and that cool U2 song: 'I would believe if I was able, but I'm waiting on the crumbs from your table'*

Her faith is rewarded. Her daughter is instantly healed. I just love Jesus' words: 'Woman, you have great faith!' 

He applauds her and so do we.

*From How to dismantle an atomic bomb

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

27. The woman at the well - thirst quenching conversation

Another encounter leading to a commission today. It's one of my favourite stories of a woman meeting Jesus. 

The flow of the conversation by that well is as fresh as the living water promised by the Christ. It goes roughly like this:

Jesus: Give me a drink.

Woman: Are you out of your mind?

Jesus: Well, true... if only you knew, you would have asked me for living water.

Woman: Are you mad? How would you get such water?

Jesus: I mean water which will satisfy you for ever.

Woman: I want that!

Jesus: Go call your husband.

Woman: Haven't got one.

Jesus: Correct. You've had five; and the present guy you're not married to.

Woman: You must be a prophet. I can talk religion.

Jesus: Forget religion; God's looking for a people of the Spirit now.

Woman: I guess Messiah will sort all this out.

Jesus: That's me!

Woman: Wait there, I've got to go and tell people!

Dim disciples: Time to eat.

Jesus: More important things than eating are going on here.

Rest of the town: We believe that He really is the Saviour of the whole world!!!

The deep irony of all this wonderful spiritual stuff going on and the disciples plodding in with their packed lunch hang ups while Jesus ignores all social, religious and gender conventions to engage an apparently hopeless outcast, is just mind boggling. The woman at the well has the longest recorded conversation with Jesus, and is thereby a worthy faithful female at this seemingly long halfway point in Lent.

Monday, 19 March 2012

26. Mary Magdalene - involved with Jesus

Myths first: probably not a red head; not a prostitute; almost certainly not married to Christ, or a mother of 'the blood line of the Holy Grail' (oh please...)

So, facts: she accompanied Jesus on his travels and provided for him out of her own means; Jesus cast seven demons out of her; she stayed at the foot of the cross while the men fled, and was the first witness to the resurrection. 

This latter was a big hint that now, in the new age soon to be inaugurated by the gift of the Holy Spirit, women and men would be equal partners in spreading the Good News. To Mary Magdalene even belongs the epithet 'apostle the the apostles' as Jesus gets straight on with urging her to witness to the new resurrection life: 'Do not hold onto me (...) but go instead to my brothers and tell them 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God' (John 20: 17). 

(NB. and he didn't add 'But make sure you don't give systematic bible teaching to gatherings of men or at any point in history preside at the altar, as you are only a woman after all and I am a complementarian not an egalitarian...')

Being delivered of evil spirits, spending your own money on someone who was violently killed; seeing them alive again as they send you out out personally with a special mission - all these add up to a paradigm of discipleship which is about transformative and passionate involvement with Jesus. 

He seems to like it.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

25. Mary - for Mother's Day

Holy ground today. Mary the mother of Jesus, and on Mothering Sunday. There will not be another woman in either the Old or New Testament who has inspired so much devotion, controversy and bitter disagreement amongst believers. It must be something to do with her proximity to God.

And the story is familiar, unlike many we have covered already. Not many people outside (and to an extent, inside) the church have heard of Jael, for instance, or of Phoebe, a splendid New Testament woman (number 40 in our Lent list), but everyone has some handle on the mother of God.

In the light of all this, I feel an imaginative rather than a doctrinal stance might be the best approach, along with a sad acknowledgement that Christians down the ages have, literally, come to blows over how to interpret such a crucial, devout and obedient servant of the Most High.

So, Mary, mother of Christ: 

Surprise; horror; obedience; trust; meditation; delight; childbirth; love; marriage; fear; escape; refugee; housewife; mother; worry; ordinary; extraordinary; prayer; wonder; worry; rejection; fear; pleading; terror; calamity; piercing sorrow; silence; love; trust; prayer; surprise; joy; trust; trust; trust.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

24. Elizabeth - surprise in middle age

I always think of Elizabeth as old, but age is a relative term so although she had given up hope of having children, she may only have been in her forties (by first century Palestine standards, 'old'). She's had to find other outlets for all those maternal longings.

Until a strange day when husband Zechariah returns from Temple duties unable to speak.

Whether this state of affairs was greeted with horror or glee by his wife, we shall never know, but clearly something momentous has happened (BIG angel; son to be born. Must call him John, even though no one in the family has ever been called that before).

Elizabeth receives her unlikely pregnancy with joy not dissimilar to cousin Mary's, who soon makes a visit. How women love to swap pregnancy tales. Yet these two women are to give birth to the entire cosmic salvation plan of God Almighty, no less.

Elizabeth's profound grasp of the new thing that's afoot is caught in her amazing rhetorical question: 'But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?' (Luke 1: 43). 

How does she suddenly equate the God of Israel with this tiny baby inside Mary's womb? It would take most other people an age to grasp; still thousands don't. But Elizabeth knows with a woman's, instinctive, intuitive, embodied, saving knowledge. 

Friday, 16 March 2012

23. Anna - age no barrier

What do we know of Anna, the first of our fabulous females of the New Testament? 

She was a prophetess and lived in the Temple; she 'worshipped night and day, fasting and praying' (Luke 2: 36-8). A role model for Lent then.

The translation of her marital history is unclear - she had either been married for only seven years and was now an 84 year old widow, or was married for seven years and had now been a widow for a further 84 (which would make her over 100...?) Either way, she was more or less now married to God Almighty.

With constant access to the divine, she has no problem recognising Messiah in the baby, Jesus, as his parents bring him to be presented in the Temple, according to Jewish custom.: 'She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem' (Luke 2: 38).

No doubt to everyone else bustling around the Temple courts that day, pigeons squawking, clink of money changing hands, Mary's was just another baby from a poor-ish home, being brought for Jewish dedication, along with all the hopes and fears new parents always carry.

But not to Anna and her male counterpart, Simeon. They were alive to the divine moment, proving that old age is no bar to spiritual discernment and fervent proclamation. In a youth obsessed society, which is simultaneously ageing more than ever before, we could do with more Annas.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Tea Break

A slight break between the Old Testament females and the New Testaments ones today, just to take stock. 

It's been a blast - from the archetypal temptress Eve, who turned out to have faith despite her monumental slip up; through Sarah and other nonagenarians who thought they'd never have children, till God intervened. 

We've seen prostitutes, outsiders and King's mistresses become part of the family line of the Messiah; a feisty turn with a tent peg; a female military leader; women in love; women in war; women in poverty; women in royal palaces. 

Sadly there have been some who were unable to make an appearance due to lack of information, or lack of actual belief in God...

Before we launch into the fabulous females of the New Testament, of which there are number, a moment to consider some other possible unsung heroines:

Mrs Noah: You're building a WHAT???
Mrs Methuselah: Yes, we're celebrating our 900th wedding anniversary today!
Mrs Pharaoh: Those frogs are RUINING the paintwork. Get Moses back here NOW!
Mrs Moses: He's always too busy to spend time with the family...
Mrs Job: Will you please stop picking those scabs before we all catch something?
Delilah: I'm in love with this guy who has religion in, like, HIS HAIR!!!
Mrs Jonah: I can't get the smell of fish out of those trousers whatever I do.

With these wonderful womanly voices echoing down the pages of the OT, we turn to the NT tomorrow...

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

22. Esther - Royal and still faithful

There's a big craze for finding new stars at the moment. 

The show 'How do you solve a problem like Maria' came up with Connie who looked a bit like Julie Andrews; we've had a hunt for the new Joseph, and now the hunt is apparently on for a new Jesus (to star in Lloyd Webber's 'Superstar' musical).

Having sacked Queen Vashti, The King of Persia needs to find a new Queen, so, approx. 2500 years before reality shows, he launches his 'Hunt For A New Submissive Wife' show and a young Jewess called Esther is swept up in the excitement and carried off to the royal palace. Out of all the contestants it appears the King is drawn to her especially. This may have something to do with how delicious she no doubt smells after spending the majority of the last 12 months in the bath with oil of myrrh and other exotic perfumes (Esther 2:12).

But the King has bargained for more than he realises by falling for a Jewish believer. When his new right hand man, the evil Haman, hatches a plot to exterminate the Jews, Queen Esther carries through a successful series of subtle and courageous steps which lift the lid on the genocidal plan. Eventually Haman is hanged on a gallows he had prepared for Esther's uncle and chief advisor, Mordecai.

The Jews are now granted by Royal edict the right to avenge themselves on their enemies (cue rather violent bit) and have ever since celebrated this Jewish heroine in the feast of Purim. Esther's no wilting violet though -  at her suggestion, Haman's ten sons are summarily hanged. So we're not quite at the stage of loving our enemies and praying for all who persecute us then (Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount) but with this story of post Exilic faith, possibly around 460 BC, we approaching ever nearer.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

21. Queen Vashti - early Middle Eastern women's lib

During some very long ago, youthful and enthusiastic marriage preparation classes in our local Anglican church I seem to remember agreeing to 'love, honour and obey' during the wedding liturgy. I figured if someone was prepared to 'love, honour and WORSHIP' me (traditional male equivalent) it was the least I could do. 

In all these years it hasn't honestly been a problem, but then I've never been maritally summoned to appear in front of a lot of drunk male guests during a seven day long banquet (TBH we don't have many dinner parties in our house - we're too busy playing on our iPhones...)

Queen Vashti was lucky in the jewellery department but unlucky in the 'tyrant for a husband' department. At the beginning of the fascinating book of Esther, the ruling Persian King gives a luxurious banquet for all residents of the citadel of Susa. Wine is flowing freely - one is reminded of a similar banquet given by Herod where John the Baptist's head ends up on a plate. Testosterone, power, wealth and alcohol: always a bad mix. 

But there's something missing from this awesome display of the King's possessions - one more beautiful 'thing' to bring in and parade in front of all and sundry. Ah, that'll be the wife.

Unfortunately 'the wife' has also been having a banquet for the women. You know what it's like when women get together...'Did you hear how he treats her????????????'

Perhaps newly empowered, Vashti is in no mood to be bossed around. When summoned to appear before her husband, she simply says no. And all hell breaks loose. This is a scandal! We must have female submission!! POWER TO HUSBANDS!!! MARITAL OBEDIENCE IN ALL PERSIAN HOUSEHOLDS!!!! Etc. etc.

Whatever the culture, whatever her motive, I can't help feeling sympathetic. A stand for women's liberation?

The interesting thing from a narrative point of view, is that the stage is now set for a new Queen....To be continued...

Monday, 12 March 2012

20. The Shulammite - the madness of love

It's all got a bit hot and steamy around here. We're deep in imagery of fruit and spices. We can smell pomegranates, cinnamon, wine, lilies and incense, as we enter the book Song of Songs today to find 'the Shulammite', a young maiden in the time of King Solomon, as enraptured with her lover as he is with her.

'You're looking nice today' is not part  of their vocabulary. Oh no. Try instead:

'Your graceful legs are like jewels,     
the work of a craftsman's hands. 
Your naval is a rounded goblet 
that never lacks blended wine' 
(Song of Songs 7:2). 

Better stop there.

It is a no holds barred celebration of erotic love, though they have their little 'moments', as do most couples. It's always in the timing isn't it? 

She longs for him in her dreams. She gets up to look for him and finds only the city watchmen. Then at last there he is, to be taken lovingly back to her home. At last he can enjoy her 'garden'... 

Another time he looks for her, banging on her door at night  ('it's damp out here, let me in...') but she's not in the mood ('I have taken off my robe - must I put it on again? I have washed my feet - must I soil them again?' (5: 2-3).)

Then all of a sudden she is in the mood: 'I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh (...) on the handles of the lock...' (OOOHHH, the suspense....) but he's given up and gone home. She's distraught (of course).

It's a hymn of praise to normal, bodily, chaotic, unpredictable, frustrating, exhilarating, exhausting, death defying LURRRRVE.

Amen to that. 

Sunday, 11 March 2012

19. Bathsheba - beauty and the bath

The thing about having a completely square house in a hot country is that you can use the flat roof for, say, hiding people on, or for outdoor parties, or even for taking a bath...

...which is what the beautiful Bathsheba is doing when she is spotted by King David in the cool of a spring evening (hey, even her name contains the word bath). He is missing the action - everyone else is away at the wars - including Bathsheba's husband...

I am ashamed to say David feels bored of his other wives...

He takes one more peek and sends for Bathsheba...

Quite shortly afterwards, David succeeds in breaking the 6th, 7th, 9th and 10th Commandments, getting Bathsheba pregnant and having her husband killed.

Is Bathsheba complicit? It is difficult to tell. I think not. Is it rape? Hard to tell. Maybe. Awkward to refuse the King...

However, judgement falls on David, though of course she suffers too. After a hasty marriage, their love child is born and dies. They then have another who becomes the most famous and blessed King of Israel, wise...until foreign wives ruin him...

So for the dubious pleasure of being first mistress, then mother, to a powerful King.

Here's to Bathsheba.

And to the prudence of taking a bath indoors.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

18. The Shunammite - hope and disappointment

We are told the Shunammite woman was 'well to do'. She seems to have had that wonderful gift of hospitality which can so bless other people. It blesses the prophet Elisha, for whom she sets up a small room in her house, with a bed, table, chair and lamp, so that he can be assured of a welcome and somewhere safe to stay on his many travels through the Israelite countryside.

Elisha desires to offer something in return and, being aware of her childlessness, predicts that she will soon have a son. This tests her faith severely - she can't believe it will come to pass. It's not that she doesn't want it - she wants it too much. Better not to hope than to be disappointed, surely?

She gives birth within the year.

But 'the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away', as the King James renders Job 1:21...A few years later the boy is in the field and suffers some sort of seizure. He is carried to his mother, in whose arms he dies shortly afterwards.

See, it's better not to have loved, than to have loved and lost. She was right.........

The Shunammite goes immediately to Elisha with what is essentially a spiritual battle raging inside her. Before God's unlooked for gift she had got used to that ache of childlessness. Why raise her hopes only to dash them? 'Did I ask you for a son?', she rages at the prophet. 'Didn't I tell you, don't raise my hopes?' (2 kings 4:28).

Elisha attempts a healing from a distance, sending his servant with his staff to lay on top of the boy. This doesn't work, so they all tumble into the house together and, leaving the others outside the door, Elisha goes in and lays his own warm body on top of the boy's cold one. Twice, pacing up and down the room in between. The boy sneezes seven times and opens his eyes.

The Shunammite is speechless. Those we love are in His gift always. We cannot control hope.  

Friday, 9 March 2012

17. The widow at Zarephath - when the food runs out

Evil rulers bring bad consequences for everyone under them. We all know this. In the Old Testament, national sin and drought appear to be linked, which is very bad news if you are a widow whose crops have utterly failed. Countless poverty stricken people across the world attest to this. Famine, to be honest, tests even the most ardent believer in a good and just God.

But God provides doesn't he? Even in famine? That's pretty difficult.

Elijah is wandering through famine torn Israel, trying not to bump into evil King Ahab, when God commands him to go to a widow in Zarephath. What use is that going to be? This widow has nothing much to offer, humanly speaking; only a small jar of flour and a jug of oil. She is a poor creature, gathering a few sticks to go home and bake for the last time. Beyond this lies starvation.

Surely you can do better than this, God? Can't you send Elijah, the mighty prophet, to the house of a great military leader, or at least to the home of a wealthier person who has some spare food stored up? And can't you just send the rain anyway?

But God is God and has his own timing. Man does not live by bread alone...He has noticed this starving widow, a non-Israelite. To her and to her alone comes the word of the Lord through Elijah: 'The jar of flour will not run out and the jug of oil will not run dry before God sends rain on the land and ends this drought' (1 Kings 17: 14).

As long as Elijah, the man of God, stays in her house, the miraculous provision of God continues, even extending to her son who dies and is brought back to life by the prophet. In the severest of testing times, her faith holds up; 'Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth' (v. 24).

So whilst at the very top of social ladder there is evil; at the very bottom there is obedient faith.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

16. Abigail - had her wits about her

A great story today, celebrating the quick-thinking, initiative-taking, prudent and peace-loving Abigail.

Here we have David, handsome son of Jesse and anointed king, though at present still wandering the countryside with his band of men and a lot of sheep. 

Here also we have a fool called Nabal - 'surly and mean in his dealings', married to Abigail.

Now it's a hard slog out in the open country - for a while, David's and Nabal's flocks have been in close proximity and there's been no trouble, so David now sends a friendly message to Nabal, asking for a little hospitality.

Nabal sends back a rude message; David gets into a steam and all of a sudden, there are 400 of David's fighting men bearing down on Nabal's home. Honestly - these hot blooded men.

Cue Abigail. 

Tactical and courageous, she immediately organises a massive charm offensive, saddling donkeys with delicacies of fruit, wine and meat, and sets off to meet David and his troops in the mountain ravine. David is still breathing blood and thunder, swearing he will not leave a single male of Nabal's company alive by morning. Abigail falls at David's feet asking for mercy and pleading Nabal's stupidity. She cannily also suggests that this is a divine opportunity for David to be spared from avenging himself by bloodshed. David is impressed, sees her sense and accepts the gifts, saying 'May you be blessed for your good judgement (...) go home in peace' (1 Samuel 25: 33, 35).

A Hollywood ending has Nabal die shortly afterwards and David taking Abigail for his wife. 

What it would be like being married to David the hothead I am not sure ('you've put the tent pegs WHERE????') but I expect she managed admirably.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

15. Hannah - Is heaven silent?

Hannah: Lord, I've been married a while now. It would be wonderful if I could get pregnant soon.

God: I know.

Hannah: Lord, still nothing happening. Please may it be that I soon get pregnant.

God: I have plans.

Hannah: Lord. it's not fair; my rival is pregnant and I'm sure Elkanah will love her more than me now.

God: Peace!

Hannah: LORD!! She's having another baby...what about me? COME ON!!

God: Patience.

Hannah: I can't bear it Lord. Every time we go to offer the annual sacrifice, I am humiliated by my emptiness, and that other woman mocks me. I want to weep. I dream about babies. Why don't you answer my prayer? What's the point in believing if you never do anything??

God: I am.

Hannah: I don't care if the priest hears me. What if he thinks I'm drunk? I'm drunk with grief. I am desolate. I am barren. Elkanah thinks I'm obsessed. Surely the love of a good husband should be enough, but I want to be a mother. Otherwise my life is not worth living. God, why don't you listen? Why don't you answer? Why don't you give me a child? If you give me a child, I promise he will be dedicated to you for the whole of his life.

God: I hear.

Hannah: Samuel!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance. Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed...he raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap...

(1 Samuel 1 and 2.)

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

14. Ruth - a love story

I never thought I'd fall in love again. When my first husband died I was still young, and childless. My only comfort was my mother in law, Naomi. At least I had her. She wanted to return to her own people, so I went too. I chose her people and her God and so we came wearily to Bethlehem just as the barley harvest was beginning. Poverty was our a daily reality but the field where I gleaned was owned by someone kind. He told the men not to molest me and to let more stalks fall for me as they gathered. I often went home with double. Naomi was curious so I told her about Boaz. I think 'glint in her eye' might be an apt phrase.

I thought I knew my position - a foreign immigrant, lower than Boaz's servants, but he continued to show me favour. Naomi had a plan. Boaz was a distant relation of her dead husband's. She thought he might be persuaded to act as our kinsman redeemer. It would mean redeeming the land she used to own before the famine forced her away. But it would also mean 'redeeming' me in marriage. The more I though about Boaz the better I liked the plan. It just crept up on me. Yes he was older, but a good man. He spoke to me so gently. He was loving. He would make a good father. Could it be possible?

I did everything Naomi said. I can't say I wasn't afraid. Women didn't go to the threshing floor after dark. The harvesters were in high spirits. Eventually people drifted away and Boaz lay down to sleep. I waited a while then crept over, uncovered his blanket and lay down at his feet. I couldn't sleep a wink. It was the middle of the night when he suddenly started and woke up to find me there too, under the covers with him! To say he was startled would be an understatement! A young foreign woman, there in his bed, signalling marriage. He took me seriously though: 'The Lord bless you, my daughter. This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier. You have not run after the younger men (...) don't be afraid. I will do for you all that you ask.' 

After that it all happened so fast. We were married. The baby came along. I blessed the God of Israel. The first person to cradle him, after me, was Naomi. I made sure of that.