July 25, 2010

Ordinary Time Excursion-Deborah

Deborah is not an Old Testament figure I’ve ever given much thought to. However, she is an interesting person. She listened to the leading of God and obeyed even though she did not expect to receive recognition in return.

Her story is found in the Old Testament Book of Judges, chapters 4 and 5. She is the fourth of the ‘judges’ (usually military leaders) of Israel during the years between the conquest of Canaan and the anointing of Saul. This is approximately 1200-900 BCE. Deborah probably led the people around 1100. During this time the Israelites were living among and harassed by the people of the land—the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites among others. They were often tempted to stray after the local deities and were then punished by oppression until “the people cried to the Lord” who “raised up a deliverer.”

During the time of Deborah, “the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor.” (Archeological evidence has been found for Hazor and for Jabin!) Unlike the male ‘judges’ she was actually a prophetess who “used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel.” Obviously Deborah was also known for her ability to judge wisely because “the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.” (Judges 4:5)

Seemingly out of the blue, Deborah “summoned Barak…and said to him “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you…gather your men…and I will give [Sisera, Jabin’s general] to meet you.” Then something surprising happens. Barak tells Deborah, “…if you will not go with me, I will not go.” (Judges 4:6-8) Doesn’t that strike you as odd? A man who insists that a woman accompany him into battle!

So Deborah goes with Barak, warning him “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” (Judges 4:9) Deborah was wise to call Barak as a military leader. She advises him to wait on the heights of Mount Tabor for the army of Sisera. “Even with the 900 chariots of iron and all the men that were with him,” Sisera could not stand against the 10,000 men of Israel attacking from above. (Judges 4:14) Barak and Sisera meet in battle and “all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword…But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite.” (Judges 4:16-17)

Jael fulfills the prophecy of Deborah. After Sisera falls asleep in the tent, she “took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, till it went down into the ground.” (Judges 4:21) Who says the Bible is all sweetness and light? Barak comes looking for Sisera and Jael shows him the body. “So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel.” (Judges 4:24)

Deborah and Barak raise a song that glorifies God and honors the two women instrumental in the victory, Deborah and Jael. “…you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel…. Most blessed of women be Jael…So perish all thine enemies, O Lord!” (Judges 5:7, 24, 31) Then the “land had rest for 40 years.”

The song of victory echoes Psalm 37, which proclaims, “But the wicked perish, and the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away. The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving; for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off.” (Vs. 20-22)

Deborah received honor for her role in delivering Israel, although she was an advisor in the background rather than the military hero. How often do we try to be noticed for the things we do? Deborah did not act until she knew what God wanted her to do. Then she was secure enough in her role to inform Barak that the final victory would not be his, but would go to a (lowly and foreign) woman.

Jesus reminds us to “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26) Whether it is a sparrow or this odd waterfowl at our local lake, God provides what they need. The birds do not worry about 'getting it right' or 'doing the best ministry.' The birds simply live and accept God's loving bounty. Like them and like Deborah, who listened to God’s leading and delivered the people of Israel, we should “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) The Psalm states, "the righteous are generous and keep giving." We give of ourselves best when we listen to God's guidance.

This week, in the midst of the heat of summer, might be a good time to stop and consider how much we, like Deborah, listen to God vs. how many times we try to do ministry in our own strength. I know that is something I need to meditate on.

Next week, come back to see what Miriam bat Amram can tell us about healing—physical and spiritual.

July 18, 2010

Ordinary Time Excursion-Rachel and Leah

Rachel is one of the better known women of the Bible. She is the beloved, chosen wife of Jacob. After he cheats his brother out of the birthright (the inheritance) his mother sends him to her brother in Haran. Laban has 2 daughters, Rachel whom he loves and Leah who had “weak eyes”.

Rachel’s father, Laban, tricks Jacob into marrying Leah and gains another 7 years of labor from Jacob as payment to marry Rachel. “Jacob went in to Rachel…and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.” (Genesis 29:30) Even with Jacob’s love, though, Rachel is discontented because she is unable to have children. Her sister, Leah, seems to have them easily. Rachel becomes angry and complains to her husband, “Give me children, or I shall die.” (Genesis 30:1) Like Sarah (who we met a month ago), Rachel takes matters into her own hands and offers her maid Bilhah to Jacob.

Thus begins the wild rivalry between the sisters. “Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive,” says Sir Walter Scott. One wonders if Jacob was aware of the manipulation going on between his wives as they vie for his attention.

“When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob.” (Gen. 30:9) Leah ‘buys’ a night with Jacob from Rachel in exchange for mandrakes (thought to promote fertility). Even when Rachel does conceive and Joseph is born, she yearns for another son. She names him Joseph, saying “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Genesis 30:24) A few years later, she does have a second son, Benjamin, but never has the joy of this child because she dies in childbirth near Bethlehem. (Genesis 35:16-21)

The seeds of the rivalry between the sisters bear dreadful fruit when Leah’s sons rise up against the favored half-brother, Joseph. Their original plan is to kill him, but instead he is sold into slavery. Ultimately Joseph rises to power in Egypt and saves the nation and his family from an extended time of famine. (Genesis 39-49)

Eventually, both Joseph and Leah come to the realization that their lives are part of God’s plan and that even the trials they suffered were for good. In my book, Beloved Leah, she tells her sons,

“My sons, you are all my sons, though I didn’t bear you all. I have raised you and watched you grow into good men, true husbands and loving fathers. Do not forget the God of Israel, your father, when you are in Egypt. Remember and teach your children how He showed grace by redeeming your anger and restoring your brother to you. Joseph has forgiven you. Accept that gift. My God has forgiven you as he has forgiven me. Do not be afraid. Trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has promised to bring you back to this land as a mighty nation. Let go of the remaining fear and grudges against your brother. Do not continue to blame yourselves. The mighty hand of God has turned our evil designs and anger to great good for all.”

Isn’t it interesting that God transforms even our lies and manipulation into a harvest of fruit for the Kingdom of Heaven? God took the jealous rage of the sisters and their sons and used it to save a people and create a “kingdom of priests to serve our God.” (Exodus 19:6, Is. 61:6, Rev. 5:10)

If God can take our less than charitable actions and transform them into good—how much more blessed will our truly loving actions be? Jesus said, “‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and 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.’” (Matthew 10:40-42)

How can we live so that our actions bring blessings? Sir Walter Scott suggests that “A sound head, an honest heart, and an humble spirit are the three best guides through time and to eternity.” Psalm 37 (18-19) says, "The LORD knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will abide for ever; they are not put to shame in evil times, in the days of famine they have abundance.”

Is it possible that living as a blessing is simply a matter of welcoming Jesus in everyone we meet? We don’t have to do anything grand, even a cup of water can be a blessing to someone. There is a ‘cup’ only you can give. Perhaps it's a real cup of water, or a kindness, or an action, or a donation, or a smile, or something else.

What legacy will you leave behind? Can you share a ‘cup of water’ with someone this week?

Next week we will meet Deborah, a leader of Israel, even though she was a woman.

July 11, 2010

Ordinary Time Excursion-Naomi

This week we meet Naomi. She is a main character in the Book of Ruth. It is easy to think of her as a tragic figure. As a childless widow in a foreign country (Moab), Naomi was indeed destitute, even though her daughters-in-law offer to stay with her. Naomi gallantly tells the young women to return to their fathers’ homes. Ruth refuses with the famous lines often used at weddings, “where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 2:16)

Together the two women travel to Bethlehem and are welcomed with surprise. In her anger against God, Naomi changes her name and turns her back on the Lord. She tells everyone, “Do not call me Naomi , call me Mara , for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty…the Lord has afflicted me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” [Naomi means Pleasant, while Mara means Bitter]

When bad things happen we automatically blame God or assume that God is punishing us. I’ve done it myself. However, in hindsight, I see that God has been walking right beside me—grieving, hurting, despairing, suffering with me. Naomi was hurting and angry because her sons and husband had died in a foreign country, leaving her alone and impoverished. Coming home to Bethlehem, at first, did not seem to have improved her situation.

The laws of Israel provide that the edges of the fields are to be left for the widows and orphans to glean. Ruth offers to go glean so that she and Naomi will have food. Coincidentally, the field belongs to Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s. Someone has said that coincidences are God acting anonymously and that is what happens in this story.

Naomi notices that Boaz is interested in Ruth and advises her how to ‘force his hand’. “Wash…and anoint yourself…go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking…observe the place where he lies…uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” (Ruth 3:3-4)

Even while manipulating the situation, Naomi begins to understand that Psalm 34, verses 16-17 is right. “Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked. For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.” She starts to understand God’s providence in the events that follow.

Boaz does marry Ruth and she bears a son. Naomi is comforted for her losses by her grandson and the neighbors tell her, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin…he shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has born him.” (Ruth 4:14-15).

Naomi has come full circle physically and spiritually. She is back in Bethlehem. She is no longer the destitute widow. She has been restored to faith by God. In my book, Naomi’s Joy, it takes time for Naomi to come to the crisis of faith that brings her back to the comfort of God.

“I needed to blame the Almighty for my grief. I told myself that God took what I loved because I had done something wrong or because I was not thankful enough. All my life I hated I AM. I never dared trust that I would be cared for. If I failed in any way I was certain that I would be punished. When Elimelech died I knew I was right. I told myself that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob turned away when we left the Promised Land. After Adah’s death I was sure that the Holy One hated me because I allowed her to marry a foreigner.” I panted as the confession poured out through my sobs. “I hated my life enough to die.”

“Mother Naomi,” [Ruth] held me tight unable to respond to my words.

“I was wrong. The Living Lord did not desert me.” I spoke low as comprehension burst into my heart. Tears I could not stop rolled down my face. “You once said that the Holy One of Israel provides healing even for death and pain. Ever since my father died from the bite of the serpent I have been angry with God. Everything that went wrong was another reason to blame the Lord of Life…I raised my head and took my friend’s hands in my own. “It is in relationship with one another and with God we can all live in freedom no matter what our circumstances. Your loyalty and steadfast faith in God are all that kept me alive even when I have refused to be free. All my life I preferred rage. The Almighty never stopped providing help and comfort. Even in the depths of my despair, a way was opened to return to Bethlehem…”

Very often it takes me a while to understand why I am struggling against allowing God to love me during some ‘trial’. When I am in the midst of difficult times, God does not leave me. When I accept the reality that I am hurting and/or angry about a situation, I find that I can then let it go and allow God to take over. Only then do I find a resolution, rarely one I would have planned.

Naomi could not have planned for Boaz to fall in love with Ruth when she came back to Bethlehem angry and bitter. God’s plan was better and bigger than leaving the two widows to struggle against poverty for the rest of their lives. God’s plan included a future that led to the Kingdom of David and centuries later to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Is there something you need to admit or accept and let go to God so you can be embraced by God’s loving arms? God patiently waits until we are ready to return. We are always surprised that God is right there all along! Only after Naomi admitted that she used God as an excuse for her anger could she heal. Let go of your own hurts and let God begin to heal your heart.

Next week, we will see what Rachel can teach us about grief.

July 4, 2010

Fourth of July 2010

Happy Birthday USA.

Whenever I hear the National Anthem I get an image in my mind of Francis Scott Key, essentially a prisoner on a British frigate during the bombardment of Ft. McHenry while the British were attacking Baltimore during the War of 1812. Key was on board HMS Tonnant negotiating the release of some American prisoners of war. Although ‘officially’ he was guest of the commanding officers, Key and the Prisoner Exchange Agent, Col. John Skinner, were not allowed to return to their own boat because of the imminent attack.

Watching the bombardment and wondering at the outcome, Key was inspired to write the lines we know so well. We hear them at the beginning of every sporting event, but I wonder how often we stop and think about the origin and meaning.

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

History shows that America won the War of 1812—fought over trading rights and against the ‘pressing’ of Americans into service in the British Navy (essentially a form of kidnapping and forced service). The victory solidified feelings of national pride and at the same time resulted in good relations with Britain. The song itself wasn’t accepted as the National Anthem until 1931!

Probably Francis Scott Key did not think of Psalm 37 at all, but verses 12-15 certainly could have applied to his situation: “The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them; but the LORD laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming. The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly; their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.”

There are 3 other verses to the Anthem. The middle two are rarely heard* (they are heavy with an undercurrent of anti-British sentiment), but sometimes the last verse is sung. It is a reminder that indeed “In God is our trust”.

O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand,
Between their lov'd homes and the war's desolation;
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust"
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

This Fourth of July may we indeed remember Who we must to look to for guidance. The “Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us a nation” is the same “LORD who laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming.” It is easy to become prideful and forget that we, as a people of God, are charged to act responsibly in this “land of the free and home of the brave.”

Have a safe and happy celebration. Next week we will walk with Naomi who learns that God waits until we are ready to ‘let go and let God’.

*On the shore dimly seen thro' the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.