Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The packing tape ate my homework

My home is a jungle of cardboard and dust.
My life is a bundle of prickly-pointed change.
And, my heart is not big enough to take it all in.

Tomorrow, my husband and I begin a weekend road-trip with all of our furry clan: Oliver, Cooper, Jezebel, Elijah, and Jonah. We are following a giant moving truck carrying all of our worldly goods as they are transplanted from Fairfield, Texas to Hamilton, Ohio.

I do not anticipate being able to post anything new for a few days, especially since I am writing another sermon to be preached upon my return to school on Tuesday.

If you think of us, please pray for the safety and strength of our four-footed entourage. And, for me, as I attempt to be a good student and faithful friend while undergoing a drastic life-change.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Break up the frozen sea

The following is a good word on books from Franz Kafka. The next time we want to reach for the latest quick-fix, self-help book, or the best-selling "Christian" novella, or volume number 28 in the Left Behind series, let's think about his words.

With so little time in life and so much left to learn, why would we settle for something mindless and unchallenging?

"If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside of us."
- Franz Kafka

Monday, October 22, 2007

Justice for a Whore (Gen 38): Final Draft

I will deliver this first person narrative sermon on Wednesday, October 24. Please pray for me. I appreciate the many constructive comments offered by my readers and I thank you for taking the time to do so. I hope that my rendering of Tamar's story is faithful to God's word and evocative of the truth within it.
-------------------------
Justice for a Whore: A Sermon from Genesis 38

Righteousness.
Vindication.
Justice.

Such clean, uncluttered words—such dignified, uncomplicated ideals. But, I was a woman, a widow—a childless widow. Dignity and simplicity did not exist for me. Justice does not dwell in a home as messy and filthy as mine. Of this I was certain.

Word of Judah’s arrival in Timnah reached me in the early morning. I was knotting my hair beneath a black scarf when the voice of a servant girl interrupted my thoughts. “Judah is coming! You’re father-in-law Judah is coming to Timnah!”

My heart stung sharply with angst. It had been so long since I returned to father’s household that I had almost forgotten Judah’s promise. Month after month of compounded shame and grief had covered his words like a scab. Suddenly, the flesh was ripped open and I remembered: “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son, Shelah, grows up.” I had been obedient. I had waited for him to send for me, yet word from Judah never came.

But, what could I do? A twice-widowed woman confronting the patriarch of a powerful clan? Impossible. Such things are not done. So, I remained quietly in my father’s house, enduring their resentment and disdain for my childlessness, content to forsake all thoughts of remarriage. But, when I heard the words that Judah was on his way, something stirred within me.

As the freshly exposed wound of my abandonment met the heat of the glaring sun, my heart was ignited with a desperate desire for justice. In that moment I resolved to meet Judah in Timnah and present him with my grievances. If necessary, I would throw myself at his feet and beg for mercy. I had to try. I had to do something.

Removing my well-worn widows garments, I wrapped myself in the amber-hued robes of my sister. Before I left, I retrieved a sepia scarf and covered my face as well. Comforted by the privacy of anonymity, I set out for Timnah. Although the walk was arduous in the desert sun, I was happy for the delay. With every step, I summoned long buried memories and became ever more certain of what I must do.

Er and I were married when I was barely a woman. With four girls in the family, my father was relieved to be rid of me, like a mule unloading a heavy burden. Judah’s clan was large and prosperous. I anticipated a demanding life, but I was naïve enough in my youth to hope for a measure of happiness—children, grandchildren, and maybe even the love of my husband.

Our first night together, I was overcome by melancholy and fear, like many new brides. I wept in our marriage bed. But, Er was displeased with my tear-stained, swollen face. He had one purpose for me that night and consolation did not play a part. The next morning, I was still awake when the dawn peeked into the folds of our tent. As Er snored steadily beside me, I hugged my knees and trembled, dismayed at what the coming years would bring.

The months that followed were filled with misery. My only consolation was the hope that I would conceive a son. But, Er’s displeasure with me never lifted and he rarely called me to his bed. He preferred to play upon the fearful innocence of our servant girls. When they found him dead in the fields one day, I felt no grief for him. I could barely bring myself to wail with the rest of the women. But, as I howled in anguish, I begged God to rescue me from childless shame.

Judah gave me to Er’s brother, Onan, while I was still in mourning. Even though I was his second wife, Judah thought he would do what was right and provide a son for me in Er’s stead. I was grateful for Judah’s concern. A son would remove my disgrace and preserve my place in the family. Yet, our first night together, without a single word, Onan made it clear that he had no intention of fathering my child. He used my body for pleasure and then refused to finish the act. The shame was almost unbearable.

Still, a part of me clung to a shred of hope that one day he would change his mind. If I submitted to his desires, if I served him with enthusiasm, if I helped with his other children, perhaps eventually he would give me a child. The day never came. Even now I shudder imagining those hands touching me, taking my body in greedy lust, yet refusing to care for me as a husband. His perverted overtures of lovemaking were worse than rape. I was vulnerable and defenseless. I was completely dependent upon him to relieve my shame and secure my status. I needed him and he used me.

One morning, Onan didn’t rise at the normal hour and I was sent to retrieve him. When he didn’t respond to my voice, I knelt near his shoulders and shook him. When his head rolled lifelessly to the side, I knew he was dead. My gut was flooded with a mixture of horror and relief. He was gone. The monster was gone. But, I was widowed. Again. And, I still didn’t have a son.

With this second death, a great battle was waged in my soul. How could this happen to me? Two dead husbands and no children. Two dead husbands and no children! I won’t deny it: I hated my husbands while they lived. But, I hated them more, dead. How could they do this to me? They left me alone, childless, with a hostile family watching my every move. They looked at me through squinted eyes, like I was a hidden pest, a secret plague. At times, my feelings matched their suspicions. What have I done wrong? Am I cursed? Have I offended God? I could not escape the questions or the fear.

Everyone knew the right thing was for Judah to give me to his last son. It was an unspoken assumption—the way to carry on the family name and care for me. Although Shelah was younger than I, the other women held him in high esteem. They speculated with me that he would finally relieve my disgrace.

But, after losing two sons to me, I guess Judah’s compassion ran out. He said it was because of Shelah’s youth. “Wait for him to grow up,” he said. Sure. Whatever you say. The old man forgot that I had bedded two of his wicked offspring. I was disgraced and humiliated, but I was not a fool. But, what could I do? To what court could I appeal? Who would execute justice for the childless widow? No man on earth would hear my case. So, I left Judah’s family with muffled rage burning in my chest. And, my father had to take me. The mule had received back his heavy burden.

So, there I was, sitting at the gate to Timnah, watching the horizon. As the dust-filled wind swept through the folds of my robes, once again I voiced a desperate plea to God. Righteousness. Vindication. Justice. “Please, God. Please.”

I spotted Judah’s form from far away. As he came near, I observed that the lines in his face were deeper and his hair had grayed considerably. His steps slowed as they approached the gate and my heart thudded a deafening drumbeat.

When he was very close, Judah stopped and studied what he could see of my face. Even with my face down, I could feel his eyes drifting up and down my body. My stomach clenched. Surely he would recognize me. Surely he would remember me. But then what? What would I say to him? How could I explain myself? Oh, why did I decide to come to Timnah? I stared at the dirt willing him to walk on, but Judah stood firmly and spoke: “Come on, let me sleep with you.”

What? What did he say? What was he asking? Then it dawned on me: he thinks I’m a prostitute. He doesn’t recognize me at all. He thinks I’m a whore! All visions of confronting Judah with his injustice vanished from my mind. What would I answer? What could I say to such an insult?

My mind struggled to form a response, but only one thing came to mind: You were no more than a whore in his home. What a terrible thought, but it was true. Maybe in our time together Judah will recognize me, and the shame will overwhelm him. Perhaps the payment he will give me can relieve some of my poverty. Or, maybe, just maybe, since Judah will not give me a husband, in his foolishness he will give me a son.

My throat convulsed with the thought of submitting to Judah’s lust, but I knew I had a small opportunity. Now is my chance. Now is the time to act.

“What will you give me as payment for time in my bed?” My stomach shuddered with the sound of my own boldness. “How about a young goat from my flocks?” he answered. “How do I know you’ll pay me? You’ll have to give me a guarantee until you send it.” “I can do that. What do you want?”

I regretted my audacity almost immediately. How can I play the whore with my father-in-law? I was panicked to reverse my course, so I requested the one thing I knew he would refuse: “I want your signet, your cord, and your staff.” These emblems of his authority were prized possessions. He would sooner lose a hand than give over these things to a prostitute. But, would you believe it? He agreed. He hurriedly gathered the items and held them out to me. My eyes wide with shock, but I reached out and took them. The decision was made.

Mercifully, our time together was brief. My heart was pricked when he spoke of the death of his wife. But, I never summoned the courage to reveal myself to him. And, amazingly, he never realized who I was. I suppose I wasn’t striking enough for him to notice.

When he left my side to retrieve my payment, I was overcome by what I had done. I scrambled myself together and ran almost the entire way back to my tent, still clutching Judah’s things. As my heart slowed its pounding in my chest, I permitted myself a sad smile. What would Judah think when he returned with his goat and found nothing but an empty room? Poor fool.

I knew soon after our encounter that something had happened. I was becoming ill in the mornings and I was sleeping more than usual. When the time for my uncleanness passed twice without blood, I knew. Of course, my secret could not remain my secret for long. As my belly began to protrude in my robes, the rumors swirled.

My family ignored me for a time, avoiding the truth; but finally, my mother confronted me with flashing eyes. She spitted insults and slapped me and accused me of fornication. How could I shame them? What was I thinking? I know that I should have feared for myself, for my child, for my family’s reputation. But, I didn’t care. I was carrying a child. God had heard my whispered pleas.

News of my state finally reached my father-in-law. In our world, my condition was an even greater shame to him. When his servants came to retrieve me, they dragged me from my tent like an animal. They spit at my feet and cursed me for whoring. They warned of the fiery punishment that awaited me. How strange it was. The one who sentenced me to a life of childless disgrace wanted to avenge his humiliation.

But, as their jeering faces and violent hands threatened to bruise my soul, a small voice inside me whispered that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Despite their fury, I begged one of them to carry a message to Judah. Perhaps the strangeness of my words and the intensity of my gaze convinced him. “Tell Judah that the father of my child is the owner of these.”

As he walked away, defiant pride stirred within me. Call me a whore. Spit on the adulterer. Burn me alive, if you want. Within me grows the proof of God’s vindication. If mother and child die today, God has justified me. God, who has the power to open and close the womb, has proven that I am in the right.

By the time I arrived in Judah’s presence, it was clear that he had gotten my message. I was forced to my knees before him and he looked upon me as if in a daze. I was covered in gritty sand, my hair loose and wild, and my eyes narrow and accusing. He didn’t recognize me before, but he knew me now.

Even in my defiance, I knew I was at his mercy. Nothing passed his lips, but I watched the memories flash in his brain like lightening. No one else knew our secret. He could pretend nothing happened and order me to be burned. My lover could become my executioner in one word.

Holding out the signet, cord, and staff to me with trembling hands, the powerful patriarch struggled for words. “I did not give you my son, Shelah. You are more righteous than I.”

Yes, you heard rightly. Judah declared me, me, righteous. At first, we all stared at him in shock and disbelief. But, when he lifted me from the ground, it became clear that he was telling the truth. I was not punished. I was not sent back to my father’s house. I was not shamed or harassed or scorned any longer. From that day forward I began a new life as an honored widow in Judah’s household. What a different kind of life. What a relief from pain and sorrow.

When the time for birth arrived, I had twins: Perez and Zerah. Judah was their father, but he never shared my bed again. At last, I found joy and comfort in a life of quiet motherhood.

So, what do you think of Tamar’s story? Yes, I used sex to get what I wanted. I played the whore with my father-in-law. But, of course, that’s not the really shocking part. The scandal is that I was not alone in my endeavor.

There are many women like me. You avoid their eyes. They do not have a voice because they do not have power. You overlook their stories, because they are scandalous and uncomfortable. But, now you know the truth. Justice does dwell in a home as messy and filthy as mine. God used desperation and foolishness to extract justice. God worked in bitterness and pain to give me sons. God brought forth honor from the depths of desolate widowhood. And, incredibly, scandalously, God who chose me, me and my embarrassing, dirty story, to bring forth the Messiah.

Whatever you think of me, whatever you think of all my suffering sisters, remember: God performs justice. Even for a widow. Even for a whore.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Prayer of a "Doctor of the Church"

St. Teresa of Avila was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1622. For her writings and teaching on prayer, Teresa was given the title "Doctor of the Church" in 1970, one of two women given this honor. During her lifetime, Teresa did not have widespread acceptance, but often labored against misunderstanding and misogyny from her male superiors. Many Protestant women find in her inspiration as a woman, spiritual leader in an often hostile context. The following is one of her prayers.

I live, yet no true life I know,
And, living thus expectantly,
I die because I do not die.

Since this new death in life
Estranged from self my life has been,
For now I live a life unseen:
The Lord has claimed me as His own.
My heart I gave Him for His throne,
Whereon He wrote indelibly:
"I die because I do not die."

Within this prison house divine,
Prison of love whereby I live,
My God Himself to me doth give,
And liberate this heart of mine,
And, as with love I yearn and pine,
With God my prisoner I sigh:
"I die because I do not die."

How tedious is this life below,
This exile with its grief and pains.
This dungeon and these cruel chains
In which the soul is forced to go!
Straining to leave this life of woe,
With anguish sharp and deep I cry:
"I die because I do not die."

How bitter our existence ere
We come at last the Lord to meet!
For, though the soul finds loving sweet,
The waiting time is hard to bear.
Oh, from this leaden weight of care,
My God relieve me speedily,
Who die because I do not die.

I only live because I know
That death and hope is all the more secure
Since death and life together go.
death, thou life-creator, lo!
I wait upon thee, come thou nigh:
I die because I do not die.

Consider, life, love's potency
And cease to cause me grief and pain.
Reflect, I beg, that, thee to gain,
I first must lose thee utterly.
Then, death, come pleasantly to me.
Come softly: undismayed am I
Who die because I do not die.

That life, with life beyond recall,
Is truly life for evermore:
Until this present life be over
We cannot savor life at all.
So, death, retreat not at my call,
For life through death I can descry
Who die because I do not die.

O life, what service can I pay
Unto my God who lives in me
Save if I first abandon thee
That I may merit thee for aye?
Such yearning for my Spouse have I,
Dying because I do not die.

(The above photo is of the famed work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstacy of St. Teresa, which is based upon the account of her interaction with an angel when she was awakened to a fiery, consuming love for God.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

I love my Grandpa

There are a lot of changes taking place in my life right now. As I conclude my graduate degree from Truett Seminary and prepare to move to Cincinnati, Ohio, I find myself reflecting over the past few years. One event in particular stands out as a source of great pain: the loss of my grandfather last December.

Hugh Edward Hunter,* or Grandpa, was my primary father figure for most of my life. He lived with my family from my early adolescence until his death. He was a WWII veteran, a geologist, a professor, a university administrator, a father of two, and a loving husband. He taught me how to play poker, how to drive, how to argue, how to laugh at the world, and how to give to those in need. He was my counselor, co-conspirator, cheerleader, and confidant. Even now, I remember our fierce debates about Christianity with a smile. I love him dearly and I miss him now more than ever.

Around this time last year he was struggling to cope with the sudden onset of blindness. Always fiercely independent, he didn't adjust well to this instant dependency. What a frustration to be able to debate US foreign policy and free market economics, and yet be unable to walk. Within a few months, complications forced us to call in hospice to care for him. It was excruciating to watch Grandpa slip away from us, but I was grateful when he was no longer battling a disobedient body.

The following is the message I was honored to give at Grandpa's memorial service.** He was the impetus behind much of my drive to succeed. My debt to him is one I could never repay. I do not offer this in search of criticism, but as my way of acknowledging him "outloud." And, please don't ask me if he was "saved." I trust that God is good, wise, and just. He and Grandpa can work that out without my help.
--------------------------

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day... (Gen 1:1-5)

Genesis 1
You might be surprised that I chose this text to reflect on for our time of honoring Grandpa’s life. As a scientist, it is possible that a day didn’t go by when he felt threatened or down right angered by the attacks suffered by the scientific community at the hands of religious people. It is unfortunate that this beautiful passage of scripture has been used in a way to attack what Grandpa spent much of his life devoted to.

Partly a result of this opposition and partly a result of his own tenacious desire for truth, when it came to the universe—what I would call the created world—Grandpa had some very strong opinions. You will be happy to know that I’m not going to detail all of them now. But, I would like to share a few important ways that Grandpa’s life testifies to and encompasses the truths of Genesis 1—the creation, the universe that Grandpa spent many years studying, exploring, and teaching to others.

Time and Rhythm
The first way that I see Grandpa in Genesis 1 is in the inter-related concepts of time and rhythm. With the creation of the sun and moon, we are given the heavenly bodies that create our experience of time. These bodies order our lives into continuous repetitions of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Seven days, four weeks, 28 days of the lunar cycle. As you can tell already, the passage of time is intimately connected to rhythm as well. Genesis 1 shows that God has put an inherent rhythm into life. Over and over, the narrative relates: “and it was evening and morning, the first day…the second day…the third day…” Even in our bodies, there is the constant interaction of time and rhythm: the beating of our heart coordinates with the breathing of our lungs sustains our life.

Many of us find ourselves out of sync with this most basic aspect of our existence. In matters of time and rhythm, we fall prey to one of two extremes: hurried grasping or procrastinating inattention. One rushes through the passage of time without regard for the rhythms and value of life. This one speeds the progress of life like someone gulping an invaluable bottle of wine. This is hurried grasping. The other proceeds in time and rhythm only when shoved. They have no appreciation for the inherent value of life and the importance of keeping up with life’s rhythms. They ride down the railway of life, watching the telephone poles pass, but unwilling to look at where exactly they are heading. This is procrastinating inattention.

I think that Grandpa was a good model of what it means to live in harmony with the time and rhythm of creation. Whether it was because of his life growing up on the farm or the time he spent studying and exploring creation, Grandpa understood the value of time and the rhythm’s of the world. He approached life as one at peace with his past and prepared for his future. Although he would readily admit that there were many things he would like to have done differently, such regrets never prevented him from heading confidently into the next minute, hour, day, or year. Grandpa recognized there was an order to creation and that the small part in it that he got to play was infinitely valuable.

For many of us, he was mindful of the passage of time to the point of irritation. Yet, even this quirky desire to situate himself in time shows his concern and respect for the passage of time and rhythms of this world. He did not fall prey to hurried grasping. He did not fall prey to procrastinating inattention. As we learn from his life, I think we are wise to remember that everything in this world has a time and rhythm built in. We must learn to live in harmony with such things, as individuals and as a group. This cooperation with the way in which God made the world puts us at peace with ourselves, with one another, and with creation as a whole.

Humanity and Responsibility
The second way I see Grandpa in Genesis is in the interrelated concepts of humanity and freedom. You will recall the way in which human beings are portrayed in the first two chapters. In chapter 1, we are told that God created humanity in God’s own image, with the male and female together making up the image of God. Here, humanity is given the awe-inspiring task of ruling the created things. So many humans, drunk on the wine of their own importance, have used this teaching to support their gross exploitation of the created world. But, I think we know and Grandpa knew that this was a terrible misunderstanding. Our ruler-ship of creation is in the style of a caretaker, a gardener, not a despot or tyrant.

Grandpa modeled this in a profound way, as you know. He devoted most of his adult life to the study of the earth and the passing on of this knowledge to others. I still remember the wonder I felt when he taught me about the different kinds of rocks and how they were formed. I still remember that igneous rocks came from lots of heat and pressure while sedimentary rocks came from lots of particles and pressure. Like I said, Grandpa was a caretaker of the world, just as Genesis 1 intended.

In chapter 2 of Genesis, we learn that not only are we caretakers of creation, but we are directly derivative of creation. The name Adam means earth. Adam is formed from the adam and called by the substance he was made out of as a constant reminder of his connectedness to God’s world. As Grandpa would acknowledge, this ancient description of our origins is more sophisticated than I think the writer knew.

We know now that we really are made up of the same stuff. As beings made of atoms—especially carbon—we realize that as human being we came from the same stuff that makes up the weeping willow tree, the newborn kittens in the barn, and the food that we are digesting as we sit here. The juxtaposition here is striking: we are the caretakers of the created world and yet we are an integral part of the world we care for.

These first chapters of Genesis reveal the great importance of humanity as well as our responsibility. And, these are things that I think Grandpa understood better than anyone I know. Why did he care so much about politics and spend so much time writing letters to the editors? Because he knew that humans are entrusted with tremendous responsibility for the world and one another. And, neither age nor circumstances changed the fact that he felt responsible for the nameless, faceless others in the world. Grandpa understood that we have a profound ability for goodness and even greatness, along with a terrible ability for evil and destruction. Genesis shows us that God gave us these capabilities.

Once again, as we learn from Grandpa’s life, I think we are wise to remember his understanding of this truth. Grandpa lived as one aware of his importance, but also aware of his unimportance. He had a profound affect on the lives of many people, including myself, and yet he never became inflated with himself. Grandpa made a point of positively impacting others lives, as a good caretaker of the world, while also remembering his place as part and parcel of the world.

Conclusion
Genesis 1 is a flurry of activity as God forms and fashions creation, calling everything into being. The formerly dark and chaotic canvas is filled with all kinds of colors, movement, and sounds. The waves roar, the trees wave in the wind, and the animals create a symphony of sound over the whole earth. Yet, after six days of relentless activity, we are told that God rested on the seventh.

I think that this is a final lesson we can see in Grandpa’s life. He lived in recognition and respect for time and rhythm in creation, neither grasping hurriedly through life, nor procrastinating inattentively either. He also understood the significance and power of humanity and our responsibility to one another and the created world. But also, especially as he neared the end of his life, I think Grandpa finally began to understand and model the God-ordained concept of rest—the Bible word for it is “Sabbath.”

Although always desiring to do, to go, to perform, to make, to fix, I think Grandpa finally learned to rest. This gave him time and energy to impart to me and many of you the wisdom and insight he had gathered over his 91 years of life. And, this gave him time to look back upon his existence and make peace with perceived mistakes and difficulties.

Even if we do not do as Grandpa did and find rest in the present life even amidst toil and trouble, many of us will eventually reach a time of eternal rest at the end of our days. I am grateful that this man who has meant so much to all of us has finally ceased his toil after many years of time, rhythm, human work, and responsibility. Let us honor him and rest in the goodness of God’s world even now.

--------------------------
*For those who have wondered about the retention of my maiden name, you may be interested to know that one of many reasons why I choose to include "Hunter" in my name is that Grandpa was the last male "Hunter" of the family. One way I honor his role in my life by retaining his name in mine.
**This memorial message was written in interaction with Eugene Peterson's categories and ideas in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. The bulk of the ideas are his, while the applications to Grandpa's life are mine.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Justice for a Whore: A Sermon (Gen 38)

The following is a creative first-person narration of Tamar's story in Genesis 38. I plan to deliver this message in a few weeks for a preaching class at Truett Seminary. I have never written or delivered a sermon in this form, so I would greatly appreciate any constructive criticism my readers have to offer.

My primary concern is whether or not the first-person perspective is effective for preaching this narrative. I chose to present Tamar's story in the first-person so as to give an oft-misunderstood woman a voice of her own.

But, as many of you know, I am far more comfortable writing than speaking. If my narration of Tamar's story is not "believable" in the first-person, or if it does not communicate the sense of the Bible effectively, I will shift to a third-person perspective throughout. Please feel free to let me know what you think.

Justice for a Whore: A Sermon from Genesis 38
Righteousness.
Vindication.
Justice.
Such clean, uncluttered words—such dignified, uncomplicated ideals. But, I was a woman, a widow—a childless widow. Dignity and simplicity did not exist for me. Justice does not dwell in a home as messy and filthy as mine. Justice wastes not her luminosity in a life of perpetual darkness. Of this I was certain.

Word of Judah’s arrival in Timnah reached me in the early morning. I was knotting my hair beneath a black scarf when the voice of a servant girl interrupted my thoughts. “Judah is coming! You’re father-in-law Judah is coming to Timnah!” My heart stung sharply with a jab of angst. “What concern is this to me? Why should I care?”

But then I remembered. It had been so long since I returned to father’s household that I had almost forgotten Judah’s promise. Month after month of compounded shame and grief had covered his words like a scab. Suddenly, the flesh was ripped open and I remembered: “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son, Shelah, grows up.” I had been obedient. I had waited for him to send for me, yet word from Judah never came.

But, what could I do? A twice-widowed woman confronting the patriarch of a powerful clan? Impossible. Such things are not done. So, I remained quietly in my father’s house, enduring their resentment and disdain for my childlessness, content to forsake all thoughts of remarriage. But, when I heard the words that Judah was on his way, something stirred within me. I finished securing my long braids, thinking to myself, “What do I have to lose?”

As the freshly exposed wound of my abandonment met the heat of the glaring morning sun, my heart was ignited with a desperate desire for justice. In that moment I resolved to meet Judah in Timnah and present him with my grievances. If necessary, I would throw myself at his feet and beg for mercy.

Removing my well-worn widows garments, I wrapped myself in the amber-hued robes of my sister. Before I left, I retrieved a sepia scarf from my palette and covered my face as well. Comforted by the privacy of anonymity, I set out for Timnah. Although the walk was arduous in the desert sun, I was happy for the delay. With every step, I summoned up long buried memories of life in Judah’s clan and I became ever more certain of what I must do.

Er and I were married when I was barely a woman. With four girls in the family, my father was relieved to be rid of me, like mule unloading a heavy burden. Judah’s clan was large and prosperous. I anticipated a demanding life, but I was naïve enough in my youth to hope for a measure of happiness—children, grandchildren, and maybe even the love of my husband. I discovered quickly that was not to be.

Our first night together, overcome by the melancholy and fear of a new bride, I wept in our marriage bed. Er was greatly displeased with my tear-stained, swollen face. He had one purpose for me that night and consolation did not play a part. The next morning, as the dawn peeked within the folds of our tent, Er snored steadily beside me. Dismayed at what the coming years would bring, I hugged my knees and trembled in grief, resolving never again to reveal my soul to such a wicked man.

I need not describe to you the details of the months that followed. The hours of misery blend together in my memory. When they found him dead in the fields one day, I am unashamed to say that I felt no grief for him. My tears were for the shame I bore as a young childless widow.

Judah gave me to Onan while I was still in mourning. Even though I was his second wife, Judah thought he would do what was right and provide a son for me in Er’s stead. Our first night together, Onan made it clear that he had no intention of fathering my child. Not a word passed between us, but his actions screamed the truth. He used my body for pleasure and then refused to finish the act. The shame was almost unbearable. I should have known that the wickedness of Er would be compounded in his brother.

Still, a small part of me reserved a shred of hope that one day he would change his mind. If I submitted to his desires, if I served him with enthusiasm, perhaps eventually he would give me a child. The day never came. Even now I shudder imagining those hands touching me, taking my body in greedy lust, and yet refusing to care for me as a husband. I wonder now if I would prefer he had beaten or raped me. At least then I would not have had to endure his perverted overtures of lovemaking.

One morning Onan did not rise at the normal hour and I was sent to retrieve him. When he did not respond to my voice, I knelt near his shoulders and shook him. I could barely contain my horror when his head rolled lifelessly to the side. When splashes of water and the hysterical slaps of his first wife would not rouse him, I knew he was dead. I was widowed. Again. And still without a son to relieve my shame.

Although I knew that I had no part in their deaths, a great battle was waged in my soul. Two husbands dead in two years. Two dead husbands and no children. Widowed twice by two brothers. The family looked at me through squinted eyes, like I was a hidden pest, a secret plague. At times, my feelings matched their suspicions. Even though I was glad to be rid of these wicked men, I could not escape the questions. What did I do wrong? Am I cursed? Have I offended the God of Israel? What would become of me now?

Everyone knew that the right thing was for Judah to give me to his last son. Despite my two-fold widowhood, it was an unspoken assumption. So, I waited calmly for Judah to come and announce the arrangements. Although Shelah was younger than I, the other women held him in high esteem. They speculated with me that he would finally relieve my disgrace. Even with my doubts, I comforted myself with the thought of a new marriage. It will be all right. I will have a child. I will regain my honor.

I could barely contain my shock when Judah told me to return to my father’s house. He said it was because of Shelah’s youth. “Wait for him to grow up,” he said. Sure. Whatever you say. The old man forgot that I had bedded two of his wicked offspring. I was disgraced and humiliated, but I was not a fool. But, what could I do? To what court could I appeal? Who would execute justice for the childless widow? No man on earth would hear my case. So, I left Judah’s family and returned to father. The mule had received back his heavy burden.

So, there I was, sitting at the gate to Timnah, watching the horizon. As the dust-filled wind swept through the folds of my robes, I voiced a desperate plea to God. Righteousness. Vindication. Justice. “Please, God. Please.”

I spotted Judah’s form from many yards away. As he and his companion came near, I observed that the lines in his face were deeper and his hair had grayed considerably. Had it been so long since he promised Shelah to me? Their steps slowed as they approached the gate and even though they had yet to notice me, my heart thudded as a deafening drumbeat.

When they were within six feet, Judah stopped and studied what he could see of my face. His eyes drifted up and down my body and my stomach clenched. I was frozen on the spot. Surely he would recognize me. Surely he would remember me. What would I say to him? Oh, why did I come to Timnah?! I stared at the dirt willing them to walk on, but Judah stood firmly and finally spoke: “Come on, let me sleep with you.”

What? What did he say? My shock paralyzed me. What was he asking? Then it dawned on me: he thinks I’m a prostitute. He doesn’t recognize me at all. He thinks I’m a whore! All visions of confronting Judah with his injustice vanished from my mind. What would I answer? What could I say?

Finally, my mind summoned a fragment of rational thought: I had been little more than a whore in his home. What’s one more time? If Judah would not give me a husband, maybe in his foolishness he could give me a son. And, if not a son, perhaps a payment I could use to relieve some of my poverty. Maybe in our time together he will recognize me, and the shame will overwhelm him.

My throat convulsed with the thought of submitting to Judah’s lust, but one thought crowded out the rest in my muddled brain: Now I’m in control. Now is my chance.

“What will you give me as payment for time in my bed?” My stomach shuddered with the sound of my own brazenness. “How about a young goat from my flocks?” he answered. “How do I know you’ll pay me? You’ll have to give me a guarantee until you send it.” “I can do that. What do you want?”

In the seconds that passed, I regretted my audacity. How can I play the whore with my father-in-law? I was panicked to reverse my course, so I requested the one thing I knew he would refuse: “I want your signet, your cord, and your staff.” These items, the emblems of his authority, were prized possessions. He would sooner lose a hand than give over these things to a prostitute. But, would you believe it? The fool agreed. He hurriedly gathered the items and held them out to me. My eyes wide with shock, I reached out and took them, watching Judah’s companion walk away with a smirk. We were alone. The decision was made.

I’ll spare you the details, but mercifully, our time together was brief. My heart was pricked when he spoke of the death of his wife. But, I never summoned the courage to reveal myself to him. And he never realized who I was. When he left my side to retrieve a young goat, as he had promised, I was overcome by what I had done. I scrambled to my feet and hurriedly left the city.

I ran almost the entire way back to my tent, still clutching Judah’s signet, cord, and staff. My sister nosily inquired about my appearance—“Why are you dressed like that? Where did you get those things?” I brushed her off and changed back into the coal colored clothes of my widowhood. Not knowing what else to do, I covered Judah’s possessions with the blankets of my palette. When my heart slowed its pounding in my chest, I permitted myself a slight smile. What would Judah think when he returned with his goat and found nothing but an empty room? Poor fool.

I knew soon after our encounter that something had happened. I was becoming ill in the mornings and I was eating more than usual. When the time for my uncleanness passed without blood, I knew. Of course, my secret did not remain my secret for long. As my belly began to protrude in my robes, the rumors surfaced.

Finally, my aged mother confronted me with flashing eyes, spitting insults and accusing me of prostitution. How could I shame them? What was I thinking? I know that I should have feared for myself, for my child, for my family’s reputation. I might be thrown out of our home. But, I didn’t care. I was carrying a child. God had heard my whispered pleas.

News of my state finally reached my father-in-law. The day his servants came to retrieve me, they dragged me from my tent like an animal. How strange. The one who sentenced me to a life of childless disgrace wanted to avenge his humiliation upon me! They spit at my feet and cursed me for whoring. They warned of the fiery punishment that awaited me for prostitution.

But, as their jeering faces and violent hands threatened to bruise my soul, a small voice inside me whispered that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Defiant pride stirred within me. Call me a whore. Spit on the adulterer. Burn me alive, if you want. In my womb grows the proof of God’s vindication. If mother and child die today, God has justified me. I am in the right.

Despite their fury, one of the servants agreed to carry a message to Judah. Perhaps the strangeness of my words and the intensity of my gaze convinced him. “Tell Judah that the father of my child is the owner of these.”

By the time I arrived in Judah’s presence, it was clear that he had gotten the message. I was forced to my knees before him and he looked upon me as if in a daze. I was covered in gritty sand, my brown hair loose and wild, my dark face reddened by the glaring sun, my eyes narrow and accusing. He didn’t recognize me before, but he knew me now. No words passed his lips, but I watched the memory flash in his brain like lightening. Holding out the signet, cord, and staff to me with trembling hands, the once powerful patriarch struggled for words. The servants stared. I stared. We all stared at him waiting for a command.

“I did not give you my son, Shelah. You are more righteous than I.” With these words, he extended his arm and helped me from the ground.

I was not punished. I was not sent back to my father’s house. I was not shamed or harassed or scorned any longer. From that day forward I began a new life as an honored widow in Judah’s household. What a different kind of life. What a relief for a scarred and pained young woman.

When the time for birth arrived, I had twins: Perez and Zerah. Judah was their father, but he never shared my bed again.

So, no matter what they say about me, let me assure you that Tamar is not a whore. Yes, I used sex to get what I wanted, but I was not alone in my endeavor.

Justice does dwell in a home as messy and filthy as mine. Justice does bring her luminosity into a life of perpetual darkness. It is God who used my desperation and foolishness to extract justice. It is God who worked in my bitterness and pain to give me sons. It is God who brought forth honor and vindication from the depths of widowhood. And, incredibly, maybe even scandalously, it is God who chose me, and my embarrassing, dirty story, to bring forth the Messiah.

Yes, the God of Israel dispenses justice. Even for a widow. Even for a whore.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Huh?

Two more civilians have been killed by private security guards in Iraq.

British PM, Gordon Brown, announces a 50% troop draw-down in Iraq by the spring.

North Korea is cooperating for disarmament after six-party talks.

Pakistani president Musharraf has been re-elected.

Freedom of the press continues to be curtailed in Russia and Egypt.

Iranian president Ahmadinejad faces anti-government protests in Tehran.

A car bomb in Spain indicates increasing tension between the Spanish government and Basque separatists.

US "detainees" continue to be interrogated using "extreme" methods.

Sudanese rebels and government troops have clashed again in Darfur.

An Australian soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Vigilante killings in Kenya are on the rise.

President Bush vetoed the expansion of S-CHIP.

Mario Capecchi, Oliver Smithies, and Martin Evans win the Nobel Prize in medicine for their "gene targeting."

India's stock market reaches another record high.

Pakistani soldiers and Taleban militants clash in northern Pakistan, resulting in 200 deaths.

Burma's opposition party rejects the Junta's conditions for talks with their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Turkey is threatening to raid the Iraq border to find Kurdish separatists.

And, an Argentine police chaplain has been convicted for involvement in murder, kidnapping, and torture during Argentina's military rule.

With all this going on in the world, why on earth are we talking about a stupid left-wing newspaper attack-ad, a conservative radio host's thoughtless criticism of Iraq war vets, and a presidential candidate's choice of patriotic accessories?

Is there a single sane source of news reporting left in our country? Hello? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Thursday, October 4, 2007

For those preparing for ministry

I was given this extended quote from William Willimon in the context of my Clinical Pastoral Orientation class at Truett Seminary. As I work my way through a very difficult semester, I am reminded of the fact that the challenge is necessary and worth it. For those of you who are pursuing education for ministry, or who have completed such education, I hope this is a reminder and an encouragement to press on.

Sometimes seminarians complain that the seminary's expectations of them are too demanding, that the course is too difficult, or that it is placing academic burdens upon them that they cannot bear. Perhaps they feel that their sincerity and their sense of vocation are enough to sustain them in their ministry. They are wrong.

I remind them that I did not call them into the ministry. I am sorry if they have been misled, but the pastoral ministry is a very difficult way to earn a living, and our Master can be very demanding, despite His reassurance of a light burden and easy yoke. Then I tell them something that happened to me.

One day the dean casually commented to me that a member of my Annual Conference once wrote him a particularly moving letter. Did I know him? Before I could answer, the dean continued, "He wrote to tell me that he had been called into the ministry some years ago. He commuted to a seminary not far from his home, doing just enough work to get by. He said that he got along well with people and knew how to please a congregation. For four years as his first church, he delivered this 'package,' and it worked. Then he delivered the same package of pleasing sermons and caring concern at his next congregation and, for four years, it worked there too.

"He is now at his third congregation and he said that his 'well has run dry.' He needs renewal, but he doesn't know where to find it. He doesn't know enough about theology to be able to read his way back into ministry. He wrote me this letter, asking if he could come here for a sabbatical and spend time working back through all the theology that he had missed. We tried to help him, but with his family and all, he just couldn't swing it. Do you know what ever happened to him?"

I told the dean, "He had been on a year's leave of absence to receive treatment for his alcoholism. Last week, he was found dead in his kitchen, drowned to death in his own vomit after a bout of drunkenness."

And the dean and I stood there for the longest time in silence. Then he said, "We really have our work cut out for us here, in preparing people for ministry. The stakes are at times unbearably high. Let's get back to work."


I think the first paragraph of Willimon's testimony deserves repeating: "Sometimes seminarians complain that the seminary's expectations of them are too demanding, that the course is too difficult, or that it is placing academic burdens upon them that they cannot bear. Perhaps they feel that their sincerity and their sense of vocation are enough to sustain them in their ministry. They are wrong."

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Ahmadeniwhat?

Call me paranoid, but the Senate's approval of Joe Lieberman's resolution on Iran makes me wonder if those faint reverberations in the distance are the sounds of a new drum-beat for war--this time with Iran. I am deeply troubled by such a prospect, both as a "resident alien" of the United States and a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

In light of this concern, I am departing from my normal pattern of steering clear of politics, whether of a national or ecclesiastical variety. I do not have time to write a full post about this matter, but I have found someone who says what I am thinking better than I could. I do not often agree with Joe Klein of TIME magazine, but this week I think he's hit the mark. If you have the time, check out his commentary on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the US. I find his words a good dose of reality in the midst of a talking-head and media-inflamed frenzy of speculation (with the much beloved Fox News leading the way).

Please, my friends, let us resist the urge to create a new bogey-man out of a politically weak and ideologically ridiculous little man. Let us remember that there are families, women and children, living peacefully within the countries about which we speak with vitriole and hatred.

I know this may be difficult to accept, but Iran is not our enemy. Neither is Ahmadinejad. As followers of Jesus, our enemy is not flesh and blood, but the prince of the power of the air. He wants nothing more than to undermine sanity, instigate mass carnage, and hinder the spread of the good news. Let us set the example in a world going crazy: Choose prayer. Choose calm. Choose peace.

Monday, October 1, 2007

"Don't cling to me."

I said good-bye to a dear friend tonight. She left with her family, headed to a Middle Eastern country where they live as light and salt among the Muslims they love, expanding the Kingdom with every footstep. She would be embarrassed to know that I am writing about her in such a public forum, but my heart is full of love and appreciation for her and I am spilling over.

It is almost a cliché in evangelical circles to say that a woman has a “gentle and quiet spirit.” Where I come from, this verse is used typically to beat women over the head who happen to be more vocal, educated, or opinionated than others. In the case of my friend, however, “gentle and quiet spirit” is a most fitting description. I daresay if you had the honor of meeting her, you would agree that she is an embodiment of the words.

I must clarify, however, that these traits are born not of natural shyness. My friend had been a successful business owner—not a career for the shy and withdrawn. Nor are they the products of will power, as is often the case with women who are shouting their opinion on the inside, but have learned the art of muffling themselves on the outside. She does not try to be gentle and peaceful, she is gentle and peaceful. My friend radiates gentleness and serenity the way a candle radiates soft, warm light in a dark room. She does not work at her tenderness; it simply burns within her.

Also, my friend’s smile comes easily and laughter is always close at hand. In our precious conversations, even regarding the most deep and solemn of subjects, laughter often bubbled to the surface. Once again, this joy is not the result of personal effort or the vain attempt to project a mirthful image. No. My friend’s calmness and good humor arise from a heart at peace with God and herself. She knows herself as broken, needy, and desperate for God and yet she desires not to be anyone except herself.

But, what I will miss the most in her absence is the sense of freedom I experience in her presence. As one who walks in the Spirit, she is not bound by arbitrary standards of living that clamor for attention and obedience. This Spirit-provided freedom circles her like a cloud and provides a haven of safety and liberty for all who have eyes to see it. I rested often in this freedom. I was blessed beyond measure.

Saying good-bye tonight brought to mind the words of Jesus to Mary in the garden after his resurrection: “Don’t cling to me.” Truthfully, I’ve often thought this was a very calloused thing for Jesus to say. Here is this woman who loves him, adores him even, and he says, “Don’t cling to me.” But, he was on a mission. He was returning to his Father. Mary’s “clinging” was born of a desire to keep him close, to fasten him to a place that was no longer his home, to bind him to the hopes and dreams of all who loved him (and did not yet understand him). Jesus could not let Mary cling to him.

When we embraced tonight, the tears I shed were mostly for myself. I selfishly wished to keep her near me—perhaps hide her away until the day of departure passed. But, God has other plans for them and she must return to the life and people she loves. I saw myself in Mary’s place tonight and in my desperation to hold tight my friend, I heard the words of Jesus say, “Don’t cling to her.” I seek now to obey.

I know you don’t know my friend. I cannot even give you a name to attach to this testimony. But, she is out there tonight, on the journey back to her mission field. I love her and I will miss her.