Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Widow of Zarephath



It was a drought.
You can think of it as a recession.
At first no one wants to believe what's happening.
It's just a couple of dry weeks,
Just a bad quarter.
It's only a matter of time.
And more time.
And more time.
And the crops die out.
And the unemployment runs out.
And the cupboard is bare.
And you're left wondering how you will make it through.
It's harder for a widow,
For a single mother with a young boy.
It's harder for those who live on the margins already.
For me and my son, we were already living week-to-week.
We relied on a little garden and a few animals.
But with no grain, the goat wouldn't make milk,
And the olive trees had no fruit.
There was nothing to trade in the market,
Nothing to sell,
And no grain to buy anyway.
I was careful to give my son only a little every day.
It killed me when he asked for more, and I had to tell him, "No, Caleb. We must save it."
It killed me when I was his wrists, so thin, his little belly with that falsely puffed look of the starving.
Then one day when I came back from the market again empty handed,
I looked in the cupboard.
All I had was just a little jar of meal
And a little jug of oil.
My son would go to bed hungry this night, and there was nothing I could do.
There was nothing to do.
I sunk to the floor.
I pressed my fingers to my eyes.
Myself—I could starve. But to let my son wittle away to nothing?
My whole life I had prayed to the Lord.
My parents had taught me to trust the Lord,
That the Lord provided for everything He had made.
They told me the story of how the Lord led our people from slavery into freedom,
And provided us with this land, a land of milk and honey.
Well, now there was no bread,
Let alone milk and honey.
I felt betrayed, but still I trusted the Lord.
That trust was not a feeling but a choice.
I had no reason to believe we would do anything, but die.
And yet, I made my mouth form the words: "God of Israel, deliver us. We wait for you. My soul waits for you, and in you do I trust."
At that moment a thought came to me.
Was it of my own thinking, or did it come from God?
The thought was of Elijah, the prophet whom the queen despised.
The one who preached to our nation,
To forsake our idols,
To seek after the one true God.
Why was I thinking of him?
Was his the way out of drought and hunger and death?
I would never encounter Elijah.
But this thought would not let go.
That if I did, I must do what I could to help him.
Was it God, or was it my own hunger-crazed thoughts?
I did not know, but I chose to believe, and to trust.
In one part of my heart, I trusted,
And in another, I prepared to die.
I went to the town gate to beg for food.
I prepared to gather sticks—a pointless act—
But dry sticks were all we had.
Sticks to build a fire,
A fire to bake a cake.
Cake to be our last meal before death.
I carried my sticks in a bundle, but when I saw I almost dropped them.
The prophet, here.
I don't know how I knew it was him—he was dirty and unkempt.
But I knew. This was Elijah.
And he called out to me, "Woman! I need water! Could you bring me water, that I may have a little drink?"
Water! What we all needed! What we all longed for!
If I had water, why would I give it to him?
If I had water, why would I help another person?
God helps those who help themselves, I've heard it said.
Why share your bread with the hungry?
Why give your water away?
And yet, I had made my resolution.
That thought—had it come from me? Or from God?
This prophet was the way through drought.
I had to trust.
I needed God to help me, for I could not help myself.
God would come first, and me second,
This was the only way to save my child.
So I said I would bring him water, and turned to find some.
But as I was turning around, he called again.
"And bring me, please, a piece of bread."
At this I could not keep silent. The nerve he had.
But I held my tongue.
This was God's prophet.
I spoke carefully.
"As surely as the Lord your God lives," I said,
For God does live. This I trusted.
And this God was the God of the prophet.
"I don't have any bread—just a handful of meal in a jar and a little jug of oil. I'm going home now to make a little cake of it, for me and my son, that we may eat it…and die."
It was silent then.
I could hear the wind whisper over the dry land.
And the prophet removed his hood.
And he said, "Don't be afraid."
At those words I felt a warm rush over me.
Something more powerful than either of us was near.
He went on. "First, make a cake for me. Then, make something for yourself and your son."
The prophet spoke in a different voice.
A voice that seemed to come from beyond himself.
"Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: the jug of oil will not fail, and the jar of meal will not be emptied, until the day the Lord God sends rain upon the earth."
I was almost scared.
What was happening?
Dare I trust it?
There was so little left.
How could I entrust it to the Lord?
How do you give when you are facing a stack of bills?
How do you give in a drought?
How does a person, a nation, trust in God?
You simply do.
You place God first, and yourself second.
You bake a cake for the prophet.
You choose trust, and not doubt.
You choose because really, there is no one else to trust more than God.
You bake your cake, and you wait.
You give your offering.
You share with others.
You work for justice.
You give to the needy.
You think beyond yourself.
You put others first.
This is how a person trusts God.
This is how a nation trusts God.
Placing others before yourself.
And it is when we do this that God acts.
The next day when I went to the cupboard I did not know what I would see.
But I trusted in God.
And I had hope.
And when I looked into the jug, it was…brimming.
Full of oil.
And the jar…grain poured out of it.
How could it be so?
But it was!
A miracle.
I saw it myself.
The jar of meal was not emptied.
The jug of oil did not fail.
When you trust God,
When you place others before yourself,
God provides.
God always provides.
Put God first, not yourself, not your own selfish desires.
Care for the poor. Care for the widow.
Give your bread to the hungry.
And God will not forsake you.
God will look after you, and heal your land.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

My beauty is my enemy.
You see silken hair, soft skin,
The king saw his lost youth.
He saw the object of his desire,
An apple to be plucked,
He saw a body.
He did not see me.
My beauty is my enemy.
It destroyed my life.
This hair, this skin, they were the weapons
That beat me, whipped me from the outside,
And no one sees.
No one sees the invisible scars on my soul.
No one sees that this body is coated with my husband’s blood,
Draped with my tears,
My son’s screams ringing in my ears.
You see what you want to see.
The King saw a vision and he wanted to see.
He did not see me.
That day, through the window, he saw a body.
He saw, and he wanted what was not his to take.
As we all do, do we not?
Jealousy and greed, selfishness and desire, wanting and taking.
Preachers have blamed me for what happened.
Why they ask would I let myself be seen that day?
What immodest pride, or worse, what scheming ambitiousness led me to bathe in full sight of the king?
The king sees what he wants to see, I want to say.
But it did not matter what I wanted.  My desire.
The book writers will never know
If, with my husband away, I used my body to make ends meet,
If I desired power and wealth as many do,
Or if I simply forgot to pull a curtain,
But it does not matter what I wanted.
The desires of an ordinary woman were nothing.
Once the king wanted, I had no choice.
I was summoned.  I was brought.  I was taken.  I was used.
It has happened for thousands of years and will happen for thousands more.
Do you think it does not happen in your own place and time?
The story is so old we barely hear it anymore.
Jealousy and greed, selfishness and desire, wanting and taking.
My beauty.  My enemy.
My body.  My enemy.
Betraying me, in the days that followed,
Sick with the memory of what was done and sick
As my body convulsed and I knew
Sin has consequences.
When I was sure that I was pregnant, it was like I was torn apart once again.
Dreading that this was not over,
Fearing what people would think once my condition was obvious,
My husband away fighting that king’s battles,
Haunted by indecision, what on earth would I do?
If I did nothing, I risked my husband’s anger, his rejection, he could cast me aside,
And I would be left penniless with a nameless child.
If I told everyone the truth, who would believe me?
The word of an ordinary woman against the word of a king.
A king whom everyone knew to be the righteous servant of the Lord,
He who slew the giant and defeated all Israel’s enemies.
And what if I went to this righteous king?
What if I told him, showed him, that sin has consequences
Showed him that he could not trample thoughtlessly over people’s lives
Showed him you cannot desire and want and take and use.
Forced him to see not just a body.
Forced him to see me.
I wanted him to see.
So I sent a message.  One of the servants of the palace lived nearby and I went to her.
And I watched.  And I waited.
I learned later what he did.  The lies, the tricks.
Bringing Uriah, my righteous husband, home from the battle lines.
Sending him home to lie with his wife.
My Uriah was a soldier loyal to his troops.
A soldier is not like a king.
He must think of the man next to him,
He must rely on others.
He would not desert the troops who were fighting the kings’ war.
So the king did what was in his power to do.  For the good of his country, for the good of his people, for the sake of his own honor, he sent an innocent man to die.
When the messengers came to tell me my husband had been killed,
I was like stone.
I could not believe.
And I realized that I might be to blame.
If I had never told, if I had kept my pain for myself, Uriah might have been spared.
What cruelty, what a mean God would let rulers do as they liked and let others pay the price?
How could I worship this king’s God?
How could I….
I mourned.  I wailed.  I wore black.
When they laid Uriah in the grave my youth went with him.
I was numb as the king summoned me to his court.
Kings do not do their own dirty work, or speak their own words.
They have others do it for them.
I became his queen.
My silks, my fineries, this crown a mockery.
They burned against my skin.
People saw the queen.
They saw the seductress.
No one saw the scars.
No one saw the bloodstains.
No one saw me.
My beauty, my enemy.
My body, my enemy growing beneath me.
King David’s son was born and he rejoiced.
But life was empty for me.
The child’s wails sounding, Uriah.  Uriah.
A name I thought I would never hear again.
Until the day the prophet stepped before the king.
He stepped forward to tell the king of a terrible crime.
A poor man had only one lamb, a precious lamb he loved and cherished,
And a rich man saw it and wanted it,
Desired and took it,
Selfish he killed it, tore it apart and devoured it.
If you have thought of me the way the preachers do,
The seductress laying her body before the king,
Know this:  I was that lamb.
My life, my husband’s life, that child’s life torn apart and devoured by selfishness and greed.
That lamb is every poor person and woman and child,
That lamb is every voiceless creature
Who is sacrificed to our endless love of the self,
Our endless desire that will never be quenched,
Those who take and take and take and are never content.
Are you outraged to see that lamb slaughtered?
Are you outraged as king David was?
At the injustice?
Children sacrificed to war?
Women raped and left to die?
The young ones sold drugs meant to kill them?
The old abused because who will ever know?
Are you outraged?
Do you demand like King David, that this rich man be brought to justice?
Hear the words of the righteous prophet as he raised a bony finger to the king:
You are the man!
When I felt most alone,
What I believed no one saw,
When in my heart I cursed this God who had left me,
A skeleton in skin,
He was there.
He knew.
I was not alone.
Someone heard my cry.
Someone would not forget.
Someone would call for repentence and justice.
God did not see a body.
God saw me.
I knelt and I prayed thanks to this God.
This God would lift my burden, my secret.
This God would help me live.
My pain was not over.
Sin has its consequences.
The child that was never meant to be, went to be with the Lord.
My heart was broken and yet that was when I began to heal.
Each day I asked for strength to get through.
Each day I asked God to help me just to live.
Just to live and serve and try to make this king see righteousness.
Tried not to hate this man and even to wish him well.
And God gave me healing, and healing brings wisdom.
Wisdom for other women who had known pain.
Wisdom I sought to teach my son, Solomon.
If you have known pain,
If the injustice of others has torn you up,
If you have felt like a lamb to the slaughter,
Know that God sees.
God sees, and God is working on justice.
God is working on healing.
Yes, God is working on forgiveness.
Do not forget your pain.  Do not pretend to be unscarred.
But do not ignore the prophets that God sends.
Do not ignore their words of truth or their words of hope.
Hear them when they say that life can be good again.
Hear them when they tell you that God sees your scarred heart.
And calls it beautiful.
King Solomon, the son of Bathsheba, was known as the wisest king Israel ever had.
The temple he built was known as one of the seven great wonders of the world.
While he sinned in his later life, like his father and many kings before and after him, he was a faithful husband while his mother Bathsheba remained on the earth.
Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, is one of the four women Luke names as ancestors of Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bithya





1 Chronicles 4:18 includes the name Bithya, or Batya, who is called "the daughter of Pharaoh." Jewish tradition links this woman with the daughter of Pharaoh who drew Moses from the Nile. According to this tradition, she left with Moses, took a Hebrew husband and a Hebrew name, and lived the rest of her life with the Jewish people. This is her story.

People think of my life as an easy one.  Nakia, The daughter of Pharaoh, living in the lap of luxury, with servants to attend my every need.  If they only knew that money and power create their own set of snares.  Yes, I have everything I need, and most of what I want.  Yet there is so much that I must do to hold on to what I have, and much of it is distasteful to any human being.  I keep up appearances, yes, I look as beautiful as possible, and I conceal my true emotions from the common people and slaves, but I was forced to marry a man of my father’s choosing.  I am forced to take my father’s word as law.  He is a descendant, I am taught, of the sun god Rah, but I cannot believe this.  How could a deity be so petty and cruel as to order the extermination of an entire race?
            For centuries the Hebrews had lived alongside us.   Though they worshiped their strange, singular God, and would not worship Rah, they were a peaceful people.  There was even a story that a holy man among them had saved all of us from a great famine.  But their numbers were growing, our people admired them more than my father, and my father feared they might take his throne.  So he ordered that every baby boy of the Hebrew people would be slaughtered.  I heard terrible stories of children ripped from their mothers’ arms.  Then the day came when one of my own serving women did not come to the palace.  This Tamar had been a sweet young woman, who used to braid my hair singing songs in the strange language of her people.  I went secretly with my maids to her hovel of a house, and found her there, her clothes torn, her face stained with tears.  My father’s men had taken her infant son, and killed him. 
            For weeks I could not sleep.  Food had no taste to me.  I detested to be in the presence of my father.  Yes, our position was an easy one.  But there are things more important than money and power. With all my money and power, I had never been blessed with children. Tamar had sung of a God of goodness and love, a God who cared for the widow and the orphan, and who made all men, and women, in his image.  I felt in my heart that this God was the true God, and that what my father was doing was wrong.  In the middle of the night I spoke to this God, and asked for his forgiveness, and to be given a chance to right these wrongs.
            The next morning I was bathing in the river with my serving women when I heard a strange sound—the cry of an infant.  I waded toward the sound, my maids following behind me.  There, stuck in the reeds, was a well made little basket, and in it was healthy, fine baby boy, not more than three months old.  I took the child into my arms and he quieted.  I knew instantly that this must be one of the Hebrew children, that a mother had placed into the river with a prayer that he might find a safe home away from my father’s men.  I knew too that the Hebrew God had given me the chance I sought, to be a mother, and also to do what I could to help these people, and to show where my loyalties lie. Not with my father and the gods of power and wealth, but with this God of justice and love. 
            I looked around and saw a little girl hiding nearby, and sent for her.  She had a fire in her eyes, and I knew her to be the boy’s sister.  I said, “Daughter of the Hebrews, I will take this child and raise him as my own.”  The girl asked, “Shall I find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child?”  Truly, she was fiercely intelligent and of a strong will.  I knew she was asking whether her mother could nurse her own little boy.  I replied, “Yes, and I will pay the child’s nurse for this service.” 
            When I turned, Tamar was looking at me, tears running down her face, but a look of gratitude in her eyes.  I could not take away her pain, but this thing I would do for her people.  Holding the little boy in my arms, I said, “Your name is Moses, which means that I drew you out of the water. I pray to your God and mine that you, strong boy, will lead your people by the power of our God.”
            After accepting the one God of the Hebrews as my Lord, I was forced to worship in secret. My Egyptian husband accepted Moses, since I had never borne him children, and agreed we would raise him as our own. Jochebed, his natural mother, lived with us and nursed him, and we became friends. She and Tamar taught me the Hebrew prayers and the great stories of her people, of the garden, and the flood, and of Abraham. I still went through the motions of Egyptian life, but now when I went to the Nile to bathe, I felt as though I were washing away the idol-worship going on all around me. I lived in constant fear that my devotion to the one true God would be revealed, and yet I felt a strange sense of peace and trust that the Lord would protect me.
            I raised Moses with tenderness and love, and pledged to teach him the way of righteousness and truth. I sang him Hebrew songs, and I prayed with him each night. Though I did not reveal his true identity, I taught him to treat the Hebrews with respect and honor their faith. In this whole time I felt as though I were living in two worlds—the Egyptian world, of money, power, and position, and the Hebrew world of justice, holiness, and truth. Man's world, and God's. I was like two people. This could not last forever. I would have to finally choose.
            Finally, the day came when Moses was old enough to learn the truth, and I told him of how he came to me. It was as though a great weight had been lifted from me. But Moses was greatly distressed. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and murdered him. I feared for his life. He ran, far from me, and I wondered if I would ever see him again. But when he returned, it was with a greater power, and a deeper understanding of the One called Lord God, who Moses called the great I Am. He had become a leader of his people, and invoked the power of God, commanding Pharaoh with God's words, "Let my people go!" I sought to get my son alone so that I could speak to him. I didn't know what I would say, but I knew I must talk to him. When I finally cornered him in Pharaoh's palace, Moses embraced me. But he said, "You have a choice, woman whom I called Mother: you can be a daughter of Pharaoh, or a daughter of Yahweh."
            When Moses performed his final miracle, the great punishment of my father and his people for the evil they had done—God's vengeance in the death of the firstborn—Pharaoh finally relented. The Hebrews could leave. My choice was before me. To follow God, or to chase idols? To choose wealth and power or justice and righteousness? To do what was easy, what was safe, or what was right?  But in truth, I had known what I would decide from the day I reached out from my royal robes to save the child of slaves.
            I took only what I could carry. Tamar came with me. We joined my son. He was glad to see I had come, and he pronounced that I would have a new name. Nakia, the daughter of Pharaoh was now Batya, which means Daughter of Yahweh. I do not understand everything about this God, but I know this: God words his will through our choices. I did not save the Hebrew people, but God used my small act of defiance to bring them from slavery to freedom. There are no small choices. Each day, each one of you encounters the baby in the basket. Will you act as the child of the world, or the child of God? Will you do what is easy, or what is right?