Thursday, January 21, 2010

Too Much for the Man

Village life in Israel ceased, ceased until I, Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel. (Judges 5.7)
Ready to Reach
The story of Deborah takes place during Israel’s transitional epoch between Moses and Joshua’s leadership and Saul’s monarchy. It has yet to formalize a government with a standing army and basically occupies the territory as squatters. A succession of judges oversees internal affairs and organizes counterstrikes against hostile forces. And the Jews are nearly always under attack, because they’re trapped in a cycle of dysfunction. They fight off one enemy, get peace and safety restored, grow lax in their obedience to God’s statutes, and—sure enough—another foe besets them, starting the cycle all over again. These conflicts involve years of maneuvering that drain Israel of forward momentum. Deborah is one of the judges caught in this cycle.

More than gender differentiates Deborah from her predecessors. She’s a prophetess. Yet her uniquely feminine worldview definitely filters her perceptions and how she works. She takes office during the most oppressive period to date in Israel’s history. Rather than seize Israel’s holdings, the Canaanite king has chosen to destroy Jewish life with relentless fear. His general, Sisera, parks 900 chariots on the border as a visible threat of total annihilation if Israel attempts to break the siege. A male prophet would confront his people with their wrongdoing and rally them to repent in hopes of regaining God’s favor. But Deborah realizes guilt would only weaken their morale further—possibly beyond the breaking point. She knows Israel will come to its senses and turn to God. Judges 4.3 says, because Canaan’s king “cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help.” Deborah understands God can’t help us until we’re ready to reach for Him.

Conditioned by Fear
She summons Barak, a rising warrior, and tells him God commands he muster 10,000 men from two tribes, Naphtali and Zebulun. He’s to lead them to Mount Tabor while God lures Sisera to the Kishon River, a stream threading through Israel’s mountains. When Barak’s forces descend on Sisera, he’ll be unable to use his chariots effectively. The plan is too easy to seem feasible to Barak. It may be he also detects a strategic flaw. Naphtali isn’t a highly regarded tribe and Zebulun is best known for its penmanship. These aren’t the kinds of soldiers who can defeat a heavily armed opponent. Furthermore, Barak has lived most of his life under Canaanite oppression. He’s conditioned by fear to expect defeat. Trusting God to hand Sisera to him in such a way proves too much for the man.

“I’ll go if you go with me,” Barak says. “If not, I’m not going.” It’s a sad confession. Barak wants Deborah beside him because he doesn’t believe he warrants God’s protection without her. She agrees to accompany him, but cautions, “Because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.” (Judges 4.9) The battle plays out as predicted. Barak’s troops massacre the Canaanites, but Sisera vanishes into the desert. He shows up, parched and exhausted, at the tent of a tribesman allied with Canaan. Jael, the tribesman’s wife, serves Sisera milk and puts him to bed. Once he’s asleep, she drives a tent peg through his temple. The Canaanite threat is no more.

Village Life
Deborah and Barak gather the nation to render a customary song of jubilation. But their war anthem rings differently than most. It’s distinctively inclusive. They’re quick to share praise with others and express empathy for their foes. It strikes this note from the start: “When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the LORD!” (Judges 5.2) After reciting Israel’s woes, Deborah casts herself as the restorer of its culture and traditions: “Village life in Israel ceased, ceased until I, Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel.” (v7,9) The song pays homage to tribes that rose to the occasion, chides those that didn’t, and concludes with two portraits: a rousing tribute to Sisera’s assassin, Jael, “most blessed of tent-dwelling women” (v24), and then a poignant image of the general’s mother as she watches for his return, wondering why he’s delayed. “She keeps saying to herself, ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils; a girl or two for each man, colorful garments as plunder for Sisera?” (v29-30) The image is devastating. Sisera isn’t ever coming home.

Offhand, I can think of only two or three Old Testament sagas more brutal than Deborah’s tale. Yet its violence is couched in surpassing tenderness, a gentle acknowledgement of how quickly simple things God asks us to do can seem like too much. What’s most notable, of course, is the men—Barak and Sisera—end up the fragile figures, while Deborah, Jael, and Sisera’s mother display genuine ferocity of spirit. Despite this, I’m not convinced gender reversal is the theme here. Deborah’s story teaches how detrimental surrendering to fear can be. When we allow by threats of power and violence to intimidate us, we sacrifice our sense of self-worth. We lose confidence in how much God values us. So often His solutions for problems that besiege us appear too easy to be feasible. They involve people we don’t ordinarily rely on and methods we dismiss as too risky. Constant fear has persuaded us we don't warrant his protection.

Acquiescence to fear destroys village life. It disrupts relationships, disturbs peace, and stalls progress. Until we’re ready to reach for God’s help, it won’t come. But once we do, we must also be ready to trust His plan. He’ll position us above our tormentors. When we can’t conceive how He’ll give us victory, he’ll raise up unlikely allies to defend us. While we rejoice, those awaiting news of our ruin will wait in vain. “When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the LORD!” Deborah sang. That’s the moral of her story. That’s the answer to fear and intimidation. That’s what keeps our villages and lives safe and free.

Deborah was keenly aware of fear’s detrimental effects on daily life. Her story teaches us willingness to trust God’s plan is how we defeat fear.

(Next: Dog Days)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hand-Me-Down Faith

I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. (2 Timothy 1.5)
Clean Slates
We enter the world as handcrafted models of God, specifically molded by Him for His purpose. Yet our shaping doesn’t end there. Once He releases us to our keepers—parents, family, friends, pastors, teachers, et al.—we become clean slates on which they inscribe their virtues and vanities, certainties and fears. Much of this occurs before we’re sufficiently experienced to erase any unhealthy impressions, and we spend the rest of our lives either mindlessly complying or consciously resisting them. Racial prejudice is a classic case. Until a child “learns” skin color “means something,” race is insignificant. As Rogers and Hammerstein put it in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (South Pacific; 1949):

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade.
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You've got to be carefully taught!
Thankfully, young minds are equally receptive to positive ideals. When we teach them all that is right and good, that’s what they seek and recognize. Principles of faith, justice, and service become ingrained in them to such a degree that hateful, self-serving behaviors prove alien to their character. Proverbs 22.6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” As they develop, they’ll likely dabble in unwholesome attitudes or fall in with undesirable crowds. We’re wrong to expect them to be better than we were at their ages. But when they mature, what we’ve taught them and exemplified remains. Paul finds this in Timothy. “I believe the sincere faith that lived in your grandmother, Lois, and your mother, Eunice, now lives in you also,” he writes.

Courageous Women of Heart and Mind

This is the only time Scripture mentions Lois and Eunice by name. The little we can piece together of their lives comes by extrapolation from what’s known about Timothy. Historians place his birth at 17 AD, making him an adolescent during Jesus’s ministry. It’s unlikely he and his family knew of Christ at the time, though, since Acts 16.1 indicates they live in Lystra, a village in Asia Minor. The Acts reference also confirms Timothy is the son of a mixed marriage, his mother being a Jew and his father a Greek. This and both women having Greek names suggest they’re fully assimilated into Gentile life. Acts 16.3 supports this by reporting Timothy isn’t circumcised until he meets Paul and the Apostle performs the rite to quell any controversy about the young man’s Jewish descent. Yet by this time, Lois and Eunice appear to have established themselves in the Lystra church and raised Timothy to be a devout believer. Indeed, 1 Timothy 1.18 and 4.14 note a prophecy in his youth that pre-ordains him as a prominent Early Church leader. Paul’s high regard for Lois and Eunice no doubt results from their concerted efforts to instill their faith in him and prepare him for service.

These clues whet our thirst to learn more about Lois and Eunice. Surely their lives were eventful, their influence significant, and their examples worthy of emulation. Yet despite our scarce knowledge, it’s obvious Lois and Eunice were courageous women of heart and mind—iconoclasts of the first order. Their integration into secular society speaks to a pragmatic faith-life balance, while their firm belief shielded them from harmful compromises. Social integrity leant dignity to their faith and vice-versa. And their commitment to imbed these values in Timothy steeled his confidence to fulfill his calling. While their personal histories have been lost, their impact survives in Paul’s counsel to Timothy and the young evangelist’s fervor. We are all Lois and Eunice’s children.

Keep Faith Alive

The teachings and promises of Christ survive exclusively on hand-me-down faith, with each generation conscientiously transmitting His gospel to succeeding ones. Some of us are fortunate to experience this in our biological families; belief in God and trust in His promises form the central threads of our heritage. Others of us are blessed to join ad hoc faith families, graced by the wisdom and strength of spiritual godparents. Yet whether the latest in a long line of believers or the first of our kin to live by faith, each of us belongs to the same family. Through Christ, Paul says in Galatians 4.5, we “receive the full rights of sons.” Preserving and perpetuating our legacy of faith is a critical part of exercising full rights as God’s children. We must take care the faith that lives in us gets planted, nurtured, and thrives in those who follow. In this sense, then, we are also parents. We are all Loises and Eunices.

The first lights of spiritual renewal are breaking in lives cruelly overshadowed by religious bigots and fearmongers. Every day our family grows larger as more people discern the lies and deceit of those who insist they don’t, can’t, and will never belong. Malnourished, severely stunted refugees are coming home in droves. New children are being born into God’s family by the hour. Reactionary prejudice against the Church—spawned by deep-seated prejudice within it—is lifting and the halls of faith are becoming full-blown nurseries. It’s our duty to keep faith alive—to impress its principles on our young and exemplify its beauty for their benefit. Faith is our most precious possession, the most precious gift we’ll ever hand down to future generations. We preserve it by teaching them to prize it.

We must take care the faith that lives in us gets planted, nurtured, and thrives in generations that follow. We are all Loises and Eunices.

(Next: Too Much for the Man)

Postscript: “Children Will Listen”
A search for video of “Carefully Taught” led me to Stephen Sondheim’s profound “Children Will Listen,” which embellishes the Rogers and Hammerstein message. It’s not surprising, though—Hammerstein served as Sondheim’s surrogate father and mentor after his natural father abandoned the family. In combination, the songs and their writers’ relationship speak volumes about hand-me-down faith and values. Take a moment to listen and consider how we transmit our faith to young believers of every age.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Not Done Yet

In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. (Acts 9.36)
The first in a series on Great Women in Scripture.

Years ago, I attended a lecture by the great Southern writer, Eudora Welty. In the Q&A segment someone asked what were her perennial favorites. “The Bible is the only book I read again and again. It never gets old for me,” she replied. When someone else questioned how she refreshed over-told stories like David and Goliath, Ms. Welty offered an ingenious method. Approach them imaginatively, she advised, like a director who tinkers with a classic play’s setting. It forces new perspectives on the reading, just as watching Hamlet in street clothes can reveal previously unnoticed nuances. Read David and Goliath as a modern war story, for example, and the villain’s weapons make him think he’s invulnerable. When David kills him with a pistol shot, the story becomes a warning about false hubris. Or set it in the Civil Rights era. While Southerners who know prejudice is evil tremble on the sidelines, a young Northerner confronts the Klan. Now the story is about irrational fear created by irrational hatred.

Following Ms. Welty’s suggestion, I’ve been reading The Acts of the Apostles as an Old West chronicle, envisioning first-century Christians as pioneers migrating across new territory, building new settlements, and dealing with new challenges. The transposed setting perfectly fits the book’s rough-and-tumble, episodic structure. It casts the Apostles’ bravado in a heroic aura reminiscent of stolidly principled, though often troubled good guys played by John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Gregory Peck. While believers cobble together makeshift churches, Peter, Paul, and a few others roam the land to help and defend the pioneers. They get arrested, pursued by angry mobs, tried in kangaroo courts, and run out of town. Basically, Acts is one showdown after another, with a few amazing incidents sandwiched in between. One of these, the story of Dorcas, is a personal favorite. Occupying all of eight verses in Acts 9, it’s little more than a quick recap of a miracle. Yet, when I recently reread it in my new “Western” context, it surged with fresh life.

Gentle, Energetic, and Graceful

Dorcas’s story is attached to another tale that puts Peter in Lydda, where he heals a bedridden man. The miracle inspires everyone in Lydda and an adjacent hamlet, Sharon, to follow Christ. The total conversion of two villages should merit extended coverage. But Luke, Acts’ author, scoots ahead to nearby Joppa, where details he reveals up-front about Dorcas immediately pique interest. His lead sentence reads, “In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor.” (Acts 9.36) He identifies her as a disciple, indicating she was a fervent, prominent figure in the Joppa church. Her notability for “doing good and helping the poor” confirms this. And Luke’s focus on her name—“Tabitha,” as she’s called in provincial Aramaic, as well as the Greek “Dorcas”—is very telling, as both mean “gazelle.” Thus, we picture Dorcas as a gentle, energetic, and graceful woman who’s sorely missed when she falls ill and dies.

Local disciples send two men to catch Peter before he leaves Lydda. Without specifying how they hope Peter can help, Luke uses their urgency to imply Peter’s heroic reputation precedes him and he’s often summoned to address situations beyond other disciples’ control. That he arrives without delay indicates Dorcas is a stabilizing, positive force her church and community can’t do without. Verse 39 says when Peter enters the room where her body rests, “All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.” For all the good she’s achieved, Peter surmises she’s not done yet. He dismisses the mourners and calls her: “Tabitha, get up.” (v40) She opens her eyes and takes Peter’s hand as he lifts her up. Her resuscitation persuades many to follow Christ. Before this, though, Peter calls the believers and widows, and presents Dorcas to them. (v41) He restores order much like a Western hero rides into town and ends its turmoil. And in the same way, he hangs around until things fully return to normal. Verse 43 reports, “Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.”

Open Ways

The Old West filter doesn’t enhance Luke’s portrait of Dorcas. Like all committed, caring women, she’s timeless. But recasting her story as a frontier tale heightens the sense of how tragically her loss is felt and why Peter rushes to reverse it. Joppa needs Dorcas. She’s irreplaceable. Proverbs 18.16 says, “A gift opens the way for the giver.” Dorcas’s gifts as a seamstress open ways for her to free impoverished people from shame and reawaken their pride. Her death spells the end of dignity for many who looked to her for inner healing and personal strength. Had Dorcas squelched her talent or lost touch with it, her loss wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. Because she uses her gifts, her death is simply unacceptable.

Her story isn’t extraordinary. It’s exemplary. We’re all irreplaceable. The good we do arises from sensibilities uniquely our own. Our talents open ways to help others as only we can. Yet when we minimize or drift from gifts God has given us, we essentially die. We’re numb to the loss, but our absence is a tragedy for those who need help. For all the good we’ve accomplished, we’re not done yet. There’s more—much, much more—we can do. Death is simply unacceptable. It’s time to get up, spring back to life, and fill the void we’d otherwise leave behind.

No talent is too trivial or small. When we minimize or drift from gifts God has given us, we create a void in lives that need help.

(Next: Hand-Me-Down Faith)