What a love/hate relationship we have with time! The memories that haunt us, that we cannot get back. The things we wish we could change, the words we wish we said or hadn’t said. The opportunities that we missed out of fear and numbness. The ignorance in us.
But also those moments we wish we could live in again, store them up in a bottle and put it on the fireplace mantle. If only we could pop the cork and enter back into the laughter, the gaze, the touch, the playfulness of a moment. Or if I could just have a day, 24 hours, when my kids were little with chocolate on their faces and mischief in their eyes. Or smell their little baby heads and feel the dimples in their knuckles.
And there’s the moments of trauma we wish we could erase. But they return and intrude, unwelcomed, into our present, saying this is who you are.
Moses’ Wife, the Queen of Sheba, and the Black Bride
Let’s trace the black and beautiful bride through Scripture and behold her beauty, starting with that strange story in Numbers 12. There are all kinds of interpretations on this. Origen’s is most compelling to me, as he ties it into his homily on the Song of Songs 1:5:
‘I am dark and beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Cedar, as the curtains of Solomon.’
In his book Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley opens his chapter on the Bible and black identity with this verse from the Song, as he goes on to demonstrate how black identity in Scripture, along with multiple ethnicities, show forth God’s promise to Abraham and his original purposes of cultural diversity as a manifestation of his glory. He surveys black identity in Scripture as fulfillment of this promise, tracing through Ephraim & Manasseh (Gen. 48:3-5), the multiethnic group who left Egypt during the exodus (Exod. 12:38), and the conversion of Africans such as Simon of Cyrene and his family (Matt. 27:32), and the Ethiopian eunuch ((Acts 8:26-40). And he concludes,
“When the black Christian enters the community of faith, she is not entering a strange land. She is finding her way home.”
That reminded me of Origen’s homily. He comments on the daughters of Jerusalem bringing this charge to the Bride, calling her black, an outsider, “one who has not been enlightened by the patriarch’s teaching.” He speaks for her:
“Because of my dark colouring you may compare me to the tents of Cedar and the curtains of Solomon; but even Cedar was descended from Ismael, being born his second son, and Ismael was not without a share in the divine blessing. You liken me even to the curtains of Solomon, which are none other than the curtains of the tabernacle of God—indeed I am surprised, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you should want to reproach me with the blackness of my hue. Have you not come to forget what is written in your Law, as to what Mary [Mariam] suffered who spoke against Moses because he had taken a black Ethiopian to wife? How is it that you do not recognize the true fulfillment of that type in me? I am that Ethiopian.“
In expositing Numbers 12, Origen points out the interpretive difficulty of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint. The text says that they spoke against Moses over the Cushite woman he married, but what they said was “Does the Lord speak only through Moses? Does he not speak also through us?” (Num. 12:2). What does this have to do with Moses’ Cushite wife? Origen thinks it has to do with what their positions represented typologically.
The past couple of years directed my thinking and longings to what kind of friend I want to be. Or maybe it’s more like what kind of person I want to be. They are hand-in-hand concepts. This is what I am thinking about going into the new year. There is such beauty and power in friendship. I want to be the kind of friend who helps see what’s real in both the beauty and agony of life, the kind of friend who shows up, who stays in the room, who sits and walks with, who loves enough to help imagine together the joy that is growing in the act of opening the door.
Opening the door to what? What does that mean? It means sitting with what’s real—both the joy and the agony of that realness mingle together there—listening, looking, and seeing what we so often miss. The invitation of beauty. The path of goodness that reveals truth. Practicing eternity. Seeing Christ in one another. It’s where faith walks. I want to be the kind of friend whose faith is genuine enough to believe on behalf of those I love. And I want to love more.
That’s a thing, you know. Like I said, friendship is powerful stuff.
Christmas is a good time to talk about why we don’t call God, “Mother.” We know that God is a Spirit, not male or female. And yet we use Father/Son language, “him” language. Even though we see some maternal language associated with God, we privilege the paternal language. Sadly, and even dangerously, many in the church have used this language to privilege males over females, developing with it destructive views of masculinity and femininity.
All language that we use about God is anagogical. In Women and the Gender of God, Dr. Amy Peeler has a chapter “God Is Not Masculine,” where she discusses the destructive views of a so-called masculine God and why we call God Father and not Mother. She makes the case that it is the incarnation that gives us the explanation. She says that we always have to start with Jesus to talk about God rightly. And the Christmas story gives us the answer:
Jesus has a mother.
God, like a father does, stood distinct from creation and did not carry it within the divine being.
That which God did not do to creation, however, God allowed creation to do to him. God was carried in the womb. God was birthed, and God suckled at the breast.
This Christmas has me reflecting on Levitical purity laws. I’ve never heard a sermon on Leviticus 12 or Leviticus 15. Maybe you have. There is a lot to work through there. Just looking at chapter 12, we have the uncomfortableness of the language, the meaning behind the number of days a woman who gave birth is “unclean,” why it’s so different if she has a son or a daughter, and this matter of women being kept from the sanctuary or even touching holy things for so long. A pastor would certainly have to address the question of gender disparity here. This can’t be random; it has to have meaning. And it does. It tells a story.
In The Sexual Reformation, I touch on this, building on Richard Whitekettle’s development of a womb/wellspring homology, showing that a woman’s body, in its structure and function, corresponds to the order of Levitical sacred space. Our bodies speak, and what a story they tell! And this is why we see all those weird purity laws associated with a woman’s menstruation and postpartum discharge in Leviticus (12; 15:19–33)—her womb represents fullness of life, the inner sanctum of the divine realm. When it overflows as unbounded water, it is uninhabitable for life and a threat to sanctum, rendering her ceremonially impure for the set times (a pattern of familiar numbers) of seven or forty days.
In this homology, we see another literary pattern from Scripture of “creation–uncreation–re-creation” where unbounded water is confined, both with creation in Genesis 1 and the flood account in the second half of Genesis 7 and beginning of Genesis 8. I love how all these stories come together and the pictures God uses to delight and surprise us! You can read more about that in The Sexual Reformation. For this post, I want to follow it to Dr. Amy Peeler’s latest book, Women and the Gender of God. Let’s get back to Christmas, and more specifically, the incarnation, as it tells us something about the woman’s body, sanctuary, and access to holy things.
In her chapter on “Holiness and the Female Body,” Peeler highlights the fact that even Mary, the mother of God, is not exempt from obedience to the Levitical purity laws, as we see in Luke 2:22-24. We see that Mary observes this law, refraining from sacred space for the appointed number of days after the birth of Jesus.
Chris Davis wrote a moving and humble piece for Christianity Today, A Southern Baptist Pastor’s Plea: Please Listen. It’s a reflection after the whole Johnny Hunt debacle. You know, the latest “Christian” catastrophe where the once president of the largest American Protestant denomination is proclaimed ‘restored to the ministry’ by four rando ministers, six months after he was credibly accused of disgusting sexual assault. Davis laments the condition of the Southern Baptist Convention, complementarianism , and even his own failures in listening to women, not valuing their voices, and side-arming them from any contribution outside of the domestic sphere. He sees this video presentation of “pastors” explaining this restoration to church leadership not as a one off to critique, or even as an example of what’s wrong with those “out there,” but as a mirror. He sees himself and the ministerial decisions he’s made in their explanation, himpathy, and defense of this man:
“It is a mirror that shows us what happens when our convictions about complementarity rot into misogyny.”
That is a loaded sentence.
It’s a brave post and plea. Complementarians don’t even listen to women, much less seek them for any positions of leadership. It is basic misogyny. Rot. Male superiority. And it harmonizes with racism. Of course it does, the common denominator is becoming quite an embarrassing elephant of disillusionment.
But here’s the problem. Davis’s plea is vulnerable and sincere. I don’t want to question that. Yet there’s still something he doesn’t see. He is still disillusioned in his very plea. Complementarians just can’t listen. It’s taken me many years and a lot of personal cost to accept this. They can’t. Because they foreground the (white) male voice. This is their posture. Ostensibly, they are there to listen. Appointed listeners. More importantly, appointed men with the “right” information we need to live the Christian life. We clamor for an ear, trying to ascend to the worthiness to be heard. To be a part. But it is all backwards. Why are we the ones needing to develop the grip strength to ascend, throwing off what weighs us down, dying deaths of reputation, security, social ties, dignity, and psychological safety to try and be justified by The Great Oz? Don’t you see what’s off here?
How are you? Perhaps the more fitting question is who are you? What story are you telling yourself about what kind of person you are, how you’ve become so, what your desires are, who you love, and how it is all holding together?
We are storied people. Recognizing this will help us to learn better, to love better, and to heal better. And the thing about stories is they require more than one character. It is fascinating to learn about the mind—it’s still so mysterious. It gets tricky when we talk about how the mind, soul, and affections of our hearts all interrelate. And how they relate to the minds, souls, and affections of others. This happens in the context of story that we are constantly telling ourselves and each other, both verbally and nonverbally.
Christians are in the soul-business, but we often get caught up in a transactional mode as we talk about our need for salvation and sanctification. We assent to these truths and conform to these behaviors in exchange for eternal life with God and belonging in the faith. We can easily reduce our faith to decisions and performance. But we call it submission, so it sounds more spiritual.
Doctrine is important to me because I want to know God truly. I’m not downplaying its value. But my experiences over the last three years have revealed to me the dangers of thinking of the faith in mere cerebral terms. God is inviting us to commune with him. He’s preparing us for love. Theology without love—and all that holistically encompasses— is a theology of a different god.
And love isn’t something didactically taught. It’s something we need prepared for. We learn of it in our relationships, our stories.
Here we are again, evangelicals, in the New York Times. Many have now seen that Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church and president of the Acts 29 church planting network, confessed to having an “inappropriate online relationship” with a woman and is taking an indefinite leave of absence.
You can watch his confession before the church here:
It is extremely vague and leaves concerned believers and unbelievers with many questions. The way that this is presented is that the problem is that Chandler’s DM’s with this “other” woman were too “frequent” and “familiar,” and there was some “coarse joking.” The concerns from the elders were not that the messages were “romantic or sexual.” Are any of you scratching your head thinking that the way this is framed is descriptive of platonic friendship? It could even be healthy friendship. His wife and her husband reportedly knew about this messaging.
Obviously, we do not have the whole story. And there has to be more to it. There’s warranted reasons to say this. First of all, the NYTimes reports:
It’s been a week. I accepted an invitation to preach on the Song of Songs to a wonderful Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation. I was met with much hospitality, encouragement, and engagement there. And for that, I am also met with much vitriol on the internet. It’s a lot to hold together in your heart and in your head.
I wrote a response to the first wave of accusations after accepting an invitation, and CBMW published a piece about me, hoping that those who disagreed with me would at least see where I am with things and move on with their lives. But that is a pipe dream. On top of the vitriol, there is the subtle shaming. It is surreal to read a backhanded subtweet and then learn from the comments and retweets that it’s about you:
Certain people’s theological or spiritual declension should be less a cause for a sense of vindication than sorrow and shame for any whose unchristian behaviour played a part in pushing them from the truth. We can challenge people without giving orthodoxy a toxic reputation.
While he seems to be addressing toxic behavior, do you see the toxic framing there? Whomever he is speaking of…she which shant be named…is in theological and spiritual declension, pushed from the truth. So I just want to clarify that I am confident that I have been pushed, but God catches his own and I am closer to the truth even as I have much, much more to learn.
The theological and spiritual declension I see going on in the church is not because a woman gave an invitation to beauty based on Song of Songs 3:11.
Despite the accusations, I didn’t have an ambition to preach. I just wanted to have some conversations with the preacher. Because I was so moved by the gospel. And what that meant for reality and life. I wanted in—where it mattered. Into the beautiful. Into the magic of it all. Oh, the questions I had! Who else shared in these inquiries? And this draw into the invitation? I didn’t see myself as a leader, but merely a responder.
Everything was beautiful in the real life that we meditated on last. We ended with the man beckoning the woman’s voice and wanting to gaze face to face. All that goodness may make her response to him curious.
Catch the foxes for us—
the little foxes that ruin
for our vineyards are in bloom.
Here, we experience the tension between the already of this true invitation with the reality of the Bridegroom breaking in, and the not-yet of our consummation. The woman teaches us that reality is complex. Think of what a gift this is: here we are in the holy of holies of Scripture, where we can experience the presence of Christ with us in the most intimate place in his Word. Here we are getting behind the veil, our senses aroused to his love with a taste of what is to come. And yet, it’s all empty sentimental platitudes if we let ourselves pervert it into fantasy.
And so is the fact that our preparation to get there can be filled with conflict and agony. In speaking of a Jewish Hasidic Master, Elie Wiesel, says something similar. “The beauty of Rebbe Barukh [of Medzebozh] is that he could speak of faith not as opposed to anguish but as being part of it. ‘Faith and the abyss are next to one another,’ he told his disciple. ‘I would even say: one within the other. True faith lies beyond questions; true faith comes after it has been challenged.’” Can you resonate with this? So many have testified, feeling a bit of shame for it, that when things are going well, they often don’t feel as close to God. What have been the greatest trials in your life? This is when our faith is exposed. And trained. The writer to the Hebrews says it like this: “No discipline seems joyful at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). Our faith goes through training in the hard times. Real life training. Disappointments and losses in life can disorient us. They cause us to ask what is real. Things are often not as they seem.