Letter to My Daughter: Starting a Job

Dear Baby Girl,

Tomorrow is my first faculty orientation. I’ll learn how to enter grades, get my first ID that says “Faculty” on it, and probably hear a lot of school policies that I’ll forget in roughly 3 minutes. None of those things worry me. What worries me is that for the first time, I’ll miss your entire day. Your daddy will choose your outfit, make sure you get your “milkies” and apple puree, take you on errands, and deal with the requisite diaper blowouts. Meanwhile, I’ll be on 24-E driving to the seminary on the mountain.


When I first heard about this job, I almost didn’t apply for it. And then I applied for it, but when I got the offer, I almost didn’t take it. I told myself I shouldn’t take the job because you need me too much. But let’s be real, Debbie Joy—we both know that isn’t totally true. We both know you have a daddy who will rearrange his schedule to meet your needs and to make my professional dreams come true.

The truth is that I will miss you so much that it scares me. For 39 weeks and 6 days, I carried you in my womb, and I loved every moment (okay, maybe I didn’t love the last few moments so much).  I knew exactly where you were and that I was doing exactly what you needed. Ever since you made your speedy exit, you’ve been inching away from me: You learned to take a bottle from your daddy when needed; you learned to sleep without me; you learned to roll away from me. One day soon, I think you’ll be on the move for real. And I’ll learn more and more to accept that you’re Debbie Joy all on your own—you don’t need me to do your living for you.

Sometimes I ask myself why I work outside the home, when I see so many mamas thriving while home full-time with their babies. I want to be like them. But I think the answer is that I’m not sure I’ll be 100% me if I am home 100% of the time. God made me your mama, and God also made me passionate about teaching, researching, and writing. While being your mama is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, I’m worried that if I feel like I’m only getting to be 80 or 90% myself, the other 20 or 10% might cause a whole heck of a lot of trouble. When I go away, it’s so I can come back and be more “there” for you than I was before.

And I also go away because the teaching, researching, and writing I do are to help make the world a better place for you and children like you. I want you to grow up in a world where Christians like your daddy and me use the Bible to build each other up, to create community, and to do justice and love kindness. I teach so people can understand how to use the Bible like that.

And I go away because I want you to see me and believe that you can do anything. I want you to know that you can grow up and have kids or not, and you can be a stay at home mom or not. I want you to know that you can be a philosopher or an engineer or a chef or President of the USA (although right now, that bar is set pretty low). You can be whatever God calls you to be. (Just please, please, please don’t decide you want to play in the NFL or be an MMA fighter. That would put my feminist convictions to the test.) When you look back on your childhood, I want you to remember me as an empowered woman and know that you can be empowered, too.

Here’s what I’ll do tomorrow. I’ll do my job, and I’ll do it in a way that I hope will make you proud of me one day when you’re bigger. I will look at pictures of you all day. I’ll check my classy flip phone to see if your daddy texts me any updates about you. I’ll worry and I’ll wonder and I’ll wait until I can press your round, smooth cheek against mine again. And I’ll trust that your daddy and God don’t need me to tell them how to care for you.

But I’ll miss you more than you can fathom.


Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter (at 5ish months)

Dear Baby Girl,

You’re now five months old, plus a week or so. You roll, sit up, laugh constantly, eat a few solids, and grab everything (including my hair…ouch!). I call you my little buddy, because we go through our days together, you riding on my left hip or inside your carrier like a tiny kangaroo.

Fortunately, you smile and laugh a lot, too!

But you also have struggled. You’ve struggled with sleep off-and-on since the dreaded four-month sleep regression rolled in like a summer thunderstorm. Teething pain and the (necessary but unfortunate) swaddle-weaning have only made things worse. There have been a few terrible nights when it seemed like all the nursing, rocking, walking, and swaying in the world couldn’t help you.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, because the pain of labor was pretty darn terrible, but the height of birth pain was easier on my emotions than your primal screams. Your daddy offered me noise-canceling headphones to protect my ears. But even though the sound is truly an assault on my eardrums, that isn’t what bothers me. It’s the knowledge that you’re hurting somehow that breaks my heart. The sight of your precious face scrunched up to scream and fat tears wetting your chubby cheeks is enough to make me weep, too.

“I’m here, Debbie Joy,” I whisper to you. “Mama’s here. We’re going to be okay.”

I insert these whispers into those moments when you gulp down some air to continue your shrieks of woe. And sometimes you hear me, and I successfully interrupt your sadness. Your arms stop flailing for a moment. Your brown eyes lock with mine. Your body nestles into the curves of my chest. For a moment, I feel like a real mama.

“That’s my girl,” I whisper. “I’m here for you. Mama’s not gonna leave you.”

There is a part of me that becomes whole in these moments. While only God knows how many times I’ve been decidedly ungodly in my relationship to you, right then, I know I’m joining in the life of God. Before you were born, I never really appreciated the idea of God as a mother, of God mothering humanity. But at my best as a mother, I know that I can care for you in this way, because this—and so much more—is the way that God has cared for me.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love,” God whispers to me when I hold you in the darkness pierced by your cries. “I have called you by name; you are mine.”

God gave me a name. God comforts me at my most fearful. God cradles me when I am afraid. God sings over me with joy. God feeds me with the bread of life. God promises never to leave me.

On some level, these are also the things I aspire to do as your mother.   And someday, I hope and pray that in spite of all my imperfections, my motherhood will help you know the One who loves you more fully and deeply than even I can.

Thank you for showing me more about how God loves me. Without you, I wouldn’t have known so well.

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter (at 2ish months)

Dear Baby, The last time I wrote you, I was 25 weeks pregnant, and I hadn’t yet experienced the miracle of seeing your face. It’s now been two months since the midwife caught the squirmy, slimy, perfect alien from my belly (that was you) and said that you were mine. Every day since then, I haven’t been able to stop marveling at your beauty. It’s not mainly a matter of your appearance—although you are adorable—but instead, it’s the radiance of your whole personhood. Here’s what I see when I look at you.

When I look at you, I see the woman you will become. If I had to pick just one word for you, it would be fierce. Since the day you were born, your daddy and I have noticed a certain determination in everything that you do. Right now, you try your darnedest to crawl while Daddy plays “Eye of the Tiger,” and you root for milk with a sometimes-alarming intensity.

Photo on 4-23-17 at 12.10 PM
Sometimes even fierce babies have to nap.

We get the feeling that as you grow up, you’ll still be fierce, though in more and more mature ways. Our culture doesn’t generally appreciate fierce women, especially not fierce women of color. But your daddy and I love your ferocity. While we will encourage you to grow in compassion and wisdom along with your feistiness, we will never ask you to douse that fire that’s in your heart. I believe that you will grow into a woman who has the ferocity to stand up for her own dignity and the dignity of others.

When I see you, I see the sacrifice of so many people. The day you were born, your daddy commented to me that you would never “pass” as white. Your beautiful, smooth skin is already much darker than mine, even though you’ve spent most of your time indoors or ensconced in your carrier. We’ll let you name your racial identity for yourself, but as far as our culture is concerned, you are a person of color.

Right now you have no idea that many of your ancestors came to our country in slave ships, that Jim Crow laws denied the dignity of your black ancestors, or that some of your white ancestors fought a war to keep slavery legal. You don’t know that within your grandparents’ lifetime, the marriage that gave you life was illegal in this state. And you don’t know about the many people who have protested, litigated, legislated, lived, and died so that your rights and our family would be protected.   One day you will learn these things, and the struggles of your forebears may weigh on you. But I believe that if these people could speak to you, they would tell you that it was worth it. The existence of our family has come as such a cost, but your value is inestimable.

When I look at you, I see the unlikely intersection of two stories that only God could weave together. Your daddy and I are not alike in many ways. We come from very different cultural contexts and families; our personalities are quite different; and we have different views about certain issues.   It’s our shared love of God that grants us the gift of loving each other. The love of God drew us together through a succession of choices we made independently, allowing us to meet at a time when we were open to sharing our hearts and lives with one another.

 While you are a person in your own right, every time I see you, I’m reminded of the love that created you—a love that has altered our plans, continually exposed our self-centeredness, and drawn us deeper into the mystery of God’s love. In the two years we’ve been married, we’ve lived in three different homes, worked on three different graduate degrees, and watched far too many episodes of Bones and Criminal Minds.   We’ve loved each other through difficult jobs, unreasonable arguments, and the loss of a parent. After all of that, I can say with assurance that you are the most beautiful thing we’ve created together.

You are so beautiful.


Your Mommy

“God Will Not Take a Life”

Five-and-a-half years ago, I watched people who nearly lost their lives to murder dig a grave for a man who was convicted of and executed for murder.

I was a live-in volunteer at Jubilee Partners, a Christian intentional community  in rural Georgia. Jubilee provides temporary housing, an ESL program, and cultural immersion experiences for refugees entering the United States.  Over the summer I lived there, I had the privilege of knowing refugees from Myanmar–Karen, Karenni, and Chin people who were the target of government persecution. Many of them had lost their jobs and land, experienced sexual violence, and watched their families die.

14504640182_2458726b8a_b.jpgIn their shoes, I doubt I’d summon much mercy for anyone associated with murder. And yet one hot day in July, I watched these people, along with other residents of Jubilee, dig a grave for a man whom the state of Georgia had executed for murder. Sweat drenched the bodies of the gravediggers as they shoveled the heavy Georgia red dirt out of the hole they were digging.

The grave  meant that the convicted murderer could be buried with greater dignity than he would be within the Georgia prison system, in concert with this man’s own desires. Any relatives who wanted to could easily visit his grave in peace and privacy.

I thought about that hot July day in Georgia when I heard that Dylann Roof, the shooter whose racist ideology motivated his deadly shooting spree in Charleston, had been sentenced to death. While it’s easy for me to oppose the death penalty in the abstract, in the concrete, Roof’s actions and ideology trigger a rage in me that made me not at all sorry to hear the news of his sentencing.  If Roof’s execution were carried out, what kind of supernatural power could compel anyone of conscience to dig his grave?

In an often-overlooked story in II Samuel, David’s son Absalom has committed fratricide, killing his brother Amnon. David is furious, but he seeks counsel from a wise woman to discern whether he should seek Absalom’s life.  The wise woman replies,

We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up. But God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from his presence (2 Sam. 14:14).

So often, Christians make a caricature of  an “Old Testament God” who is distant, always angry, and merciless.  They juxtapose the “Old Testament God” with a “New Testament God” made known in Jesus who offers grace and redemption.  But the God we encounter here is one who is relentless in pursuing the worst that humanity has to offer.  The God we find here offends us not because he is angry and merciless, but because he is relentless in attempting to gather all wrongdoers back into his presence.

A lot of people seem to die while still “banished from his presence,” still water spilled on the ground.  And that seems counter to God’s intentions for humanity.  But II Samuel challenges me to believe that as long as there is breath in our lungs (and maybe even after that), God is forever trying to reconcile each of us to himself…

…even presidents whose behavior and policies I find morally repugnant.

…even murderers who would kill my husband and daughter because of their race.

…even people whose lives fail to reflect the divine image as much as mine does.

When that reconciliation doesn’t happen, God mourns.  God’s tears are the water spilled on the ground that cannot be gathered up.  And maybe in those moments, God calls us to mourn along with him.  We bury dead possibilities for reconciliation in hopes of a resurrection we can’t yet imagine.

Between Jericho and Aleppo

Many Christians like myself get introduced to the Conquest story of Joshua innocently enough.  I remember singing “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” with abandon at Vacation Bible School. But at Jericho, not only do the “walls come tumbling down,” but Joshua also leads a massacre of everyone but Rahab the prostitute and her family.

When news of Aleppo fills our newsfeed, Joshua may not seem so innocent. The Jericho massacre may resonate eerily with the real-life massacres of today’s Syrians.

The Israelites, recently freed from slavery, receive a Divine mandate to wipe out the Canaanite population that inhabits “their” Promised Land. The perceived danger is that the Canaanites will corrupt Israelite worship with idolatry. The threat is so severe that when the Israelites fail to annihilate a Canaanite city, God’s punishment follows.

The Conquest narrative is not likely historical. The archaeological record does not confirm the biblical account of a Conquest. And Joshua itself was written much later than the historical period it claims to describe. It’s a literary work rather than a historical one by modern standards. However, whatever the Joshua narrative lacks in historical fact, it compensates for in ideological clout.  Christians have used Joshua to justify genocide and other types of mass murder.

We’ve proffered explanations for why God “had” to order the massacres: The Canaanites were “irredeemable.”  The Israelites were God’s elect.  It was all part of God’s plan.

But the question for Christians is this: Do we worship a God who sanctions and even demands the slaughter of innocent people?

The answer for me is, “No, never.” Whether the massacred victims are in Jericho or Aleppo, the God I love and serve weeps over them. The God I love and serve promises justice.

To respond to crises like the Aleppo killings, we Christians need to take hard look at the ground we stand on.  Because I regard the Bible as the sacred, divinely-inspired human attempt to put Divine revelation into words, that means acknowledging tensions within the Scriptures.  The Bible rarely speaks with just one voice. Most often, I think the biblical writers nailed it. But sometimes, like in the Conquest narratives, I think they got it badly wrong.

But the God I love and serve still speaks from the Bible to moments like the Aleppo crisis.  The God I love and serve says,

Open your mouth for the voiceless,
For justice for all the destitute (Prov. 31:8).

For the God I love and serve, whom the Scriptures reveal time after time, defending the voiceless is not an afterthought. It is the agenda. Yet the slaughter of innocents in Joshua  stands in tension with the revelation of such a God.

I think our skill in pushing the “mute” button on the voices of suffering innocents in Joshua translates into more than problematic theology.  That dexterity may enable us to push the “mute” button on Aleppo, too.

Grief and Joy Walk Together

The most famous words in Lamentations are the ones that the beautiful hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” immortalized:

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

This refrain, which Thomas O. Chisholm wrote in 1923, paraphrases the KJV translation of Lamentations 3:22-23.   Ever since my husband Will and I got married, these words have hung in our home, printed on a sign I bought for 25 cents at Goodwill. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” has become the banner our hearts carry each day.

img_0096Remembering the context of these words makes them all the more powerful.  The rest of Lamentations is heartbreaking in its graphic descriptions of war and exile, which include famine, cannibalism, massacre, and sexual violence.  Lamentations is 5 chapters long, and these verses in chapter 3 are the book’s main affirmation of God’s goodness.  They’re a breath of fresh air amid despair that can threaten to drown us.

The writer of Lamentations chose not to make “Great is thy faithfulness” the happy ending of Lamentations. It’s not a fairy tale happily-ever-after that washes away the pain of the rest of book.  Instead, by placing these verses in the middle of the book, God’s faithfulness surfaces in the midst of the agony that the Judean people experience.  For a brief moment, God’s ever-present mercy is apparent, triumphant above the pain.

But even in the moment of mercy’s triumph, Lamentations doesn’t forget about pain.  In Lam. 3:24, the word that typically is translated as “hope” can just as easily mean “wait.” Waiting can be agonizing–the wait for a critical phone call, the wait for a diagnosis, the wait for relational restoration.  For the writer of Lamentations, God’s faithfulness belongs even to the domain of painful in-between times.

This summer, my husband and I experienced some hope/sadness tension for ourselves. By the end of June, I suspected that something other than mere indigestion was making my stomach turn.  One morning I slipped out of bed early to take a pregnancy test while Will was still asleep. A few minutes later, I ran back into the bedroom and woke him up with a huge smile and the news he was a father.

That night, we called Will’s family to let them know the great news.  Will’s mom sobbed with happiness through the whole phone call.  She just managed to get out the words, “My baby is having a baby!” We prayed together and said good night.

A few days later, around 10 A.M., I heard the most terrible sound I’ve ever heard: the sound of Will getting the news that his mom had unexpectedly died that morning. On this side of heaven, she would not meet the grandchild she already loved so much.  She would not be there to mother us as we became parents ourselves.  We’d had no idea that the news of our pregnancy would be our goodbye.

Over the next few weeks, grief and joy were no longer strangers, but both our companions.  We went to the funeral and we visited the house of Will’s childhood, somehow less home now. And then we returned to Nashville, still heartbroken, and arrived at our first ultrasound appointment.  After all the death of the past weeks, I could hardly believe it when we saw the flickering that confirmed new life.  Our baby had a heartbeat. Our pregnancy was viable.  For that day, at least, a tomb was empty.

Lam. 3:23-25 isn’t the end of lament in Lamentations.  There’s still a lot more pain that the authors lead us through. 15328324_10101460750331447_1716829510_n And the news that our pregnancy was viable certainly didn’t wash away our sadness that we lost a mother. Our journeys of grief and joy are ongoing and simultaneous.

One beauty of Lamentations is that it teaches us that we don’t have to deny the reality of either sadness or joy, waiting or hope. God’s faithfulness is sovereign always. And so our banner reminds us:

Great is thy faithfulness when we mourn the mother we lost.

Great is thy faithfulness when we celebrate the new life growing within me.

Great is thy faithfulness, every moment of our lives.

What is Sodomy?

When I teach Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, students are often eager to talk about the Genesis 19 story of God’s destruction of Sodom.  Word on the street has it that God destroyed the city of Sodom because of the men’s “homosexual practices.”   But that’s not an interpretation of the story that holds up under rigorous exegesis.

In Genesis 19, God is on a mission to prove why the city of Sodom is bad enough to warrant its destruction. So God sends two angels to Sodom in the guise of strangers, in need of food and lodging.  Abraham’s nephew Lot graciously hosts these strangers.  But the men of the city soon come and “press upon” (an innuendo for rape) Lot’s door, demanding that Lot send out the guests so that the Sodomites can “know them” (i.e. have sex with them).  Lot refuses, but offers his daughters as sexual bait instead (yeah, he was a great father).  Lot and his daughters barely escape with their lives.

Fair enough, this story strongly suggests sexual acts between men.  But a) these sexual acts involve rape, not mutual relationships between consenting adults, and b) the essence of Sodom’s wickedness seems to lie not in sex, but in the humiliation of needy outsiders.  Sex is involved only as a tool for humiliation, not as a means to relationship or pleasure.

Often the Bible gives us internal clues about how we may interpret it.  Ezekiel 16:49-50 offers an interpretation of what the sin of Sodom actually is:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it (NRSV).

According to Ezekiel, sodomy is not sex between two men.  Sodomy is idolatry of our own comfort that leads us to exclude people who are hungry and people who are outsiders to our communities.  The Sodomites in Genesis didn’t threaten to rape the angels because they were gay (who ever heard of a city where all the men were gay, anyway?).  The Sodomites became predators because they were hoping to humiliate the outsiders.  They hoped that the strangers would leave Sodom empty-handed, so that no insider to their city would have to share their hearth and their larder.

The sodomy that Genesis and Ezekiel condemn has nothing to do with rainbow flags and people committed to spending their lives loving each other. On the other hand, sodomy might have a lot to do with contemporary American political rhetoric.

Letter to My Daughter

Dear Baby Girl,

Your daddy and I haven’t held you in our arms yet (and honestly, we’re hoping we won’t for another 15 weeks).  We don’t know if the hue of your skin will be closer to your daddy’s warm brown or your mommy’s pale blush, or if you’ll have your daddy’s broad nose or your mommy’s slightly upturned one.  We don’t know if you’ll be the life of the party like your daddy or rather stay home with a book like your mommy.  But there are a few things that we know about you already, without question.

We know that God delights in you, exactly as you are.  Baby Girl, as much as it breaks my heart, there will be people in this broken world who cannot see your beauty the way we do. We know that as you grow up, you will hear stories and see images of people of color who were murdered for no reason.  You will see racism in the city where we live, in the schools you attend, and in the opportunities made available to people of color. You may ask me why people say things like “Make America White Again,” when you and your daddy aren’t white. You may ask me why all the presidents so far have been boys, and why there are fewer girls who are famous athletes, scientists, and pastors.  You may ask me why our country elected a man to the presidency who is a known predator on strong, smart, beautiful women like you. As much as I wish I could shelter you from prejudice and discrimination, I know that some people will see you as “less” because of the color of your skin and the fact that you are a woman.  And all these things may cause you to wonder if you really matter.

baby-larryBut I promise that we will tell you over and over again that you matter, exactly as you are. I believe that it was God’s intention for you to be precisely the person that you are, and that person is of inestimable value in God’s eyes. We read in Genesis that God created you “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:31).  We read in Psalm 139:13-14 that even now, before you are even born, God “knit [you] together” inside of me, that you are

fearfully and wonderfully made.

And as you grow and develop into the woman God created you to be, God doesn’t just tolerate you–God delights in you.  Zephaniah 3:17 tell us that God

rejoices over you with singing.

Baby Girl, God created you exactly how you are–as the daughter of a black man from inner-city Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a white woman from suburban Atlanta, Georgia–and those aspects of your personhood, as well as every part of your personality and character, bring immeasurable joy to him.

We know that Jesus gave his life for you.  Baby Girl, because you are precious and beloved in God’s sight just as you are, Jesus came to live and die for you, just as he did for the whole world.  His heart broke so much for the pain of the world that he gave his life for it.  Jesus beheld the way that the people hurt each other, creation, and God’s own heart, and he spread his arms wide on the cross to hold us all.  Jesus has borne the pain of every sorrow and difficulty you will ever know because he took on flesh in this broken and sinful world.  When anyone’s behavior or words suggest to you that you don’t matter, turn your eyes to the cross and see the Savior who says that you matter so much that he died for you.

We know that the One who died for you is seated on the throne. Baby Girl, when you face those times when people don’t value you, remember that they are speaking from a position of weakness.  The holder of true authority is the One who has called you precious and chosen and who has died for you.  The God of the universe, the Risen Christ, is seated on the throne above all. In the Old Testament, Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1).  And in the New Testament, it is Christ who is enthroned. In Hebrews 8:1, he is

one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.

So know this, whenever somebody questions your worth: They are wrong, and their “authority” is meaningless compared to the sovereignty which the Christ who died for you holds over the world.

We know that we will fail at times as your parents, but we will never stop trying to mirror God’s love for you.  Baby Girl, before you were even conceived, we prayed for you to come into our lives. The morning I found out I was pregnant with you was one of the happiest moments of my life. The moment I told your daddy he was going to be a daddy, tears of joy rolled down his face.  But I have a confession: We don’t know how to be your parents yet. I don’t know how to raise a young woman of color to be confident and compassionate in this world that can be so unjust and unkind.  I fully anticipate messing up in spite of my best intentions. But I look to God as the ultimate and perfect parent, of whom the Psalmist says,

“If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up” (Ps. 27:10).

When my attempts to mirror God’s love for you fail, please forgive me, and know that God will not fail you as your heavenly parent.

Baby Girl, the love we have for you is more instinctive, deeper, and broader than anything I have ever known. But it is only a drop of water compared to the ocean of God’s love for you.  I pray that love defines every moment of your life as you walk through this broken and beautiful world.

Your Mommy


Silence, Shame, and Rape

King David may have been a man “after God’s own heart,” but his family life was dysfunctional at best.  I’ve heard the story of his affair with Bathsheba mentioned in sermons fairly often.  However, the story of his daughter’s rape by one of his sons, and his own complicity in it, rarely gets mentioned.

Princess Tamar appears briefly in the biblical narrative in 2 Samuel 13.  The text only tells us that she was beautiful and that her half-brother Amnon was obsessed with her (he claims to “love” her).  Amnon was heir to David’s throne.  Even though Tamar was a princess, her status couldn’t compare with Amnon’s within David’s court.  So Amnon has an easy time engineering a situation in which he can get Tamar alone.  Amnon enlists the help of Jonadab, a courtier, who concocts a scheme in which Tamar must go to Amnon’s room to “care” for him.

desolation_of_tamar_by_j-tissotNo sooner does Amnon get Tamar alone than he “seizes” her.  The Hebrew verb here is hazaq, which is the root that the noun “strength” comes from as well.  He literally overpowers her–both physically and socially through his position as heir to the throne.

Tamar’s protest is one of the most plaintive and evocative passages in the Old Testament.  Tamar knows that what is happening to her is wrong, but she has no power to freeze the action.  Courageously, she protests to Amnon anyway. She cleverly refers to Amnon as “my brother,” appealing to the taboo against incest, and claims that “such a thing is not done in Israel.”  She calls his action a nebalah, which literally means a “senseless thing.”  She accurately describes the rape as a senseless act of violence.

But the most moving point of her appeal is this question:

And I, where will I carry my shame?

Tamar know that the rape, even though it is not her fault, will be a burden that she alone will bear.  She, not Amnon, will pay the price of the violation of her physical and emotional space.

What she says doesn’t matter to Amnon. He rapes her anyway.

Immediately after the rape, Amnon feels only hate for Tamar, whereas before the rape, he claimed that he “loved” her.  Here, the biblical writers perceptively anticipate what modern psychology tells us about rape: Sexual assault is not about sexual desire or love.  It’s about power. And when the rapist has exhausted their thirst for power over the victim, the victim can be discarded.  Accordingly Amnon sends Tamar away screaming.

Tamar takes her lament to the halls of David’s palace. She lets her grief, fear, and maybe even rage be heard.  Absalom, another of her brothers and supposedly her ally, intercepts her and immediately knows what has happened. (We ask ourselves, how did he know? And if Absalom knew that Amnon was a threat, why didn’t he act sooner?)  But instead of helping her, Absalom responds first with these words:

Be silent.

King David is no better. David is angry when he hears that his son has raped his daughter, but he does not punish Amnon because Amnon is his firstborn and his heir.

The rape sets the course of Tamar’s life.  She remains a shomemah, literally a “desolated woman,” all the days of her life. The social stigma of rape buries Tamar in a shame from which, at least according to what the biblical text tells of her, she never escapes.

Tamar’s story is terribly difficult to read, but I’m grateful it’s in the Old Testament.  The story bears witness to the story of a woman whose experience is similar to that of many women even today.  Just as Amnon, Absalom, and David ultimately collude to silence Tamar–even though at least Absalom is ostensibly well-meaning–so many women today find themselves silenced if they dare to speak up about the sexual violence they’ve experienced.

Tamar doesn’t get “justice.” Even the death of Amnon (which, by the way, happens at Absalom’s hands just a bit later in the story) can’t restore her wholeness.  But in telling the story of Tamar today, we can literally begin to re-member her…to return her body to her again.

And if we can re-member Tamar, maybe we can re-member ourselves, too.

Jesus When the Ending Isn’t Happy

I think that a lot of Christians have the misconception that the divide between the Old Testament and the New Testament goes something like this.

Old Testament:

  • God is angry with people most of the time.
  • God is far away.
  • You better follow the law, or else the far away, angry God is suddenly going to get way too close for comfort.
  • Generally, everybody is miserable.

New Testament:

  • God is pleased with people again (because of Jesus).
  • God is close by, and that makes us feel safe.
  • Believe in Jesus, and you’ll be saved.
  • People who are saved are happy.

My portrayal is over-simplified, but it outlines the general trajectory of how many Christians I’ve encountered think about the Bible. From where I’m standing, that characterization isn’t accurate or fair when it comes to either the Old Testament or the New Testament.  While there are many problems with this approach to the Bible, there’s one troublesome aspect that I want to highlight: the idea that Jesus and happiness necessarily go hand-in-hand.

When Christians believe in Jesus, and yet they still experience debilitating grief, depression, or anxiety, their emotions and experiences can quickly become stigmatized.  After all, according to the common view of the New Testament, salvation = happiness, right? Jesus came to make people happy!

Actually, not really.  If we take a look at how the gospels portray Jesus, they draw upon the lament tradition of the Old Testament.  The lament tradition canonizes raw, gritty expressions of grief, depression, and anxiety–the very emotions that are often stigmatized in our culture.  The way the gospel writers shape their depictions of Jesus shows a comfort with the very emotions and experiences our culture finds so uncomfortable.

There are many examples of the lament tradition’s influence on the Gospels, but I just want to consider a couple of examples from Matthew.  Matthew loves to make references to the Old Testament–in fact, he does so more than any other gospel writer.  One of the ways Matthew makes use of Old Testament tradition is by framing Jesus’ natural life using lament.  

Lament first appears in Matthew just after Jesus’ birth.  After Jesus is born, King Herod, trying to exterminate the threat he believes Jesus presents to his throne, conducts a massacre of Bethlehemite children two years old and younger.  To express the tragedy of this massacre, Matthew quotes a lament from the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Mt. 2:28, NRSV)

Giotto’s The Massacre of the Innocents, painted in 1305 for the Arena Chapel

This verse quotes Jeremiah 31:15, which is addressing the pain of the Babylon exile.  The geography here is significant.  Ramah was a place just north of Jerusalem where the Judeans were held on their way into exile.  Jeremiah connects an even older tradition to his portrayal of the exile. In Genesis, the matriarch Rachel dies giving birth to her son Benjamin. According to rabbinic midrash, Rachel was then buried in Ramah on the road which the Judeans traveled into exile. Thus, in Jeremiah, Rachel weeps from the grave as she watches her descendants (“children”) tread the lonely and sad road into exile. The lament’s emotional intensity allows Matthew to repurpose it creatively to tell the story of the massacre of the Bethlehem babies.

When Jesus dies on the cross, marking the end of a normal human life, lament appears again.  Jesus’ last words in Matthew come from Psalm 22, a lament psalm:

“And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (Mt. 27:46, NRSV)

I have a high Christology–I believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human.  It’s amazing to me that Jesus, the son of God, could experience the same sense of divine abandonment that I think everyone feel at one time or another.  But I think that’s exactly what’s happening.  Jesus uses the words of the lament tradition to express the sense of betrayal and loss he experiences in the very last moments of his natural life.

Matthew leaves out parts of both of the laments I’ve discussed. The Jeremiah passage goes on to talk about how Rachel’s children will be restored to her.  Psalm 22 goes on to talk about how God eventually does hear the sufferer’s cry.  But Matthew doesn’t feel the need to quote the restoration sections of the laments.  He’s okay with staying real with the emotion in the situations he’s dealing with: The mothers of Bethlehem don’t get their slaughtered children back in this age, and Jesus is simply abandoned and dying.  I think Matthew knows that skipping over the pain in moments like those always does more harm than good.

In birth and death, lament encircles Jesus’ life.  The language of Old Testament lament helps give voice to the deep pain that is central to Jesus’ own story.  Jesus himself is not always a happy person–he both experiences physical and emotional pain personally and allows himself to respond with genuine emotion to others’ pain.  If Christians are to “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5), that means we don’t need to ignore pain.  In fact, Jesus’ example means God calls us to lament the wrongs and brokenness signaling that creation and our own lives fall far short of God’s dreams.