Women at the growing edge

 

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Along the Krenides River, where the Apostle Paul likely met Lydia, Ellen Kraybill tests the waters.

Among recent immigrants at the church where I worship in Indiana, it is women who come to faith first. Women then invite husbands and relatives, providing energy for outreach. Throughout church history, women often have led the way in growth and change.

The first Christian in Europe whose name we know was Lydia, who received the gospel as Paul traveled through Philippi. Women such as Lydia in the New Testament sometimes serve as hosts (and pastors?) of house churches. These include Mary the mother of John Mark at Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), Chloe at Corinth (2 Cor. 1:11), and Phoebe at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1). Nympha hosts a congregation at Colossae (Col. 4:15), and Priscilla with her husband Aquila shepherd a church in their home at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19).

The Greco-Roman world in which the early church grew was patriarchal. Women were second-class, usually under the guardianship of a father or husband. But widows could function as heads of household. This may have been the situation of Lydia, immigrant entrepreneur at Philippi, who marketed purple cloth.

Purple dye was expensive because a mere pound had to be extracted from thousands of snails. Being costly, purple was the color of royalty and elites. Lydia traded in this luxury product, suggesting she was similar to other Gentile “women of high standing” (Acts 17:12) who embraced the gospel.

Gender imbalance

The early church appears to have been disproportionately female, partly because of two factors: 1) In Christ, gender distinctions dissolve so there is “no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28), meaning woman often had more status in the church than in Roman society, and 2) Christians rejected the Roman practice of leaving unwanted newborns (most often female) abandoned to die. Christians nurtured their infant daughters, and also rescued infant girls who had been abandoned by others.

Lydia survived into adulthood, but was drawn to faith community at the edge of society. The book of Acts says Paul met Lydia along with other women at a Jewish “place of prayer” by the river outside Philippi (Acts 16:13). A Roman colony such as Philippi was not going to have a Jewish place of prayer within its boundaries. The likely spot where the women met to pray now is a shaded bend in the Krenides River near ruins of Philippi.

Lydia was a “God-worshiper,” meaning a Gentile who worshiped the God of Israel but did not practice the whole of Jewish Law. She was an immigrant, culturally in transition.

The church today can profit from making entry ramps for similar newcomers and God-seekers who are drawn to the hospitality and Good News of the faith community. Often women will be the leading edge of new family systems or ethnic groups coming into the church. The Holy Spirit will open their hearts and ours to Christ, just as happened when Paul shared the good news with Lydia.

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Come with my wife Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour accessible to non-athletes like myself. Dates are May 14-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum. Details are still pending but we likely also will hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or see www.TourMagination.com

Sanctuary for Jesus’ grandmother

With anti-immigrant fever festering in countries of the Western world, I find it instructive to drive on the King’s Highway into ancient Moab, east of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan. Here ancestors of David and Jesus found sanctuary during the era of judges when drought devastated Bethlehem and their Judean homeland (Ruth 1:1–5).

The ancestors were Naomi, her husband, and two sons. They surely traveled the King’s Highway into Moab because it was and still is the only main north-south highway through the region.

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This is the King’s Highway in Jordan through biblical Moab–a route that Naomi and family almost certainly traveled when they arrived as economic refugees.

The family must have been in dire straits to migrate to Moab, because it was a nation Israelites despised. Israelites understood the founder of Moab to be the product of incest (Gen. 19:37). The Law of Moses stated that “no . . . Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:3) because Moabites had been hostile when Israelites passed through their territory on their way from Egypt to Canaan.

So what kind of reception did Naomi and family receive? Apparently better than some immigrants experience in my own country, and the family settled in Moab. Sons grew up and married Moabite women, and then tragedy struck. First Naomi’s husband died, then both her sons, leaving three widows: the Israelite Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law.

Naomi resolved to return to her native Bethlehem. She urged the two younger women to stay in their homeland of Moab. But daughter-in-law Ruth clung to Naomi and spoke the timeless words, “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Now it fell upon Israelites at Bethlehem to show hospitality to an immigrant. The book of Deuteronomy may have said nasty things about Moabites, but it also said, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you” (Deut 24:19).

Ruth was an alien in Bethlehem, and landowner Boaz allowed her to glean in his fields. Romance blossomed, the two married, and Ruth the Moabite became an ancestor both to King David and to Jesus (Matt. 1:1-16).

Passports and visas did not exist in the time of Naomi and Ruth, but prejudice surely did. Naomi was an economic refugee when she traveled down the King’s Highway into Moab, and had to overcome prejudice. If she and her impoverished family had needed to wait twenty years for an uncertain visa into Moab, they may have starved to death.

Stories of the immigrant grandmothers of Jesus remind me why it might be important for followers of Jesus to help create sanctuary today for immigrants who flee hardship in their homeland and look to us for hospitality.

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Come with me on a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Dates are May 14-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum. Details still pending but we likely also will hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com

In praise of the innkeeper

That poor innkeeper at Bethlehem! For centuries the church has berated him for turning away a woman in labor and making her give birth in a stable. It is possible, though, that the innkeeper actually provided the warmest, safest, and most private place he could for Mary to give birth. Will we show the same level of hospitality for vulnerable persons arriving in our communities?

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A modern painting in the chapel at Shepherds Field shows the birth of Jesus in a cave.

Bethlehem was on the highway south from Jerusalem to Hebron and Egypt. Along such a highway there were caravanserai, rustic inns for travelers and their animals, often with minimal privacy and with risk of crime.

Perhaps such an inn at Bethlehem was overbooked, and turned away Joseph and Mary. But when Luke 2:7 refers to the facility where there was “no place” for the visitors from Nazareth, it is not with the word inn (pandokeion). Instead, Luke uses a term (kataluma) meaning guest room or dining room.

Since Joseph had family roots in Bethlehem, it is likely that he and Mary stayed with relatives. Palestinian homes of the era typically consisted of one large room where the entire household lived, dined, and slept. If relatives in addition to Joseph and Mary also arrived needing lodging, the house would have been crowded and inhospitable for childbirth.

Today thousands of pilgrims to Bethlehem stream into Church of the Nativity, the sixth-century structure built where a fourth-century church once stood. Visitors descend into the church’s crypt—in reality, a cave. Here, by ancient tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus. This is a scenario for how that could have happened:

People of ancient Palestine commonly built their houses against or on top of a cave in the bedrock. Cave rooms were cool in summer and warm in winter, affording safe shelter for people and animals. Mary and Joseph may have planned to stay at such a cave-house at Bethlehem, sleeping in the main room with a gaggle of relatives. But Mary went into labor, and the main room of the house “was no place” for Mary to give birth. Instead, caring hosts took Mary and Joseph into the adjacent cave where there was privacy and animal warmth.

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A woman kneels (lower left) to reach into the spot where, by tradition, Jesus was born. A scrum of pilgrims wait their turn.

It is hard to picture this humble scene when visiting Church of the Nativity today. Pilgrims crowd into the crypt, many so devout and moved by the holy site that they seem to jostle each other out of the way. Walls of the cave are garish with the barnacles of piety—candles, ornaments, precious metals. A silver star that once adorned the floor exactly where Jesus was born was stolen in 1847—a deed that helped trigger the Crimean War (1854-1856)!  

I visit Church of the Nativity whenever I can. But singing carols in a small cave at nearby Shepherd’s Field nurtures me more. Away from the crush of the crypt, I can better picture the unadorned and humble surroundings of Jesus’ birth. My mind turns to immigrants and refugees—millions around the world—who need basic shelter and safety. Will I do my part to show the hospitality that I believe unnamed hosts at Bethlehem showed to the mother of my Lord?

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com

Do you want to be made well?

With cancer in his middle-aged body and the prospect of lifespan shortened, Doug Brewer joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2014 while health permitted. Near the start of the Via Dolorosa—the traditional “way of suffering” where Jesus carried his cross through Jerusalem—Doug and fellow pilgrims visited ruins of Bethzatha (Bethesda) Pool. A man who had been sick for thirty-eight years once lay beside that pool until Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)

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At Bethzatha Pool, fellow pilgrims surround Doug Brewer with love and prayers. Others in the picture (clockwise starting with woman in black close to the camera) are Mary Lou Farmer, Hortensia Unternaher, Ruby (local tour guide), Shana Peachey Boshart, Roger Farmer, Martha Yoder, Randy Dalke, Karen Dalke, Helen Lindstrom, and David Boshart (leading the prayer).

Bethzatha Pool was known in ancient times as a place of healing. Some New Testament manuscripts say that “an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well.” The man sick for thirty-eight years must have been paralyzed. “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up,” he said to Jesus. “While I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Having others in church or society step ahead of them sometimes happens to persons with illness or physical challenges. “I have no one to put me into the pool” is another way of saying my community ignores me. In some faith communities, those with chronic illness feel judged as lacking faith or willpower, or even as having sin in their lives.

The man at Bethzatha Pool did not have a sustaining community. No one helped him into the water, and religious watchdogs were quick to bark when miraculously and wonderfully he was able to rise and carry his mat—but in violation of strict Sabbath rules (5:10).

Warm hands and heartfelt prayers

Someone in our pilgrim band at Bethzatha Pool asked Doug if he wanted prayer for healing. Soon we surrounded him with warm hands and heartfelt petition to God. No one presumed personal powers to cure; all of us entrusted Doug’s health to a loving Creator.

Two years later I inquired by email about Doug’s well-being. Turns out he was at death’s door in the interval, but survived. “By God’s grace and many prayers, I’m back to normal and feeling really good,” he wrote. “My cancer level has been at 0 for the past several months, so I’m not on any chemo at the moment.”

Praise God! A loving family and community walked with Doug through his own Via Dolorosa. Faith, divine power, and modern medicine converged to restore Doug. We do well to view all healing as a gift from God, without needing to distinguish between miraculous and natural recovery. We also do well to accept that sometimes, even with faith abundant and excellent medical care, we or persons we love remain ill or die.

The author of Sirach (a book the early church considered canonical), writing about 200 BC, gives counsel still good for us today: “When you are ill . . . pray to the Lord, and he will heal you. . . Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him . . . There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians, for they too pray to the Lord that he grant them success in diagnosis and in healing” (Sirach 38:9-14).

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Thanks to Doug Brewer for reviewing this blog and giving me permission to publish. For a fascinating article on prayer and healing in an unlikely source, see “Mind over matter,” National Geographic, December 2016, pp. 30–55.

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com

Whirlwind of betrayal and peacemaking

The whirlwind appeared so suddenly, and came so swiftly toward us on the dusty road at Tel Dothan, that I scarcely had time to take the lens cap off my camera. Then the little twister was upon us, blinding our view and rattling the car. Was the spirit of Elisha—who once famously lodged at Dothan—getting playful with us? After all, Elisha’s prophetic career began when a whirlwind swooped his mentor Elijah to heaven (2 Kings 2)!

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Beyond the whirlwind are hills surrounding Dothan that Elisha saw filled with the army of the Lord.

Two fellow pilgrims and I had approached Dothan with an Israeli driver we hired to take us to biblical sites in the West Bank that once were part of ancient Samaria. Dothan today is a sizable tel—an archeological mound where multiple city ruins are layered on top of each other.

Betrayal happened here when the lad Joseph, sent sixty miles from Hebron by his father Jacob, found his brothers tending sheep at Dothan (Genesis 37). Jealous of Joseph’s favored spot in their parents’ hearts, the brothers contemplated killing Joseph. Instead, they sold him to slave traders bound for Egypt.

Reconciling imagination

Dothan appears again in the Bible in a peacemaking story. Israel is at war with Aram (Syria), and the Israelites repeatedly scoop Aramaean military intelligence. Assuming there is an informer in his ranks, the king of Aram angrily demands, “Who among us [is the traitor who] sides with the king of Israel?” (2 Kings 6:11).

One of his officers explains what is happening: Elisha of Israel has prophetic gifts that grant him foreknowledge of Aramaean troop movements. Determined to capture the pesky prophet, the king of Aram sends an army at night to surround the city of Dothan where Elisha is staying. In the morning Elisha’s servant sees that the city is besieged, and is terrified.

“O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see,” Elisha prays. Suddenly the servant has spiritual sight to see that surrounding hills are full of Yahweh’s horses and chariots of fire. The army of the Lord will protect Elisha and his servant!

Elisha asks God to strike the Arameans blind. When the enemy no longer can see, Elisha goes out and mischievously offers to “bring you to the man whom you seek.” The blind Arameans follow Elisha ten miles to Samaria, capital of Israel, where their eyes are opened and they see they are trapped. “Shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” gloats the king of Israel.

“No!” answers Elisha. “Set food and water before them . . . and let them go to their master.” So the king of Israel prepares a great feast for the enemy, then sends them packing—and the Aramaeans “no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.”

Justice concerns at modern Dothan

In the biblical narrative, betrayal and reconciliation swirl around Tel Dothan like a whirlwind. This storied spot could use some reconciliation today. A much-contested Jewish settlement nearby, deemed illegal by Palestinians and much of the international community, announced plans in 2016 to double in size. Houses adjacent to the historic tel now stand empty because of the continuing tension.

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Tel Dothan

Our Israeli driver, fearing we could be mistaken as the other either by Palestinians or by Jewish settlers, did not want to linger at Tel Dothan. The whirlwind that engulfed us as we left Dothan seemed an apt metaphor of the continuing conflict. God grant this beautiful land something of Elisha’s reconciling imagination!

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com

A politician behaving badly

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This is a view from the top of the “City of David,” a hill immediately south of today’s walled Jerusalem, where King David’s palace likely stood.  From this vantage point the king looked down upon Bathsheba bathing at a nearby house.

Stories of politicians and clergy using positions of power for sexual abuse are painfully familiar, a reminder that no leader is above the need for boundaries and safeguards. I ponder this as I look down on neighboring houses from the top of the City of David, a small spur of mountain immediately south of today’s walled Jerusalem. From this vantage point King David once snooped on beautiful Bathsheba bathing at a house below. David summoned the woman to his palace and took her to bed (2 Sam. 11).

Readers often assume that Bathsheba was naked when David spotted her, but the text does not say that. Over the time that this incident happened, Bathsheba was “purifying herself after her period.” This leads some interpreters to believe that David saw her performing the usual ritual cleansing a Jewish woman undertook after menstruation. Given the way women who survive abuse today sometimes are blamed, it is not surprising that some readers suggest Bathsheba was careless or immodest. But the narrative simply says she was bathing, and that might mean no more than washing hands and feet.

David’s violation takes place in spring, “when kings go out to battle.” David sent an army that “ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah [modern Amman]” (2 Sam. 11:1). Warfare typically is a male activity, and with depressing frequency its predatory character releases aggression that issues in rape. King David was in a conquering mood, and the switch from military assault to sexual conquest appears to have been easy for him. Countless women carry emotional and physical scars from such collateral damage in warfare.

Sexual sin quickly becomes complicated because of the web of relationships affected—spouses of perpetrators or victims, children of participants or children conceived in the union, faith communities or institutions of persons implicated, trust in the judgment of violators who exercise civic or religious authority. The temptation of perpetrators to cover up is overwhelming.

When King David learned that Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to make it look like Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was the father. Failing at that, he arranged for Uriah to die in battle—a setup that amounted to murder. Lust, adultery, lying, murder—is this the king who wrote all those beautiful psalms?

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51). A superscript attributes these sublime words to David after he was called to account for his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12).

It is right for us to cherish this prayer of contrition. But David was on a steep learning curve if he could say to God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.” No. David also sinned against Bathsheba, against Uriah, against every person in the kingdom who trusted him. Like anyone, David could receive forgiveness. But even divine pardon makes no one exempt from lasting consequences that sexual violation can have on individuals and family systems. The sword “shall never depart from your house,” God told David. There would be enduring trouble in his family (2 Sam. 12:10, 11).

Such is the sadness of sexual sin, and this story is a cautionary tale for all in positions of leadership and power. Learn to recognize danger zones in relationships. Do not meet in private with someone you find attractive. Adhere to an open door policy. End relationships that become risky. Own up to misconduct. Report abuse if you suspect it. Talk immediately with a qualified counselor if any of this is a struggle.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

The two Joshuas of Jericho

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Tel Jericho has a deep slash across it made by archeologists, exposing a thirty-foot wide stone tower from 8000 BC (bottom center, with a small dark grate over the opening to the internal stairway shaft). In the distance is Mount of Temptation, where by tradition Jesus withstood temptation to seize political/military power.

Anyone who grieves the loss of life through war in Syria today might also lament the slaughter that took place more than three thousand years ago at Jericho when Israelites crossed the Jordan River into Canaan. Israelites “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Josh. 6:21).

What remains of biblical Jericho today is a tel—a large sandy mound surrounded by the modern city. This tel is one of dozens of such sites in Israel/Palestine where cites were built, destroyed, and rebuilt—in some cases twenty or thirty times. Such mounds kept attracting residents because water usually was available and ready building materials were in the rubble.

Today a deep excavation ditch slashes across Tel Jericho, exposing a stone fortress tower thirty feet wide and almost as tall, with an internal staircase. Dating to 8000 BC, it is one of the oldest human-built structures on earth, symbolizing strength and culture.

The book of Joshua seems to validate Israelite conquest of Jericho and all of Canaan. God “hardened the hearts” of indigenous people in the region so they would resist conquest and “receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:20). I feel a surge of indignation when I read these words, then remember that I live in Indiana, named for peoples my European forebears slaughtered and displaced.

Uneasy as I am about these accounts of ethnic cleansing, I cannot excise Joshua from the Bible any more than I can delete the story of Indian removal from American history books. Regardless of how I interpret the Joshua story, it is an integral part of the “Shalom Arc” of salvation history that stretches from Creation to New Creation. I need to integrate the whole story of my faith and family heritage into wise and faithful living today.

So when I visit Tel Jericho, I go to a vantage point from which to see reminders of two Joshuas who visited the city. The first Joshua was Moses’ deputy, who took command of the conquest and slaughter. In a vision he personally encountered the divine military commander of the army of the Lord (Josh. 5:13-15). The mighty fortress tower now visible at Tel Jericho—a structure already millennia old when Israelites arrived—reminds me that here “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho.”

Then I lift up my eyes to hills overlooking Jericho, to what long tradition calls Mount of Temptation. There a second Joshua (spelled “Jesus” in the New Testament) resisted the temptation to use political and military power (Luke 4:5-8). The first Joshua came to Jericho with a sword, the second came to heal (Mark 10:46-52) and forgive (Luke 19:1-10).

The first Joshua consulted with a divine military commander before undertaking conquest, the second refused the armies of heaven by telling Peter, “Put your sword back in its place . . . Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:52, 53).

At Jericho two Joshuas wrestle in my imagination. In a world where Syrian armies and many others follow the military and spiritual triumphalism of the first Joshua, am I willing to follow the second into what may be costly love, peacemaking, and forgiveness?

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com