Fun Facts of Lent, Day Twenty: The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

“Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

There aren’t many stories about Jesus that are told in all four gospels. Depending on how you count, between 12 and 24 passages overlap. The woman with the alabaster jar is one of the few that is in all four gospels (though in John’s gospel he attributes the act to Mary rather than an unnamed sinner). The story is simple: in the days before his death, a woman comes up to Jesus with a jar of expensive ointment and anoints him with it. Sometimes it’s his head, sometimes his feet. Sometimes she washes his feet with her hair as well. Whatever the specifics, she takes something of high value (the expensive ointment) and uses it to care for Jesus. And in every story, the disciples just don’t get it.

portrait-of-the-woman-with-the-alabaster-jarSometimes they think he shouldn’t be fraternizing with sinners, sometimes they think it’s a waste to spend the ointment on Jesus when it could have been sold and the money donated. But in every case Jesus rebukes them, explaining that she has done a good thing for him. This thing is so good, in fact, that Jesus says that she will be remembered throughout the world by all who honor Jesus and his ministry.

This is why you’ve definitely heard of her, right?

This is why her feast day is such a big deal, and why churches build up traditions around how they’ll celebrate Jar Day, right?

This is why little girls will dress as her and carry jars around the church, right?

No. Of course not. None of this has happened. The most we seem to celebrate the woman with the alabaster jar is when we lump her together with Mary Magdalene, despite the majority of the gospels defining her as a different person. While this may be a nice way to flesh out Mary’s character, it means we’ve completely eliminated a woman from the gospel story. And not just any woman. We took away the woman Jesus told us very specifically and on no uncertain terms to honor every where we share his ministry. Why have we forgotten her? Because she doesn’t have a name? The wise men don’t have names in the Bible and we managed to not only give them names but celebrate them every year. We even named a church season after them (Epiphany), despite the fact that they only appear in one of the four gospels.

There are so many amazing women who have been written out of history. Somehow we manage to write them out of the Bible, even when we keep the text.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Nineteen: Jael and Deborah

Judges 4 reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. I think it might be a more popular story if it wasn’t so heavy on the name-dropping, so I’ll try to tell it here with a bit more simplicity. The book of Judges outlines the many wars and conflicts the people of Isreal found themselves in after the exodus from Egypt. By the time we get to the forth chapter, Israel has been living under the oppression of King Jabin for 20 years. Jabin has a large army lead by his commander, Sisera.

Rather than have a king, Israel at the time was lead by judges. One such judge was Deborah, who was also a prophet. Deborah called a man named Barak to lead the Israeli army against Sisera and Jabin, telling him that God would assure his victory. Barak was a little nervous about the whole idea, and told Deborah he would only do it if she came along. Deborah agreed, but warned that he wouldn’t be getting any personal glory from the battle. Specifically, he wouldn’t get to be the one to kill Sisera, the opposing general. Deborah promised that honor would go to a woman.

So Deborah and Barak took the army to fight Sisera, and they won as promised. Sisera could see he was about to lose, and he fled. He came upon a tent and found a woman named Jael, whose husband had struck a peace deal with King Jabin. Sisera figured this deal meant the tent was a safe refuge, and Jael made sure he believed it. She welcomed him into the tent and found a rug for him to hide under. He asked for some water and she offered him milk instead. She was a great hostess, and Sisera asked her to stand guard outside the tent. “If anyone asks, tell them I’m not here,” he told Jael.Sassy Jael

The combination of milk and battle made him sleepy, and Sisera fell asleep on the floor. Jael quietly picked up a tent stake and a hammer, snuck over next to the sleeping Sisera, and jabbed the stake through his temple. By the time Barak showed up, it was all over. Jael showed him Sisera’s body lying dead on her floor, tent stake and all.

Judges 4 leaves a lot up to the imagination. Jael’s motives are never made clear, so we don’t know why she did what she did. But whatever her reasons, she singled-handedly took down the general of a mighty army and the enabler of a terrible regime. Deborah led the Israelites with wisdom and bravery, charging into battle and keeping young soldiers in check. If Judges 4 were expanded into a Hollywood blockbuster (and assuming they got a decent screenwriter to expand the characters), we’d probably be praising it for putting women front and center in strong, active roles. For some light bedtime browsing, I strongly recommend a Google image search for “Jael Bible.”

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Eighteen: Forgotten Women of the Bible

In college, people usually knew me first as a feminist and second as a Christian. I believe this is part of why the second fact was always such a surprise. There’s a perception that religion is always misogynistic; I don’t believe that’s true. I believe misogyny is a choice, and a choice that the entire world has made for generations. I believe the misogyny of a religion goes hand in hand with the misogyny of the surrounding culture. We see this in the different ways Christianity is practiced in Northern Europe vs Northern Africa, or how Islam manifests in Saudi Arabia as opposed to Indonesia.

As a result, I believe there’s a lot of the Bible that we’ve chosen to actively forget about, specifically with regard to the accomplishments of women. I’m going to take the next few days to talk about some of these women, in an effort to expand the image we conjure when we think of heroes of the Bible and disciples of Jesus.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Seventeen: She Bop

While we’re on the subject of defining sin and the Levitical prohibitions on sex, I’d like to offer a reminder that there is no scriptural condemnation of masturbation. None. There is one Old Testament story that people sometimes twist into being about masturbation, and there’s a lot of non-specific appeals to sexual purity. Nothing else.

Sexual purity is an idea that is highly influenced by culture, and because the Bible tends to be rather vague, you can choose to define sexual purity as broadly or as narrowly as you want. You could decide that sex is restricted to marriage, and anything outside that is not pure. Some would say that masturbation with your spouse (or simply with your spouse in mind) is still totally fine and within those parameters. Others would say it doesn’t matter who you think about, so long as it keeps you faithful to your partner the rest of the time. Still others would say there’s nothing impure about it at all, and no restrictions are required.

Whether or not you feel masturbation is sinful depends entirely on you and the effect it has on your life. If it’s enjoyable or simple or routine or exciting then it’s probably fine. It’s not getting in the way of your relationship with God anymore than a box of cookies does. If it’s addictive or guilt-ridden or compulsive it may be time to step back and find out where all that is coming from. Just know that when it comes to the Bible, there ain’t no law against it yet.


Fun Facts of Lent, Day Sixteen: Sin

Sin is anything that takes you away from God. Going away from God can most easily be defined as pulling away from love, justice, and compassion. This means that certain actions can be sinful at some times and not sinful at other times. For example, if you are having sex as a way to express trust, love and affection to another human being, it’s probably not a sin. If you are using sex to manipulate someone else’s feelings or to avoid your own problems, that might be sinful. The concept of intention as definition already exists in the morality of our legal code. If you purposely, willing end someone’s life it is murder. If you accidentally hit them with your car and they die, it is manslaughter. The first sin is hate, the second is negligence.

When discussing sin I tend to use words like “probably” and “might” because it is impossible for someone else to tell you if your action is sinful. They may give counsel, they may ask you to confront things you’ve been denying, but ultimately they can’t know your heart, your intentions, or your relationship with the Divine.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Fifteen: Leviticus

During my year of reading through the entire Bible, I tried whenever possible to write bumper sticker descriptions of each book as I went. According to my notes, I described the book of Leviticus as “Let’s kill something, set it on fire, and/or make Aaron eat it.” While this may be a bit of an over-simplification, I still stand behind the thematic assessment.

Leviticus is a big book of laws, and most of them have to do with animal sacrifice, the role of the priests, and ritual cleanliness. There are also laws about sexual relations, including one in particular you may have heard of. Conservative Christians often cite Leviticus as a reason to classify homosexuality as sinful because there is a law declaring that men must not have sex with other men. Leviticus defines this act as an abomination. Sex between men is not the only abomination – the same word is used to describe shellfish. There are a number of other laws that seem equally bad in God’s eyes yet are no longer adhered to by most Christians, including a huge number of unclean animals we shouldn’t be eating (pig, camel, rock badger, hare, gecko, land crocodile, mouse, etc).

The rules about sex are mostly confined to a single chapter, and the majority of that chapter is spent defining every kind of family member you shouldn’t be having sex with, including your mother, your sister, your mother’s sister, your father’s sister, your uncle’s wife, and any mother/daughter combo whether they are related to you or not.

However when you consider the setting for Leviticus, a different story appears. Leviticus is supposed to take place in the desert, right in between the slavery of Egypt and the freedom of the promised land. There are rules about confining diseased people for a defined period of time, rules about rotating your crops, rules about burning uneaten meat, and a lot of rules about ritual cleanliness. When I read Leviticus, I see an isolated group of people living in the desert and trying to survive. I see a community that is likely to fall apart and die if they can’t pull together and make it through as a united unit. And in that backdrop, it makes sense to me that you need a rule about not eating meat three days after you kill the animal, as scarcity may make you feel like it’s worth the risk. And maybe you need a few laws to control and confine menstrual fluids, since no one can really wash their hands. You probably need to outlaw incest of any kind, as unrelated women might be hard to come by. And yes, you’ll probably have to demand that all men confine themselves to women, because you’ll need to maximize your number of procreating pairs if you want to produce a stable, healthy generation of babies.

We don’t live in the desert anymore. We don’t need God to tell us to throw out the bad meat, because our abundance shows us there will always be more. And we don’t need to ensure the next generation, because that generation will happen without us even trying. The desert rules that made sense in a time of scarcity need not make us feel scarce forever. Instead, the lesson to learn from Leviticus is that for humans to live together, we must have rules. We must have structure. And sometimes we have to do things that may seem unnecessary to us, but are in the best interests of the whole tribe.

However if you do encounter someone that feels these rules should still apply as written, there are a few items worth asking about. Ask how they have found a modern way to leave the edges of their field unreaped so that the poor will have something to eat. Ask if they take an entire year off every seven years as a holy sabbatical, trusting that the Lord will provide. Ask if they have loved the alien as themselves, since they were aliens in the land of Egypt. Most importantly, ask if they have ever been devoted to destruction. The God of Leviticus has very clear instructions for what to do with such people.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Fourteen: The Bible

A few years ago I decided to read through the entire Bible. I had never done it before – most people haven’t. In church the scripture readings come from the lectionary, which is a calendar outlining specific readings for specific seasons and days. It’s a sort of Bible Greatest Hits that ensures you’re always reading the passion during Holy Week and the nativity story at Christmas.

The benefit of the lectionary is that it taps into a key concept in pedagogy: repetition. If something is important you don’t teach it once and assume your students have it. You say it over and over. And each time you talk about it you add something a bit different. The downside of using a lectionary is that we only focus on the parts of the Bible we find “most important,” and leave the rest for people to read outside of communal worship.

I think the greatest thing I learned from reading the Bible all the way through is that the Bible is a really big book. There’s a lot in there. The sheer volume of words guarantees that no matter what you believe, there’s something in the Bible to support it. And a lot of it is just vague enough that you can take it as literally or as figuratively as you want. We sometimes criticize Christians for picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to follow, but after reading it my only conclusion was, “How could you not?” There’s just so much to take in, so much to interpret. Things that seemed to go together one day sound contradictory the next. Stories you discounted as foolish at first become your favorites (I used to hate Jonah and the Whale).

But that’s also what I love about the Bible. It’s not easy. It makes me think and question and go over my own internal logic time and time again. Every new thing I learn in the world turns into a new way to read a particular story or passage. I’ve never been able to read a line of scripture and take it without question. For me, the question is the point of reading scripture. Reading the Bible brought up a lot of questions. It made me think a lot. There was one beautiful moment in my reading where I lost faith in God completely. I kept reading anyway, because it’s good to wrestle with your God from time to time. Some of us just love the fight.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirteen: Trans Issues in the Church

Until about a year ago, every trans person I knew was Episcopalian.* General Convention was the primary place I heard about trans issues, and the only place I saw intentionally gender neutral bathrooms that weren’t single-stall. Not every Episcopalian is 100% onboard with the concept of gender identity, but we’re working on it and we’re working with each other. I could do my best to talk about the struggles of transgender Christians, but I’d rather you hear it straight from them.

Below is a really great, 30-minute documentary made by Integrity, an LGBT advocacy group in the Episcopal Church. It lays out the basics of what it means to be transgender, discusses the importance of what trans people bring to the church community, and most importantly allows several trans Christians to talk about their experiences. There’s a line Vicki says just before the seven minute mark that still puts a lump in my throat.

I’m also proud to say that this film is now slightly out of date, because it was made a few months before the church passed legislation ensuring gender identity would be a protected class when considering candidates for the priesthood. We already had many openly trans clergy members, and we hope to see many more.

*Or rather, every person I knew to be trans. I am quite positive I have met and interacted with plenty of trans people without realizing it, as have you.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Twelve: It Never Hurts to Ask

In high school some of the adults in my church suggested I would be a good addition to the Bishop’s Committee, the elected group of people who ran the congregation. So I ran for the office and I sat on the committee for a term.

Just before graduation I got a call from a man I knew at church. He said a few of them had been talking and they wanted to nominate me to go to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I didn’t know what that was but it sounded interesting enough, so I ran for that position as well. I was elected as an alternate and I went to the convention.

At my last high school youth conference I was handed an envelope with my name on it. Inside was a card inviting me to come visit Covenant House, the campus ministry at UW. So I went.

After a year or so at Covenant House I was asked to be a peer minister, so I did that too.

I wasn’t going to run for General Convention a second time, but a friend insisted I put my name on the ballot. I was a write-in candidate and I was elected a regular deputy this time.

After college I didn’t really have a church and wasn’t sure where I should go. My mother was working for the office of the Bishop at the time, and someone from St. Peter’s Episcopal asked if she knew any college kids or recent grads that might be interested in teaching Sunday School. She said she could think of at least one pretty easily. I interviewed and am still there more than six years later.

When I look back on my life of faith, I can’t help but wonder if I had anything to do with it. I would have left in Junior High but John was there. I would have left in high school but I was scheduling coffee hour and sitting on the Bishop’s Committee. I would have left in college but I was a peer minister and a deputy to General Convention. I might have even left after that, but I had lessons to plan. It may seem strange to imagine me leaving the church accidentally, but faith is not the same as religion. I don’t think I would have ever accidentally stopped believing in God. But I think it’s possible I could have casually wandered away from my own religion had I not been constantly nudged back into it.

We are spiritual by nature, but religious by habit. If one were to believe that God reaches down into daily life and intervenes on our behalf, one would have to conclude that my life in the church is the product of persistent divine nagging. I don’t hold to such a belief, so it must have been the nagging of people who love me. Yet if God is nothing else, it is the love we give to others to set them on a better path. So perhaps it was God that made me religious after all.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Eleven: About a Boy

Growing up I went to church because my parents went to church. I’ve never found this to be particularly objectionable, because the only reason young children are anywhere is because that’s where their parents are or want them to be. And I liked church just fine. Was it always fun and exciting? No. Sometimes it was boring and repetitive. But there were people I knew there and toys in the back and we always had cookies at Coffee Hour, so my needs were pretty much met.

My parents never had to force me to get involved at church (at least as I remember it). I assume this was because they were always so involved – I thought that’s just how church worked. I was an acolyte and helped Mom on our Coffee Hour team and once wrote and directed the Christmas Pageant with my friend Kathleen because we heard there wasn’t going to be one that year. As a side note, I played the angel Gabriel because I felt like it was the coolest part and thought Gabriel sounded like a girl’s name anyway. Plus it’s an angel so who cares, am I right?

Once my sister and I were old enough that we could be trusted home alone on Sunday mornings, we no longer had to go to church. It was our choice. My sister stayed home. I still went occasionally, but not every week. Until I met John.

John and his parents began coming to our church when I must have been around thirteen. He was the same age as me and I’m fairly certain he was the most beautiful boy ever created. I had a big crush on him that I revealed to no one. And I started to go to church every Sunday. I also started to dress up and wear makeup to church. John wasn’t there every week, so I had to be ready just in case.

Looking back, I doubt John and his family came to church more than a dozen times total, and I think they ended up becoming Lutherans. But by then church was my habit. My parents had started a youth group that I loved. I was more involved than I had ever been. One week the Coffee Hour Coordinator announced that she was stepping down and asked if anyone would volunteer to take responsibility for scheduling teams. After church I told her that if she couldn’t find anyone else, I’d be willing to do it. I went to the bathroom and when I came back out, my priest congratulated me on my new role (I quickly learned that this kind of thing always happens when teenagers express interest in things grown ups want them to do). And that was that. I had stuff to do, so I stuck around. Besides, I had started to really like the sermons.

The way I see it there are three times in a person’s journey to adulthood where they are most likely to walk away from the faith of their parents. One is in junior high – I stayed because of the boy. One is in high school – I stayed because I had been entrusted with responsibilities that mattered to me. The third is college, when I stayed because I was asked.

More on that tomorrow.