Bigger Than Politics

Jesus’ disciples must have been an unruly bunch.

We get glimpses of it in the Gospels, but I’m getting the idea that the written accounts are only scratching the surface.

First of all, you’ve got James and John. The ones Jesus called “Sons of Thunder”. If there’s a storm anywhere, you can almost guarantee these guys will be in it somewhere.

Simon Peter. Famous for his “speak first, think later” mentality.

But the pairing that really strikes me is Matthew the tax-collector and Simon the Zealot.

Simon’s fascinating in his own right as one of the Twelve. The Zealots, of course, were hardcore revolutionaries, dedicated to throwing off the yoke of the evil pagan Roman tyranny by force and setting up a proper Divine monarchy in the image of King David.

What’s the Prince of Peace doing with a known violent terrorist in His inner circle?

It’s been speculated that Judas Iscariot was a member of that party, too. His mysterious surname has been interpreted as “man who carries a sicarius“, which was a long-bladed knife of the period. It was supposedly the mark of a group of Zealots who engaged in assassinations of Roman officials. Judas the Dagger-Man, in other words.

Translating their nicknames paints a rather more dramatic picture of the Twelve. Stony Simon, the Thunder-Boys, Judas the Assassin and Simon the Terrorist sound more like Mob enforcers than pillars of the early church.

But add Matthew the tax-collector into the mix, and it’s clear that the Twelve were a ticking bomb.

Matthew’s a representative of the puppet government that the Zealots were pledged to overthrow. A collaborator. He made his living serving the evil pagan foreign government that Simon and his cohorts wanted to tear down. There’s all the general hatred of the tax-man we’re familiar with, plus the religious overtones of “how is a good Jewish believer supposed to support a pagan foreign Emperor who stoops even to declaring his own godhood?”.

Clearly, political arguments are nothing new. Matthew, the pagan government’s local hired hand, presumably wealthy but despised as a turncoat collaborator, and Simon, fanatic opponent of the foreign ruler whose taxes Matthew collected.

What could bring Simon the Terrorist and Matthew the Tax-Man together?

Jesus could.

What’s more, the Scripture records a startlingly low number of their political quarrels: None.

In the light of the Resurrection morning, it all undoubtedly seemed a whole lot less significant.

Believe in big government? Hate the abuses of the system perpetrated by the wealthy? You’re in good company. Matthew the Tax-Collector would probably be called a leftist in today’s political landscape. And it’s this man that God chose to write the first of our four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Small government advocate? Outright anarchist? Hate the oppression of godless government? Simon the Zealot would no doubt recognise you as a natural ally. And while he was not selected by God to do something like writing a Gospel account, according to early church tradition he served his Master faithfully and gave his life for the faith at the hands of those he had once striven to overthrow.

At different times, the Church has looked a bit like a reincarnation of either of those two extremes: the Matthew Church, part of the establishment and connected to the power structures of the day, and the Simon Church, wild and passionate, dedicated to opposing the evil pagan system by whatever means necessary. I’d suggest that in many ways a lot of modern American Christianity is much more Zealot-like in orientation, but that’s a matter of opinion.

The important thing is that Jesus called both Simon and Matthew to something bigger than politics. When the mission is nothing less that telling the entire inhabited earth about the good news of God’s rescue plan put into effect through the death and resurrection of Jesus, it kind of makes the question of whether monotheist Jews need to pay taxes to a pagan look… small.

There’s a world to win, and time’s running out. Jesus is coming back soon; He said so. Political arguments can wait.

Time and Eternity

I was thinking about time this last couple of days. Actually, I was thinking that the six-month anniversary of my starting this blog was coming up, but it’s not until September.

We have lots of words in English for time. We have months, years, decades, centuries, millennia, ages, eras, æons, epochs. On the short end we have even more: weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds, moments, a New York minute, three shakes of a lamb’s tail. Not to mention the nebulous whiles and jiffies and half-a-secs.

We treat time as a commodity. We make it, spend it, buy it, keep it, mark it, waste it, kill it. In Western thought, the essential quality of time is running out.

In the Christian liturgical calendar, the long period between the end of Pentecost and the start of Advent is known as “Ordinary Time”. I find that rather appropriate to the seasons of our lives: the long slow march through the seasons, one day following the next, little different from the one before. No high and solemn holy days, no magnificence of spiritual spectacle. Just… Ordinary.

In the Northern hemisphere, it’s summer, the season of growing crops, watering and tending and fending off the pests in order to bring the whole crop around to harvest in the autumn. In the part of the Northern hemisphere where I live (an inhospitable desert known as Texas), it’s hotter than a brick furnace and the sun’s rays actually seem to take on physical weight.

This, then, is Ordinary Time. The life lived between. A hard, hot slog at times, the work of the Lord’s vineyard to prepare the harvest for that day which we know is coming, yet which seems at times no nearer now than at the Spirit’s Coming.

New Testament Greek, of course, has two words for time. There’s Kairos, meaning a specific moment or particular time, and Chronos, meaning days and weeks and months and years. It’s this second that gave the Greeks the name to their counterpart of Saturn and gave us words like “chronological” and “chronometer” and “chronic”. Chronos time is what I’m referring to here by the liturgical term Ordinary Time; the slow, metred progression of days, each one more or less alike.

It’s been said that God’s calendar runs not on Chronos time but on Kairos time. From the perspective of Kairos, it’s irrelevant how many days or weeks or months something takes to occur. It occurs “at the right moment”, “in the twinkling of an eye”, “in the fullness of time”.

Then there’s the next long plunge back into Chronos to await the next Kairos moment.

I think there’s a danger here of concentrating so fully on Kairos that we miss what we’re supposed to be doing with the Chronos we are given.

Ordinary Time is the season of watering and tending the crops. It’s the season when all the work has to be done in order to have something to harvest when that time comes around. Not glamorous or seemingly significant, perhaps, and certainly not having the splendour of Christmas or Easter. But an important time.

In the long years between the first Pentecost and the coming Second Advent of Christ, Ordinary Time might have more than one meaning, too.

Yes, it’s a very long, slow progression of years. But what interests me right now is that this cosmic “Ordinary Time” comes after Pentecost.

The implication is that being filled with the Spirit is normal. Ordinary. What We Should Expect.

I like that.

Living lives characterised by the influence of the Holy Spirit expressed in victory over sin is normal.

Living lives characterised by bold proclamation of the Good News about Jesus is normal.

Living lives characterised by righteousness, peace and joy is normal.

Performing exploits of power that give glory to God and demonstrate His Kingdom is normal.

Sometimes our lives are so subnormal that these things are virtually matters of legend. Victory over sin? To the extent of not sinning? Power of the coming age breaking into our lives?  Amazing, we think.  Amazing, yes, but it shouldn’t be abnormal.

It’s Ordinary Time, between Pentecost and the Second Coming. Life in the power of the Spirit ought to be the rule for followers of Christ, not the exception.

But at the same time, it’s the long patient march of obedience to Him. Getting on with what He’s called us to do – make disciples of all nations. Because when the final Kairos breaks through into cosmic Ordinary Time, it might just be too late.

Humility (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction (containing links to all the other series posts), go here.

Last in sequence, appropriately enough, is the chivalric virtue of humility. Perhaps not a virtue we have come to associate overly with knighthood, it nonetheless comes in final and perhaps chief place as the seal of all the other virtues.

In my Mediæval Planetary symbolic scheme, humility is associated with Saturn; in the thinking of the day a baleful and malevolent planet connected with death and calamity. It seems somehow apt. Such things as ruin and calamity can come as death-blows to our idea that we are something in and of ourselves. Rightly appropriated, the leaden influence of Saturn pierces our puffed-up self-importance and arrogance. The call of Christ to take up the Cross and follow is rightly understood as a call to die.

Knights, typically, weren’t very good at humility. It was something honoured more in the breach than the observance; a virtue, yes, but one often at odds with the rest of the proud knightly code.

The knightly life in pursuit of honour often promotes pride, not humility, and the Mediæval knight was notoriously touchy about perceived slights to his honour. Star Trek’s Klingons are a warrior race whose culture revolves around honour, just like the knights of old. Honour – the praise of one’s fellows and the acclaim of one’s culture – is attained through meritorious acts, particularly courage on the battlefield. And because everyone loves a winner, especially particularly victory on the battlefield. The Miles Christi, or true Christian knight, may have elevated humility to the status of virtue, but it was a virtue not lived so much, unlike the other more martial and demonstrative virtues.

This is what happens when your idea of honour is honour before men. There’s another kind of honour, though: honour before God. The difference is rather like the difference between objective guilt and guilt feelings. Objective guilt – guilt before God, if you will – is that you did, in fact, do the unrighteous deed. You are guilty. Whether or not you feel guilty is a separate question. We all know there are people who can apparently commit the most grievous of offences and seemingly feel no guilt; no twinge of their seared conscience at all. Conversely, we can sometimes feel guilty about things for which we bear no objective guilt, for example, guilt feelings do not always miraculously go away after we get forgiven by God. Our objective guilt has been atoned for, but the feeling remains.

The Bible uses similar language, not for honour, but forhonour’s polar opposite shame. Verses such as “The one who trusts in Me will never be put to shame” suggest an objective shame, a shame before God, as well as the shame feelings we normally associate with the term. As with the guilt/righteousness axis, so with the honour/shame axis.

If our sense of honour is rooted in God, in objective honour, then it frees us to do some things that would normally be considered dishonourable. Not the objectively dishonourable things such as lying or cheating, but those things at which our pride rebels. Taking the low place, not the place of honour. Menial work. Acts of service. Tasks that are despised and considered worthless by society.

I don’t know about you, but this is looking a lot like humility to me.

Just like Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but made Himself nothing,

taking the very nature of a servant

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

He humbled Himself

and became obedient to death,

even the death of the cross.

Jesus identifying with fallen humanity in baptism, shocking the already-righteous by hanging out with evil government collaborator tax-collectors, prostitutes and drunks, humbling Himself to wash the sweaty, dirty feet of His apostles, stooping to the humiliation of hanging naked on a Roman cross.

In the eyes of the world, shameful and dishonourable. The Messiah can’t come from Nazareth – nothing good comes from there. The Messiah can’t hang out with sinners – He’s supposed to be righteous. The Messiah can’t wash my dirty feet – He’s the Master, and that’s the job of the lowest slave. And the Messiah really can’t be apparently defeated and die in one of the most painful and humiliating ways imaginable, naked in front of everyone to be jeered by the rabble. God’s honour is at stake!

Yes, it is. But rather than being an offence to God’s honour, these actually reinforce it. God sees what really is, and works in the sphere of objective honour. Man looks at the outward appearance.

When I listed off seven chivalric virtues and failed to include honour, I originally said that honour was the sum total of all of them. I may have been wrong. Honour may well be humility in disguise, looked at in a mirror.

Honour before men is rooted in pride. Objective honour, paradoxically, is willing to be dishonoured before men for true righteousness’ sake.

Not that being in a low position automatically means you’re all right in God’s eyes, either. Sometimes we can think that humility means being down on yourself. We take Paul’s self-description as “the chief of sinners” and apply it to ourselves, thinking this is what we’re supposed to do. It certainly seems properly self-effacing. Look at me, I’m so humble.

Oh dear.

Sometimes, claiming to be worse than we really are can be a sort of inverted vanity. I’m important! Look, I did big, important sins! It becomes rather like the proverbial fish that got away. “I needed grace and it was this big!

Humility is, as the Scripture puts it, “thinking of yourself with sober judgment.” Neither too highly nor too lowly, but in accordance with the view of God, the One who truly sees.

Interestingly for the Mediæval planet associated with ruin and death, Saturn was also the highest planet, nested in the uppermost of the seven planetary spheres, and thus closest to the Primum Mobile, God the Prime Mover. It somehow seems appropriate that this should be the virtue associated with seeing as God sees – seeing yourself the way you really are.


Feels Like I’m Falling (And Can’t Get Up)

There’s an awful lot of absolute tosh sung in the name of contemporary Christian music.

Today’s analysis of what a load of old cobblers it all is is brought to you by the song “I’m Letting Go” by Francesca Battistelli. The offending line is “Feels like I’m falling and that’s what it’s like to believe”.

This isn’t a brand-new song; I’ve been hearing it on the radio for at least a few months, but until today I’d kind of just let it wash over me as background music to my drive. Today, however, this line pulled me up short.

So, believing in Jesus is like falling, huh? And presumably, being an atheist is like standing. I’m just going to let this reversal of normal Biblical imagery sit there while we all blink a few times.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. After all, it is poetry, of a sort. Metaphor may be in operation.

But this metaphor?

In the context of the song it’s slightly more reasonable. The song’s about letting go of your former life to trust God. That’s a risky thing, like jumping and trusting someone to catch you. From a certain point of view, it even makes a sort of sense, which is probably why it was able to slide right past me all this time.  Maybe absolute tosh is unfair.

But if I’m holding on to a window ledge four stories up in the air, letting go and falling is not really a good thing, is it?  Now that I’ve noticed it, all I can hear in the background supplied by my imagination is… splat.

When we use language like this, is it any wonder people don’t want to believe?

Trusting Jesus is like letting go, all right. Letting go of the bag of stones you’re trying to swim with and taking hold of the lifeboat captain’s hand. Letting go of something worthless so you can receive something priceless.

For me personally, trusting and following Jesus feels not like falling but like being caught. But then, that metaphor can get us into trouble too if we look at it the wrong way.

There are many images for what it’s like to believe. But when the Bible exclusively uses the imagery of falling for sin, using “falling” to describe being rescued from sin just seems bizarre, somehow.

Following the Instructions

I recently finally saw The Lego Movie. I was quite sceptical when I first heard they were making a Lego film; I figured it would be a giant marketing ploy designed to showcase all the latest sets available.

Having seen it, yeah, it’s a giant marketing ploy, but it’s done right. As in, it has a plot, it’s funny, it works with the genius of what Lego is and it actually makes sense on its own terms.

And together with a family trip to the Lego Discovery Centre that’s close to where I live,it reignited the joy of Lego that never truly died but just didn’t have much of an outlet.

Of the various themes running through it, I think the one that stands out is the conflict between rules and instructions (personified in President Business and his minions) and unleashed creativity (exemplified by Cloud Cuckoo Land and the Master Builders).

Every Lego set, of course, has its set of step-by-step instructions. How to build the X-Wing Fighter or Seaside Cottage or Batcave or Pirate Ship or whatever. These are, of course, quite necessary, otherwise you wouldn’t have a clue how to put the bricks together to get what’s on the box.

But they’re a beginning.

For me, they always were. I seldom built the thing on the box more than once, and seldom kept it built the first time more than a couple of days. A new Lego set to me was primarily a source of bricks to be used in the various Lego projects I was forever building (massive spaceships, usually). The Lego Movie character Benny, the “1980-something space guy” definitely strikes a chord.

“Spaceship!!!” (Source: Lego Wiki @ Wikia.com)

Almost everything I ever built was an original creation. There were no instructions for what I did; Lego was about building something new. I had friends who would make the thing on the box and then set it on a shelf somewhere. I never understood that impulse. I was the opposite: “Right, built that now. Let’s see what we can do with all these cool bricks!”

I was never nearly as comfortable with the Technic stuff. I was far less interested in stuff that would really work, with their rack-and-pinion steering setups and motors and pneumatic levers and whatnot. I wanted an aesthetically finished spaceship, not a go-kart that had a proper piston engine and real steering and so on. The Technic Lego was far less conducive to my aversion to following the instructions.

I almost think there are too many different sets these days. It’s nice to be able to get a Darth Vader figure that looks like Vader, but having a kit to build an X-Wing out of Lego seems almost like a betrayal of the hours I spent as a child trying to make the old-style flat hinges cooperate for an X-Wing. The fun of Lego was always seeing if you could built the AT-AT walker from The Empire Strikes Back, just using the pictures in your Star Wars collectible sticker album for reference and without any instructions. You re-enacted the lightsaber duel using the transparent antenna bricks as lightsabers. It wasn’t perfect, but part of the game was getting as close as you could. It was a challenge; it gave you something to aim for.

These days, there’s a kit for that. It’s almost as bad as mobile phone apps. Movie tie-ins seem to be the rule. I guess it makes them more money, and Lego is a business, but it’s almost as though it strikes at the heart of what Lego is.

On the other hand, the tie-in sets open up new worlds of possibility for making something original. And I have to admit that my attitude is more than a little hypocritical, because if they had come out with an X-Wing set back then, I know that I would have killed small furry animals to get one.

On a slightly more serious and less reminicsent note, I’m wondering whether my aversion to following the instructions in Lego building has carried over at all into my adult life.

There’s that Christiany saying about how the Bible is “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. Even in secular terms, we talk about the definitive guide book for a certain area of work being that area’s “Bible”. We as Christians talk about Scripture being “the Maker’s instructions”. If it is, what does my Lego Movie Cloud Cuckoo-esque desire to not follow the instructions say about my obedience to God?

Well, surprisingly I don’t think I have an issue with following the commands of God.

What I do have an issue with is the perspective that views the Scripture through the lens of a Lego instruction booklet.

The Bible is kind of like an instruction manual, but you have to use a broader definition of “instruction”. It’s for teaching, correcting, encouraging, and so on.

What it is categorically not is a step-by-step formula for How To Get Right With God And Live A Holy Life.

It’s full of narrative passages, and in many of them the moral lesson is not even clearly marked. It contains poetry, proverbs, prophecy, law codes for Bronze Age Israel, history and letters. Moreover, it was written in a completely different language and time period and culture, so to get from the Bible text to “what should I do about my son’s addiction to video games” takes quite a lot of interpretive stretching. We need to take on board the whole counsel of God, immerse ourselves in the thoughts of the Almighty, understand from the whole of Scripture what God is asking of us, rather than thumb through the index looking for the section on “help regarding addictions”.

I’m not saying anything that the vast majority of believers in Jesus would see as abnormal, but I do worry sometimes whether our simplified idea of “the-Bible-as-instruction-manual” isn’t overly simplistic and a promoter of sloppy thinking.

Yes, there are direct commands from God – Lego-style instructions, if you like – recorded in Scripture. But even some of these aren’t quite as straightforward as they first appear. The Deuteronomic command not to cook a young goat in it’s mother’s milk, from which our Jewish brothers and sisters get the kosher injunction to separate meat and dairy, turns out to be about a Canaanite fertility ritual. A more appropriate application may be to trust God with your fertility rather than trying to use the “magic” of Science to manipulate it. Or not; I leave it up to you.

The idea that the Bible is God’s Little Instruction Book is attractive, but only partially true. In reading it, yes you can find out How To Get Right With God And Live A Holy Life, but it’s not really laid out propositionally or in a step-by-step manner.

If it were, Christianity would be like Islam. Not that the Qur’an is laid out systematically like that either, but Islam at its root is a legal code. These are the instructions for How To Please God. Follow them and you’re righteous. The mindset is one of the Lego instruction booklet.

It’s worlds away from Biblical Christianity, which is not about doing stuff or following the instructions at all. As we like to say, it’s not about religion; it’s relationship. To quote from another kids’ movie, Toy Story 2, Biblical Christianity is living before God with a heart attitude of “You have saved our lives; we are eternally grateful”.

In essence: Don’t (merely) follow the instuctions; get to know the One who wrote the Book.

Fealty (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series looking at the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction go here.


I was in my teens when the Promise Keepers men’s movement first hit the UK. I gathered that it was some sort of men’s thing, but I never really felt like I got a straight answer to my questions as so what it was about. It seemed to me like they were running on an assumption that everyone already knew what they were about.  Well, “everyone” didn’t: ” So it’s about encouraging men to be faithful to their wives, then?” Well, that’s part of it, but there are other promises…” “Huh?”

It didn’t connect. I used the word “promise” very seldom, and much of what they were trying to talk about just didn’t fit into my categories of what constituted promises. Didn’t Jesus effectively teach us not to make vows of that sort? In my mind, I didn’t make “promises”, therefore they had nothing to say to me.

Maybe now I understand a little better what they were trying to say. What I think they they meant was encapsulated in the chivalric virtues of Faith and Fealty.

There’s no guarantee I would have understood back then even if they’d used those words, but I might have done. The likelihood of anyone using the word “fealty” in order to make it clear what they were talking about, though, is and was effectively nil.

It’s an old word, replete with significance but seldom used today. In our modern Western democratic world, we don’t see things in the stratified way of the Middle Ages. Everyone’s equal, and fealty is about vertical relationships. We don’t have much use for it.

Of all of the seven chivalric virtues I’m identifying, fealty may well be the trickiest to update, tied so closely as it is to Mediæval notions of innate class distinctions. What does it look like in the democratic age?

In modern terms, “allegiance” is probably the closest we come to the full sense of its meaning. At its best, this gives us pictures of patriotism, of the love of country and the claims it may make on us. Apparently some Christians are so into the use of romantic imagery for God that they consider it inappropriate for our relationship with Him. Jason Gray’s “More Like Falling In Love” seems to suggest that “giving my allegiance” is some cold, distant, bloodless thing that doesn’t really mean very much.

Not in my personal universe it isn’t, but it shows how little use most of the modern world has for the idea.

America in particular is home to a spirit that runs directly counter to the notion of fealty. At best, it manifests itself in a love of freedom that is noble and right. At its worst, it devolves into a rebellious “no-one tells me what to do!” The virtue of fealty is that no, actually someone does have the right to tell you what to do.

There are people here in America that don’t like the current president. I can’t legally vote, so I feel like I’m messing in dangerous waters here, but I understand this. In any democratic system there are going to be people who voted for the other candidate and can’t stand the one that got elected. But he’s still the leader of the country, and the office is bigger than the one filling it, something that some people appear to have forgotten.

Allegiance is in part about belonging to something greater than yourself. Being a follower in a right sense: submitting your individual freedom to a higher cause and purpose.

It’s a hard thing: harsh, uncompromising, uncomfortable. This is not feel-good. We like to hear how Jesus is our Lover and Friend and Saviour. We find it rather less pleasant to hear how He’s our Overlord and Master and Sovereign. But like all hard substances, it makes a jolly good foundation.

You don’t build a house on soft clay and expect it to bear up as if it’s on rock. All of the piers and piles and digging down and moisture conditioning that we do in the construction industry are designed to mitigate the negative effects of unstable soils, particularly, here in North Texas, clays. It makes me wonder how many of our discipleship programs and conferences and special events are the same sort of thing: stuff designed to mitigate the effects of our self-centred Gospel because we haven’t been building on the bedrock of Jesus’ right to tell us what to do.

In my Mediæval planetary symbolic scheme, Fealty is associated with Jupiter, the kingly planet. The association is obvious, but the ancient conception of Jupiter was not only solemn majesty and kingly power, but also joy. Gustav Holst, in his The Planets suite, made Jupiter “the Bringer of Jollity”; this is pure Mediævalism in a good way, and exactly the way the most important planet was viewed.

Joy in allegiance?

Absolutely. Certainly there’s a joy in it. A patriot doesn’t feel that their country is a burden, nor that its demands are unreasonable. Following Jesus is joy and peace. He makes demands of us, but we know that, unlike our countries that are governed by fallible people and can even get it horribly wrong at times, God is absolutely good and really does have our best interests at heart, and unlike us, He’s omniscient, so He knows far better than we what our real best interests are.

Loyalty is the other half of Fealty, and where it begins to overlap with the chivalric virtue of Faith. Sticking by your friends. Staying true. Keeping faith, in the Mediæval sense. Not abandoning an allegiance given just because it’s becoming less comfortable.

Allegiance and loyalty.

Like the knights of old, we can choose whom we give personal allegiance to. The oath of fealty was a special vow of allegiance that went beyond the normal requirements of hierarchical position: you pledged your life, your honour and your sword to the service of your liege lord. It was a deeply personal thing that goes way beyond some of our modern understanding of the giving of allegiance – witness the American oath of citizenship in which one renounces “all other allegiances” and the non-enforcement of that by the US government.

To my mind, “Liege Lord” encompasses things about our right relationship with God that simply cannot be expressed in the romantic “Lover” image we seem so fond of at the moment. As I’ve said before, choosing to follow Christ isn’t so much falling in love as pledging fealty.

I may be weirdly anachronistic in my approach, but this is the way I feel. I pledge my life, honour and sword – all that I am, all that I have and all that I do – to Him, knowing He’s good and that He loves me.

There’s an old patriotic hymn that seems appropriate here. Its music, aptly enough, is taken from Holst’s Jupiter, and though it’s seldom sung any more, with my Mediæval mindset, of course it’s one I have a deep attachment to.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love

The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price

The love that makes, undaunted, the final sacrifice

And there’s another Country I’ve heard of long ago

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering

And soul by soul, and silently, her shining bounds increase

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Parts of it may be questionable in our modern times. “The love that asks no questions” sounds eerily like the “just following orders” mentality of every Secret Police we’ve ever heard about. Combine it with our “freedom-loving” rebellious “no-one tells me what to do!” attitude and we’re looking at an uphill struggle to understand.

Fealty does not absolve you of the demands of conscience. What it does is negate the demands of comfort. There may be good reasons to abandon your loyalty to a cause or a person, but there’s a world of difference between abandoning your loyalty for just cause and abandoning your loyalty just because (And different people will view what constitutes “just cause” differently).

Fealty, after all, goes both ways. The one who pledges fealty makes claims on the one to whom they pledge just as surely as the other way around. Lord Steward Denethor’s response to Pippin’s oath of fealty in The Lord of the Rings is instructive: “And I see it, and will not fail to reward what is offered: service with love, fealty with honour, oathbreaking with vengeance.”

After the fact, Gandalf is a little more cautious. “It was nobly done, whatever put it into your fool head… Still, you are his, now, and he will not forget it.”

This is fealty in its essence. Applied to God, we are His now, and He will not forget it.

Let us not forget just Whose we are.

Shield-Maidens

 

The knightly code of chivalry never has been just for the boys.

Chivalric lore is full of examples of the “damsel in distress”, whose sole purpose is to provide someone for the knight to rescue. The phrase has come down to us to refer to a woman so incapable of effecting her own deliverance that the only hope for her was the chivalrous male rescuer.

The Mediæval reality was somewhat different. Blood was more important than gender, and a noblewoman was still noble; thus, expected to take a lead role in the absence of her husband. Up to and including the defence of his castle and holding off a besieging army. She would see to the provisioning of her men-at-arms, conduct the financial affairs of her demenses, sit in judgment over the affairs of the estate, and at need, be warrior enough to hold an army at bay. The damsel in distress is largely a creation of poets rather than history, and some, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, had quite a military reputation in their own right.

Examples of warrior women have been known throughout recorded history. Boudicca of the Iceni. Tomyris the Scythian. Semiramis of Babylon. While some of these women were from cultures that allowed women to fight alongside the men (the Scythians), others were from far more patriarchal societies, in which a warrior woman was an oxymoron. Indeed, the shock of the patriarchal Greeks at seeing Scythian women fight is part of what gave the Scythians such a bad reputation as unremittingly savage (and incidentally, probably gave rise to the legend of the Amazons).

The real Amazons: Scythian warrior women

“Amazon” is, in fact, how we often think of such women. The word in Greek is literally “Without Breasts”; acccording to one version of the legend they would cut off their own breasts so that the extra flesh would not get in the way of drawing a bow-string. Metaphorically, the word describes a masculine woman, a woman who sacrifices femininity for the field of battle and competence thereon. In this mould are both Eowyn’s disguising herself as the knight Dernhelm in The Return of the King, and Joan of Arc’s cutting of hair and abandonment of women’s clothing. To all intents and purposes she became manly in order to fight.

Perhaps also in this mould, though certainly less fully, is Queen Elizabeth I’s famous speech to her troops on the eve of the Spanish Armada. The whole thing is excellent, but only a single line at the beginning concerns us directly: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England, too!”

Given that she was the blood daughter of King Henry VIII, who could be accused of many things, though never gutlessness, this is a firm claim to the strength of her mighty sire. To paraphrase what Shakespeare’s French king Charles VI said of Henry V: “she is a stem of that victorious stock”.

“The heart and stomach of a King”

Her contrast of “a weak and feeble woman” with “the heart and stomach of a King” is rhetoric playing on the popular views of the age more than the taking on of a kind of inner masculinity; she is known to have delighted in jewellery and clothing and typically feminine arts as well as having the strength of character to put heart and fire in her subjects on the eve of what might have been an invasion.

She’s actually more of an example of the other kind of woman warrior: the kind that can fight alongside a man without losing any of her femininity. In modern parlance, perhaps the femme fatale: the woman who’s just as good as a man when it comes to fighting.

The Vikings called them “shieldmaidens”, and they are the female counterparts of the knights.

Actual attested shieldmaidens of the Viking era are very few, if any, but in legend their names live on: Guinevere, who in some Arthurian legends came riding out to rescue the young King Arthur in his first battle. Maid Marian in the Robin Hood tales was of that mould, too.

And perhaps Deborah the judge, from the Bible.

An artist’s impression of Deborah that manages to make her not look wimpy.

This may be something of a stretch, given that she doesn’t actually personally lead the troops, but she certainly functions in the military role of commander-in-chief. She could not do otherwise; the role of judge in those days combined civil-judicial authority with military leadership (and spiritual leadership: the judges were selected by direct Divine mandate, and besides, Deborah was a prophetess). She summons Barak, and, seasoned warrior that he is, he has enough sense of a chain of command to obey her summons. She even tells him when to attack.

Yet she does all of this without sacrificing femininity.

She’s described as “the wife of Lappidoth”, so she’s obviously, in an intensely patriarchal society, feminine enough that she could attract and keep a husband’s affections.

I often wonder about what sort of man was this Lappidoth. What sort of man does it take to refuse to bow to your own culture’s expectations and be the husband of the woman that God has chosen to lead the nation and command the army?

Was he a weak mama’s boy, as some have characterised Barak? Was he the über-strong manly man that Southern American culture seems to suggest a strong woman “needs” to keep her in line?

Or was he just not threatened by his wife’s power?

Most telling to me is the prophetic victory song penned by Deborah and Barak after the battle. Lauding both Deborah and Jael in strongly military terms as among the human architects of the Lord’s victory, it nevertheless contains the following line:

“Warriors ceased in Israel until I, Deborah, arose/ arose a mother in Israel” (Jdg 5:7 NIV footnote).

Not “arose a commander”. Not “arose a warrior”. Not even “arose a prophet”. “Arose a mother”. Her characterisation of herself, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, is not in the culturally masculine roles of warrior and judge, but in the universally feminine role of mother.

This, however, is a mother who goes to war. Strong in both character and faith, she’s used of God as powerfully and definitely as Samuel in Saul’s fight against the Philistines.

Barak’s often been portrayed in our sermon illustrations as a weakling mama’s boy; a coward who wouldn’t go up to the fight unless Deborah was there to hold his hand.

Personally, I think this does a disservice both to Deborah and to the tribe of Naphtali’s only Biblical hero, and may be minimising the den of vipers that Deborah was asking him to stick his hand into.

This was the chariot age. Chariots had been around for at least a millennium, ever since the Sumerians loaded troops into donkey carts to give them a bit more battlefield mobility. During that time, the chariot had developed from a clunky, heavy, slow four-wheeled cart pulled by donkeys to a fast, manœuvrable battle platform on two wheels, pulled by larger and swifter horses. It would contain two or three people: a driver and one or two warriors, all wearing heavy armour and carrying bows or long spears as well as close-range weapons. Armies were ranked according to how many chariots you could muster. If you didn’t have any chariots, your army basically didn’t count.

By contrast, the foot soldier of the day was extremely lightly equipped. Maybe he’d have a helmet, if he was particularly wealthy. Possibly even a small circular bronze breast plate a bit bigger than a saucer. Armed with bronze-tipped spear, bow and arrows or sling and stones, only the wealthy would have swords. Bronze was expensive.

They wouldn’t even have had personal shields. The shields they had were massive free-standing figure-of-eight-shaped things taller than a man, toted by a muscular servant or retainer who walked in front. When the Bible later talks about Goliath advancing on David “with his armour-bearer in front”, it is undoubtedly referring to this guy.

They provided reasonable protection, but you had to stay behind them. A fast-moving force of chariots could slip around the ends of your shield wall and shoot arrows into your mass of men faster than you could reposition the shields to block them, and that’s without the intimidation factor of a mass of armoured charioteers bearing down on you at high speed.

It was no wonder that it was considered that sending any amount of infantry out into battle against chariots was an act of either desperation or suicide.

Barak obeys the prophetess’ summons, showing a willingness to obey the Lord’s leading. Even if that leading came through the culturally unlikely vessel of a woman; many men of his day in that part of the world would not have responded to a summons from a woman at all.

Deborah tells his to take 10,000 men from Zebulun and Naphtali and go and attack Sisera with this 900-chariot army. Even at better than 100:1 odds, this is still suicide, for the reasons listed above. In normal circumstances, the foot soldiers of the time simply could not hope to match chariots on the field; in that sense, chariots were rather like the nuclear weapons of their day. If you didn’t have them, you couldn’t hope to successfully fight a conventional war against anyone who did.

Barak isn’t resistant to obeying the voice of the Lord, but then as now, there were many who claimed to speak for God. Deborah offers no sign; Barak knows her only by reputation. How is he to know whether this is in fact the word of the Lord or merely the word of Deborah?

Asking Deborah to come with him seems pretty reasonable, under the circumstances. Less “come and hold my hand, I’m afraid” and more “Do you believe this is of God enough to put your own life on the line and come with me?”

Deborah, true to her Divinely-ordained leadership, rises to the challenge, leading with an example of faith that resonates triumphantly to this day. She comes with him. “But,” she says, “on this expedition the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman.” (Jdg 4:9 NIV footnote). Many generals of the ancient world were all about military victory and their own glory therein. There’s no way one of these would be ok with sharing “his” glory with anyone, let alone a woman. Barak, by contrast, seems more about actually getting the job done. He knows it’s not his glory to begin with. Let God honour whom He will for the victory that He gives.

It seems clear from details supplied in Judges 5 that what happened was that God caused heavy rains that turned the low-lying plains, normally ground where chariots were so dominant, into a field of mud. The chariots’ wheels got stuck, and Barak was able to lead the Israelite army down from the heights to win the victory over the previously-invincible 900-chariot army.

Sisera, the commander, flees on foot to the tents of Heber the Kenite, one of Moses’ brother-in-law’s people. The Kenites were non-Israelites living for the most part among Israel, as they had done since the wilderness, but we are told that there were friendly relations between Heber and Sisera’s Canaanite king Jabin.

Apparently Heber is not at home, and Sisera is met by Jael, who is Heber’s wife and one of my favourite bit-part Bible characters. She’s been shamefully treated by many of our Bible commentaries, which wax lyrical about her “cruel assassination” of Jabin or her “heinous betrayal” of the sacred ancient customs of hospitality. Some day I may even write my own, so that there can be at least one voice in her defence.

She evidently recognises who Sisera is; apparently the “friendly relations” between her husband and Jabin are close enough that she can recognise Jabin’s army commander on sight. Sisera is a non-Semitic name; perhaps even in Jabin’s service he was still recogniseably not a Canaanite. She can see that he’s on foot and alone. Evidently something has gone disastrously wrong for the Canaanite forces.

Jael is faced with a choice. If she tried to hide, she would have to hide all of her people – children and servants – as well, otherwise their lives would be in danger. Anyway, she’s the wife; they are her responsibility in the absence of her husband. If she or any of her people were discovered, as they undoubtedly would be as Sisera searched the camp, their lives would probably be forfeit. Sisera is a Bronze Age general; such men were not selected for their gentleness.

If the Israelites were to come along and discover Sisera, as they undoubtedly would unless he hid specifically in Jael’s tent – searching his wife’s tent would be a mortal insult to Heber – then she would probably lose her life along with all of her people. Victorious armies don’t tend to take kindly to people harbouring fugitive enemy commanders.

On the other hand, if her husband were to return and find Sisera alive, and in her tent, He would naturally assume that she was being unfaithful to him and according to the culture of the day would kill her himself.

Under the circumstances, she does what is in her power to do in order to save her people. And it seems she does not share her husband’s compromising position toward the Canaanite king. The Bible never makes the mistake that most ancient patriarchies made in assuming that women had no opinions of their own. Culturally, they may have been expected to follow their husband’s lead and keep their mouth shut, but time and again we see women in Scripture being portrayed as having their own ideas and opinions: Sarah, Miriam and Abigail are just a few of the others; Jael fits right into this mould.

She invites him in to her tent. Sisera would have to be an idiot not to realise that this was her tent, nor the corollary that this was undoubtedly his safest refuge. In he goes. But rather than being a good guest, he starts asking for water.

I’ve been in a culture with enough similarities in its approach to hospitality to recognise what an insult this is. The Central Asian people I worked among for several years had a saying that “a guest is more humble than a sheep”: you go where your host directs, you eat and drink what they set before you. Another proverb states “it is better to hit than to ask”. The thought is not that smacking your host around is a good thing, but that your host will be automatically bringing out the best of everything to serve you. That’s what hosts do. To ask for something is to suggest that they aren’t doing their job as host, and they take hospitality very seriously.

She gives him, not water but cream, in an ornate bowl as befits his rank, and Sisera tells her to lie for him (again, this is a dreadful insult to the honour of your host) and falls asleep.

Is anyone else noticing what’s going on here? The whole picture is reminiscent of a little boy with his mother. She tells him to come inside, and in he comes. She even gives him milk to drink. Sisera tells her, in effect, “if anyone comes looking for me, I’m not here”. Then she tucks him into bed and he falls asleep.

Then she does the deed she’s famous for, the one that has so many Christian commentators howling for her blood. She picks up the mallet and tent peg and nails him to the ground through the skull.

Yes, it’s pretty bloodthirsty. This was the Bronze Age. People regularly killed their own food. Let’s not read onto it our modern squeamishness.

Yes, it’s a deed of stealth, an assassination. So was Ehud’s killing of the enormously fat King Eglon of Moab.

Yes, she seems to lie to him. But both Ehud and the Hebrew midwives appear to be just as economical with the truth, and to do so with God’s apparent blessing.

This is a thorny issue and one we don’t like as Christians. It doesn’t fit neatly into our black and white categories. I could take a whole blog post just looking at the Biblical evidence, but there does appear to be room in the Biblical accounts for a sort of “necessary deceptiveness” when people’s lives are at stake.

But a lot of the Christian commentators seem to hate her for it.

And the Bible’s verdict?

“Most blessed of women be Jael! Most blessed of those who live in tents!” (Jdg 5:24)

Incidentally, there’s only one other woman to whom the “most blessed of women” accolade is given: Mary the mother of Christ.

Popular Protestant portrayal of Mary is as anything but a shieldmaiden. She’s a woman of faith, yes, but we tend to paint her as a good little submissive: demure and gentle and barely having a will of her own. I’d like to suggest that maybe this might not be quite right.

It may be an unreasonable step to re-image her in the mould of Jael, tentpeg and all, but we might do well to hear “let it be to me according to Your word” not as the saying of a weak-willed submissive but as the gutsy faith of one determined to obey the Lord, no matter the cost.

Perhaps she’s not a shieldmaiden precisely (though in the armour of God passage in Ephesians 6 faith is pictured as a shield), but she’s certainly a woman of valour.