Zipporah (Numbers 12)

Zipporah_art

Zipporah by Alan Jones

I’ve never heard a sermon preached on Zipporah. She never got mentioned in Sunday School, and is often airbrushed out of the Exodus story. But Zipporah is someone we need to pay more attention to, especially in a world full of racial tensions and an emboldened KKK. Because on the few times I heard her mentioned, no-one pointed out that she was black.

The daughter of a priest of Midian, Zipporah became Moses’ wife during his forty-year exile from Egypt, eventually accompanying him and the rest of Israel into the wilderness. But in Numbers 12 we encounter an uncomfortable story: Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron confront their brother – he’s married a Cushite woman, an African, and they’re not pleased. They may be the spiritual leaders of a fledgling nation, but that doesn’t mean family dinners aren’t uncomfortable.

What happens next is dramatic – God himself descends, rebukes Miriam and Aaron, and curses Miriam with leprosy.

Knowing that Zipporah is African casts a new light on this punishment – leprosy turns Miriam’s skin “as white as snow”. It’s a form of poetic justice, made all the more shocking and heart-breaking because it’s Miriam, the prophet who danced through the Red Sea singing of liberation and freedom and God’s justice has a problem with her sister-in-law because she’s black. Two women who saved Moses’s life were at each other’s throats. Doesn’t matter how much of an ally someone might see themselves as, there are still underlying prejudices to confront, systems to dismantle. Black lives matter, and Zipporah matters as much as Moses, as Aaron, as Miriam.

(Note that God agrees with this, by the way: it’s the racism that earns a punishment, not the inter-racial marriage.)

But let’s not limit Zipporah to being the victim of racism and injustice; she’s also a hero in her own right. Either intellectually or intuitively she seems to grasp whatever the heck is going on in Exodus 4:24-26. She gets between her husband and the Wrath of God, saving Moses and getting things done; while Moses saved the Children of Israel from Egypt, Zipporah first had to save Moses. In that sense this woman of colour can be seen as a Christ figure. That’s not an image we see portrayed that often; maybe we should ask why not.

This would be a fascinating story in itself, but it speaks to us today. As long as Sunday services remain the most racially segregated time of the week, Zipporah’s story, and the reactions of her in-laws, remain relevant. As long as people of colour face prejudice and injustice, as long as the white church remains silent about its complicity in structures that enable that, Zipporah remains a woman whose story needs to be retold and reclaimed; this obscure story tucked away in Numbers becomes a story for our times.

Two New Blog Projects

Oil-On-Canvas-Abstract-ArtI’ve been writing this blog for just over five years now, and if I say so myself, I’ve covered a fair bit of ground: what started off as a way of exploring some of the more obscure corners of the Bible has started to encompass thoughts on disability and arts and politics and justice and current affairs and the environment and mental health and goodness knows what else. I’m a writer at heart, and this is how I process stuff, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon. However, it means that the blog has been subject to a bit of mission creep lately, and I wanted to address that.

So, I’m pleased to say that I’m launching two sister blogs. Bezalel’s Legacy is going to be an exploration of faith, creativity and the arts, with reflections on how we create and the ways in which the Spirit uses that to bring healing, justice, worship and beauty to the world. This is something I’ve always been interested in, and I hope Bezalel’s Legacy will be an encouragement for those who want to use their creativity to make a difference in the world and in their churches.

CSR_AU_Environment-HEROThe other is Out of the Waves, Out of the Dust. This will be based around faith reflections on climate change and the environment. I don’t intend this to be a scientific apologetic for the subject; rather its focus will be on how climate change is happening now, and how it affects some of our most vulnerable communities. In that sense, the environment is a justice issue, one that disproportionately affects the inhabitants of poorer communities. It’s also affecting Christians throughout the world in a number of ways, and as the Body of Christ we need to acknowledge that. Out of the Waves will be a space to explore what all this means for the Church.

Thinking about it, both creativity and climate change are often underappreciated in our churches; at worst, they’re viewed with suspicion and disdain. So maybe there’s another reason for these blogs – to remind those of us with an interest in these subjects that we’re not alone, that God whispers through our art and blesses us when we cry out for justice.

The Left Hand of Ehud will continue as well, capturing general reflections on faith and the Bible; I just felt that creativity and climate change were deserving of a more targeted forum.

Thanks for following me over the years, and I hope you’ll join me over at Bezalel’s Legacy and Out of the Waves.

Thanks,

Matt

Why We Need Young People To Be Theologians

In a recent post, James Ballantyne makes the case for treating young people in our churches as theologians – people who can think about faith, interpret it, contextualise it. And that’s an important point, because we need young people to do this. We want to see them grow in faith, we want to see them reflect something of the beauty of Christ in their lives. But we also need to listen to them and learn from them. Because they’re not just visiting Mars Hill, they grew up there. Most of us didn’t.

I can sit here and think about how much the world has changed in my lifetime: personal computers, the end of the Cold War, the internet, shrinking congregations, fewer pipe organs, more guitars, ten different Doctors. But to my kids, this isn’t some transformed environment, it’s just life. I don’t have their perspective on things; I don’t navigate this shifted world like a native.

That means we have to support young people with tools to think theologically about their world, because that’s where new insights and creative thinking will emerge. The Church body will be stronger if it can empower people to look at the spiritual implications of the questions that face us:

How do we respond to climate change?

What are the consequences of increased automation and jobs in industrial areas?

What does talking about faith look like when you play video games with friends from around the world?

What does hope and trust mean when you’re being cyber-bullied, when a leading cause of death among young people is suicide?

What does it mean to be a peacemaker in a world of decentralised, unpredictable terrorism?

What do church gatherings need to look like when everything is increasingly indivisualised and wagged by the long tail?

These are just some of the questions that will shape our faith and practice in the decades to come, that inform society as young people come of age, the problems caused by previous generations that will have to be fixed by the next. We do our young people a disservice if we expect them to just rely on what we have to say, on what we were taught by our parents. Because while the bedrock and heartbeat of Christ persist eternally, many other things will shift, mutate and change.

Part of this will involve having answers to questions we’ve never worried about before. Some of it will involve having the grace to admit we don’t have all the answers. We’ll need the wisdom to teach young people how to think theologically for themselves; we’ll need the humility to learn from them. And we’ll need the Spirit to bring all this together with truth and love, and to bring change where that’s needed.

Young people aren’t just the future of the Church, they’re its present. That’s a cliché, but we need to embrace their gifts, their passion, their insights and yes, their leadership. We need to hand them the future.

Thoughts and Prayers

Another day, another disaster, another act of public violence and Twitter confusion, another outpouring of sympathy and compassion. Throughout all this, one phrase gets repeated, echoing around social media to the point of cliché.

I understand why. I’ve heard terrible news and felt the need to say something, anything, aware of my powerlessness but needing to speak. Somehow silence seems inhuman, erasing, and so I offer up my thoughts and prayers, along with thousands of others. And all too often it ends at that, at least until the next disaster, the next outburst of senseless violence.

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers – I probably don’t give enough time to either. Sometimes all you can do is hand things over to God, because our power only stretches so far. Having the humility to accept that is a good thing.

But prayer is meant to change us, isn’t it? Let’so not be so arrogant as to suggest that communicating with the Divine will allow us to walk away without being transformed. We pray about situations, and we think about situations, and God will break through our platitudes and prejudices, until He transforms how we speak, how we spend, how we act, how we vote, how we serve, how we Tweet, how we love.

People get cynical when they see so many of us talking about thoughts and prayers. Part of that is scepticism, but part of it is, I think, the fact that we say these things every time but nothing changes; there’should always another disaster that could have been mitigated; always another act of violence that could have been avoided.

We want God to materialise and personally fix things, but sometimes he expects us to be the answer to some of those prayers. We speak with him, we follow Jesus, we embrace the Spirit and that’ll have an impact. And bad things will still happen, but at least we won’t paint God as an impotent deity on a cloud through our refusal to let him change us.

We see what happens through our prayers: people open up their places of worship to serve as shelter and support, they cook meals and collect toys and go out and fill shopping trollies full of toiletries and clothes. They weep when the words have run out and mourn with those who mourn, because the cumulative effect of all those prayers is Jesus shining through.

Thoughts and prayers are important only insofar as they are real. If we’re passionate about them, if we use them to let God get into our bones, then maybe our Tweets will mean more. Maybe, one day, we’ll be changed.

The Diversity of a Thousand Languages

Pentecost-True-Spiritual-Unit-and-Fellowship-in-the-Holy-SpiritToday is Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on the early Church with tongues of fire and with the tongues of a thousand different languages. In those tongues we hear the echoes of Babel, the primeval war on heaven that saw languages scattered  in a single day. We often read this as a curse that Pentecost heals, something that needs to be overturned. Here on this blog I’ve referred to the destruction of Babel’s curse, but here we run into problems. There’s a danger of seeing Pentecost as being anti-diversity, as being a moment in which we’re all made the same by the Holy Spirit, and all those messy, annoying differences are overcome.

But late last night, terrorists attacked London again. It hasn’t been long since a suicide bomber murdered kids at a pop concert in Manchester; the concert in their memory is being held tonight. Nooses are being found in Washington DC, dark icons of lynching and slavery and a refusal to accept that black lives matter. Toddlers are drowning in the Mediterranean as they flee from ISIS. Look around and you can see the hatred of diversity poisoning our societies, toxins injected into the wellspring of our communities.

So this year I can’t see Pentecost as something that treats diversity as something to be cured. And maybe there’s hope in that everyone heard the disciples speaking in their own languages, rather than the pilgrims assembled in Jerusalem suddenly understanding a single tongue. The Spirit aided communication, but didn’t erase difference, and from this point forward the story of Acts is one in which the family of God is expanded and stretched grows beyond a few working class Galileans to encompass Roman soldiers, Ethiopian eunuchs, Europeans and North Africans. The family of God grows by becoming more diverse, it draws in different languages, new perspectives, new people.

Language shapes how we perceive the world, how we see the people and the plants and the fauna and the colours around us. On that Pentecost two thousand years ago, the Spirit chose words and phrases to communicate a message of hope, words and phrases from different languages, each of them reflecting new facets of meaning, each one extending how those present thought of God, thought of the divine, thought of each other. Those words and phrases would go on to become stories, become art, become inspiration, become resistance, because if that day made the early church one, it didn’t make them the same.

There are those who want to curse diversity, who want it to end so that there can be peace. Send away those who are unlike us, lock them up or kill them, then the world will be as we want it to be. The path to utopia, if you believe corners of the internet, is paved with deportations and internment camps and mass graves; the only difference between those who’d exterminate the unknown is geography and flags.

But the Holy Spirit brings people together; even when we disagree with the ‘other’, there’s still the potential to communicate, to be family. There are times when this is healing, there are times that this is disruptive, but a myriad tongues heard two thousand years ago points to the Spirit being a translator, an interpreter, the speaker of every language. And we’re not just divided by language or borders, but these differences too can be celebrated and honoured and learned from.

We can’t go on hating. We can’t go on killing. We can’t go on nurturing the seeds and the toxins that will reduce our communities to blasted wastelands peppered with walls and barbed wire and furious ranting.

Today is Pentecost. We celebrate a Spirit who speaks a thousand different languages. Let the flames of hope fall, and extinguish the hate and rage.