Where Do You See…? A Discussion Question Template

As I’ve read and analyzed many different youth curricula, I’ve noticed a common formula in the way discussion questions are structured. It goes kind of like this: “Why is it important that we know/understand/do X?” or, “How does X help us do Y?” Here are some examples:

  • “Why is it important to live disciplined lives?” (Ministry to Youth curriculum)
  • “God is at work in ways we don’t understand. How does knowing that help us in times of trial?” (D6 curriculum)
  • “Why is it important to remember that God is exalted above us and is perfect in His understanding? How do these realizations help us navigate life in a broken world?” (Lifeway curriculum)

When I think about how a youth group might answer these questions, though, I feel pretty sure that the conversation would become stifled after just an answer or two. This is because these questions take a lot for granted, limiting the discussion to the terms of the question. The students cannot answer the question without acquiescing to the importance of X. It is not up for debate whether X is actually important or even true, whether X is helpful for Y or even related at all.

But it can be hard to write good open-ended discussion questions – especially when there is a place you want to lead the conversation. So instead of the “Why is X important?” template, I want to share with you a different question template that I have found helpful.

It goes like this: Where do you see X in this text/story/picture/film? Here are some examples:

  • On the Divine Speeches in Job: “Where do you see suffering in this speech?”
  • On the book of Habakkuk: “Where do you see doubt in this text?”
  • On the Prodigal Son: “Where do you see loneliness in this story?”

I love this question because it is short, simple, and easy to understand; it is focused enough to talk about the topic you have in mind, while allowing for divergent answers; and it points students back to the source to take a closer look. Fill in the blanks endlessly. Where do you see faith in this story? Where do you see fear in this psalm? Where do you see hope in this text? Where do you see sacrifice, irony, wonder, cooperation, commitment, disappointment?

Make sure the question is broad enough that it has more than one answer – “sacrifice,” for example, should probably not be asked about the death of Jesus, because it will seem painfully obvious to the students. But it might be a fun exploration into the birth of Jesus, in which Joseph, Mary, Jesus, the animals, and the wise men might all be considered to be sacrificing something.

A simple variation on this question is turn “where” into “who”:

  • On the story of baby Moses in the reeds: “Who is brave in this story?” (This question comes from my sister-in-law, Karen Cooke, a brilliant children’s minister and preacher.)
  • On the story of Jesus saving a woman from a mob in John 8: “Who has power in this story?”

I have also used this question template in M.Div. classes with more complex concepts. In a class session in which we were talking about individualism and collectivism, I assigned the Disney Pixar film Coco as a sort of “third space” where we could explore them. I asked, “Where do you see individualism in Coco? Collectivism? The tension between the two? Where do you see the theme of vocation in Coco?” This allowed for a much more robust conversation than if I had just asked students to summarize the author’s definitions of these terms.

When students start to respond, continue engaging and following up on the concept. “Pharaoh’s daughter was brave? How was she brave? What was there for her to be afraid of? Ooh, I hadn’t thought about baby Moses being brave, but that’s so interesting. Tell me more. What do you think that says about the relationship between bravery and trust?” “Wow, you all pointed out several different moments in this story where people have faith, and they all look a little different. What do you think it means to have faith? Which of these moments of faith resonates with you?”

As you plan your next lesson or small group discussion, give it a try and see how it goes – I would love to hear what conversations it sparks!

Sunday Solitude: A Poem

I always thought you’d be at church 
The Sunday after you were born
Dressed in Grandma’s handmade clothes
The ones you’ve never worn

But you’ve never seen the sanctuary
The altar or the cross
I tell myself it’s just the architecture
But my heart still grieves the loss

Where will you find meaning
When life becomes too much?
Where will you seek mystery
And feel the sacred’s touch?

I thought that you’d meet God where I did
In sculpted stained glass holiness
But we’re finding God together
In solitude and loneliness

And Mary Pondered

This sermon was delivered at Northlake Church of Christ for Christmas 2019. At the time, I was 3 weeks pregnant with our first baby, whom we would lose in March 2020. I’ve thought back to this sermon so many times throughout this year as I understand the fragility of life – and the hope of Advent – in a deeper way than I have before. To listen to the audio recording, visit: https://www.northlake.org/sermon/luke-21-19/.

As I look back over my life, I think about all the times that it would have been so easy to let fear keep me from living with open hands. And most of it goes back to one night that would change my life forever: the night my son was born. I was exhausted after days of traveling. I was away from my family in an unfamiliar place. And when the contractions began, there was no room in the inn for me to give birth. And so I gave birth in a stable, my fiancé as my midwife, although he had no more idea what he was doing than I did. I was filled with terror, but with every push, holding on to the promise that there would be a future for me and for this child

I remember leaning against the wall by the manger, completely spent, feeling the ache in muscles I didn’t even know I had, barely able to keep my eyes open from exhaustion and yet unable to look away from his. From Jesus. It always feels like you can see a person’s soul through their eyes – their humanness, their aliveness. And as I gazed at him in wonder, utterly captivated by his squishy little face, I marveled at the fact that somehow I had brought this new, tiny little spark of life into the world. I remember being so amazed at his tiny hands and feet. So small. So delicate. So fragile.

That’s what I remember thinking when our first visitors hesitantly ducked through the door of the stable – a ragtag band of shepherds. My first instinct was to reach out and shelter my baby, protect him. Joseph’s was to step in front of the manger and block him from view. But the shepherds spoke up, “Is it true? An angel of the Lord appeared to us, and the glory of the Lord shone around us…” At the mention of the angel, Joseph and I exchanged looks. It was not all that long ago that an angel of the Lord had appeared to me to announce the conception of this child. Or that another angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream, confirming that it was true. Asking him to stay with me. And as I remembered that, I offered a silent prayer of thanks that Joseph stayed. That I wasn’t alone in the stable that night. But if an angel had now appeared to these shepherds…all this must mean something. Joseph looked at me questioningly, and I nodded slightly. He stepped aside, allowing the shepherds to see the manger, and me slumped beside it. 

Their eyes widened, their jaws dropped as their eyes fell upon my child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, just as they had been told. The open-mouthed disbelief of one of the shepherds began to curve upward into a smile so big I thought it wouldn’t fit his face. He set down his crook, resting it against the wall. He stepped forward and reached out his dirty, weathered hand to stroke my baby’s fresh, newborn cheek – as soft as down. And I fought the urge to reach out and smack his hand away, to save my precious child from sheep germs and a stranger’s touch. 

You know how it feels when everyone wants to touch your baby, to hold them? And you can’t help wondering, have they been sick lately? Do they know how to hold a baby? It’s like all your muscles are tensed, just waiting for them to give your child back. I think it’s particularly hard right after giving birth. For nine months, it’s been just the two of you enjoying the intimacy of the mother-child relationship. The mystery of their growth, the rhythm of their movement and stretches and kicks, is a secret only you know. But the moment they’re born, the moment they enter the world, they’re no longer yours alone. They can be seen and touched and held and kissed by others. And now, just hours after my labor, it was strange shepherds that wanted to hold him. Everything in me was crying out, “Oh…oh, my son. He’s so fragile. Don’t touch him. Don’t touch him.”

But I bit my lip and held back. And as I saw the pure joy on the face of the shepherd reaching into the manger, I remembered the words I had sung just nine months before, and the words that would become my life’s refrain: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” There in that stable, in Bethlehem, that night, God was turning the world upside down through the promised child in the manger. For me to reach out and protect this fragile baby from a dirty stranger’s touch – to turn away the lowly – would fly in the face of that proclamation. Because they, too, had been visited by an angel of the Lord. And as a poor unmarried girl quite literally covered in blood, sweat, and tears, with nowhere better to give birth than with the animals – well, maybe I was not all that much cleaner than the shepherds. No, I realized that night, the Christ child couldn’t stay in the manger, hidden away from the world, hidden away from those at the margins of society who rejoiced at his birth. After all, he was born for them. He was mine, but as I learned for the first time that night and would continue to learn throughout his life, he wasn’t mine to keep. He was mine to give away.

The second time I remember having that protective instinct – and having to let it go – was not long after Jesus’ birth. It was when we went up to the temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice for our purification. When we entered the temple, there was an old man lurking in the shadows just inside. I would later learn that it was Simeon, a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit. He had been led into the temple by the Spirit, who had told him that he would see the Messiah while he was living. So knowing what I know now, to say he was “lurking” is probably not fair. Standing – he was standing there, off to the side, waiting for someone. But he startled me, because the moment we entered, his gaze was fixed on Jesus. He stared for a moment or two, then purposefully strode toward us, his long legs swallowing up the floor with just a few steps. And without so much as introducing himself or explaining that the Holy Spirit had spoken to him, before I could even process what was happening, he took Jesus from my arms into his. I could only sputter and protest, “Aaah, aah, but…my sonMy son. So fragile. So fragile.” Joseph immediately stepped forward as if to take Jesus back, but just then, Simeon began to speak, looking upward, praying. “Master,” he said, “you are now dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” We paused and held back, staring at him in amazement. Then he blessed Jesus and blessed us – and much to my relief, began to give Jesus back to me. But as he did, Simeon spoke directly to me and said to me, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Then, he looked me straight in the eye and said quietly – knowingly, somehow – “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

I didn’t understand what he meant, but it sounded so ominous it sent a chill down my spine, and I nervously broke his steady gaze as I settled Jesus back into my arms, tucking his blanket underneath him. If I had understood at the time just what Simeon meant, it’s very possible that I would have taken Jesus and run far, far away. But Jesus could not stay in my arms, hidden away from the world. As Simeon prophesied, Jesus was for all peoples. Not even just my own people. No, even the Gentiles. The angel Gabriel had told me he would be the Davidic king of Israel, the long-awaited Messiah. But a light for revelation even to the Gentiles? Salvation for all peoples? Just how far would his reach go? Joseph and I were both amazed at Simeon’s words. It was hard to imagine, standing there in the temple, looking down at Jesus and wondering exactly what his life would look like, and how this would come to be. This baby, for all peoples? My child, for the whole world? My son, so tiny and fragile?

As it turned out, the shepherds and Simeon were only the beginning. People wanted to see Jesus, to be near him, to touch him, his whole life. And of course as he got older, I had less and less say in the matter. Sick people, desperate to be healed, just reaching out to touch the hem of his cloak. Sinful people, desperate for acceptance, embracing and kissing his feet. Self-righteous people, wanting the status of his company. Samaritans, the people we didn’t associate with at all, drank from the same cup as him. Parents of young children – they reminded me of myself all those years ago – they crowded around, bringing their children to my child to be touched, to be blessed. And the ones who made me the most nervous – people who were ceremonially unclean or even had contagious illnesses. It seemed Jesus himself had no hesitation about risking his own skin in touching them. 

It made me uncomfortable more often than I’d like to admit, but I also couldn’t help feeling a deep sense of pride in my son, as I saw people come away from their encounters with him full of new life, full of hope, restored to community. He was living out God’s care for the oppressed in the tradition of the Exodus, of the prophets. Through my child, God was doing what I had prayed about, what I had sung about, what I had taught Jesus about: lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, helping God’s servant Israel. But not everyone loved my son. Because, as it turns out, the powerful resist the reversal the Gospel demands, because it is not good news to them. The mighty do not like to be brought down from their thrones. The rich do not want to be sent away empty. Caring for the oppressed is a threat to the power of the oppressors, and they do not go down without a fight.

And so, ultimately, it was not the hands of the sick that finally took my son away from me. It was not the touch of those who wanted to be well, or the embrace of those who wanted to be near him, but the hands of the religious leaders that were lifted up against him and the hands of the soldiers that carried it out. They reached out their hands not to heal or be healed, but to inflict harm. Not to receive life, but to take it. The lips of Judas kissed the cheek I had kissed so many times. They crowned his head with thorns, the same perfect fuzzy head whose shape I had memorized from spending countless hours looking down at it as he fed. The hands of soldiers beat the body that grew inside my womb, that I had tenderly swaddled and cared for and held. He was a man now, but stripped naked and utterly at the mercy of an unwelcoming world, he was just as fragile and helpless as the night he was born.

And as I collapsed at the foot of the cross, it all came back to me so vividly, from that first night in Bethlehem. Labor was the most painful thing I had ever endured, but even it paled in comparison to this moment. I knew, then, what Simeon meant when he said a sword would pierce my soul. My heart was breaking, my world shattering, everything inside me screaming in agony. And as the soldiers raised the mallet to drive the nails, all I could think as I wept was, “Oh…oh, my son… Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him.” 

But nothing came out except a wordless groan. Instead, the voice I heard was his. “Father, forgive them.” With those words, my son reminded me of the truth I’d lived by, that I’d reminded myself of so many times when it got hard: that the Christ child was for all people, and I couldn’t hide him away. Not from shepherds or sinners. Not even from those who laid hands with the intent to harm. Even for them he was born. 

I was still numb with grief when Mary and Joanna burst in, breathless, that first day of the week. They had gone to the tomb early, to anoint his body with spices. But when they got there, they realized that someone had been there before them. The stone had been rolled away, and his body was missing. Likely stolen. A decent burial was the last thing I could do for the body of my son, and now he had been taken from my arms yet again. It was too much. It seemed too cruel. But then they told me about two strange men who spoke with them at the tomb, who were dressed in dazzling clothes. And I remembered the dazzling clothes of the angel Gabriel who had appeared to me to tell me that I would be the mother of the Messiah. And I remembered the way the shepherds described the angels that appeared to them the night he was born. And as a small spark of hope began to swell even in the midst of my confusion and grief, they told me what the men had said: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen.” 

I could not hold onto him, but neither could the grave. I had learned the often-painful lesson that Jesus was for the world, that he was mine to give away. But I learned something new that day. I learned that I didn’t have to be so afraid all those years. I learned that giving him away did not mean I had to lose him. Because in the Kingdom of God, everything is turned upside down. The last are first, and the lost are found. The one who seeks to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, save it. In the Kingdom of God, it is not what is kept that lasts forever, but what is given away.

            And yet it is still so easy to cling to what we have out of fear. It’s so easy to keep Jesus – the values he stood for, the good news he embodied – to ourselves. It’s so easy, when unworthy people want a place at the table… or even just to touch the hem of his garment… to withhold from them what they seek. We withhold Jesus every time we choose to withhold love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, or welcome, from anyone in need. Because you see, the Gospel is not just that Christ was born for us, or that Christ died for us. The Gospel is that Christ was born for the world, for all peoples. For the shepherds in the fields, for Simeon in the temple, for those on the margins of society, for the sick and the poor and the sex workers and the ones whose theology was all wrong, and yes, even for corrupt religious leaders and pagan politicians. But when any of these people knock on our door, wanting to see and touch the Gospel we’ve received, the Jesus we’ve been given, we instinctively grasp him a little tighter. We fear what might happen if we give him away. We fear that he is too small and too fragile, that his love is too scarce, and that if we give away the love of God instead of holding onto what belongs to us, there may not be enough for us. As if there is not enough to go around. But Jesus and everything he represents is given to us, not as ours to keep, but as ours to give away – to the people we consider the least worthy. When we share with others what we have been given, it does not matter if they deserve it, if they can give something in return, if they know the value of the gift or even if we consider that the gift is wasted. From the shepherds who marvel to the soldiers who crucify, all are freely given the love of God in Christ Jesus.

            People have heard about this child, this man, this Savior, from far and wide, and the whole world is coming to see if the promise is true. To catch a glimpse of him, to reach out a trembling hand to touch him. And yes, some will misunderstand him. Yes, some will use him. Yes, some will even crucify him. And I have had to make peace with that. I have had to learn the hard lesson, over and over, that I could not keep Jesus to myself. But I have also learned…I have also learned that he was not as fragile as I’d feared. That when sick people touched him, he didn’t get sick, they got well. That when he loved unworthy people, his love made them worthy. That even when he was put to death, when I thought it was over, when I thought he had finally given everything, he didn’t stay dead. That no matter how much he gave, he always had more to give, and that the Gospel is infinite and that the table is big enough for all. Even when enfleshed in the body of a human being, the love of God is not fragile, and it is not scarce. It cannot be used up, and no matter how or where or when it is given, it is never, ever, wasted. Not even – and perhaps especially even – when it is given to those we consider unworthy. No, the love of God, even when it is as small and fragile as a newborn infant, is the most powerful thing in the universe. And when we give away the love we’ve been given, we need not be afraid, because perfect love casts out fear.

Give Jesus away to the hands needing a healing touch, to the mouths needing food, to the bodies needing shelter. Welcome those whom others have turned away. Give love to those who have not known it. Seek justice for those to whom it is denied. Forgive those who don’t deserve it. And do these things – open your arms to others – even when it is hard. Give when everything in you is crying out to protect what you have. Love even if it costs you dearly, as it did him, and as it did me. Share the love of God freely and extravagantly and without reserve, even if it means a sword will pierce your soul, too.

Waiting for a Baby

It’s Advent, and I’m waiting for a baby.

I don’t feel ready for this baby at all. I still haven’t watched the childbirth and breastfeeding classes my OB keeps reminding me about, and I haven’t found a pediatrician yet. I haven’t pre-washed my diapers, I don’t have enough baby socks, and I certainly have no freezer meals stashed away. After getting approved for a breast pump through insurance, it took me six weeks to finally sit down and order it. Why? It was a 15-minute task. The truth is, I’ve felt totally paralyzed when it comes to baby prep, and I think part of it is because if I think too much about it, I’ll have a panic attack. How does one prepare to have a baby in the middle of a pandemic, three weeks after Christmas, when the hospitals will be overflowing from Christmas gatherings and some hospitals aren’t even allowing partners to be present for the birth? How do I adjust my expectations to account for not having a doula, for having to wear a mask in labor, for not being able to have family come meet baby right away? (These are rhetorical questions, please do not offer advice at this time.) It seems ridiculous to plan anything after watching all my other 2020 plans crumble.

But in this season of Advent, I find comfort in identifying with another mom-to-be who was waiting for a baby born into uncertainty and unpreparedness. Away from home and family, no doula but Joseph, no labor & delivery suite but a stable – but if it’s not too sacrilegious to mix the Nativity with the Grinch, “somehow or other, he came just the same.” Babies do not ask politely if all is in order before they make their appearance into the world – which is probably a good thing, because who is ever truly ready? I cannot do enough pre-washing now to keep me from having to do laundry two days after coming home from the hospital – and every other day for the foreseeable future. No matter how many freezer meals and folded socks, one does not learn to be a parent without being taught by the child.

It’s Advent, and I’m waiting for a baby – and I feel just as unprepared to receive Mary’s baby as I do my own. How do we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ child without the regular gathering of our faith community, without the candles, the hymns, the Christmas Eve service? How do we live fully into this Advent season when day to day we’re all just trying to get through it? How do we enter a season of giving when we feel so empty and like we have nothing left to give? My heart feels as closed as the inn, my life as messy and unswept as the stable. How can I sing “Be born in [me] today”? I am not ready for him. The world is just as filled with strife and disease and hatred as ever – how can we sing “Let earth receive her King”? We are not ready for him, any more than we were 2000 years ago.

But ready or not, the Christ child is coming, and this is simultaneously terrifying and profoundly comforting. Terrifying because I much prefer to feel prayerful and put-together and happy and Christmasey. Comforting because it strips me of the illusion that Christ’s coming depends on me and my preparedness at all. I cannot stash enough piety and good deeds to exempt me from engaging in the hard work of everyday life. I cannot learn to be a Christian without being taught by the sudden demanding presence of the Christ child, whose cries point me to the suffering of the world and whose hunger requires my attention.

It’s Advent, and I’m waiting for a baby for whom I cannot possibly be ready, until he arrives and shows me the way.

Creation and Chaos: A Poem

Content Warning: Pregnancy Loss

I wrote the first half of this poem in January 2020, just after I found out I was expecting. The second half was written during a long, sleepless night during our loss in March. My theology has been enriched and enlarged by the experience of carrying, loving, and losing a child, and I hope these imperfect words can give a glimpse into that experience for those who have not known it, a bit of solace and catharsis for those who have, and perhaps, for those dissatisfied with traditional theologies of suffering, new ways of imagining God’s love in the midst of pain and loss.

I wonder
If Genesis 1 had been written
Not by a priest or patriarch
But by a common, ordinary woman
If the creation of the world
Would sound less like a master
Giving commands to be obeyed
If it would sound less like God was
At a distance
A disembodied director’s voice
Commanding the universe to be and
Watching it happen from afar
If a woman told the story
I wonder if it would sound more like
Moaning and crying and shaking
As God’s pelvis spread apart
To make a way for a miracle
Because men think
They can give the word and it is so
But women know
That only by full, painful engagement
Can one create life

And I wonder, too
If the part where
It all went wrong in chapter 3
Was written by an ordinary woman
The one in four
If God might have sounded
Less like a strict disciplinarian
Disapproving and stern
And more like a weeping woman
On her hands and knees
Convulsing with labor pains
That bring only grief and despair
Wondering how she ended up in this nightmare
Of bringing forth death
When she intended life
Wondering if her body had
Done something wrong
Or if perhaps the world is just
A place of chaos and sorrow
Where things go wrong
Without cause
And the best that she can do is to
Create despite
And love regardless
Of the

To Be a Tree

Reflections on what a tree in my back yard is teaching me about being a teacher.

Oh, to be a tree
I thought as I looked up
At the towering trunk
Reaching up to the blue sky
And then I thought as I looked closer
At the flurry of activity
On every square inch of its bark
If only I, like the tree,
Could be a playground for flourishing life

Oh, to have roots deep enough
That I can be home to
All the little creatures
That nest among
The cracks and crevices
Of my bark
Of my soul

Oh, to be such a
Gracious host
To otherness:
The cobwebs strung from branch to branch
With their spiders busily weaving a home;
The lichens that,
In the safety of my bark
Are able to grow and become;
The ivy that wraps around me
In a grateful hug
As it lives and grows
The squirrels for whom I am a jungle gym
Who dash here and there
And make daring leaps from swaying twigs;
The birds who perch in my branches,
Serenading their neighbors;
The woodpeckers who,
Finding nourishment in my trunk,
Forever leave their mark on me.

Oh, to be a home
Where life can flourish
And thrive
And grow
Oh, to invite a thousand lives
To be their truest selves
Because in me
They find space to breathe
To be

Oh, to need not say a word
Because my roots are
Deep enough
My trunk
Strong enough
My presence
Inviting enough
To listen them to life

And I,
I get a front row seat
To their song

An Easter Monday Poem

Blessed are those
Who fell asleep on Easter night
Still disappointed and confused
For they are not alone

They are joined by frightened disciples
Bewildered women
Doubting Thomas
And the ones on the road to Emmaus
Who unknowingly confessed that evening
To Jesus himself
They no longer hoped he was the one

In fact
There were no celebrations that first Easter
No dramatic reveal
Some believed early that morning
Others learned that night
One waited another whole week
To be glad
And it was all more chaotic and haphazard
Than the tidy happy story
Our sunrise services tell

But their doubt
Did not keep Christ from rising
Christ rose in the darkness
Before they believed

This year, I am comforted in knowing
That Christ’s rising is not contingent on my belief
Or whether I feel like rejoicing
Christ does not need my permission to rise
Christ is risen anyway
I do not roll away the stone with my praises
It was gone before I awoke
I do not conjure the risen Christ
By keeping vigil
And Christ does not stay in the tomb
If I fall asleep early
Or numbly watch Netflix instead

And so it does not matter
Whether we can bring ourselves to
Celebrate on Easter Sunday
Or with Thomas next week
It matters only that
Christ rises in the darkness
Before we believe

Love and Vulnerability: Reading the Song of Songs in a Pandemic

In my previous post in this series, Finding Joy in Futility, I noted that one of Qohelet’s recommendations for enjoyment is to “enjoy life with the one whom you love” (Ecc. 9:9). Where Qohelet hints at sexual love, the Song of Songs takes up his recommendation with gusto in a full-blown, eight-chapter erotic love poem. And with all the memes joking about a future boom of quarantine babies, it’s clear that sex is on everyone’s mind anyway, so why not dive into the Song of Songs and learn more about what this giggle-inducing book of the Bible has to say to us in the midst of a pandemic?

The Song of Songs is typically not considered wisdom literature, but it has affinities with the wisdom genre that lead some scholars to identify it as wisdom – or at least a blend of genres, perhaps a wisdom framework applied to the genre of love poetry. These affinities include the Song’s focus on the created world, life lived well, and the tensions in life that characterize the human experience. I wrote about how the divine speeches in Job showcase the tension between order and chaos, and how Ecclesiastes teaches us about the tension between hevel and joy. The Song of Songs embodies the same approach to life – it recognizes the tensions between love and loss, security and danger, and yet it paints a picture of living fully and loving with abandon. It recognizes the vulnerability that comes with giving oneself freely to another.

For the most part, the landscape of the Song is one of extravagant beauty, unrestrained passion, and delightful mutuality between the lovers. They take the time to gaze at one another, admiring every feature in detail. They make love surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. It is springtime in the Song; the rain is gone, the flowers are blooming, and everything is fair and fragrant. The imagery throughout most of the Song seems so blissful and serene that it leads Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis to suggest that the Song is a reclamation of the wholeness of relationship in Eden before the fall; relationships between God and humans, men and women, humans and the earth, are imagined to be in harmony (Davis, “Reading the Song Iconographically”).

And yet there are woven into the poetry, sometimes more explicitly than others, hints that all is not well in this idyllic landscape. No one is entirely sure what they mean. The scene in which the beloved searches the city streets for her lover, only to be beaten and possibly otherwise assaulted by the guards (5:7). The brothers of the beloved, forcing her to hard labor in their anger (1:6). The strange admonition to catch the foxes who, running wild, may destroy the blossoming vineyard (2:15). Elaine James notes the threat the foxes could pose, as they can prey on both doves and gazelles – the zoomorphic representations of the lover and the beloved.

And finally, there is the reflection on love at the end of the poem: “Love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave” (8:6). Here the hints at danger become most explicit, as the presence of death is acknowledged; rhetorically speaking, here love and death meet each other face to face and are revealed to be an equal match.

Although the lovers seem at first glance to enjoy one another without a care – although they give off an air of youthful exuberance and naivete – the poem reveals knowledge of risk, potential harm, and even the inevitability of death. James writes, “The suggestive quality of death’s presence…presses us to imagine the lovers in a landscape that is aware of its finitude” (James, Landscapes of the Song of Songs, 86)They are not naive about the world or about their own vulnerability. They choose to risk love anyway, despite any threat to their relationship – or do they perhaps love so passionately because they are aware of love’s fragility?

I do not think the Song paints a picture of a perfect love, untouched by cares and hardship. Instead, I think it depicts a love that is only able to be as passionate as it is vulnerable.

The Song’s emphasis on human bodies and physical pleasure implies great vulnerability. First, I think it is often easier and feels safer to think abstractly, to focus on our minds. We tell ourselves that we love someone’s mind or spirit, rather than confessing that we love their soft lips and supple body, because we like to pretend that we are above such earthy, sensual things. Even talking about the Song makes us blush. Sharing anything about our own body feels intensely vulnerable. Many of us even find it hard to love our own bodies, let alone feel free and unrestrained in them. In our post-Enlightenment western world, it is much more comfortable and much less vulnerable to be a mind than a body. Second, by de-emphasizing embodiment, we can also rationalize loss away. We can look at a body in a casket and tell ourselves that “she’s not really there” or “that’s not really him,” to minimize the pain of seeing the live, warm, moving body we love lying so terribly still. It protects us against the vulnerability of embodied love.

But to the degree that we minimize the role of the body, we also minimize our potential for full engagement in the world, for passionate love. Activities like cooking become a chore to be gotten over with as quickly as possible. We work out at gyms for efficiency’s sake, staring either at TV’s or sterile white walls because our bodies don’t naturally move as much as they should anymore. And yes, we are having less sex than we used to, perhaps partially due to technology (https://www.today.com/health/americans-are-having-less-sex-here-s-why-it-matters-t151817). Programmed to sublimate physical pleasures to mental productivity, we miss out on so much of the enjoyment that God has for us here, in the world, in this moment. Because the truth is, we are embodied creatures meant to experience a physical world.

And so the message of the Song, I think, extends beyond sexual encounters. Cheryl Exum writes, “Among other things, the Song contributes to the Bible an unparalleled affirmation of the pleasures of the flesh, the strength of love, and the beauty of the created world” (Exum, Song of Songs, 72). In the Song, love for another, love for one’s self, and love for the created world all seem to be bound up together. But one thing is for sure: the Song is surely one of the most physical books of the Bible, that takes pure and unashamed delight in beauty and pleasure.

For me, the combined experience of quarantine and a recent miscarriage has put me more in tune with my body, and caring for it more, than I have in a long time – even though sex hasn’t been an option for the better part of a month. I’ve been charting my cycle and paying close attention to how my body feels. Taking long, hot bubble baths, where my whole body sinks into the water like a contented sigh. Going for long walks in the woods every day, noticing the beauty of the world around me, making sustained eye contact with squirrels and feeling gleeful about it. Cooking healthy meals and experimenting with new recipes, dancing in the kitchen, sipping wine while smelling and tasting soup. Holding hands with my love and savoring kisses. I think Qohelet and the Beloved would both be proud. And I think God is, too.

So as I wrap up this series on reading wisdom literature in a pandemic, allow the sages to assure you that however you are coping in these times is likely okay. As Qohelet would say, “God has already approved what you do” (Ecc. 9:7) – because God has made you human and placed you in a world where these things happen. And so it is good to grieve. It is also good to have moments of pleasure and joy. They go together, because that is part of what it means to be human, to be embodied, to be what God created us to be.

These three books – Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song – seem to promote similar ideas: that terrible things happen in the world, that “playing it safe” cannot guarantee our safety, and that the best response to life’s uncertainty is to live as fully as one can. Even for those who are quarantined at home, threats loom all around like foxes at the edge of our vineyard. But we cannot let fear of the future or of the unknown keep us from being fully present to our lover, to ourselves, and to our lives. Because, as Qohelet has already told us, the pure and simple enjoyment of love is our portion in life.

Finding Joy in Futility: Reading Ecclesiastes in a Pandemic

Ecclesiastes is one of the less-cherished books of the canon. In fact, it nearly didn’t make it into the canon because of arguments over its seeming lack of orthodoxy. It has historically been known for its cynicism; theologian Gerhard von Rad referred to it as a “bitter skeptical marginal note on the tradition of the wise men,” and Qohelet (Hebrew for “the Teacher”) as one who was “suspended over the abyss of despair” (Old Testament Theology vol. 1, 455-459). On the other end of the spectrum, however, Qohelet has been called a “preacher of joy” (Whybray, “Qoheleth, Preacher of Joy,” JSOT 7 [1982]). Which one is right? Or could he be both? And how might his strange and unorthodox-sounding theology help us cope with living in a pandemic?

Eunny Lee takes a more nuanced view of Qohelet’s internal state, calling him a “faithful realist.” One thing that can certainly be said for Qohelet is that he is honest and does not shy away from the harsh realities of life. In Ecclesiastes, no spiritual platitudes serve as a bandaid to the bleak landscape of meaningless existence he describes. Instead, we’re forced to confront it and dwell in it for 12 chapters. Aside from the epilogue, the book begins and ends with the same refrain: “‘Futility of futilities!’ says Qohelet. ‘Utterly futile! Everything is futile!'” As one of the teenagers in my youth group put it, “He tells it like it is…it’s like the un-sugarcoated version of life.”

But I believe it is this very honesty, this willingness to confront reality and tell it like it is, that enables Qohelet to give us meaningful advice for living through these times.

There is a scene in the Disney-Pixar film Inside Out, in which Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong begins to cry because she has forgotten him. Joy feels very uncomfortable and immediately tries to do anything she can to cheer up Bing Bong, to move past his grief as quickly as possible – telling jokes, making funny faces, tickling him. Nothing works. But then Sadness comes and sits beside Bing Bong. “I’m sorry they took your rocket,” she tells him. “They took something that you loved. And now it’s gone. Forever.” And she and Bing Bong sit and cry together. And a remarkable thing happens: somehow, Sadness brings Bing Bong more joy than Joy can. (Calvin Cooke, “Finding Joy in an Unjust World,” JYM 17 [2019]).

Reading Ecclesiastes during this time is like Sadness sitting beside us, describing frankly what has happened and, well, how much it sucks. “You didn’t get to have the wedding you’ve always dreamed of, even though you worked hard to plan it for months, even though you deserve it. And that’s not fair.” “You didn’t get to be there for your niece’s birthday, and that’s a day you’ll never get back. Time just keeps on going, no matter how much you wish it wouldn’t.” “You were working so hard and doing so well at your job, and now you don’t know how you’ll make ends meet. It’s not supposed to work that way.” This pandemic took something you loved. And now it’s gone. Forever.

In the midst of upbeat, inspirational memes assuring us that everything happens for a reason, sometimes the painful truth is what we need to hear. And Qohelet tells it.

In fact, Qohelet tells us all that he has seen under the sun, all the “grievous ills” he has witnessed. And it’s a depressing picture. Entire fortunes worked for and lost in the blink of an eye (5:13-14). The tears of the oppressed under the power of their oppressors (4:1). Exhausting, unceasing toil (2:22-23). That the wise and the foolish share the same fate (2:14-17). It’s a world of injustice in which things don’t work the way they’re supposed to – the race is not to the swift, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, but time and chance happen to them all (9:11).

And Qohelet has a word for all of these things: they are all hevel. Hevel is the Hebrew word translated “meaningless” or “vanity.” It actually means breath, or puff of smoke. It means that something is ephemeral, fleeting, ungraspable; Qohelet often follows the word hevel with the qualifying phrase, “chasing after the wind.” It is both ungraspable and absurd. In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), the word is mataiotes, the same word Paul uses in Romans 8 when he says that the creation was subjected to “futility.” People getting what others worked for – this is hevel. The fact that sometimes the wicked come out on top, while the good suffer – hevel. All of our goals and plans, all the effort we expend to reach them, only for them to be taken away from us – hevel.

But this is not all that Qohelet has to say. Woven into his observations and reflections about the nature of life is a refrain about joy, of all things. Joy, in the midst of this topsy-turvy, nonsensical world he describes! Ironically, in the face of existential crisis, Qohelet sees that enjoyment can be found only in the very physical, grounded realities of eating and drinking. He continually returns to this refrain eight different times after describing another of life’s absurdities. Because it is only once we recognize and acknowledge how fleeting our life is and how little control we actually have, that we can begin to let go of our futile grasp on it and really live it. 

In the beginning, he notes only that enjoyment is what “he has seen to be good.” But then he moves from observing the goodness of bread and wine, to commending it: “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink, and enjoy themselves” (8:15). And finally, the refrain crescendos into an imperative:

“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the one whom you love, all the days of this hevel life that are given to you under the sun, because that is your portion in life, and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (9:7-9).

With the dramatic build toward the imperative, the emphasis on how to eat and drink (with “enjoyment” and a “merry heart”), and the addition of other activities of enjoyment, here Qohelet’s theology of joy “swells into a veritable celebration of life” (Lee, Vitality of Enjoyment, 64).

Perhaps such a mundane concept of joy seems inadequate to existential crisis. The world is falling apart all around me, people are dying, and his answer to that is to…relish a glass of wine?? Or perhaps it seems spiritually lacking. Shouldn’t my comfort come from the knowledge that there is more than this life? What is this about food and sex being my “portion in life”?

But in fact, allowing ourselves to live fully and enjoy these everyday embodied activities may be an aspect of what it means to “fear God.” The epilogue of Ecclesiastes admonishes us to “fear God, for this is the whole duty of humankind” (12:13). Eunny Lee takes this as a summary of Qohelet’s argument up to that point; what it means to fear God is to understand one’s place in the world as a finite creature who is not God and who cannot control the vicissitudes of life, and “to recognize both the tragic limitations and the joyous possibilities of human existence” (Lee, Vitality of Enjoyment, 8).

This is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: enjoy what God has given you in the present, because it is not guaranteed and may not be here tomorrow. Love the fleeting moments. Especially in this time where the pace has slowed down somewhat, savor that cup of coffee or glass of wine. Revel in the delicious dinner you made and the small bit of comfort it brings you. Delight in the feel of the warm shower, the crisp sheets, the cool breeze. When everything else is uncertain, this is your portion in life. Not the 401k or your stocks, but this bowl of ice cream, in this moment, because it is a gift of God.

In her bestselling book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp recalls her journey of noticing and writing down all of the small, mundane gifts throughout the day. “Jam piled high on the toast…leafy life scent of the florist shop…kettle whistling for tea on a cold afternoon” (Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, 45, 83). Voskamp’s book, and her practice of journaling, make Qohelet’s theology of joy practical and accessible for us. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes,

“Such minutely specific blessings may be the best way for us to learn how to pray as we ought, for they aim at the basic purpose of all praise: to sanctify the world, to name it as holy. Saying those myriad tiny prayers is like seeing our world and our own life as a crystal, holding it up and letting light fall on its different facets. They remind us that nothing, nothing at all may be taken for granted” (Davis, Getting Involved with God, 40).

So what is the message of Ecclesiastes for you in this season? What grievous ills have you seen under the sun, what hevel and wind-chasing has this pandemic made evident? What is there that you need to name and grieve? What small enjoyments in these days of quarantine are your portion, your gift from God? And what can you do to receive them?

Chaos and Turmoil: The Book of Job in a Pandemic

As COVID-19 has begun to shut down the United States, most of us are grieving losses of some sort or another. We grieve the loss of time spent with family and friends; we grieve the loss of vacations and events; we grieve the loss of jobs and stability. We grieve potential losses as we fear for the health of our parents and grandparents. But underlying all of these specific losses, I think there is a more abstract and profound type of loss. We grieve change; we wonder whether things will ever go back to “normal,” and we grieve the loss of the world as we previously knew it. When we experience a loss in normal times, we can figure out how to cope; we know where to turn for comfort and stability. But when seismic events like these occur, there is none to be found, because they disrupt any sense of order in our lives. It feels chaotic, but not just in the sense of panic buying in crowded grocery stores. It is chaotic in the sense that our structures and routines have been stripped away – everything comfortable and familiar – leaving us scrambling to figure out what to do and how to cope. It feels like there’s nothing under our feet, nothing to hold onto, because everything we’ve taken for granted has been called into question. Nothing feels certain anymore.

And it is in this space of utter lostness that our old friend Job finds us.

Ask a dozen scholars what theological issue the book of Job is trying to address, and you’ll likely get a dozen answers. It is difficult to pin down precisely what the book of Job is about; Saint Jerome in the 4th century said of Job, “It is like trying to grasp a little eel; the tighter you squeeze it, the sooner it escapes.” There are a number of themes that Job seems to address: the nature of disinterested piety (the question that concerns the Accuser in the prologue – do people fear God for nothing?), the problem of suffering and especially innocent suffering, the themes of order and chaos in creation, and the divine-human relationship. My own understanding is that Job is intended to raise several different questions and explore them all, rather than attempting to answer definitively or thoroughly treat any one of them.

But the theme in Job that I find most compelling is the idea of chaos in creation, and it is one that I find particularly meaningful during this time of fear and uncertainty. Most of the time, we like to cling to the illusion that we are in control of our lives. When a mysterious, frightening, uncontrollable pandemic sweeps the globe, that illusion is lost. We recognize that nothing is guaranteed, that there is a randomness to life and loss. And I think it is this same realization that Job is confronted with, rages against, and gradually comes to accept.

After the recounting of Job’s insurmountable loss, and after Job’s famous declaration of piety – “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away” – chapter 3 opens with Job cursing the day of his birth and even God’s creation (“let there be darkness” can be read as the wishful undoing of God’s command “let there be light”). In this initial outburst, Job expresses his misery and longing never to have been born, concluding with these words: “Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I have no ease, no quiet, no rest; but turmoil comes.”

Wisdom scholar Carol Newsom points out that Job does not say that he had dreaded the loss of his family and possessions and health. Instead, he implies that what he had feared was rather rogez, or turmoil. The closing words of ch. 3 reveal that Job’s material loss, although profound, is only the veneer for what truly disturbs him. Everything he believed about God and the world has been turned upside down. Order and coherence have given way to chaos and turmoil; his world, once so ordered and orderly, now makes no sense at all. He grasps for meaning, and cannot find it.

Throughout the next 39 chapters, Job attempts to make sense of life once again, to put the pieces of his theology back together. His friends assume that he must have sinned in order to deserve this suffering. Job knows that he has not, but he assumes that someone must be to blame. That someone, Job believes, must be God; that is the only logical alternative. God has done this to Job because God is a cruel tyrant who delights in torturing humans. (Haven’t read that part of Job? Check out chapter 16.)

When God finally answers Job, the divine speech from the whirlwind is both terrifying and exhilarating – and it introduces a completely new understanding of the world of which Job and his friends could not have conceived. While they have argued over who is to blame for the suffering, God does not engage this question; in fact, God’s response indicates that this is not the right question at all, and that their explanation of chaos is far too narrow and self-centered. Job and his friends – and humankind as a whole – do not even feature in the divine speeches but are reduced to a mere speck, an audience to a cosmic exhibition. Instead, God speaks about the mystery of the cosmos, the habits and hiding places of rain and snow, the wildness of the animal kingdom, and finally the terrifying, untamable grandeur of the chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan. The chaos which Job has so feared, and which he thinks God has unleashed on him, is just a part of the created order.

While God claims ownership over creation and alludes to the subduing of chaotic forces (38:10-11), the overarching theme of the divine speech is that of a wild, untamable, unruly creation – and the terrifying beauty of the undomesticated. What Job had tried to intellectually possess and control is revealed to be utterly beyond his grasp; his tour of creation shows him that the beauty and value of creation is inseparable from its wildness and freedom. Although God has set boundaries for creation, God has nonetheless woven chaos into its very fabric, such that “the sheer vitality of creation itself will produce situations and results beyond God’s control” (McCann, “Wisdom’s Dilemma,” 23). Job cannot demand answers from a creation that refuses to give them. He cannot control what even God does not control. Thus, Job must accept that suffering and chaos are “simply…conditions for participation in creation” (ibid).

The divine speeches serve as a kind of invitation for Job to be a part of this world of chaos, accepting it for what it is and finding his place within it. Presumably, Job accepts the invitation. He responds with humility, but I would argue that it is his willingness to go on with life and to bear children once again – arguably the most vulnerable act of all – that serves as his RSVP. Scholars have long noted the unusualness of the narrator telling us that, afterward, Job gave his daughters inheritance alongside his sons – something that wasn’t common in that time. Why? Perhaps because in a world of chaos, Job is more willing to color outside the lines, to live fully in the face of uncertainty. Perhaps, having accepted the wildness and freedom of the created world, Job himself can live with a little more freedom and spontaneity, holding what he has a bit more loosely.

I think the book of Job gives us a much richer and more complex theology of suffering than we give it credit for, and one that gives us a framework for understanding something like a pandemic. In fact, ironically, Newsom believes that a virus might be our most adequate comparison to the way the Israelites feared the great chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan. A virus, like those creatures, is something mysterious and terrifying, something we cannot understand and of which we live in fear. What does it mean for God to speak of COVID-19 as a wild creature that frolics in its domain, before whom terror dances (41:22)? We cannot control it, and we feel helpless before it. Nonetheless, we coexist with it in this creation, and we must find a way to live in a world where so many things are beyond our control or understanding.

There is terror in creation, but there is beauty, too – sometimes apart from the terror, and sometimes even within it. There is no love without loss, no rainbow without rain. Even in the present crisis, we recognize the strange truth that there are gifts tied up with the losses – more time with our family, a cleaner environment, a chance to slow down and rest. We could not disentangle the threads if we wanted to. Chaos is merely a condition of life in this world.

In crises like these, we naturally try to make some kind of meaning out of it or at least find some explanation. Did we do something wrong – is God punishing us? Or has God brought this upon us so that we would return to God? Is God not all-powerful – or is God just not good? I believe that Job shows us that there is a certain randomness and unpredictability to creation. Not that God is overpowered by God’s own creation, or that God is impotent in the face of contagion – but that God has created wild things and allowed them to go free. Us included.

This pandemic has not fundamentally changed reality for us; it has merely unveiled it. Instead of living in denial, we are now confronted daily with the chaos of the world and with our own smallness and fragility in light of it. But now that we are aware of this dynamic, perhaps we can follow Job by living fully into it and embracing the life we have in all its complexity and chaos, in all its sorrows and joys. You, too, are a creature. Be wild and free and beautiful. Bring children into the world, even though it’s a risky and courageous thing to do – for the ostrich (39:14-15), for Job, and for you. Give them playful and extravagant names like Cinnamon and Eyeshadow (42:14) and give to them without holding back. Buck the trend and challenge social norms. Innovate and color outside the lines. And maybe, when this is all over, we will focus less on controlling our lives and more on living them.