In Defiance of Death

A sermon preached on Song of Songs 7-8
University Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN

This is a memory I return to like a ritual. A streak of blood flashing through the air, men crowded close around my beloved brother and cousin, tough blows falling like a heavy rain, the pronounced sense of powerlessness in the vain screams I lifted up to no one.

It was nearly a decade ago that my brother, my cousin and I were attacked by a group of men on a poorly lit street in Quito, Ecuador. We survived, but each of us have struggled in our own way to make sense of it, alternating between panic attacks, substance abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and, of course, in my case: writing sermons about it.

At the age of 22, this was the first authentic glimpse I’d caught of my mortality – of all our mortality. The bone and the blood and the vomit and the tears I witnessed that night congealed to form a mortar sealing my fate: my body is penetrable. I now understood with horrible clarity that this skin we wear is not a wall of bulletproof glass, but rather a porous barrier through which worldly molecules are sucked in and spat out, like the creams we spread on our elbows, like the sweat we emit with exertion.

Our homecoming one week later was to a gaggle of loved ones awaiting our arrival at the airport. Haggard faces greeted us, worried eyes and puckered chins, as we paraded down the escalators attempting to prove our relative health and general aliveness. We were not very convincing, but as our bodies were embraced, as familiar arms enfolded us, for me at least, my healing began.

That moment of healing — that embrace, right there — is how it is with love.

You may find this a strange way to begin a sermon on the Song of Songs. After all, just moments ago I was reading aloud one of the most delicious texts in the Bible, a sensual and erotic traversing of a lover’s body from toe to head. And yet we all know, at the core of who we are, that even as we embrace one another with the most intimate of grasps, to love another is to risk terrible pain. We love in the midst of life, which is also to say, we love at risk of loss.

The Song portrays this risk as Danger. Do you remember the watchmen of the night, the sentinals who in chapter 5 strip the woman, who beat her and bruise her, simply for walking about the town at night in search of her lover? In today’s passage, we hear the woman wishing her lover were like a brother to her. It may sound strange to our ears, but her wish is logical. At that time, she could be seen with a brother in public, even kiss her brother in public – but not so with an unrelated man. To do so was a violation of social norms, a dangerous act.

Gender roles were notoriously strict in ancient Israel. Most of us know that adulterous women in ancient Mesopotamia were often stoned to death. What we often don’t remember is that very few women who behave out of the ordinary in the Bible are praised for it. Israel in biblical texts is frequently portrayed as God’s adulterous wife, who in the book of Hosea is stripped, exposed, and beaten for her infidelities. Sex in the Mediterranean was first and foremost seen as an expression of power, with two actors: the superior, penetrator; and the weaker, the one being raped. To be a woman was to be understood systematically and unquestionably as the inferior, weaker sex.

Within this broader context, it is certainly remarkable that the Song portrays a female character who not only names what she wants, but also pursues it unapologetically. For any ancient Israelite text to celebrate female desire, the female body and female sexuality – and to have it upheld in the canonization of the Bible – is enough to make any modern-day feminist weak in the knees. I mean, look at this stuff!

In chapter seven, the woman in the poem is compared to a queen, with rounded thighs like jewels and a nose as elegant as the tower of Lebanon. Her breasts are first compared to twin gazelles, then to coconuts at the top of a stately palm tree, and finally they become like clusters of grapes on the vine – significantly sweeter, closer to the ground, and easier to pluck than your average coconut or gazelle. As the lover’s passionate description of the woman continues, we, the listeners, are brought in closer to her, more intimately learning of the apple-sweetness of her breath, and of her kisses, which are compared the smoothest, sweetest wine, gliding over lips and teeth.

“My beloved is mine and I am his,” she declares in avid response to her lover’s adoration, and she calls him forth to the fields and the vineyards, where the pomegranates are in bloom, and where she has saved up the choicest fruit for him to consume.

Since her lover had previously compared her breasts to grapes on the vine, I think we can all safely assume that she isn’t exclusively talking about… fruit.

And yet danger is never far around the corner. These two chapters of the Song, as with most of the Song before it, are fraught with unrequited longing, with an undercurrent of tension and danger throughout. The woman repeatedly expresses her wish to kiss her lover in the streets of the city, and she adjures the Daughters of Jerusalem, her audience, not to wake love before it is ready – presumably because it may be too dangerous to do so. Later in chapter eight, she must defend herself and her actions to her brothers, who see her as a child and threaten to lock her away from the rest of the world.

Any of us who have loved, romantic or not, know what it is like to have our love threatened. For my family, the night I and my brother and my cousin were attacked, the danger was also men in the streets of a city at night, who threatened to take our lives. But Danger comes in many forms. A friend of mine recently gave birth to a stillborn child; the danger she faced was pre-ecclampsia, and it took her child before they were even able to meet face-to-face. For some, Danger is named racism, and allows a man to legally shoot and kill a 17-year-old boy for playing his music too loud, as was the case for Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida. Some of us face danger in the form of our own inner demons, depression or addiction or anxiety, which try to convince us that we are unlovable, or undeserving of love. And heartbreaking loss comes still in the form of divorce, sexism, betrayal, homophobia, anger, abuse, misunderstanding. At times it can feel as though Danger stalks us from every angle, ever-present, as vigilant as the watchmen of the wall.

To love others is to risk the pain of loss. And yet the act of loving others in spite of this loss is to defy death itself, to stake claim to the idea that love is strong as death.

Set me as a seal upon your heart, says the woman in the Song – for love is strong as death. Yes, set me as a seal on your arm, for passion is as strong as the grave!

It has become a recent trend for couples, when they marry, to tattoo their wedding bands on their fingers. But the woman in the Song goes even a step further than that. She is not even hoping even to be branded upon her lover’s heart, as our modern ears might hear it, but to be made a part of his seal, which in the ancient world would have been something like his signature.

A person’s seal was dipped in ink and rolled upon a sheet of paper. The opposite impression, much like a modern-day stamp, acted as the individual’s signature when sending a letter or signing a contract. They were often worn on a chain, hung around one’s neck – coming to rest atop the heart – or around the arm or wrist as a bangle. When the woman commands her lover to set her as a seal on his heart or his arm, she was not merely asking for their love to be branded upon his being, but indeed that she become as much a part of him as his very identity.

Were she branded upon his heart as a memory, his love would die with his death.

Were he to set her as a physical, permanent seal on his body, it would turn to dust just as quickly as would his body.

But to incorporate their love into his seal, into his very identity, the woman believes, is to transcend and outlast death. She becomes a part of him, in life and in death. His signature remains in significant documents, his identity in the memories of the community, his very being, even in death, bound up in hers.

When we give of our love to others, we are tapping into the essence of who we are as human beings. When we open ourselves up to vulnerability, we change and are changed by those who we love. It is in the experience of mutually reaching out to one another, with our bodies and our hearts and our minds, that rebelliously defies death’s sting.

In this way we confront death: in the act of loving, embracing, connecting, holding, conversing, admiring, laughing, touching, consoling, stroking, clutching one another. We love in spite of death. We love in the midst of death. We love at risk of death. We love in defiance of death.

for love is strong as death,

  passion fierce as the grave…

[So] Make haste, my beloved,

  and be like a gazelle

or a young stag

  upon the mountains of spices!

Come to the garden.


An Open Letter, to my love

Four years ago, I walked out into the city streets of New York with a secret to my step. The months flitted by as I floated my way through the throngs of new love. All the songs in the world were dedicated to us, the sky painted blue for us, Manhattan’s skyline pouring forth its beauty in deference to our love. Early love is so beautiful, my love. Our early love was so lovely.

But yes, it’s no secret that love changes as it ages, and like our move from Manhattan to Minneapolis, our love has become less glamorous. It’s a trite trope, one to which I wish we didn’t fall prey: the longer couples that stay together, the more passion they lose. And so with the passing of another year, the familiar questions arise: Do we really love each other? What is this habit of being together all about? Are we complacent? Why do I stay with her? Does he really make me happy?  What do I want? There is that nagging insecurity, isn’t there: that with each disagreement, we’ve lost some magic, and that as each year passes, we grow more aware of the faults, less aware of the charms.

I watched Before Sunset this past weekend, a film that buries itself in the glow of early love even as it interrogates time’s influence upon it. The two main characters, Jesse and Celine, fell in love nine years ago in Vienna, (that story is recorded in an earlier movie, Before Sunrise), and when Sunset opens in Paris, not only have Jesse and Celine not seen each other since then, but they have only an hour together before Jesse must catch a plane. They’ve grown, from early twenty-somethings to early thirty-somethings, and in the intervening years they’ve acquired all the baggage and responsibilities of adulthood. Gone is the uninhibited embrace of spontaneous passion–but the instinctive affinity toward one another remains, as they fall in step and into conversation with one another once more.

The best part of the film is their conversation. As the movie unfolds in real time, we get to observe the way Jesse and Celine unfold to one another, hesitating to ask the questions, but unable to resist the asking. The deeper we get into the film, the more intimate their conversation becomes, mounting the anxiety that grows as their hour together diminishes. As they begin to confide in one another, the larger questions underlying their conversation become apparent: Do they love each one another? What is being with another person all about? Are they complacent? Would they really make each other happy? What does Jesse want? And Celine?

The reason I’m unabashed about asking these questions is not because I’m so worried that I must ask them in a public realm as open as The Internets. And it’s not as if our love has changed all that drastically, either (I’m still known to walk upon a cloud or two from time to time). It’s that I think these questions are so basic to human relationship, so fundamental to our shared experience as people, that we ought to make ourselves vulnerable enough to ask them out in the open. Every person who reads this, I hope, might find some element of truth in these terrifying questions about the nature of love, commitment, flaws, and hope. Relationships end; insecurity is constant; fear is evolutionarily present. But when together we give voice to our doubts, they fade back a step or two, enough for us to keep on again a while longer.

Finally, the undercurrent of Before Sunset, and that which underpins this post for you, is the grasping at knowing who we are meant to be with. Jesse is married, and confesses that his marriage feels like “running a nursery with someone I used to date.” Celine fears that she lost all sense of romance after their night together in Vienna. And the romantic though I may be, I long gave up on the notion of a “One True Love,” with whom we are meant to spend “the rest of our lives.” How are we to reconcile free will against the passage of time, knowing the commitment made in one moment might be the downfall of the next?

My love, I don’t have the answer for you, and neither does the film. What I know is that after four years together, despite my flaws and yours, I still sometimes walk with a secret to my step.

Photo sources: Manhattan skyline, Paris alley

Put your hand in mine

For my blog at work, I periodically search flickr’s creative commons for photos to accompany the topic of our post. Today’s post was about a Multi-Faith prayer service, and when I searched for “interfaith prayer,” the results just weren’t the kinds of images I was looking for. So I tried a few other options, one of which was “holding hands.”

I was moved, unexpectedly, by these images of human connection, which seemed to me to represent our interconnectedness. Fingers lacing together, locking up tight like a zipper, or loosely dangled pinky looped to pinky. So many ways to display belonging. So many ways to show intimacy.

Certainly I know hands can be instruments of pain as well as of pleasure and utility. But today, as I sought out images of hands “in prayer,” I was struck by how much more compelling were the photos of people reaching out to other people in love.

What amazing things we can do together when we join our hands. There is so much strength in that.  We are interlocking. Strengthened. Mutual.

It is strange at all, then, that it reminded me of this recent scene from Glee, where Kurt is faced with losing his father, and sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? What a creative, spellbinding twist on the song. I think we should all hold hands more often.

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3

dusk in barcelona

Most of you know that B and I took a trip to Europe last summer. We probably took thousands of pictures, none of which I’ve printed, even though I had dreams of making some kind of beautiful scrapbook or collage or AT LEAST framing ONE of them.

We went to Spain, France, and Germany. Spain was marvelous. France was elegant and tiring. Germany was respite with a good, old friend. If we’d had more energy, it would have been fascinating.

We flew into Barcelona from New York, the same day that we had finally, officially moved out of our apartment. We were so rushed that our last day in New York–when we were supposed to be cleaning the apartment–we were doing things like lugging our 15 pounds of coins to the nearest bank with a coin sorter (30 blocks away) and depositing the cash into our Europe fund. I had just graduated from seminary that week. B was still jet-lagged from a trip to Korea with his mom. Our flight out of New York, more than anything, felt like a punch in the gut.

The first day in Barcelona was like blinking sleep out of one’s eyes. As if awoken from the terrible dream of leaving a life we loved, we rambled across the sunny city in a daze. Gaudi‘s wild architecture, fantastical and nearly grotesque, stretched us awake and alert. Some people call it Dr. Suess-ish. I call it distorted, but in the most beautiful and imaginative way.

We walked all day, all over the city, like we used to walk in New York: along the beach, up the hill to Parc Guell, past a choir weaving silken hollow tunes. We walked into the dusk, winding around lanes and plazas in the old city as the sky deepened to indigo. We tried to find somewhere to eat; got crabby when it was hard to find a restaurant. And we brainstormed names of what we thought Joe and Laura might have named Brian’s goddaughter, who we knew was born earlier that day. (They named her Hannah, which was perfect of course.)

It was such a simple evening. Sore feet, step upon step, earthen stones cobbled next to one another. But perhaps, that evening, I realized that walking away from New York was only a walk like any other.

Sometimes choices feel as if they will affect the rest of our lives, and often they do. But what we don’t consider in our deliberating is that the control we have of any situation is just fantasy. Control only exists until chance ultimately trumps choice and the chips fall where they fall. It will be then that we wish we had better appreciated the walk.

my virgin mary: birthing compassion, eschewing ‘virginity’

It is the classic story. We all know and love the well-worn features of the beautiful Christmas narrative: the angels, the shepherds, the journey to Bethlehem, the star shining brightly, and the miraculous event of the virgin birth. Transcending all else, this is a paradox of child birthing child, of holy producing holy. It boggles our minds. What can we do but walk away perplexed—much as Mary herself was?

When I was about 13 years old – Mary’s age, at the birth of Jesus – my pastor preached on this text. If I were to be honest with myself, it was probably one of the first times I felt that nebulous “Call”, a moment in which a person feels inspired to serve outside herself, perhaps in honor of something bigger than herself, something divine.

Pastor Judith spoke of Mary’s youth, and she talked about what an incredible feat it was for a girl so young to be ‘chosen by God’ to perform this amazing task of bearing and birthing God’s own child. I remember feeling empowered. I also was only 13, but if God chose Mary to do something that important, surely I could be capable of something wonderful, too.

Some time later, in college, I studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador. Nestled in the armpit of a smoking volcano, Quito is a city of nearly 2 million people. In the center of the city is a surprising hill, jutting up as quickly as it falls, on the top of which stands a statue of – who else? – the Virgin Mary. In this version, Mary is a winged goddess, standing on a serpent and reaching up toward the heavens. From anywhere in Quito, even from miles away, you can see her looking down over the valley. It’s hard to tell whether the Virgin or the volcano casts a greater shadow over the city.

The Virgin presides over Quito, Ecuador

I asked my new Ecuadorian friends what they felt growing up under that Virgin Mother. Despite their devotion, these young women admitted the difficulty posed by using her as a role model. How, they asked, is a human woman to be expected to both remain a ‘virgin,’ and yet also become a mother? What is the value in placing such societal importance on virginity? And why, when she herself is so powerful, does the figure of the Virgin Mary stand as the ultimate model of female submissiveness?

These are questions crucial to the way we understand the Christmas story. Have you ever stopped to wonder why it was necessary for Mary to be a virgin? Would it have been any different if God had caused the pregnancy of an already-married woman? To answer that, the reader must begin by understanding that the author of Luke was not writing in a vacuum. His words and thoughts, like ours, were influenced by the culture in which he wrote. And during his day, there were no DNA tests.

It may seem a strange point to make. But in a world in which there was no way to prove paternity, the virginity of a woman was everything: it assured new husbands that the child his wife just birthed was actually his own! This is why in the gospel of Matthew, we see Joseph struggling over whether or not to wed Mary after she becomes pregnant: Matthew is showing us that Joseph knows the child is not his. So Mary’s virginity in Luke is present as an agent to assure us that Jesus is God’s child.

Ancient temple dedicated to Isis, in Delos, Greece

The Gospel of Luke was also written for gentiles. Within the Roman Empire, virgin goddesses like the Greek hunter Artemis, or the Egyptian mother Isis, dominated the civic/religious scene, and this Christian movement was fashioned and defined by its new converts. So temples previously dedicated to Artemis were transferred to Mary. The feasts and festivals in honor of Isis, which celebrated all the fertility and promise that virginity symbolized, instead came to honor the Virgin Mary.

The tradition of Mary’s virginity when it first emerged thus meant something very different than what it means for many today: instead of an avoidance of sexuality, it rejoiced in the possibility of the new life that would emerge from her body. If anything, virginity in the ancient world was a promise of what was to come, not a preservation of purity, of things as they once were.

The Annunciation text describes how Mary became pregnant by God. At that time, it sounded to the gentile listeners a lot like Greco-Roman myths in which Zeus or Apollo descended to earth to mate with a beautiful mortal woman. Even in Genesis, we find a story in which divine beings—the nephilim—came down to impregnate human women. The idea of a god sleeping with a woman was not a new concept in the ancient world, and so this Annunciation was not nearly so sterile a story as we consider it today.

In fact, the Annunciation tells of a very charged encounter between Mary and the Holy Spirit. As the angel detailed, Mary was to be overshadowed (Gk: episkiazo) by God’s presence, an experience which ancient authorities such as Philo tell us was a union of a human’s soul with the divine, struck through with sexual connotations. Some ancient Egyptian texts even go so far as to speak of the seminal emission of the shadow of a divinity, so powerful that it could engender a woman’s pregnancy.

Have we really been missing, over the past 2,000 years, such blatant allusions to eroticism in the supposedly PG Christmas story?

What is fascinating to me about reading the text in this way is that it allows us to approach it in a way that contemporary American life rarely does: through the fusion of the spiritual with the sexual. So many representations of sexuality today only allow us to see it with our bodies: gyrations, appendages, flesh, and nothing more. Similarly, so many representations of spirituality today only allow us to experience it completely devoid of our bodies: emotions, logic, heart, and with restrictions on how we may use our bodies, and in what ways. Must the two be so separate?

Consider the sensation of reading a moving piece of prose, solving an elegant mathematical formula, hearing a piece music that transports you elsewhere. Is it really so different from  the sensation of a good run, the warmth of sun upon skin, or the pleasure of clasping lover to breast? Listen to these words: wholeness, reverence, relationship, meaning, safety, transcendence, trust. Do they describe spirituality to you, or sexuality? Must they represent only one at a time?

So when I read Luke’s Annunciation text, I think he is playing with the boundaries between spirit and body, allowing the two to puddle together and intermingle. His logic might have been: if Mary encountered God and became pregnant, surely it was a spiritual experience, and also, inevitably, a sexual one.

This, then, is no story of a chaste and quiet virgin, the one whom we have always been told Mary must be.

Instead, this is a story of a brave young woman whose passionate, erotic encounter with God began a movement so powerful that it changed the world.

Rather than representing timidity and submission, Mary encourages us to step boldly into new possibilities, to live into our full selves, and to give birth to love and compassion wherever we go.

The world still thinks of Mary as perpetually a virgin, although the gospels themselves tell us Jesus had brothers and sisters. It still considers her asexual, as if this text were not imbued with eroticism and sensuality. And we make Mary’s role in the Christmas story about her virginity without even considering the text, or its implications for women and men in our world.

But the Christmas story is not and should not be about virginity. It is about that spiritual and bodily act of giving birth to the promise of life, and of love, for everyone.