Complicated Stories for Our Complex World

Scripture: Judges 11:4-6, 29-40

Many around our world still wonder what ‘the new normal’ of our 21st century lives will be. Black lives lost. Police lives lost. Bastille Day lives lost. And most recently we learn of dozens of Syrian civilian lives lost in a US-led air strike against ISIS. We are confronted with so much division and death as we look around our world.

When my godson was born. One of my seminary professors held him in all his cuteness and tenderness. He then turned to his mother, still holding her newborn son, and said, “Remember, there’s sin in there.”

If we are honest with ourselves, then we can acknowledge none of us is  as fully good as we might want others to believe in our best moments or as fully bad as we might be tempted to believe in our worst moments. Sin does leave its deadly and decaying scar over all of life and creation. Nevertheless, the deeper and first message of the biblical narrative is that we were created in the image of God. And we were created ‘very good.’

We don’t do well with that tension. Many Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of affirming our original goodness, and the power and promise of being created in the image of God. They worry it will lead to a self-help, half-gospel which encourages people to find healing within themselves or in their own power. And I agree with them that is decidedly NOT the good news of Jesus Christ.

The good news of Jesus Christ invites us to freely receive redemption for our broken, tattered, sin-scarred lives, and receive to our deepest identity hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). Still we remain a hodgepodge of mixed motives, wandering hearts, and a faith still forming. Desmond and Mpho Tutu write in The Book of Forgiving

“No person will always stand in the camp of the perpetrator. No person will always be the one who is the victim. In some situations we have been harmed, and in others we have harmed. And sometimes we straddle both camps, as when, in the heat of a marital spat, we trade hurts with our partners. Not all harms are equivalent, but this is really not the issue. Those who wish to compare how much they have wronged to how much they have been wronged will find themselves drowning in a whirlpool of victimization and denial. Those who think they are beyond reproach have not taken an honest look in the mirror.”

Those of us who want to see ourselves fully as victim or fully as victor are only ever partially right. We are both. And Jesus has come to help us live in the tension of this reality. To take all of who we are and redeem us.

One of the most heart wrenching and anger inducing stories in the bible is found in the book of Judges. It concerns Jephthah and his vow. The first time I heard this story as a young teenager in Sunday School, Jephthah received accolades for loving God so much he fulfilled his vow to kill whatever came out of his home when he returned, which in this case was his only daughter. This did not sit right with me.

Wasn’t one of the main points in the story of Abraham and Isaac that God did not want or require child sacrifice? Why was Isaac spared and Jephthah’s daughter taken?

Furthermore, upon reading this story more closely, Jephthah is already clearly chosen and infused with God’s Spirit before he makes his vow. This means God is with him. His military campaign will succeed. But Jephthah seems to waver in his belief of this. So much so that he makes a rash vow to offer God a sacrifice of whatever comes out of his household first, if he returns in military victory. This does not seem like a vow of faithfulness, but a vow of faithlessness. And his daughter must bear the weight of her father’s carelessness.

This daughter of Jephthah goes unnamed. Her primary voice is that of lament. She laments a life cut short by a rash vow sworn by her father. She grieves not a death, for surely all die, but an unfulfilled life. Phyllis Trible reminds us this death is premature, violent, ends a family line, and is premeditated, and thus is a fully-seen coming tragedy.

The daughter of Jephthah goes off with a company of women and laments. She creates the only voice and seeks the only meaning her life will be able to have in this context. She spends her last days not truly alone, but likely not truly happy either.

We might hope she returns to her father for execution only to be spared for divine intervention. But no intervention comes. Her life is lost.

If I’m honest, then my anger boils towards Jephthah. This senseless taking of a life did not have to happen. Justice was not served. And yet this kind of life, a life of hardships, cruelties, injustices, and tragedies, is experienced by so many in our world today. And yet in my condemnation of Jephthah I realize my own complicity in so much injustice, pain, and hurt in the world.

What is needed in these times? A faith and perspective able to hold all of the tensions, turmoils, injustices, and cruelties of life, while embracing the beauty, goodness, joy, and creativity of life. If we offer all of ourselves to God, not as we wish to be seen, but as we truly are, then God can embrace us in redemption.

Our world needs wounded healers. People who can walk into the complexities of our world, as it is, not as we wish it be seen. People whose wounds are being made sacred by the redemption of Jesus Christ. People whose pain is being transformed, rather than viciously transmitted to others. People who can partner with God to creatively, passionately, non-violently, and redemptively make of this old world a new one.