Spirituality: Creating Space for God Within Us
After Ehud had died, the Israelites again did things that the Lord saw as evil. So the Lord gave them over to King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, and he was stationed in Harosheth-ha-goiim. The Israelites cried out to the Lord because Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.
Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was a leader of Israel at that time. She would sit under Deborah’s palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the Ephraim highlands, and the Israelites would come to her to settle disputes. (Judges 4:1-5)
The story continues this way: Deborah summons Barak, a military commander. She gives him instructions on how to defeat Sisera and King Jabin’s army. Barak agrees but only if Deborah will go with him.
What’s next is kinda funny. Deborah responds to Barak, “Sure I’ll go, but know that you will not be the one who defeats Sisera. It will be a woman who defeats him!”
Deborah’s military strategy is genius, though it’s hard to tell with our modern eyes and ears cause we don’t understand the context. So let me help. Deborah tells Barak to place the army on a mountain over a plain which Sisera’s army will have to cross. Sisera’s army was made up of chariots of iron – a new technology at this time which the Israelites had no real practical chance of defeating in combat. The plain would appear ideal to Sisera because it’s a nice flat crossing.
However, when wet, the plain would became a muddy mess that would ruin the chariots and negate the military advantage of Sisera’s army. And this is what the story seems to imply happened when it mentions a nearby river that had a regular cycle of flooding. All Sisera’s chariots get thrown into a panic and Barak chases them away.
Sisera winds up seeking refuge in the home of Heber and Jael, Kenites (who were interestingly enough, ancestors of Moses’ Father in law Jethro). Jael puts on a show of hospitality for Sisera only to lure him to sleep and kill him by driving a tent peg into his temple!
So Deborah is right! Sisera is delivered into the hands of a woman! And eventually King Jabin and his people are completely defeated.
Crazy story, right? And so much we could talk about, but today I want to look at just the beginning.
Think about this: what sets this entire story off? What is the key place in the story that would have completely derailed everything else?
Could it be Deborah’s strategy…? Or Jael’s undercover operation…? Maybe Barak’s unwillingness to carry out the plan unless Deborah comes with him…? Or, maybe the key to the story is not so obvious.
In fact, it’s Deborah herself. Specifically, the key is her attentiveness. That is, Deborah sits under a palm tree and tunes her heart, soul, and mind to God and God’s people.
Sitting under a tree is a symbol of spiritual truth, awakening or enlightenment in the ancient world. Sacred trees are found in every faith tradition . Think about…
- The tree of knowledge of good and evil
- The broom tree that Elijah sat under,
- The tree of life which is found in so many faith traditions
- The bodhi tree the Buddha sat under as he received enlightenment,
- The world tree of Norse mythology
- Sacred groves, such as the Shinto shrines of Japan, the Celtic groves of Europe, the thousands of groves in India associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, and from our own faith tradition the grove planted by Abraham in Genesis 21 or the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed
- And, most importantly for us Christians, the tree which Christ carried upon his back, was nailed to and crucified upon, a tree made into a cross, which is now our symbol of death and resurrection! That is a pretty sacred tree! (Can you imagine if we had that tree how people would flock to it to sit beneath it in order to connect to God through Christ!)
The image of sitting under a tree is one of spiritual knowledge and insight, of listening to God, of tuning in with the world around you through spiritual understanding. Have you ever had a tree you just enjoy sitting under, or near? A tree that you just like to watch or observe? Maybe it’s not a tree for you. Is there some other sacred place where you tune your heart mind and soul to God?
Well, Deborah had a palm tree. The tree becomes for her like trees have been for so many spiritual guides – a channel of God’s work and wisdom. Sitting beneath the palm tree, Deborah tunes in to God and uses her relationship and connection with God to help her people in the daily issues that require a guide and mediator. Deborah listens to problems, disputes, questions, and shares insights she has discovered from God through her spiritual practice.
Jews would later use the word Rabbi for a sage like Deborah. Christians would call her a spiritual guide, a mystic, or pastor. Hindus and Buddhists would call her a guru.
The Hebrew Scripture we read today calls her a prophet, a prophet who is judging her people. I’ll get back to the title prophet. But remember we are in the book of Judges which tells stories about leaders who God raises up in times of need to save the Israelites who are at this time living in the promised land of Canaan.
Basically, Judges is a book of stories of God acting like a parent who let’s his children make mistakes, let’s them royally screw up. God’s people get into trouble and eventually it gets so bad that God bails them out and things get better…for awhile. But eventually they fall back into bad habits and the cycle starts over again.
Honestly, the book of Judges might just be a lesson for parents who think that letting your kids completely screw up and hit rock bottom will teach them. The Israelites never learn. They just keep screwing up. And Aubrey that’s because God consistently bails them out at the last minute. It’s impossible to tell if they never learn because they always get bailed out OR if the ‘let them screw up’ plan is just a bad plan. But give God lots of credit….like a stubborn father or a relentless mother, God tries over and over again to teach them.
Well, the way God saves the Israelites every time is by raising up a leader. That leader is called a judge. Typically the judge is a military leader who is able to come and push back or defeat some enemy that is threatening God’s people. Deborah is one of these judges.
She is not specifically called a judge, but she is clearly judging as the scripture says. What is so special and unique about Deborah is that she is the only judge who is called a prophet. I’ve said before, but I’ll remind you again – being a prophet is not about predicting the future as people tend to think today. Being a prophet is about telling the truth about God, the world and the way God works in the world. You have to be in tune with God to know and understand such truth.
Under that sacred palm tree, Deborah tunes in to God’s wisdom and truth in a way that no other judge in the book of Judges does – as a prophet, a truth teller, someone who understands how God works and can speak with wisdom to people about God’s presence and movement in the world.
Deborah judges as a spiritual guide, a mystic, a rabbi, a guru. So, Deborah’s spirituality is the key to her ability to lead her people. And this is something we can all learn from.
Spirituality is a word that is used in our day and age, but I wonder if we understand what it means. What do you think it means? Take a stab at defining spirituality!
Henri Nouwen – a modern spiritual guide who many have turned to for wisdom – speaks about spirituality in this way in one of his books about spiritual direction:
Spirituality is about creating space for God within us.
Nowen describes three aspects of spirituality that help us do this:
- Heart – God entering our being… Our heart, our breathing, our thoughts, emotions, our hearing seeing, touching, tasting, and every fiber of our body
- Book – The word of God, scripture; not just the words in it but our interpretation of it and our meditations upon it
- Community – Our relationships with others, includes the faith community but also our every day communities that might not be centered on faith
Take some time this week to consider your heart, the book, and your communities and how you can – like Deborah – find a sacred place to create space for God within you.