(This talk was totally inspired by the amazing, courageous stories from women speakers at the Why Christian conference, 2018).
Courage: the Core Virtue
We are in this great new series, called “The Ways of Passion and Courage” – where we are dipping into some stories from the Old Testament – some of which you may have heard before and some less well-known.
As we were framing this series – my mind raced to the flashy, well-known, acutely courageous stories of the Old Testament. It was easy for me to gravitate to the stories of David & Goliath, or Moses, or Daniel, or Noah. These are undoubtedly courageous stories that are wrapped in moments of history that we tend to remember that involve decrees, and battles and moments of high drama.
But I want to poke at courage from another angle, a courage that looks a little more subtle and a little more present in our ordinary lives – day in and day out. I think this angle on courage – can help us access courage and see ourselves as courageous beings a little more regularly.
Maya Angelou speaks of this kind of courage – that I’m going to get at today i think, she says:
“I am convinced that courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair.”
Courage seems to be the source and steady undercurrent for all the ways Jesus calls us to engage with the world around us.
Courage seems to be the source – and steady undercurrent for all the ways we hope to engage with the world around us.
Sometimes I think that we might be our own stumbling blocks to courage — that our own limits of courage are our definitions of it. And, even more, that our definitions tend to skew toward a binary way of defining it. Either I’m “with” or “without” courage. “Courage” is attached to an outcome that looks like success. It leads to a heroic triumph or visible change. And in some cases this is how courage looks, but I think the risk is that we miss a whole lot of moments of courage in-between.
That’s why today I’d love to look at two women — two midwives — from the Old Testament whose names are Shiphrah and Puah, who I think can break open a whole host of helpful ways to think about courage. Their manner of courage isn’t limited to the binary framework of “either/or”, but one that takes over this in-between space — most of their lives — and is anchored to their utter belief in and embodiment of God.
If you’ve never heard the names – Shiphrah and Puah – fear not! At the beginning of the week I was with a bunch of pastors from this small cohort of churches that we are a part of called Blue Ocean Faith. And when I mentioned that I’d most likely be speaking about these two women, I thought I read a bit of panic on their faces… “who?”…blank stare — “wait – who you are talking about?”
Courage in My Story
So before we get to the story of Shiphrah and Puah, I want to tell you two quick vignettes from my own life. Two that popped to mind immediately as I thought courage in my narrative.
Vignette #1: Some 20ish years ago I was a Junior in HS and was taking a pretty rigorous math class. I think it was an honors pre-calc class.
It was pretty clear early on in the semester that I wasn’t doing well — like really not doing well — hovering around a D average.
I thought I was the only one.
Turns out aside from 3 geniuses – the rest of the class was failing. Turns out that this was a pattern in this class, over the years, with this particular teacher.
We start to ask for more in-class teaching/explanation. And after-school time. The teacher thinks that’s preposterous – “It’s the way his system has always worked”.
I think this response is preposterous and I organize a walk-out.
The day following, at the beginning of class, we all get up, pile our textbooks on his desk and walk out of the classroom down the hall to the principal’s office, to talk directly to the principal about some sort of mode of action going forward that might help promote better teaching and learning.
Vignette #2: Just a couple of weeks ago I went to a inter-denominational gathering in NC that invited a myriad of voices to answer the question “Why are you still a follower of Jesus?” Many of the stories we heard that weekend – were stories of deep pain as a result of skin color, gender, sexual orientation and physical sickness, but stories that did not shy away from the REALNESS of Jesus. Incredibly beautiful, liberated and loving voices that had taken life head on – and were walking upright – it was really inspiring. (Full of agency and power and all the credit to Jesus — wow!) I left wanting to harness this collective courage.
The morning I left – I walked to the hotel check-out desk at 4am.
Right away I noticed the woman who was behind the desk – was being “chatted up” by a man .
As I approached to hand over my key, it became clear that this man was a guest at the hotel, not an employee. He asked where I was headed. When I told him “Boston”, he quickly did a really poor impression of Mark Wahlberg and then asked me my room number.
I left the desk, headed to get coffee in the side room, mulling over what I should do on my way back through the lobby.
A few minutes later I walked straight by the front desk and to the exit door, where the hotel bell-hop opened the door for me.
As I went through the doorway, I turned to the bellhop/doorman and said “Is she ok?”
OK – I’m going to pause there with these two vignettes and head straight to the story of Shiphrah and Puah, before I fold them back in for what will hopefully at that point make a little more sense.
The Courageous Midwives
Where we often come close to the story of Shiphrah and Puah is with the story of Moses. Many of you probably have heard the epic story of Moses – this Hebrew baby that was drawn from the water and raised in Pharoah’s courts and becomes not a prince, but a liberator of his people. These peopl are the Israelites, who have been enslaved and considered less than human by the Egyptians. It’s the story of the great exodus from Egypt into the promised land.
This story of Moses is the one we know… But we don’t know the story of Shiphrah and Puah – the story that sets the stage for Moses to live, and determines the fate of an entire people.
So let’s read the story found on your program: Exodus 1
8Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9“Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
11So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13and worked them ruthlessly. 14They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16“When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
19The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
20So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.
A little context to where we pick up here: the Israelites had moved to Egypt during a time of famine and starvation. Joseph, who had been sold into slavery in Egypt as a result of his jealous brother’s action, had helped the Israelites land here. Joseph’s time in Egypt was blessed by God, and he worked his way into high standing in Egypt, and the Israelites fared well. And for a while the Israelites and Egyptians coexisted without (that much) trouble.
Soon, though, a new King came in to Egypt, and it says “He did not know Joseph”. This means he didn’t know Joseph’s people or his God, and therefore he looked out at the Israelites with fear and suspicion and saw them as a threat, as the “other”.
He attempts to limit the growth of the Hebrews, who only seem to grow in number, by dehumanizing them in systemic ways — by slavery, and forced labor, and oppression. These attempts, however, don’t seem to make a difference to keep them down either.
So Pharoah enacts a fear campaign, “What if we were attacked by our enemies and these growing number of Israelites join sides with our enemies?” “We would be crushed!” And this fear messaging starts to shift the opinion of his people and there’s more of a widespread buy-in to oppress and segregate.
Pharaoh’s xenophobia pushes him to take drastic measure to ensure these “outsiders” do not one day take over the land, and his latest attempt, as we see here, is calling forth these two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Under government sanctions, Shiphrah and Puah are enlisted to participate in the extermination of Hebrew baby boys — to bring death to the world around them.
Now, the text reads that these women were Hebrew midwives. And yet, there’s a lot of conversation among scholars that suggests that these women were in fact Egyptian, but attended the birth of Hebrew women. So they were midwives to Hebrew women.
I’m inclined to agree with this take – it makes sense to me that Pharoah would want his own “people” to carry out this decree.
This means Shiphrah and Puah likely attended both Hebrew and Egyptian births. And midwives were often thought to be women who couldn’t have children themselves, so they were often pushed to the edges of society. Shiphrah and Puah are though to have possibly been Nubian midwives, from now Northern Sudan (reference: Ebony Johanna), meaning that their relationships — throughout their vocational lives — spanned cultural and geographical lines.
A midwife’s primary role is to usher in life, regardless of status, race or any other defining division — to assist, guide and protect life.
So Pharoah is quite strategic with his newest attempt to limit the growth of the Hebrews. He knows that these midwives are the touch-point to life or death. And he says, “choose death”.
I can imagine that Shiphrah and Puah run through a few scenarios in their minds. Either we are courageous and we say “no” to Pharoah 1) “we refuse to follow Pharoah’s orders and we likely die and likely our friends and families also die”.
Or we aren’t courageous and we say “yes” to PHaroah 2)“we follow Pharoah’s orders – we promote the sovereignty of our state – and by the work of our own hands, bring death to the next generation of Hebrew males”.
This either/or choice seems to not be a complete picture of what courage could look like.
Thankfully these midwives seem to know another way to courage deep within their spirit. And I think they utilize this tiny conjunction word: “and”. “Wait! AND we fear God”. We revere and love and trust our God. This “AND” — this belief in God — seems to be a way of harnessing courage, and it seems as though it isn’t only found in this one high-stakes moment with Pharoah – but it’s been built and developed over their lives.
Fearing God helps them see beyond the binary — that courage is far more than a choice of saying “yes or no” to Pharaoh. It’s instead about saying “and…yes”! to LIFE with God.
These midwives are courageous! They are divinely defiant! They’re heroically brave in their refusal to kill baby boys, they’re clever in their explanation to Pharaoh of why baby boys keep being born, “these Hebrew women are so strong and vigorous that they birth their babies before we can arrive!” This is courageous, and smart. That explanation isn’t just an excuse to buy them time – it’s a subversive move to uphold the strength and dignity of the Hebrew people to Pharaoh.
This is the part of the story we would remember — these 4 verses of Shiphrah and Puah — and it is super courageous. It is, after all, what sets the stage for the liberation of an entire people from Pharaoh.
But the subtler courage that let’s them say “and… I fear God” — that type of courage that is developed over time, that isn’t as bold as these few recorded verses — is the version of courage I want in my own life, and what I want to explore more today.
As I mentioned Shiphrah and Puah were likely midwives who attended their own people’s births, but also the births of their “perceived enemies”.
These midwives were involved deeply, deeply at the center of women and their family’s stories. To just go in and assist at a birth – is not the way of the midwife. A midwife is one who identifies with pain, one who sits with people in pain, and holds hands with pain, and confronts spirits that are full of despair and want to “give up”.
Day after day, birth after birth, they came along-side the “other” — these Hebrew women, who they should hate. And they take their hands and rub their backs, and they say again and again “and” there’s a way here, “and God”. This breaks open a deep belief that courage wells up from inside of us — that it’s not only found in taking on a piece of armor. That their God is one who sits alongside of them too, is in their reality — A God who doesn’t just go to the margins to serve someone else – but ONE who LIVES at the margins.
These midwives do this! They live at the margins. And, in their vocation, take on a calling, an oath to “in all ways serve life”. And the courage they dip into is God’s, because they believe that He is truly with them. And they greet pain — the pain of childbirth, and the pain of injustice, and the pain of not being seen with these virtues of God and that Maya Angelou speaks of. This is birthed by courage to say “and my God” – he’s real.
I can wonder if we wrestle with this question in our lives — whether acutely or sub-consciously — does what I do matter? Does it touch real life? Does it bring forth anything new or courageous into the world?
This midwives seem to encourage us that “yes” — wherever we are, whatever we do, whoever we talk to matters. If we do it with kindness, and generosity, and equity, backed by a God that is real, it all matters.
These thousands of moments where they offer their laboring and birthing mothers cool washcloths to their foreheads, where they gently turn babies inside of wombs – where they listen closely for heartbeats, where they root for life with their encouraging words, “yes push”, “you are almost there”, “life is coming”.
These times of being so intimately close to life and so close to God flip our ingrained allergy of “both/and”, and re-wire our pathways to see GOD AND LIFE as one — beyond political/authoritative decrees or external circumstances that try to inject fear.
For Shiphrah and Puah, these moments compile and develop a courageous heart — one that doesn’t filter with external factors “Life or no life” or “Egyptian or Hebrew” or “male or female”. Instead the passion for justice and care for all of humanity comes from a posture of “and” – and GOD.
Omid Safi (a Duke University professor of Islamic studies) said recently that this closeness (to God), is what allows us to see that the
same love that pours out of God’s own being and brings us here, that sustains us here, that will take us back home. It is this same love that we recognize in other people, who love their babies and their community as we love our babies and our community. When we recognize this same love in one another, we will not stand for having something happen to other people’s babies and community that we wouldn’t want to have happen to ours. That is simply what we call justice — and this work of justice is a task of love. (Onbeing).
The courage to say “and… justice and love” must go hand and hand. This is the powerful picture of courage that Shiphrah and Puah give us today, one that they still invite us to!
Courage in My Story (Again)
The two vignettes that I shared at the beginning of the sermon are interesting to me because they so totally show the ways that I want to categorize myself as being “with” courage or “without Courage”.
I never labeled them in my story-telling as one or the other, but I bet even you sitting and listening could recognize your own mind categorizing one as “courageous”, and one as “not so courageous”.
In highschool, I was courageous –– I staged a walk out and brought awareness to something I felt was injust at the time. Three weeks ago I wasn’t courageous — I consciously exited a situation where I noticed an awkward dynamic that could have been helped by intervening in some way.
May be very true, but I think it’s a limited view of courage. I’m slowly beginning to realize that the question at hand isn’t either “Am I with courage?” or “Am I without courage?” Because likely on any given dayI am both/and —courageous and not courageous.
The question is, “Can I harness the courage of a God that is always with me?”
If I can tip more toward this – I can see the hundreds to thousands of times throughout my days and my weeks where courage is live. It’s then that I can see the maybe quiet, less obvious moments of courage that happen all the time.
Otherwise – I think the threat of disparaging thoughts can take over – “Am I only destined to be a prisoner to the pharoah’s of my day? Will I ever witness more than pain and heartache ?
He reminds me that, I am not a prisoner of anyone else but of JESUS who wraps me in humility and gentleness and patience, who gives me courage to lean toward people with love with an eagerness of heart that seeks to maintain the unity of the Spirit — this powerful JESUS who makes a way, who provides the “both/and to my either/or” tendencies, for the bonding posture of peace — this I realized is the power of Jesus.
This I realized is the courage that Jesus can offer so many of you;
To stand up – get out of bed, walk into a day, into a society that sometimes in the words of Lucille Clifton, “will do everything it can to kill you”… that’s courage and triumph!
To stand up and get out of bed and meet the reality of your day, in a sick body — perhaps penetrated with disease, infection, cancer, a body that is trying to murder you day in and day out — this is courage.
Courage is to stand up and get out of bed. Period. Nothing else to follow – just that one act. It is courage that is full of sweat. A courage that says “and” — and today, I will rise.
Because Jesus lives in the “AND” – right? He doesn’t fit in the binary tracks of either/or… He lives in our reality – which encompasses a whole lot of both/and!
This picture of everyday courage gives us the freedom to sit down and listen, even when speaking is heralded as a sign of power or intelligence. And also the permission to see that some days courage is to stand up and speak, because you’ve been away from the mic for too long.
Jesus makes way for a courage that is ever-present, running through our veins, on the tips of our tongues, in the palms of our hands as we touch life around us, and in our feet as we roam this earth.
When we can say “and”, there’s another way here with Jesus, another way to keep helping birth new life, “ I can’t yet see it – you can’t yet see it, but it’s here!” It allows us, as it did for the midwives, to ignite our moral imagination.
Where we have the humility to see the world as it is around us and the audacity and passion to imagine the world as it could be.
All of us and the Midwives
Us limiting our sense of courage, doesn’t serve the world. We are all called to be courageous. And to believe that our everyday posture of heralding life in spaces where only death looks apparent, will produce change somewhere down the line.
The outcome that Shiphrah and Puah witness after making their courageous move to not kill these Hebrew baby boys could have felt disappointing to them, because Pharaoh just keeps marching on with his plans to wipe out these babies, demanding that all his people throw them into the Nile River.
But what Shiphrah and Puah might not realize is that their story — their whole story of being women who courageously live at the margins, and who stand against power and oppression — will continue to be told. Their names will be kept alive and whispered among the Hebrew women, their names will be yelled out in the pains of labor, as sign-posts of resistance and hope, (when their land is vacant of it), and their courage to say …. “and”… “and I fear God”, would give PHaroah’s daughter, and Moses’ sister and moses’ mother the courage to protect & hide and find and nurse him to life….
These names of Shiphrah and Puah are recorded! We get to see them written down in the text that we read today! This show us that a lifetime of courage — harnessed with the Divine — is worth 3,000 years of remembrance and legacy, and still worth talking about today. While Pharaoh’s fearful acts of dominating power and authority leaves him nameless and less than 300 years of fame.
Perhaps our role is akin to the role of a midwife — to cherish other life as our own, to stand right where we are in our jobs, and roles, and play, and life — and reclaim these places, places of courage. And to keep live the courage to say “AND” as we continue to find and preserve and nurture life — wherever we touch it.
Sermon Notes – How Do We Harness Courage?
“Weep with those who weep”. (Romans) Come close to those around you – at your job, your neighborhood – LEAN in.As Maya Angelou and Jesus tell us: Humility, compassion, empathy might be the most critical ingredients to a heart full of courage. Because they allow our hearts to be softened to people and their pain. Just as Jesus does with us.
Pay attention to your emotions: are you weeping? are you angry? These emotions they might just suggest what you are passionate about
From there — where you realize your heart is stirred — you can figure out where to move from there if you want. What are you willing to do about it? Where maybe are you already doing something in your everyday life
Where can you utilize the word “and” ? This might mean you have to take some time to realize where you are categorizing life into either/or buckets. Try out the word “and” in place of either/or this week – and see what it produces.
Seek wisdom from people who have diversity of viewpoints. It’s likely there were a whole bunch of midwives. We get Shiphrah and Puah because they feared GOD, but I imagine there was a lot of conversation that varied in opinion and viewpoints that helped shaped how Shiphrah and Puah would move forward as they did.
Check in each day to see where it is God is real to you. This will anchor you in your high-stakes moments and in your everyday moments of courage…When God is more real to us than the powers we see around us and infront of us, we are better able to choose God’s way of courage – with love, life, peace and justice….
This will help you believe that the “Pharaoh’s of this time and in this land”, will not kill your spirit.
Write down the names of the courageous people who come to mind.
These are both your forerunners and perhaps your contemporaries.People who die have no control over who tells their stories, who remembers their names. So it’s an important role we play – to keep the narrative of courage alive in grounding, real stories.Shiphrah and Puah likely had a sticky-note stuck to their mirror with the names of their ancestors, Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel – courageous woman whose names were whispered in their ears as flames of hope and movement when we can’t see it ahead of us.
This is important because it keeps the name of Jesus alive, not just in our memory, but right now, as our unending reservoir of courage and passion.