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Stories, Sipping, and Signing!

It was wonderful to join other women this week to share stories, sip tea, and sign copies of Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold. Ladies from four local churches had been reading this novel of Jesus's life through the eyes of women and each lady had stories to share.

Rev. Jennifer Irving welcomed us, explaining that she wears black on Thursdays to show she is a part of the global movement resisting attitudes and practices that permit rape and violence. Thursdays in Black is a campaign of the World Council of Churches.

We kicked it off with a Q&A session where my sister, Laurie Vanden Hurk, facilitated questions so that the group could get to know me and why I wrote this biblical fiction. I shared some of the surprises I found when researching first-century Galilee - including women's ability to be free from male guardianship in certain situations, to inherit and own land, some women being called the head of the house, and the ability of a common woman to get divorced easily. Then we cut the cake with the book cover on the icing and sipped tea and coffee and got into small groups for more personal reflections.

We talked about women in the Bible, women in churches, and Jesus's interactions with women. We compared notes on experiences of women's responsibilities and messages to and about women. We explored the term complementarian, a term meaning exclusively male leadership in the home and church, with women always in complementary, subordinate roles.

The church has often preached messages where the men are the main characters in Bible stories, yet the Gospels include female stories. Forgotten Followers tells stories where the females are the main characters.

For example, the novel tells the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 and not the story of Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3. Jesus makes the same promise to the man and the woman: eternal life to anyone who believes in him:

"whoever drinks the water I [Jesus] give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
"whoever believes in him [Jesus} should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

Jesus had a respectful theological conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well and revealed to her that he was the Messiah. Putting the focus on the women's stories highlights how Jesus lifted up the lowly, including women, foreigners, the disabled, and those considered commoners. By teaching in fields, meadows, homes, and the Women's Court of the Temple, Jesus went out of his way to give women an opportunity to learn. When a woman called from the crowd, he listened, turned to her, and responded. When Mary sat at his feet in Bethany, he encouraged her and all women to choose to listen, follow, and support him as disciples.

We talked about Jesus as a character in the fictional novel and how Jesus was both God and human. We also talked about Jesus's service and self-sacrifice, how he spoke respectfully to both male and female students and opened the path to heaven for all who believe. Since we usually think of Jesus as our kind and loving saviour, it was striking to see how he was critical and judgemental of the religious leaders and seemed unkind in some of his human interactions.

For example, Jesus seemed unkind to the Syro-Phoenician woman, initially calling her a dog and refusing to heal her daughter (based on Matthew 15:26, Mark 7:27)? Was he testing her, strengthening her faith? Was he giving her an opportunity to show her faith and good humour? The woman turned the slanderous term dog into an affectionate term, saying even the little pet doggys under the table eat the children’s crumbs. The story is positioned after Jesus miraculously feeds the 5000 and before he feeds the 4000. Did he have this conversation to show his disciples that you only need a crumb of faith? The story immediately follows a passage where Jesus criticizes his disciples for being dull and not understanding that what goes into a mouth does not corrupt them or make them impure; it's what comes out of the person's mouth that reveals the heart (Matthew 15:1-20). Was he using the so-called impure foreigner to teach the disciples that she was not impure, her heart was shown by what came out of her mouth? Did he listen to the woman, learn from her, and heal her daughter because of her arguments? Did this conversation cause Jesus to expand his mission from the Jews to the non-Jews?

Was Jesus unkind when he refused to leave with his mother and siblings and effectively replaced them by saying, 'anyone who does God's will is my mother, brother, and sister' (Matthew 12:48-50, Mark 3:33-35, Luke 8:21)? Is it unkind to call someone new a best friend in front of your existing best friend? Is it unkind for an only child to share their parent's love when a new child enters the family? It may feel like you are losing privileges as the only best friend or the only child, but there is enough love to go around. The fiction allowed us to see how it might have felt to be Jesus's mother or sister or brother, and how it might hurt to hear Jesus give other people the same intimacy that he gives his own family. We reflected on how natural it might be for a mother to favour the child of the promise over Jesus's siblings, and how natural it might be for Jesus's siblings not to believe in him. Just as the brothers did not believe Joseph's dreams about them bowing down to him, Jesus's brothers and sisters did not believe in Jesus until after the resurrection (John 7:5).

I am so grateful for Laurie Vandenhurk and her extensive community involvement, Rev. Jennifer Irving of Centennial United Church and Rev. Susan Snelling of Good Shepherd Anglican. These leaders hosted book club discussions on Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold and made it possible for us to reflect together on women and Jesus and the church. Thank you and all who attended for a wonderful, enjoyable time meeting of discussion, sharing stories, sipping drinks, signing copies of the book, and seeing new friends.

It's so much fun to hear women tell their stories! I look forward to more book club and church group discussions.

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