No. 376  |  May 27, 2012   Start   STUDY   Prince Was Right   Why I'm Voting For Obama   Trayvon Martin   Trouble In The Village   Donate   Previous   Home

Acts Chapter 16: This Week In God's Word

And I Know That I Am

As a child, I used to sing this song with my grandmother’s church choir, I’m Saved And I Know That I Am. My adopted brother would turn to me and tell me not to sing that song because, after all, I was not saved. He was saved but I wasn’t. I wasn’t saved because no one had ever heard me speak in tongues. Or fake it, as I suspect many of the faithful did back in those days. From, perhaps, age eight, I’d begun searching for God. I was keenly and vividly aware of His call upon my life and I struggled to make sense of the cryptic and impenetrable King James bible Mommy Young—what we called my grandmother—had given me. My mom was saved, Mommy Young was saved, my brother was saved. But I was kind of like a Christian groupie: on the outside looking in. 43 years later, I have never, to this day, heard the plan of salvation articulated by a black pastor from a black pulpit. In my experiences, black churches invest tremendous time and energy in pageantry—the music, the ceremony, untold millions of dollars wasted in decorations, pews and carpet—but routinely miss the point of their existence. They fail and fail miserably at making disciples. They shroud the conversion process in secrecy, never simply articulating how this is actually done but instead handing off this crucial task to pulpit workers who shuffle seekers off into a corner and away from the church pastor, whose voice they are responding to. It is kind of a bait and switch, these seekers ensorcelled and spellbound by a great orator, finally convinced to come forward, only to be handed off to someone with varying levels of experience and training. What these pulpit workers often lack the most is anointing. They’ve been trained to fill out forms and perhaps ask the right questions but they have no power and no authority with which to deliver seekers from their darkness. I’m Saved And I Know That I Am. But nobody, nobody at all in the black church, has, from those days to these, ever once told me how to know God. Go down the aisle and shake someone’s hand. Join the church. Then they drown out even that feckless invitation with hollering and singing, loud drums and ear-piercing Hammond organ strains.

Beloved, people arrive at your church with a story. We should hear it. We should want to hear it. A stranger in your midst is an opportunity to hear their story. I promise you, they have one. I am fascinated by this woman Lydia, whom the bible refers to as a “dealer in purple cloth,” and “a follower of God.” She either would not or could not convert to Judaism for some reason, but she apparently desired, above all else, a relationship with God and to walk with Him. Lydia was a God Groupie. A hanger-on. Around the club but not in it. I’m Saved And I Know That I Am. The apostle Luke wrote these words about her:

On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river,

where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the woman who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home. And she prevailed upon us. [Acts 16:13-15]

I found this online and am unsure of the author, but rather than rewrite this or generate my own commentary (which would read a lot like this), I’ll just repost these observations:

Here we meet Lydia. I believe Lydia is one of the most misunderstood women of the Bible. As a child in the church, I was taught that Lydia was a rich woman who financially supported the church The basis for this teaching was the designation of “a dealer in purple cloth.” This, however, is only one element in the description.

The first piece of information the text provides is the location of the story. Paul encounters this group of women “outside the gate by the river.” At the time, there were two types of purple cloth available. One, made from shellfish, was a luxury item, legally available only to imperial families. The other was a vegetable-based dye which required ready access to fresh water. The malodorous process equated to “knock-off” brands of today, and. far from making its producers wealthy elites, it forced them outside the city gates. Not incidentally, the area most known for this designer knock-off industry was Thyatira. Put simply, Lydia worked in a smelly, hot manufacturing job that relegated her to the outer rim of the town.

In fact, Lydia was probably well aware of the consequences of being on the fringe of society. The name “Lydia” was not even a person's name. Lydia was a place. The only people who had place names as personal name were slaves. These were people who did not even merit a name, but were instead simply called by the place from which they had been taken.

Despite her economic condition, Lydia was a “worshiper of God.” A “worshiper of God,” also called “God fearer,” was a Gentile who had determined to follow after the Jewish God yet, due to the requirements of Jewish law, were unable to convert. Lydia was looking for a relationship with God as she gathered with others beside the river.

Finally, we have the detail that Lydia had a household. Was she married, single, or widowed? We don't know, but we do know that she had a household which was baptized. More, she was able to invite Paul and his companion to her home. Lydia may be the one or one of the ones who was “sharing in the gospel from the first day” in Philippians.

Whatever else Lydia may have
been, I believe she was a survivor.

It seems unlikely she was married at that time. Scripture strongly infers that Lydia was head of her household, which would be impossible if she were married. She would not invite the apostles but would say something more like, “I will ask my husband…” A wife does not invite a group of strange men to spend the night in her home. Lydia’s oppressive and tedious labor would certainly embarrass and humiliate her husband. She may have been a widow, but widows were usually seen to by their relatives or townsfolk. I might better speculate (this is not in scripture) that she was divorced or perhaps abandoned by a husband. Perhaps she was never married. Perhaps Lydia was a lesbian. It is beyond arrogant to assume that, of the millions of people referred to in the bible, Christians assume not one of them could possibly be LGBT. That, of the multitudes following Jesus, not a single one was gay. This is what we believe, or, at least, what we put into practice. And it is shamefully ignorant and stupid. If you believe Jesus never once preached to a gay person, you’re an idiot. If you believe, Jesus never once touched, healed or blessed a gay person, you are an idiot. It is not a realistic conclusion. On the other hand, Jesus never interviewed people before He healed them, before He blessed them. He simply “went about doing good,” [Acts 10:38] without concern for such matters. Which is not to say Lydia was not heterosexual, but it is to not exclude that possibility from her story.

Whether you believe this or not, the Holy Bible, as we know it today, was heavily edited over the millennium. These editors were exclusively men. It is likely the exclusively male authors of the scripture also thought stories or events featuring women were worth less notice than those festering men, and therefore many fascinating stories involving women arrive to us, today, as fragments bereft of much detail, context or even conclusion. Why was Lydia mentioned at all? What happened when Paul’s party—likely mostly if not exclusively male—arrived at this presumably single woman’s home? Who was in Lydia’s family? Were there adults there or simply children? How would Lydia know these supposed men of God, who were preaching what amounted to heresy to the Jews, would not steal from her or beat or rape her? Would you, as a single woman, invite a group of male preachers you just met in some shopping mall home to stay at your house> You preachers: if you met Lydia in some parking lot and she invited you to sleep over her house, would you go?

This is a very strange story. It was not unusual for someone within a town to offer food and lodging to travelers. But this was outside of town and Lydia was likely among the lowest dregs of that town’s social strata. I’m fascinated to hear the rest of that story, but either Luke did not write it or some bozo thought it was uninteresting or unimportant.

The New Testament has no completely autheticatable chain of custody. This means the New Testament, mostly a collection of handwritten documents passed along, recopied and distributed by the Christian faithful, lack the kind of documentable history of the Old Testament, which was zealously preserved, authenticated and protected by Jewish priests (although there evidence of tampering even with that.

The New Testament is, pretty much, whatever we are told it is. From the ancient editors to huge committees, called synods, where learned old men would sit around a table and vote on what scripture is more reliable and, therefore, included in the biblical canon, and which were not, to the modern scholar of today who either affirm or question those choices, you and I and mama ‘nem, essentially, take somebody else’s word on what the New Testament actually is. Where’s the rest of this story? One presumes there is no rest of the story. Lydia was just a bit player in the Book of Acts, but she prompts what should be a fascinating discussion on who she ultimately was and why her story was there in the first place.

Moreover, when I look around church Sunday morning, 90% of the women I see—the mothers, the grandmothers—are survivors. It’s written all over their faces. Marissa Alexander, whose images accompany this meditation, is certainly a survivor. She certainly has a story. These women hold their head up in dignity, but each one has a story. Each one is, in her own way, Lydia. A worshipper. A God-fearer who carries the burden of our ignorance and neglect. The head of her household. The strength of Samson, the endurance of Job. A story that should be told.

Christopher J. Priest
20 May 2012

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No. 376  |  May 27, 2012   Start   STUDY   Prince Was Right   Why I'm Voting For Obama   Trayvon Martin   Trouble In The Village   Donate   Previous   Home