Longings and "What Ifs"
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
There are words and phrases that automatically resonate in your heart like a bell ringing on Sundays. I heard one of those the other day when I was listening to the “Unlocking Us” podcast with Brené Brown.
She was interviewing a special guest author named Sue Monk Kidd. Kidd is most known for her novel The Secret Life of Bees, and was there to talk about her latest work of fiction: The Book of Longings.
In her new book, Kidd shared that the main character prays this prayer: Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it… When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.
Something within me sighed when I heard that prayer. Not the stressed kind of sigh or the sad kind. The kind of sigh that is followed by an inexplicable peace that says: “there it is.” That is exactly how I feel. I am not alone.
Isn’t that the magic of words? To know you are not alone. To open your thoughts and minds to possibilities and people that you may not have come across in your daily life?
There are times when I feel that there is a largeness in me that I’m supposed to hide.
There is something so deep in me that desires to be a voice. To be heard. To shine a light on the voices of others that have been put on mute or to let them know that we so badly need who they are.
In a single quote from her book, Kidd captured a very deep longing with me. And it reminded me that I am not the only one. There are more of us out there.
We are not alone.
In The Book of Longings the main character’s name is Ana and she is the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. You read that right. She is the wife of Jesus, the Son of God.
When I first heard that, I felt uncomfortable. As a Christian, we are not often encouraged to imagine more within the Bible than what is already there – and a wife of Jesus is never mentioned. On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t strictly state that Jesus wasn’t married either.
We simply do not know.
In the space of not knowing, Sue Monk Kidd dared to ask the question: “what if?” What if Jesus had a wife... and would that really make Him any less holy?
And if He did, what would that have looked like? How would the Holy Son of God – fully divine and fully human – have treated her? What would her experience have been like?
It’s clear that Kidd’s intent is not to rewrite history – it’s merely to imagine what could have been. In the absence of any answers she offers us a character and story that took my breath away.
Within the context of Ana’s story, Kidd immerses us in the ancient world of Israel and the different laws and customs that guided life. It is within this world that you fully begin to understand the time and place that Jesus entered into – an honor and shame culture that could turn the tables on anyone at any moment.
Because we emphasize the virgin birth today, we often don’t fully understand what it must have been like for Jesus to have been born in a time and place that shunned children who were born under unusual circumstances without a clear father.
It was known that Mary was pregnant before being formally married to Joseph.
Although they both knew that Jesus was the Holy Son of God, and Joseph claimed Jesus as his own, the culture of the day didn’t necessarily know or accept that. As a result, stigma followed both Mary and Jesus throughout their lives.
The Jewish culture called someone like Jesus a “mamzer,” which is roughly translated to “bastard” or “estranged person.” According to Jewish Law, a mamzer is punished for the sins of his or her parents and is barred from entry into the “assembly of the Lord.”
From the beginning, Jesus received punishment for a sin that was never committed by him – or by Mary for that matter.
The Book of Longings not only gives us insight into Ana’s life and experience as a woman during this time, but also it gives us a unique perspective into the cultural context and potential experience of Jesus.
Jesus did not speak to people from a place of cultural power. He spoke to people as an outsider, as someone who questioned whether the religious institutions of the day were getting this thing right, as the Holy Son of God who was deeply in love with His Father.
He was loved by the outsiders and questioners and cast out by those who believed they had all the answers in the palms of their hands.
I don’t find it difficult to believe that the conflict in Jesus’ time still exists today.
The conflict between those in power and those that aren’t continues. There is still a great distance between those that feel forgotten and marginalized and those who claim God-ordained positions of authority.
The hallmark of Jesus’s life was not in gathering power, but in giving it away. It was not in silencing others, but in looking at those that had been most forgotten and saying: “I see you. You are loved. There is a place for you."
You are not alone.
Jesus made people uncomfortable because he questioned the current power structures and dynamics of the world and the people who held the keys to the temples, and pretty much said: “those keys are not yours to carry. They are mine. The only way to the Father is through me.”
That’s why the early movement of Jesus followers were called followers of “The Way.”
Jesus said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14: 6-7)
It is for this reason we should be very aware of those in power that marginalize and exclude instead of following the example of Christ by welcoming and loving.
And then, there is Ana’s story.
The story of a woman who loves to write in a culture that excludes women from every avenue of personal expression, especially reading and writing. A culture that considers women property and allows men to divorce them for unsuitable skin conditions, inappropriate behavior, infertility and more.
As the daughter of the head scribe in Galilee, Ana finds a way to write. As the wife of Jesus, she is empowered to express herself. And as a woman who finds her voice, she is finally set free.
There is something beautiful about her story, about her longings and about how Jesus interacts with Ana that somehow made me feel seen and known.
Throughout the course of the book, we learn that our longings are not meant to be stuffed down or forgotten, but instead should be nurtured and expressed.
By honoring her imaginative “what if?,” Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings is a story that invites us into more questions than answers.
In the middle of that space, it's hard not to believe there is something holy in asking: “what if?”