Title: “Come away”
Date: August 30, 2009
Text: Song of Songs 2:8-13
Author: Isaac Villegas
Our passage from the Song of Songs is an excerpt of a love poem. That simple fact is important. Our bible, this book that is central to our faith, is full of poems. The bible isn’t a book full of rules to memorize. And it’s not just a history book. Our scriptures also offer us collections of carefully crafted poems.
At the very least, this means that Christians are committed to poetry. Some of the best parts of the bible are poems. But for a while now our churches haven’t done a very good job of encouraging and nurturing the gifts of poets, let alone other artists. They are marginal gifts in the church. We’d rather cut the fancy stuff and get to the heart of the matter, give me the world in black and white so I can get on with doing what I’m supposed to do—a kind of no-nonsense Christianity. For some reason, we are people who like to think that our faith is all about clear-cut commands: share money with the poor, worship God, don’t kill people, always tell the truth, and so on. This probably has something to do with how we talk about the Christian faith as discipleship—the emphasis is on discipline. It’s all about gritting your teeth, and pushing through to the finish line. No pain, no gain. We’ve got a mission to accomplish, no time for dilly-dally.
But poems are all about dilly-dallying. So why are they in our bibles? A poem takes time in the details; you have to slow down when you read a poem. It takes patience. You can get lost in the images, lost in the way the words fit together and sometimes don’t seem to fit at all. A poem can speak differently every time you read it. There’s always more to discover. And that’s usually because there’s nothing straightforward about poems. If you get it on the first read, you probably have no idea what it’s about.
I’m wondering if the Christian life is like a poem? Have we missed something about our lives as Christians because we haven’t spent much time listening to the poets in the bible and in our churches? We seem to talk about our faith more like a simple math equation than anything else: Me + Jesus = Eternal Life. What would it mean for us to think about discipleship as poetry? How do poets describe God’s movement in the world?
For the collection of poems called the “Songs of Solomon,” God isn’t an obvious presence. I don’t think God is mentioned at all. Like a good poem, you have to read it for a while to see the hidden reality that animates all the words. It takes a certain kind of reading of the poems to get to God. Maybe the best way to say it is that God is talked about without God being talked about… if that makes any sense. God is so present in the poems that it’s hard to point out where God is or isn’t. God is throughout the Song of Songs, without God ever being talked about.
It’s sort of like air. How do you notice air? You can’t really point to a piece of it because it’s everywhere. But we can start to talk about air if we notice what air does for us. We know that air is around, not because we can see it, but because we aren’t dead. We can breathe, and that means air is in this room. When we go outside, we know that air is all around because we can see trees and hear birds. We know that air surrounds us because life is happening all around us and in us. Without air, there is no life. The same thing goes for God in the love poems of Songs of Solomon. The poems never point to God as a character in the love affairs. Instead, God is like air: we know God is around because love is happening. Without God, there is no love. So, the best way to get to know God is talk about the love that is happening in the poems.
Our passage starts with the woman. She hears her lover’s call. Then she sees him coming in the distance, over the hills. “My beloved,” she says, “is like a gazelle or a young stag” (2:9). I don’t exactly know what that means, but the point is that as you think about those animals, you will discover something new about her lover. Images say so much more than a description like: he is graceful, or he is fast, or he moves beautifully.
When her lover arrives, he doesn’t rush in. He waits outside the house. “Look,” she says, “there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice” (v. 9). He waits. He doesn’t act like he owns the place. He doesn’t act like she is his possession. Instead he shows up and waits outside. What does her lover say when he finally speaks? He says, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (v. 11). He offers an invitation: “come away,” come away with me. I don’t know much about poetry, but I do know that when a line is repeated, it’s important. In our passage, the lover repeats this invitation twice: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (v. 11, 13). The lover invites his beloved to come away, and invites her again, but the poem ends before we know if she goes with him. Will she go? How long will he stand outside the house and wait? What’s taking her so long to decide?
The poem puts love on display. The two characters show us how love happens—and not just romantic love, but friendships as well. In every kind of relationship, love is never coercive; it doesn’t assume that people are possessions. In the poem, the lover doesn’t barge in and take control of the relationship. He waits; he recognizes her boundaries; he lets her be; he gives her room to grow into the relationship. He offers an invitation, and then waits for a response. And we have no idea how long he waits—maybe a few minutes while she puts on her shoes, or maybe he has to set up camp out there for a few nights while she weighs the cost of the relationship.
Patience and love always come together, especially in this poem. Without patience, love isn’t really love. It’s lust. Impatient love is simply lust. We try to get what we want, when we want it, and defy all the walls that get in our way. Lust trespasses; it crosses boundaries without every asking permission. Lust tries to take a shortcut to what we love, but ends up not satisfying us and hurting the one we want to love.
Last night some of us got together for our Jesus film series. We watched Jesus of Montreal. Mireille is the Mary Magdalene character in this modern day Jesus story. She is a model who’s been told that her only talent is her body. That’s what her boyfriend tells her when she talks about doing theater. She should stick to her modeling career, because people like to look at her body, but they don’t want to see her act. In once scene, Mireille is at an audition for a beer commercial. The men and women who try out for the commercial dance around and show off their bodies. Basically, the director is looking for the best looking bodies to sell the company’s beer. Mireille steps up on stage in a baggy sweatshirt and jeans. Her body is hidden. The director tells her that she needs to show the people what she has underneath all the clothes. As she’s about to strip down, her friend Daniel approaches the stage. He’s the Jesus character in the movie. He interrupts everything and tells her not to take off her clothes. Mireille says that she doesn’t mind. But Daniel tells her that she is much better than that. Then he goes around and starts overturning tables. He destroys the cameras and monitors and takes an electrical cord and drives everyone out of the studio. The audition turns into the scene in the gospels where Jesus drives out all the moneychangers from the temple in Jerusalem.
The scene is a great example of what lust is all about. The beer people want to tell viewers that their product will make you good-looking and get you a good-looking partner. The advertisers play with our loves, with our desires, and turn them into lust. If we drink their beer, then we can get what we want, without waiting and without all the drama of real and messy intimacy. The commercial tries to sell us a lie that turns our love into lust. The same goes for all the other ways magazines and movies and television use images of bodies to mess with our sense of love and acceptance and intimacy.
Lust is impatient love that doesn’t risk anything; lust never puts us in a vulnerable situation where we ask and wait for someone’s response. Lust never risks rejection. Lust doesn’t know how to say the words of our poem: come away with me. Lust doesn’t offer invitations; it simply takes what it wants when it wants it.
The scene in the movie also shows how lust dehumanizes the people in commercials—how models begin to internalize those voices that tell them that they have no talent other than selling their bodies. Mireille, the model, has come to believe that the only worthwhile thing about her is to let people look at her body. In Mireille, we can see that lust creates a culture that makes people feel like products to be consumed, objects without any depth, bodies without personalities or stories. That’s what our lust does. It sustains a culture that reduces people to bodies without depth, without personalities, without stories, without all the messiness that makes humans interesting.
But love turns this world upside down; it overturns the tables; it heals what lust has wounded. Love says, come away with me. Love is an invitation to walk alongside someone, to listen, to talk, to share, to risk a relationship. Love gives up control over what we want, and instead simply offers an invitation and waits for an answer, waits for the other person to determine the future of the relationship. Love is an act of submission that shows the other person their infinite worth—it says, “you are worth everything to me, and so I’ll wait for you to decide if you want me.” This is this the kind of love that God makes possible. God is the air that gives life to the love that happens in our lives. When we love one another, we breathe the air that is God. When we love people, we give them the air they need to thrive.
We’ve all been diminished by our culture of lust. It’s the pollution in the air we breathe. But love invites God to heal our desires so we can love like Jesus loves. For Jesus shows us a love that waits for our response. Jesus loves without forcing us to love him back. Jesus gives himself for our love, even when we weren’t ready to receive it. He doesn’t barge in; he stands at the door and knocks, and offers an invitation for us to join a whole new way of life.
The lover in the Song of Songs waits outside and calls out, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”