I could be a little-faith-one

It’s been a minute (or more precisely, about a month) since I’ve posted a reflection on the “do not worry” passage in Matthew 6:25-34, but I know you’ve missed them. So here’s another!

(30) And if God so enrobes the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is thrown into a furnace, (will he) not much more y’all, little-faith-ones? -Jesus (Matthew 6:30, my translation)

As far as I can tell, ὀλιγόπιστος—the Greek word often translated as “you of little faith”—is a word Jesus made up. It’s only used five times in the New Testament, and each of these times it’s spoken by Jesus. (Two of these uses—Matthew 6:30 and Luke 12:28—are the same teaching of Jesus in different gospels.)

Just because it’s fun—and by fun, I mean potentially helpful in terms of seeing familiar texts in fresh ways—to offer alternative translations that are a little different from the norm, I’m going to refer to this word (ὀλιγόπιστος) as little-faith-ones

When we hear Jesus say “you of little faith”—or y’all little-faith-ones, if you will—we might hear this as a bit of an insult, or at least a chastisement. Y’all don’t have enough faith. Why don’t you have more faith? I can’t believe you don’t have more faith. Bad, bad, bad.

I want to challenge that. For one thing, there’s another Greek word (ἄπιστος: “without faith”) that means something more like “faithless.” When Jesus uses ὀλιγόπιστος, then, he isn’t calling people faithless. He isn’t saying that the people he’s talking to have no faith. He’s just saying they have little faith. It’s much gentler. 

What I really like, though—even more than the fact that little-faith-ones sounds nicer than faithless ones—is the pattern I see throughout the gospels when Jesus calls people little-faith-ones. I’m looking at what Jesus does right after he uses this word. 

In Matthew 8:26, Jesus is with some disciples in a boat, and a storm comes up. Jesus is obliviously sleeping through the storm while the boat looks like it’s about to sink. The disciples wake Jesus, saying “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”—to which Jesus replies, “Little-faith-ones, why are you so afraid?”

But Jesus doesn’t just stop there. He gets right up, rebukes the winds and waves, and makes the formerly-stormy sea completely calm. 

In Matthew 14:31, then, the disciples are in a boat again (this time without Jesus), and in the wee pre-dawn hours of the morning Jesus comes walking across the lake to meet them. At Jesus’ invitation, Peter hops out of the boat and briefly walks on water himself—before realizing that this is absolutely terrifying, at which point he starts to sink. Jesus says to Peter, “You little-faith-one, why did you doubt?”

And as he says this, Jesus is also reaching out his hand and catching Peter. He doesn’t let Peter keep sinking. He helps him make it back to the boat and climb back in. 

In Matthew 16:8—the third and final time little-faith-ones is used outside of the “God enrobes the grass” teaching—the disciples misunderstand something Jesus says about the yeast of the Pharisees. They start talking instead about how they didn’t bring any bread. Jesus says, “Little-faith-ones, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?” 

And then he reminds them about that one time when he fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread, and that other time when he fed four thousand people with seven loaves.

It turns out that Jesus doesn’t just call people little-faith-ones and then leave them there in their little-faith-ness. He calls them that, and then he immediately does something that just might increase their faith. He calms the storm. He lifts Peter out of the water. He reminds everyone that he can feed multitudes with just a few small loaves of bread.

Maybe little-faith-ones isn’t so much a chastisement as an invitation to a more expansive faith. An invitation to watch God do something that seemed impossible. An invitation to remember what God has done in the past that amazed and inspired us. 

After all, this same Jesus tells the disciples, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Matthew 17:20, NIV). Jesus isn’t looking for big flashy faith. He’s looking for little mustard-seed-sized bits of faith, with an openness to more. 

I like that, because it seems doable. I could be a little-faith-one. I am a little-faith-one. And that seems to be cool with Jesus. God can work with that.

God enrobes the grass of the field, and God takes care of the little-faith-ones like you and me. 

This is part of what Jesus means when he invites us not to worry (Matt 6:25). This is Jesus’ invitation to a brave and expansive faith that can’t help but start out the size of a mustard seed. God loves us little-faith-ones and moves in response to the little faith that we have. 

Thoughts about being a little-faith-one? Do you find it freeing? Inviting? Insulting? Intriguing? Holler in the comments, via email, or otherwise!

Reflections on a four hundred year old essay

I wrote down some thoughts about how my mind was blown when I read an essay called “Women’s Speaking Justified,” written by Margaret Fell in 1666. Feminism & Religion posted my piece on their website, which is exciting – glad to be included in their work.

Check out the full article here if you’re interested! Spoiler: the kinds of debates that go on in many churches today around women preaching and such have been happening for a lot longer than one might think. Or at least a lot longer than I had imagined.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – here, or on the Feminism & Religion post, or anywhere else you like!

A prayer for 2022

I wrote this new year prayer for my church community and thought I’d share it with you all as well. (Hopefully six days in isn’t too late to still feel like it’s a very very new year.)

I also have two links to offer. The first is a piece on Trumpism and some of Jesus’ words in the book of Revelation that I wrote and shared a year ago on the day of the insurrection. I offer it as one way to reflect on that day now that a year has passed.

The second is a piece Christians for Social Action posted on their website, which is super exciting, because they’re great. It’s an adapted (mostly much shortened…like, from >3k words to <900 words) version of a sermon I preached a while back on Elizabeth and Mary as marginalized women who speak bold prophetic words. Here’s the link, hope you enjoy!

Wishing you a sense of God’s care and presence in 2022.

God,
You are God of open doors and new beginnings,
and you are our comfort in the face of closed doors and endings.
You have been with us in the joys of 2021, and in the sorrows.
There have been so many of both.

Our hearts have been full to bursting with wonder and delight.
Our hearts have been scarred, broken, spilling out tears of loss, pain, and sadness.
Our hearts have been numb, when everything is too much.

This year has been a rollercoaster for some of us and a deep sea of grief for others.
Hold us all together in beloved community through it all.
Give us kind, caring people to process the year with us—to hold it, to hold us.
Give us courage to face the past honestly, and give us friends to face it with.
May we be those who unbind one another’s graveclothes. 

God, at times your gospel of love and justice has burned brightly, fully alive among us.
Other times it has felt dim and distant. 
You love us through it all, and you teach us how to love one another.

God, community is hard. 
You are with us in the tension. 
You are with us in the misunderstandings, the hurt and apologies and forgiving and transforming and healing. 

God, you have removed many scales from our eyes. 
And you just keep doing it. 
Sometimes the journey is exhausting, but it is also good. 
Would you give us strength, give us rest, give us gentleness—with ourselves and with others.

God, thank you for the community partnerships that have been forming and flourishing. 
We ask for continued favor and guidance. 
For relationships that are mutual and lifegiving and breathe shalom in our community. 

God, our needs are many. 
Would you take care of us, and help us take care of one another.
Would you help us welcome the newcomers among us, warmly.
Would the children and youth among us know they have a home and will always be loved.
Would the older ones among us know they have so much to offer and are not forgotten. 
God, help us see the gifts you’ve given us and offer these gifts freely. 

As our thoughts turn toward resolutions and hopes and dreams, we look—to you and to one another—for wisdom, guidance, solidarity, partnership. 
Give us vision to look forward with creativity and integrity. 
Give us energy to keep moving into your gospel fully alive.
Give us grace when we have no energy. 

God, bring us closer together this year—closer to you, closer to our communities. 
Closer to people different from us, uncomfortable as it may be. 
Closer to our true selves, in bold authenticity. 
Closer to justice, to equity, to beloved community. 

God, we look toward a new year with hope, cynicism, love, fear, excitement, anxiety, uncertainty, anticipation. 
Thank you for being with us in all these things.
Thank you for giving us yourself and one another.
Amen.

2021: a year in books

This is the first year I’ve actually written down (or at least attempted to write down) every book I’ve finished reading over the course of the year. It’s been a good exercise. 

Looking back at the list now, I feel a lot of gratitude. These authors poured their hearts and souls into each of these books, and the results are beautiful, thought-provoking, inspiring, challenging. 

And there are just a lot of them. Every book on my list is one that I found worthwhile enough to read the whole thing. (And I’ve been getting more comfortable setting down and leaving unfinished books that I’m not enjoying or learning much from, or that just aren’t a good fit for what I’m interested in right now.) 

I’d like to share some of my personal favorites from the year. With a huge caveat that taste in books is very personal, fickle, sometimes arbitrary. I make no claim whatsoever to name THE TEN BEST BOOKS of 2021, or any nonsense like that. (Can anybody, really?) I only know what I like and what I’ve connected with. 

So, appreciation expressed and caveats acknowledged, these are my favorite books that I’ve read this year! In no particular order, complete with a totally-biased sentence or two (or five) describing each one. Enjoy!

Nonfiction (top 3)

-Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo)

Check out my super chill book review for all the thoughts.

-Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (Brittney Cooper)

I was super impressed with Cooper’s analysis of gender and race and America and everything—and also with her ability to write academically brilliant sentences and paragraphs that also drop colloquialisms and swear words at exactly the right moments. Who does that? Brittney Cooper, apparently, and she’s brilliant at it. Like Mediocre, I feel like Eloquent Rage does a great job of intersectional analysis. Everything’s connected, and you can’t talk very well about race without also talking about gender, and vice versa, and I appreciate writers who deal with this really well.

-Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Audre Lorde)

A classic must-read (in my opinion) that I hadn’t read until this year. I wish Lorde’s words from before I was born didn’t feel so prescient and relevant today, but here we are; and they’re very much worth reading, for anyone interested in making any kind of feminist and/or antiracist progress.

Nonfiction (honorable mention)

-Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the MeToo Movement (Tarana Burke)

Thoughtful and thought-provoking memoir by the real-life superhero who was doing the work of the MeToo movement a decade before it became a viral hashtag.

-Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning (Cathy Park Hong)

Fascinating mix of memoir / cultural commentary / historical storytelling. Explores a lot of things that often get lost in race-related conversations that become a little too black & white.

-Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (Imani Perry)

Beautiful writing; loved the idea of framing reflections on race and America and such as an extended love letter to the author’s two sons.

-Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit)

Contains the essay that inspired someone on the internet to come up with the term “mansplaining” several years ago…and lots of other great essays, too. 

-So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo)

Excellent introduction to all things race-related in America.

-Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (Katherine May)

Maybe this is an odd thing to say about a book that’s about wintering (i.e. the times in life when things move slowly, and when sad and otherwise difficult feelings come to the surface), but I found this book delightful.

-Why We Swim (Bonnie Tsui)

The fact that I’m a swimmer might have something to do with this, but I found this book delightful as well. I enjoyed having my view of swimming expanded far beyond the pool and the four Olympic strokes, to include things like shellfish diving, cold water swimming (ice mile, anyone? Just kidding, I’m good), and samurai swimming.

And, of course, honorable mentions to all the books I’ve done “super chill book reviews” for:

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (ed. Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga)

Just Us: An American Conversation (Claudia Rankine)

Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Julie Rodgers)

You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience (Tarana Burke and Brene Brown)

After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Willie Jennings)

Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (Kaitlin B. Curtice)

Real American: A Memoir (Julie Lythcott-Haims)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Rebecca Solnit)

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Beth Allison Barr)

How to be an Antiracist (Ibram X Kendi)

Well, I tried to keep this list short, but there are too many good books out there. It’s not my fault, really. Fortunately for you, I haven’t read as much fiction as nonfiction, so this part is shorter…

Fiction (top 3)

-The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett)

A multigenerational family story tracing the lives of two twins from a small town of mixed-race Black folks in the South, one of whom leaves everything behind to start a new life passing as white.

-Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)

Life among teenagers and their families in a super-planned-suburban-utopia-type community is…complicated. I liked the set-up of starting with a dramatic climax and then walking back to unveil the year-or-so-long story leading up to that climax. And I liked the author’s explorations of class tensions. 

-Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

A story of young womanhood and love and immigration and home and such, split between Nigeria and the U.S.

Fiction (honorable mention)

-Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman)

People describe this one with words like charming and “up-lit” (literature with uplifting, positive themes?), but I felt like a lot of this book is pretty intense, and parts are quite sad. But I still liked it and thought it was well done.

-Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)

Loved the beautiful scene-setting in the salt marshes of North Carolina, along with the page-turning mystery / murder trial aspect of it. But I wasn’t remotely emotionally prepared for HOW FRICKIN SAD so much of it was. So, if you haven’t read it yet…be prepared. 

That’s all I’ve got. Read any of these books? Loved them? Hated them? Feel indifferently toward them? Have complicated feelings about them? I’d love to hear! 

Book recommendations are very welcome as well—what have some of your favorites been this year?

God lifts the lowly: reflections on Mary’s song

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” -Mary (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)

In these verses, Mary breaks out into a song often known as the Magnificat. To me, Mary’s song is kind of what Christmas is all about. So, with Christmas pretty much here, I thought I’d offer some reflections on this songadapted from a sermon I wrote for a preaching class back in the day (well, three and a half years ago) in seminary.

When Mary breaks out in spontaneous song, in rich prophetic poetry, she starts with her own situation. I imagine how she might have been feeling: 

God―the God of the universe and of my ancestors―God has visited me! Out of the blue. I thought I knew God, loved God, wanted to serve God, but I never would have imagined this. God has chosen me for an incredible and miraculous task. Me! Not someone older and wiser, or from a rich family, or from Jerusalem, the center of everything, or at least a nice little suburb of it. God chose me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord” and “my spirit rejoices.” I feel my whole being bursting forth in irrepressible praise of this God. This God is Lord―powerful, authoritative. This God is Savior―the one who sees those who suffer, and delivers them and sets them free. And this God―Lord and Savior―has looked with favor on me! 

God is doing something. The angel talked about a kingdom with no end. The throne of David. This is big! And I get to be a part of it. Surely all generations will call me blessed. 

This is a great thing. This is a holy God.

Mary reflects on her own situation and praises God from the bottom of her heart for God’s work in her life. That’s all in verses 46-49. 

Then, around verse 50, something changes. The scope gets broader. Mary starts talking about what all this means about God in general. From generation to generation. About God’s character. About what God does in the world. 

Mary says that God is merciful. God is strong. God is powerful. God helps. God remembers. God keeps promises. God lifts up, and God brings down.

Mary starts talking about other people, too. In particular, two kinds of people. On the one hand, we have those who are lowly, those who fear God, those who are hungry. On the other hand, we have those who are proud in their hearts, those who are powerful, those who are rulers, those who are rich. This is how the world is. 

But for Mary, this is not how things remain. God reverses the expected order of things. God does not leave the lowly down low, but lifts them up. God does not leave the hungry starving, but fills them with good things. God does not leave those who fear God without help or without mercy. 

And God does not leave the proud to think they’re all that; God scatters them. God does not leave the rulers in their thrones; God brings them down. God does not leave the rich thinking they have everything because they have money; God sends them away empty. 

Mary is full of hope and bursting with joy and good news. She bursts into song! 

But is this good news to us? Maybe? Maybe a mixed bag. 

It depends: Who are we in this passage? Are we the lowly who are lifted up by God, or are we the powerful who are scattered by God? How do we know? How do we feel about this total reversal of power and money and status? 

Let’s talk about the rich, proud, and powerful first. Are there ways in which we fall into this category? One way of thinking about this may be to think about what we feel entitled to. What are our expectations for life? For how people and systems and the world will treat us? What kinds of things are we surprised, or bitter, or disappointed not to get?

Our expectations and entitlements can take many shapes. Perhaps we’ve felt entitled to be offered a job we applied for. Maybe we expect to get an A on a paper when we spend a lot of time on it. We might feel entitled to get a raise if we’ve been working hard, or for our kid to be accepted to a certain college if they’ve been working hard. We might expect that if we invest wisely, the stock market will generally go up and make us some money. Perhaps we have enjoyed good physical health and assume we always will, or we have not had any mental health issues and assume we never will. 

Maybe life is going well. Perhaps we are among the people favored by the way the world works, and we expect that that will continue.

When we’re in this place, and things are going well, the kind of reversal of expectations that we see in our passage does not sound like good news. It can be offensive. It can be threatening. It up-ends the social order that has benefited us. What are we to think of a God who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly?

Maybe a first step is to try to enter into the experience of people who may be or may feel lowly, hungry, or poor.

In our culture sometimes we separate out things like physical hunger and thirst and poverty from spiritual hunger and spiritual needs. In Mary’s time and culture, in Mary’s worldview, all of these things tended to go together. Mary lived in poverty among a minority people, a minority ethnic and religious group, oppressed by a very powerful and often ruthless empire. For Mary, the lowly are those who fear God, and those who fear God are the hungry, and those who are hungry are Israel, the servant of God, and Israel is the community that needs God’s help and mercy. 

These are the people at the bottom of the social order. The people who know they need God to do something.

What does it mean in our time and place for people to be lowly? Are there ways in which we identify with the lowly, the humble, the hungry?

Some of us might be underpaid, or undervalued. We may feel that we’ve failed in some way, or that life has not treated us well. Some of us belong to groups that are considered lowly or are not treated well in our society―perhaps groups based on gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, language, citizenship status, mental health status, socioeconomic class. 

God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud. 

God affirmed and lifted up the dignity of a peasant girl from the middle of nowhere in Nazareth. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of underpaid employees. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of people working in all sorts of professions that might be undervalued, maybe even considered lacking in dignity: of people who take out trash, and drive buses, and clean buildings, and flip burgers, and wait tables. 

God affirms and lifts up the worth and value of people who do not have a job, who are unemployed or underemployed. God affirms and lifts up people who don’t have adequate housing, or who don’t have housing at all. 

God affirms and lifts up people who live in fear of deportation. God affirms and lifts up communities of color who are on the receiving end of racism and violence―from individuals, and from government systems that are not set up in their favor. 

God lifts up the lowly.

Mary says, surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed. Mary―a young woman from the rural underclass of society, in a time when women’s testimonies were not considered valid in court―raises her voice and testifies to this God who lifts up the lowly. 

Mary knows that God fills up the hungry with good things. The world honors and lifts up those who have money and power and self-assurance, but God honors and lifts up those who are hungry, and lowly, small, and humble. Mary knows that this is who God is, because this is who God has been to her―and because there is something about the baby she carries that brings hope. 

Jesus brings hope. The child of God chose to be carried and birthed and raised by Mary. He chose to be born into poverty in the middle of nowhere, born lowly. He identified with hungry and hurting people wherever he went.

God chose to become flesh and dwell with us, in the incarnation, in Jesus. God’s incarnation shows us the kind of kingdom that has come and is coming. It is a different kind of order from the social orders we have now. Jesus shows us that God lifts up the lowly. That there is justice. That there is unexpected reversal. That there is mercy. That there is hope.

In the ways in which you identify with the lowly, how might you lift up your voice like Mary and give glory to this God? To see and join in the ways God is lifting you up and lifting up those around you? To speak about your reality and about justice and about God’s mercy? 

In the ways in which you identify with the powerful, are you ready to listen to the lowly ones God raises up? To be in relationship with people for whom life has been an uphill battle rather than smooth sailing? To live in a way that bears witness to the truth that there is more to life than wealth and power and fame? To see and join in with God’s work of lifting up the lowly?

God lifts up the lowly. God is merciful. There is hope for us all.

Wishing you a joyful, omicron-free Christmas. And stay tuned―I plan to be back next week with some of my favorite books from 2021.

God enrobes the wildflowers

Roses…so needy
Sweet peas – more like a wildflower

(28) And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. (29) But I say to y’all that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these ones. (30) And if God so enrobes the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is thrown into a furnace, (will he) not much more y’all, y’all of little faith? -Jesus (Matthew 6:28-30, my translation)

I didn’t realize, until I translated this passage, that the verb in v. 30—translated above as enrobes—is different from the verb in v. 29, translated as clothed. I thought Solomon in his glory was clothed, and so the wildflowers, too, were clothed. But even more gloriously.

This was a reasonable thing to think, given that the NRSV translates both verbs as clothed, and the NIV goes for dressed when it comes to Solomon and clothed when referring to the grass.

I kind of like the translation enrobes for the grass, though. I feel like it adds another dimension, another flavor. It isn’t just that the wildflowers are clothed even more beautifully than Solomon. They aren’t just clothed, like he is. They’re enrobed.

This word that I’m translating as enrobed is ἀμφιέννυμι. And to be clear, ἀμφιέννυμι could also be translated as clothed. But it would be a little odd for Jesus/Matthew to use two different verbs in adjacent sentences to mean the same thing. We might do this in English for style points, but people didn’t really do this in Koine Greek. 

I also think it’s interesting that this word, ἀμφιέννυμι, comes from a root that means “to invest.” I like the possible implication: that God enrobes the wildflowers in a way that evokes the concept of investment. God invests, or God is invested, in the wildflowers—even if by typical capitalist standards it may be an unwise investment; after all, the wildflowers pop up among the grass of the field, and the whole lot of it is here today but burned up in the furnace tomorrow.

I also find it interesting that ἀμφιέννυμι is used only four times in the whole New Testament. It isn’t one of the usual words for clothing. (In comparison, the word that describes Solomon being clothed in v. 29 is used 24 times in the New Testament.) 

And it’s really just used in two different stories. 

There are Jesus’ words about the wildflowers here, and his very similar words in Luke 12:28. 

And then there are Jesus’ words about John the Baptist in Matthew 11:8 (and his very similar words in Luke 7:25): As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces” (Matt 11:7-8, NIV). 

“A man dressed in fine clothes”—or, more literally, “a person enrobed in soft clothing.” Or something like that. Rich folks who hang out in kings’ palaces are enrobed in the same way the grasses of the field are enrobed. (Side note: check out this post for more thoughts on Matthew 11:7-8 and the surrounding verses if you’re interested.) 

Or, to look at it another way, God’s plant creations, like wildflowers, are enrobed in beauty—while God’s prophets hang out far from kings’ palaces. An interesting contrast. 

Anyhow, I like the idea of short-lived and fragile wildflowers being enrobed with the kind of beauty even the richest humans only dream of. That’s cool. 

And I like that we’re talking about wildflowers, here—the kind of plants not intentionally cultivated by humans. The kind we easily overlook. The kind we don’t even try to save from the furnace as they get thrown in to be burned up alongside the grass.

I think of the landscaping we inherited when we moved into our home. We have several rose plants, and they’re very pretty—but also (in some cases, anyway) very high maintenance. They want to be deadheaded constantly, fertilized every few weeks, watered on hot days (but not during the heat of the day), cleared of blackspot-infected fallen leaves, pruned yearly.  

The rose plants are so needy. In contrast, there’s a sweet pea plant that seems to just magically grow back year after year. It’s more like a weed, really—and a tenacious one. It takes over an impressively large space if I don’t cut it back. And it’s also really beautiful. 

I wonder if this is the sort of thing Jesus is thinking of when he talks about God enrobing the lilies—not the plants we intentionally cultivate for their beauty, but the ones that just grow on their own. Is a rose more beautiful than a sweet pea? I’m not sure. I feel like they’re both gorgeous in their own ways. God enrobes them both.

Maybe the rich kingliness of the word enrobe can help us see wildflowers—and the natural world in general—closer to the way God does.

Solomon was just clothed. But the wildflowers are enrobed. God treasures them, holds them, doesn’t just take care of their needs but makes them glorious. And this is God’s heart toward us as well. 

Have a favorite wildflower? Thoughts or feelings about roses or sweet peas or Solomon or clothing and robes? As always, feel free to holler in the comments or via email!

Why do you worry?

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin… -Jesus (Matthew 6:28, NRSV)

Here’s another angle on Jesus’ words about worry: What if Jesus’ question why do you worry? isn’t a purely rhetorical question? What if it’s an actual invitation to ask ourselves: why do we worry?

Many of us have likely learned to hear this question as something akin to, stop that worrying right now, y’all. You shouldn’t be worrying. Or even, maybe, it’s unfaithful to worry. Faith-filled people don’t worry. Jesus tells us not to worry. So we shouldn’t worry. End of story.

I wonder, though, how it would change the narratives we tell ourselves (and hear, and tell others) if we took Jesus’ question at face value. Maybe he really is asking what it sounds like he’s asking. Maybe his question—why do you worry?—isn’t an exhortation to beat ourselves up for worrying, but, rather, a real invitation to explore the reasons why we worry.

We might follow Jesus’ lead and ask ourselves: what kinds of things do we tend to worry about—and why? What are we worried about right now, and why? 

What is going on in our souls when we worry? In our minds, hearts, bodies, spirits? In our relationships, our work, our community?

We might ask ourselves, what are some of the fears behind our worries? What do we fear losing? What do these fears reveal about us—about what or whom we love and value, what or whom we care about deeply? 

Who knows—maybe some of these questions can help unearth passions, steering us toward the next faithful step in our lives. Maybe they can help us become more aware of what’s going on in our souls—maybe a need for rest, or alone time, or reaching out to a friend. 

We can share our worries with trusted people in our lives and perhaps find some healing or solace in the sharing. And as we dig deeper into all the things that lie behind our worries, we might find ourselves able to share more of ourselves and our journeys. We can better articulate where we’re at, what’s important to us, what we need.

As we explore these kinds of questions, we might even find insight into what might actually help us worry less. (Hint: it isn’t pretending the worry isn’t there.) Maybe we realize we need to ask someone for help with something. (For many of us, this is truly revolutionary.) Maybe we realize we want someone to text us when they get where they’re going, so we know they’re okay. Maybe we realize that we’re worried about money but we also aren’t very aware of where our money is going, and it might help to sit down and make a budget or revisit an existing budgeting process. 

These kinds of questions can also operate on a bigger picture level. Why do we worry—not just about ourselves and our own circles, but also about others beyond these circles, about our communities, about our world? 

Every time we look at the news, there are more things to worry about. There is so much to be anxious about—and legitimately so.

At the same time, we all experience and process these things in our own unique ways. We might find ourselves worrying more, or less, about different things. Maybe the things we are most anxious about are also a hint toward the good we could do, the things we deeply want to make better, the things to dig into and see if we might be able to make a difference—even if that difference feels like a very small one. 

Perhaps the question why do we worry? is an opportunity to reflect on our worries, to bring them to God in prayer, to share them with trusted friends and community members. To look them in the face. To be aware of them. To experience freedom from the shame we might feel about them. To accept them—that they are something we carry, and that is okay. It’s part of being human in a world where there is so much to be anxious about.

Maybe it’s not so much worry in general that we want to avoid, but unexamined, ignored worry. Worry shoved under the rug, stuffed and forgotten—but not really—on a tall shelf, hidden in a closet. It’s this kind of anxiety—the unacknowledged, unprocessed kind—that eats away at us. And this is what I think Jesus wants to free us from.

In taking a closer look at our worries, we may find a kind of freedom. It might not be the kind of freedom where we never worry again. But maybe there’s another kind of freedom—the kind where our worries are aired in the open, given breathing room, acknowledged, accepted, understood, held together in community. 

How does it change things to take why do you worry? as an honest question from Jesus—as an invitation to reflection rather than a chastisement? Holler with your thoughts!

On learning from the wildflowers

And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. -Jesus (Matthew 6:28, my translation)

In my sermon on Matthew 6:25-34, I suggested that when Jesus says do not worry (v. 25), we might quite naturally reply, “okay Jesus, but…how??? How do we not worry?”

And I suggested that this question is perhaps answered (at least in part) by Jesus in v. 28, when he says, consider the lilies. Or—since the word translated “lilies” could also be translated “wildflowers,” and the word often translated “consider” or “see” is really quite a strong word that comes from the same root as “learn” or “disciple”—examine the lilies carefully, or learn thoroughly from them. Jesus says, learn from the wildflowers

I was aiming for a 7-8 minute mini-sermon, so I wasn’t able to go into much detail about what it might actually look like to learn from the wildflowers. But I have some thoughts, and I’d love to hear your thoughts too! 

How do we learn thoroughly from the wildflowers—or at least take some steps in that direction? These are some of the things I think about:

  1. Spend time in nature

It’s good for the soul!

In some ways, this is more accessible for some than others. But around the Seattle area, at least, even if it’s hard to find time (or transportation, etc.) to get out to the bigger woods and mountains, there are so many gorgeous local parks. 

I saw an article a few weeks back—in a Seattle-based newspaper or magazine, I forget which one—about beautiful places to visit in South King County. I was both amused and offended that some people responded with the “laughing face” emoji! Their loss. South King County is full of beautiful nature-y places. It may not rival Issaquah or Woodinville as far as forest-to-urban-space ratio goes—but we’ve got our share of parks and walking trails, and they’re lovely.

Anyhow, I realize it’s December and we’re far past peak wildflower season, but I think it’s worth getting out there anyway. Jesus may have chosen wildflowers as an example of a created being that’s short-lived but beautiful—but I wonder if he was just looking around for inspiration and chose what happened to be closest to him as he was speaking: birds and wildflowers. He probably could have picked any number of organisms, some of which we still see in winter. 

Let’s get outdoors this winter and see what we can see. I like (or at least I want to like?) the Scandinavian saying, “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This might be more true some places than others. But in the Seattle area, it sounds about right. The weather rarely throws conditions our way that a few layers, a raincoat, an umbrella (to hell with umbrella shame!), and some gloves can’t handle. 

I think our souls need time outdoors—even if it’s a neighborhood walk or a visit to a local park more often than a hardcore hike. Even if I’m mostly just noticing plants in random people’s front yards in Normandy Park (seriously, does everyone garden there?) rather than truly wild wildflowers. There’s something to learn from it all.

  1. Pay attention to indigenous wisdom

What better way to learn from the wildflowers than to learn from the people and communities who have been learning from the wildflowers for years and centuries longer than I have?

I went to an art and holiday gift fair at the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center last week (very cool!), and I got to hear quite extensively from a mother-daughter duo who make all sorts of medicines and salves from Devil’s Club. Before that conversation, I had only known Devil’s Club as a “do not touch!” sort of thing. But apparently its roots and stem have healing qualities. 

Talk about learning from the wildflowers. Sometimes we only see one side of something (or someone), but there is so much more to it (or them) than that.

Indigenous communities often have so much wisdom about these things. We are surrounded by plants that might be able to help heal us if we knew where to look and what to do. 

Even beyond the realm of herbal medicine, plants have so much to teach us about, well, pretty much—to borrow a phrase from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy—life, the universe, and everything. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants:

“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out…Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”

Plants have been here longer than we have, and they’ve had time to figure things out. I like that. I’d also highly recommend Braiding Sweetgrass in general, if you haven’t encountered it yet. Kimmerer models learning from plants so brilliantly.

  1. Grow plants

Nothing makes me pay attention to plants like growing them does. Whether it’s a hanging basket with some flowers, a railing planter box with a few herbs, or a full-on garden, we learn so much from growing (or at least attempting to grow) plants. 

We learn their names, their seasons, their preferences. We get excited about each new leaf, each new bud that we hope will open into a flower (and maybe even become a fruit). We gain a deeper appreciation for each part of the plant that we get to eat. 

Growing vegetables helps me appreciate where my food comes from, and how long and arduous a process it often is. It has been kind of funny and kind of weird, in the last few weeks, to see sugar pie pumpkins selling for $2 each at the market…after I spent literally 5-7 months growing a handful of them at home. 

Anyhow, I know gardening is more accessible to some than others. But many of us can grow something, even if it’s just a basil plant indoors on the windowsill. And I think it can help us pay attention.

Not a wildflower, but kind of a cool fungus…what might we learn from it?
  1. Appreciate plants for who they are, not just how we might use them

I was walking with a friend in the woods recently (Paradise Valley Conservation Area in Woodinville, to be precise), and I appreciated that there were various signs along the trail, pointing out different kinds of plants. But I also noticed something about these signs. They were all about what people—mostly settlers, I think, not so much indigenous people—like to use these plants for. I felt the gorgeous alder trees being reduced to cabinetry before my eyes.

I found myself wishing there were also signs about the ecosystem, the interactions among plants and animals, the life cycle of the trees—or something, anything, about the plants around me that didn’t reduce these living beings to the ways humans have used and monetized them.

This may seem at odds with what I was saying about indigenous communities’ knowledge of healing uses for local plants like Devil’s Club. But I think there’s a difference between knowing and appreciating the gifts a plant has to offer, versus only seeing that plant as something to use—and often something to use to make a profit. It’s a different kind of relationship. And I think the difference is important.

I want to learn to appreciate plants for all of who they are, not just how they might be used.

  1. Look to plants as signs of how we’re doing

I recently saw this NPR article about some of the ways in which rising sea levels are impacting coastal communities in South Carolina. 

For one thing, I had no idea that there was a community of descendants of enslaved Africans who have a (badass computer scientist) queen. That’s cool. 

I also learned about ghost forests. Apparently, when sea levels rise and begin to flood into salt marsh areas (a la Where the Crawdads Sing), the salt water slowly kills the trees there, leaving chalky white dead tree skeletons behind. According to the article, this has been happening for a long time, but its pace has accelerated dramatically in recent years. 

Ghost tree forests are kind of alarming. They’re a strikingly visible sign of the damage that has been caused and will continue to be caused by rising sea levels.

And they’re another reason, I think, to learn from the wildflowers—to examine the plants around us and learn carefully from them.

Plants can help us know how we’re doing. If native plants that have thrived in a place for who-knows-how-long are being killed by salt water, or are otherwise not doing well, this is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It’s a sign that our relationship with the natural world around us has gone awry. It’s visible evidence of injustices that need to be righted so that we all can thrive—plants, animals, and humans alike. Learn from the wildflowers.

These are some of the things I think about, some of the ways I’m trying to hear Jesus’ words about learning from the wildflowers. It’s all a work in progress, for sure.

What does learn from the wildflowers mean to you? What does it look like in your life, in your community? I’d love to hear!

Who can add a cubit?

And who from among y’all, by worrying, is able to add one cubit to their stature? -Jesus (Matt 6:27, my translation)

Now that I’ve spent a minute reflecting on Jesus’ words about how worry (or at least the bad kind of worry) doesn’t add single hour to anyone’s span of life, I have a small monkey wrench to throw into the whole situation. The original Greek text doesn’t actually directly say anything about lifespans, or about time.

Instead, it uses a word often translated as “stature” or “maturity” (although it also could mean “age”), and a word that means “cubit,” which is a length of measurement around 18 inches. So, what Jesus literally says in Matthew 6:27 is less can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?—and more can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your stature?

I suggested in my post last week that there are productive kinds of concern, for ourselves and for our communities, that might add something to someone’s life—and that these are the kinds of concerns we want to direct our efforts toward, rather than spinning in circles of unproductive, immobilizing kinds of worry. I suggested asking ourselves, is it adding an hour to someone’s life?

I fully believe all that. And I think can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? is probably a reasonable idiomatic translation of Jesus’ actual words. At the same time, though, I think it’s also interesting to consider what Jesus’ words might imply if we translate them more literally. 

Can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your stature? In this case—assuming we’re talking about adults and not kids—the answer really is a firm “nope.” There are things we can do that might add an hour to someone’s life—but there really isn’t much we can do to add 18 inches to our height. 

Of course, many of us probably wouldn’t want to be a foot and a half taller, anyway. I’m about 5’6”, and I have no particular desire to be 7 feet tall. 

But there are other aspects of who I am that I sometimes wish I could change. 

Jesus’ question about adding a cubit to one’s stature helps me think about these things. There are so many aspects of who we are that we can’t change. Not just height, but other aspects of physical appearance as well. And not just physical appearance, but personality traits, gifts and passions, sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, cultural background—just to name a few.

As a swimmer, for example, I might wish I had bigger hands or feet so that I could swim faster, more easily. I don’t exactly want Michael Phelps’ size 14 feet or (totally bonkers) 6’ 7” wingspan—but maybe something a little more in that direction.

Or, as a slightly more serious example, I might wish I thought faster on my feet. Sometimes people associate this ability with intelligence—even though it really implies nothing of the sort.

We all have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. We all have an interest in some things and a lack of interest in others; preferences for some things over others; natural abilities toward some things, while other things we can perhaps learn over time but with difficulty.

Of course, some of these things are influenced by culture, society, family, upbringing. I’m not trying to say they’re purely genetic. At the same time, many of these childhood influences—the aspects of our surroundings that made us who we are—were out of our control. They’re things we can’t go back and change. They’re built into us, sometimes so surely it feels like they might as well be genetic.

I wonder what life would be like if we really knew that we can’t change the things that are core to who we are. And, really, if we found that we didn’t actually want to change these things.

I think of this quote from Black mental and emotional health advocate Yolo Akili: “Sometimes I wake up and have to remind myself: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ME. I have patterns to unlearn, new behaviors to embody, and wounds to heal. But there is nothing wrong with the core of me and who I am. I am unlearning generations of harm and remembering love. That takes time.”

I like how Akili puts it. There is nothing wrong with the core of who I am. There is room for growth and change—plenty of it. But there are also things I can’t change, and don’t want to. There is a basic beauty and wondrousness to who I am. As the psalmist puts it in the Hebrew scriptures, I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).

I don’t need Michael Phelps’ foot size or wingspan or unusually flexible ankles or any other of his physical characteristics that are uncannily well-attuned to moving quickly through the water. I can just enjoy swimming at whatever speed I’m able to swim at.

And I don’t need to impress people with how fast I can think on my feet. I can learn to appreciate that one of the gifts I bring to a group is a slower-paced thoughtfulness, wanting to consider as much information and as many angles as possible before weighing in with an opinion or making a decision. (For more on this, I liked Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.)

We can’t add a cubit to our height—and maybe we weren’t meant to. Maybe we weren’t meant to be taller or shorter, or more extraverted or introverted, or louder or quieter, or more quick-thinking or deliberative, or bolder or gentler, or more planning-oriented or spontaneous, or different in any other way from the way we are. Maybe we’re meant to be exactly as we are.

And our communities, whether or not they know it, need us to be exactly who we are. Our strengths fill in for one another’s weaknesses, and our communities need all of the different gifts each person brings.

We might not always be who others want us to be, or what they project onto us, or what they expect from us. We can’t please everybody. We are always “too [insert adjective here]” for somebody.

But in the end, as Jesus says, all our worries about these things can’t add a cubit to our height. We can learn to be considerate of others and attentive to our impact on a community, while also staying true to the core of who we are. We can, to borrow Akili’s words, unlearn the patterns we need to unlearn, embody the new behaviors we want to embody, and move toward healing the wounds we need to heal. And we can do all of this—maybe we can only do all of this—while knowing that there is nothing wrong with us. 

Like the birds and the wildflowers that Jesus goes on to talk about in the next couple of verses, we too have been created wonderfully and beautifully. We are unable to change—and, at our best, we are uninterested in changing—the way we were made to be.

Does this resonate? Hit a nerve? Do you wish you were a cubit taller, or had size 14 feet? Feel free to drop a note!

Is it adding an hour?

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? -Jesus (Matt 6:27)

I’m still teasing out all the random thoughts I had while preparing a sermon a couple months ago on Matthew 6:25-34, the passage where Jesus tells people not to worry and such. So, after some speculations about God as our heavenly mother, and some reflections on birds and value and climate change and hierarchies of species, maybe it isn’t terribly surprising that I find myself circling back to, well, worry.

Jesus asks, can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? To which the answer is meant to be, “nope, not really.” Or something like that.

What’s striking to me, though, is what Jesus’ question seems to imply about what worry is, and what worry is not. Or, what some good kinds of worry might be, and some not-so-good kinds. 

I think Jesus’ words about worry not adding a single hour to our span of life can help us understand—a little more clearly, a little more specifically—what he means when he says “do not worry.” Out of all the things we might think Jesus is telling us not to do, what is it that he is actually telling us not to do? 

Here’s one way of answering this question: Jesus is telling us not to engage in the kind of worry-ful activity that does not add a single hour to our span of life—or, I would add, to anyone else’s span of life.

I think there’s a difference between an unhealthy, unhelpful, un-life-giving, spinning-our-wheels kind of worry that doesn’t actually benefit anyone, versus a productive (or at least potentially productive) kind of worry that might actually help someone. This latter kind of worry is the type that might actually contribute to our own wellbeing, or someone else’s wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the community—that is, that might actually add an hour to someone’s life.

This feels important to me because I think it’s possible, for many of us, that we could hear Jesus say “do not worry,” and we walk away thinking, well, then, I’ll just go on my merry way as if there isn’t anything legitimately worrying, terrifying, awful, unjust, or otherwise deeply concerning in our world. As if it’s okay that a white dude can walk into a crowd of protestors, kill two of them, and be acquitted for it. As if it’s okay that a black dude was hours away from being executed for a crime he did not commit. 

(Don’t get me wrong—I’m thankful and relieved that Julius Jones’ death sentence was commuted; at the same time, he never should have been sentenced to death in the first place. And while we’re at it, can we get him out of prison for the crime he didn’t commit, and can we provide some semblance of restitution for the nineteen years he’s been unjustly imprisoned?)

I don’t think Jesus is telling people not to do anything about issues that we find concerning. I don’t think he’s saying “don’t worry about it” in the sense of “everything’s fine,” or “that doesn’t concern you,” or “it’s not your problem.”

Jesus was always concerning himself with other people’s business. He was always eating with people, talking with people, listening to people, paying attention to people no one else paid attention to, calling out leaders on their hypocrisy, touching oppressed people’s lives in healing and liberating ways. I don’t think he wants us to do any differently.

I also don’t think Jesus is telling people not to plan or prepare for the future. This feels important to me as someone who likes to plan—and who sometimes gets the impression that some Christians think things are more holy if they’re spontaneous, as if the Holy Spirit only works on a whim and not also through thoughtful preparation.

When Jesus says “do not worry,” I don’t think he’s necessarily against us making choices, making moves, exercising agency, hustling, working, strategizing, scraping together, making ends meet. These are the kinds of things, after all, that really can perhaps add an hour to someone’s lifespan—ours, or others’ in our communities. 

In a similar vein, I don’t think Jesus is saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves. I’m thinking of things like grocery shopping, cooking, supporting local restaurants, exercising, eating healthy foods, resting, playing, doing all the things that make room for us to flourish. These, too, are things that just might add an hour to our lifespans. And that is good.

Worry might be involved in some of these things. We might worry about the fate of a death row prisoner, and so we call or email the governor of Oklahoma to advocate for his sentence to be commuted. We might worry about someone else’s wellbeing, and so we text them or send them a card or bring them something they like to eat. We might worry about our own wellbeing, and so we decide to make a change, like walking more, or having a salad with that frozen pizza (a purely hypothetical example that has nothing to do with what my husband and I ate for dinner tonight). These are all good, productive things. 

Of course, when it comes to the length of a life, there are so many things we have little to no control over. But there are some things that just might add an hour. And there are other things that definitely don’t.

There’s a kind of worry that can motivate us to go and do something good. And there’s a kind of worry that can immobilize us—a kind of worry that does nothing to move toward justice, nothing to concern itself with others’ wellbeing, nothing to prepare for the future, nothing to take care of our own wellbeing. A kind of worry that doesn’t move toward health, wholeness, flourishing—that doesn’t strengthen us or strengthen our communities.

I think Jesus calls us—as much as we’re able, which is different for everyone—to let go of our immobilizing worries, and to take hold of a kind of healthy concern for ourselves and our communities. The kind of concern that moves us to do good. 

I think Jesus invites us to be people on the move—toward justice, peace, honesty, relationship, health, community. And maybe sometimes, by moving in these directions, we just might add an hour to someone’s life.