Grace overflows into us

In a lot of translations, Ephesians 1:7-8 reads something like this: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us” (NIV, emphasis added). 

When I was translating, I came up with this: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the sending-away of trespasses, according to the wealth of [God’s] grace which [God] abounded into us” (emphasis, again, added).

There are a few things I thought were interesting here.

First, “riches” vs “wealth”: it’s not a big difference, but for some reason I like the idea of God having a “wealth” of grace. Perhaps it has a different feel from “riches”―less of a pile of gold vibe, and more of a vast endless ocean vibe?

Or maybe I just liked it because I’ve heard the other translation before, and sometimes it’s nice to put things a little differently. It helps it feel fresh, and helps my brain not to fall asleep while reading.

Second, the word translated as “lavish”―περισσεύω―has to do with abounding, with overflowing. The sense is that the subject (in this case, God) is so rich―or has such an abundance of something―that it exceeds measurement. It overflows. 

Which is kind of gross if we’re talking about money―like a person hoarding lots and lots of money (going back to that piles of gold vibe)―but kind of awesome when we’re talking about grace. About goodwill, favor, joy.

What I really thought was interesting, though, is the idea that God’s grace overflows―God’s grace abounds―into us. 

I’m not quite sure why the connecting word εἰς tends to be translated in this verse as “on,” rather than its much more common use, “into.” But I like the thought that perhaps God abounds grace not just on us, but into us.

“Lavished on” kind of makes it sound like we’re just passive recipients in this interaction. Grace flows onto the outside of us, like a shower that washes away our sins. And then the grace keeps flowing…elsewhere. Maybe it goes back to God, or something.

I like the translation “overflowed into” because I like to think that, even though there is perhaps an aspect of God’s grace that washes over us like a cleansing shower, there is also an aspect of God’s grace that goes into us. Grace doesn’t just wash our sins away from the outside but enters in to actually change us, to make us (more) full of the kind of grace that God is full of.

The language “into” helps me think of God’s grace as something to internalize. Something that can become a part of who we are. Something to embrace and hold onto and make an integral part of the way we interact with other people and this world.

To make the difference between “lavished on” and “overflowed into” more concrete, let’s think about the scenario in which I, as a white person, realize that I have a racist thought or attitude, or that a co-worker said something racist and I didn’t speak up about it. 

Grace “lavished on” me, in this case, means that I can pray and be forgiven and I don’t have to feel guilty about these things anymore. And then I can go on with my life unchanged, not trying to make any of these wrongs right. I know God will keep lavishing grace on me as many times as I need it.

Grace overflowing into me, on the other hand, means that grace does not just absolve my guilty conscience but perhaps may also show me a better way of living.

Grace may enable me to begin to notice and root out these racist attitudes in myself.

Grace may help me have a more gracious and humble posture toward others so that I can drop my defensiveness and learn.

Grace may prod me to look for ways to right these wrongs where possible―maybe, for example, it’s not too late to have a conversation with the co-worker who said something racist.

Grace may empower me to speak up in the moment the next time a similar thing happens.

May God not just “lavish grace on” but also “abound grace into” our lives, churches, communities, and world. In this time of wider recognition of anti-Blackness among white and other non-Black communities, God knows we need this kind of grace: the kind of grace that doesn’t just make us feel better about ourselves, but that actually has the power to change us.

Predestination is not that interesting

Over the last couple years of studying Greek―three quarters at Fuller and then studying on my own since then―my vocabulary has reached the point where I know every word that is used at least ten times in the New Testament. 

So, when I translate, I tend to plug along until I come across a word or two I’m not familiar with, and then I hit up my old friend for help. Sometimes I translate merrily away on my own for several verses at a time (I see you, John―as far as New Testament authors go, he tends to be the easiest to read); sometimes there are several words within just one verse that I need to stop and look up (oh hello, Paul).

I share this just to give a bit of context for an observation that struck me recently as I translated the first chapter of the book of Ephesians. 

The observation is this: I was surprised to notice that I had to look up the meaning of the word προορίζω, often translated as “predestine.” As in, “in love [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5, NIV). 

(The “sonship” part doesn’t actually need to be gender-specific…but that’s another issue for another time. Thanks, NIV.)

I was surprised that I didn’t know the word―surprised that it’s used in the New Testament less than ten times (to be precise, it’s used a whopping total of six times)―because it’s kind of a crucial word in a lot of people’s theology. I wonder how much air time it gets in a lot of churches, seminaries, etc.―whether arguing for it or reacting against it―compared to how much it’s actually spoken of in Scripture.

In προορίζω’s six appearances in Scripture, the sense is that God has determined (at least some) things before they happen. Or, God has (at least in some cases) set some limits in place and holds what happens within those limits. Or that God, existing in eternity, not bound by the ways we think about time, has said that some things will or won’t happen, and that’s how it is.

This is a fairly innocuous way of putting it. I don’t think many people who believe in God would disagree with these things. It’s a fairly weak way of putting it, compared to what Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote about when he wrote about predestination, and what many churches staunchly believe today―but that’s the point. Why would we both speak of predestination more strongly than the apostle Paul does and put so much more emphasis on it than Paul does? 

Maybe this observation is just interesting to me because I’ve never been terribly interested in debating about predestination vs free will, or Calvinism vs Arminianism, or what have you. (I fit in really well in seminary…) 

It all seems like a lot of unnecessary distinctions, and perhaps sometimes an unwillingness to hold and honor the complexities and paradoxes of life as the complexities and paradoxes that they are.

So maybe I’m just reading my own biases and interests (or lack thereof) into the observation that προορίζω isn’t used very often in Scripture. But maybe it’s significant that the writers of the New Testament were perhaps not all that interested in it, either. 

Maybe Christians would be better off spending less time arguing about predestination and more time pursuing, with focus and urgency, the things the New Testament writers speak of many times more often―for example, justice (δικαιοσύνη, often translated righteousness, used 93 times) and peace (εἰρήνη, used 92 times). You know, the kind of words seminary students learn in first quarter Greek, because that’s how crucial they are to the message of God in the New Testament.

Here’s to getting more interested in the things the New Testament writers were interested in, and less interested in the things they found less interesting.

“White Blessings”

As Lecrae said in response to Louie Giglio’s ridiculousness, “This needs to be a time when [white evangelicals] listen and learn, and not a time when you’re leading” (see this Washington Post article about last week’s “white blessings” debacle if you need some context or aren’t sick of reading about it already).

Some thoughts, in poem form:

"White Blessings"

I don’t want to hear about “white blessings”
really, I don’t want to hear anything at all from

white male pastors who started thinking about race yesterday
and talk today like we should listen

they talk this way because people have always listened 
always looked to them as leaders

but they’re not the ones I want to follow
I don’t care about their vision and

I’d rather not keep watching them keep scrambling
keep backpedalling pathetically to try to not seem racist

throwing words against the wall to see what sticks
not one speck interested in changing the meaning of it all

and I don’t want to hear them say that black lives matter
while every inch of their theology screams otherwise

corroborated and condemned by the unbothered way they walk 
on through a world that opens every door for them and bows

and I don’t want to hear them talk about enslavement
as if they’re not quite sure whether to be thankful for it

and I don’t want to see them pretend that white people
can enter into conversations about race and be

anything but awkward or do anything but stumble through
so very much in need to listen and not lead

so very much in need of grace and real correction
the kind we might in fact receive 

if we admit how desperately we bumble
how short-sighted our vision, how unfit we are to lead

and empathy aside, I do not want to think that one
who claims spiritual leadership might actually believe

that we could take racism’s material rewards and
weigh them against the way it tears apart our souls

or wonder for a moment if white supremacy could be
in any world anything but a deal with the devil.

Shrub Roses

While I’ve been doing blackspot battle on several of our more traditional-looking rose plants, these lovely shrub roses snuck up on me and started going wild with gorgeous bright pink blooms.

Insert lesson about resilience here if you like, or about some of the most beautiful things in life being pure gift and out of our control…or just enjoy these pictures.

Solvitur Ambulando

My mom introduced me to this phrase recently, and I liked it (even though it’s not Greek), so I wrote a poem about it.

Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur ambulando
it is solved by walking

so we walked 
and walked 
and walked 
until we found
a better way.

We walked until the blood
that paved our streets
four hundred years
was made uncomfortably
visible to all
each inch
each step
as we walked over it

we walked with signs
we walked with covered faces
we walked with hands in hands

they met our walking 
with walls of police
in riot gear 

they could not stand
the way we walked
so tall 
so fearless
led by children

they could not stand 
us being fully human
not being fully 
under their control
and organized

they saw we walked 
so differently from them
they were afraid 
and angry

they sprayed tear gas 
shot their rubber bullets

but we kept walking.

We walked to capitols
to churches
to the white house where

he threatened us 
with vicious dogs
with fire hose and billy club
he conjured icons 
of another generation
still alive
to flash before our eyes
and try 
to hold us back in terror

but we kept walking.

We sang the songs 
of our foremothers 
and forefathers
the ones who walked
who struggled
in their time

we claim 
them with pride

and name the ones 
who took the other side
name and repent 
with full feeling
righteous action
this is how
we choose 
a different path.

We walked right to 
the river Justice

carried all our burdens
all our suffering
our tears
our unheard screams

we walked right into it
like birthright
like a baptism
like healing

we let its rolling waters 
roll on us.

Late to the Vineyard

Is your eye bad because I am good?

That’s a very literal translation of the second half of Matthew 20:15, which is often translated or are you envious because I am generous? (e.g. NIV, NRSV).

I’m thinking about this story, which Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1-16, about several different sets of workers who end up working in the vineyard of a particular landowner.

The landowner goes out early in the morning to hire people and agrees to pay them one denarius at the end of the day. Then the landowner goes out again several more times throughout the day and hires several more groups of people, who end up starting work at different times, some as late as 5 pm.

In the evening the landowner gathers everyone together to give them their wages, starting with the people who were last to begin work, and giving them, surprisingly, an entire denarius, even though they only did a couple hours of work. The people who worked all day then expect that they will receive more than the agreed-upon denarius; but when it comes their turn to get their paycheck, the landowner gives them just one denarius―the same as the people who didn’t work nearly as long.

The ones who started work early in the morning complain that it’s not fair, after they bore the burden of the day and the burning heat (literal translation from v. 12), but the landowner replies, friend, I do not do you wrong; did you not agree with me on a denarius? (literal translation from v. 13). The landowner says, I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish among what is mine? Or is your eye bad because I am good? (literal translation from v. 14-15).

I think about this parable, and I think about the remarkable moment we’re living in, as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained enormous waves of new momentum―particularly among white (and in some cases other non-Black) people who are finally waking up to the reality that all is not well in US race relations, finally gaining the will to try to do something about it.

The negative side of all this is that some people and organizations make statements, post on social media, attend protests, etc. for the main purpose of not appearing racist, of not seeming to be on the wrong side of history. They voice their support for BLM because it’s the popular thing to do in this moment but do not actually intend to change anything about their lives or their organizations to make them truly anti-racist, to make them truly just.

But on the positive side, I think―or at least I really want to think―that there really are new workers in the vineyard. In this moment there really are―on a vast, societal level―hordes and hordes of people who are finally letting their eyes be opened to the truths our Black siblings have been living and speaking about for a long, long time. There really are hordes and hordes of potential new partners in the struggle for a different kind of world, a world of equality and embrace rather than prejudice and exclusion, a world of true justice and true peace. 

People who are new to the vineyard are often not yet very good at their work. They make rookie mistakes. They have a lot to learn. Sometimes they do more harm than good.

I wish it were not this way―and yet such is the process of learning how to do a new kind of work, of learning how to work in different ways, of unlearning so many assumptions and ways of being. Such is the reality of arriving to the vineyard―beginning to engage in the work of justice and anti-racism―late in the day.

Speaking on behalf of the only people I can speak for, white people, part of engaging in the work of the vineyard is to be open to being corrected; to look for ways to figure out what we don’t know; to look for opportunities to learn, and to engage in those opportunities with open-mindedness and without defensiveness; to look for ways to follow the lead of people of color who have been doing this work for a long time―who have, truly, in their own lives and for too many generations of their ancestors’ lives, borne the burden of the day and the burning heat. It’s to honor this work that has already been happening for a long time and to find ways to join in, without needing to try to take the lead or needing to pretend that our own work is somehow equal to it.

It’s to look for resources that offer ways of listening and learning that don’t further burden our friends of color by expecting them to teach us. It’s to look for fellow white people who have been working in the vineyard longer than we have, to ask them the questions we worry are hurtful or ignorant or offensive, to work together to unlearn the racism that lives within us.

It’s to do the kinds of internal work René Velarde names so candidly and thoughtfully in his recent blog post, To my White brothers and sisters. We must ask ourselves, as René writes, what did it take for us to wake up to racial injustice and our own white privilege and begin to speak? What has kept us from speaking up and engaging before? If we dig into these things now, René says, we will be better equipped to stay engaged in the struggle for justice in the future. 

I realize that the parable of the vineyard is by no means a perfect analogy to the present moment, particularly in regard to the image of people standing around doing nothing before the landowner invites them into the work. For white people in the US, I’m not sure there is any way of standing around and doing nothing. If we haven’t been actively working against racism, we have been perpetuating it. It’s the current that we swim in and the air we breathe, and we either fight it or are swept along with it―to the detriment of people of color and to our own humanity as well. There isn’t a lot of neutral ground.

But parables aren’t meant to be allegories, where everything lines up perfectly and represents something else. They’re meant to evoke something. To provoke thought. To challenge us and help us see differently, see more clearly. And in this case I think the story of the vineyard evokes some important reflection on what it might mean for long-standing justice movements to suddenly encounter so many new people who want to jump in.

My hope is that―as lots of us begin the work of racial justice for the first time and desire to work alongside those who have been engaging in the struggle for a long time―there is room for all of us, in the different places we are in in our journeys. 

I don’t think there is room in the vineyard for people who are pretending to work, who want to hang out there because it’s the cool thing to do or because it’s a way to avoid being criticized for standing around doing nothing. I don’t think there is room for people who are in the vineyard because they want to take selfies there and post them on Facebook. 

But I want to believe that there is room for all those willing to work, those willing to learn, to try, to be humbled, to make mistakes and grow and keep engaging. Even if, from the perspective of those who have been working since the early morning, they are woefully, horribly late to the party. 

For those who believe in the God Jesus speaks of―the initiator, inspirer, and rewarder of all works of justice―this God is the vineyard owner: offensively full of grace, unimaginably patient, extravagantly welcoming. May those of us who have been working in the vineyard longer than the last couple of hours have eyes that are discerning to see the people who really do genuinely want to join the work, and hearts that are open to welcome them in. 

This vineyard needs all the workers it can get.

Poker, Prodder

Keeping with the theme of the recent Christian celebration of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, juxtaposed with this reality we find ourselves in:

Poker, Prodder

Holy Spirit,
poker, prodder, 
discomforter of unjust 
horror-filled structures and
disquieter of all who profit from them,
table-turner of the wrongly weighted scales that
weigh color and find darkness wanting,

Holy Spirit,
hover in our chaos,
bring state-sanctioned 
violence done in darkness 
into holy light, reveal realities 
our social training tries to obfuscate and 
does not give up easily,

Holy Spirit,
help us not to settle 
for cheap frauds that wear 
peace as a front and pull us back 
into old orders, twisted, sunken orders, 
schemes of whiteness dealing death and tears 
under the name of unity,

Holy Spirit,
come and move, 
not just our chaos into 
order but our death to life, 
the way you do, and if we cannot see 
that this is what we need, please come and help us 
look more closely.

Kimberly Latrice Jones’ video, black anger, and white discomfort

This video by black author and activist Kimberly Latrice Jones has been making the rounds on the interwebs. It’s entitled “How can we win?”, and it’s worth watching.

I’m sure white people are saying all sorts of things about it, and it probably doesn’t need any more white person commentary.

On the other hand, if I can help fellow white people see this video and learn from Jones’ perspective, that seems like a good thing. 

So here are some thoughts―about black rage, and white discomfort, and what building a healthier kind of community together actually entails.

Jones expresses her anger, and there is a part of me that feels uncomfortable with that. There is a part of me that asks the questions white people often tend to ask: is this the most helpful and effective way for Jones to express the ideas she wants to express? Wouldn’t she be better off making her language and tone more palatable to white people, so that we would feel less attacked and defensive and be more open to listening to her? 

I realize that the fact that these sorts of questions form in my mind exposes in me the stubbornness of my tendency as a white person to center my own experience―which is a big part of what white supremacy is in the first place. 

Black people are systematically targeted, humiliated, terrorized, and killed by state-sanctioned violence. There’s clearly something very wrong here if I’m more concerned about white people’s feelings of discomfort when black people speak up about these death-dealing systems than I am about the death-dealing systems themselves. I realize there are things I need to reflect on here, and things I would invite fellow white people to reflect on as well.

I also realize that the bigger-picture goal in all of this, as far as I see things, is Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of beloved community, the kinship of all humankind. 

For those who put stake in the Christian scriptures, the end goal is the vision of Revelation 7:9, where people of all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages come together before God as equals, honored and received by God in the specificity of their ethnicities, cultures, and experiences.

In light of these kinds of visions of loving, multiethnic community, it feels worth saying that the community that would rather appear to be at peace than actually be at peace is a sham community. The community in which some people consistently inflict gaping wounds on others and then tell the wounded to speak more nicely about these wounds so that the inflictors will not feel uncomfortable is no community at all.

In the kind of community that I long for―on every level, from church, to city, to region, to nation, to world―no one is willing to settle for the kind of false peace that depends on some people keeping silent about the wrongs being done to them. No one is interested in coercing anyone else into downplaying or minimizing the things that keep them up at night and make them angry every day.

Injustices are addressed honestly and openly, not swept under the rug to keep some people comfortable. Angry voices speak up and are heard, because this kind of honesty is the only way to healing; because everybody recognizes that people on the receiving end of injustice are the ones best equipped to speak about it, to see it clearly, to name it for what it is. 

In the kind of community I want to be a part of, anger itself is seen as a normal, legitimate, important human emotion. It is something to pay attention to―both in ourselves and in others―as a sign that all is not how it should be, an invitation to reflect more deeply and to be open to change. It may be uncomfortable, but it is also crucial.

I do not want to be part of a community that is not willing to see, embrace, and receive all of who I am―my full, authentic self, including my sorrow, anger, and rage. And I do not want to be part of a community that does not offer this same seeing, embracing, and receiving to others, especially those who are hurting most, who have been most abused and terrorized.

The point is not for myself or other white people to feel comfortable. It’s to learn to see injustices that we have been blind to, and to learn to long for justice. It’s to learn how to build more equitable and healthy communities together. I am grateful for the gift of Kimberly Latrice Jones’ words as part of this process.

Kitchen in the Clouds

This past Sunday Christians around the world celebrated Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit to dwell with and in human beings, as recounted in Acts 2.

In the context of all of the recent and ongoing uprisings across the US – and with thanks to my pastor Lina Thompson for teaching that the Holy Spirit is the spirit who moves toward justice – this is how I’m imagining the Holy Spirit these days:

Kitchen in the Clouds

In her kitchen in the clouds
she cooks a feast, 
mise en place,
she takes cutting boards 

and places on them 
every form of dominance, 
chops heaping bowls of
white supremacy, of

patriarchy, homophobia,
chef’s knife in hand, 
decisive, she chops 
loudly and does not hold back.

With expert touch she cuts 
police brutality, slices 
corrupt healthcare systems,
then takes racist rhetoric

and throws it on the fire
where it will burn and burn
and burn. She takes it all 
and fries it up, destroyed, 

burned up, turned into
something new,
she serves justice on a platter.

Her touch is power, 
all the power to all the people, 
her stove’s sparks illumine truth
and invite all to draw near:

she takes and throws 
upon the open flame 
indifference to black life,
callousness toward immigrants,

sticks skewers through misogyny
and grills it up.
She soaks love for hours 
like beans until it swells 

and softens and is ripe to eat.
Then she sets the table 
for her feast, no seats 
of honor, all are equals, 

so much room for all
who hunger for a place
of many mountains fallen down.

In her kitchen in the clouds
she stops and hovers, 
waiting, unsure who will come
to share in what she cooks,

the table set, 
the feast all served.
The guests begin
to straggle in:

the weary, haggard, 
lonely, scarred,
the prophets and the protesters,
the ones contending 

for a better world
and not content,
the desperate ones,
the angry ones,

the migrants and the refugees,
the lovers and the fighters,
the ones imprisoned and detained,
the ones cut down before their time.

For all who stomach what she cooks
this meal is peace at long,
long last.

It Fell

Inspired by the New Testament book of Revelation and its images of fallen empires, which the author referred to as “Babylon” so as not to attract unwanted attention from the state of Rome.

See Revelation chapters 14 (v. 8) and 18 (v. 2), for example. I was intrigued by reading in Greek and realizing that a literal translation of what I’m used to reading as “fallen” (NIV, NASB, NRSV, etc.) might be something more like “it fell.”

The “unclean image” bit refers to the image of the wild beast, introduced in Revelation 13:11-18 and then referred to often throughout the rest of the book (spoiler: it’s not good to worship it).

I write in hope that, as protests bring greater exposure to anti-Blackness in systems and make it harder for non-Black people to ignore these things, those interested in doing away with oppressive structures and/or removing ourselves from them may do so; hope that we may find new, more equitable, more life-giving ways to live together as a human community.

It Fell

It fell! It fell! Great city Babylon,
its kings still crying make us great!
we are great! keep us great!
no one is greater than we are!―
as cracks snake through foundations
gaining speed and
mortar crumbles.

Eyes taken out, 
the kings are last to see
how public their humiliation 
in the whole world’s view,
last to admit that they themselves
lie wrecked in streets, 
in hospital beds. 

Let us resist their noisy clamor
for a normal that was never good, 
for lies of greatness bought 
at far too high a cost;

let us learn instead to reach a hand 
and pick each other up
amidst the ashes of the empire,

to pluck each other from 
the empire’s exposed bowels
like an unclean image
propped for far too long
on borrowed time.

We make the city’s ruined walls
our planter beds
and grow new gardens, 
learn to know our neighbors, 
learn to see each other,
learn to own and share our power,
pool our resources, buy locally, 
resist the urge to hoard;

in the fragments of the city
we rise up, find rest,
birthe fragile new