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.

More valuable, or just different?

This little cutie pie was chillin in our tree a few months back and let me take her picture

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? -Jesus (Matt 6:26, NIV)

I was surprised to find, while reading Matthew 6:26 in its original Greek, that the word translated as “more valuable” (NIV)—or “of more value” (NRSV), or “more important” (NASB)—is one that I was taught simply meant “differ.” We might read Jesus’ question as: Are you not, rather, different from them? 

I thought this was interesting. But I also remembered that there’s also another passage where Jesus says we’re more valuable than many sparrows. I thought, maybe the Greek is more clear in that passage—which might suggest that this one should be translated as it usually is. 

So I looked the other passage up. It’s Matthew 10:31: So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (NIV). It turns out, though, that here too the word translated as “worth more” is the same word used in Matt 6:26—the one that could be translated not as “worth more” or “more valuable” but just as “different.” 

Same thing with the similar stuff Jesus says in Matt 12:12 (How much more valuable is a person than a sheep?), Luke 12:7 (Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows), and Luke 12:24 (And how much more valuable are you than birds?). It’s all the same Greek word.

I’m not saying there aren’t potentially some good reasons to translate this word as “more valuable.” But does seem interesting that it could be just “different.”

I think about the idea that humans are “more valuable” than birds or sheep or other creatures, and I wonder if it plays into the global climate crisis we’re in—that is, into the damaging mindset that has gotten us here. I wonder if it isn’t terribly helpful to keep thinking of the world as a hierarchy of species, where humans are more valuable than other creatures—to keep thinking of humans as if we are separate from the rest of the created world, as if we are better, as if we are free to do whatever we want without considering its impact on other species and on the land.

Yes, humans are valuable. And so are birds. And so are wildflowers, and so is every other aspect of the natural world that surrounds us. And the reality is that we are all dependent on one another. We all flourish together, or none of us flourishes. 

Humans are different from birds; we are different from every other species, just as each of these species is different from one another. But we aren’t part of a special privileged class of species that isn’t affected by the earth’s sickness. We are affected—especially the materially poor among us, and especially communities of color.

I think about the biblical creation story. I used to think God only declared creation “very good” after God made humans (Gen 1:31), which meant that humans were especially awesome. Now I see that when God declared creation “very good,” God wasn’t just talking about humans. God was speaking of the whole world and all its beings as a collective whole—not just humans, but also plants, animals, sun, moon, stars, water, land. A unified, interconnected, interdependent whole. This is what was—and is—“very good” indeed.

God is the creator and the good caretaker of the birds, and the waters, and the plants, and the humans—of all God has made. All of these creations are gloriously unique, each different from the other. Does one have to be called “more valuable” than another?

Each species has different needs, different gifts, different challenges, different kinds of goodness and beauty to offer. God sees and honors all of it. God feeds the birds and God feeds the humans, in the different ways we need to be fed, the different things we hunger for.

Certainly humans have different needs from those of the birds. But is one better, or worse? Worth more, or less? It seems like a bit of a human impulse to label things in this way—and perhaps especially the impulse of a certain kind of human who has lost a sense of connection with the natural world.

But we are not disconnected from the natural world. Living as if we were has brought us to the precipice of a terrifying new era of natural disaster. There may still be ways to walk back from this precipice—but we’ll need to make some deep changes to our ways of thinking, our ways of being, our ways of relating.

Maybe we can start with rethinking the hierarchies we’ve created among species. We can learn to see humans as an interdependent part of the natural world, not separate from or better than the rest of it. We can learn to see ourselves as different from birds, but not necessarily more valuable.

And maybe, in so doing, we can learn to see the God who loves and longs to take care of us all—of the whole “very good” creation God has made.

Y’all’s heavenly…mother?

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. -Jesus (Matthew 6:26, NRSV)

Or, in my translation: “Y’all, look at the birds of heaven, because they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and y’all’s heavenly father feeds them.”

The “birds of heaven” thing might sound weird. But the word usually translated as “air” when it comes to the “birds of the air” is very closely related to the word translated as “heavenly” when it comes to God, the heavenly father. 

So I’m not sure which is weirder: writing “birds of heaven,” or translating the same word two different ways within the same sentence.

Alternatively, since this word for “air” or “heaven” could also be translated as “sky,” perhaps we’re talking about the “birds of the sky” (makes sense)…and God the “sky father” (atypical of Christian language). I’ll just leave that there. 

Anyhow, since we’re talking about God our heavenly (or sky?) father, let’s talk about what this father God does, according to Jesus: God is the one who feeds the birds. 

As Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Mount, he wants his listeners to know that they have a God who pays attention to the birds, a God who takes care of the birds—and, to be specific, a God who provides food for these birds.

I think it’s interesting to think about God as one who feeds. 

The God of the Bible has both masculine and feminine aspects—or something like that. It’s clear, at least, that both male and female humans were made in God’s image (Gen 1:27). 

But when you try to get into any sort of specifics about what those masculine and feminine aspects might be, it starts to get kind of dicey, kind of fast. It’s hard to talk specifics without wandering haplessly into the realm of gender essentialism—the idea that men always have one set of characteristics and women always have another. I’m not about that. 

So I guess I’m not really into descriptions of God that try to specify which aspects of God, exactly, are more masculine, and which are more feminine. I think the concepts of masculine and feminine are culturally determined; they’re defined very differently by different communities in different places and times.

At the same time, I recognize that, in most times and places and cultures, the work of food preparation—of cooking and serving food to families and communities—has tended to fall primarily to women. I think about this, when I think about God feeding the birds.

It strikes me that, while Jesus does use the word “father” to refer to God, really, his point is not particularly to masculinize God. His point is to put words to the kind of parent/child relationship he has with God: Jesus is a child of God, family of God, kin of God. Jesus is as intimately connected with God as a child to a parent. 

I don’t mind picturing God as an awesome (heavenly) father figure who loves to cook up meals of seeds and worms and such—generously offering food for his family, the birds, to eat.

On the other hand, I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Jesus that the women in his world were usually the ones responsible for meal prep. Could God, then, be a (heavenly) mother figure just as much as a heavenly father—cooking up delicious meals for her family, the birds, to enjoy?

I feel like this adds some texture to the image—a different angle, and a little more fullness. We can picture God as an awesome (heavenly) mother figure who loves to provide nourishing meals for her (avian) family. God is doing “women’s work” here; why not imagine God as feminine? 

I wonder what insights, thoughts, or feelings this kind of image might evoke. How might it help us relate more fully, more wholeheartedly, to the fullness of who God is? How might it change our view of the God who is Jesus’ heavenly parent, and ours—of the one who takes care of the birds, the one Jesus invites us to trust for our own care and nourishment?

I wonder how spiritual life is different when we remember that God is as feminine as God is masculine. I wonder what this might mean for women—and for people of all genders, and for churches as a whole. Maybe we’d picture God differently; maybe we’d picture God a little more fully.

Thoughts? Feelings? Accusations of heresy? I’d love to hear!

Worry can be good?

When I was studying Matthew 6:25-34 to preach on it (see the post below for the full passage…and mini-sermon), I looked up the Greek word translated as “worry.” I wanted to see where else this word is used in the New Testament. I was surprised to find that it can be used in a positive way.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul likens church communities to human bodies, full of different parts that all function together as one complete, hopefully-healthy organism. At one point, while fleshing out (pun intended) this metaphor, Paul writes, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor 12:24-25, NIV). 

The word translated as “concern” in this passage is the same word translated as “worry” in Matthew 6. That last part of 1 Cor 12:25, literally translated, could read something like this: “the parts should be the same worried on behalf of one another”—or, slightly more natural-sounding, “the parts should be equally worried for one another.” Paul wants the different parts of body—that is, the unique and diverse set of humans who make up the faith community—to be worried about one another.

In another of his letters, Paul writes—this time to the Phillippian faith community—that he hopes to send Timothy their way soon for an encouraging visit. And Paul wants them to know that Timothy is hella dope (as the kids these days might say). He says of Timothy, “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare” (Phil 2:20). 

As you may have guessed, this word translated as “concern” here is also the same one that means “worry.” Timothy worries about the Philippian Christians’ welfare. And Paul considers this a praiseworthy thing.

It’s easy to say that worry is bad, that people of faith should not have worry in our lives. If we trusted God more, we wouldn’t worry.

At the same time, though, as people of faith, our first—maybe only?—job is to love God and love people. We want to love others, to care about one another as humans, to be concerned for one another. And when we care about one another, sometimes we worry about one another’s wellbeing. I think that’s all okay. That’s all good. 

When we hear Jesus say, then, in Matthew 6:25, “do not worry,” it seems important to remember that the sentence doesn’t stop there. Jesus doesn’t just say “do not worry,” period, with no context around the instruction. Rather, he goes on to say, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” 

It isn’t a general, across-the-board, “worry is bad; let’s get rid of it.” Jesus doesn’t guilt-trip worriers—which would really just give them another thing to worry about: that all their worry isn’t pleasing to God.

Instead, I think, God offers a hope of redirecting our worries. God offers a hope of being part of communities where all our needs are provided for, because we’re all sharing what we have with one another as we’re able. 

Perhaps if we were all equally worried for one another (as Paul puts it in 1 Cor 12)—or if we all had as much genuine worry for one another’s welfare as Timothy did for the Philippians (from Phil 2:20)—then, truly, none of us would need to worry about our own clothing, or food, or where these things will come from. These things would be provided for in the context of a community full of mutual concern.

Maybe worry isn’t always bad. Maybe worry can be good—when we’re worried on behalf of one another, looking out for one another in community, sharing our concerns and our joys with one another, genuinely caring for one another. 

Have you seen worry be a good thing? Other thoughts or quibbles? Holler in the comments!

Learn from the wildflowers: a mini-sermon on Matthew 6:25-34

Wildflowers from last week’s trip to Maine.

Thankful for the opportunity to give another short sermon at Lake B a couple weeks ago. I’m always glad to have opportunities to preach – but really I’m mostly grateful to have been pushed to think a lot about this text.

Matthew 6:25-34 was actually one of the texts that I came up with as part of a group brainstorming session around a sermon series on uncertainty. I wanted to hear someone wrestle with Jesus’ words. How dare Jesus tell people not to worry – in the midst of all the brutality and poverty and Roman occupation and violence of their day? And what might this passage possibly have to say to us, in our own time of brutality and mind-blowing wealth inequality and oppressive governments and violence?

I wanted to hear someone wrestle with it – but I didn’t really want that person to be me. But here we are!

Thankfully, this is another one of those group sermons in which three people reflect on the same passage. I’m so glad to have Michelle Lang-Raymond and Paul Kim as awesome partners in the conversation. Check out the service here, if you like; the three sermons start around 19:49.

Anyhow, here’s the text, and then the sermon. Feel free to holler with all your worries – okay, fine, maybe all your thoughts about worry? – in the comments. (I also had so many random thoughts while studying this passage that I’ll probably be posting more reflections on it over the next few weeks, so…you’ve been warned.)

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 

26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 

28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” -Jesus (Matt 6:25-34, NRSV)

Jesus says, “do not worry.” Awesome! I hear that, and I immediately stop worrying about all the things I’m worried about. I’m done with worry, forever. Sermon over.

Just kidding. For most of us, I think, it’s not that easy. But this is how scripture passages like ours this morning in Matthew 6 can come across, sometimes. 

There’s a more recent-ish name for this sort of thing: toxic positivity. When people say things like, “don’t worry”; “don’t be so negative”; “think happy thoughts”; “look on the bright side”; “everything happens for a reason”; or, my favorite, “well, it could be worse…”

People call this toxic positivity because these kinds of statements tend not to be actually helpful for people who are going through difficult things. Life is difficult, and many of us have real worries – worries that don’t just magically go away if someone tells us not to worry. Even if that someone is Jesus.

So, if Jesus isn’t just dispensing toxic positivity here, what is he doing? How is this scripture good news?

I think part of the answer involves whom these words are for. 

Jesus’ words here are part of his Sermon on the Mount. Just a few moments earlier, in this sermon, Jesus said, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be” (Matt 6:19-21).

And then, right before our “do not worry” passage, Jesus says, “you can’t serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24).

Jesus isn’t just saying “don’t worry” in general. He’s speaking to a particular kind of worry, here: worry about not having enough material stuff. What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?

He’s speaking about material stuff, and he’s speaking to a particular group of people: people who have enough stuff that it’s easy to want to store it all up, to want to gain more and more of it so they can stockpile the extra – storing up treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy.

I don’t think Jesus is speaking here to people who are struggling to pay rent or utilities bills, or to buy groceries. He isn’t telling these people “just don’t worry!” – at least not without also doing something to take care of their needs. 

I think Jesus is mostly speaking here to those who have plenty, but who still worry. As we tend to do. After all, everything in our society is geared toward this kind of continued, ongoing, chronic worry. Everything in the systems we live in tells us: Don’t be content with what you have. You need more. Look, that person has more. Don’t you want what they have? Keep working longer and harder to get more. Don’t complain or question the system. Keep storing, keep stockpiling. Keep accumulating. Never be content.

This is the fuel our society runs on. And it’s also killing us.

When people who have bought into this system take a step back, and begin to follow Jesus into a life not so focused on storing up material stuff, these people are freed to live bigger, fuller, more interesting and beautiful lives. As Jesus says, life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 

It’s not only that, though. The other thing that also happens, when people who have more than enough learn not to worry and stockpile, is that their extra resources are freed up. Their resources are no longer hoarded for themselves alone but are freed up to be shared with their community. 

And, in this way, the whole community begins to find that their needs are met. The whole community begins to find that – in reality, not just in a toxic positivity kind of way – no one needs to worry about not having enough material stuff.

All this not worrying, of course, is easier said than done. How do we make this transition, from stockpiling for ourselves to sharing generously with others? This can apply to anything we have, really – whether that’s money, food, or clothing, or gifts, skills, or insights, or a listening ear, or whatever it may be. Everyone has something to offer.

How do we learn to live in this not-worrying, interconnected, generously sharing, giving and receiving, mutually thriving kind of way? 

Jesus says, look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field – lilies, which could also be translated as wildflowers. 

Living beings like birds and wildflowers are exactly the kinds of things we tend to ignore when we’re focused on striving to build up wealth beyond what we need. Birds and wildflowers are the kinds of things we tend to overlook and undervalue while we’re busy running around in circles on the capitalist hamster wheel. 

Jesus sees the birds and the wildflowers, and he invites us to see them, too. 

When Jesus says “consider the lilies,” or “see the lilies,” in our translations, that’s actually a pretty strong word in the Greek. It could be translated as “examine carefully,” “observe well,” or “learn thoroughly.” Jesus says: Examine the wildflowers carefully. Learn thoroughly from them. 

Jesus invites us to consider: what might these wildflowers have to teach us – the ones who don’t toil or spin and yet are clothed so beautifully? What can we learn about value? About trust? About connectedness with the living beings around us? About worth, and worthiness? About beauty? What can we learn about growth? About how to live as part of the natural world? About how to live sustainably?

Spending time in nature often tends to bring a sense of peace – reminding us of beauty and wonder, of a world bigger than our worries. I think Jesus knows this as he invites us to consider the birds and the wildflowers. 

And I think Jesus also means to redirect our attention from the places it often tends to go. Jesus helps us sit at the feet of different teachers from the people people in our society tend to listen to. He invites us to learn – to learn thoroughly – from the natural world, to let the birds and wildflowers teach us how we might live.

In the midst of devastating climate change, I think Jesus invites us to stop living as if we aren’t dependent on the health of the earth, as if we aren’t impacted by the earth’s sickness – that is, by the sickness humans and our profit-obsessed systems have caused, through all of our competitive striving, through our obsessions with stockpiling money, no matter what the cost.

Jesus knows there are real, legitimate things to worry about. He says, toward the end of our passage: tomorrow will bring worries of its own. 

And he also says this: today’s trouble is enough for today. He says, in effect, be present in this moment. Be present with today’s troubles. Don’t turn away from today’s suffering – in our world, in our communities, in the lives of those we love, in our own lives. Be present, today. 

And Jesus also says this: seek first the kingdom of God. He says, in effect, I’m building a different kind of kingdom. In this kingdom, you don’t have to keep striving for more. In this kingdom, we look to the birds and the wildflowers to teach us how to live. In this kingdom, we don’t stockpile but we share – and as everyone shares, everyone has enough. 

Jesus invites us to join him in this kind of kingdom – in this kingdom of peace, this kingdom of sharing, this kingdom of justice.

Super chill book review: Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Julie Rodgers)

First, I’d just like to take credit real quick(-ish) for the fact that the King County Library System now has Julie Rodgers’ memoir Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story in their system. Woohoo! This is the first book I’ve requested that the library actually purchased, so it was a very exciting moment for me. 

Also, not only did the library purchase Outlove, but they purchased a whopping FOUR copies of it—and now there are no less than ten holds on those four copies! (Okay, fine, I suppose it’s possible that some of those other people who now have holds on the book also requested that the library buy it…so maybe it wasn’t just me. But I can still take credit.)

Anyhow, I tore through Outlove. Like, in a good way. It was hard to put down. I found Rodgers’ story riveting. 

Her story of coming of age as a queer evangelical Christian is a difficult one, but super important—and also, at least to me, in many ways redemptive. I’m grateful for her willingness to share her journey.

A few random thoughts:

1) Outlove is a story about Rodgers’ experience of youth and young adulthood as a gay person, specifically, in (evangelical) Christian contexts. And it’s also about more than that.

I was struck by how much of her reflection and critique applies to conservative evangelical Christianity more generally—her story is specific to her queerness, but there was also so much I could relate to from being part of the same systems. 

I think anyone who has experienced a significant shift in belief system—particularly a shift away from what Rodgers would call more fundamentalist types of Christianity—would relate to a ton of this book. (Not that reading an awesome memoir from a thoughtful queer person of faith shouldn’t be enough reason to read!)

Rodgers writes, for example, “Fundamentalism was a coherent system that dictated my life to me: it told me who I was and how I was to live, every moment of every day. It gave me a rulebook that laid out a path for me to be objectively good. When one part of the system was called into question, it brought up a series of related questions that threatened to bring the whole house down. The foundation upon which my life and identity were built began to shake, and I couldn’t cope with the thought that the whole house—everything I believed to be true and all the relationships that held me together—might come crashing down” (p. 55).

Yup, pretty much. You start to pull at one thread that doesn’t seem quite right, and before you know it, the whole thing starts unraveling. 

Or, alternatively, you poke with curiosity at an interesting-looking piece of rock, and end up waking a very large sleeping troll that then lunges right at you with all of its terrifying weight—when you had reasonably thought it was just a mound of boulders and you were safe. (I just made that analogy up. You’re welcome?)

There’s something appealing about feeling like you have all the answers to everything. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. For any of us. And probably especially for those of us who tend to think we have all the answers to everything.

I think there’s something beautiful in the mystery of not knowing things—of having to figure things out, together, in community, with the humility that should probably come with being human. But it’s difficult, too. Especially when you’ve been steeped in a belief system that tells you you’re supposed to know things. (And that this knowing things is what makes it a good belief system in the first place—better than all the other belief systems out there. You know, the mindset that we have the answers to everyone’s questions about all the things; we have the whole grasp on the truth that everyone needs.)

2) I hope this next quote isn’t too much of a spoiler. But I guess it isn’t exactly a secret that, when Rodgers was in her tweens and twenties, she was a key spokesperson for gay conversion groups (the kind that try to make gay people straight), including the now-defunct Exodus International. And it also isn’t a secret that she no longer thinks these kinds of groups are a fantastic idea. 

This is how she reflects on some of these experiences:

“The final Exodus conference took place exactly ten years after my first one. For the first half of my time in ex-gay ministry, I would say I was a true believer in the process. The second half was a long quest to escape. First, I tried to run away and then dragged myself back like a scared child returning to an abusive home. For the last couple of years, I fought for freedom for myself and my friends by trying to change the organization from within.

I was, at times, manipulated. At other points, complicit. And in the end, I was brave. It’s tempting to try to squeeze my years in conversion therapy into one of those categories. It would help me locate myself on the spectrum of good and evil. But life isn’t always that tidy. Many of us find ourselves, at various points, a victim, a villain, and a champion.

I’m learning to have compassion for my younger self―not just the sixteen-year-old who knew she had no good options but also the twenty-four-year-old who kept smiling for the cameras, despite her misgivings. This compassion for all the different versions of myself opens me up to have mercy on those I place squarely in the evil category today. Perhaps they’re also victims of a system they have not yet seen for what it truly is. It’s not too late for any of us to change” (p. 82).

I appreciated Rodgers’ resistance to a single narrative of this complicated time in her life. Sometimes manipulated, sometimes complicit, sometimes brave—this feels like it kind of sums up many well-intentioned people’s involvement in manipulative, controlling, and otherwise shitty systems. (Hopefully moving more toward the “brave” part as time goes on; and hopefully, as Rodgers eventually did, getting out when needed.)

Also, Rodgers is SO GRACIOUS. After everything she’s been through in the conservative evangelical world. Compassion for our younger selves, as well as compassion for people doing evil things today—which doesn’t excuse the evil things but does recognize the complicated humans behind them—these strike me as things to aspire to.

3. Rodgers writes, “I wanted someone to acknowledge how shitty it was for people to debate about LGBTQ people as if it were a sport” (p. 124). 

Right?? 

It’s easy to sit around and debate about things that don’t directly impact your life. But I guess I know—you know, mostly from sitting through far too many debates about women in ministry—that, when the thing being debated impacts your life (like, a lot), it’s not a sport. And nothing that impacts anyone else like that should be a sport either.

What is this, anyway—the idea that we can tear literal life-and-death questions out of their embodied context and toss them up in the air to be batted around for fun like beach balls? (I just thought of that metaphor, too. Must be on a roll. Like a beach ball? Sorry.) But really. Nothing good comes from pretending that there’s this purely intellectual realm that can be divorced from actual people’s actual lives.

4. Having heard a few “slippery slope” arguments in my day, I appreciate these reflections:

“The problem with the ‘slippery slope’ analogy is that it implies we’re at the top of the mountain. My friend Peter Choi, a historian and pastor, notes that the analogy assumes we have the truth, the moral high ground, and that any shift toward a different perspective is downward movement. The metaphor doesn’t leave much room for humility, where we consider the possibility that people with different perspectives might be right about some things and we might be wrong or that we might both be a little right, in different ways. I needed a framework that accounted for the ways we might be wrong, especially after bearing witness to the suffering queer people experienced in Christian communities” (p. 127).

When I interned with Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), I attended an FYI-hosted conference for megachurch leaders who wanted to do better in youth ministry. One of the speakers, a Fuller professor, stood up in front of all of them and said something like this: “Have you ever changed your mind? About anything, ever? If so, that means that you were wrong about something, at some point. Do you think it’s possible, then, that you might change your mind again in the future? And that this means that something you believe now is wrong?”

I could see the wheels turning and the minds in the room being blown. It was fascinating. And terrifying. To be fair, I didn’t know these Big and Important Megachurch Pastors personally, so maybe I shouldn’t read too much into their nonverbal reactions to this professor’s words. But it really did feel like many of them were just considering for the first time that *gasp* they might currently be wrong about something. Yikes.

I like what Rodgers writes about considering the possibility that you and someone you disagree with might “both be a little right, in different ways.” It’s not always just that someone’s right and someone’s wrong (and we could be either of those people at any given moment!), but also that we all know some things, and we all have some things to learn from one another.

(Thus, community! Ideally, community with people who are different from us in a variety of ways.)

5. Rodgers reflects, “I was seen as one of a handful of unicorn gays who would parrot conservative views and shield them from accusations of homophobia. When Gabe [Lyons] introduced me to his circles and Wheaton hired me, I naively believed their hearts were softening toward the queer community and that they wanted to make room for us.

After nine months of roundtable discussions with Christian leaders, consultations with board members at Christian organizations, and meetings with administrators at Evangelical colleges, I was convinced their acceptance of people like me was a political strategy. Not only did gay people with conservative theology guard them against accusations of discrimination, but we also served as convenient mouthpieces. By inviting us into leadership roles, our presence allowed them to ignore the claims of the greater LGBTQ community that said Evangelical theology and institutional policies were harmful to queer people” (p. 160-161).

Well, there isn’t a lot of sugar-coating going on here. And it also rings absolutely true. 

Not to say that there aren’t evangelical hearts softening toward the queer community. I absolutely believe there are. I know there are, because I know some of these people whose hearts are softening or have been softened. And I also know because I have been one of them.

It’s a different story, though, for conservative leaders who just keep doubling down on their anti-gay stances—who keep ignoring and downplaying the suffering their views are causing, keep trying to discredit those who disagree, and keep trying to use conservative queer people as “convenient mouthpieces” to “guard them against accusations of discrimination.” This is all definitely (still) a thing.

There’s so much in this book. As usual, I’ve really only scratched the surface of it. I’m grateful for Rodgers’ bravery, insight, and thoughtfulness—and for the way she approaches her story with so much compassion toward others while also pulling zero punches about what happened and how she reflects on it now. Give it a read!

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

I wandered into an Amazon bookstore a couple months ago and saw Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth featured on the shelves. Which totally makes sense, because Barr’s work has been profiled in the likes of The New Yorker and NPR. But it also kind of surprised me, because the book is quite, well, Christian.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Because the book has gotten so much mainstream—as in, not specifically Christian—attention, I thought it might be more of a secular historian’s take on women in church history and such.

But Barr, at least in my perspective, stands very firmly both within the church world and within the world of a professional historian. I think that’s awesome. And also a little complicated. 

I could see people who haven’t spent much time in conservative evangelical churches reading about “biblical womanhood” and thinking, wait…is this really a thing? Churches are—still—like this? 

Unfortunately, yes, (many) churches are—still—like this. And yes, this hypothetical reader would be absolutely right to be shocked and horrified. 

And then I could see people who have been quite steeped in the conservative church world thinking, wait…is it really okay to reexamine this? Isn’t male authority just what the Bible teaches? It’s what my church teaches… 

Sometimes you spend so much time around otherwise lovely people who operate from a certain mindset that this mindset starts to seem normal. Patriarchy should not be normal.

All this to say, I think Barr wrote a book that’s well-worth reading. 

Barr expresses regret that she stayed silent so long in her patriarchal church, going along with its practices and theology even though she knew these things were wrong. I’m so glad she’s speaking up now.

A few things that stood out in my totally-biased reading:

1. I appreciated Barr’s honesty in articulating the reasons she didn’t speak up more about gender equality in her (now former) church for a really long time.

For example: 

“I kept telling myself that maybe things would change—that I, as a woman who taught and had a career, was setting a positive example. I kept telling myself that complementarianism (the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders) wasn’t at its root misogynistic. I kept telling myself that no church was perfect and that the best way to change a system was by working from within it” (p. 5).

“I realized the hard truth about why I had stayed in complementarian churches for so long.

Because I was comfortable.

Because I really thought I could make a difference.

Because I feared my husband would lose his job.

Because I feared disrupting the lives of my children.

Because I loved the life of youth ministry.

Because I loved my friends.

So for the sake of the youth we served; for the sake of the difference my husband made in his job; for the sake of financial security; for the sake of our friends whom we had loved, laughed, and lived life with; and for the sake of our comfort, I chose to stay and to stay silent” (p. 7).

“Complementarianism rewards women who play by the rules. By staying silent, I helped ensure that my husband could remain a leader. By staying silent, I could exercise some influence. By staying silent, I kept the friendship and trust of the women around me. By staying silent, I maintained a comfortable life” (p. 69).

I feel like Barr hits lots of nails square on the head here. Beyond the particulars of her situation (like her husband being the youth pastor), there is so much here that I think a ton of women in evangelical churches can relate to.

There are the things we tell ourselves about the changes we might be able to bring about. (Often, not true—people in power are often less open to change than one might hope for…especially from leaders in a religion that, in theory, emphasizes humility and wonder before a God whom we only know in part. And sometimes, true—but at what cost to the people who stay and fight for these changes?)

There are the fears: job loss, loss of friendships, disruption of family life, the pain (or just inconvenience) our decisions might cause to those we love.

There are the rewards: comfort, trust, influence, leadership, respect, security.

Then there are the loves. Barr and her husband really loved youth ministry. They loved the youth at their church, and they loved a ton of people at their church in general. They loved their friends. Speaking up on controversial topics can jeopardize some of the things that give your life a sense of purpose and joy. That isn’t something to be taken lightly.

I appreciate Barr articulating all these things in a way that (hopefully) holds grace for the person she was and the reasons she had.

And, at the same time, she makes it very clear: “I had good reasons. But I was wrong” (p. 7). And, “By staying silent, I had become part of the problem. Instead of making a difference, I had become complicit in a system that used the name of Jesus to oppress and harm women” (p. 6).

2. It was interesting to learn that it wasn’t so terribly long ago that (at least some) people who now call themselves “complementarians” were openly calling themselves proponents of patriarchy. 

Of course complementarianism is patriarchal. As Barr writes, “Patriarchy by any other name is still patriarchy” (p. 18). But so many complementarians argue so hard that women and men have equal value and worth—and that headship is a nice warm friendly fuzzy concept that’s really all about serving and laying down one’s life, and that sort of thing—that it was helpful to see the connection laid out so clearly. 

Complementarians, as a group—however nice they might be as people, and however well-intentioned, and I know plenty of nice, well-intentioned complementarians—have taken up the mantle of what was formerly known as patriarchy, calling it by a different name in order to sound, well, nicer and more well-intentioned.

3. I liked this quote, which sums up a lot of Barr’s biblical arguments:

“Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy” (36).

I think it’s helpful to think about the directions early Christianity was moving in—and especially the directions Jesus was moving in—relative to the surrounding culture. If that direction was toward freedom, honor, and equal status for women—and for others, like sexual minorities, people of lower socioeconomic status, and foreigners—then yikes if Christians are doing the exact opposite relative to our surrounding culture today.

4. Since I quoted Barr on the Bible, I feel like it’s worth saying that her strong suit is history. Which is not to say that her stuff on the Bible isn’t good too, but just that history is her academic discipline—you know, like, she has a Ph.D. in history and teaches it at a university level. Which is super badass.

Maybe this is just because I know more about the Bible and women than I know about women in church history, but for me, the biggest value Barr brings to the table is her deep knowledge of women’s history in Christianity. 

The medieval period and the Reformation stood out to me as especially strong points, as well as the “cult of domesticity” from the 1800s. If you’re interested in learning more about women in Christianity in those time periods, this book is totes for you. 

I wish I’d been able to dig more into some of this stuff in seminary. I took a course on Women in Church History & Theology, which was great, but only had some overlap with Barr’s work. I also wish more time was spent on historical women in general church history classes, such that there wasn’t as much need for a separate elective. 

On that note, Barr writes, “the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were” (84).

I’m bummed that we aren’t farther along in recovering these stories. But grateful for the work of people like Barr toward that goal.

5. I found it maddening, but also really helpful, to learn a little more about the origins of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible translation. According to Barr, the ESV was “a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God” (p. 132).

I kind of figured something like that was the case, but I hadn’t really looked into it directly. Sometimes I feel like I’m being unnecessarily divisive if I try to tell people that the ESV is (intentionally) not very friendly to women, and it might be better to try a more gender-inclusive translation like the NIV or NRSV. 

I never really wanted to be one of those people who had a favorite Bible translation and thought everyone else’s was inferior. That always struck me as something Jesus wouldn’t want to waste time on, when there are people to love, and so many injustices to address. 

And yet. Barr helped clarify for me that the ESV kind of is one of those injustices to address. And it’s probably worth speaking against, even if that’s uncomfortable to do. 

All in all, I think Barr does a great job of showing how the notion of “biblical womanhood” is a load of baloney. I’m here for it. 

Of course, I didn’t really need to be convinced of this. But at another time in my life—when I thought complementarianism was, if not what I personally believed, then at least a legitimate, good-faith, Bible-based way to see things—this book would have been so helpful. And, even though I’m thoroughly in the smash-the-patriarchy-with-the-mighty-nonviolent-fist-of-Jesus camp now, it was still fascinating to learn more of the relevant history from an awesome professor.

Hope you enjoyed this super chill review, and please don’t hesitate to holler with your thoughts!

Super chill book review: Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo)

Well, it seems that I took a *totally intentional* hiatus from blogging for most of August. But I’m back, woohoo, with super chill book reviews and more. (Hopefully, more = poems, scripture reflections, prayers, sermons. We’ll see.) 

For now, I’m excited to share some quotes and general brilliance from Ijeoma Oluo’s 2020 book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.

This is one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read so far this year. I’ll probably make a list of top recommendations at the end of 2021; I’m not sure what all will be on it, but I know this one will.  

I’m also a fan of Oluo’s 2018 book So You Want to Talk About Race. For me, Mediocre takes the awesomeness a big step further. I’m here for it. 

Here are a few quotes and other tidbits from Mediocre that stood out to me.

1. The central idea of Mediocre, at least the way I see it, is that there are certain ways of being, certain qualities we admire and perhaps aspire to—or, if not admire, then at least recognize as things that tend to get people “ahead” in our society, land people in leadership positions, etc.—that are actually anything but desirable. These characteristics are far from healthy and good for individuals. And they’re far from conducive to the wellbeing of our society as a whole. 

This really resonated with me. I feel like I’ve seen it and felt it, in everything from politics on a national level to people who have been influential in my circles more personally. 

Oluo does a great job of pinpointing what some of these qualities are, and why they’re counterproductive. I appreciate how she ties these qualities to both patriarchy and white supremacy—or, as Oluo puts it, to “white male supremacy.” I think this is a useful term, because it helps us see that everything is interconnected. Misogyny and racism are so deeply intertwined. And we need to recognize this, if we want to have any hope of untangling and detoxing from…everything.

Some memorable quotes, to this end:

While we would like to believe otherwise, it is usually not the cream that rises to the top: our society rewards behaviors that are actually disadvantageous to everyone. Studies have shown that the traits long considered signs of strong leadership (like overconfidence and aggression) are in reality disastrous in both business and politics—not to mention the personal toll this style of leadership takes on the individuals around these leaders. These traits are broadly considered to be masculine, whereas characteristics often associated with weakness or lack of leadership (patience, accommodation, cooperation) are coded as feminine. This is a global phenomenon of counterproductive values that social scientists have long marveled over.

The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way—this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with.

And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes (p. 10).

No lies detected there.

As I looked back through our history, I started to see patterns. I started to see how time and again, anything perceived as a threat to white manhood has been attacked, no matter how necessary that new person or idea may have been to our national progress. I started to see how reliably the bullying and entitlement we valued in our leaders led to failure. These are traits that we tell our children are bad, but when we look at who our society actually rewards, we see that these are the traits we have actively cultivated (p. 12).

I feel that. Most people don’t want their kids, or the people they love in general, to be “incompetent assholes” who operate in ways marked by “bullying and entitlement.” But I totally agree that these traits are rewarded—you know, if you’re into things like promotions, fancy job titles, high salaries, success in your field, and the like.

The hard truth is, the characteristics that most companies, including boards, shareholders, managers, and employees, correlate with people who are viewed as ‘leadership material’—traits most often associated with white male leaders—are actually bad for business. The aggression and overconfidence that are seen as ‘strength and leadership’ can cause leaders to take their companies down treacherous paths, and the attendant encounters with disaster could be avoided by exercising caution or by accepting input from others. These same qualities also mask shortfalls in skills, knowledge, or experience and may keep leaders from acknowledging mistakes and changing course when needed. They prevent healthy business partnerships and collaborative work environments. These traits can and do spell disaster for many businesses (p. 182).

Oluo backs these kinds of statements up with all sorts of insights from history and present-day experiences throughout the book. I appreciate that. It’s definitely worth a read.

They’re also statements that, to me at least, just feel true. I realize that this feeling is subjective, and we aren’t always right about these things. (Brett Kavanaugh’s nonsense about judging the “truthiness” of his claims vs Dr. Blasey Ford’s claims during his confirmation hearings back in 2018 comes to mind, and it still makes my blood boil.) But still. I think many of us have felt what Oluo is saying and have experienced it viscerally. If nothing else, we’re still reeling from the extreme example we saw in our four years of Trump.

Oluo puts words so well to what I think many of us—especially those on the underside of power structures—know in our gut.

2. Oluo brings out the idea that a lot of the things that seem so wrong (and are so wrong) with the U.S. are actually, as others have put it, features, not bugs. A lot of the things that seem shocking, like they should be unusual, are actually just evidence of a shitty system working as designed.

Oluo writes: 

What we are seeing in our political climate is not novel or unexplainable. It works according to design. Yes, of course the average white man is going to feel dissatisfied with his lot in life—he was supposed to. Yes, of course our powerful and respected men would be shown to be abusers and frauds—that is how they became powerful and respected. And yes, the average white male voter (and a majority of white women voters whose best chance at power is their proximity to white men) would see a lewd, spoiled, incompetent, untalented bully as someone who best represents their vision of America—he does (pp. 11-12).

This might sound harsh. But it also sounds about right to me.

I’m hoping we can move, together, beyond the “this is not the America I know!” reaction to various bad things the U.S. and its politicians do. I’m hoping we can move toward a realization that, downer though it may be, this is exactly the America that lots and lots of people on the margins have always known. 

We need to be able to see the way things were designed, and not be in denial about it, if we’re actually going to change anything.

3. Another memorable quote: 

Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck. It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy—to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo. It may not stop until it has destroyed everything (p. 45).

First, omg, the story Oluo tells about the buffalo. It turns out that white men going West to kill buffalo back in the day wasn’t just a dumb, violent-toward-animals, shortsighted, hypermasculinist thing. It was also—primarily—the government’s attempt to destroy indigenous peoples whose lives were interwoven with the buffalo herds. That got me in all the feels. Lord, have mercy.

Second, I may not be a white dude, but I think part of me has internalized the competitive, go-it-alone mindset, where “cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy.” Yikes. 

I want to learn to be my best self in a way that helps others be their best selves too. I want to recognize and live out of the reality that we really are stronger together. The point is not to be better than others, but to figure out how to live in whole, healthy communities together. 

I’m not always there. No matter how many times I might say these things, and how deeply I believe them, there’s still something in me that wants to compete. (In an individualistic, unhealthy way, that is—not just, say, in a swim meet, or a 5k. Speaking of which, Burien Brat Trot, anyone?)

4. Sorry for the long quote. But not really sorry, because it’s a good one:

The idea that women were not made for work is only true to the extent that men have ensured that work was not made for women. Men have designed offices that don’t suit women’s needs, have established work hours that compete with child-rearing, have developed education and training programs that regularly discourage women’s aspirations in male-dominated fields, have formed mentoring and networking relationships on golf courses and in clubs, places where women are not welcome or comfortable—or sometimes even allowed.

Men have used these deliberately structured environments to prove why women are naturally ‘not a fit’ for the workplace. Nursing mothers who cannot work in spaces that don’t accommodate breast pumps are ‘obviously not that interested in the job.’ Women who need flexible hours to care for children, in a society that still expects women to do the majority of child-rearing regardless of employment status, ‘lack the work ethic necessary to put in the hours needed for the job.’ Women who have always loved math but were told from primary school on that they would be better at English and art than science and engineering ‘must not be interested in STEM.’ And men who make all their business connections at the country club or through their old fraternity buddies ‘just haven’t come across any women who are as qualified for a job at their company as men.’

As promotion after promotion goes to men, as men are encouraged to start businesses and women aren’t, as men flow into fields that are more open to them, the definition of an ideal worker and leader becomes even more stereotypically male—even if those ‘ideal’ traits and skills are not the most beneficial (pp. 153-4).

Yeah, that feels right. Not sure I have much to add. Maybe just that I really appreciate the intersectionality of Oluo’s analyses in general. I feel like she really gets at the realities of race and gender each in their own right, very effectively—sometimes focusing on gender, like in the quote above, and sometimes on race. And she’s also very effective in getting at the connections between them. 

5. I think Oluo has a lot of grace and empathy for white dudes, and I appreciate that. They’re not all bad—but they are stuck, as all of us are, in a toxic white male supremacist system.

To me, Oluo strikes a great balance of sympathizing with the situation white men are in—and the ways our society is toxic to them, too—while also not letting them off the hook for the things they are responsible for.

Another long but good quote (again, sorry / not sorry):

White male identity is a very dark place. White men have been told that they should be fulfilled, happy, successful, and powerful, and they are not. They are missing something vital—an intrinsic sense of self that is not tied to how much power or success they can hold over others—and that hole is eating away at them. I can only imagine how desolately lonely it must feel to only be able to relate to other human beings through conquer and competition…

I don’t want this for white men. I don’t want it for any of us…We have become convinced that there is only one way for white men to be. We are afraid to imagine something better.

I do not believe that these white men are born wanting to dominate. I do not believe they are born unable to feel empathy for people who are not them…I believe that we are all perpetrators and victims of one of the most evil and insidious social constructs in Western history: white male supremacy.

The constraints of white male identity in America have locked white men into cycles of fear and violence—where the only success they are allowed comes at the expense of others, and the only feelings they are allowed to express are triumph or rage. When white men try to break free from these cycles, they are ostracized by society at large or find themselves victims of other white men who are willing to fulfill their expected roles of dominance…

We need to do more than just break free of the oppression of white men. We also have to imagine a white manhood that is not based in the oppression of others. We have to value the empathy, kindness, and cooperation that white men, as human beings, are capable of. We have to define strength and leadership in ways that don’t reinforce abusive patriarchy and white supremacy. We have to be honest about what white male supremacy has cost not only women, nonbinary people, and people of color—but also white men (pp. 273-5).

Curious to hear white dudes’ (or anyone’s) thoughts on this. I like the sentiment of wanting better for all of us, including white men. White guys aren’t the devil. They just tend to be socialized to play a particular role in an evil construct; and, to the extent that they refuse to play that role, they’re often penalized for it. That makes sense to me. 

Grateful for Oluo’s leadership in naming all these things and imagining a different way. 

Holler if you read the book (or not) and let me know what you think!