Super chill book review: Real American: A Memoir (Julie Lythcott-Haims)

When I was at Stanford, there was a beloved dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising named Julie Lythcott-Haims, affectionately known as “Dean Julie.” I didn’t really interact with her personally—I mostly just remember her leading us all in a chant of “oh-ten!” to show our enthusiasm for being part of the great class of 2010—but we’re Facebook friends, and I always appreciate her posts on all sorts of things.

It must have been through Facebook that I knew that, maybe a couple of years after I graduated, Dean Julie left her position at Stanford, went and got an MFA, and made a go for it as a writer. 

Her first book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, published in 2016, seems to have been quite successful. The book struck me as a good idea, but I guess it didn’t really fit with my personal interests enough to read it, you know, since I’m not a parent and all. Maybe I’ll read it someday, if it becomes more relevant to my interests :p. 

I just recently got around to reading (former) Dean Julie’s second book, Real American: A Memoir, published in 2017. It’s fantastic. 

I think that when you know an author personally (or sort of know them, or have some connection with them), it can be hard to tell—am I just into this book because I feel connected with the author and so I’m interested in their life and thoughts? Or would I want to read this even if I had no context for who this person is? 

With Real American, I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. But I’m also curious to hear your thoughts, if you read it and didn’t know the author as “Dean Julie” from Stanford back in the day.

Real American is Julie’s memoir of growing up biracial in America, with a Black father and a white mother, raised largely in mostly-white suburbs. 

As usual, a few random thoughts:

1. I think this book brought home for me just how recently race relations in the U.S. have changed dramatically. (Which is not at all to say that in some ways they haven’t really changed at all, or that they don’t need to change, like, a ton more.) 

Julie is about twenty years older than me. When her Black father and white mother married, as Julie writes, “miscegenation” (also known as interracial marriage) was still illegal in 17 states. So I guess it makes sense—but was also mind-blowing to me, because I hadn’t thought about it—that, as she writes, the terms “biracial” and “multiracial” were just starting to become a thing when she was in college. 

I’m glad we now have this language to describe (lots and lots of) people’s experiences. And I’m also chewing on the fact that these words didn’t exist until maybe the late 1980s.

2. I feel like one of the key themes of this book is the idea of belonging. Or the lack thereof. Or how one might find a sense of belonging, and how long that sometimes takes. 

It reminded me of Brené Brown’s work, where she says that true belonging is different from fitting in. Real belonging is kind of the opposite of giving in to pressure to conform. We might associate these two things, but really, belonging requires being loved and accepted for who we actually are, not for an image of ourselves that we’re trying to present because we feel like we have to. (I think this was in Braving the Wilderness. And/or Daring Greatly.)

I appreciated Julie’s vulnerability about her own journey toward finding a sense of belonging. It strikes me as both universal enough to be relatable—don’t we all struggle with things like belonging and vulnerability? That’s why Brené Brown makes the big bucks—and yet also very specific to Julie’s biracial experience. I felt like I could relate, in some ways, while also recognizing that being racialized as nonwhite in the U.S. adds a whole additional layer of complexity to everything, as does being biracial or multiracial.

3. I liked Julie’s reflections on her experience of a college class called The American Dream, taught by John Manley:

“Manley’s class was a mirror that showed me things about myself I hadn’t seen before. I’d known race and racism and America’s preference for whites and whiteness erected a wall between me and whites demarcating white as normal and me as other. But the wall between me and Blacks was there too, though harder to put my hands on or see. Manley’s class forced me to see that the higher socioeconomic class that comes with professional success—the access to the good schools, the access to homes in white towns that can come with such status—

if one so chooses—

is a form of passing out of otherness out of darkness into lightness into whiteness.

I did not choose it. No one asked. But there’s no question these choices lifted me. And if asked, I’d have said yes lift me with these opportunities. Just maybe not this far.

As loathsome as it was to learn that the engine of the American Dream itself—capitalism—was the invisible hand guiding me away from a people, a community, a tradition, at least now I understood the source of much of my dislocation and unbelonging. That being upper middle class had given me more in common with upper-middle-class whites than with middle-class or working-class or poor Blacks. I graduated from college knowing I was not some freak of nature but an easily predicted data point in our macroeconomic system” (p. 116).

All of this is so complicated—the interplay between money, and race, and where people live, and who we live near, and professional success, and education, and color, and capitalism. I appreciate Julie’s thoughtful and honest reflections on these intersections and how she experienced them as a young person. 

4. Speaking of feeling disconnected with Blackness and Black community, Julie writes about how she went to one event at Ujamaa—Stanford’s African / African American focus dorm—and then pretty much stayed away for the rest of her time as a student at Stanford. 

I lived in Ujamaa, sophomore year. I remember being very aware that Ujamaa was not just a dorm made up of about half Black students and half non-Black students, but also, as Julie writes, a hub of Black community on campus. 

People used to joke about living in “C” wing. The dorm only had an “A” wing and a “B” wing, so “C” wing people were those who were there all the time even though they lived elsewhere.

When I lived in Ujamaa, it kind of felt like I got to know, or at least recognize, most of the Black students on campus. (That’s probably not actually true, it’s just how it felt.) I hadn’t really thought about Black students (including multiracial students) like Julie who didn’t feel like Ujamaa was a comfortable home for them, and who intentionally stayed far away.

I felt sad (in a totally sympathetic way) to hear that that was her experience, and also a little oblivious for not thinking about it, and also just intrigued to hear a different perspective on Ujamaa. 

5. It was interesting to hear about some of the changes Julie advocated for while she was dean—for example, trying to make sure the books assigned as summer reading for incoming freshmen were as accessible as possible to as many students as possible, recognizing that some students had access to much more rigorous high school academic programs than others. I feel like Julie’s presence in the meetings of Stanford-y higher-ups likely had a huge positive impact on my Stanford experience, and the experiences of many others too, in so many ways, and I only know a tiny bit of it.

I was interested in Julie’s story from the perspective of what it looks like to push for change, and how people respond to that, and how to navigate the pushback and retaliation that you tend to get for it.


All in all, lots of great writing here, lots of interesting stories and reflections, and lots to think about that I haven’t even scratched the surface of. Holler if you read Real American, and tell me what you think!

Super chill book review: After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Willie Jennings)

I kind of want to say that this one’s for the nerds out there. But I’m also kind of against the anti-intellectualism that words like “nerd” might carry. 

So…this one’s for anyone interested in thinking about seminaries and other institutions of higher education. Or, really, anyone interested in thinking about any sorts of institutions with roots in colonialist ways of thinking about things. Which is, like, lots and lots of institutions.

The book is After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, written by theologian Willie James Jennings, published in 2020. I didn’t really know what to expect when I checked it out from the library—I just think Willie Jennings is brilliant, so I figured I’d (make an exception to the mostly-women-authors rule and) check out his new-ish book. 

After Whiteness isn’t quite as dense as the other book by Jennings that I’ve read, or attempted to read—that would be The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race—but it’s still not at all easy reading. And, while a lot of it could be applied to all sorts of schools and other organizations, it is also very seminary-focused. So it might be most of interest to people who’ve attended seminary or otherwise have some sort of connection to the seminary world. (If you read it and don’t have that connection, I’d be extra curious to hear what you think!)

Here are a few things that stood out to me:

1). I recently became an elder at my church (woohoo!). This was one of the questions the four of us new elders were asked to answer at our ordination service last Sunday:

“As an elder, will you work to tell the whole story of the Church – its redemptive acts AND also the Church’s complicity in violent oppression, injustice, genocide, slavery and other acts of terror committed against God’s beloved children? And will you lead the Church in repentance of these things?”

I love that this question was included. I feel like it should be top priority in these interesting times we find ourselves in—in general, and in Christian communities in particular. I’m all about telling the whole story of the church. And I feel like Jennings is a leading voice as we all figure out together how to do that.

This is one of the things at the heart of Jennings’ book, I think: telling the whole story of how Christian churches and seminaries have been formed in a colonialist, white supremacist, patriarchal mindset, and how this is killing us. The only way to life is complete repentance, complete overhaul of so many toxic ways of thinking and being. 

2). Jennings writes, “The modern world formed in the bricolage of native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe, and together they formed the cultural baroque, something new and unanticipated. Yet this reality of shared agency and shared creativity was occluded by a white aesthetic regime that refused to share the world of meaning and purpose with those outside the old world of Europe or the colonial West as well as their colonialized subjects.

“Theological education in the West gloried in this refusal, and took as its task forming people who would embody this white aesthetic regime as fundamental to performing a gospel logic and a Christian identity. Western education is designed within a forced affection, shaped to take all of us on a journey of culture additionadd to the great European masters other thinkers who are not white or male but who approximate them, add to the great European artists other artists who are also great like they are, add to the eternal wisdom and universal insights of Europe the wisdom of other peoples that resemble them. Add these nonwhite others as embroidery to frame a picture, or spices to season a dish” (p. 64).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about the possibilities that were present when “native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe”the possibilities of cultures mixing, learning from one another as equals, collaborating together to build something good. All of these possibilities that were curtailed by Europeans’ colonialism. 

We still see the effects of this way of thinkingwhere European stuff is the cultural standard of awesomeness, and non-white artists, thinkers, etc. can sometimes be added to the canon if they sound enough like those already in itin all sorts of places. It reminds me of my seminary reading lists, so full of white dudes, with the occasional (white) woman and/or person (read: man) of color (rarely a woman of color, yikes) thrown in for good measure (like “spices to season a dish”). 

It also reminds me of the time a fellow student pointed out that part of the reason why there weren’t more theologians of color on our syllabi was because a lot of them weren’t saying the things our (mostly white male) professors wanted them to say. Double yikes. Sure, we’ll include your voice…as long as you don’t disagree with us or challenge us in any significant way.

3). I appreciated Jennings’ thoughts about thinking and feelingabout the “affective reality of Western institutional life” (p. 93).

He writes, “There remains a legion of scholars and administrators who continue to hold a dualism of thought and feeling. The educational space in their way of thinking is a space of thinking, not feeling. Too many scholars believe in rigorous thinking and banished feelings, and they teach students that a thinking subject wars with a feeling subject…

“But institutions feel just as institutions think. To discern institutional thinking is also to explore institutional feeling. More specifically, it is to invite those who inhabit an institution to sense its comfort, its joy, and its energy aimed in a direction, even if it is the wrong direction” (p. 93).

Yes, get rid of that thinking/feeling dualism. It isn’t serving us well. (Does that mean we get rid of the Myers-Briggs personality test too? That’s probably fine…) 

The thought of theological scholars and seminary administrators who think that they should think and not feel is kind of terrifying. But also explains a lot. And then what kind of pastors and church leaders are they forming?

Among other things, this kind of thinking/feeling dualism generally tends to suck for women, who get painted as the “feelers.” Which leads to being devalued in a society that overvalues thinking and undervalues feeling. And gives men a pass on all sorts of things like sensitivity and social concern and community-mindedness, things we all (not just half of us, and the half who tends not to be in power) desperately need.

4). I feel like more and more of the books I’m reading these days mix in some poems and such, and I’m super into it. The first time I saw that, I was like, whoa, you can do that? Apparently, you can. And now it feels like all the cool kids are doing it. It’s great.

I really liked some of Jennings’ poems and poem-like writing that he mixes in throughout this book. Maybe especially because his academic stuff can be so dense and, well, academic, I enjoyed feeling like I got a window into a different (but very much related) side of his (very large) brain. (I know brain size doesn’t actually correlate to intelligence, but that’s still how I picture it.)

I guess it’s also a way in which Jennings is living out his own words about breaking down the dualism between thinking and feeling. If more academic-style discourse tends to operate primarily in the realm of thinking, and if poems tend to operate primarily in the realm of emotion, blending them into one book helps bring the two back together, as they belong.

5). This is one of the poems that I especially liked: 

Could self-sufficiency
be redeemed?
But who would want
such a thing?
Certainly not one who asked
Mary for life, or one
who needed friends along
the way of discipleship, or
one who called on an Abba-God, or
one who fell onto God’s Spirit
like a limp body
in need of support just to
face the morning sun
or one who said, ‘This is my body and my blood,
eat me
because you need me in you.’
Certainly not one who on a cross
killed the illusion of
self-sufficiency” (p. 106).

Throughout the book Jennings critiques the idea of a “self-sufficient man”or of “white self-sufficient masculinity” (p. 8)which is often what seminary education (whether intentionally or not) aims to form. And which is a problem…for lots of reasons that Jennings goes into over the course of the book. One of the reasons being that it’s not at all Jesus-like.

6). Jennings writes about communalist societies (pre-colonization) and how they “were not utopias, nor were they immutable, but they were powerful ways of thinking the one in the many and the many in the one” (p. 144). 

In contrast, “the goal of the colonialist—whether trader, explorer, missionary, merchant, or soldier—was to reduce the many to the one as a point of negotiation, management, conversion, and profit. The goal manifested in every colonial site was to move people slowly but clearly from any kind of group thinking about their wants and needs to thinking like an individual who could enter into exchange over goods and services guided by a rationalist freed from communal obligation except at the level of volition. Such people would form connection through capital and perform a relationality woven first and foremost in utility and aiming at profit. Exchange networks need not be personal, need not be communal, need not be storied, need not suggest long-term obligation or relationship, need not even require names or identities. They only require items and money, that is, commodities” (p. 144).

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the root of all our problems. 

And then Jennings completes the gut-punch (but a really important and much-needed one) with this poem:

1698, in a port city on the west coast of Africa,
near what is now Ghana,
the following conversation took place:
African I: What’s your name?
African II: You don’t need to know my name.
The earth starts shaking.
African I: What are you selling?
African II: This ox.
African I: Where did it come from?
African II: You don’t need to know that.
The birds start crying not singing.
African I: How much do you want for it?
African II: I want guns and alcohol.
African I: I have that.
Many plants and trees collapse to the ground.
African II: Let’s do business.
Two hands touch in agreement.
The world feels ruin.” (pp. 144-5)

I’ll be ruminating on this one for a while. 

Well, I hope you enjoyed these tidbits from Jennings’ thinking—especially if you don’t end up reading the book, which, as I mentioned, is kind of seminary-centered and probably not for everyone. 

As usual, holler with your thoughts about any of this!

Super chill book review: You Are Your Best Thing (ed. Tarana Burke and Brene Brown)

In the last year or so I’ve read four of Brené Brown’s (many) books, and I’m a fan. She has great stuff to say. So much of it. I really think that she has changed (and continues to change) the conversation around things like empathy, shame, vulnerability, connection, and belonging. 

At the same time, as long-time Black activist (and casual creator of the Me Too movement) Tarana Burke discusses with Brown in the introduction to their new book You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience, Brown lives a very white, upper-middle class life in Texas, and you can tell. If I remember correctly from some of the stories in Brown’s books, she didn’t necessarily come from money. But she definitely has it now. And no matter how intentional she is about interviewing a diversity of people for her research—and she is very intentional—she also loves to use personal examples and stories, and lots of them. I’m all here for Brown’s stories, while also recognizing that, because of these stories, as Burke points out, Brown’s books tend to skew toward speaking more (and more effectively) to fellow white upper-middle class people.

All that to say, this new book, You Are Your Best Thing, feels much needed. And I enjoyed it, too. It’s an anthology, edited by Burke and Brown together, with chapters written by many different Black writers who work in many different fields, reflecting on what they know about some of the stuff Brown has written on: shame, shame resilience, and vulnerability. 

Here are a few random thoughts:

1. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, given the subtitle (Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience), but vulnerability is a key word that comes to mind when I think about this book. Vulnerability, and embodiment. The contributing authors do an amazing job of keeping these things front and center—of thinking and reflecting deeply, and bringing in data and research where relevant, but also never straying far from the reality of how these things show up in their own real-life experience. 

It’s just as Tanya Denise Fields writes in her chapter, Dirty Business: The Messy Affair of Rejecting Shame: when Fields began to publicly and loudly “rebuke shame…then my sisters came out of the shadows, empowered and vulnerable, sharing narratives of violence, hurt, and the shame that was always right there, not really below the surface but subconsciously always moving the hand that led our lives. I was in turn empowered, and I found a powerful voice I didn’t realize was there. I saw my reflection, what we were and what we could be” (p. 28). 

I feel like that’s the heart of this book. To put words to some of the realities Black people often face when it comes to shame and such, and to help people feel seen—more seen than they’ve felt thus far in Brown’s work, as lovely as her books are in many ways. To tell stories that empower people, and that broaden the scope of this important work beyond the experiences Brown has been able to speak to as a white woman.

I felt like this stayed the focus, and that’s how it should be. I realize this book isn’t primarily written for me, as a white person, and I think that’s a good thing. At the same time, I also feel like I benefited from reading it. I think it has the potential to build understanding and empathy among non-Black people. And I’m thankful for that—for the chance to sit in on and listen to a conversation that isn’t about me and isn’t primarily for me, but one that I’m still interested in and still benefit from hearing. 

2. The subtitle made me a little nervous at first; specifically, the part about “the Black experience.” Is there really just one “Black experience”? (Of course not.) 

So, I was glad to find that the contributing authors come from all sorts of different backgrounds and identities within the wide realm of Blackness, and that they were empowered to write about their own, very personal, experiences. It was good to hear, for example, from women and men, trans people and nonbinary people, younger people and older people, and people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

If you’re Black, I’d be interested to hear whether or not you agree with this, or what I might be missing; but to me, it felt like, through all of the authors together, the book painted a really rich and nuanced picture of some of the common struggles Black people tend to encounter when it comes to shame and vulnerability, while also making room for SO MUCH DIVERSITY within Black experiences. I thought that was really good.

In her work, Brown writes a lot about gendered shame, and that’s been helpful for me. I often agree with (and deeply feel) her assessments of the different forms shame can take for men and women. And I think that’s important—not because all women are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of gender. 

I feel like this book works on similar lines when it comes to race. Burke and the other contributing authors flesh out the idea of racialized shame, and this is important—not because all Black people are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of race and racialization. 

3. At the risk of centering white people too much when writing about a book that’s written by and for Black people, I guess I still want to say that, as a Brené Brown fan, it was cool to see her using her (quite extraordinary, for a social sciences researcher) fame and influence to open doors for Black voices to be heard. 

At my church, Lake B, we’ve been talking recently about gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of those things that can sound pretty negative, and is often used in a negative way, but that can also (in some cases) be transformed and redeemed into something really cool. It’s worth thinking carefully about any or all gates we might have access to or influence over, and worth moving intentionally toward operating these gates in a way that promotes equity and justice. 

There are lots of gates that just shouldn’t be there, and lots of gatekeepers that should rebel and step down. And yet, until we get there, there are still gates, and there are still gatekeepers; given that reality, it’s great to see influential gatekeepers using their power well.

4. On the scale of loaded-with-academic mumbo-jumbo to accessible-and-easy-to-read, I found this book delightfully accessible. Which is not at all to say that the authors who contributed to it aren’t brilliant and highly knowledgeable, so much as to say that I think they’re also really good writers, and I appreciate that. 

My husband Ken read some of this book and said it was slow going for him. At first I thought, really? I’m loving that the chapters are easy to read and don’t get too caught up in academic lingo. Then I realized that he wasn’t talking about writing style so much as the emotional intensity. He was taking time to chew on the feelings, the pain, the weight of it all. Which is something I probably should have been doing more of!

All that to say, maybe this book isn’t necessarily a quick read, but I do think the style is more accessible and less dense than a lot of nonfiction out there, and I liked that. 

5. Since I’ve been mostly focusing on reading stuff by women (with no regrets at all!), it was good for me to read from the Black men who contributed to this book. I was struck by the ways many of them reflected on our society’s toxic ideas about gender, gender roles, and masculinity, and how all this has impacted them. 

It’s helpful for me to be reminded that this nonsense is bad for everyone, not just women. I appreciate these men’s bravery and sensitivity in writing on these things.

6. Like many other anthologies (including This Bridge Called My Back), You Are Your Best Thing is a great jumping-off point if you’re looking for other good stuff to read. Besides the editors (and Laverne Cox), I hadn’t heard of many of the contributing authors before reading this book. But most of them have written and are writing other things, and hosting podcasts, and doing all sorts of interesting stuff. I’m grateful to now know who they are, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

7. I appreciated the diversity of spirituality represented in this book. I feel like sometimes people who aren’t specifically trying to write for a religious audience tend to either ignore religion entirely or only have bad things to say about it. (Not that these bad things aren’t usually true or fair…) 

But, whatever you think of religion, and whether or not you want to participate in it, it’s hard to deny that it has a ginormous (in technical terms) influence in our U.S. society and in our world. Even if it isn’t real to a particular author, it’s very, very real, for lots and lots of people. So I appreciated that this book didn’t try to cut off the religious and/or spiritual realm from the rest of our lives.

In this vein, and because I think about church a lot, I especially liked Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts’ chapter, Love Lifted Me: Subverting Shame Narratives and Legitimizing Vulnerability as a Mechanism for Healing Women in the Black Church. I don’t think it’s really my place as a white person to critique the Black church, but I did appreciate getting to listen in on Lewis-Giggetts’ experiences and reflections. And so much of her analysis applies to the American evangelical church as a whole—so I could relate to that, and that’s something I don’t mind critiquing :). 

Here’s one excerpt I liked, from Lewis-Giggetts’ essay:

“A long way from the teaching of Jesus, the Christian church too often uses shame as a tool for control and manipulation, but even when we think it’s working, it’s not. In fact, what’s actually happening is that folks who have been shamed by the church have become disenchanted with the faith; what should be safe and holy communities only look like rigid and loveless institutions. American evangelical churches, in particular, cling to law and government as tightly as their interpretations of the Bible, but don’t seem to realize that the Jesus they claim as Savior would have likely broken those laws in order to extend love, peace, and wholeness to those identified as the ‘least of these’ (the marginalized)” (pp. 60-1). 

Amen to that. I wish I could quote most of this essay, really, but I don’t want to keep you forever. 

I hope you get the chance to read Lewis-Giggetts’ essay, as well as the rest of the book. If you do, come back and let me know what you think!

Look At Us: a short sermon on Acts 3:1-11

Thankful for another opportunity to join an awesome team of preachers at Lake B and give a mini-sermon on Acts 3:1-11. Here’s the passage, and then the sermon text is below!

(Or if you prefer to listen/watch, the worship service is on YouTube here, and my part starts around 34:00. Stick around for David Meade and Michael Won’s sermons too if you have time!)

Acts 3:1-11 (NRSV):

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. 11 While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.

The book of Acts is kind of a wild book. We’re only at the start of chapter 3, and already Jesus has been taken up to heaven, after telling his followers to wait for God’s promise. Then Pentecost came, tongues of fire and all, and Peter gave a sermon about how all of this was fulfilling what the prophet Joel said, a really long time ago, about God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh. The people who heard were cut to the heart, and three thousand of them were baptized that day. 

Then they all got to the messy and interesting work of figuring out what all this means in daily life, figuring out what difference it makes that the Holy Spirit dwells among us. This new way of life involved sharing fellowship, eating together, praying together, worshipping together, sharing material stuff, making sure everyone’s needs are met, and generally living simply and gratefully and generously and joyfully. In our competitive, greedy, often violent world, this is radical stuff.

In the middle of this description of the new community that is being formed, we read that “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” (That’s Acts 2:43.) Our passage today gives us a glimpse of one of these wonders. In the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a man who has been lame from birth – or, literally translated, lame from his mother’s womb.

When Peter and John heal the lame man, they’re doing the same kind of work Jesus was doing throughout his life. Jesus was always healing people of all sorts of ailments, and casting out demons, and doing all sorts of wildly miraculous stuff that left the crowds astonished and amazed, and that often left the people who experienced these miracles praising God. 

This is one of the things that characterized Jesus’ life on earth. As Jesus puts it when some of John the Baptist’s disciples come to him to say, “soo…are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or is another coming?”, Jesus says, “go tell John what you’ve seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (That’s in Luke 7:22). Jesus is like, this is what’s going on. You can see it for yourselves. Nuff said. You tell me if I’m the one you’ve all been waiting for, or not.

Jesus’ work involved curing people of their ailments. But it wasn’t just that. It was also, at least as importantly, the work of justice. Jesus’ work involved teaching people to live really different kinds of lives, together, in a world that’s often harsh and brutal, where people are often cruel, caught up forcefully and sometimes unquestioningly in systems that deal death rather than giving life. Jesus came to bring a fuller kind of life, marked by love and community, and by the kind of equity and justice that has to happen if real love and community is ever going to come into being.

And so, when Peter and John interact with the lame man outside the temple, they aren’t just there to instigate the kind of miracle where this man’s feet and ankles are strengthened. They’re also there to instigate the kind of miracle where a new kind of community is being formed – one that couldn’t have existed while the lame man was still outside, excluded from worship, relating to others solely as one who needs something, rather than as one with something to offer.

Peter and John are there to look this man in the eye, while others rush by him, in their very busy and important lives, on their way to do very busy and important things, like go to worship. There’s a lot wrapped up in eye contact, or lack thereof, sometimes. When someone makes eye contact with us, it can help us feel included in a group. It can help us feel like people like us and care about us and value our presence there. And when someone withholds eye contact from us, it can make us feel excluded, rejected, or invisible. When this happens repeatedly over time, it can make us feel less than others, or even sub-human.

Peter looks intently at this man, and when the man doesn’t return eye contact – whether that’s because he feels ashamed of his position, or if he just isn’t used to people paying attention to him, or for whatever reason – Peter says to him, “look at us.” He says, in effect, John and I see you. And we want you to see us.

This is part of how real community forms: we see others, and we are seen. We want to know others, and we want others to know us – beyond the basic visible facts, like what we look like, or where we’re located, or what we’re doing for work. Peter can see all these things about the lame man. But he wants to know who he is on a deeper level. He’s saying, in a sense, the things I can see right now – the fact that you’re not able to walk, that you’re located outside the temple, that you’re dressed a certain way, that you’re begging – these things don’t tell me everything I want to know about you. Peter looks intently at him, beyond the things that would normally keep people who are entering the temple from being friends with someone who is begging outside the gate. 

Peter and John are there to invite the man into a new kind of relationship, of knowing and being known – the kind of relationship where we see one another eye to eye, as equals.

They’re also there to say, I know what you’re expecting to receive from us, but that isn’t what we have to give. When Peter says “I have no silver or gold,” more literally, from the Greek, he’s saying something like “silver and gold do not exist for me.” I kind of picture him saying, what even is silver? What even is gold? What are these things supposed to mean? What even is this system, where some people get to go worship in the temple while others are left outside? Where some people have gold and silver and can give alms as they wish, while also keeping all the power for themselves and not really changing anything?

Peter says, there’s something better. There’s something that can go beyond just helping you get through the next day, although that’s important too. There’s something that can actually bring into being a new and flourishing kind of life, for all of us, together. There’s something that can shift the power dynamic here, so you don’t have to keep on being the needy one, but instead you can enter the temple, we can all enter the temple together, and we can worship God together as equals. There’s transformation. For all of us. And we all need it. 

This is all a continuation of the work of Jesus, right? Really seeing people, and not being afraid to see people’s pain and vulnerability. Being brave enough to let other people see us, to be humble and vulnerable and needy. Making eye contact with people whom others exclude and dehumanize. Looking beyond the surface level, to know people and let people know us. Working relentlessly and radically toward building a community of people who operate as equals, across all sorts of human-made walls, like race, or class, or social standing, or ability or disability, or gender, or sexuality.

Peter and John continue the work of Jesus in this story. It’s like Jesus died, but in so doing, his spirit multiplied like the bread and loaves he broke open to feed the five thousand, and this spirit fills Peter, and John, and now the lame man, along with so many others we read about as we go on in the book of Acts. The now formerly lame man, filled with this spirit, “jumps up,” “walking and leaping and praising God.” His “leaping” here is a word that can also mean to “spring up,” like a spring of water that bubbles up. It’s the word Jesus uses when he talks with the Samaritan woman at the well, when he says, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (That’s in John 4:14.) The formerly lame man springs up, gushes up, bubbles over with praise, as Jesus’ spirit disperses and spreads and multiplies, and Jesus’ work of love and justice and mercy continues.

This same spirit invites us today to continue Jesus’ work in our lives and communities, together. To learn to trust and rely on one another. To give generously of whatever we might have to offer, and to know that we all have something to offer. To learn to be in unity. To worship together. 

May we, together, as a community, be filled with this Holy Spirit and continue the work of Jesus in our world.

Super chill book review: Just Us: An American Conversation (Claudia Rankine)

Apparently Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book (or, more precisely, book-length poem, although a lot of it is fairly prose-y) Citizen: An American Lyric is pretty well-known, at least in some circles, but I hadn’t heard of it until recently. When I went to check it out from the library, I saw that Rankine also wrote a more recent book, published in 2020, called Just Us: An American Conversation. I checked that one out too and ended up reading most of it on the airplane this last weekend.

Here’s a random set of thoughts about Just Us. I really liked it. (I guess I haven’t blogged yet about any books I haven’t liked. I’m sure we’ll get there someday.)

1. If Citizen is a kind of prose-y poem, then Just Us is a kind of poem-y bunch of prose. I appreciated Rankine’s often poem-like writing, in its attention to detail, and its attention to sound and rhythm. She has kind of a cool style. It’s pretty easy to read, too, which I appreciated. Especially on an airplane.

It was also kind of funny reading it on the plane because a lot of her stories happen in or around airports and airplanes. I guess it’s one of those places where you find yourself in close proximity with a lot of strangers. 

Rankine travels first class a lot, and so she finds herself, in that space, often bumping up against white people’s expectations around race, and class, and who does or doesn’t travel in a particular way. It made me look around at the first class section on the planes I was on and contemplate the whiteness of it all, which I hadn’t really thought about before—you know, because I’m white. 

(And because normally I don’t spend much time looking around at people in the first-class section, because I think it’s gross that they paid so much for their seats. I know people’s work often pays for it, and I probably shouldn’t judge, regardless. But it’s hard not to.)

I don’t travel first class, but if I did, I don’t think I’d have to worry about people ignoring me, or cutting in front of me in line, or generally assuming I don’t belong there. Rankine, as a Black woman, encounters all of these things regularly.

2. Throughout Just Us, Rankine includes lots of “fact check” and “notes and sources” sections on the left side of the page, referencing statements she makes in her writing on the right side of the page. 

It’s kind of cool, as a reader, because you can choose to read more about any particular statements that interest you, or any details you hadn’t heard before or aren’t sure about. And you can skim or skip these sections for statements you’re already familiar with or don’t need to be convinced of. It lets Rankine offer a lot more detail where she wants to, without interrupting the flow of her stories and her writing.

I wonder if Rankine feels a need to include these “fact check” sections, more so than a white man would in her place. I wonder if she got so sick of her students (she teaches poetry at Yale) questioning everything she says, that she decided to preempt some of that doubt by including “fact checks” throughout her book. 

Maybe sometimes even being an actual genius—that is, more precisely, a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as a ton of other very prestigious-sounding awards—doesn’t protect you from these things.

3. It took me a minute to realize that this is a book about whiteness / white supremacy in particular, not a book about race in general. Maybe as a white person I just tend to expect stuff to be about me, so I didn’t really notice for a while that all the examples and stories were about white people and whiteness, and about Rankine’s reactions to these people and their words and actions?

I think this kind of candid reflection on whiteness is really important. Rankine reflects deeply on so many different kinds of everyday situations in which whiteness rears its head, even if many of us, and especially white people, might be blind to it. 

It’s helpful, too, that the book is from 2020, such that Rankine’s reflections feel very current in a world (and a country) that is changing quite rapidly in some ways even as it remains all too stagnant in others. Because it’s a pretty recent book, we get to hear Rankine’s thoughts on things like Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade, the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, white supremacy in the era of president Trump, and, just in general, all sorts of facts and figures from the last couple of years. 

4. I think Rankine is a brave woman. A lot of her stories involve her speaking up to disrupt something racially toxic that’s going on around her. I know this is not an easy thing, and it can be even a dangerous one. I appreciate her courage, even as I wish things were such that she did not need it.

This book helped draw out, for me, the tug-of-war between my interests in niceness, politeness, and social smoothness, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, my interest in justice and equity (along lines of race, gender, and more). 

I feel like Rankine is a role model of what it could look like to stick out one’s neck a little more than I am often willing—perhaps asking pointed questions that invite people to think twice about what they’ve said, or pointing out racist implications that others might not see or want to acknowledge.

5. Did you know that “critical whiteness studies” was a thing in a lot of universities back in the 80s? I didn’t. 

Apparently, after white people overwhelmingly supported Reagan for president, people got interested in understanding how that could have happened and why that was the case. And so we got a whole area of study, “aim[ing] to make visible a history of whiteness that through its association with ‘normalcy’ and ‘universality’ masked its omnipresent institutional power” (p. 17). 

Sound familiar? Like, from all the analysis we’ve been doing and questions we’ve been asking since the 2016 election? I continue to be mind-blown by all the ways in which a lot of Trump-y stuff is really not new at all, even though it certainly felt that way to me in 2016.

6. As a white woman, I appreciated hearing Rankine’s reflections on some of the things her white female friends have said and done. She even includes in her book some extended reflections they’ve written to her when asked. 

I liked this because I feel like Rankine’s white female friends that she writes about are often both really thoughtful and also really blind. I appreciated that they didn’t feel like caricatures, or like obviously bad examples of white supremacist ways of thinking. It was more subtle and nuanced than that. 

If Rankine is friends with these white women, they’re probably well-intentioned people who aren’t openly, outwardly racist on a regular basis. They were people I could kind of see myself in, at least at some points, and because of that, it was interesting and helpful for me to hear Rankine’s thoughts on where her white friends got it really right, and what they were missing.

Curious to hear if you’ve heard of and/or read this book, and what you think!

Super chill book review: Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (Kaitlin B. Curtice)

After most recently writing about a couple of old-school(-ish) books, it feels like a good time to come back to the present. Kaitlin B. Curtice is my age, and her very-much-worth-reading book Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God was published in 2020. 

I found Curtice’s reflections on grappling with Christian faith as a young woman of both Indigenous (Potawatomi) and European descent fascinating. I think this is the kind of thing we really need—we, meaning all sorts of people who identify in some way with Christianity or have it as a part of our histories―in order to deconstruct the things that need to be deconstructed and figure out how to move forward together.

Below are a few things that stood out to me. They’re mostly critiques of (white) American evangelical Christianity―which is not at all the only thing the book is about, but I guess these parts stood out to me because they’re things I think about a lot. I’m grateful for leaders like Curtice who can help guide us in a better direction. Some thoughts:

1. As someone who was once pretty excited about Christian evangelism, I appreciate Curtice’s critiques of some of the ways evangelism is often done―or, maybe more precisely, of the mindsets that are often behind it.

Curtice asks, “What happens when white supremacy taints our Christianity so much that we would rather scream the love of God over someone than honor and respect their rights to live peacefully within the communities they have created and maintained for generations? If Christianity is able to de-center itself enough to see that the imprint of Sacred Mystery already belongs all over the earth, to all peoples, it would change the way we treat our human and nonhuman kin” (p. 50).

The screaming part reminds me of a middle school youth group service trip I went on, to Spokane, WA, the summer before eighth grade. It was kind of a life-changing trip, in the sense that I experienced a powerful sense of community, belonging, and unconditional love there, with all those weirdo kids and youth leaders, and that stuck with me. 

I also remember, though, being with a bunch of other middle schoolers in the church van on the way there, and―I would never have initiated this, but I may have followed along with the crowd―rolling down the windows and yelling “Jesus loves you” at random unsuspecting passersby. A+ for boldness, but…maybe yelling at people out of a car window wasn’t the best way to actually express love.

That’s kind of a funny story, and probably mostly harmless. But don’t Christians often do this in bigger and less harmless ways, too―that is, in Curtice’s words, “scream the love of God over someone” rather than “honor and respect their rights to live peacefully” in their communities? Saying “God loves you” but then expecting someone to come to your kind of church to experience that love, or to conform to your culture and ways of being―or thinking of them as a sinner or heathen if they don’t respond to this declaration of Christian love in the way you want them to―isn’t exactly love. 

I like Curtice’s idea of Christianity de-centering itself. I think this is challenging, when many of us have been taught that there is One Right Way to get to God, and it involves something like the Four Spiritual Laws, or the Roman Road, or the ABCs of salvation, or the sinner’s prayer. (All things, by the way, that were developed quite recently in the grand scheme of things. No one before that must have known God―including all the historical Christian theologians who shaped our faith as we know it, not to mention all the people in the Bible.)

I think it’s entirely possible for Jesus to be the way, the truth, and the life, the one through whom we come to God (John 14:6), and for this path to look very different for different people and different groups of people. It definitely doesn’t need to―and, for people who don’t share these cultural and ethnic backgrounds, it shouldn’t―look like historical European-ness, or current white American-ness. White Christians over the years have done so much harm by acting like it should.

2. At various points throughout the book, Curtice comes back to the idea of a God and a faith that is primarily personal and individualistic―and all the different things that are wrong with this, or that could be so much bigger and more beautiful.

She connects an individualistic notion of God to the church’s tendency to ignore the oppression of various marginalized groups of people (p. 49), and she connects an obsession with personal sin and salvation with being “ill equipped to go into the world to face systems of injustice, many of which we helped create” (p. 83). “If we stand on Sunday and sing songs about personal sins,” Curtice asks, “how are we to go out and challenge institutional systems of hate?” (p. 84).

On the flip side, she also connects individual healing with communal healing. She writes, “I thought about how our individual healing is tied to our universal healing and how breaking the bonds of colonization is an essential part of that…I belong to my ancestors, I belong to those who came before, to a vision of all of us that keeps us tethered. The work that we must do together…is to help each other see that vision of wholeness beyond colonization and hate. We must carry one another’s stories with grace and honor, and lead each other toward a kind of healing that heals whole systems, not just people. If we have learned anything from the church, and if we have learned anything from injustice, we know that it is individuals who act as part of systems that continue oppressive cycles, yet those same individuals can band together to create change” (p. 153). 

I like this idea of a communal vision of wholeness and healing. If my healing is tied to my neighbor’s healing, and some of my neighbors have borne the weight of generational trauma that comes from a history of colonization, then all of our healing is tied to our ability to, as Curtice writes, “[break] the bonds of colonization” and “help each other see that vision of wholeness beyond colonization and hate.” 

There’s so much history, and so much present-day reality of injustice, that we have to work on confronting and breaking down in order to actually have real relationships across ethnic, racial, and other boundaries―the kind of relationships that are marked by equality and mutuality rather than further injustice, indignity, unequal-ness, and colonization.

3. A while back, I read a book called Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America by Jeffrey L. Sheler. I think I picked it up cheap at a used book store. Back in 2006, long before the era of Trump as president, Sheler was going around interviewing prominent evangelical leaders about faith and (conservative) politics and that sort of thing.

If I understood Sheler correctly, it seemed like his main point (or one of them) was that evangelical Christians, as a group, have taken a sharp veer toward the right in just the last few decades (since the 1970s), and now there are all sorts of very conservative, very Christian people trying to push the country right-ward in a variety of (sometimes sneaky) ways. If I remember right, Sheler contrasted this with the faith of his childhood, which tended to stick to the Bible and stay out of politics.

I remember thinking, I’m with Sheler that it’s bad that evangelical churches have gotten so right-wing political; I’m not with him, though, that it’s bad that they’ve gotten so political at all. I do think Christians should be involved in politics, and that (some) political things―or things that get labeled as political, which is really all sorts of things that matter in our communities, and especially to the most vulnerable among us―are totally fair game for sermons and other church-y conversations. 

All this to say, I appreciate Curtice’s take: “No matter what kind of work we do in the world, whether we are community organizers and activists or stay-at-home parents, we have work to do, and we can take part in caring for the earth and engaging in difficult and honest conversations. Often, our religious spaces are kept clean from these conversations, simply because the conversations don’t seem important enough, or they seem too political. So we must remind ourselves that even the inner work we do to learn about ourselves and to reorient our souls toward caring for the earth is inherently political work, work that stretches into our families, our social circles, our communities, and our governments. We must ask ourselves what we value and hold sacred, and work from there” (pp. 97-8).

“Even the inner work is inherently political work.” Our individual faith is tied to our family lives, the lives of our broader communities, and of our world as a whole. None of these things can be, or should be, separated from the other. Faith speaks into social issues, and social issues speak into faith. 

To me, the solution to becoming aware that the Religious Right is not exactly the religion of Jesus is not to withdraw from the political sphere, but to learn how to engage in that sphere differently―with less of a lens of imposing “biblical views” on society, and more of a lens of seeking justice, building communities where everyone can flourish.

4. Another related theme that came through strongly in this book is truth-telling. I’m super into it, even though it’s also hard. I think Curtice models truth-telling really well―she’s been courageous in digging into her own past and story, and digging into history, and unearthing the colonizing mindsets so present in the evangelical churches, even churches she is still a part of and loves. 

Curtice encourages the (white American) church to remember: to remember truthfully our own history, a history full of violence and colonization and oppression and white supremacy. And she encourages us to ask questions, to “take an honest look at our own intentions” (p. 45). 

She asks so many great questions of the church throughout the book. I could see church leaders, if they were willing, using the book as a guide for a several week long study, opening up conversations about some of the questions Curtice asks. 

5. Sometimes when churches start talking about justice and multiethnicity and that sort of thing, we start talking about the racial make-up of our communities and how we might diversify. I do think racial diversity, as well as diversity along all other sorts of lines, makes a community a richer, more complex, and more beautiful place. At the same time, though, I think it’s complicated.

Along these lines, I think, Curtice writes, “Approaching Indigenous culture with the goal of getting Native peoples in the pews isn’t an answer—it is merely an extension of colonization.” (Oof.) “Perhaps the church should consider that Indigenous peoples have more to teach the church than the church has to teach Indigenous peoples. Perhaps that would change how the relationship works. The important aspect of this relationship is that it is a partnership, a space in which listening really happens…Indigenous people shouldn’t have to spend our days educating non-Native people, but when we are willing to partner with institutions like the church for a better future, we should be heard” (123).

I appreciate that, oof-ness and all. The point isn’t to get more people from particular ethnic or racial groups into predominantly white churches. The point is to learn how to have healthy relationships, where the church is willing to take a humble―that is, Christlike―posture and learn. This is something I’ll keep thinking about in my own journey of figuring out what healthy multiethnic churches and justice-centered churches can look like.

There was a lot to this book, but these are just a few things I liked and am thinking about. Give it a read, if you get a chance, and let me know what you think!

Super chill book review: Hope in the Dark (Rebecca Solnit)

Rebecca Solnit originally published Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild Possibilities in 2004, so a lot of it centers on the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. I read the third edition, published in 2015, which includes a long and lovely newly written foreword.

The premise of the book is that “The future is dark,” but “with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave” (p. 5). Which is kind of cool.

Also, the title of the book tends to make me start singing “Scars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara: “There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark…” Just wanted to share.

Anyhow, here are a few scattered thoughts about the book and some of the things that stood out to me from it.

1. I renewed this book from the library twice before finally getting around to reading it. As someone who wants the world to be better, but who also often struggles to believe that it really could be, I figured from this book’s title that it would be a good one for me to read. But other books seemed to promise more achievable things. A book could teach me about a particular time in history, or about a particular person’s life. But could it give me a renewed sense of hope? I’m not sure. That seemed like a lot to ask.

The book did deliver, though, in the sense that Solnit speaks eloquently, directly, and beautifully to a lot of the defeatist and cynical pessimism I sometimes tend to feel.

I think that Christian faith, at its best, does something like this, too: it helps us look truthfully at the world in all its brokenness, and also have reason to hope, and inspiration to act in ways that bring love and justice into being. Solnit’s book is kind of a secular version of that. It doesn’t downplay the darkness, but does aim to inspire hope and positive action in the middle of it. 

I say this with the caveat that Solnit is an activist on the left of the U.S. political spectrum (strange and totally off-kilter as this spectrum may be). Personally, I pretty much agree with her vision of what progress looks like, so that worked well for me. But if you’re not really the left activist type, I’m not sure how the book would strike you. (Maybe give it a read anyway and let me know?)

2. If the book delivered on the “hope in the dark” part of its title, I feel like it also delivered on the “untold stories” part. There’s so much I didn’t know about the late 1990s and early 2000s.

To be fair, I was in middle school and high school during that time. But I think a lot of today’s (Gen Z) teenagers are a lot more politically aware and engaged than I was at their age, which seems to imply that it would have indeed been possible for me to pay more attention to the world at that time. I think I was mostly too busy trying to build a resume that would impress colleges and stuff, which is not a spectacular excuse.

I also feel like recent history (both U.S. and world) was pretty lacking in my education. I feel like I learned a lot of U.S history from the colonial era up through the 1960s, and then I don’t really remember anything after that. There was so much political struggle, and realignment, and just a lot of impactful stuff going on in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and I’ve just begun to pick it up in bits and pieces as an adult (mostly as I’ve tried to figure out what the hell went wrong in the American church). 

Of course, the early 2000s would have been current events when I was in high school. My high school history/government teacher did give us weekly current events quizzes, and I often did poorly on them. I also remember these quizzes as much more of a “name the major news headlines of the week” kind of thing than a “let’s talk about the implications of all of this, what we think about it, what it means” kind of thing—I don’t remember much deeper discussion of these things.

So yeah, if you’re interested in little-known activist stories—super helpful, for anyone trying to change stuff now—and/or history around the millennium, this is your book. Activist stories, in particular, tend to get written out of school curricula and history books, by people who would rather not have kids grow up thinking they could really change things. So I think it’s worthwhile to seek out books like this, which tell a different kind of story.

3. I thought some of the stuff Solnit wrote about (George W.) Bush was pretty interesting, in that people said a lot of similar things about Trump during his presidency. 

For example:

“The United States is the most disproportionate producer of climate change, governed by the most disregardful administration. This country often seems like a train heading for a wreck, with a gullible, apolitical, easily distracted population bloating itself on television’s political distortions and repellent vision of human life, with the runaway malignancy of domestic fundamentalism, the burgeoning prison and impoverished and unhinged populations, the decay of democracy, and on and on…I spend a lot of time looking at my country in horror.

And a lot of time saying ‘But’ . . . But some plants die from the center and grow outward; the official United States seems like the rotten center of a flourishing world, for elsewhere, particularly around the edges, and even in the margins of this country, beautiful insurrections are flowering. American electoral politics is not the most hopeful direction to look in, and yet the very disastrousness seems something to offer possibility. The Bush administration seems to be doing what every previous administration was too prudent to do: pursuing its unenlightened self-interest so recklessly that it is undermining US standing in the world and the economy that underwrite that standing” (pp. 107-8).

Doesn’t that sound like it could have been written about the Trump era? Disregardful administration. Domestic fundamentalism. Decay of democracy. A lot of time looking in horror. The rotten center of a world that flourishes around the edges with beautiful uprisings, protests, movements. (“Insurrections” may not be quite the right word after January 6, 2021.) And, perhaps Trump-iest of all, an administration pursuing its unenlightened self-interest unusually recklessly.

I think it’s good to be reminded that these things didn’t start with Trump—and sobering, too, because it means they didn’t end with him, either. A lot of them are what America—or at least parts of it—have been for quite a while. And, for quite a while, there have also been beautiful resistance movements that really have made a difference.

4. I liked Solnit’s thoughts on joy. “Another part of the Puritan legacy,” she writes, “is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia. Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited…Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection” (p. 24).

I like the idea that “joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism.” I also find it hard. It can feel wrong to enjoy life when you know others are suffering. The empathy in me cries out and won’t be mollified. 

On the one hand, this is good—it’s good to feel something about someone else’s suffering. That’s what makes us human. And, hopefully, it moves us to act to try to alleviate that suffering—to try to build a more just world where more people can flourish. 

But then there’s also the “in the meanwhile,” which is, really, as long as we live. This present age, as the New Testament might refer to it. In this age there will always be evil, and suffering, and some people being greedy while others experience pain and even death because of it. If we don’t allow ourselves to experience joy while this is still the case, we will never allow ourselves to experience joy in this life. 

I like the idea of joy as “a fine initial act of insurrection.” Joy is, in itself, a form of resistance to everything that would steal joy—not just from others, but from us, too.

5. Relatedly, I appreciate Solnit’s reflections on perfection and perfectionism. 

She writes, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible. Perfectionists can find fault with anything, and no one has higher standards in this regard than leftists…We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its sources and foundation: these are victories. A better world, yes; a perfect world, never” (pp. 77-78).

I feel like people often talk about perfectionism in individualistic terms. You know, like you’re working on a project at work, or writing an essay for school, or something like that, and you’re having a hard time calling it finished and good enough, because it isn’t perfect. (Hi, fellow enneagram “1”s.) 

I thought it was helpful, though, and more new to me, to think of perfectionism in terms of collective change and progress. It’s not just a personal thing. It’s also a movement thing. Perfectionism doesn’t just mess up our personal lives or our work at our jobs, it also messes up activism and political change.

Just as we might want to learn to stop expecting perfection from ourselves personally, we might also need to learn to stop expecting perfection in the world in general—to work for that better world, and to celebrate any changes that happen in that direction, however incomplete they might be.

Solnit also writes, “Much has changed; much needs to change; being able to celebrate or at least recognize milestones and victories and keep working is what the times require of us….Perfectionists often position themselves on the sidelines, from which they point out that nothing is good enough…The naively cynical measure a piece of legislation, a victory, a milestone not against the past or the limits of the possible but against their ideas of perfection, and as this book reminds you, perfection is a yardstick by which everything falls short” (p. 140).

I feel that. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and critique—to be cynical about everything that looks like it could be progress, because it’s never good enough. It’s never perfect. It’s harder—but necessary—to stay engaged, to refuse to use the impossibility of perfection as an excuse not to do anything, or not to celebrate the good things that are being done. 

6. In Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza’s book The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart (also worth reading!), Garza writes about coming together in diverse coalitions, across different groups and with lots of different kinds of people—different groups and people who all have a particular interest in common, even if not a whole lot else. Solnit’s book reminded me of that.

Garza writes, “when it comes to politics, when it comes to governing, when it comes to building power, being small is something we cannot afford. And while I feel most comfortable around people who think like me and share my experiences, the longer I’m in the practice of building a movement, the more I realize that movement building isn’t about finding your tribe—it’s about growing your tribe across difference to focus on a common set of goals. It’s about being able to solve real problems in people’s lives, and it’s about changing how we think about and express who we are together” (p. 136).

Solnit writes—similarly, I think—of “a new kind of activism in which coalitions can be based on what wildly different groups have in common and difference can be set aside; a coalition requires difference as a cult does not, and sometimes it seems like the ideological litmus test of earlier movements moved them toward cultism” (pp. 87-88).

I like this, and I also find it challenging (in a good way). It’s easy to get caught up in worrying about whether we all agree on all the things. It’s harder, but much more powerful, to build alliances across lots and lots of differences, based on the one thing (or set of things) we have in common. Groups that effectively have ideological purity tests for membership often remain so small they never get much done. But there is a lot we can get done if we learn to work together, across our ideological differences, about the things that concern us all.

7. Solnit is not a quick read. I’ve read three books by her now (the other two: Recollections of My Nonexistence, which is her memoir, and her essay collection Men Explain Things to Me), and I find her writing both very beautiful and kind of convoluted. In Recollections of My Nonexistence, she actually writes about this—how she wanted to write in a way that was more nuanced, gentle, complex, and meandering than a lot of the more stereotypically masculine ways of writing that tend to dominate journalism and nonfiction.

I’m not sure how I feel about connecting gender to writing styles, but it was definitely interesting. I think Solnit is brilliant, and I think her writing is lovely. It’s just not easy to read. It makes me stop and think, and sometimes stop and read a sentence multiple times to make sure I’m following it.

So, maybe save this book for a time when you have a bit of spare brain power to spend on it. It’s worth it, I think.

Super chill book review: This Bridge Called My Back (ed. Anzaldua & Moraga)

This one is an oldie, but a goodie. The book is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, and it was originally published in 1981. It’s what it sounds like—an anthology of pieces written by lots of different women of color. I read the fourth edition, published in 2015.

A few thoughts:

1. I notice that, sometimes, when (white?) people want to diversify their reading, or predominantly white educational institutions want to diversify their syllabi, and that sort of thing, often the first (and/or only) authors added to a mostly-white reading list are Black. 

This was true of many of my seminary classes. The syllabi were full of white authors, and if any of the authors weren’t white, they were likely Black. 

Other classes featured a reading list full of white people and then, at the end of the quarter, a choice of one book among four or so options—often a Black (male) author, a Latino (male) author, an Asian or Asian-American (male) author, and a (white) female author. What an awful choice: you can learn from a woman, or you can learn from a person of color. And it erases women of color entirely.

But in the classes that actually assigned books written by people of color, these authors were usually Black.

On the one hand, that’s great. The more, the better. Most of us, as far as I can tell—Black, white, or otherwise—could use more Black writers in our lives. There’s nothing wrong—and everything right—about individuals reading, and institutions assigning, more work by Black authors. 

On the other hand, I think there is something wrong when Black authors are the only people of color being paid attention to. As I understand it, different racialized experiences tend to have some commonalities but are also very different. And there are brilliant people from every possible sort of ethnic and racial background, writing brilliant and wonderful things.

All this to say, one of the awesome things about This Bridge Called My Back is that the editors were clearly quite intentional about incorporating perspectives from a mix of brilliant Black, Latina, Asian, indigenous, and multiracial women. The authors of the different chapters that make up this book tend to draw on their own racially specific experience and also have things to say more broadly to women of color in general—as well as to white women, and to men of color, and the world as a whole. The book is rich, full, varied, and complex because of it.

2. In her memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit wrote, “When you pursue creative work, immortality is often held up as an ideal”; however, “there are two ways of making contributions that matter. One is to make work that stays visible before people’s eyes; the other is to make work that is so deeply absorbed that it ceases to be what people see and becomes how they see…Works of art that had an impact in their time sometimes look dated or obvious because what was fresh and even insurrectionary about them has become the ordinary way things are…They have been rendered obsolete by their success―which makes the relevance of even much nineteenth-century feminist writing a grim reminder that though we’ve come far, it’s not far enough” (pp. 221-2). 

I thought of this when I read lots of parts of This Bridge Called My Back. It’s striking how much of it—as in, basically all of it—feels relevant, timely, helpful, fruitful, and much-needed today, even though it was written forty or so years ago. A lot of its authors are saying things that activists and other antiracist and feminist leaders are still saying today. 

The authors say these things really well, beautifully, insightfully, and (appropriately) incisively—which makes the book, on the one hand, a fascinating and very worthwhile read. 

On the other hand, though, it’s one of those books that I very much wish had been “rendered obsolete by [its] success,” as Solnit would say, by now. I wish things had changed in our world such that the authors’ observations from another generation no longer felt so prescient. But here we are.

3. I loved that the editors sought out writing in many different forms. There are poems, mixed in with essays, mixed in with letters, and speeches, and transcripts of interviews. 

I thought a lot of the poems were especially striking. I’m sure I’m biased, because I write poems, but I do think that poetry is absolutely the right form for, well, a lot of important things. I feel like poems belong in books more often than we see them.

Plus, at least for me, it can be kind of hard to read a whole book of poetry all at once. But poems interspersed between essays and other things provide a nice break, a different way of thinking and processing information, a way of helping the reader engage from different angles. I really liked that about this book.

I also liked the interview transcripts. Kind of like a podcast, before podcasts were cool…or possible. By including interviews, I feel like the editors affirm that spoken words are important—that something doesn’t have to be an officially published essay or book to be worth paying attention to. Wisdom comes in lots of different forms. 

4. I feel, sometimes, that the feminist sisterhood—if there is or ever was one, and I know that some women of color would argue, very reasonably, that there has never really been one—is weak. Women of color are often (again, very reasonably) frustrated with white women, and white women often just don’t get it—or don’t want to get it, or aren’t willing to put in the work to get it. 

I think this book is full of the kind of work that can strengthen—or help build, help create—the multiracial (and multi-socioeconomic class) sisterhood. Its authors aren’t afraid to call out white feminists on our counterproductive nonsense. It felt honest, like no one was particularly mincing their words or catering to fragile white woman feelings. 

And, at the same time, I also felt called in—like I was being graciously shown how to embody a feminism that is actually relevant to all women. 

I don’t mean to say that I expect this from all women of color all the time. I hope to listen, regardless, even (or especially?) when what I hear puts me on the defensive rather than giving me warm fuzzy feelings of hope. So, without any particular implied criticism of any other work, I just wanted to say that this is how I felt about This Bridge Called My Back—like I was being shown and taught a lot of unvarnished truth, and also being given hope of a more genuine and fruitful sisterhood that can be built. 

For more on this kind of thing, by the way—on what it’ll take for feminism to be a movement of/with/for all women, not just relatively well-to-do white women—I thought Mikki Kendall’s book Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women a Movement Forgot was really great.

5. I feel like sometimes (white and/or male) people make excuses about why they’re still just reading and listening to the same old white dude stuff. They say they can’t find female authors or authors of color, let alone female authors of color—for their book club, or course syllabus, or Sunday school class, church group, etc.

I feel like this is the kind of book that takes away excuses. It’s not the only thing out there, of course, or anywhere near it. But it may be a place to start. 

Because it’s an anthology that a lot of writers contributed to, it’s a way to learn the names of some of the brilliant women of color who were writing in a recent generation, some of whom are still writing today. And there have been so many more in the meanwhile. 

There’s really no excuse not to seek them out. We all need their vision for what a freer, healthier, more sustainable world could look like. 

6. One of the essays in this book is The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, by Audre Lorde. This is a phrase I had heard before, but I didn’t know where it came from. Now I know.

 From Lorde’s essay:

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference; those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those other identified as outside the structures, in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support” (p. 95).

We can “take our differences and make them strengths,” rejecting all hierarchies and all twisted notions of winning and losing, and instead learn to live as equals and build a better kind of house together. “Divide and conquer, in our world, must become define and empower” (p. 96).

7. In a preface to the 2015 edition of this book, Cherríe Moraga writes, “I watch how desperately we need political memory, so that we are not always imagining ourselves the ever-inventors of our revolution; so that we are humbled by the valiant efforts of our foremothers; and so, with humility and a firm foothold in history, we can enter upon an informed and re-envisioned strategy for social/political change in decades ahead” (xix). 

I think this book does all that really well. I like the idea of reading older stuff—previous generations’ insights and struggles and wisdom—mixed in with recently published books, so that we are not, in Moraga’s words, ever-inventing ideas and practices that previous generations have already developed. We want to build on previous generations’ work. 

Sometimes we tend to forget quickly, to over-value new things and under-value old things, to assume that the progress our society has achieved must have rendered older work irrelevant. And, of course, most of our schools and other institutions actively suppress revolutionary things (or oversimplify, over-sanitize, and otherwise distort them, as has been done to the Civil Rights movement).

We need books like this to help us develop a better memory together. They help us realize that a lot of our struggles are not new. They help us learn from previous generations and refuse to forget their work and wisdom. 

Holler with your thoughts, on this book or anything related!

Super chill book review: How to be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi)

I was on a hiatus from male authors for a while, but I made an exception for Ibram X. Kendi. I got over Kendi’s gender and read his book How to be an Antiracist because it felt like an important read…and also because it took so frickin long to get it from the library! 

(Side note: I put the book on hold again right after I returned it, because I ran out of time to jot down some notes. The second time around, I was able to check it out within a couple of weeks, I think, after having waited months and months and months before. Perhaps all the white people wanted to read books by Black authors last summer amidst all the protests, and our attention spans are short? Yikes.)

Anyhow, I thought How to be an Antiracist was worth reading. I’d love to share a few reflections on it—kind of like a book review, but super informal, and admittedly (or intentionally?) super duper biased, and without any attempt to summarize the book, because I think you should totally read it yourself if you have time.

Here are some things that stood out to me.

1. I thought it was helpful that Kendi made a distinction between being an antiracist and being an assimilationist. There are lots of ways to be an assimilationist, and I think I’ve participated in some programs, volunteer activities, etc. that perhaps bought into that mindset—or at least, maybe I was buying into that mindset while I was participating. 

Assimilationism often involves the mindset that, when racial inequity surfaces, Black people just need a little more support—a little more mentoring or tutoring, for example. Things like mentoring and tutoring aren’t necessarily bad, Kendi argues, and they can help individuals have a better shot at their educational and career goals, but they also don’t really deal with the root issues. The root issues are all of the structures and policies that keep things so unequal. 

Assimilationist programs operate, sometimes, as if Black individuals are the problem, and, thus, helping Black individuals better integrate into white-dominated society is the solution. And that’s just not true. 

An antiracist mindset, on the other hand, looks for the policies that perpetuate inequality, and looks to change these policies. It looks to figure out who is enacting and maintaining these policies, and looks to hold these people accountable. 

2. I appreciated Kendi’s distinction between being being “not racist” and being antiracist—the distinction between passively trying to stay out of things, keep the peace, and not make things worse, versus actively being involved in trying to make things better. As Kendi writes, “there is no neutrality in the racism struggle” (p. 9).

This might sound kind of harsh, but it makes sense to me, and I think it’s helpful. Passivity perpetuates the status quo, and the status quo is not good. In order for things to actually change, more and more people need to sincerely challenge and push back against the racial injustice that is the current state of things. It’s not enough to just avoid saying or doing racist things. 

3. Kendi describes the history of America as a dueling history of antiracist progress (i.e. things getting better and more equal) and racist progress (i.e. things getting worse and more unequal). On the one hand, he writes, we have “America’s undeniable history of antiracist progress, away from chattel slavery and Jim Crow”; on the other hand, we have “America’s undeniable history of racist progress, from advancing police violence and voter suppression, to widening the racial inequities in areas ranging from health to wealth” (p. 33). 

I thought this image of American history as a duel was really helpful.

When I was growing up, I definitely learned the narrative of antiracist progress, and only this narrative. I learned that things have gotten so much better for people of color over the generations, and, in particular, that the Civil Rights movement happened and everything has been just fine ever since. 

In college, I learned more about the current realities of racial injustice, and this narrative got more complex. It seemed that antiracist progress was slower, and much less complete, than I had previously thought.

In the years since then, as I continued to try to listen and learn, it began to feel like any idea of antiracist progress was a lie. Things really haven’t changed at all. Racism has just taken on different forms—the current ones harder (for white people) to see, but no better, really, than the older forms.

I like Kendi’s take better. American human rights history—for people of color, and, for that matter, for women, too—is definitely not a triumphant victory march forward. (It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah?) But it’s also not exactly a slow and incomplete march forward, and it’s not exactly a total standstill, either. It’s more like a war between two opposing forces, with different battles and skirmishes in each generation. There really has been lots and lots of antiracist progress—and, at the same time, there has been lots and lots of racist progress. We get to choose where we stand in the ongoing tug of war. 

4. I appreciated all the stories Kendi wove in from his own life. I was fascinated to read about his experiences as a Black kid growing up just a few years before I did. I could relate in some ways, and totally not relate in others. 

I grew up in a time and place (1990s – early 2000s, Seattle area) where everyone around me seemed to think that a) racism ended a long time ago, and/or b) racism was something only present in the South. Of course, neither of these things is true, but even though I know this intellectually, it’s always helpful for me to hear stories that put names and faces and real experiences to the particular ways in which it’s not true. I appreciate the stories Kendi tells, and his vulnerability in sharing these stories.

5. Relatedly, I appreciated Kendi’s willingness to share his journey over time, in terms of how he’s changed his mind about various things. He gave a lot of insight into some of the things he used to think, and why he no longer thinks these things.

What a great model of humility and willingness to learn—and also a reminder that we’re all on our own different journeys. If Kendi, as a Black person (who had to think about race a lot while growing up), can admit to realizing he was wrong about a lot of race-related things and needed to change his mind, then surely I, as a white person (who grew up not thinking much about race at all, and thus has a lot more to learn) can do the same. 

I appreciate Kendi’s courage, openness, and clarity about his own journey. Something to aspire to, for sure.

6. I appreciated Kendi’s attention to intersectionality—for example, exploring the intersections between race and gender, and race and sexuality. Each of these topics gets a whole chapter, and I think that’s great. 

For those of us who experience marginalization in one aspect of our identity and privilege in a whole lot of others, it can be easy to overlook a lot of the complexities of how different kinds of marginalizations intersect and interact. As a woman who’s privileged in pretty much every other way except gender, I’m taking notes.


Hope you enjoyed these reflections. Do you have any thoughts of your own—about these things, or about anything else in How to be an Antiracist, if you’ve read it? Feel free to holler in the comments!

Extraordinary Courage, Extraordinary Kindness

Sharing a sermon from a couple years ago: feel free to listen here, or the text is below! The passage is Ruth 2, where Ruth meets Boaz.

As I reflect on the story of Ruth, I wonder if the world of our heroines, Ruth and Naomi, might in some ways not be as different from ours as it may seem. They may not have social media posts and internet trolls and competing news networks on TV that present very different versions of events, but Ruth and Naomi lived in the time of the judges. They were no strangers to political chaos and troubling news.

In a very quick skim through the book of Judges, which tells us what that time was like, I saw war. Forced labor. Ethnic tension. Repentance and remorse, which always seem to turn out to be short lived. The people of God just doing what everyone else around them is doing. Widespread corruption, and stubbornness about it. People not listening to God. Violence. Poverty. Treachery. Broken trust. More war. Siege. Oppression and distress. Vicious vengeance. Betrayal. Murder. Devaluing and abuse of women. Making and worship of idols. Greed and selfishness. Everyone did as they saw fit.

There were good things too, of course. But there was a lot of evil. A lot of things to be distressed about and overwhelmed by, to be sad and angry about. Do you recognize some of these things? Widespread corruption, lack of accountability, tension between different racial and ethnic groups, devaluing and abuse of women, greed, selfishness? 

Like us, Naomi and Ruth lived in difficult and troubling times. And yet there is something about their story that feels like a bright spot in the midst of the time of the judges. It’s the story of ordinary people  who live their ordinary lives with faithfulness, goodness, agency, integrity, courage, and hope. In our crazy time, and in our own ordinary day to day lives, we need their story. We need the model of these strong women, to spark our imaginations of how we might live our own lives in our own time with the same kind of courage and faith.

This morning we’ll be stepping into the second chapter of this short four-chapter book, and we’ll look at it in three scenes. We pick up Naomi and Ruth’s story after Ruth, despite her mother-in-law Naomi’s insistence otherwise, has journeyed with Naomi back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. When we left off last week at the end of chapter one, Naomi was feeling bitter, like she has nothing. Now the two women have made it back to Bethlehem, still with nothing and no one except each other.

What would it have been like to be Ruth at this time, at the beginning of this chapter, in this first scene? The narrator tells us that there actually is this wealthy man, Boaz, who is a relative and might be able to give her a hand as she struggles to find a place for herself and make ends meet in this new and foreign place. We know that, but Ruth doesn’t know that.

Back in Chapter 1, when the women of the city said, omg, it’s Naomi! She’s back! (that’s a Liz translation), they didn’t even mention Ruth. Maybe they’re not sure what to do with her, how to categorize her. She’s a stranger, a new person, a foreigner, in a place where she doesn’t know anyone and no one knows her. This is an intense time of transition. She’s left everything and everyone familiar to her (except Naomi). She left a culture she knew, and a community in which she had a place.

When Ken and I moved to Pasadena about a year ago, we experienced some of what Ruth might have felt as she left Moab and entered into the Bethlehem community. We left a life we had spent the last several years (eleven in my case and six in Ken’s) building in the Bay area. Work, friends, church, community, commitments. Knowing the best places to get cheap produce. Having a car mechanic I liked and trusted. All of these random things you take for granted when you spend a while in a place. We left all of that familiarity behind, like Ruth did when she left her family and community in Moab and went with Naomi to Bethlehem.

Can you relate to Ruth in her time of transition? Many of us here have recently started a new school year, or perhaps a new school entirely, or a new job, or are new in Pasadena, or in California, or even in the United States, or have undergone a big life change like getting married. These are big transitions. They can be jarring.

In times of transition sometimes we wonder things that maybe we didn’t have to wonder before. Things like, will I make friends, and who will they be? Will I find a church community, and what will that be like? Will I do well in my classes or my work? Will people notice me, respect me, think well of me? Times of transition can be vulnerable times.

For Ruth, moving from Moab to Judah had another layer of difficulty on top of all that, too. It wasn’t exactly like moving from NorCal to Socal…although there are some weird dynamics there too, where NorCal people throw a lot of shade at SoCal and talk trash about SoCal people, while SoCal people don’t really think about NorCal at all, it’s like it doesn’t exist.

But for Ruth, being a Moabite is a little different than for me, moving from the Bay area. There was a lot more historical animosity than that. In the view of the Israelites, the people of Moab didn’t look so good. They had their origin in a story of incest. They had been historically violent toward the Israelites, cursing them rather than welcoming them, and engaging in many battles with them over the years. They were seen as especially arrogant and defiant of God.

And Moabite women in particular were seen as sexually promiscuous and aggressive, sexual predators that posed a very dangerous threat to Israelite men, whom they might seduce and lead into idolatry. I’m sure the anti-Moab sentiment was stronger at some times than others, but on the whole, being a Moabite in Bethlehem is not an easy thing for Ruth. Everyone knows that she’s from Moab, the land of Israel’s enemies. The employee who answers Boaz’ question about who Ruth is, what family she belongs to, her identity, answers not with her name but with her ethnicity. She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from Moab. Oh yeah, did I mention she’s from Moab?? 

Our sermon series is called strong women, but right now Ruth is so vulnerable! She’s young. She’s a woman. She’s only connected with Naomi, in a time when being connected with a man, like a husband or son, meant economic and physical security for women.

She’s a foreigner, an immigrant. She’s from a different ethnicity than the dominant one in Bethlehem. She’s associated with Judah’s enemies. She’s new and doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t know one field from another or who to trust. Can you feel her vulnerability in this time?

If I were Ruth, I might think, all right, Naomi, I came here for you. This is where you wanted to be, and I have no idea what to do here, and no one wants me here. Maybe I should have stayed with my family and my people back in Moab. You even told me, twice, to go back! Why did I come?

I might think, Naomi is depressed. All she does is talk about how cruel God has been to her and how she has no one. What about me? Well, Naomi got us into this situation, so I’ll wait until she gets us out. Maybe I’ll just watch a bunch of Netflix until she figures out what to do. At least that way I’ll be safe and not have to worry about all these things.

That’s not Ruth. Ruth takes initiative, exercising her God-given agency to say to Naomi, hey! I heard your people have this practice of gleaning. I hear people who are down on their luck and don’t have land and money can follow behind the workers harvesting the barley and pick up what gets left on the ground. I’m going to go do that. And I’m going to try to do that not just anywhere, but I’m going to try to find someone in whose sight I may find favor. Someone who will notice me here in this strange place and not just see me as a hated Moabite, but see me as me. Someone who will treat me with kindness and respect. I’m going to get to work. I don’t know if anyone else will treat me with dignity and honor, but I know that I’m worth these things, and I’m going to go look for it.

We feel Ruth’s vulnerability, and we also see her courage, her strength, in the midst of it.

I think God loves that about Ruth. That she takes initiative, takes action, exercises her agency as a human being to see what needs to be done and do it. To go. To try. To figure out how to obtain the things she needs and the things Naomi needs, basic things like food, and more complicated things like kind people, community. To figure out what she needs from other people in this process and to ask for it.

I think God loves that Ruth is not passive. The text doesn’t say this directly, but I see this in the sense we get, that God is ever-present and is blessing the efforts of these women. “As it happened,” she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz. I think that’s a bit of a “wink wink” on the part of the narrator. The field could have belonged to anyone, but it just happened to belong to Boaz. And “just then” Boaz came back from the town to visit his field and his workers.

Ruth had no idea what the lay of the land was like and whose fields she was in, but she “just happened” to come to Boaz’ field, and Boaz “just happened” to come visit the field once she started working, and so she ends up in this situation that’s far better than what it easily could have been. I don’t think anything in this story “just happens.” God is behind it all. God is with her. God blesses her and provides the favor she seeks as she takes initiative and steps out in courage in the midst of her vulnerability.

In this next scene, I want us to shift gears a bit and think from Boaz’ perspective. First Ruth took initiative to get to work and try to find favor, to take advantage of Israel’s God-given gleaning laws and to gather grain as well. Now Boaz takes initiative in noticing and starting a conversation with Ruth.

In these interactions he goes way above and beyond what Ruth asked for. She asked to glean and gather, and Boaz says, yes, you are welcome to glean and gather here (v. 8). But also! Follow closely behind my employees who are harvesting so that you get first pick of everything they leave behind (v. 9). But also! I am not blind to the ways you are vulnerable as a woman, and I am making sure my male employees will not harass you, verbally or physically. But also! Here’s water if you want it (v. 9).

She is taken aback and says, I was looking for favor, but this is much more than I expected to find. Also, do you know I’m from Moab? Why have I found favor in your sight? (v. 10)

Boaz says, I have seen everything you’ve done for Naomi. I know you’re from Moab, but I don’t see you as an enemy. I see how you have suffered the loss of your husband and persevered with strength and courage. I don’t see you as the stereotype of a sexually aggressive, dangerous, idolatrous Moabite woman; I see you as doing what my esteemed ancestor Abraham did, when he left his father and mother and native land and came to a people he did not know before (v. 11). You talk about yourself like you’re a foreigner without value, but you know your value, and I know your value. The way you’ve acted shows that you trust God as a refuge, and I hope you experience that (v. 12) 

Ruth finds comfort in Boaz’ remarkable kindness to her (v. 13).

Then there’s more! At lunchtime he says, but also! Come eat with me, from the good food, bread and wine, the same food I’m eating. Sit with me and my employees, we want you to belong with us and be one of us. Have as much food as you like. You won’t be hungry here (v. 14). Also! Harvesters, pull out some extra handfuls of grain for her to make her work more productive and less difficult and backbreaking, and don’t reproach or rebuke her. Don’t just not assault her, but treat her with respect and dignity, speak kindly to her. Accept her as one of our kin (v. 15-16).

This is remarkable kindness indeed. Think for a minute about everything going on here for Boaz. He heard through the grapevine that his relative Naomi had come back from Moab, accompanied only by a young Moabite woman. And now this young woman just shows up, there in his field. Think about all the things he might have said, or might have thought, or might have done. After all, it was the time of the judges, and everyone did as they saw fit. What might have been a more “normal” reaction from a person of Boaz’ wealth and standing, to a person like Ruth? Let’s think about this in terms of four different aspects of Ruth’s identity that made her particularly vulnerable: socioeconomic status, immigration status, ethnicity, and gender.

Take her socioeconomic status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this poor person think she is? People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. Sure, she seems to be working pretty hard now, but she should have worked harder to make sure she didn’t fall into poverty in the first place. She’s taking advantage of the welfare system. I’ll let her do it, because that’s the law, but I don’t like it. I didn’t get rich by taking advantage of other people’s property, why should she? I’ll let her glean, but she’s not of my class, and she needs to know her place. Maybe she’ll move along soon to someone else’s field so I stop losing grain and money on her.

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as someone undeserving of his kindness and respect, because he had wealth, and she didn’t have anything. Instead, he showed her kindness. Treated her as an equal. 

Or take her immigration status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this immigrant think she is? She’s not from here. She looks different, talks differently, smells different, wears different clothes, has a different accent. And here she is, in my field, trying to take advantage of the laws of my country that were set up for my people. She isn’t part of the hard-working Israelite farming families that have lived on this land for generations and deserve to reap the fruits of it. This barley, these resources, are for my family and my employees. 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth with disdain, resenting, fearing, or treating her as an other because she was an immigrant. Instead, he chose to welcome her in, inviting her to eat with him and his employees. He built bridges rather than walls and chose to recognize their common humanity.

Or take Ruth’s ethnicity. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this Moabite think she is? I remember the stories my family always told about the Moabites. Violence, seduction, idolatry, incest, curses, battles. The Moabites have caused my ancestors pain, and my people remember that. And here this Moabite woman is, just casually gleaning away as if her people never did anything to wrong mine. The Moabites have been inhumane to us; do I really have to be humane to them – to her? 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as less than human, assuming the worst about her because of her ethnicity and the rumors he had heard and assumptions his community made. Instead he took the time to see who she really was.

Lastly, take Ruth’s gender.  It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this woman think she is? She can glean in my field, but I don’t owe her anything other than that. How my male employees treat her is none of my business. What happens in the field, stays in the field. Boys will be boys. There’s really not much I can do. Plus, is it really that bad, anyway? She’ll probably be fine. And if not, she can go elsewhere. 

It would have been easy for Boaz to downplay the risks Ruth faced as a woman, telling her it’s not that big a deal, dismissing or minimizing her experience, or recognizing the realities of sexual harassment and assault but placing his concern for his own reputation ahead of his concern for her wellbeing. Instead he chose to take responsibility, not only for treating her with respect personally, but for holding the people under his authority accountable to do the same. Boaz didn’t need a #MeToo movement to recognize the seriousness and prevalence of sexual assault and to do the right thing when Ruth showed up in his field.

Boaz goes out of his way, above and beyond what might have been normal or expected, to use his relative wealth, security, and power to affirm Ruth’s dignity and value. He did this in the midst of a world that, like ours, did not always value people who are poor, or immigrants, or minority races and ethnicities, or women.

In this last scene, Ruth goes into town to meet Naomi, her arms overflowing with an entire ephah of barley. That’s thirty or so pounds. Naomi sees how much she has gleaned – enough to feed the two of them for a couple of weeks! Maybe even, as time goes on, enough to sell the extra and obtain money to provide for their other needs beyond food. 

Naomi could have said, this can’t be. I know the Lord afflicted me and brought me back empty. Ruth, what did you do, steal all this? Or maybe, well, that’s more than I expected, but nothing really matters if I am not able to have sons and continue my family line, and I am too old to have sons, and Ruth is a Moabite and I don’t think anyone here will want to marry her. I’ll take some grain and stay alive, but there is still no hope for me. 

Naomi doesn’t react in these ways. Naomi is overjoyed. She can hardly contain her excitement. Where did you glean? Where did you work? You went out this morning looking to find favor with someone who owns a field, and I was praying about it and worrying about all the bad things that could happen to you as you tried, but our prayers have been answered. God has provided for us, and God has worked through someone, some landowner, to do that. Who is he? May God bless him. May God bless him. God is kind, after all. And Boaz! That’s amazing. He isn’t just anyone, Ruth – he’s one of our nearest kin. If he chooses, he can legally help restore to us our land and our family name. Ruth, stay with him. This is good. You have found a work situation where your risk of sexual assault is minimal, and it could have been very high. Stay there. 

This is a new side of Naomi, a hopeful side. It takes courage, to hope.

Do you see these three ordinary people, Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi, in these three scenes we’ve looked at, living their ordinary lives with great faithfulness and courage? Do you see Ruth, in her time of transition and great vulnerability, taking courage and initiative? Do you see Boaz, who refused to write Ruth off as a poor person, an immigrant, an enemy, or a woman, but welcomed her into his community, seeing her for who she was, and treating her with honor and dignity? Do you see Naomi, who last chapter wanted to give up on everything, finding new vitality, hope, and sense of God’s presence and provision?

And do you see God, behind the scenes, in everything? God is mentioned directly only through people’s words: when Boaz and his employees bless one another, when Boaz blesses Ruth, and when Naomi blesses Boaz. But God is there, orchestrating Ruth’s gleaning location and the timing of her meeting Boaz; working through Ruth’s extraordinary initiative and courage; working through Boaz’ extraordinary kindness. Do we see God working in these kinds of ways in our lives, or if not, can we take the leap of faith of choosing to believe that God is at work even when we don’t see it? 

In the midst of a time when everyone, and especially the judges, the leaders, of Israel, were doing whatever they saw fit – in a time of evil governments and violence and greed and lawlessness and people not treating each other well – we see Ruth, a poor, immigrant woman, brand new and in transition and on the margins of Bethlehem’s society, exercise her agency as a human being created in the image of the living God; and we see Boaz, a wealthy and powerful man, choose to honor and lift up that agency that Ruth exercises. We see ordinary people taking action and doing difficult things, and God blessing them as they do so.

By the grace of God, may we be people who live our ordinary lives with courage, faithfulness, and agency in the midst of our own difficult and troubling time. And in so doing, may we find the favor of God and be part of God’s work in bringing new hope and life into our world.