Post at Feminism & Religion – Jesus, temptation, and gender

I’ve enjoyed being able to contribute a couple of articles to Feminism & Religion in the last couple months. Here’s another!

It’s about the second temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as told in Luke 4. We talked about this passage in a church small group a few weeks back, and our conversation got me thinking. How might Jesus have been tempted differently if he had been a woman?

The piece is pretty speculative, but I’ve really come around to the view that that’s often how scripture operates at its best. It brings up questions, makes us think about things, gets us going off on what might seem like tangents but really are the things that are real and pressing in our lives – and I think we’re meant to bring all of this to the Bible and faith and church and everything.

So, check out the article, and feel free to holler here or at Feminism & Religion or otherwise if you have thoughts!

Y’all don’t need to worry

(31) Therefore y’all may not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?” or, “What will we drink?” or, “How will we be clothed?” (32) For the nations seek out all these things; for y’all’s heavenly father knows that y’all need all these things. 

(33) But (y’all) seek first the kingdom [of God] and its justice, and all these things will be added to y’all. (34) Therefore y’all may not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself; the evil itself (is) enough for the day. -Jesus (Matthew 6:31-34, my translation, emphasis added)

When I was translating these verses from the original Greek, I was struck by the fact that Jesus’ two “do not worry” statements (in bold above, in verses 31 and 34) are in the subjunctive form, not the imperative form. This means that “do not worry,” as it usually appears in English, is not quite a literal translation; a more literal translation would be something like “y’all may not worry,” “y’all should not worry,” “y’all might not worry,” “y’all could not worry,” or something along those lines. 

Since all of the literal (may/should/might/could) options sound a little awkwardperhaps with the exception of “should,” which kind of starts to sound like a command againI would suggest something like “y’all don’t need to worry.” That’s how these verses make sense to me. Jesus’ words are not so much a command as a suggestion, or an invitation. 

Jesus does use the imperative (command) form to tell people not to worry, but only at the very beginning of the whole passage. That’s in v. 25, where he first says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (NIV). So it’s not that Jesus never straight-up tells people not to worry. But I do think it’s interesting that, by the end of this well-known “do not worry” passage, the tense has changed. The tone has changed.

Jesus isn’t just telling people, do not worry. He’s also giving us reasons why we might not worry. He’s giving us reasons why we perhaps could not worry—that is, hope that we might just have the option, somehow, not to worry. Look at the birds, he says (v. 26). See how the wildflowers grow (v. 28). See how God enrobes them (v. 30). Jesus is giving us reasons why we don’t need to worry. 

Just as Jesus doesn’t just call people little-faith-ones without also doing something to increase their faith, he doesn’t just tell people not to worry without also giving them reasons why it might be possible not to worry. As with the little-faith-ones, it’s less of a chastisement and more of an invitation. 

I hear Jesus asking: What might it be like not to worry? Do you think you could? Why or why not? In the ways it might seem impossible—which are totally legitimate, by the way, and nothing to be ashamed of—maybe I can help.

I like this image of Jesus. He’s the one who reassures us, as often as we need to hear it, that there is hopethat there is the possibility of freedom from the worries that consume us, the anxieties that immobilize us, the stresses that eat away at us. The way of Jesus is a way of peace, of rest, of heavy burdens made light (Matt 11:28-30).

I think of The Nap MinistryI’ve been enjoying following them on Instagram (@thenapministry). As Tricia Hersey, creator of The Nap Ministry, writes, “you are not a machine. You are a divine human being.” We were not made to run around worrying about everything all the time. Life is more than that.

The way of Jesus is a way of pushing back against the forces that tell us to go and go and do and do. (That’s what this prayer on stillness is about.) It’s a way of liberation from our society’s nasty habit of defining our worth by the quantity of things we produce and consume. It’s a way of knowing our value as God’s children, full stop.

How does it change things for you, to hear Jesus say not just do not worry but also you don’t need to worry—or, perhaps, you have permission not to worry? How does that feel? What’s life-giving about it, or challengingor totally offensive because there are so many legitimate things to worry about? I’d love to hear!

English is limited, God is not: Reflections on “they/them” pronouns for God

I was interested to see Chloe Specht’s article “Actually, ‘They’ is a Beautiful Pronoun for God” published in Sojourners on the same day that I finished teaching a three-week class on “feminine God-talk” at my church. In this class, in the course of talking about feminine imagery, metaphors, pronouns, and other ways of thinking about God, we also touched on the possibilities of “they/them” as pronouns for God. 

Specht does a great job of reflecting on the possibilities for God as “they.” I’d recommend her article, and I also have a few thoughts to add.

Specht mentions that “some have recently argued” that “‘He’ and ‘him’ are the only acceptable pronouns for God”—for example, in this bummer of a Christianity Today article. I agree with Specht that the fact that we get mostly masculine pronouns for God in most English Bible translations is “insufficient evidence for such a definitive conclusion.”

I’d also take this a step further to say that, really, any time we start talking about the “only acceptable” anything for God, I think we’re on the wrong track. I’m not against using masculine pronouns to refer to God. I am against the dogmatically exclusive use of masculine pronouns. I’m against the general claim that God is only what we already understand God to be, and not something else also. 

Do we really know what God does and doesn’t consider acceptable when it comes to God’s identity? Often, when we think we do know these things—and especially when we’re totally sure of them—we’re really just putting God in a box. We’re acting like we know everything about God—like God can never surprise us, like God can never do anything unexpected or turn out to be anyone unexpected.

To me, that sounds like a sure sign that we’re worshiping an idol, not the actual God who created us. The “idol” language might sound harsh. But isn’t that what we’re doing when we define God’s only acceptable pronouns, or God’s only acceptable anything? We’re creating boundaries for God rather than letting God be God in all the surprising forms this may take.

I know my vision of God has expanded dramatically over time. God has blown through a lot of the boxes I used to put God in. I’m sure, or at least I hope, that God will continue to do so. And this is a good thing. 

Jesus was always expanding people’s categories of who God is, whom God loves, whom God centers, what God will and will not do. Jesus was always doing unexpected things that lifted up the marginalized, promoted justice, and drove religious people bonkers because of all the things they thought they knew. Why would God be any different today?

I also appreciate Specht’s note about ruach, a feminine word in Hebrew that’s used in the Bible to refer to God’s Spirit. I would also add that the Greek word used for God’s Spirit in the New Testament is πνευμα, which is neuter. To the extent that grammatical gender has something to do with actual gender—which I don’t think is always a good assumption, but it seems to come up a lot in conversations about the Bible and pronouns and God and such, so let’s talk about it—God’s Spirit is a “she” in Hebrew, and God’s Spirit is a sort of an “it” in Greek. But a very personal kind of “it.” One might say, perhaps, a singular “they.”

It feels important to talk about what’s at stake here. We can argue about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about God and gender, and that’s part of the equation. But the fact that these debates are still happening implies that this is an area where biblical interpretation could go in a number of different directions. This invites us into deeper thought, beyond the assumptions we might make or the doctrines we have been taught. 

When what the Bible says and what to make of it are ambiguous, we are more clearly able to see that the way we read the Bible is informed by all sorts of things outside the Bible itself. We come to scripture bringing all of who we are. We bring our family backgrounds, our theological backgrounds, our cultures and ethnicities and gender identities and personalities and languages and the norms of our faith communities. And we have choices. 

Ultimately, we bring our people with us. And if these people include non-male people—that is, women and non-binary people—which I very much hope they do, we can choose to make room for all of these people. We can choose to read scripture in ways that help people of all gender identities see themselves in it. We can choose to read scripture in ways that honor all people, that help all people know they’re valuable and loved. 

Incorporating “they/them” pronouns into our language about God may help. I can attest that, as a woman, hearing “she/her” pronouns for God helps me feel seen and valued. I don’t need this all the time. I’m very happy with a balanced mix of “he,” “she,” “they,” and whatever other beautiful ways people come up with to speak of God. But when God comes across through people’s language as solely masculine, I feel othered. I feel like I’m considered less of an image bearer. 

I want all people to know—to really, deeply know—that they are created in God’s image. And I love that “they/them” pronouns for God just might help non-binary people know that—and help whole communities better embrace the gender diversity in their midst.

Ultimately, any and all human language for God—especially when we limit ourselves to just one language, as we do when we talk about what is and isn’t possible in English—falls short. It’s totally inadequate in the face of our triune Creator, whom we see only in part and know only in part (1 Cor 13:9-12). We are like Ezekiel trying to describe his vision of angels, and the best he can do is talk about wheels and eyes, so many eyes (e.g. Ezekiel 1:1-21). 

No English pronoun does justice to all of who God is. Why limit ourselves to just one? If “she” pronouns or “they” pronouns or other pronouns in other languages help us express something about the different aspects of who God is, why not use them?

Change can be difficult. But it can also be good. It can also be necessary. The Christian tradition has always needed to continually reform itself. After all, every generation gets some things wrong, and every generation has things that seem to work for them but then make zero sense to the generation who comes after them. I don’t think God feels threatened by these changes. 

I want to worship a God who resists all the boxes I try to put God in. I want to worship a God who is always centering people on the margins, always moving—and moving us—toward more expansive visions of justice and true inclusion. I want to worship a God who is bigger than anything I could imagine, anything I could place boundaries around.

If expanding our sense of what God’s pronouns might be helps us move beyond the boxes and toward this unbounded God, I’m all for it.

I could be a little-faith-one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God lifts the lowly: reflections on Mary’s song

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

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

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

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

and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

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

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud. 

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

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

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

God lifts up the lowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God enrobes the wildflowers

Roses…so needy
Sweet peas – more like a wildflower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you worry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On learning from the wildflowers

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Spend time in nature

It’s good for the soul!

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Pay attention to indigenous wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Grow plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who can add a cubit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it adding an hour?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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