New column at Patheos: Always Re-forming

Hi friends,

I wanted to let you know that a couple weeks ago I started blogging at Patheos. I’ve got my own column, called Always Re-forming.

(It’s a sort of a play on the motto of the early Protestant Reformers: the reformed church will always be reforming. There’s more background, context, and words of welcome at the introductory post.)

I’m enjoying it, but I also think it’ll take a little time to settle into a good rhythm of posting there, posting here, and, well, all the other things. And to feel out what each space is best used for.

In that spirit, I’m very open to your thoughts and suggestions for what you’d like to see in this space (the personal blog). More poems? (It’s been a minute.) More super chill book reviews? (Or are there way too many already?) More random Bible/Greek thoughts? Brief weekly brain dumps of whatever I’ve been thinking about that I haven’t written about anywhere else yet? Other ideas – probably better ones? I’d love to hear.

In the meanwhile, I offer my four Patheos posts as some light reading for your Thanksgiving holiday:

  1. Forming and Re-forming: Words of Welcome, Words of Hope
  2. It’s Good to Change Our Minds
  3. What Are Theological Discussions Really About? (Or, Why I Didn’t Have Friends in Seminary)
  4. Faith is a Practice, Not a Belief Statement

I’m slowly gearing up, over at the Patheos blog, to spend quite a while running with the idea of how I’ve changed my mind about all sorts of different faith-related things over time. The first cluster will have to do with power and authority, and then we’ll move on to things like women’s roles in church, LGBTQ+ affirmation, and more. Very open to topic suggestions for the series!

Thanks for hanging with the changes, and do feel free to let me know what you think about…any of this.

Hope you have a wonderful long weekend!

Reflections on 20 years of friendship

A close friend from high school passed away unexpectedly in an accident the Sunday before last, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot. I sat down a few days ago and wrote what turned out to be over 5000 words of memories and reflections on their life and our friendship. 

I’ll spare you the full 5000, for reasons of both privacy and length! But I wanted to share a piece of that reflection with you all. I hope it’s a tribute to a unique and courageous life, and I hope it highlights some of the qualities my friend embodied that I aspire to.

Dear Blevins, Tanya, Tommy—

I’ve been sorting through twenty years of memories, twenty years of friendship. My mind has a hard time wrapping itself around the reality that you are gone.

I remember high school band days, you playing the flute and then the french horn, hair shoulder-length and brown before you buzzed it, dyed it blue. I remember visiting home from college and sitting on the curb outside your dad’s house in Woodridge, talking for hours. I remember camping trips, and seeing orcas in the San Juan Islands. 

I remember meeting your pet rats. I was hesitant, but you convinced me to hold the rats, to let them walk over my shoulders, climb onto my head. 

I remember when you joined the Marines and wrote long letters from Camp Pendleton in small tight handwriting. I remember you liked the discipline of boot camp, of getting in shape, of following orders and no doubt excelling at it. 

You picked up a diagnosis there: autism. They said you had flat affect. What I don’t think they told you was that, yes, you were different, but your different was wonderful. Your different made you you.

You were always noticing things no one else noticed. You were always saying things others might have been thinking but hesitated to say. You observed everything and were so spot on, so many times. 

And you were funny, so funny. So quick. Your sense of humor was about five steps ahead of the rest of us—but once we caught up, we laughed and laughed.

I remember when you biked—with all your stuff and with your big part-wolf dog Duncan in the back basket—all the way from Seattle to San Francisco. By yourself. It took you about three weeks. You were so fit that you had biked hundreds of miles pulling all that weight behind you—so much weight that I couldn’t even pedal, when I got on your bike and tried. 

I remember when you lived in a trailer without electricity out in Granite Falls, when you bathed in the river year-round. You made it through. You made it through so many hard things.

You left relationships that were not good for you. You wrestled with addiction, with your mental health. You did work on yourself, so much work. There was some healing. There were still many challenges. 

I remember how much you loved your cats, Nut and Luna. You were so good with animals, and they loved you. Your cats kept you going through the difficult times. 

Your cats also bore witness to your wedding at Rattlesnake Lake on a cold rainy Saturday in March, perched unhappily in backpacks Steph and I carried as we stood by your side as your “best men.” Your brother officiated, wearing a unicorn onesie. 

I remember when you came over and our cat Athena was there, and you took a laser pointer out of your pocket—because who doesn’t have a laser pointer at the ready at all times?—and you played with her, and she loved it more than I expected. You said, here, take the laser pointer, you should keep it. You were always generous, giving things away.

You had the best smile, but you never smiled unless you meant it. And your smiles meant so much more because of it. You never seemed to feel the need to pretend you were happy when you were not. You were never there to please or placate anyone else. You showed up as yourself, fully yourself. 

I remember the camping trips you talked about that I thought were bonkers. It’s actually better to camp in the snow, you said, because things don’t get so damp like they do if it’s in the forties and raining. I thought, both of those camping situations sound totally bonkers. You were bold. You were brave. You weren’t afraid of the elements, of being alone, of the dark woods at night. 

You were patient, in your own way. You showed up. You took people as they were. You saw people others wouldn’t have taken the time to get to know, and you saw what was amazing and wonderful and human about them. 

The word resilient doesn’t even begin to capture the essence of who you were. There were so many things that could have broken you but did not. 

Life held so much pain for you. And you made art. You made friendships. You made a home for your cats. You made space for people to be who we are. You made room for honesty. You were dealt a difficult hand, and you put in so much work to bring life out of it. 

I’ve never known anyone quite like you. You were utterly unique. It wasn’t always easy to be your friend, but it was rewarding. It was an honor I will carry with me the rest of my life. 

I treasure our time together and trust that you are now in a place of peace like this world never quite was for you. I trust you know more fully than you’ve ever known before that you are loved. 

I think you would have been the absolute last person to call yourself a saint—I think you would have laughed at that!—but I thought of you when my pastor at church was talking about All Saints Day, about remembering those who are no longer with us but who have shaped us deeply, shaped the way we think about and move in this world, formed us into who we are. You are one of those people for me. Thank you for being so unapologetically you.

Out there on the web: asking for what we need, and Christians with questions

Hi friends, there have been a couple additions to the “out there on the web” category of things since I last posted an update.

  1. I Didn’t Know How to Ask (Or What Would Have Happened if I Had) (Guest blog for Rose Madrid Swetman)

This is a guest post as part of Rose’s series on being a woman in ministry in a patriarchal world. Since she used the word “pioneering” in her series tile, I thought of that one time I started a new on-campus Christian group at my alma mater.

It was a good time in a lot of ways – well, really mostly just because the students were great, and also because it was exciting to try new things and dream of what could be – but it was also a rough time. This essay explores part of why it was rough, and how I see gender and patriarchy playing into that.

I imagine these reflections are relatable for anyone who’s had a hard time asking for what they need – or who has asked but has not been received well.

2. The People Who Have Always Had Questions (Feminism & Religion)

I liked this piece by Jemar Tisby about evangelicals as “the people who don’t have any questions,” and I see my essay for Feminism & Religion as a sort of addendum to it. I’m not disagreeing with anything so much as wondering out loud how gender plays into everything.

Reading bell hooks’ The Will to Change at the same time as I was thinking about these things felt relevant and fruitful. This need for certainty as a means of control, this impulse to have an answer to every question and to coerce everyone to agree with these answers – all the things Tisby names – are endemic to white evangelicalism, and also to patriarchy.

(Agree? Disagree vehemently? Read Tisby’s The People Who Don’t Have Any Questions, read my The People Who Have Always Had Questions, and let me know what you think.)

Hope you enjoyed this brief update and find these articles thought-provoking! As always, I’d love to hear from you.

Super chill book review part 2: The Will to Change (bell hooks)

This is part 2 (of 2) of some reflections on bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Here’s part 1 if you missed it or want a refresher. 

The Will to Change was also very much on my mind as I was writing this essay, posted yesterday at Feminism & Religion: The People Who Have Always Had Questions. Check it out if you like.

Otherwise, since super chill book review thoughts #1-3 were in part 1, I’ll jump right back with…

4) I appreciate hooks’ clarity in laying out how exactly patriarchy harms men. It’s not only that everyone is harmed when women are prevented from flourishing fully, although this is true. It’s also that, in a world shaped by patriarchal thinking, men are subjected to violence, and they are expected to do violence to themselves. They are cut off from full humanity in their own way.

hooks explores the impact of patriarchy on boys during childhood; for example:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem” (66).

And she explores the impact of patriarchy on men during adulthood; for example:

“Men who win on patriarchal terms end up losing in terms of their substantive quality of life. They choose patriarchal manhood over loving connection, first foregoing self-love and then the love they could give and receive that would connect them to others” (72).

I thought this was an interesting way of framing things. Men are pressured to compete and win patriarchal contests that are not actually good for them. There’s a toxic construction of masculinity that’s at odds with real “loving connection”—both self-love and love shared with others.

For men, divesting from patriarchy entails healing from the “psychic self mutilation” that is pushed on them from a young age.  

I appreciate these perspectives, because I feel like sometimes we tend to think of justice in terms of one group with outsized power needing to hand some of this power over to those who haven’t had enough. But it’s not just that—it’s not just about men, or white folks, or other privileged groups giving up some of their privileges, although sometimes that needs to happen. It’s also about making a way for men (and white folks, etc.) to regain the fullness of their humanity—the self-esteem, the emotional richness, the loving connection, the love of self and others, all of which has been cut off by a violent system of domination that isn’t actually good for the ones trained to dominate.

5) I have a long quote for you. But at least it’s the last one? I would have made it shorter, but it’s just all so action packed… 

hooks writes:

“Many of the critics who have written about masculinity suggest that we need to do away with the term, that we need ‘an end to manhood.’ yet such a stance furthers the notion that there is something inherently evil, bad, or unworthy about maleness…

“There is a creative, life-sustaining, life-enhancing place for the masculine in a nondominator culture. And those of us committed to ending patriarchy can touch the hearts of real men where they live, not by demanding that they give up manhood or maleness, but by asking that they allow its meaning to be transformed, that they become disloyal to patriarchal masculinity in order to find a place for the masculine that does not make it synonymous with domination or the will to do violence.

“Patriarchal culture continues to control the hearts of men precisely because it socialized males to believe that without their role as patriarchs they will have no reason for being. Dominator culture teaches all of us that the core of our identity is defined by the will to dominate and control others…

“To offer men a different way of being, we must first replace the dominator model with a partnership model that sees interbeing and interdependency as the organic relationship of all living beings. In the partnership model selfhood, whether one is female or male, is always at the core of one’s identity. Patriarchal masculinity teaches males to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent for self-definition on the privileges (however relative) that they receive from having been born male. Hence many males feel that their very existence is threatened if these privileges are taken away. In a partnership model male identity, like its female counterpart, would be centered around the notion of an essential goodness that is inherently relationally oriented. Rather than assuming that males are born with the will to aggress, the culture would assume that males are born with the inherent will to connect” (114-117).

Whew. That’s a lot. But there’s so much good stuff there. 

I like this idea that we’re not looking for an end to manhood or masculinity, but an end to the patriarchal kind of manhood that harms people of all genders. We’re looking to transform the meaning of maleness. 

We’re looking to “become disloyal to patriarchal masculinity,” to find a new “place for the masculine” and new ways of being men. We’re looking to “replace the dominator model with a partnership model”—with interdependency, interconnectedness, and a healthy sense of self esteem at its core. We’re looking to assume males are born with the desire and need for connection, mutuality, and love. 

If you don’t mind a religious turn to a not-super-religious post so far, all these things—hooks’ visions of what a healthier, more life-and-love-affirming version of masculinity could look like—remind me of Jesus. 

In the Christian tradition, Jesus’ maleness is an interesting thing. God is not exactly male or female, but when God took on human flesh, that flesh was male. Some people use this fact to suggest that God was showing God’s preference for masculinity, perhaps demonstrating the naturalness and rightness of male authority in the world. Jesus’ maleness has often been among the arguments used to support solely male priesthood or solely male pastoral leadership. 

What if, instead, Jesus’ maleness was meant to call forth a better kind of masculinity—better than that of the patriarchal cultures Jesus was born into, and better than what we see in today’s patriarchal cultures as well? If any man was disloyal to the ways of domination—rejecting power plays, remaining true to his core self, partnering with others, respecting and loving others at every turn, always speaking peace and moving toward healing—surely it was the God-man who came to serve and not be served (Mark 10:45). The one who made sure everyone was fed. The one who made sure women knew they could be disciples as equals alongside men (Luke 10:38-42). The one who did not use his equality with God to his own advantage but embodied humility in every fiber of his being (Phil 2:5-11). 

Perhaps as we imagine healthier ways of being male—and just being human—in this world, we can look to the gospel stories. (And we can notice how at odds all of this is with the patriarchal evangelical masculinity Kristin Kobes Du Mez did such a great job of detailing in Jesus and John Wayne—super chill book review here and here.)

Well, as always, there’s a lot more that could be said. But I’ll leave it here, for now anyway. bell hooks has some hard-hitting words, and you might be thinking some thoughts and/or feeling some feelings. If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear about it!

Super chill book review part 1: The Will to Change (bell hooks)

I started reflecting on bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (Washington Square Press, 2004), and it got kind of long. So, here’s part 1! 

In all the “super chill book reviews” I’ve done so far (and I believe I’ve done twenty now in total—check ‘em out here if you like), I haven’t written yet about any of bell hooks’ books. In the last year or so, I’ve read All About Love: New Visions, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, and, mostly recently, The Will to Change

bell hooks is one of those authors I’d heard about and seen quoted a lot before I ever actually read any of her stuff. I’m very glad I started reading. Because quotable quotes are great, but they don’t begin to scratch the surface. There’s so much depth, so much insight, so much courage, so much omg that’s still true a couple decades later and I wish it weren’t but I’m glad she named it so directly and brilliantly

There’s also, at least for me, some I don’t know if I fully agree with that, but I’m glad she said it, because there’s definitely something there worth talking about. This is also valuable. 

So, here are some thoughts on The Will to Change, just because that’s the book I’ve read most recently—but I’d recommend them all. (And maybe there’s a bell hooks book—or something else related to these topics—I haven’t read yet that you’d recommend. If so, I’d love to hear!)

1) I was interested in how bell hooks writes about the separatist impulse that can sometimes arise in feminism. Personally, I haven’t really been involved in any separatist movements (is that still a thing, or is it more tied to the second wave feminism of a few decades ago?), but I do very much appreciate women-only spaces. 

I sometimes find men frustrating—certainly not all men all the time, but many men, much of the time. I really enjoy the chances I have to seek friendship, mentoring, perspective, advice, etc. from women. I think this is all good. 

At the same time, hooks writes, “It is a fiction of false feminism that we women can find our power in a world without men, in a world where we deny our connections to men. We claim our power fully only when we can speak the truth that we need men in our lives, that men are in our lives whether we want them to be or not, that we need men to challenge patriarchy, that we need men to change” (xv-xvi).

I definitely agree that “men are in our lives whether we want them to be or not.” And, of course, even though I’m very frustrated with the way many men often act, especially in groups and/or in positions of power, I also have connections with men that I value deeply. 

And so, I appreciate hooks’ perspective: the point isn’t necessarily to build female power apart from men, but to speak our truth about the ways we want to see men change—for our good, and for their good too.

2) This was an “oof” for me:

“The unhappiness of men in relationships, the grief men feel about the failure of love, often goes unnoticed in our society precisely because the patriarchal culture really does not care if men are unhappy. When females are in emotional pain, the sexist thinking that says that emotions should and can matter to women makes it possible for most of us to at least voice our heart, to speak it to someone, whether a close friend, a therapist, or the stranger sitting next to us on a plane or bus. Patriarchal mores teach a form of emotional stoicism to men that says they are more manly if they do not feel, but if by chance they should feel and the feelings hurt, the manly response is to stuff them down, to forget about them, to hope they go away…

The reality is that men are hurting and that the whole culture responds to them by saying, ‘Please do not tell us what you feel’” (5-6).

For any men out there—I’m curious how you’d respond to this. It kind of feels right to me, but…it’s not exactly my lived experience. 

When I read this, I thought about Brené Brown’s research and reflections on how men are shamed above all else for being (perceived as) weak—and how many men want to be more in touch with their emotions and more vulnerable in sharing their feelings with their loved ones, but their partners sometimes shame them for doing so. (Unfortunately I’m not totally sure which Brené Brown book this was in—maybe I Thought It Was Just Me?)

I wonder if men today sometimes get a mixed message—“it’s okay to feel feelings, I want to know what’s going on, you don’t have to hide it and be so stoic,” but also “oh, you have that feeling? I’m surprised by that and don’t know what to do with it, so I’m going to laugh at you or criticize you for it, or respect you less because you shared that with me.” Or something like that.

It was helpful for me to hear bell hooks frame this expectation of stoicism in terms of patriarchal thinking that harms us all. Being deeply concerned with women’s experiences and committed to calling out ways women are not regarded as fully human does not have to be at odds with paying attention to men’s pain, hearing how men are hurting, caring about their unhappiness.

Really, these things go together. Each gender’s different ways of becoming liberated from oppressive patriarchal norms help liberate us all.

3) hooks writes, “Despite the contemporary visionary feminist thinking that makes clear that a patriarchal thinker need not be male, most folks continue to see men as the problem of patriarchy. This is simply not the case. Women can be as wedded to patriarchal thinking and action as men…

Patriarchal thinking shapes the values of our culture. We are socialized into this system, females as well as males” (23).

I always appreciate—and, to be honest, often need to be reminded of—a hearty distinction between maleness and patriarchy. hooks has some helpful ways of writing about this. 

She is very clear that the issue is “patriarchal thinking,” and it’s a “system” we’re all “socialized into.” Women and men are impacted by it in different ways, and liberation from it looks different depending on gender (and other things)—but we all need to consciously choose to reject patriarchy, to divest from it, to change.

That’s all for now. More to come next week! I welcome your thoughts, as always. I know gender and patriarchy and masculinity are such complicated things, and I bet you have thoughts and/or feelings. I’d love to hear them (and will attempt to throw my subconscious expectations of stoicism out the window!).

Super chill book review: Atlas of the Heart (Brene Brown)

Given how long it took to get a copy—that is, one of 114 copies—of Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart (Random House 2021) from the local library system, I’m going to venture a guess that rather a lot of people are reading it or have read it recently. 

(Also, it’s a TV series? I haven’t watched it, but let me know if you have, and how you liked it.)

So I imagine lots of people on the interwebs have lots of thoughts. And feelings. Possibly many of the feelings explored in the book—eighty-seven of them, to be exact. Still, just for fun, I’ll add a few things that stood out to me:

1) A couple months ago, I took some time to write down a (slightly long) list of hopes and dreams for my writing. Not things like “get published in xyz magazine,” but things like “draw attention to ambiguity in New Testament translation and offer alternate translations that might feel more liberating,” or “encourage people to embrace their God-given agency to change what they want to change and leave spaces they need to leave.” 

One of these hopes is this: “be stubbornly committed to collaboration rather than competition.” 

Unfortunately, this is something I need to remind myself of regularly.

So, I appreciated Brené Brown’s exploration of comparison. Comparison, she writes, “is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other—it’s trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out. Comparison says, ‘Be like everyone else, but better.’” (p. 20).

Do people still say “I feel seen”? Just wondering. No particular reason.

What I liked about this is that Brown doesn’t just name and define (an unhealthy sort of) comparison. She also offers an alternative: “be yourself and respect others for being authentic” (p. 20). That could have gone on my list of writing (and life) goals, if I’d thought of it. (Maybe I’ll add it now.) 

I would very much like to move away from “fit in” and toward “be yourself,” away from “win” and toward “respect others.” I think it’s helpful to have something to move toward and not just away from. For those of us who struggle with these things, maybe we won’t instantly stop comparing ourselves to others—but we can focus on being ourselves and respecting others, and maybe eventually we’ll get to the no-comparing part. We’ll see.

2) I learned from this book—and, more specifically, from Brown’s conversations with organizational psychologist Scott Sonenshein—that, wait for it, the grass really is greener on the other side.

Brown writes, “As someone who can fall prey to comparing myself and my life to edited and curated Instagram feeds, I laughed so hard when [Sonenshein] told me that due to the physics of how grass grows, when we peer over our fence at our neighbor’s grass, it actually does look greener, even if it is truly the same lushness as our own grass” (p. 21). 

Whaa…? That’s pretty funny. And kind of deep. 

I mean, personally, our literal neighbors’ literal grass really is greener than ours, because they have a sprinkler system set up and they’re watering it right now as I look out the window. But even if it wasn’t, something about the angle it’s viewed from would make it look that way. That’s bonkers. Let’s just stew on that for a minute.

3). I also learned that apparently there’s an opposite of schadenfreude (you know, the German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune): freudenfreude. According to Brown, freudenfreude is “the enjoyment of another’s success,” and “it’s also a subset of empathy” (p. 36). 

That’s cool. A fun word, and a good thing to practice. I hold the similar biblical ideas close to my heart: “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15), and “if one part [of the body] is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:26). So it’s fun to have a cool German word describing basically the same thing. (It also pairs well, like a fine wine, with the idea of committing to collaboration, not competition, and the idea of replacing comparison with authenticity and respect.) 

4. I liked this part about curiosity:

“An increasing number of researchers believe that curiosity and knowledge building grow together—the more we know, the more we want to know.

Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. We have to ask questions, admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking, and, sometimes, make discoveries that lead to discomfort.

Our ‘childlike’ curiosity is often tested as we grow up, and we sometimes learn that too much curiosity, like too much vulnerability, can lead to hurt. As a result, we turn to self-protection—choosing certainty over curiosity, armor over vulnerability, knowing over learning. But shutting down comes with a price—a price we rarely consider when we’re focused on finding our way out of pain” (pp. 65-6).

It feels true to me that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. And that, if we’re okay with that feeling of “not knowing,” this can motivate us to continue to learn. 

It also means that people who talk like they’re experts on things are often, well, not necessarily as expert as they might seem. 

I am—rightly, I think—suspicious of overconfidence. Especially when it comes to things like theology—because how much does anyone really know?

I also liked the idea of curiosity being “childlike.” In a previous super chill book review I reflected on Tyson Yunkaporta’s thoughts on children’s undomesticated brains. Brown adds another perspective on what it might mean to have faith like a child: being curious, asking questions, admitting what we don’t know, wanting to learn, not assuming we have all the answers.

I feel like people of faith—and people in general—in our highly polarized society could use a tidbit more of all of this.

5. Sometimes conservative Christians talk about the dangers of empathy, or of having “too much” empathy (whatever that means). I feel like this should call attention to itself as a big screaming red flag. But just in case it doesn’t—here’s what Brown says about empathy:

“Empathy, the most powerful tool of compassion, is an emotional skill set that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding. Empathy has a huge upside. Researchers Peter Paul Zurek and Herbert Scheithauer explain that empathy helps interpersonal decision making; facilitates ethical decision making and moral judgments; enhances short-term subjective well-being; strengthens relational bonds; allows people to better understand how others see them; and enhances prosocial and altruistic behavior” (p. 120).

That’s cool. So many benefits, some more obvious than others. I also like the idea of empathy as an “emotional skill set” that we can learn and practice and grow in—not just something some people naturally have lots of and others don’t, and that’s just the way it is.

Things to think about, and a skill set I feel like our world could use more of.

Hope you enjoyed these quotes and thoughts. If you read Atlas of the Heart, is there an emotion (or thought) that stood out to you? Or an emotion you’d like to explore and learn more about? 

Out there on the web: food security & well-intentioned patriarchs

Hi there. I realized I’m not always great about making sure everyone who might want to read things knows that these things exist. Particularly since I became a very late adopter of Instagram a little over a year ago, I use IG a lot (feel free to follow @lizcoolj and @postevangelicalprayers). But I know not everyone has an IG account, and not everyone who has an account looks at it regularly. (I fully encourage not being addicted to social media, and cultivating an IRL life—I guess that would just be an RL, if you will—outside of it!)

Anyhow, all this to say, I thought I’d start being a little more intentional about posting here to point your attention toward things I’ve written that appear elsewhere on the interwebs. I did sneakily make an “on the web” page a while back, where I’m keeping an up-to-date list of articles and such, so feel free to check that anytime as well if you’re looking for some reading material :).

But for now, I wanted to point you toward two recent pieces:

1) If a Person Doesn’t Work, Let Them Eat Anyway (Christians for Social Action)

There’s a Bible verse (2 Thess 3:10) that kind of sounds like it’s against some basic social safety nets for food security and such. In this article I unpack why I don’t think that’s actually the case. Like many parts of the Christian scriptures, there is more to it than meets the eye.

I felt like this was relevant especially in light of all the choices governing bodies (at national, state, and local levels) have been making about food-related safety nets—including universal free school lunches—as we emerge out of a time when COVID defined everything and into a time when COVID still very much exists but we’re all kind of in a collective denial about it. I would love to see our leaders resist the urge to pretend that COVID was the only source of all of our problems and inequities—and to think very carefully before slashing funding for programs that may have been initially sparked by COVID but are really just good ideas in general. 

2) Well-Intentioned Patriarchs Are Still Patriarchs (Word&Way)

I feel like the title of this one might sound a little odd, especially if you don’t spend all your time reading and thinking about patriarchy and such. (What, not everyone does?) So…better title ideas are welcome, in case I write something in a similar vein in the future!

In this one I tease out some of the implications of seeing patriarchy not just as individual men’s attitudes or desire for power, but as structures and systems that harm all of us. Sometimes it isn’t easy to talk about what I see as nice churchy patriarchy (and its devastating-ness) with my Christian female friends, and I think at least part of the reason is that Christians often tend to see everything both in individual terms and in terms of good vs evil. So basically it feels like calling out patriarchy is the same thing as calling individual men evil. 

This provokes cognitive dissonance, because we all know and love a lot of good-hearted, well-intentioned Christian men. Even the ones who perpetuate patriarchal systems—not because they’re power hungry, but because they think it’s what the Bible says and therefore the right thing to do. This article explores that dissonance.

I hope you enjoy one or both of these lines of thought! I don’t think either article (at CSA or Word&Way) is open for comments…which may be a good thing (nervous laugh)…but feel free to comment here and/or shoot me an email, as always. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

On wealth, poverty, and caring without being overwhelmed (reflections on Luke 16:19-31)

16:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.

16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,

16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

16:24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

16:25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

16:26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

16:27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–

16:28 for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

16:29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

16:30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

16:31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

-Jesus (Luke 16:19-31)

What a story Jesus tells. It’s a story that might raise some big questions: questions of heaven and afterlife, questions of hell and eternal conscious torment, questions of works and faith, questions of wealth and poverty and its relation to salvation. So many questions.

I resist answering these questions here—both because this reflection is supposed to be brief, and because I think these questions are better wrestled with in community than explained with too-easy answers from just one person. 


I also don’t think these questions are quite the main point of Jesus’ story. I think the point is less abstract and more pragmatic. It’s not so much about what doctrines we believe, but about the way we live. 

And—although it feels worth noting that the materially poor person in our story is named, and that in this naming there is an affirmation of dignity—the story focuses much more on the rich person than on Lazarus. The rich person is the one who speaks, the one whose story is followed from beginning to end. 

It is this rich person who was aware of Lazarus’ illness and hunger, lying there at his doorway—he even knew him by name—but nonetheless ignored him. New Testament and Jewish Studies professor Amy-Jill Levine suggests in Short Stories by Jesus that perhaps Lazarus’ community had carried him there because they knew the rich person had plenty to share. But the rich person did not share. The dogs tried to take care of Lazarus in the way they knew how, by cleaning his wounds; the rich person did less than the dogs did. 

Even after death, the rich person is still trying to order Lazarus around. He still doesn’t quite seem to think of Lazarus as an equal, as fully human. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, he tells Abraham. Send him to my father’s house to warn my brothers. In other words, basically: I still think Lazarus is here to serve me. I have no regrets about the way I treated him in life. I don’t see what was wrong with it. Send Lazarus. Send Lazarus

As Dr. Amy-Jill Levine writes, perhaps the rich person “has not yet learned what landed him in torment in the first place. He wants to see his brothers saved from torment, not to ease the pain felt by the millions who lack food, shelter, or health care” (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 291).

In a world full of these kinds of pains, I wonder what Jesus’ story asks of us. Most of us may not be filthy rich like the sumptuously-feasting man. But perhaps the story asks of us, too: How do we see people? How do we treat people? Do we want to see people’s needs met and their pains eased? What would that look like? What might we do? 

Several years ago, I led a small group through a curriculum called Lazarus at the Gate, offered by the Boston Faith and Justice Network. One thing I still remember from that study is the idea that globalization has placed millions of “Lazaruses” at our metaphorical gate. We know so much more than people in other times in history did about what’s going on all over our world, including and especially the ways things are difficult and people are suffering. Climate disasters, wars, and displacement, just to name a few things, bring so many Lazaruses to our gates—or at least our phone and computer screens—every day we’re paying attention.

I feel this. I want to help. And yet, I also feel the reality that we as finite fragile humans were not designed to process all of the information that is thrown at us all the time. We did not evolve to be able to hold in our minds and hearts and bodies all the concerns of the world. It is too much for us. 

Humans spent most of human history living in villages and kinship networks small enough so that we could know what was going on with everyone—the good and the bad. We could serve and help one another well within this context. People’s suffering was not too much to know. It did not overwhelm us on a regular basis.

I don’t have easy solutions to these tensions. But I do want all of us to find the good that we can do and do it. To find ways of not getting so overwhelmed with the needy world’s needs that we can’t do anything.

I was recently reading Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s book Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now. In it there’s a reflection from Catholic Bishop Ken Untener often known as the Romero Prayer. I was struck by these words from this prayer: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

We can’t do everything. But we can do something. We can do something to share food and other resources with one another, with our communities. We can do something to ease people’s suffering. We can do something to take care of one another.

And, in faith communities that share this as a value and a goal, we can do so much more than any of us could do on our own. Here’s to finding, creating, and building those kinds of communities. 

As always, all thoughts are welcome – about the story Jesus tells, about how you’ve been able to care for the Lazaruses around us without being overwhelmed, or anything else this makes you think about.

Gutsy faithfulness in a world where money fails (reflections on Luke 16:1-13)

I’ve got another church eblast reflection for you all – unabridged (read: slightly longer) version! 

This one’s on Luke 16:1-13:

16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

16:2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

16:3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

16:5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

16:6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

16:7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

16:10 Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.

16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

16:13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

When we read parables like these, it can be tempting to try to figure out who exactly every character in the story represents. This is called allegorical interpretation, and many biblical scholars have pushed back against this approach.

Perhaps Jesus’ stories were meant to be just that—stories. Conversation starters. Feeling-evokers. Thought-provokers. Open-ended, with multiple possible interpretations and takeaways. Maybe that’s the beauty of the parables—even though it also makes them…difficult.

I mention this because I am not at all convinced that the “master”—a fraught word, if I ever heard one, given the U.S. history of slavery—in our story this week is meant to represent God. Not only does he engage in dubiously-just firing practices—he lets the steward go based on an accusation from a third party without even bothering to hear his side of the story (v. 1-2)—but also, on top of this, his massive wealth is persistently described as “unjust” or “unrighteous.” 

Perhaps the steward, then, feels free to play fast and loose with the master’s money because he knows the whole system is unjust. 

What does it mean to be faithful, in a world where a few rich folks hoard while masses of people go hungry? Perhaps crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s when it comes to wealth management takes a back seat to figuring out how to survive—and helping others survive too. Maybe strict adherence to rules and regulations is less important than mercy. And surely mercy is what the steward shows to the debtors when he tells them to lessen the amounts of their debts. 

The steward in our story is often referred to as the “shrewd manager,” but I feel like the word “shrewd” can have some funky connotations. In some church contexts, people use the story of the “shrewd manager” to say that we as Christians should also be more shrewd. As in, we should be more cunning. As in, it’s okay to manipulate or mislead people if it’s all for a higher cause. To me, this is hardly what it means to be “children of the light” (v. 8). 

Perhaps it helps to know that the word translated as “shrewd” is often translated elsewhere as “prudent.” I’m not here for the manipulative cunning, but I’m okay with Jesus encouraging his followers to be prudent.

Prudent, like counting the cost of our discipleship (see Luke 14:25-35). Prudent, like acknowledging that all wealth in our unjust system is in fact unjust—and, accordingly, holding onto material stuff lightly. Prudent, like refusing to spend our lives serving a cruel death-dealing capitalist system that does not love us—refusing to destroy our souls in service of wealth that will one day be gone (v. 9). 

(This word translated as “be gone,” by the way, is actually quite strong in the original Greek; it could be translated as “fails,” “ceases,” or “dies.” As in, money will fail. Money will one day cease to exist. It will die.)

In light of all this, I wonder what we might learn from this passage about what it means to be faithful. Some of us may have been taught that faithfulness is a passive thing, measured by the sins we avoid and the things we do not do. But in Jesus’ story, faithfulness is active. It’s creative. It’s risky. It’s gutsy. It requires intelligence and courage. It involves trying something and being willing to face the consequences of our actions.

The steward is hardly a meek rule-follower. But there is something about him to be admired. With his actions he calls out the lie that unjust wealth is to be served at all costs. He points toward a different way.

Like this steward, we too take part in unjust systems. Under patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, a few rich folks keep getting richer, and any cost is acceptable in terms of human life and wellbeing. We may not be able to completely escape this system—but we can resist it. We can make choices that fly in the face of its logic. We can flout its expectations. 

We can rest. We can play. We can build genuine relationships that aren’t just transactional, based on what we can get out of someone. We can be radically for others and refuse to compete. We can treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. We can share resources generously, knowing there is enough for all. 

We can’t necessarily avoid unjust systems, but we can refuse to serve them as masters. We can build something new—something sacred and beautiful—in the midst of them. 

Peace to you this week. If you have thoughts about what faithfulness means to you (and how that’s changed over time), or how you live in unjust systems without serving these systems as masters, or anything else this passage makes you think about, holler in the comments or otherwise. I’d love to hear from you.

Super chill book review: Bittersweet (Susan Cain)

I tore through Susan Cain’s new book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Can Make Us Whole (Crown 2022) pretty quickly. And I may have done so while referring to it as “my emo book” for short. 

“Delightful” may seem an odd word for a book that’s all about being sad, but I really did find it an enjoyable read. I appreciated how Susan Cain has quite thoroughly done her homework and also writes about it in a smooth, accessible, not-particularly-academic way. It seems pretty clear that she has not only put years of research into this book but also years of deep personal reflection, mulling over what it all means. Pondering these things in her heart, if you will.*

A few thoughts and quotes:

1) I really enjoyed the broad range of this book. A topic like “bittersweet” really lets you go in all sorts of directions, and I felt like Cain took advantage of that—in a really good way—without it feeling like the book was directionless or just all over the place. 

Cain drew together realms ranging from psychological studies, to music (including her own love for Leonard Cohen), to poetry on grief and death, to workplace management research, to the Stanford Duck Syndrome on elite college campuses. (Well okay, mostly its Princetonian equivalent…which I guess they call effortless perfection, because it sounds fancier than ducks.)

I hope this doesn’t make the book sound overly intellectual. It really got me in the feels. In a good way—a humanizing way.

2) I appreciated how Cain wrote about art coming out of pain. Not in a romanticized way, or a way that tries to make suffering seem like a good thing. But in a way that encourages us to take the pain that we do have and the suffering we go through and make something beautiful of it.

Cain writes in the introduction, “Bittersweetness shows us how to respond to pain: by acknowledging it, and attempting to turn it into art, the way the musicians do, or healing, or innovation, or anything else that nourishes the soul. If we don’t transform our sorrows and longings, we can end up inflicting them on others via abuse, domination, neglect. But if we realize that all humans know—or will know—loss and suffering, we can turn toward each other” (xxv).

I like the idea of looking for what “nourishes the soul,” whatever form that may take. And of turning toward one another and building connection rather than self-isolating when we’re suffering. And, by implication, the idea of turning toward those who are suffering and helping them know they’re not alone.

3) In my more evangelical days, I might have found the way Cain writes about religion a bit blasphemous. But now I’m totally into it. 

For example, Cain writes of a shared human yearning for what Christians might call the Garden of Eden, and/or heaven:

“I call this place, this state that we’re longing for, ‘the perfect and beautiful world,’ In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s the Garden of Eden and the Kingdom of Heaven; the Sufis call it the Beloved of the Soul. There are countless other names for it: for instance, simply, home, or ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ or, as the novelist Mark Merlis puts it, ‘the shore from which we were deported before we were born.’ C. S. Lewis called it ‘the place where all the beauty came from.’ They’re all the same thing—they’re the deepest desire of every human heart…It doesn’t matter whether we consider ourselves ‘secular’ or ‘religious’: in some fundamental way, we’re all reaching for the heavens” (xxviii).

That strikes me as really true, and really beautiful. In some Christian circles the idea of heaven is something that divides people into two groups—those going to heaven, and those going to hell. What if, instead, the idea of heaven could be something that unites us and connects us as humans in our shared longing for a “perfect and beautiful world”?

4) This was a tidbit I’d like to hold onto: 

“I found out that [Leonard Cohen] drew especially from the Kabbalah—the mystical version of Judaism which teaches that all of creation was once a vessel filled with holy light. But it shattered, and now the shards of divinity are scattered everywhere, amidst the pain and ugliness. Our task is to gather up these fragments wherever we find them” (p. 67).

That feels totally right. And I like that it’s not just a way to understand the world—as shards of divinity scattered amidst pain and ugliness—but also a call to action. There’s a sense of purpose. It’s an invitation to start looking for and gathering up those fragments of divinity. Even—maybe especially—in the worst, most pain-filled places.

5) Cain writes about how there are particular large-scale losses (like the death of someone close to us, or the loss of a job) that we are societally “allowed” to mourn. As in, most people in our workplaces or in the dominant U.S. culture in general totally understand, in these cases, that we might need some time off, and that we’ll feel sad for a while, and that sort of thing. But there’s often no such grace or understanding for losses that might seem smaller but are actually also very much worth mourning. 

Cain writes of these “everyday losses, the kind we feel we have no permission to mourn—the ones that psychologists now call ‘disenfranchised griefs’” (129), and of the need to make space for ourselves and others to process these griefs. That made a lot of sense to me. How do we make it more “normal” to feel sad about things other than what might seem like the Really Big Things—and to feel through this sadness rather than stuff it inside because we don’t think we should be so affected by it?

6) I liked these questions Cain asks:

“How do we get to the point of seeing our sorrows and longings not as indications of secret unworthiness but as features of humanity? How do we come to realize that embracing our inner loser as well as winner—the bitter and the sweet—is the key to transcending them both, the key to meaning, creativity, and joy?” (p. 135)

I like the idea of reframing the things we might see as “indications of secret unworthiness” as, instead, “features of humanity.” And this idea of “embracing our inner loser.” She writes about how dominant U.S. culture tends to divide people into categories of winner and loser, which is just wrong as well as super unhelpful. Among other things, it makes us desperate to not fall into the “loser” category. 

Really, though, it’s the nature of being human to experience both success and failure. The disappointments we experience and the mistakes we make do not make us bad or unworthy. They’re just part of life, and we do best to embrace that reality rather than try to deny or hide it.

7)  In general, Bittersweet strikes me as kind of a broader research-based nonfiction version of Kate Bowler’s more memoir-y (and more specifically Christian) books Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) and No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear).

I appreciate both authors’ commitment to unpacking and critiquing what Cain calls “a culture of normative sunshine” (xxix) and Kate Bowler calls “a fever dream promising infinite choices and unlimited progress” (No Cure for Being Human, p. 16). So, if you like the idea of Bittersweet and are looking for more emo books, Kate Bowler’s are really good too. 

Hope you enjoyed these thoughts and enjoy the book if you read it—both the bitter and the sweet!


*That’s a not-so-subtle reference to Mary in Luke 2:19.