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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extraordinary Courage, Extraordinary Kindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To dust you will return: the Good Samaritan, Martha, and Lent

Below is the text of Luke 10:25-42, followed by a brief reflection, an edited version of which is a part of my church’s Lenten devotional series. The idea of the series is to connect narrative passages from the book of Luke to Lenten ideas like lament, fasting, sorrow, repentance, and humility, and to reflect on the questions people ask in the text as well as the questions the text might surface for us.

25  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  26  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  27  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  28  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29  But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

30  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  31  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  34  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  35  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  36  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  37  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

38  Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  39  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.  40  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”  41  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  42  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

As I think about Luke 10:25-42—the story of the Good Samaritan, and then Martha’s interaction with Jesus—in light of the season of Lent, I think about the traditional words of Ash Wednesday: remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. With these words we acknowledge our human mortality, how fragile and vulnerable and brief our lives are. 

I see this to dust you will return vulnerability in the man beaten by robbers and left half dead. I see it in the way the priest and the Levite pass him by.

I’ve often assumed that the man was left unconscious, but as I read the story again, I wonder if we are meant to imagine him watching, injured and helpless, as one religious leader and then another glances at him, sizes him up, decides it isn’t worth getting involved, crosses the road, and keeps walking. Sometimes being abandoned and ignored in our distress is a kind of secondary trauma every bit as weighty as the original wounds.

In Lent, we remember that we, too, are vulnerable. Sometimes we are the ones who show mercy; sometimes we are the ones whose vulnerability calls forth mercy in others. We are all neighbors to one another, God’s children together—in need of mercy, and invited to be merciful.

I also see this to dust you will return vulnerability in Martha’s question to Jesus: Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Jesus, don’t you see the things that overwhelm me with anxiety? The people I feel let down by? The difficulty of changing anything, or of even hoping that something might change? The powerlessness I feel?

These are vulnerable, honest questions. And I think Jesus loves them. When he replies, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing, perhaps he is not so much reproaching Martha as inviting her to let go of some of the many weights she has been carrying, and instead to find one thing—just one next good thing—to do, and do it. Maybe this is how Martha learns to love herself, so she can then love her neighbor as herself.

What vulnerable, human, difficult, honest, messy, beautiful questions have surfaced for us in the midst of the various kinds of to dust you will return vulnerability we have experienced in the last year or so? How can we choose to lean into these questions together in this season of Lent (and beyond)?

(Feel free to name your questions or other reactions in the comments!)

Always Reforming: a short sermon on Luke 6:1-16

I’m thankful to have had another opportunity to give a short sermon at my church, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church (aka “Lake B”). If you prefer a video version, here’s the church service. My part starts around 35:14, but David (before) and Miguel (after) are very much worth listening to if you have a few minutes.

Here’s the passage, and the sermon! Please feel free to holler in the comments section if you have thoughts. I’d love to hear any ways you resonate with this, how you think about tradition and faith, if there are any particular traditions you see a need to re-think, etc.

Luke 6:1-16 (NRSV):

6 One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 3 Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” 5 Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

In one of my first classes in seminary, I was totally mind-blown to learn that early Protestants during the Reformation had this motto: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda—meaning, “a reformed church will always be reforming.” In other words, the Reformers knew that the things they wanted to change about the church back in the 1500s were not the only things that were ever going to need to change. Semper reformanda. Always reforming.

This was mind-blowing to me because, before seminary, I had been part of a more conservative church tradition, where sometimes it felt like the church was very resistant to changing anything at all. Sometimes it felt like faithfulness meant staying true to the teachings of the people—in this case, the white men in the 1950s—who had founded the church.

In our passage this morning, in Luke 6, we see Jesus engaging his own religious tradition, and we see him challenging the ways it’s being interpreted by some of its leaders. 

I think it’s interesting to watch these religious leaders, the Pharisees, in this passage. It’s interesting to see how they interact with Jesus, and how Jesus interacts with them. 

At this point, Jesus is traveling around. He’s teaching and healing. He’s got a ragtag little crew of random people following him. They’re not even the slightly more organized group of twelve apostles, yet. We don’t get that until verses 12-16, at the end of our passage.

But, even at this early point in Jesus’ ministry, he’s begun to attract the attention of some of the powers that be. Spoiler alert: it’s not positive attention. 

In the last couple of stories in Luke 5, right before this passage, the Pharisees are unhappy about the company Jesus keeps. They ask, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? They’re kind of the worst. And he says, I didn’t come for the healthy, but the sick. Then, right after that, the Pharisees complain that their own followers fast, and John the Baptist’s followers fast, but Jesus’ followers are eating and drinking. And Jesus says, Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is here with them? Then he talks about how new garments can’t be used to patch up old ones, and new wine can’t be poured into old wineskins. 

The religious leaders want to hold onto the things that are old, but Jesus is doing something new. And, just to be clear, it’s not about Judaism being old and Christianity being new. Both are living traditions. Both are still being interpreted and understood in different ways with each new generation. It’s not a comparison between religions here; it’s a tension within one tradition. It’s a tension between holding onto particular ways of understanding what this tradition means, and being open to something new that God might be doing. Being open to something that challenges previous understandings of what it meant to be faithful.

So here we are, with lots of people starting to follow Jesus around to learn from him…and some religious leaders also following him around, but for different reasons.

They start off asking him a question. Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath? Jesus takes this at face value, as if it’s an honest question and they really want to know the answer. He tells them a story, appealing to the holy scriptures that they all share in common, and appealing to the memory of their famous ancestral king David that they all share in common. The religious leaders don’t answer.

Then, on another Sabbath, we meet the man with the withered hand. And the religious leaders are back again—still watching, still standing on the sidelines with their arms folded. This time, they don’t say anything. They don’t ask any questions. They don’t even pretend that they actually want to know why Jesus is doing what he’s doing. They don’t even try to look like they think they might possibly have something to learn from him. They just silently watch and look for something they might accuse him of, as v. 7 tells us. Jesus reads their minds, because he does that, and he asks them to reconsider: he asks them, Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or destroy it? And then he heals the person who needs healing.

We’ve seen the religious leaders progress from asking Jesus questions, to not even bothering to engage, but just quietly looking for something to accuse him of—and now, they’ve progressed to being furious. This word here in verse 11, often translated “furious” or “filled with fury,” might also be translated as “madness” or “folly.” It’s not necessarily just anger. In one phrasing, it’s “madness expressing itself in rage.” It’s a flammable combination of ignorance and anger. 

All Jesus did was let his disciples eat, and then heal someone who needed healing. All he has done are good things—the kind of things that should be non-controversial, non-partisan, just basic human rights kinds of things. 

And then we get this huge, disproportionate backlash from the religious leaders. They’re filled with this “madness expressing itself in rage.” 

Our passage here, in verse 11, says that the religious leaders start “discussing with one another what they might do to Jesus.” That might sound a bit ambiguous, but there are a couple passages very similar to this one, in Matthew and Mark’s gospels, that put it more clearly. Those passages say that the religious leaders began plotting how they might kill Jesus.

Jesus fed, and healed. And then the powers that be turn irrationally violent against him. Because, of course, Jesus wasn’t just feeding. He wasn’t just healing. He was messing with their systems. He was messing with the way they were used to seeing things. He was messing with their sense of control and authority. 

He was re-framing the tradition of Sabbath. He was re-interpreting the purpose of the Sabbath: that it’s meant for people’s flourishing, and not for restriction or deprivation. In a very similar passage in the gospel of Mark, Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)

The Sabbath was made for people. And not just for some people, but for all people. Jesus sees his tradition as flexible and changeable if at any point it becomes clear that it’s not working for everybody. Everybody, including people who are hungry, including people who are sick; including, as we see throughout Luke’s gospel, people who are marginalized or oppressed in any way. Really, everybody.

Sometimes we, too, might find that the ways we’re used to reading Scripture, the people we’ve been trained to look up to as religious authorities, the books we’ve been given to read, the theologians and theologies we’ve inherited—aren’t actually working for us. Or, if they are working for us, that they’re not actually working for everybody. When this happens, we, too, have freedom to improvise. We have freedom to reinterpret, to take another look. Freedom to listen to different voices. To listen to one another. To listen to our own spirits within us. 

We have freedom to be part of this reality of the church that is semper reformanda through the generations: always reforming, always needing re-examining, always needing us to bring our hearts and brains and experiences and full selves to its interpretation. 

We follow a God who is always inviting us to weigh what’s lawful, what’s traditional, against what is good—and, when these things conflict, to choose what is good. We follow a God who is always calling us to choose to save life and not destroy it. This is what Sabbath is about. This is what Jesus is about. We belong to this Jesus, to a faith that is for everyone’s flourishing, to a living tradition, always reforming.

Politicians, resistance, and Jesus the all-ruling one

In the earlier days of the pandemic, I decided to translate the book of Revelation from its original Greek. 

It turned out to go more quickly than my current project, the book of Luke. Revelation’s author, John, tends to use language that is (relatively) simple and straightforward in Greek. So, I’m not sure how many specifically translation-focused thoughts I’ll be sharing. But I do want to share some general reflections on some parts of the book. 

The year 2020 has felt like such an apocalyptic time, in so many ways. Perhaps it’s as good a time as any to take a(nother) look at the book of the Bible called the Apocalypse―Greek for Revelation.

I hope it’s helpful to reflect a bit on how this ancient apocalyptic text might connect with our time and everything that’s happening in the world―or at least in the US, since that’s what I’m familiar with. I’d love to hear your thoughts, reactions, questions, points of connection, points of objection, etc. in the Comments section. (Please call me out if anything I write sounds at all like Left Behind :).)

Let’s get started with Revelation 1:4-8. Here is my translation of it:

(4) John, to the seven churches in Asia; grace to y’all and peace from the one who is and who was and who is coming, and from the seven spirits, the ones before his throne, (5) and from Jesus Christ, the witness, the faithful one, the firstborn of the dead ones and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and released us from our sins in his blood, (6) and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and father, to him the glory and the dominion forever and ever; let it be so.

(7) Behold, he comes with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even whichever ones pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will beat their breasts in grief over him. Yes, let it be so.

(8) I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the lord God, the one who is and who was and who is coming, the all-ruling one.

I’m struck by John’s description of Jesus as the ruler of the kings of the earth (v. 5), and, similarly, as the all-ruling one (v. 8). This word all-ruling one―in Greek, παντοκράτωρ―can also be translated as Almighty, or all-powerful, or ruler of all. It’s used a total of ten times in the whole New Testament; nine of these times are in the book of Revelation. 

John seems to really like this word. Perhaps he especially likes this word in the context of all of the violence and destruction and woe and suffering he describes throughout the book of Revelation. As everything is changing, and lots of long-held things are falling apart, and lots of faces of evil are being revealed, and lots of people are suffering, and lots of earthly kings are being corrupt and brutal, somehow, Jesus is the all-ruling one, the ruler of the kings of the earth.

I find this kind of language comforting because my goodness do we have some “kings of the earth” who are less than one might hope for!

I think sometimes people take this all-ruling one kind of language in the Bible to mean that all earthly leaders are doing what God wants, all the time. That they’re appointed by God. That we should check our hearts and minds and consciences and intuitions and relationships at the door and obey these leaders, regardless of whether it seems right or wrong to us.

I’m not about that.

I don’t think that seeing Jesus as the all-ruling one means that everything that happens is God’s will.

What I do think it means―in John’s world, with all of its mercurial, cruel, self-interested Roman authorities, and likewise in our world today, with all of our mercurial, cruel, self-interested politicians―is that earthly leaders are not the highest power. They do not get to do whatever they like with impunity, even if it looks like that is exactly what is happening. 

I think the idea of Jesus’ all-ruling-ness, and his being ruler of the kings of the earth, reminds us that earthly rulers will be called to account. It reminds politicians and other powerful people that there is a power above themselves―and above anyone else they might be trying to impress or appease―to whom they will be held accountable. And it reminds the people stuck and suffering under the rule of these powerful people that there is one more powerful still―one who sees their suffering and will judge justly.

From this perspective―remembering that Jesus, not any earthly ruler, is the all-ruling one―I think we find ourselves empowered to resist any laws, decrees, rulings, oppressive language, etc. that comes down to us from earthly authority figures but does not embody the love and justice central to Jesus’ character. We can say, with Peter and the apostles in Acts 5:29, we must obey God rather than people. Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth

The spirit of Jesus can empower us to be loyal to Jesus’ authority above any other. This spirit can empower us to protest unjust laws, to try to change things where we can, to make room for voices that have been marginalized, to speak up for justice, to seek accountability for the powerful. 

God does not stand behind the actions of earthly rulers when these actions are empathy-less and cause so much needless suffering. God is not in agreement with these rulers just because they are powerful.

I also appreciate that these verses give us a picture not just of how much power Jesus has, but also of the kind of ruler Jesus is. John describes Jesus as the witness, the faithful one, the firstborn of the dead ones, and as the one who loves us and released us from our sins in his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and father (v. 5-6).

For John, Jesus is the witness―the one who sees everything, does not miss anything, and testifies truly about it all. The one who always speaks the truth. The one who never tries to twist or misrepresent or straight-up manufacture information to mislead others, gain support for himself, or push his own agenda.  

Jesus is the faithful one―the one who shows us what it looks like to serve a loving, compassionate, merciful, justice-bringing God. Jesus serves this God with complete faithfulness, to the end, regardless of the personal cost. 

Jesus is the firstborn of the dead ones―the one who gives us hope that death is not the end. Even, and especially, when earthly leaders enact policies that cause death.

Jesus is the one who loves us―the one who deeply cares about us and wants us to flourish. He is about love, not about self-aggrandizement, political ambition, or amassing power for its own sake. 

Jesus has released us from our sins in his blood―he empowers us to know that we are loved and forgiven. He empowers us to live a free and whole and loving life, marked by love and justice rather than greed, selfishness, envy, pride, and other sins. 

Jesus makes us a kingdom―he invites us to live out a different kind of power from what we often see in this world. (See my recent mini-sermon on your kingdom come, your will be done for more on this.) 

Jesus makes us priests to his God and father―he empowers us to see and know and be connected with God. And he empowers us to help others see and know and connect with God, as they do the same for us. He doesn’t hoard his priestly authority for himself.

All these things stand in contrast with so many of our earthly authority figures.

Jesus is the all-ruling one, and he is a different kind of ruler. This reality can give hope and comfort to those who suffer under earthly rulers, and can empower all of us to resist the injustice that comes down from these rulers.

As John writes in v. 6, to this Jesus be the glory and dominion forever and ever; let it be so.

Women, I Would Like to Call Forth

Women, I Would Like to Call Forth

Women, 
I would like to call forth
your holy anger.

Let it rattle the sidings 
of your churches―the ones 
that keep telling you to serve,
but do not serve you well.

Let it be no longer 
held constrained within your bones
in bonds unspoken, swept 
beneath the doormat to your soul―
the one they wanted you to be
as they kept telling you to sweep
and sweep.

Let it rise like yeast 
through sixty pounds of dough.

Let it boil and spill 
over the edges of respectability,
over the steaming rims 
of pots and pans
that do not hold you.

Let it fly forth until they can 
no longer put a cover on your head
like cloth over your face 
to stifle your unruly sounds.

Let there be words, so many 
words for every time they 
tried to shame you into silence.

Let there be tears, so many 
tears for every time they 
said they needed you to smile.

Let there be open confrontation,
exposed wounds for every time they 
turned to you, like Absalom, and said
don’t take this thing to heart―
for every time they wanted you to bow 
and place your fierce God-given power 
in their grasping hands.

Let there be squalls,
twenty-foot swells,
and Jesus in the boat 
who says with kindness,

you of little faith,
I made you for much more.

Won’t you turn and own the power 
I breathed into you.

Won’t you join me 
as I flip over the tables they 
have closed to you and 
make a whip and drive them out.

Yes,
with him,

women, 
I would like to call forth
your holy anger.

Empowerment and authoritarianism and the armor of God, with shout-out to the Black Panthers

Here is one way I might translate Ephesians 6:10-17 (emphasis added):

(10) Henceforth, (y’all) be empowered in (the) Lord and in the strength of his ability. (11) (Y’all) put on the whole armor of God for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil; (12) because the wrestling, for us, is not toward blood and flesh, but toward the rulers, toward the authorities, toward the world-rulers of this darkness, toward the spiritual things of evil in the heavenly places. (13) On account of this, (y’all) take up the whole armor of God, in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day, and, after accomplishing everything, to stand. (14) Therefore, (y’all) stand, after girding y’all’s loins in truth, and after putting on for yourselves the breastplate of justice, (15) and after shoeing the feet in readiness of the good news of peace, (16) in all things taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil; (17) and (y’all) receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is a word of God.

As you may have gathered from the italics I added, I got interested in what these verses have to say about power. In particular, I thought it was interesting that the Greek word δύναμαι tends to be translated a bit more weakly than it needs to be.

δύναμαι is used three times in the eight verses above, so it seems pretty important. On top of that, a closely related word, ἐνδυναμόω, is used in v. 10 (also italicized above).

In most translations, δύναμαι is rendered here as “can” or “is able.” In the NIV, for example, the relevant phrases read:

  • “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (v. 11)
  • “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground” (v. 13)
  • “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v. 16).

I’m not saying I think this is a bad translation, but I am interested in the fact that δύναμαι could alternatively be translated not just as “can,” or “is able,” but as “is strong,” or “is powerful.” It’s the word from which we get our English words dynamite and dynamic.

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to translate δύναμαι as “is dynamite,” as fun as that might be―boom!―but I do think it’s interesting to try to incorporate this idea of power into the translation. Thus, we might have:

  • “for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil” (v. 11)
  • “in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day” (v. 13)
  • “taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil” (v. 16).

I’ll add another one, just for fun, from the closely related verb in v. 10 (ἐνδυναμόω): “be empowered in the Lord and in the strength of his ability.”

I think sometimes Christians have the idea, even if we might not quite put it this way, that all power is reserved for God―and this means that we as humans aren’t meant to have any. We are meant to be small, and powerless, and weak, and frail, and all-around worm-like in every way.

But the God I believe in―and the God Paul believed in, back in the day―is not an insecure political leader who hoards power for himself and tries to keep others as small and powerless as possible. 

The God I believe in does not hoard power, but shares it. God’s ego is not threatened by the thought that ordinary humans might learn to stand and walk in their power. God wants to empower people. 

God wants people to be powerful―powerful to pursue truth (the belt), and justice (the breastplate), and peacemaking (the shoes). Powerful to stand up to evil and to resist unjust schemes. Powerful to hold onto faith like a shield and extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil. 

I think Paul wants people to know that this is what God is like. Paul wants the average, everyday churchgoers in the city of Ephesus to be empowered (v. 10). He wants them to put on God’s full armor so that they can be powerful (v. 11). 

Paul hopes that, in the “evil day”―in the times when the presence of evil is particularly obvious and oppressive―these ordinary people might be powerful to be part of the resistance (v. 13). And Paul has every confidence that these humble unassuming ordinary people will in fact be powerful (v. 16). 

I find this idea of empowerment via the armor of God particularly striking in the context of Paul’s immediately preceding words. Right before this passage, Paul speaks directly to both wives and husbands (Eph 5:22-33), both children and parents (Eph 6:1-3), and both slaves and householders (Eph 6:5-9). 

Whatever else we might say about these passages (and feel free to click the links above for some of my thoughts), at the very least, it is clear that Paul writes to a church full of all kinds of people, with all sorts of different amounts of power in the structures and systems of our world: husbands, who had a great deal of power in their marriages, and wives, who had very little; parents, who had a great deal of power in their relationships with their children, and children, who had very little; householders, who had a great deal of power in their homes, and slaves, who had very little. 

And now, when he writes about the armor of God, Paul makes no distinctions among any of these groups. He writes to the whole church, to everyone in it: I want you to be empowered by God. Whether you have all the power in the world or none of it, put on God’s armor, and be empowered. Stand up to evil. Resist oppression and hatred and deception and greed, wherever you see it. Truth, justice, peace, and faith belong to you. 

I am reminded of a slogan of the Black Panther Party: “All the power to all the people.” 

(I just learned this recently, from a documentary called The First Rainbow Coalition, which follows the story of alliances formed among the Black Panther Party and other working-class community movements in Chicago in the late 1960s or so, including a Latino group and a group of southern whites.)

I think sometimes (white) Christians are afraid of things like this. Not only because we tend to be racist―which we absolutely do―but also because we get nervous about the idea of people having power in general. Sometimes this is for good reason, as we have seen powerful people abuse their power and do a great deal of harm. Sometimes we want to limit power to the tiny group of people whom we think have really earned it.

But perhaps God knows that power can be so dangerous and awful precisely because it tends to accumulate in the hands of just a few―because, when we get a bit of it, we tend to hoard it for ourselves. 

Perhaps if power were actually distributed more evenly among more people―among all people―we would see less in the way of authoritarian abuse of power, and more in the way of ordinary people rising up to work together for the health and wellbeing of the community. 

I don’t think God wants us to think we are worms, weak and gross, always groveling for mercy and thinking we’re the absolute worst. I think God wants to empower us to figure out how to live in a way that honors God, other people, ourselves, and the natural world. I think God wants us to be powerful to be fully ourselves. Powerful to be about truth and justice and peace and faith and healing. 

This is not an easy thing. Often it’s easier to be small. 

It’s hard to stand―that’s why we need the “full armor of God” for it. But it is good. 

So, be empowered in the Lord. God shares God’s power―God’s awesome, good, truth-exposing, justice-seeking, peace-making power―with us. All the power to all the people.

She Raises Her Daughters

A poem inspired by awesome parents like my friend Sarah Suarez, who put so much thought and intention daily into the ways they raise their daughters, and by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ recent speech in response to Rep. Ted Yoho’s disrespectful comments and subsequent non-apology.

If you haven’t watched the full video of AOC’s speech (included in the link above), it’s well worth the ten minutes. One line (among many!) that I appreciated is “I am here because I have to show my parents…that they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.”

She Raises Her Daughters

She raises her daughters to negotiate,
push back, articulate their needs, 

to know that those who love them 
will respect them, hear them out, will not 

lash back in anger. 
She raises her daughters to say “thank you” 

and “no, thank you,” to assert autonomy,
embrace their agency, be willing to refuse 

demands upon their time, their bodies, souls,
and see authority as something not unbendable 

by strong and stubborn wills.
She raises her daughters to make choices,

to direct the courses of their lives, to not 
accept in coerced blindness 

all the things the world will tell them 
about who they are 

and what they cannot be.
She raises her daughters to stand tall

when men try to demolish them with words,
to see right through pretend apologies,

to speak truth to deaf ears until they hear,
and not back down upon intimidation.

She raises her daughters to know that they
and all their sisters are worth more 

than this.

So praise her, praise the mothers like her,
praise the parents like her―each the kind 

of hero our world does not know it needs.
They walk against the wind 

and swim up all the streams 
to teach our little girls to live as fully human,

teach our little girls to live what will not be
an easy life.

Grace overflows into us

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

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

There are a few things I thought were interesting here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solvitur Ambulando

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

Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur ambulando
it is solved by walking

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

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

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

they met our walking 
with walls of police
in riot gear 

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

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

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

they sprayed tear gas 
shot their rubber bullets

but we kept walking.

We walked to capitols
to churches
to the white house where

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

but we kept walking.

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

we claim 
them with pride

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

We walked right to 
the river Justice

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

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

we let its rolling waters 
roll on us.