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

Wildflowers from last week’s trip to Maine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some memorable quotes, to this end:

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

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

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

No lies detected there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oluo writes: 

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

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

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

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

3. Another memorable quote: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As usual, a few random thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

if one so chooses—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The illusion of independence: Jesus, to the Laodiceans

Here’s a literal translation of Revelation 3:14-22—Jesus’ words to the last of the seven churches featured in the first few chapters of Revelation.

(14) And to the angel of the church in Laodicea, write; these things says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of the creation of God; (15) I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I would that you were cold or hot. (16) So, because you are tepid and neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you from my mouth. (17) Because you say that “I am rich” and “I have become rich” and “I have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked, (18) I counsel you to buy from me gold, having been burned from fire, in order that you might become rich, and a white garment in order that you might clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness might not be revealed, and eye salve to anoint your eyes in order that you might see. 

(19) As many as I love, I reprove and teach; be zealous, therefore, and repent. (20) Behold, I have stood at the door and I knock; if someone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter with them and I will dine with them and them with me. 

(21) The one who conquers, I will give to them to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered, and I sat with my father on his throne. (22) The one who has ears, let them hear what the spirit says to the churches.

Usually, when I hear people talk about this passage, they tend to focus on the part about being hot, cold, or lukewarm. And by people, I mean everyone from your pastor to your old school Katy Perry: you know, “you’re hot, then you’re cold, you’re yes, then you’re no…” (Just kidding).

Focusing on these verses works pretty well for evangelical pastors. They can read this and say, well, you’re all clearly being lukewarm Christians right now, because you aren’t that excited about evangelism; or, because you aren’t giving enough money to the church; or, because you aren’t spending enough time volunteering to serve in the church’s ministry programs; or, because you aren’t [fill in the blank with whatever else I want you to be doing right now].”

(Slightly less cynical version: fill in the blank with whatever I think God wants you to be doing right now…and I definitely know what God wants for you, better than you do. Oops, I guess that was still a little cynical. #Mood.)

I’m not totally sure what to say about the cold/hot/lukewarm thing, except that these kinds of interpretations can’t be right. It’s not at all clear what exactly Jesus means when he speaks to the church in Laodicea about being hot or cold, but it certainly doesn’t involve twenty-first century American evangelical churches’ budgets or growth rates. 

Besides, is tepid food or drink to be blamed for its tepidness? It’s not like it can “fix” itself. It’s not like it can force itself to become hot or cold by sheer willpower, by trying harder, by doing more of the “right” Christian-y things. 

Maybe a more helpful line of thought, here, begins something like this: If you’re in a place spiritually where everything feels tepid, why might that be? What’s going on? Were there things that you were genuinely excited about in the past, and, if so, what changed? 

Asking open-ended questions like these can help us do some meaningful self-reflection. There are no right or wrong answers. Often there is no one in particular to blame. It’s just a means of self-discovery, of trying to be aware of what’s going on in our hearts and minds and bodies and spirits.

We might also ask some questions that have a little more forward momentum to them: What might you still be excited about? Where might these things be found, or how might they be brought to life? Are there things in your life that you really are passionate about, and what might it look like to lean more into these things? Do you feel like you have God’s permission to pursue these passions, whether or not they have to do directly with church-y stuff? 

This sort of reflection feels to me like a better, more open-ended, less manipulative way to think about the ways in which we might be hot, cold, or tepid.

Temperatures aside, though, there’s another part of this passage that strikes me as just as interesting, or maybe even more so. It’s this: Because you say that “I am rich” and “I have become rich” and “I have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked, I counsel you to buy from me gold having been burned from fire in order that you might become rich, and a white garment in order that you might clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness might not be revealed, and eye salve to anoint your eyes in order that you might see (v. 17-18).

I am rich, and I have become rich, and I have need of nothing. Isn’t that kind of the American dream? I worked hard and pulled myself up by my bootstraps. I made myself independently wealthy. I have all the material things I need and then some, and I live happily ever after in my big house in the suburbs, where I don’t have to worry about money, or interact with anyone I don’t want to interact with, or do anything I don’t want to do. I have need of nothing.

Unfortunately for those who have bought into this dream, independence is a lie. Having need of nothing is a lie. You can be as rich as you’ve ever dreamed, and yet still be miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked. You can find yourself, as T.I. might say, “unhappy with your riches cause you’re piss poor morally” (from Live Your Life, ft. Rihanna…apparently my pop music from 2008 game is strong today).

If we start to think that we don’t need others, we become among those whom Jesus calls pitiable and poor. This is not how life was meant to be lived. We all need so many things that money can’t buy: love, friendship, community, peace, joy, connection, purpose, belonging. We are miserable without these things and blind if we can’t see that we need them.

Plus, even in the times when it does feel like all our needs are being met (hallelujah!), there are likely others around us for whom this is not the case. It is a lie to think that we can flourish while we sit back and say I am rich and I have need of nothing—go me!—as others suffer from not having enough. 

Contrary to a long American legacy of white male supremacist ways of thinking (I recently read Ijeoma Uluo’s book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America—highly recommend!), the point of life is not to win, to end up with more than others, to come out on top without caring what happens to everyone else. When we make everything hyper-competitive and are willing to sacrifice others’ wellbeing to try to get more for ourselves, everyone loses. 

Not to mention all the things Jesus says about how the last will be first and the first will be last (Matt 20:16), and how we should care for the least of these (Matt 25:40), and that sort of thing.

When some people, or some groups of people, try to win at others’ expense, we all lose. The point is not to get ahead so we can have need of nothing, but to learn how to live together in healthy communities, where we all love one another as equals. 

This does not come naturally to many of us, perhaps especially those of us who grew up swimming in a sea of white American culture. So let’s buy that new kind of gold from Jesus, and that new garment, because the way a lot of us have been conditioned to think about things is completely upside down. Let’s put on that eye salve and perhaps learn to see differently, perhaps learn to see how interconnected we all are.

Post-acquittal prayer

A prayer for mercy as the news of Trump’s acquittal in his second impeachment trial sinks in.

God, have mercy on everyone who grieves this.
Have mercy on everyone who rejoices.
Have mercy on everyone who is oblivious.
Have mercy on everyone who is numb.

Have mercy on everyone who carries disillusionment
like weight within their eyes
that weighs still heavier each day 
as justice is, again, again, 
again, denied.

Have mercy on those who were, somehow,
surprised. 

Have mercy on the ones who find no revelation
of American depravity 
in any way surprising, 
anymore.

Have mercy on the ones for whom the scales 
are finally falling from their eyes,
and on the ones whose eyes are weary
from the witnessing of yet another round
of scales falling, utterly exhausting.

Have mercy on the ones to whom America 
has not been merciful.

Have mercy on everyone wrongly convicted, 
often racistly convicted, 
and on all who love them,
as we watch the rich white criminals go free.

Have mercy on us in our wounds that fester
through the generations
and have not been aired to heal.

How can we go forward, stumbling, lurching 
into hope,
when half would leave the other half to die,
and laugh at all the stuff that makes 
their nightmares?

Jesus, Pergamum, and Trumpism

Continuing in the book of Revelation, here’s a pretty literal translation of 2:12-17:

(12) And to the angel of the church in Pergamum, write: these things says the one who has the sharp two-edged sword: (13) I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan (is), and you are grasping my name and did not deny my faith, even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed in y’all’s presence, where Satan dwells. (14) But I have against you a few things: that you have, there, ones who are grasping the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to throw a cause of stumbling before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to prostitute themselves. (15) In this manner you also likewise have ones who are grasping the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (16) Repent, therefore; but if not, I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war with them in the sword of my mouth. (17) The one who has ears, let him/her hear what the spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give to him/her the Manna that has been hidden, and I will give to him/her a white pebble, and on the pebble a new name has been written, which no one knows except the one who takes (it).

It feels relevant―as, just a few hours ago, a mob of Trump supporters, many of whom are quick to voice their Christian religious affiliation, violently stormed the U.S. Capitol Building―that this passage is all about a church where people grasp tightly to the name of Jesus (v. 13), while some of them also grasp just as tightly to the false and harmful teachings of Balaam (v. 14) and the Nicolaitans (v. 15).

Since the language of “grasping” Jesus’ name, or “grasping” different kinds of religious teachings, isn’t necessarily the most natural-sounding thing in English, I don’t blame various translations for using different words here. The NIV, for example, speaks of “remaining true” to Jesus’ name, and of “holding” to the various false teachings. The (more literal) NRSV and ESV speak of “holding fast” to Jesus’ name, and, like the NIV, of “holding” to the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. 

There are lots of ways one could reasonably translate this Greek word for “I grasp,” which is κρατέω. “Hold” or “hold fast” are definitely among them, and “remain true” also seems like a reasonable interpretation. Other options include “seize,” “retain,” “keep,” or “take hold of.”

It feels important to me, though, that it’s the same Greek word that is used each time. Jesus commends his hearers in Pergamum for “grasping” his name…and then expresses frustration toward some of them for―just as easily, in the same sort of way―“grasping” onto teachings Jesus wants nothing to do with. They’re holding fast to Jesus’ name, which is awesome…but they’re also holding just as fast to some messed up stuff, which is not awesome.

I get the sense that these churchgoers in ancient Pergamum were as highly dedicated to their faith as could be―and, at the same time, one hundred percent wrong about what the actual content of that faith entails. They refused to deny Jesus’ name, even when one of them was killed for it (v. 13)―and yet when it came down to what Jesus was actually about and what he wants for his followers, they were all over the place. They were doing and promoting all sorts of things Jesus never wanted them to do or promote.

Some of them, perhaps, were not all that different from the people who carried “Jesus 2020” signs as they stormed the Capitol Building today. (For context, the “Jesus 2020” sign seems to be the sort of thing that was originally conceived as non-political, but, of course, has become pretty Trump-y in the meanwhile.)

It doesn’t take a highly trained biblical scholar to recognize that the things Trump says and does tend to be the polar opposite of everything Jesus said and did. And yet, there are those who grasp the name of Jesus tightly, and also grasp Trumpism just as tightly. 

As I read about Jesus speaking to the church in Pergamum, I wonder if he might speak to these Christian Trump-followers in a similar way. 

He might begin with some compliments―and sincere ones (as unnatural as this might sound to a lot of us who oppose Trump and Trumpism). He might say, as he says in v. 13: I see your willingness to stand up for what you believe in, even in the face of a lot of opposition and pressure to do otherwise. I see your loyalty―how you want to hold tightly onto my name in the midst of a rapidly changing world. 

I think Jesus would resist the urge to dehumanize these people―even if they have done plenty of dehumanizing of their own. I think he would speak to them with respect and dignity. 

And then Jesus would get down to it. He might say, I have a few things against you (v. 14). He might spell out the ways in which Trumpism is directly opposed to Jesus’ own teaching. He would call them to repent (v. 16). He would invite them to change their minds, to turn around and walk a different path. 

He might even add: it’s not too late. Repentance doesn’t need to be shameful. It’s okay to admit you were wrong. Repentance can be freeing and awesome. There is grace. You don’t have to keep grasping to the things you’ve been taught, or your family believes, or your pastor keeps saying. You can choose a different way.

And then he would let them know he’s serious. He might tell them: Trumpism is freaking dangerous, destructive, and deadly. If you don’t repent, there will be consequences. I will come to you in judgment (v. 16). You can’t keep grasping my name and also grasping these hideous things that are no part of me at all. That’s not how this works. I want better for you than that, and I want better for all the people who are harmed by these teachings you’ve followed.

Just as he would resist the urge to treat these people disrespectfully, I think Jesus would also resist the urge to excuse the path they’ve taken and pretend like it’s okay. I don’t think he would pretend that Trumpism is just another valid political view―something we can set aside when we come to church, so we can all sing How Great is Our God together like one big happy family. I think Jesus would speak to these people clearly, seriously, and urgently. Repent, or I am coming to you with a sharp two-edged sword.

As v. 17 says, whoever has ears, let them hear.

Election Week Blessing

Because I wanted to be cool like Nadia Bolz-Weber (just kidding―I’ll never be as cool as Nadia!) and write some blessings of my own. (Check out Nadia’s beautiful “Blessed are the Agnostics” piece here, if you like. It’s really lovely.)

These words are loosely inspired by the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), and much less loosely inspired by a bunch of different pieces of news I’ve seen recently that relate to this week’s election.

Election Week Blessing

Blessed are those who stand and wait for hours
in lines that wrap around buildings and stretch into the street.

Blessed are those who take selfies at the ballot drop box
and do a little dance.

Blessed are the elderly whose bodies no longer move as they once did,
but who are determined to make it to the polls.

Blessed are those who receive death threats
and vote anyway.

Blessed are those who grit their teeth and vote for a candidate 
they did not choose and do not like.

Blessed are those who staff the polls and count the ballots.

Blessed are the postal workers.

Blessed are the employers who give people the day off to go and vote.

Blessed are the lawyers fighting legal battles for every vote to be counted.

Blessed are those who refuse to manipulate statistics
to make themselves look better, or to give false hope.

Blessed are those not too consumed by hubris
to admit when they have lost a contest.

Blessed are those who march to the polls,
stop and take a knee for eight minutes and forty six seconds, 
and are tear gassed by police.

Blessed are the Black Lives Matter organizers.

Blessed are those who hold vigil for lives taken violently before their time.

Blessed are those still in the streets after a hundred and fifty days,
who are desperate and will not stop knocking at the door of justice.

Blessed are those whose blood boils and hearts sink 
at the sight of Austin police officers posing with Proud Boys for a photo.

Blessed are those who have tried and failed to reform police departments.

Blessed are those who feared for their lives on that Biden campaign bus,
and those who felt sad and angry watching the video of the trucks surrounding it and trying to force it off the road.

Blessed are the white people who consider themselves recovering racists,
and who know the journey is a life-long one.

Blessed are the immigrants maligned as murderers and rapists,
called animals and hunted by a system that does not care about them.

Blessed are those who tremble at the thought of the results of this election,
because it might mean life or death for them or those they love.

Blessed are those who live among a violent people, in a violent nation,
and refuse to take up arms.

Blessed are the pastors willing to preach justice and hold out for real shalom,
though their congregants want to hear them say “peace, peace.” 

Blessed are the church leaders driven out of their jobs and their communities
because they refuse to toe the Republican party line.

Blessed are those less concerned with saving disembodied souls
and more concerned with living in a way that values every whole and complex person.

Blessed are those who sit in church pews and want to mourn the state of everything,
while everyone around them smiles and claps their hands to upbeat praise songs.

Blessed are the ones who know how to wail in lament.

Blessed are those who still have hope, 
and those whose hope is gone.

Blessed are those who have been gaslighted over and over again
and now know how to resist it,
and those who have not been able to resist.

Blessed are those who are not afraid to look at all these hard things.

Blessed are those who crave righteousness and truth and goodness
more than power.

Blessed are the poor, the mourners, the weak, 
the hungry and thirsty for justice, 
the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, 
the ones persecuted for their pursuit of justice.

Blessed are you.