Super chill book review: Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Julie Rodgers)

First, I’d just like to take credit real quick(-ish) for the fact that the King County Library System now has Julie Rodgers’ memoir Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story in their system. Woohoo! This is the first book I’ve requested that the library actually purchased, so it was a very exciting moment for me. 

Also, not only did the library purchase Outlove, but they purchased a whopping FOUR copies of it—and now there are no less than ten holds on those four copies! (Okay, fine, I suppose it’s possible that some of those other people who now have holds on the book also requested that the library buy it…so maybe it wasn’t just me. But I can still take credit.)

Anyhow, I tore through Outlove. Like, in a good way. It was hard to put down. I found Rodgers’ story riveting. 

Her story of coming of age as a queer evangelical Christian is a difficult one, but super important—and also, at least to me, in many ways redemptive. I’m grateful for her willingness to share her journey.

A few random thoughts:

1) Outlove is a story about Rodgers’ experience of youth and young adulthood as a gay person, specifically, in (evangelical) Christian contexts. And it’s also about more than that.

I was struck by how much of her reflection and critique applies to conservative evangelical Christianity more generally—her story is specific to her queerness, but there was also so much I could relate to from being part of the same systems. 

I think anyone who has experienced a significant shift in belief system—particularly a shift away from what Rodgers would call more fundamentalist types of Christianity—would relate to a ton of this book. (Not that reading an awesome memoir from a thoughtful queer person of faith shouldn’t be enough reason to read!)

Rodgers writes, for example, “Fundamentalism was a coherent system that dictated my life to me: it told me who I was and how I was to live, every moment of every day. It gave me a rulebook that laid out a path for me to be objectively good. When one part of the system was called into question, it brought up a series of related questions that threatened to bring the whole house down. The foundation upon which my life and identity were built began to shake, and I couldn’t cope with the thought that the whole house—everything I believed to be true and all the relationships that held me together—might come crashing down” (p. 55).

Yup, pretty much. You start to pull at one thread that doesn’t seem quite right, and before you know it, the whole thing starts unraveling. 

Or, alternatively, you poke with curiosity at an interesting-looking piece of rock, and end up waking a very large sleeping troll that then lunges right at you with all of its terrifying weight—when you had reasonably thought it was just a mound of boulders and you were safe. (I just made that analogy up. You’re welcome?)

There’s something appealing about feeling like you have all the answers to everything. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. For any of us. And probably especially for those of us who tend to think we have all the answers to everything.

I think there’s something beautiful in the mystery of not knowing things—of having to figure things out, together, in community, with the humility that should probably come with being human. But it’s difficult, too. Especially when you’ve been steeped in a belief system that tells you you’re supposed to know things. (And that this knowing things is what makes it a good belief system in the first place—better than all the other belief systems out there. You know, the mindset that we have the answers to everyone’s questions about all the things; we have the whole grasp on the truth that everyone needs.)

2) I hope this next quote isn’t too much of a spoiler. But I guess it isn’t exactly a secret that, when Rodgers was in her tweens and twenties, she was a key spokesperson for gay conversion groups (the kind that try to make gay people straight), including the now-defunct Exodus International. And it also isn’t a secret that she no longer thinks these kinds of groups are a fantastic idea. 

This is how she reflects on some of these experiences:

“The final Exodus conference took place exactly ten years after my first one. For the first half of my time in ex-gay ministry, I would say I was a true believer in the process. The second half was a long quest to escape. First, I tried to run away and then dragged myself back like a scared child returning to an abusive home. For the last couple of years, I fought for freedom for myself and my friends by trying to change the organization from within.

I was, at times, manipulated. At other points, complicit. And in the end, I was brave. It’s tempting to try to squeeze my years in conversion therapy into one of those categories. It would help me locate myself on the spectrum of good and evil. But life isn’t always that tidy. Many of us find ourselves, at various points, a victim, a villain, and a champion.

I’m learning to have compassion for my younger self―not just the sixteen-year-old who knew she had no good options but also the twenty-four-year-old who kept smiling for the cameras, despite her misgivings. This compassion for all the different versions of myself opens me up to have mercy on those I place squarely in the evil category today. Perhaps they’re also victims of a system they have not yet seen for what it truly is. It’s not too late for any of us to change” (p. 82).

I appreciated Rodgers’ resistance to a single narrative of this complicated time in her life. Sometimes manipulated, sometimes complicit, sometimes brave—this feels like it kind of sums up many well-intentioned people’s involvement in manipulative, controlling, and otherwise shitty systems. (Hopefully moving more toward the “brave” part as time goes on; and hopefully, as Rodgers eventually did, getting out when needed.)

Also, Rodgers is SO GRACIOUS. After everything she’s been through in the conservative evangelical world. Compassion for our younger selves, as well as compassion for people doing evil things today—which doesn’t excuse the evil things but does recognize the complicated humans behind them—these strike me as things to aspire to.

3. Rodgers writes, “I wanted someone to acknowledge how shitty it was for people to debate about LGBTQ people as if it were a sport” (p. 124). 

Right?? 

It’s easy to sit around and debate about things that don’t directly impact your life. But I guess I know—you know, mostly from sitting through far too many debates about women in ministry—that, when the thing being debated impacts your life (like, a lot), it’s not a sport. And nothing that impacts anyone else like that should be a sport either.

What is this, anyway—the idea that we can tear literal life-and-death questions out of their embodied context and toss them up in the air to be batted around for fun like beach balls? (I just thought of that metaphor, too. Must be on a roll. Like a beach ball? Sorry.) But really. Nothing good comes from pretending that there’s this purely intellectual realm that can be divorced from actual people’s actual lives.

4. Having heard a few “slippery slope” arguments in my day, I appreciate these reflections:

“The problem with the ‘slippery slope’ analogy is that it implies we’re at the top of the mountain. My friend Peter Choi, a historian and pastor, notes that the analogy assumes we have the truth, the moral high ground, and that any shift toward a different perspective is downward movement. The metaphor doesn’t leave much room for humility, where we consider the possibility that people with different perspectives might be right about some things and we might be wrong or that we might both be a little right, in different ways. I needed a framework that accounted for the ways we might be wrong, especially after bearing witness to the suffering queer people experienced in Christian communities” (p. 127).

When I interned with Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), I attended an FYI-hosted conference for megachurch leaders who wanted to do better in youth ministry. One of the speakers, a Fuller professor, stood up in front of all of them and said something like this: “Have you ever changed your mind? About anything, ever? If so, that means that you were wrong about something, at some point. Do you think it’s possible, then, that you might change your mind again in the future? And that this means that something you believe now is wrong?”

I could see the wheels turning and the minds in the room being blown. It was fascinating. And terrifying. To be fair, I didn’t know these Big and Important Megachurch Pastors personally, so maybe I shouldn’t read too much into their nonverbal reactions to this professor’s words. But it really did feel like many of them were just considering for the first time that *gasp* they might currently be wrong about something. Yikes.

I like what Rodgers writes about considering the possibility that you and someone you disagree with might “both be a little right, in different ways.” It’s not always just that someone’s right and someone’s wrong (and we could be either of those people at any given moment!), but also that we all know some things, and we all have some things to learn from one another.

(Thus, community! Ideally, community with people who are different from us in a variety of ways.)

5. Rodgers reflects, “I was seen as one of a handful of unicorn gays who would parrot conservative views and shield them from accusations of homophobia. When Gabe [Lyons] introduced me to his circles and Wheaton hired me, I naively believed their hearts were softening toward the queer community and that they wanted to make room for us.

After nine months of roundtable discussions with Christian leaders, consultations with board members at Christian organizations, and meetings with administrators at Evangelical colleges, I was convinced their acceptance of people like me was a political strategy. Not only did gay people with conservative theology guard them against accusations of discrimination, but we also served as convenient mouthpieces. By inviting us into leadership roles, our presence allowed them to ignore the claims of the greater LGBTQ community that said Evangelical theology and institutional policies were harmful to queer people” (p. 160-161).

Well, there isn’t a lot of sugar-coating going on here. And it also rings absolutely true. 

Not to say that there aren’t evangelical hearts softening toward the queer community. I absolutely believe there are. I know there are, because I know some of these people whose hearts are softening or have been softened. And I also know because I have been one of them.

It’s a different story, though, for conservative leaders who just keep doubling down on their anti-gay stances—who keep ignoring and downplaying the suffering their views are causing, keep trying to discredit those who disagree, and keep trying to use conservative queer people as “convenient mouthpieces” to “guard them against accusations of discrimination.” This is all definitely (still) a thing.

There’s so much in this book. As usual, I’ve really only scratched the surface of it. I’m grateful for Rodgers’ bravery, insight, and thoughtfulness—and for the way she approaches her story with so much compassion toward others while also pulling zero punches about what happened and how she reflects on it now. Give it a read!

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: Hope in the Dark (Rebecca Solnit)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 From Lorde’s essay:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some things that stood out to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Reputation, reality, and getting called out

It’s been a minute (like, since MLK Day) since I’ve posted a reflection on the book of Revelation. But I want to come back to it, and do at least a couple more posts—especially since we’re already through four of the seven churches Jesus has stuff to say to, and since it feels like a lot of what Jesus has to say is still a little too relevant today.

So, even though this one sounds a little goofy in places, here’s my literal translation of Revelation 3:1-6:

(1) And to the angel of the church in Sardis, write: these things says the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: I know your works, that you have a name that you are living, and you are dead. (2) Become one who watches, and establish the remaining things which were about to die, for I have not found your works fulfilled before my God. (3) Therefore, remember how you received and heard, and keep, and repent. Therefore, if you do not watch, I have come like a thief, and you would certainly not know (in) what hour I have come upon you. 

(4) But you have a few names in Sardis that did not soil their garments, and they will walk around with me in white (clothes), because they are worthy. (5) The one who conquers in this manner will be clothed in white garments, and I will not erase his/her/their name from the book of life, and I will profess his/her/their name before my father and before his angels. (6) The one who has ears, let him/her/them hear what the spirit says to the churches.

Jesus says to the church in Sardis, you have a name that you are living, and you are dead (v. 1). He says, your reputation is that you’re living and thriving, but I know the truth: you’re dead inside.

Jesus says, basically, sure, I hear the good things people say about you. I see all your retweets and your Instagram likes. I hear all your fancy name-dropping. I see how many views your Sunday church services have on Youtube. But I don’t really care about those things. 

Jesus says, I don’t care that your church has a wide-reaching reputation of being awesome and cool and the place to be. I care about your works (v. 1). I care that you are watchful and attentive to what God is doing (v. 2, 3). I care that you actually follow through on the good things you like so much to talk about (v. 2). I care that you love God and love your neighbor, and that you seek justice. (After all, as Dr. Cornel West famously said, “justice is what love looks like in public.”)

One modern-day scenario that feels pretty relevant here is the whole Carl Lentz and Hillsong debacle that I mentioned briefly in my Where is the Love? post back in December. Since then, I’ve read this more recent Vanity Fair article, which offers a few different angles on the situation—including the perspective of a “Lentz insider” who said, strikingly, “[Lentz’s] name is bigger than ever and he knows that.” According to this unnamed friend, Lentz “wants to use all the attention he’s received to boost his post-scandal career, maybe land a faith-based Netflix reality series.” 

“His name is bigger than ever.” That’s what’s on Lentz’s mind these days, apparently. (As well as a Netflix reality series.) He isn’t sincerely working on himself, or genuinely apologizing to everyone he needs to apologize to and trying to make amends, or trying to establish the remaining things that were about to die (v. 2), or remembering what he received and heard…and repenting (v. 3). He’s just thinking of all the fun things he might do next, now that his reputation is bigger than ever. 

I was also reading rapper Lecrae’s memoir, I Am Restored, recently, and I was struck by Lecrae’s reflections on a similar kind of thing. “I started to see,” Lecrae writes, “how ‘Christian’ the entertainment side of the church actually was. I went on tours and saw substance abuse, womanizing, and other things most people would never expect. I was shocked to see what was acceptable even in greenrooms. So many were drinking and participating in debauchery to their heart’s content. To be clear, I was struggling with my own brokenness, so my response was not filled with judgment, just surprised at the facade” (p. 54). 

Lecrae wasn’t judging, and admits that he took part in some of these things, too. He wasn’t surprised that these things happened. But he was surprised at “the facade”—that these famous Christian musicians, speakers, and other entertainers perhaps had a reputation that they were living, but, actually, were dead (v. 1).

Of course, it’s not just celebrity pastors and big-name Christian artists and super-cool megachurches that can fall into this kind of trap. 

I’ve seen this sort of thing in less famous, less star-studded churches and organizations too. I’ve seen church leaders respond to difficult and complicated conflicts by controlling the narrative and throwing the “trouble-makers” under the bus, pretending to seek resolution and healing but actually just trying to salvage the church’s reputation. Things like this happen all the time. 

I’ve seen it in my own life, too. Especially when I was deeply invested in evangelicalism, I was very concerned about my reputation as a Christian. I had been taught what an ideal follower of Jesus looks like, and I wanted very much to come across as that kind of person.

For a time, I thought Christians were supposed to be, basically, total extroverts—people who were friendly to everyone all the time, as outgoing as possible, who loved to get to know (and make a good impression on) as many people as possible—and I tried to do these things. I was so happy whenever someone was surprised to learn that I’m an introvert. It was exhausting. It has taken years of unlearning to begin to embrace the introverted personality God gave me rather than trying to build a reputation of extroversion. 

I think part of being human, and of being involved in churches made up of humans, is that there are good things and bad things, beautiful things and messy things, brilliant things and flawed things, in and among all of us. I don’t think Jesus is blasting the church in Sardis for screwing up, or having conflict, or that sort of thing. That’s just natural. I think what he’s upset about is that they care more about maintaining their awesome reputation than about dealing with the stuff they need to deal with. Their focus on reputation keeps them from dealing with that stuff.

This is real. If we’re intent on maintaining our reputation at all costs, we won’t react well when someone tells us we’ve messed up. I think Jesus cares, deeply, about how we respond when someone calls us out on the ways we’re hurting people, the ways our reputation isn’t matching our reality. In this passage Jesus isn’t trying to discourage the church in Sardis, or shame them, or tell them they’re bad people. He says the things he says because he wants to invite them to turn around and walk a different path—to repent (v. 3). He wants them to become watchful, and to establish the remaining things which were about to die (v. 2).

I think this is really hard. I know from experience that it is easy to become defensive when called out. It is easy to make excuses. It is easy to find reasons to dismiss what someone is trying to say. It is easy to focus on our own good intentions, rather than the negative impact our words or actions have had. 

I think Jesus invites us to more. Especially in the areas in which we experience privilege, whether due to race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or something else. I think Jesus invites us to listen, really listen, to people—and especially to people who have been marginalized in our society and in a lot of churches—who care enough to call us out on the ways our reputation doesn’t match our reality. This is the only way we can become people and churches who actually are living and thriving. 

Let’s not settle for the mere reputation of life when—hard as it may be, and however much painful change, repentance, and difficult growth it might involve—we could have the real thing.

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.

Thyatira & MLK Day

This is (a fairly literal translation of) the rest of what Jesus has to say to the church in Thyatira ― continuing from last week’s post about Jezebel. Revelation 2:24-29 reads:

(24) I say to y’all, to the rest of the ones in Thyatira, as many as do not have this teaching, whoever did not know the deep things of the satan, as they say: I throw no other burden on y’all, (25) except that what y’all have, y’all grasp, until whenever I will have come. (26) And the one who conquers and the one who keeps my works until (the) end, I will give to him/her power over the nations, (27) and he/she will shepherd them with an iron staff, as the potter’s vessel is broken to pieces, (28) as I also have received from my father, and I will give him/her the morning star. (29) The one who has ears, let him/her hear what the spirit says to the churches.

There’s a lot going on here, but I’m interested in the part where Jesus says, I throw no other burden on y’all, except that what y’all have, y’all grasp, until whenever I will have come (v. 24-5). Or, as the NIV puts it, I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come. Jesus says, I don’t want to add any more weight to the things you’re already carrying. I just want you to remember and hold onto the things you already have. I want you to remember and keep doing the things you already know to do.

I’m thinking about these words, today, in relation to our national holiday in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Toward the end of last week, my awesome pastor Lina Thompson wrote this on Facebook in anticipation of today: “Bracing myself for the barrage of MLK Jr. quotes that are sure to fill our feeds on Monday. I’d rather white folks embody his words.”

Then, earlier today, I saw a Facebook post from a Fuller classmate (and now fellow M.Div. grad!), September Penn. It was this quote from Dr. King: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” ― along with this reflection from September: “Folks have indeed been silent. Some will probably share an obligatory post today as their good deed in honoring Dr. King. Instead of doing so, try actually reading his words and learning from his life. The very man that we celebrate today was hated by much of society while he lived. Just saying.”

What I hear both Lina and September saying is that the anti-racist work that is needed goes much deeper than giving a social media shout-out to Dr. King on MLK Day once a year. Honoring Dr. King’s life and work and prophetic brilliance has to go beyond taking some of his more-palatable-to-white-people quotes and posting them on Facebook. 

Racial equality is not going to happen just because white people learn to say some of the right things. Especially just once a year, when it’s popular and convenient to do so. 

What I hear Lina and September saying is that there is so much more work to be done, and it’s year-round, daily work. We need to learn how to embody Dr. King’s radical vision of equality in our whole lives. Even, and especially, when it is ― as it was in Dr. King’s day, and often is now ― very unpopular and very inconvenient.

Sometimes I feel like, when it comes to things like racism and racial justice, we white people love to learn. Or maybe, more precisely, we like to feel like we know things. And we like other people to know that we know things.

Some of this isn’t necessarily bad. When it comes to the structurally racist history and present-day reality of the U.S., most of us white people have plenty to learn. It’s important for us to read and think, to seek out books and articles and podcasts by people of color, to shut up and listen and try to better understand experiences we haven’t had.

At the same time, what good is knowing lots of things, if we’re not living them out? I’m reminded of what James wrote: it’s like looking into a mirror and then going away and immediately forgetting what we look like (James 1:22-25). 

The point of learning more about racism is not to be able to prove that we know things, that we’re among the “good” white people (unlike those ignorant, racist white people over there), or that we’re woke. 

The point is to embody more fully a recognition of the humanity of all people and the kinship that we share. The point is to learn to live in ways that are more just, that better honor the dignity of our siblings of color. The point is to move, together, toward building communities of equals ― as Dr. King would say, beloved communities.

Maybe this MLK Day ― and, more importantly, in the days and months and years to come ― we can learn to honor Dr. King by holding onto the things we already know. There is so much to learn, but there are also plenty of basic things we already know, about what the world is like now, and what a more just world could look like in the future. 

Maybe we don’t need the additional weight and burden of always trying to know more ― and appear less racist ― than other white people. Maybe we just need to, as Jesus told the church in Thyatira, grasp onto what we have. Live out what we do know. Embody, as Lina wrote, Dr. King’s words. Learn, as September wrote, from Dr. King’s life.

I’m not sure what to think of the deep things of satan (v. 24), or the iron staff and the broken pottery  (v. 27), or the morning star (v. 28) ― but I think it’s enough, today, to grasp onto what I do know, and to seek to live it out more fully.

Where is the love?

Continuing in the book of Revelation, in this apocalypse that is 2020…

Here’s a pretty literal translation of Revelation 2:1-7:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write: these things says the one grasping the seven stars in his right hand, who walks around in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: (2) I know your works and weariness and your steadfast endurance, and that you are not able to bear evil things, and you tested the ones calling themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them liars, (3) and you have steadfast endurance, and you bore on account of my name, and you have not grown weary. (4) But I have against you that you have left your first love. (5) Remember, then, from where you have fallen, and repent and do the first works; but if not, I am coming to you, and I will move your lampstand from its place, if you do not repent. (6) But you have this, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (7) The one who has ears, let him/her hear what the spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give him/her to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. 

I don’t know if it would be very fun to be a part of this church in Ephesus. It sounds like a lot of work. A lot of weariness―a word which could also be translated as toil, labor, or trouble. A lot of endurance―or, in an alternate translation, perseverance. A lot of having to test so-called apostles to see if they are actually good and faithful leaders, or if they are liars―or, in other translations, false, deceitful, or untrue―and a lot of them are liars. (This is all from v. 2.)

It sounds like there were a lot of hard things to bear, and a lot of reasons why one might grow weary (v. 3). On top of all this, there was also a religious sect called the Nicolaitans who were behaving badly enough that Jesus says he hates what they are doing (v. 6). 

(Side note: it seems important that Jesus says he hates the works of the Nicolaitans, not the Nicolaitans themselves. In a similar vein, in v. 2, I’m not sure why most translations read something like “you are not able to tolerate evil ones.” The Greek word here could actually mean either evil ones or evil things, and it makes more sense to me as evil things.)

At any rate, this was the kind of stuff you had to deal with if you were a part of the church in the city of Ephesus at that time. Lots to endure, lots to hate.

In the middle of all of this language of perseverance and weariness and evil, v. 4 says, but I have against you that you have left your first love. In other words, Jesus is asking them what The Black Eyed Peas have been asking us since 2003: Where is the Love? (The love…the love…where is the love, the love, the love.)

Jesus says, well done for all of your endurance, even though I know it’s hard. Well done for hating the bad things the Nicolaitans are doing. (Perhaps things like, I don’t know, creating a special VIP section in your church and making celebrities sit in it, or treating church volunteers like piles of poo, or cheating on your spouse…see this NY Times article about recently fired Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz if none of that rings a bell.)

Jesus says, well done for being against the right things. But what are you for? 

He says, remember your first love. Remember the earliest days of your church community, when faith felt like a buried treasure you dug up in a field that you would sell everything for (like the story Jesus tells in Matt 13:44-46). Remember when you were all so excited and happy to be able to get together and eat and pray and share everything you had with one another (like the early Christian community in Jerusalem, described in Acts 2:42-47). 

This church thing is not just about enduring, and working hard to resist evil, and being against the right things―although, in this world full of so much injustice and evil, all these things are very real and necessary. It’s also about celebrating the ways God is present, right in the midst of this unjust world and the darkest places in it. It’s about finding things to be thankful for, and sharing that joy with one another. It’s about connection and belonging, about being a community of radical acceptance and welcome. It’s about love.

It’s about learning to trust that God is love. It’s about learning to love one another, and learning to love ourselves. 

When I read this passage and think about those Christians in Ephesus, who were marked by a lot of hate―not in a bad way, since they hated the things God hates―but not by a lot of love, I think of a phrase I often hear in (evangelical) Christian circles: we want to be known for what we’re for, not (just) what we’re against. It’s sort of another way of saying, we want to be known for what we love, not (just) what we hate.

Which is what Jesus wants for the church in Ephesus. Sort of.

It seems that, somewhere along the way, somebody snuck in this idea of what we’re known for. The idea that we have to worry about what we look like to people outside of the church. As if there are loads and loads of people out there who don’t identify with Christianity but who are actively thinking about Christians and churches all the time and watching to see what they look like.

The sense is that (evangelical) churches’ problems are mostly a matter of public perception. We need to develop a better reputation. We need to look better. We need to be known for better things.

I don’t know where people got this idea―that what we look like to the (imaginary, perhaps, or aspirational) “watching world” is so important. 

Maybe it’s just easier to say gosh, people don’t think very well of us than gosh, we’re kind of the worst sometimes. It’s easier to say that we have an image problem than to admit that we have a substance problem. It’s easier to try to brush up our public appearance than to admit that there are real, substantial things we actually need to change.

I don’t think Jesus―the one who grasps the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven lampstands―wants the Ephesian church to look better to outsiders, to give a better impression, to appear more loving. I think he wants them to actually be more loving. To actually experience more of God’s love in their lives, and to embody that love more fully to one another and to the world around them. 

Who cares what people think. Let’s care about what we’re doing, how we’re giving and receiving love in our lives.

Let’s be about enduring and bearing the hard things together, about resisting evil and injustice together, and about celebrating and sharing and living lives of love together. All of the hard things of 2020 and of this world we live in call for nothing less.