Worry can be good?

When I was studying Matthew 6:25-34 to preach on it (see the post below for the full passage…and mini-sermon), I looked up the Greek word translated as “worry.” I wanted to see where else this word is used in the New Testament. I was surprised to find that it can be used in a positive way.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul likens church communities to human bodies, full of different parts that all function together as one complete, hopefully-healthy organism. At one point, while fleshing out (pun intended) this metaphor, Paul writes, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor 12:24-25, NIV). 

The word translated as “concern” in this passage is the same word translated as “worry” in Matthew 6. That last part of 1 Cor 12:25, literally translated, could read something like this: “the parts should be the same worried on behalf of one another”—or, slightly more natural-sounding, “the parts should be equally worried for one another.” Paul wants the different parts of body—that is, the unique and diverse set of humans who make up the faith community—to be worried about one another.

In another of his letters, Paul writes—this time to the Phillippian faith community—that he hopes to send Timothy their way soon for an encouraging visit. And Paul wants them to know that Timothy is hella dope (as the kids these days might say). He says of Timothy, “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare” (Phil 2:20). 

As you may have guessed, this word translated as “concern” here is also the same one that means “worry.” Timothy worries about the Philippian Christians’ welfare. And Paul considers this a praiseworthy thing.

It’s easy to say that worry is bad, that people of faith should not have worry in our lives. If we trusted God more, we wouldn’t worry.

At the same time, though, as people of faith, our first—maybe only?—job is to love God and love people. We want to love others, to care about one another as humans, to be concerned for one another. And when we care about one another, sometimes we worry about one another’s wellbeing. I think that’s all okay. That’s all good. 

When we hear Jesus say, then, in Matthew 6:25, “do not worry,” it seems important to remember that the sentence doesn’t stop there. Jesus doesn’t just say “do not worry,” period, with no context around the instruction. Rather, he goes on to say, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” 

It isn’t a general, across-the-board, “worry is bad; let’s get rid of it.” Jesus doesn’t guilt-trip worriers—which would really just give them another thing to worry about: that all their worry isn’t pleasing to God.

Instead, I think, God offers a hope of redirecting our worries. God offers a hope of being part of communities where all our needs are provided for, because we’re all sharing what we have with one another as we’re able. 

Perhaps if we were all equally worried for one another (as Paul puts it in 1 Cor 12)—or if we all had as much genuine worry for one another’s welfare as Timothy did for the Philippians (from Phil 2:20)—then, truly, none of us would need to worry about our own clothing, or food, or where these things will come from. These things would be provided for in the context of a community full of mutual concern.

Maybe worry isn’t always bad. Maybe worry can be good—when we’re worried on behalf of one another, looking out for one another in community, sharing our concerns and our joys with one another, genuinely caring for one another. 

Have you seen worry be a good thing? Other thoughts or quibbles? Holler in the comments!

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: The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Beth Allison Barr)

I wandered into an Amazon bookstore a couple months ago and saw Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth featured on the shelves. Which totally makes sense, because Barr’s work has been profiled in the likes of The New Yorker and NPR. But it also kind of surprised me, because the book is quite, well, Christian.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Because the book has gotten so much mainstream—as in, not specifically Christian—attention, I thought it might be more of a secular historian’s take on women in church history and such.

But Barr, at least in my perspective, stands very firmly both within the church world and within the world of a professional historian. I think that’s awesome. And also a little complicated. 

I could see people who haven’t spent much time in conservative evangelical churches reading about “biblical womanhood” and thinking, wait…is this really a thing? Churches are—still—like this? 

Unfortunately, yes, (many) churches are—still—like this. And yes, this hypothetical reader would be absolutely right to be shocked and horrified. 

And then I could see people who have been quite steeped in the conservative church world thinking, wait…is it really okay to reexamine this? Isn’t male authority just what the Bible teaches? It’s what my church teaches… 

Sometimes you spend so much time around otherwise lovely people who operate from a certain mindset that this mindset starts to seem normal. Patriarchy should not be normal.

All this to say, I think Barr wrote a book that’s well-worth reading. 

Barr expresses regret that she stayed silent so long in her patriarchal church, going along with its practices and theology even though she knew these things were wrong. I’m so glad she’s speaking up now.

A few things that stood out in my totally-biased reading:

1. I appreciated Barr’s honesty in articulating the reasons she didn’t speak up more about gender equality in her (now former) church for a really long time.

For example: 

“I kept telling myself that maybe things would change—that I, as a woman who taught and had a career, was setting a positive example. I kept telling myself that complementarianism (the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders) wasn’t at its root misogynistic. I kept telling myself that no church was perfect and that the best way to change a system was by working from within it” (p. 5).

“I realized the hard truth about why I had stayed in complementarian churches for so long.

Because I was comfortable.

Because I really thought I could make a difference.

Because I feared my husband would lose his job.

Because I feared disrupting the lives of my children.

Because I loved the life of youth ministry.

Because I loved my friends.

So for the sake of the youth we served; for the sake of the difference my husband made in his job; for the sake of financial security; for the sake of our friends whom we had loved, laughed, and lived life with; and for the sake of our comfort, I chose to stay and to stay silent” (p. 7).

“Complementarianism rewards women who play by the rules. By staying silent, I helped ensure that my husband could remain a leader. By staying silent, I could exercise some influence. By staying silent, I kept the friendship and trust of the women around me. By staying silent, I maintained a comfortable life” (p. 69).

I feel like Barr hits lots of nails square on the head here. Beyond the particulars of her situation (like her husband being the youth pastor), there is so much here that I think a ton of women in evangelical churches can relate to.

There are the things we tell ourselves about the changes we might be able to bring about. (Often, not true—people in power are often less open to change than one might hope for…especially from leaders in a religion that, in theory, emphasizes humility and wonder before a God whom we only know in part. And sometimes, true—but at what cost to the people who stay and fight for these changes?)

There are the fears: job loss, loss of friendships, disruption of family life, the pain (or just inconvenience) our decisions might cause to those we love.

There are the rewards: comfort, trust, influence, leadership, respect, security.

Then there are the loves. Barr and her husband really loved youth ministry. They loved the youth at their church, and they loved a ton of people at their church in general. They loved their friends. Speaking up on controversial topics can jeopardize some of the things that give your life a sense of purpose and joy. That isn’t something to be taken lightly.

I appreciate Barr articulating all these things in a way that (hopefully) holds grace for the person she was and the reasons she had.

And, at the same time, she makes it very clear: “I had good reasons. But I was wrong” (p. 7). And, “By staying silent, I had become part of the problem. Instead of making a difference, I had become complicit in a system that used the name of Jesus to oppress and harm women” (p. 6).

2. It was interesting to learn that it wasn’t so terribly long ago that (at least some) people who now call themselves “complementarians” were openly calling themselves proponents of patriarchy. 

Of course complementarianism is patriarchal. As Barr writes, “Patriarchy by any other name is still patriarchy” (p. 18). But so many complementarians argue so hard that women and men have equal value and worth—and that headship is a nice warm friendly fuzzy concept that’s really all about serving and laying down one’s life, and that sort of thing—that it was helpful to see the connection laid out so clearly. 

Complementarians, as a group—however nice they might be as people, and however well-intentioned, and I know plenty of nice, well-intentioned complementarians—have taken up the mantle of what was formerly known as patriarchy, calling it by a different name in order to sound, well, nicer and more well-intentioned.

3. I liked this quote, which sums up a lot of Barr’s biblical arguments:

“Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy” (36).

I think it’s helpful to think about the directions early Christianity was moving in—and especially the directions Jesus was moving in—relative to the surrounding culture. If that direction was toward freedom, honor, and equal status for women—and for others, like sexual minorities, people of lower socioeconomic status, and foreigners—then yikes if Christians are doing the exact opposite relative to our surrounding culture today.

4. Since I quoted Barr on the Bible, I feel like it’s worth saying that her strong suit is history. Which is not to say that her stuff on the Bible isn’t good too, but just that history is her academic discipline—you know, like, she has a Ph.D. in history and teaches it at a university level. Which is super badass.

Maybe this is just because I know more about the Bible and women than I know about women in church history, but for me, the biggest value Barr brings to the table is her deep knowledge of women’s history in Christianity. 

The medieval period and the Reformation stood out to me as especially strong points, as well as the “cult of domesticity” from the 1800s. If you’re interested in learning more about women in Christianity in those time periods, this book is totes for you. 

I wish I’d been able to dig more into some of this stuff in seminary. I took a course on Women in Church History & Theology, which was great, but only had some overlap with Barr’s work. I also wish more time was spent on historical women in general church history classes, such that there wasn’t as much need for a separate elective. 

On that note, Barr writes, “the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were” (84).

I’m bummed that we aren’t farther along in recovering these stories. But grateful for the work of people like Barr toward that goal.

5. I found it maddening, but also really helpful, to learn a little more about the origins of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible translation. According to Barr, the ESV was “a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God” (p. 132).

I kind of figured something like that was the case, but I hadn’t really looked into it directly. Sometimes I feel like I’m being unnecessarily divisive if I try to tell people that the ESV is (intentionally) not very friendly to women, and it might be better to try a more gender-inclusive translation like the NIV or NRSV. 

I never really wanted to be one of those people who had a favorite Bible translation and thought everyone else’s was inferior. That always struck me as something Jesus wouldn’t want to waste time on, when there are people to love, and so many injustices to address. 

And yet. Barr helped clarify for me that the ESV kind of is one of those injustices to address. And it’s probably worth speaking against, even if that’s uncomfortable to do. 

All in all, I think Barr does a great job of showing how the notion of “biblical womanhood” is a load of baloney. I’m here for it. 

Of course, I didn’t really need to be convinced of this. But at another time in my life—when I thought complementarianism was, if not what I personally believed, then at least a legitimate, good-faith, Bible-based way to see things—this book would have been so helpful. And, even though I’m thoroughly in the smash-the-patriarchy-with-the-mighty-nonviolent-fist-of-Jesus camp now, it was still fascinating to learn more of the relevant history from an awesome professor.

Hope you enjoyed this super chill review, and please don’t hesitate to holler with your thoughts!

Super chill book review: After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Willie Jennings)

I kind of want to say that this one’s for the nerds out there. But I’m also kind of against the anti-intellectualism that words like “nerd” might carry. 

So…this one’s for anyone interested in thinking about seminaries and other institutions of higher education. Or, really, anyone interested in thinking about any sorts of institutions with roots in colonialist ways of thinking about things. Which is, like, lots and lots of institutions.

The book is After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, written by theologian Willie James Jennings, published in 2020. I didn’t really know what to expect when I checked it out from the library—I just think Willie Jennings is brilliant, so I figured I’d (make an exception to the mostly-women-authors rule and) check out his new-ish book. 

After Whiteness isn’t quite as dense as the other book by Jennings that I’ve read, or attempted to read—that would be The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race—but it’s still not at all easy reading. And, while a lot of it could be applied to all sorts of schools and other organizations, it is also very seminary-focused. So it might be most of interest to people who’ve attended seminary or otherwise have some sort of connection to the seminary world. (If you read it and don’t have that connection, I’d be extra curious to hear what you think!)

Here are a few things that stood out to me:

1). I recently became an elder at my church (woohoo!). This was one of the questions the four of us new elders were asked to answer at our ordination service last Sunday:

“As an elder, will you work to tell the whole story of the Church – its redemptive acts AND also the Church’s complicity in violent oppression, injustice, genocide, slavery and other acts of terror committed against God’s beloved children? And will you lead the Church in repentance of these things?”

I love that this question was included. I feel like it should be top priority in these interesting times we find ourselves in—in general, and in Christian communities in particular. I’m all about telling the whole story of the church. And I feel like Jennings is a leading voice as we all figure out together how to do that.

This is one of the things at the heart of Jennings’ book, I think: telling the whole story of how Christian churches and seminaries have been formed in a colonialist, white supremacist, patriarchal mindset, and how this is killing us. The only way to life is complete repentance, complete overhaul of so many toxic ways of thinking and being. 

2). Jennings writes, “The modern world formed in the bricolage of native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe, and together they formed the cultural baroque, something new and unanticipated. Yet this reality of shared agency and shared creativity was occluded by a white aesthetic regime that refused to share the world of meaning and purpose with those outside the old world of Europe or the colonial West as well as their colonialized subjects.

“Theological education in the West gloried in this refusal, and took as its task forming people who would embody this white aesthetic regime as fundamental to performing a gospel logic and a Christian identity. Western education is designed within a forced affection, shaped to take all of us on a journey of culture additionadd to the great European masters other thinkers who are not white or male but who approximate them, add to the great European artists other artists who are also great like they are, add to the eternal wisdom and universal insights of Europe the wisdom of other peoples that resemble them. Add these nonwhite others as embroidery to frame a picture, or spices to season a dish” (p. 64).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about the possibilities that were present when “native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe”the possibilities of cultures mixing, learning from one another as equals, collaborating together to build something good. All of these possibilities that were curtailed by Europeans’ colonialism. 

We still see the effects of this way of thinkingwhere European stuff is the cultural standard of awesomeness, and non-white artists, thinkers, etc. can sometimes be added to the canon if they sound enough like those already in itin all sorts of places. It reminds me of my seminary reading lists, so full of white dudes, with the occasional (white) woman and/or person (read: man) of color (rarely a woman of color, yikes) thrown in for good measure (like “spices to season a dish”). 

It also reminds me of the time a fellow student pointed out that part of the reason why there weren’t more theologians of color on our syllabi was because a lot of them weren’t saying the things our (mostly white male) professors wanted them to say. Double yikes. Sure, we’ll include your voice…as long as you don’t disagree with us or challenge us in any significant way.

3). I appreciated Jennings’ thoughts about thinking and feelingabout the “affective reality of Western institutional life” (p. 93).

He writes, “There remains a legion of scholars and administrators who continue to hold a dualism of thought and feeling. The educational space in their way of thinking is a space of thinking, not feeling. Too many scholars believe in rigorous thinking and banished feelings, and they teach students that a thinking subject wars with a feeling subject…

“But institutions feel just as institutions think. To discern institutional thinking is also to explore institutional feeling. More specifically, it is to invite those who inhabit an institution to sense its comfort, its joy, and its energy aimed in a direction, even if it is the wrong direction” (p. 93).

Yes, get rid of that thinking/feeling dualism. It isn’t serving us well. (Does that mean we get rid of the Myers-Briggs personality test too? That’s probably fine…) 

The thought of theological scholars and seminary administrators who think that they should think and not feel is kind of terrifying. But also explains a lot. And then what kind of pastors and church leaders are they forming?

Among other things, this kind of thinking/feeling dualism generally tends to suck for women, who get painted as the “feelers.” Which leads to being devalued in a society that overvalues thinking and undervalues feeling. And gives men a pass on all sorts of things like sensitivity and social concern and community-mindedness, things we all (not just half of us, and the half who tends not to be in power) desperately need.

4). I feel like more and more of the books I’m reading these days mix in some poems and such, and I’m super into it. The first time I saw that, I was like, whoa, you can do that? Apparently, you can. And now it feels like all the cool kids are doing it. It’s great.

I really liked some of Jennings’ poems and poem-like writing that he mixes in throughout this book. Maybe especially because his academic stuff can be so dense and, well, academic, I enjoyed feeling like I got a window into a different (but very much related) side of his (very large) brain. (I know brain size doesn’t actually correlate to intelligence, but that’s still how I picture it.)

I guess it’s also a way in which Jennings is living out his own words about breaking down the dualism between thinking and feeling. If more academic-style discourse tends to operate primarily in the realm of thinking, and if poems tend to operate primarily in the realm of emotion, blending them into one book helps bring the two back together, as they belong.

5). This is one of the poems that I especially liked: 

Could self-sufficiency
be redeemed?
But who would want
such a thing?
Certainly not one who asked
Mary for life, or one
who needed friends along
the way of discipleship, or
one who called on an Abba-God, or
one who fell onto God’s Spirit
like a limp body
in need of support just to
face the morning sun
or one who said, ‘This is my body and my blood,
eat me
because you need me in you.’
Certainly not one who on a cross
killed the illusion of
self-sufficiency” (p. 106).

Throughout the book Jennings critiques the idea of a “self-sufficient man”or of “white self-sufficient masculinity” (p. 8)which is often what seminary education (whether intentionally or not) aims to form. And which is a problem…for lots of reasons that Jennings goes into over the course of the book. One of the reasons being that it’s not at all Jesus-like.

6). Jennings writes about communalist societies (pre-colonization) and how they “were not utopias, nor were they immutable, but they were powerful ways of thinking the one in the many and the many in the one” (p. 144). 

In contrast, “the goal of the colonialist—whether trader, explorer, missionary, merchant, or soldier—was to reduce the many to the one as a point of negotiation, management, conversion, and profit. The goal manifested in every colonial site was to move people slowly but clearly from any kind of group thinking about their wants and needs to thinking like an individual who could enter into exchange over goods and services guided by a rationalist freed from communal obligation except at the level of volition. Such people would form connection through capital and perform a relationality woven first and foremost in utility and aiming at profit. Exchange networks need not be personal, need not be communal, need not be storied, need not suggest long-term obligation or relationship, need not even require names or identities. They only require items and money, that is, commodities” (p. 144).

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the root of all our problems. 

And then Jennings completes the gut-punch (but a really important and much-needed one) with this poem:

1698, in a port city on the west coast of Africa,
near what is now Ghana,
the following conversation took place:
African I: What’s your name?
African II: You don’t need to know my name.
The earth starts shaking.
African I: What are you selling?
African II: This ox.
African I: Where did it come from?
African II: You don’t need to know that.
The birds start crying not singing.
African I: How much do you want for it?
African II: I want guns and alcohol.
African I: I have that.
Many plants and trees collapse to the ground.
African II: Let’s do business.
Two hands touch in agreement.
The world feels ruin.” (pp. 144-5)

I’ll be ruminating on this one for a while. 

Well, I hope you enjoyed these tidbits from Jennings’ thinking—especially if you don’t end up reading the book, which, as I mentioned, is kind of seminary-centered and probably not for everyone. 

As usual, holler with your thoughts about any of this!

Look At Us: a short sermon on Acts 3:1-11

Thankful for another opportunity to join an awesome team of preachers at Lake B and give a mini-sermon on Acts 3:1-11. Here’s the passage, and then the sermon text is below!

(Or if you prefer to listen/watch, the worship service is on YouTube here, and my part starts around 34:00. Stick around for David Meade and Michael Won’s sermons too if you have time!)

Acts 3:1-11 (NRSV):

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. 11 While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.

The book of Acts is kind of a wild book. We’re only at the start of chapter 3, and already Jesus has been taken up to heaven, after telling his followers to wait for God’s promise. Then Pentecost came, tongues of fire and all, and Peter gave a sermon about how all of this was fulfilling what the prophet Joel said, a really long time ago, about God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh. The people who heard were cut to the heart, and three thousand of them were baptized that day. 

Then they all got to the messy and interesting work of figuring out what all this means in daily life, figuring out what difference it makes that the Holy Spirit dwells among us. This new way of life involved sharing fellowship, eating together, praying together, worshipping together, sharing material stuff, making sure everyone’s needs are met, and generally living simply and gratefully and generously and joyfully. In our competitive, greedy, often violent world, this is radical stuff.

In the middle of this description of the new community that is being formed, we read that “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” (That’s Acts 2:43.) Our passage today gives us a glimpse of one of these wonders. In the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a man who has been lame from birth – or, literally translated, lame from his mother’s womb.

When Peter and John heal the lame man, they’re doing the same kind of work Jesus was doing throughout his life. Jesus was always healing people of all sorts of ailments, and casting out demons, and doing all sorts of wildly miraculous stuff that left the crowds astonished and amazed, and that often left the people who experienced these miracles praising God. 

This is one of the things that characterized Jesus’ life on earth. As Jesus puts it when some of John the Baptist’s disciples come to him to say, “soo…are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or is another coming?”, Jesus says, “go tell John what you’ve seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (That’s in Luke 7:22). Jesus is like, this is what’s going on. You can see it for yourselves. Nuff said. You tell me if I’m the one you’ve all been waiting for, or not.

Jesus’ work involved curing people of their ailments. But it wasn’t just that. It was also, at least as importantly, the work of justice. Jesus’ work involved teaching people to live really different kinds of lives, together, in a world that’s often harsh and brutal, where people are often cruel, caught up forcefully and sometimes unquestioningly in systems that deal death rather than giving life. Jesus came to bring a fuller kind of life, marked by love and community, and by the kind of equity and justice that has to happen if real love and community is ever going to come into being.

And so, when Peter and John interact with the lame man outside the temple, they aren’t just there to instigate the kind of miracle where this man’s feet and ankles are strengthened. They’re also there to instigate the kind of miracle where a new kind of community is being formed – one that couldn’t have existed while the lame man was still outside, excluded from worship, relating to others solely as one who needs something, rather than as one with something to offer.

Peter and John are there to look this man in the eye, while others rush by him, in their very busy and important lives, on their way to do very busy and important things, like go to worship. There’s a lot wrapped up in eye contact, or lack thereof, sometimes. When someone makes eye contact with us, it can help us feel included in a group. It can help us feel like people like us and care about us and value our presence there. And when someone withholds eye contact from us, it can make us feel excluded, rejected, or invisible. When this happens repeatedly over time, it can make us feel less than others, or even sub-human.

Peter looks intently at this man, and when the man doesn’t return eye contact – whether that’s because he feels ashamed of his position, or if he just isn’t used to people paying attention to him, or for whatever reason – Peter says to him, “look at us.” He says, in effect, John and I see you. And we want you to see us.

This is part of how real community forms: we see others, and we are seen. We want to know others, and we want others to know us – beyond the basic visible facts, like what we look like, or where we’re located, or what we’re doing for work. Peter can see all these things about the lame man. But he wants to know who he is on a deeper level. He’s saying, in a sense, the things I can see right now – the fact that you’re not able to walk, that you’re located outside the temple, that you’re dressed a certain way, that you’re begging – these things don’t tell me everything I want to know about you. Peter looks intently at him, beyond the things that would normally keep people who are entering the temple from being friends with someone who is begging outside the gate. 

Peter and John are there to invite the man into a new kind of relationship, of knowing and being known – the kind of relationship where we see one another eye to eye, as equals.

They’re also there to say, I know what you’re expecting to receive from us, but that isn’t what we have to give. When Peter says “I have no silver or gold,” more literally, from the Greek, he’s saying something like “silver and gold do not exist for me.” I kind of picture him saying, what even is silver? What even is gold? What are these things supposed to mean? What even is this system, where some people get to go worship in the temple while others are left outside? Where some people have gold and silver and can give alms as they wish, while also keeping all the power for themselves and not really changing anything?

Peter says, there’s something better. There’s something that can go beyond just helping you get through the next day, although that’s important too. There’s something that can actually bring into being a new and flourishing kind of life, for all of us, together. There’s something that can shift the power dynamic here, so you don’t have to keep on being the needy one, but instead you can enter the temple, we can all enter the temple together, and we can worship God together as equals. There’s transformation. For all of us. And we all need it. 

This is all a continuation of the work of Jesus, right? Really seeing people, and not being afraid to see people’s pain and vulnerability. Being brave enough to let other people see us, to be humble and vulnerable and needy. Making eye contact with people whom others exclude and dehumanize. Looking beyond the surface level, to know people and let people know us. Working relentlessly and radically toward building a community of people who operate as equals, across all sorts of human-made walls, like race, or class, or social standing, or ability or disability, or gender, or sexuality.

Peter and John continue the work of Jesus in this story. It’s like Jesus died, but in so doing, his spirit multiplied like the bread and loaves he broke open to feed the five thousand, and this spirit fills Peter, and John, and now the lame man, along with so many others we read about as we go on in the book of Acts. The now formerly lame man, filled with this spirit, “jumps up,” “walking and leaping and praising God.” His “leaping” here is a word that can also mean to “spring up,” like a spring of water that bubbles up. It’s the word Jesus uses when he talks with the Samaritan woman at the well, when he says, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (That’s in John 4:14.) The formerly lame man springs up, gushes up, bubbles over with praise, as Jesus’ spirit disperses and spreads and multiplies, and Jesus’ work of love and justice and mercy continues.

This same spirit invites us today to continue Jesus’ work in our lives and communities, together. To learn to trust and rely on one another. To give generously of whatever we might have to offer, and to know that we all have something to offer. To learn to be in unity. To worship together. 

May we, together, as a community, be filled with this Holy Spirit and continue the work of Jesus in our world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How (Not) to Lay Down One’s Life: A short sermon on John 10:11-18

(11) “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd places his life on behalf of the sheep. (12) The wage-worker, even, who is not the shepherd, of whom the sheep are not (his) own, beholds the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees – and the wolf seizes them and scatters (them) – (13) because he is a wage-worker and it is not a care to him concerning the sheep. 

(14) I am the good shepherd and I know the ones that are mine and the ones that are mine know me, (15) just as the father knows me and I know the father, and I place my life on behalf of the sheep. (16) Also, however, I have sheep which are not from this court; those, it is necessary (for) me to bring, and they will hear my voice, and they will become one flock, one shepherd. 

(17) On this account the father loves me, because I place my life, in order that again I might receive it. (18) No one takes it away from me, but I place it from myself. I have power to place it, and I have power again to receive it; I received this command from my father.” -Jesus, John 10:11-18 (my translation)

As I reflect on this passage I’m intrigued by how much Jesus talks about laying down his life. He manages to talk about laying down his life a full five times in these eight verses. 

I used to think I knew a lot about what it means to lay down one’s life. 

I thought it meant a whole of host of things having to do with putting other people’s needs above my own―and, in the process, often ignoring my own desires and gifts and needs, pretending they weren’t there, or thinking they weren’t important.

I thought laying down my life meant things like not weighing in on group decisions, even simple ones like where to go out to eat, because my preferences didn’t matter. Or, washing more than my fair share of dishes, and then feeling resentful that my roommates didn’t do more. Or, not complaining about things that felt wrong to me. Or, lacking boundaries, and not standing up for myself.

Of course, this was all some funky mash-up of what I thought it meant to lay down my life like Jesus, and what the world often expects from women, and what Christian leaders tended to preach about in the contexts I was in, and my own personality and tendencies.

But I share this because I think sometimes we get some ideas about what it means to follow Jesus that aren’t actually in scripture. In our passage this morning there are some things that complicate some of the notions we might have about what it means to lay down our lives.

Just before this passage, in John 10:10, Jesus says, “the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” 

There are a lot of different ways we might identify with the different characters in the shepherd-and-sheep metaphor in our passage. While it’s not as straightforward as simply saying we are the sheep in this metaphor and that’s it, I do think that identifying with the sheep is one angle we can take. And when we do so, we find that we receive this promise from Jesus: Jesus wants us to have life. Jesus wants us to have life to the full.

If our ways of trying to follow Jesus are making us feel resentful, burned out, or bitter, like someone is stealing from us or destroying some important part of us, that’s not Jesus. If we’re laying down our lives in ways that don’t also bring fullness of life in return—not that it’s easy or problem-free, but that there’s joy and a sense of being true to who we are and what God made us for—if it’s not these things, maybe we’re missing Jesus.

The word Jesus uses when he speaks of “laying down” his life is actually not necessarily about sacrificing, abandoning, or rejecting. It’s a very simple verb that’s translated in a lot of ways, including “put,” “place,” or “lay.” It can involve putting something in a particular location, or placing something before someone, or appointing or assigning something, or establishing something. 

This range of meanings helps me see how Jesus is making this conscious choice, throughout his life, to place his life on behalf of the sheep—to arrange his life on behalf of the vulnerable people, the ones he loves, the ones who belong to him. That’s where he puts his life: with them, in awareness of and solidarity with their needs and concerns. That’s where he assigns his energies, how he establishes his direction in life.

The word translated as “life” here can mean life as in living and dying, but it can also mean something more like the soul, the whole self, the center of inner human life and emotion and personhood. You get the sense that Jesus moves from his very center, from his soul, from his core, to intentionally direct his words and actions toward love, toward justice, toward whatever makes for the wellbeing of the flock.

This is where Jesus wants to place his life: on behalf of the sheep. And he doesn’t leave. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t run away, like the hired hand, when things get hard. Jesus places his life consistently in solidarity with the sheep. 

Just as, toward the end of his life, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, throughout his whole life he set his whole being toward people who were on the margins, oppressed by empire, taken advantage of by corrupt religious leaders.

Jesus arranges his life in this way, and then, in turn, he then receives it again. He says, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (v. 17-18). He, too, ends up having life, and having it to the full.

Jesus is very clear that it is his choice, his determination, his own agency that he exercises in laying down his life. It is his choice alone. He says, “no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (v. 18). 

This is a powerful thing. Our world is full of people trying to tell other people when, why, where, and how to lay down their lives.

We see white people trying to tell people of color the proper ways to protest the violence being done to their bodies and communities. We see men trying to tell women that women’s equal rights aren’t worth focusing on or being divisive about, and straight people telling queer people the same about their rights. We see people who have never lost anyone to gun violence trying to tell those who have that the lives lost are a reasonable price to pay for our unrestricted access to guns. 

These kinds of things are not peace. They are violence—violence against the dignity and humanity of people of color, and women, and queer people, and people who are most vulnerable to being victims of gun violence, and people who grieve lives lost.

No one gets to tell someone else how to lay their life down—especially not people with more power to those with less.

As we follow Jesus together, the people with less power in the structures of our society find themselves strengthened to stand up for themselves, and their dignity, and the health of their communities. They find themselves powerful to choose the directions they will orient their lives and energies and talents, to choose the causes they would, or wouldn’t, risk their lives for. 

And the people with more power find themselves realizing that God’s vision is that there be one flock, one shepherd. They learn to stand in solidarity with those with less power. They learn to be part of a community that lays down lives for one another, in relationship, as equals. 

Ultimately, of course, the result of Jesus placing his whole life, all his teachings and healings and words and actions, on behalf of others, is that he does end up laying down his life, as in, dying. He ends up accepting the penalty enacted on him by the state and the religious authorities that resulted from living the kind of life he lived, as he messed with all their systems and oriented himself toward justice at every turn. 

Nobody made him do it. The cross wasn’t a vengeful, violent God taking out his wrath on Jesus instead of us. It was God in Jesus choosing to show the extent of his love, choosing to bear the consequences of a life placed on behalf of the ones who are his own.

The beloved community comes about not through some people setting aside their own needs, dignity, gifts, uniqueness, and full personhood to help others flourish, but through all of us learning how to direct our attention, energy, and power toward the good of one another, toward the good of the whole. And we find joy and life in this process, which doesn’t deplete us, but renews us, energizes us, and gives us back life in return.

Look up, receive sight: a community-minded take on Zacchaeus

I’m thankful for another opportunity to give a brief sermon at my church, Lake Burien Presbyterian. If you prefer a video version, it’s on YouTube here, and my part starts around 40:15.

Here’s the passage—it’s a long one, since we’re using this thing called the “Narrative Lectionary,” which tends to look at longer passages of scripture all at once as opposed to chopping them up into more digestible pieces with less of their surrounding context intact—and then the short sermon is below it.

Luke 18:31-19:10 (NRSV)

31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 34 But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

35 As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Our passage this morning is made up of three stories: first, Jesus tells the twelve apostles about what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem, and they don’t really get it; then, Jesus restores sight to a blind person who is begging outside Jericho; then, we get Jesus’ interaction with the chief tax collector Zacchaeus. 

In thinking about what ties these three stories together, something that stands out to me is the idea of “looking up.”

There’s a Greek word that’s used four times in this passage, that can either be translated “look up” or “receive sight.”

We see it three times in Jesus’ interaction with the blind man. When Jesus asks, what do you want me to do for you? the blind man answers, literally, Lord, that I might look up, or Lord, that I might receive sight. Then Jesus says to him, look up, or receive sight, your faith has saved you. And, immediately, Luke tells us, the blind man looks up, or receives sight

In the next story, Luke uses this same word to say that Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree. More on that in a minute.

The only section of our passage where this word is not used is the first section. Here Jesus takes the twelve apostles aside and gives them some real talk—not for the first time—about how he is going to be mocked and flogged and killed, and then rise again. And all these things that Jesus says here are hidden from the apostles. In other words, the apostles do not look up—they do not receive sight—to understand what Jesus is saying.

I like this idea of “looking up.” It sounds really hopeful to me, and I need that. 

For any musical nerds among us, it’s the opposite of the song Jean Valjean and his fellow incarcerated people sing at the beginning of Les Mis: Look Down. Look down, they sing. Keep your eyes on your work. Don’t think about the injustice you’re experiencing. Don’t think about the people you love. They’ve all forgotten you. There is no hope. You’re here until you die. Look down.

Look up is the opposite of this. It’s suggesting that, however improbable it might seem, there is still hope.

I wonder, in our own time and place, with all of its different forms of unjust incarceration, and immigrant detention, and economic exploitation of all sorts, and everything that is wrong and unjust in our world, what might it look like to look up, to receive sight?

In our text, for the blind person who was begging, it meant being able to navigate day to day life more easily. Being able to see things that are beautiful in the world. Being less vulnerable to being taken advantage of by others. Being able to work. It meant having people praising God because of him, rather than assuming he sinned in some way to deserve his blindness. 

This blind man shouts out his needs even though others tell him to be quiet, and Jesus listens. Jesus asks and cares about what he wants. Jesus brings healing to his body in a way that affects his whole life. 

The blind man looks up, receives sight, dares to hope that things could be different. He dares to value his own healing and restoration to community.

What about in the story of Zacchaeus? It might sound a little odd that Jesus is the one who looks up or receives sight here. 

On the other hand, we know that Zacchaeus is a tax collector. We know he was working on behalf the Roman Empire to extract taxes from his own people, to economically exploit his own people. We know he was an active participant in the heartless ways of the empire.

And not only was Zacchaeus a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector. This is the only place in the whole New Testament where that word, “chief tax collector,” is used, which seems to imply that it was a pretty rare thing, a pretty high-up position. To riff off of Miguel Escobar’s analogy from two weeks ago, maybe Zacchaeus isn’t just your ordinary developer working to gentrify the community, but, rather, the head of the whole redevelopment project—and the one who’s making the most profit off of it all. 

When the text says that Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus because of the crowd, I wonder whether it was really just that he was short, or if it was also that people kind of elbowed him out of the way. I wonder if maybe they saw him, and recognized who he was, and intentionally tried to close off his line of sight and shut him out. After all, they had plenty of good reasons to hate him. 

Given all this, I wonder if Jesus, in his humanity, had this moment of looking up at Zacchaeus, and receiving sight—receiving the insight, or realizing—that this was the person he needed to talk with. This was the person God wanted to deal with in this moment—this complicated person, who was doing a lot of harm, who was a perpetrator of economic exploitation, and who was also genuinely curious about who Jesus was. 

Jesus, like the blind man, looks up, receives sight, dares to hope that things could be different. He dares to value Zacchaeus’ healing and restoration to community.

In a typical white evangelical mindset, where everything is just about me and Jesus, it’s easy to make this story just about Zacchaeus and Jesus. But the actual story we get here is not just about Zacchaeus and Jesus. Instead, it’s deeply embedded in the community Zacchaeus is a part of. 

Jesus says, Zacchaeus, hurry and come down from the tree, and Zacchaeus does so. Then the next piece of dialogue we get is actually from the community. All the people who see begin to grumble and say, ‘he has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Then, the very next thing that happens is that Zacchaeus stands and says, look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.

I think it’s easy sometimes, at least for me, to read people’s grumbling in this passage as a bad thing, like they just don’t get what Jesus is doing. But I wonder if, at least in this case, the grumbling is actually really important.

Zacchaeus’ community is naming the wrong Zacchaeus is doing. They’re voicing how their community is stressed and suffering because of it. They’re publicly calling Zacchaeus to account for the ways his actions have harmed others and especially the poor. 

And Zacchaeus responds to their complaints. He takes some significant steps to try to make things right. He makes a public commitment to engage in economic redistribution—in something like reparations. Zacchaeus engages in a kind of restorative justice, trying to make things right in his community.

Zacchaeus is not just a greedy or sinful person in some abstract sense, where he just needs to confess his sins to God and be forgiven and feel better about himself and move on. Zacchaeus has been doing things that harm his whole community.

And so, likewise, the restoration Jesus brings is not just for Zacchaeus but also for the whole community. Jesus says, today salvation has come to this house—not just to Zacchaeus as an individual but also to all of the people Zacchaeus is in economic relationship with. 

As Pat Thompson pointed out two Sundays ago, in reflecting on the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son, the whole is not complete without the lost piece. And Jesus says at the end of today’s passage, the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost. Zacchaeus has been lost, and the community was not complete without him. The community was not whole and healthy while Zacchaeus was still cheating and defrauding and oppressing and getting richer at the expense of others. And Jesus’ healing is for this whole community.

With this Jesus, with this kind of God, we can look up. We can receive sight. We can have hope. 

We can have courage to explore what economic redistribution might look like for us, in our communities. We can look up and see that there is enough to go around. And we can join Jesus, and join Zacchaeus’ community, in calling to account the chief tax collectors, so to speak, in our own communities. We can be hopeful that there might be some like Zacchaeus who are willing to learn to see things differently. We can be hopeful that we might see our communities restored and healed.

A door no one can shut

We’ve made it to Revelation 3:7-13, and this literal translation is an especially funky one, enough so that I was tempted to just offer the NIV instead. But then I figured it could be helpful to see them both side by side—or maybe to read the literal one and then take a look at the NIV for the parts that don’t really make sense. Choose your own adventure.

Here’s Revelation 3:7-13 translated fairly literally:

(7) And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia, write: these things says the holy one, the true one, the one who has the key of David, the one who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens; (8) I know your works, behold, I have given before you a door, having been opened, which no one is able to shut, because you have a little power, and you kept my word, and you did not deny my name. (9) Behold, I would give from the synagogue of satan, of the ones calling themselves Jews, and they are not, but they lie. Behold, I will make them come and worship before your feet, and they would know that I loved you. (10) Because you kept the word of my steadfast endurance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing about to come on the whole inhabited world to test the ones who dwell on the earth. 

(11) I am coming quickly; grasp what you have, in order that no one takes your crown. (12) The one who conquers, I will make him/her/them a pillar in the temple of my God, and he/she/they will certainly not go out (from it) anymore, and I will write on him/her/them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, the one coming down out of the heaven from my God, and my new name. (13) The one who has ears, let him/her/them hear what the spirit says to the churches.

And here’s Revelation 3:7-13 in the NIV:

7 “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.

11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. 13 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Unlike most of the seven churches Jesus speaks to in these first few chapters of Revelation, this church gets an “A.” Jesus has only good things to say to them. Gold star.

Maybe this suggests that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, churches actually can get it right. Churches actually can operate in a way that makes Jesus say: Well done. You’ve got it. You’re not perfect, of course, but you’re avoiding all the major ways churches tend to mess things up—things like being all about reputation over reality, or always wanting to learn new things rather than actually living out what you already know, or ignoring the content of Jesus’ teachings and following false teachings instead, or being so against everything that you forget what you’re for. Well done. 

It might be just one or two churches out of seven, but churches can get it right. They’re not all the same. Just because lots and lots of them have gone in some weird and messed up directions—like following the teachings of the Nicolaitans, or Balaam, or Jezebel, or Christian nationalism, or right-wing politics, or white supremacist patriarchy, or homophobia, or whatever it might be—doesn’t mean that they all have. Sometimes it’s worth looking—and looking long and hard, if need be—for the church communities that are getting it right. The ones that are consciously seeking to avoid these things, to learn to live together differently.

As Jesus speaks to this church in Philadelphia that is getting it right, he identifies himself as the one who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens (v. 7). Then, again, in verse 8, Jesus, says, I have given before you a door, having been opened, which no one is able to shut.

I like this image of a door that only Jesus can open and only Jesus can shut. Only Jesus holds the key to this door. He opens it for the church in Philadelphia, and when he does so, no one is able to shut it in their faces. 

It makes me think of all the people over the centuries who have had the doors of churches, literally and metaphorically, slammed in their faces. Theologians and mystics whose interpretations of scripture and visions of Christian life were different from those of the people in power. Scientists who questioned literal readings of scripture that didn’t fit with what they were learning about the natural world. Black people who were treated so poorly in white-led churches that they left to form their own denominations. Women who felt a calling from God to preach or lead in other ways that their churches frowned upon. LGBTQ+ people hoping for the church to bless their marriages, or just to be a safe community where they wouldn’t have to hide. The list could go on.

A few years back, I was going through a bit of a hard time, and I sought out advice and perspective from a fellow campus minister who was leading a different Christian student group at Stanford. I had just admitted to the elder board of my church that I wasn’t entirely convinced gay relationships are the worst thing ever, and I was realizing that this put my hopes of being able to continue to work at the church long-term in jeopardy. As I processed all of this, I thought it might be helpful to talk with someone I respected who was very familiar with the evangelical universe but wasn’t connected to my particular church. So I met with (let’s call him) Greg.

I told Greg what was going on, and the first thing he said was something like this: “You told them you’re not against same-sex relationships? You’re lucky they didn’t run you out of the church right then and there as a heretic!” 

On the one hand, Greg was totally right. I do feel that the elders at my church were a lot more mature and respectful than lots and lots of other conservative church leaders would have been. They did their best to have some good conversations with me about what we all believed and why. And then they did their best to explore options for moving forward together in a way that would let them hold to their convictions without making me feel like I was unceremoniously drop-kicked out of the church. Greg was right. This was more than I could have expected at a lot of other evangelical churches.

On the other hand, though, what kind of world do we live in, where this is something to feel lucky about? What kind of universe is the evangelical church universe, such that the norm is being run out immediately as a heretic for telling your leaders you think differently—where you kind of expect to have the door slammed in your face if you reveal who you really are or what you really think about things?

Given all this, for me, there is a profound piece of good news in Jesus’ words to the church in Philadelphia: there are some doors that are just not ours to shut. Not mine, not yours, not any pastor’s or elder’s or bishop’s or pope’s. 

There is a door to life and community and love and hope and a healthy relationship with God and people and self and the world that Jesus opens wide, and no human can shut. People can and do make decisions that shut others out from the chance to flourish in particular churches or denominations. But they can’t shut people out from God. That door is open.

In a similar vein, I like what Jesus says at the end of this passage: I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, the one coming down out of the heaven from my God, and my new name (v. 12). I think there’s a lot of power in this idea of being named by God. 

Just as there are some doors that can only be opened and shut by Jesus, there are some names that can only be given by Jesus. 

People can throw all sorts of names at each other: Heretic, sinner, unorthodox. Loser, weird, weak, useless. Too broken, too messed up, not good enough. Different, wrong, outsider. Uppity, demanding, troublemaker. Rowdy, rude, divisive. Maybe you can think of some of your own. 

But as much as these kinds of names might get thrown around—and especially when powerful people aim them like weapons at less powerful people—they are not the names that define us. For those who want it, Jesus writes on them the name of God. Jesus claims them as his own, as beloved, as belonging, even if the church calls them other names and slams the door in their faces. Jesus welcomes and loves all of who God made them to be.

Knowing we are named by Jesus, first and foremost, can give us courage to persist in doing good and doing justice even when it is costly, even when we experience rejection because of it. 

Of course, if your church is shutting doors in your face or calling you rude names—or if it’s doing these things to other people—it’s probably time to leave and not go back. We’ve seen Beth Moore do that recently to the Southern Baptist Convention. Good for her. It’s rarely a happy or fun thing, but sometimes it needs to be done. And there are other churches out there that, like the church in Philadelphia, are more or less getting it right—that are less about door-slamming and name-calling and more about truly unconditional love and healthy, justice-loving community. 

The door that matters is not shut. And the name that matters has already been given to us. No one can take these things away, no matter how powerful they are, and no matter how hard they might try.

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.