Epiphany prayer

I wrote a prayer based on what I’ve heard six different elders share at church these last couple Sundays. Thought I’d share it here too.

The prompt was something like this: What epiphany have you had recently (that is, what do you feel like God has revealed to you), and what are you doing with it?

So grateful for each of these amazing humans’ insights and vulnerability.

God of our ancestors, 
There has never been a person, a family, 
a generation you have not seen.
You saw their struggles and their joys, 
their celebrations and their desperation.
We honor them, and, in so doing, we honor you.
Your love encompasses them as surely as your love encompasses us.

God who dwells in hard histories,
You give us strength to see and not deny the past.
You walk with us as we reshape narratives, fill in the gaps, 
remember things as they happened
and not how we wish they were, or what we were taught to believe.

God of the advocates,
Thank you for the gift of knowing that we were already praying,
even when we didn’t know it.
You have been in every plea for justice,
every act of care for another human being,
everything we did to make sure someone knew they had value
and were not forgotten.
Help us move toward justice, love, and peace,
trusting you are near even when we don’t feel you.

God who kicks down doors,
Give us courage to face our places of privilege.
Give us the nerve to push for equity.
Open the doors that need to be opened
and tear down the doors that need to be torn down.
Invite us to make good trouble with you.

God who is near to the lonely,
Help us accept our loneliness and find you,
somehow, in the murky midst of it.
When friends don’t know how to care for us, you are with us, still.
When comforting words fall flat in the face of our grief,
and well-intentioned platitudes just make us angry,
you make room for us to yell and cry and grieve.
Our full humanity is not too much for you.

God who invites us to lie down in green pastures,
You are not our boss.
You do not buy into capitalism’s lies that say we must always be working,
always producing, worth only as much as we produce and consume.
You are the God who rests.
You are the God who invites us to rest.
Overturn tables set with the greed of a few to the detriment of all.
Break the connection between money and value.
Restore our sleep, our bodies, our minds, our health, 
our courage to resist these systems that were not built for us.

God who believes in us,
Remind us that there is more to us than we might know,
more than others might recognize.
Sing over us your songs of worth, precious value, wisdom,
courage to be exactly who you made us to be.
You created us as you wanted us to be.
Let no one tell us otherwise.
Fill us with hope for a future we can’t quite yet imagine.
May our dreams move in your directions.
Help us remember that each one of us is necessary.

God whose star the magi followed,
Reveal yourself to us:
your broad inclusivity, your redeeming power,
your advocacy, your table-turning justice, 
your tender presence in our darkest times,
your rest, your restoration, your kindness,
the glory of your creation in us and around us.
Reveal among us the different kind of community you build.
Help us go a different way from the well-trod violent paths
so easily available to us.
Make peace in, among, and through us.
Amen.

Magi, Wisdom, People Younger Than Me

Note: This week and next week I have the privilege of sharing some scripture and life reflections with my church community via our weekly newsletter. I’ve been asked to reflect on the theme of epiphany – what do I feel like God is revealing to me, and what do I do with that? I wanted to share these reflections with you, too. Here’s the first.

A cool image of the magi / Photo by Marcel Eberle on Unsplash

On New Year’s Day, Pastor Lina preached on the Epiphany story (Matthew 2:1-12). She reflected on the ways God speaks to and through people whom Christians might consider religious “outsiders,” like the magi in the story. God’s wisdom and love is bigger than we often imagine.

As I reflect on the Epiphany story, I notice how the magi set out to worship “the one who has been born king” (Matt 2:2). They talk about birth, so it sounds like they knew he was still a baby. And yet, what must it have been like to actually get there and see that this was the king they came to worship (v. 11)? He was just a tiny infant. Maybe sleeping, maybe crying, maybe breastfeeding.

What did that feel like? What did it do to the magi’s ideas of kingliness—and, more generally, to their ideas about power, and wisdom, and who does or doesn’t have these things? 

I used to work in college campus ministry, and I’ve done a lot of listening to people younger than myself—trying to encourage them, root for them, cultivate loving spaces where they can grow and thrive. But sometimes I catch myself assuming I know better than them. Of course I do—I remember how little I knew at their age.  

And yet. Wisdom comes through God’s Spirit, who dwells in people of all ages. There is also wisdom that comes from life experience, and older people often have more of this. But people younger than me have had life experiences different from my own, and they have gained wisdom from these experiences. I want to pay attention to that.

In the First Nations Version, the magi say, “We saw [Messiah’s] star where the sun rises and have come to humble ourselves before him and honor him” (v. 2). This translation uses the words “humble” and “honor” where other translations often say “worship.” I like this.

I don’t want to worship people younger than me. But I do want to humble myself and honor them. I don’t want to assume I have nothing to learn.

Dominant U.S. society has norms around who has power, who is expected to lead, who is assumed to have expertise and wisdom, who is followed and heard: white, male, straight, able-bodied, upper-middle-class, ages 35-70. 

There is no part of me that truly believes these things are qualifications for leadership. And yet, these subliminal expectations are deeply ingrained in me, and in many of us. Operating otherwise feels like swimming upstream. But this is what God invites us to do.

What to do with this? For me, I think humbling myself and honoring young(er) folks means choosing not to take a piece of writing, a spoken word, a poem, a piece of art, or anything else less seriously when it was written, spoken, or created by someone younger than me. It means listening to people younger than myself not just to support them but also to see what I can learn from them. It means hearing their words of dissent, dissatisfaction, or critique with openness rather than defensiveness.

Humility and honor: this is what we have to offer one another as humans. Across ages, across generations, across race and class and gender and orientation and all the other differences that often divide us. My hope is that a posture of humility and honor comes to mark both my life and our life together as a community.

Peace to you this week.

Liz

Advent prayer: Soul

An Advent poem/prayer on the theme of “soul.”

Soul

God,

I want to live and move 
out of the depths of my soul.

I want to see soul in everyone I meet. 

I want to be connected with my soul.

So many forces have tried to break this connection.
Sometimes it feels like they have succeeded.
But not entirely.

I want to know my soul, 
and to know that she is worth knowing.

I want to live in communities 
where souls are seen and honored, 
reconnected with themselves, 
connected with one another
in love, trust, acceptance.

God, they say institutions have souls. 
So many of them are so bent, so broken. 

I don’t want to move in spaces 
that ask me to cut my soul off at the door.

God, restore my soul. 
Heal her. 

Help me trust her again, 
even when everything around me tells me not to. 

Amen.

A couple other pieces elsewhere on the web, if you’re looking for some (short and sweet) Christmas break reading:

  • A prayer and some reflections on joy – over at Christians for Social Action. Reflecting on the connections between joy, activism, and purpose. And Mary’s Song, because it’s Christmas. With appreciative shout-outs to Karen Walrond, Rebecca Solnit, & Cherrie Moraga.
  • I participated in a Patheos “seasonal holidays” initiative where I got to choose among a number of predetermined prompts…thinking and writing about New Years resolutions seemed fun, so here we are: How Do I Make Religious New Years Resolutions?
  • Still meandering through the Bible-themed part of a series of reflections on faith-related things I’ve changed my mind about. The latest: What Does It Mean to Read the Bible for Guidance?
  • Also, if you want to get an email whenever I post on Patheos, feel free to sign up here. (I believe this link should get you my posts specifically, not just Patheos Progressive Christian posts in general – please let me know if you experience something different :).)

Peace to you this Christmas.

Advent prayer: Release

A poem/prayer, reflecting on the theme “release.”

I’ve been reading an indigenous memoir called The Woman Who Watches Over the World, by Linda Hogan. One of the things Hogan says happened when she was in the hospital recovering from a traumatic brain injury was that she asked all the questions that had gone unasked and unanswered in her family.

Something about the ways her brain had changed and was changing released her from whatever fears or inhibitions had kept her from asking these things before.

I wonder what it looks like to be released into freedom to say the things we are afraid to say, but which are important, and which hold possibilities for healing.

Here’s the poem/prayer:

Release

God,

We hold anxiety in our bodies, more than we know.
We hold so much.

The news is depressing, overwhelming.
Our lives fall apart in an instant
and there is no room to mourn.

The pressures of our world build up inside us 
over a long time.
Muscles clenched and tight, hearts hurting.

What would release mean?
Is it in our power?

And if our souls found release, 
what exactly would come out?

Words unspoken, thoughts unvoiced, 
fullness of humans shrunken too long
to fit whatever was expected of them. 

A valve holds back all the “too much,” 
all the improper, the inappropriate, 
the rage.

These rivers were not meant 
to be dammed up inside us.

God, hold us in the release.

In your voice that says exactly what needs to be said 
and never lies.

In your being that encompasses us 
and is not drowned by our rivers.

God, provide safe people, 
safe spaces for release.

Provide people who will bring their full selves, 
and who won’t run away when we bring ours.

Because we’re all a lot.

God, release us into freedom.

Amen.

Advent prayer: Open

Last Advent season, in 2021, I wrote a bunch of poem/prayers, responding to different daily one-word prompts offered by my church.

This Advent season felt like a good time to revisit these prayers and share some of the ones that still resonate. This one is on theme: open.

Open

God,
I want to be open 
with an openness that knows its boundaries 
and guards them zealously.

An openness that wells up from deep within 
and is not pressed or forced or manipulated.

I want to shut out so much.

I need to learn to shut out so much:
the insulters, the tired misogynist tropes, 
the name-callers, the actors in bad faith.

And yet, as I learn to shut them out, 
I want to be open.

Open to wonder. To awe. 
To the things I have yet to learn.

Open to beauty, to nature, to art.
Open to joy, to breaking open and being remade.

Open to challenge and correction 
from those who love me and are for me.

Open to letting people surprise me 
with their generosity, their kindness, 
their capacity for transformation.

There is goodness in the world.
It is not only sorrow.

God, in your extravagant profligate openness 
you created humans—
raw, unpredictable, glorious, fickle.

You know everything but were open 
to being surprised by us.

Help me be open to being surprised, too.
Amen.	

Are there parts of this prayer that you feel? Other prayers or reflections that come to mind when you think of openness?

On an unrelated note, this is what I’ve been up to writing-wise since the last update (and as a reminder, you can always go to the “on the web” page to see what’s new…or old…).

  1. Do Not Worry: A Communal Approach (Red Letter Christians)

For a while (like, October 2021 – Feb 2022), I was blogging a lot about the passage in Matthew where Jesus tells people not to worry. It started with a mini-sermon from church and then went all sorts of places, from worry as a good thing, to the feminine side of God, to what does and doesn’t add an hour to our lives, to what it might look like to learn from the wildflowers. And those are just a few.

Do Not Worry: A Communal Approach is a piece I wrote as part of that series and then thought, I wonder if someone wants to publish this one. Many months later, here we are!

2. On Hope: Prayers & Reflections (Christians for Social Action)

This is the first in a four-part series on the weekly themes of Advent (hope, peace, love, joy). It incorporates some of the prayers I wrote last year with new reflections on what these words might mean in our world. Featuring lots of engagement with activist scholars & writers.

3. When Clarity of Belief is Important (Patheos)

I wrote some things about my discomfort with belief statements and how they’re sometimes used – but of course everything is more complicated than that. When Clarity of Belief is Important adds a little of that complexity, particularly with LGBTQ+ people/communities in mind.

4. A Crisis of Authority – or, Life in the Mud (Patheos)

Starting off a series of reflections on how my views of authority (Bible, church, pastors, etc.) have changed over time. This post explores in a general way what crises of authority can look like…and how they can feel.

As always, thoughts about any of this are very welcome!

Reflections on 20 years of friendship

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

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

Dear Blevins, Tanya, Tommy—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) This was an “oof” for me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. I liked this part about curiosity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jesus (Luke 16:19-31)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This one’s on Luke 16:1-13:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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