No really, you don’t have to stay

Hi friends,

This week I’d like to direct your attention to a recent blog post by Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes. I read this a few days ago, and it has stuck with me.

Dr. Chanequa compares the logic of those who try to tell people they should keep going to church with the logic of those who tell people they should stay in an abusive marriage. 

(Of course, not all churches are abusive, just as not all marriages are abusive. But this is for the cases where church, like many marriages, just isn’t working. A person is not being treated well. And that person wants to leave but isn’t sure how, or if it’s okay.)

I think about this, and I think about a book I read recently-ish by a prominent (white dude) progressive Christian writer. There was a lot of good in this book. But there were also a lot of things that rubbed me the wrong way. 

At one point, this writer was offering reasons why some moderate/progressive Christians may want to keep going to church—even if their more conservative counterparts don’t exactly want them there or treat them very well. He posed this question: If all the more liberal-minded folks left, where would that leave the church as a whole? The church’s worst elements, he suggested, would prevail. There would be no one left to challenge them or offer a different point of view.

I read that and thought, oof. That doesn’t quite feel right to me. Am I supposed to be the church’s (great white) savior? Maybe this author sees himself that way. But me? I think I’m good.

I don’t really think it’s my responsibility to stay in an institution that doesn’t want or value me. Or, more precisely, one that doesn’t want or value the real me (but would gladly welcome a toned-down, suppressed, highly edited version). 

I think it’s my responsibility to be authentically myself. As Brené Brown suggests in Atlas of the Heart (check out the super chill book review here if you like), I want to “be [my]self and respect others for being authentic.” If a church works against those goals, I want no part of it. 

To borrow Rev. Dr. Jacqie Lewis’ framework from her lovely book Fierce Love, I want to love myself, my community, and my world as well as I can. That is, fiercely. And so, I want to connect myself to communities that help me live out these things—and, when necessary, divest from spaces that work against them.

To be fair, I’m not sure if the prominent progressive Christian writer I paraphrased above was saying that the issue of Where would that leave the church? is a great reason to stay. But I also don’t recall him saying it’s a terrible reason. And I think this needs to be said.

Part of what’s at play here is that church is a voluntary organization. People choose in and out. And the assumption most of us work from is that we choose in and out based on whether or not we want to be involved. That is, whether or not we think what’s happening there is good and we want to contribute to it. 

Choosing to remain affiliated with a voluntary institution, then, implies that you think things are generally going well in that institution. That you align with its values. Sure, there are always things that could be better. But in general you’re on board with what they’re about and where they’re trying to go.

If these things are not true, it doesn’t make sense to stay. Your butt in the pew—or the numbers you increase on a survey—only benefits the institution by making it seem like more people are staying (and so maybe things aren’t as dire as they are). It doesn’t benefit you. And you do not owe it to them.

It also feels worth saying that the question of Where would that leave the church? assumes a very narrow definition of church. It equates church with evangelicalism, basically. 

There are so many different denominations with different beliefs and values. There are so many different ways of being Christian. If we feel the need to “save” the evangelical stream by sticking with it, we’re closing ourselves off to other possibilities. And, ironically, we’re adding credence to the lie that the evangelical stream of Christianity is the only legitimate one. 

If we leave evangelicalism, where would that leave it? Probably about right where it would be anyway; after all, it certainly isn’t listening to us. We don’t need to save it. We can walk away and go find faith practices and communities that work for us—ones that heal us, affirm us, challenge us, and transform us in the ways we want to be healed, affirmed, challenged, transformed.

That’s what I’ve got for today. If you have an experience of leaving a church community, or disidentifying with a particular religious tradition—or of wanting to do so but hesitating—I’d love to hear. Any other thoughts on Dr. Chanequa’s reflections or mine are welcome too, of course.

Peace to you this weekend.

Liz

Mental health in a bonkers world

Hi friends,

This week, I’d like to offer you a reflection from musician, author, and activist Andre Henry: Why Therapy Isn’t Enough, I Need a Revolution. I’d encourage you to read it, and I’d love to hear what you think.

I often find myself thinking some similar thoughts. I think about how many of my friends are seeing therapists. Like, everybody. And it’s (mostly) really good. I’m (mostly) so glad they’re doing it.

At the same time, though, I often wonder: What is this world we live in, which has driven so many of my favorite people to need to talk with a professional weekly to unpack their wounds and trauma and figure out how to live?

Experiences like depression and anxiety are becoming more and more widely acknowledged, less and less stigmatized. I’m so glad for that. And yet, when people experience these things, it’s still often viewed as “something’s off with that person,” as opposed to “something’s off with our society.” 

But I wonder if many people (by no means everyone, but many people) who often feel depressed or anxious are really just a little more compassionate than average. (Which is a gift, not a deficiency.) Or they’re just paying a little more attention to our world. And many things in this world just are stressful, depressing, and anxiety-inducing. (Like the recent Border Security Expo in El Paso…wtf??)

Dr. King felt this. In his 1965 speech Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, for example, he reflected on his recent travels to India: “But I say to you this morning, my friends, that there were those depressing moments, for how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidence of millions of people going to bed hungry? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night; no beds to sleep in; no houses to go into.” 

As Dr. King asks, how can one avoid feeling depressed? We could add Andre Henry’s examples of everyday violence and threat to Black lives. We could add examples of anti-abortion laws that have no concern for women’s lives. We could add examples of anti-trans laws, of queer couples not being allowed to adopt children, of teachers being prohibited from talking about race in the classroom. There are so many things.

I don’t mean to be depressing; I do mean to put depressed feelings and other reasons why people seek therapy in a larger context. 

I also wonder this: as important as trained professional therapists are, are there also some things they’re doing for people that, really, the rest of us non-trained-therapists could do for one another?

We know that America is experiencing a “loneliness epidemic.” Many of us struggle to connect on a deeper level with one another. And maybe sometimes it’s easier to tell a therapist what’s really going on than to share with a friend. At least we’re assured (hopefully) that the therapist will listen to us well. Whereas friends may be distracted, looking at their phones—or thinking about their own issues, too overwhelmed by their own struggles to attend to ours.

I’m with Andre in thinking our world needs to change. Mental health concerns are often not only individual issues but also symptoms of a society that isn’t working. I want to see our society change.

And, at the same time, I want to be there for others—and to see more and more people be there for others—in that open, compassionate, curious, nonjudgmental listening way that therapists are (hopefully) so good at. I think this kind of deep listening to one another is something we can all cultivate. 

I want to see individuals experience mental wellness. And I want to see connections, relationships, and communities experience wellness through attentive listening and mutual care. And I want to see our world experience wellness via toppling unjust systems and building better ones.

I know this is a lot to hope for. But I think it’s helpful to see that it’s all interconnected. 

Wishing you, this week, both good mental health and meaningful work toward a better world.

Peace,

Liz

Doubting in Community (a sermon on John 20:19-31, part 2)

Hi friends,

Last week I posted the first half of a sermon on “Doubting Thomas.” This is the second half!

___

I noticed something else, too, when reflecting on this passage—something I hadn’t really thought much about before. 

I noticed that there’s a whole week in between when Jesus appears to the first group of disciples (without Thomas, in the locked room) and when Jesus appears again to that same group of disciples (this time including Thomas). The English translation says “a week later”; the Greek literally reads, “after eight days.” 

Jesus could have come back and shown himself to Thomas any time. Any time at all. 

He could have appeared to Thomas wherever Thomas was hanging out that night, while the rest of the disciples were together. I don’t know what Thomas was doing that evening. But Jesus did. He could have gone and found him.

Or Jesus could have appeared to Thomas anytime during that week. But he didn’t.

For some reason, he waited eight days. And for Thomas, those were likely eight lonnng days.

Eight long days of hearing his friends insist that they saw Jesus, but not quite knowing whether to believe it. Were his friends trying to pull one over on him, like saying gullible is written on the ceiling when it isn’t? If it was a joke, Thomas may have thought, it wasn’t a very funny one. 

Or maybe his friends were imagining things—a sort of collective hallucination born out of the extreme stress of losing a dear friend and then fearing for their own lives at the hands of the same authorities who hated Jesus enough to want him dead.

Maybe these were eight long days, for Thomas, of wondering whether Jesus cared about him enough to show himself to him. Wondering whether he would have to just take his friends’ word for it in the end (or not), or if he would get to see Jesus for himself. Wondering where Jesus was, what Jesus was doing. Wondering if Jesus had really risen from the dead at all.

It might be easy to call Thomas a doubter. But his experience was legitimately different from that of his friends. They had gotten to see Jesus. Thomas had not. Thomas wanted that experience for himself. 

I wonder how Thomas was formed in this time of waiting. How did that time change him?

I wonder this, because I wonder it about us, too. We often live in those eight long days, don’t we? I wrestle with Easter in that way. 

Yes, Jesus was resurrected. Yes, there is the promise, in the end, of resurrection and eternal life for us as well. 

But we live in the in between. We often live in those eight days between hearing testimony that Jesus rose and seeing him in a tangible way for ourselves. 

How are we changed in the wait? And what do we do in the wait?

I don’t have all the answers to this—and even if I did, I don’t think I would lay them out as if they could be condensed into nice little bullet points, maybe something that spells out a cute little acronym. I don’t think wisdom is like that. 

But I do want to offer one observation. Whatever else Thomas might have been doing in those eight long days, we know this: he kept spending time with his friends, his fellow disciples of Jesus. 

I want to unpack this a bit. We might be tempted to gloss over it. But, to me, it feels like a big deal.

Thomas kept spending time with the community of disciples—even after they said “we have seen the Lord,” and Thomas wasn’t so sure. He didn’t let their certainty, when he felt none, tear apart the relationships they had built. He didn’t let them make him feel guilty about his doubts, or ashamed of them—or if he did feel some guilt or shame, he didn’t go hide by himself because of it. 

He didn’t keep his real thoughts from them. He said exactly what he was thinking: Unless I see, unless I feel, unless I have evidence of this for myself in a way I can understand, I will not believe

Thomas may have had his doubts. But he was honest. He didn’t pretend to believe because everyone else around him did. And he was self-aware; he articulated what he needed in order to believe. 

And his friends, for their part—the other disciples—kept hanging out with Thomas, too. We don’t know from the text exactly how they responded to Thomas saying he wouldn’t believe until he, too, saw. But we know they kept all spending time together. We know this because we know they were all together eight days later, the next time Jesus appeared. 

The other disciples didn’t shun Thomas because he didn’t believe the same things they did at that moment. They didn’t cast him out as an unbeliever. They didn’t feel threatened by him—or if they did feel threatened, they didn’t reject him because of it. 

They accepted him. They accepted where he was at. Unbelief and all.

This is not to be taken lightly. 

I think of a time, several years ago, at a church I used to be a part of, when I was asked if I might consider being part of the church prayer team. That meant being available right after church services to pray for anyone who would like some prayer. 

I told the church leader who asked me, Thanks for asking, but I don’t know if that’s a good fit for me right now. To be honest, I haven’t been praying much in my personal life, so I don’t know if it quite feels right to be up front offering to pray for others at church.

The church leader didn’t miss a beat in replying, Ah, feeling a little convicted, are we?

I wasn’t, in fact, feeling convicted. I did feel sad, at times, that my prayer life wasn’t what it used to be. And I needed people I could process that with honestly. I needed people who would listen, and maybe ask some open-ended questions, and not judge. 

Imagine if the church leader instead had said, I know how that feels. Everyone goes through times when their prayer life is struggling, or nonexistent, or just really different from how it was five or ten years ago. That’s okay. Let me know if you want to talk about that more. Or something like that. Something that opens up relationship. Something that opens up opportunities to know each other better. Something that doesn’t end with judgment.

That’s what I see in Thomas’ community: people willing to receive his honesty and not judge. And that’s what I see in Jesus, too, in this story. This openness, this non-judgmentalness. 

After those eight long long days, when Jesus finally does show up when Thomas is there, there’s no judgment. He just identifies what Thomas said he needed, and he offers this to Thomas. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.

There’s no shame. No mocking. No “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” that you didn’t believe. There is compassion. There’s a desire for Thomas to believe. 

We may find ourselves, in this season, at the beginning of those eight long days—or somewhere in the middle, unsure how long they will last. 

We may find ourselves rejoicing, like the disciples did, at some way we have seen Jesus, some way we’ve seen God at work in our lives or in our communities. 

Or we may find ourselves confused, like so many characters in these resurrection stories. We understand some things but feel totally lacking in understanding others. We may see Jesus but not know it yet, like Mary and the gardener, or the other disciples who were fishing and saw him on the shore. 

We may feel disoriented because Jesus isn’t showing up in the same ways he used to for us. 

It’s okay to be in any of these places. God does not judge us for being in any of these places.

Instead, God gently guides us in a process of learning to articulate what we need, and bringing these needs into community—not pulling back from faith community when things are hard or we don’t even know what we believe, but sharing honestly where we’re at and continuing in the relationships we’ve built over time. 

God can hold us in all of these spaces, at all points in this journey. And, at their best, faith communities can hold us, too. 

This is good news. 

There is room for the believers, and room for the unbelievers. 

There is room for the faith and room for the doubt. There is no shame in that doubt. 

There is room for those who believe without seeing and room for those—and that’s most of us—who feel like we need to see something. 

There is room for all of us. There is room, especially, for our honesty. 

So, we can show up as we are, like Thomas did. And we can embrace those whose doubts might feel bigger, scarier, or different from our own. We can wait, together, in community, for Jesus to show up in the ways we need him to.

Peace to you this week,

Liz

Permission to Doubt (a sermon on John 20:19-31, part 1)

Hi friends,

I was thankful to be able to guest preach a couple weeks ago at Normandy Park United Church of Christ. I thought I’d share a written version of the sermon here, too.

Because I feel like I benefited from having to think a lot about Thomas, and faith, and doubt, and “believing without seeing,” and holding all the contradictions of these things together in our lives. And I hope you might enjoy thinking about these things too.

I’ve split the sermon into two parts. Here’s the scripture text:

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

And here’s the first part of the sermon:

A few weeks ago, I went out to lunch at a place I hadn’t been to before, with my husband Ken and another friend. I stepped away for a moment, and when I came back, the two of them were giggling about something, and I wasn’t sure what. Ken said, “gullible is written on the ceiling,” and they both burst out laughing.

I thought, I’m not going to fall for that one. That’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. You can’t fool me! But they insisted that it really was written there. So eventually I caved and looked up, and sure enough, someone really had written the word “gullible” in small white letters on the dark ceiling. 

I share this story because I think it’s funny—it was just so unexpected to actually see the word gullible on the ceiling—but also because I think it can get us thinking about gullibility, and doubt, and belief. 

I share it because I wonder if it helps us understand our scripture text—about Thomas, and the way he responded when he heard that the other disciples saw Jesus and he didn’t.

He often gets called “Doubting Thomas.” As though his doubt sets him apart from the rest of the disciples. And as though his doubt is a bad thing. As if it’s a cautionary tale we have to learn from so that we can be different. Because we are all shining examples of constant, amazing, wholehearted, complete, unwavering, infallible, total faith, right? . . . Maybe some of you are; I sure know I’m not.

But I’m not so sure Thomas’ doubt is all that bad. Because really: Who among us would want to be the person who looks up at the ceiling every time someone says “gullible” is written there? I think most of us believe, at some level, that some amount of doubt is actually a good thing. 

We don’t want to be so ready to believe anything we hear that we end up believing a ton of things that aren’t actually true. We want to be wise. We want to be discerning. 

When people talk about this passage we often talk about “Doubting Thomas,” but the word that’s used over and over and over in this passage—five times, to be exact—is not doubt but belief, or believe. This is a word that could also be translated, have trust in, or have faith in.

Even the word that’s translated often as “doubt”—when Jesus tells Thomas, “stop doubting and believe”—is not actually its own separate word in the original Greek language. It’s just the negative form of believe. Literally, Jesus tells Thomas, “do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

This story is all about believing. But it isn’t about believing mindlessly or thoughtlessly.

I think about this when I think about what it means to believe without seeing. Our text says that Jesus told Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But I feel like this is complicated.

What does that mean? What does it mean to believe without seeing? When I read the last couple chapters of the gospel of John, I’m struck by the observation that no one in these stories really believes without seeing. 

Take the “disciple Jesus loved,” who was probably John the gospel writer. The text says John believes when he sees the empty tomb and Jesus’ burial clothes lying there—although what exactly he believes seems a little unclear, since right after that we find out that John and Peter, who was with him, did not yet understand that Jesus must rise from the dead (v. 8-9).

Or take Mary Magdalene. The text doesn’t say that Mary “believed” in that exact language, but she sees and recognizes the risen Jesus, and then she goes and tells the other disciples that she has seen the Lord (v. 16-18). She got to see him.

Or take the group of disciples who got together in that locked room, the first time, without Thomas. They got to see Jesus’ hands and side (v. 20). And it’s then that the disciples recognize Jesus and rejoice.

No one really believed without seeing. 

I feel like this was just generally a confusing time for everybody. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener (v. 15). Peter and John just go home after seeing the empty tomb, because they don’t understand what’s happening (v. 10). In the next story right after ours, Jesus stands on the beach while some of the disciples are fishing, and they don’t recognize them until he helps them catch a miraculous haul of fish (chapter 21).

Everyone’s confused. Everyone’s doubting in their own doubting ways. Everyone’s processing what’s happening in their own different ways that we all process things. Everyone’s taking their own time to come to their own conclusions about Jesus rising from the dead and appearing before them. 

And that’s okay. That’s what’s real about these stories. Maybe that’s where we find ourselves.


I’ll be back next week with the second half. Peace to you until then,

Liz

Peace to be fearless

Hi friends,

This Easter week has me thinking about what most of Jesus’ disciples did, as recorded in John’s gospel, right after Jesus’ resurrection. Just that morning, Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty and then saw the risen Jesus (looking a lot like a gardener; John 20:11-18). And now the disciples have gone and locked themselves in a room because they’re afraid (John 20:19-23). 

They’re hiding, afraid of what the religious authorities might do if they found them. 

I feel like we can look back and read this now and think, That’s silly. Jesus literally just rose from the dead that morning. What do they have to be afraid of? Don’t they know God’s power by now?

But I would also like to say this: Religious authorities can be terrifying.

Perhaps when we blame the disciples for being afraid of them, it’s a form of victim-blaming. Really, it isn’t really people’s fault that they feel afraid. It’s the religious leaders’ fault for making them feel afraid. 

A few months back, one of my fellow church elders—another “younger” person in the group (which, in the Presbyterian world, means under forty, lol)—told me, You aren’t afraid of anybody

I got what he meant. Sometimes I ask questions or share opinions in our elder meetings that could evoke a negative reaction. I took my fellow elder’s comment as high praise.

But, of course, in a literal sense, he was wrong. It isn’t at all true that I’m not afraid of anybody. I’m afraid of most people, much of the time. But I’ll still say potentially unpopular things if I feel like they’re important. 

It feels important to me that—where I have a choice, like with churches—I’m not sticking around in environments where fear is a governing force. Sure, it may feel scary to put certain thoughts out there in a room where others might disagree or might not understand. But people’s responses to my thoughts at our elders’ meetings have not reinforced my fear. People have generally been appreciative. No one is trying to intimidate me into silence.

I say this because I feel like there are many religious environments that are not this way. Not unlike the religious authorities that the disciples were hiding from in that locked room two thousand years ago, many church leaders today still try to intimidate people into conforming to particular ways of thinking and living. 

Most churches I know of aren’t trying to do crucifixion-type stuff, or Inquisition-type stuff. But the psychological terror of no longer belonging in a community you once called home and family is very real. These are, still, high stakes.

What does it mean, then, for Jesus to appear today and speak “peace”—the first thing out of his mouth when he walked into that locked room so long ago? Maybe it involves some of these things:

Peace, to know that God is more powerful than the religious leaders who claim to represent God but do not. 

Peace, to be fully yourself, to be honest about who you are and what you really do or don’t believe.

Peace, to know that you are okay, you are good, you are enough. 

Peace, to get out of environments where people are telling you otherwise, where you’re made to feel like you’re not okay, where your honesty is seen as a threat rather than a blessing. 

Peace, to no longer place yourself under the leadership of religious authorities who evoke fear in you.

Maybe this is (part of) what Easter means. Maybe a belief in resurrection can help make us fearless—not in the sense that we don’t feel fear, but in the sense that we aren’t controlled by it. 

So, peace to you this week.

Liz

Spiritual conversations and the Samaritan woman (reflections on John 4:1-26)

Hi friends,

A couple weeks back, my church’s sermon and small group discussions centered on the (sadly unnamed) Samaritan woman at the well, and her conversation with Jesus as told in John 4:1-26

At our small group meeting, I happened to pick up a version of the Bible that has Jesus’ words in red letters. The previous week we had talked about Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus in John 3, and I was struck by a simple observation: the conversation with Nicodemus has a lot more red letters all together. 

In other words, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is much more of a mutual, two-way conversation. With Nicodemus, Jesus has some things he wants to say, and he says them. The Samaritan woman, on the other hand, brings a lot more of herself into the conversation. And I think Jesus appreciates that.

Recently, my very awesome friend Christin, who’s training to be a Buddhist chaplain, invited me to record a conversation with her about Buddhism and Christianity and spiritual life in general. This was a very new thing for me—both the video-recorded aspect of it and the public interfaith conversation aspect of it. So feel free to check it out if you like, as long as you have low expectations and lots of grace!

Is this my YouTube face? Lol…

Regardless of the self-consciousness induced by being on YouTube, I enjoyed talking with Christin, and I deeply appreciated her honest reflections and questions. 

I was thinking about this conversation (and conversations like it) in conjunction with the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. And I was thinking about how much my own perspective has changed over time.

I used to see the woman’s conversation with Jesus as more of an evangelistic encounter. She has thoughts and questions, yes, but the main point is that he tells her what she needs to know to believe in him, and then she goes back home and tells her community.

Now I see it as more of a legitimately two-way dialogue. Not one person trying to convert the other, but both people bringing their full personalities, histories, and spiritual journeys to the table to challenge and encourage one another, to help each other learn and grow. 

This is what I hope for, now, in interfaith dialogue. We don’t need to change someone else or make them see things the way we do. We do need to bring our full selves and speak honestly from our own background, perspective, and experiences. We need to respect one another, hear one another, honor one another as intelligent beings created in God’s image with all the wisdom and agency that entails.

I think of Jesus and the Samaritan woman’s conversation about worshiping God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-4). Maybe this is what that means. Not necessarily that there is One Right and True Way to worship God—but more that it is crucial that we all worship in ways that are authentic for us. Ways that are true to our experience. Ways that resonate with our deepest spirits, that heal our spirits and do not do violence to them.

I used to think it was a bit of baloney to be “spiritual but not religious.” I toed the evangelical line that puts a high emphasis on actively being part of a church if you want to have an authentic, growing spiritual life. 

Now I think differently. Personally, I’m still part of a church, because I see value in it. But I don’t necessarily think church is for everyone—or for everyone at this particular point in time—or for those who don’t currently have access to a church community that will do more good than harm in their lives.

Jesus said it’s not about worshiping in this place or that one (John 4:19-21). Not this mountain or that mountain. Not this cultural context or that one. Not this kind of church or that kind of church, or even this or that kind of religious tradition.

It’s about spirit and truth. What heals our spirits, drawing us to engage more fully with our experience in this world and with our communities’ gifts and needs? What rings deeply true to us, while also ringing deeply true for those most vulnerable among us? 

This is what I want worship to look like. No conversion necessary. Mutual, two-sided, honest spiritual conversations always welcome.

As always (speaking of two-sided), I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Peace,

Liz

Our insecurities and Jesus’ temptations

Hi friends,

Prompted by church and church small group in the last week or so, I’ve been thinking about the temptations of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11

I explored one angle on these temptations last year, over at Feminism and Religion, in a piece called The Gendered Temptation of Jesus (based on Luke’s version of the story). I reflected on the gendered differences in how power and authority operate in our world, and I wondered how the devil might have tempted Jesus differently had Jesus been a woman. 

This year, I find myself reading the story of Jesus’ temptations and thinking about how frickin’ insecure everyone is. Okay, maybe not everyone, and maybe not all the time—but most people, much of the time.

Is there a nicer way to say that? Probably. But maybe it’s helpful to say it bluntly. Most of us are a walking pile of insecurities.

I feel like this is one of those things that is true but isn’t always obvious to me—probably, at least in part, because everyone expresses their insecurities in different ways. 

Other people’s insecurities don’t look the same ways mine do. So I don’t always see it. And most people don’t talk about their insecurities directly.

Most people, most of the time, don’t say “I’m feeling insecure about my job performance at work right now. I’m not sure whether my supervisor thinks I’m doing a good job, or whether my coworkers respect me.”

Instead, someone might say, “Ugh, my supervisor is the worst, she never gives me any positive feedback. Who let her manage a team?” Or, “My coworker Bob is so annoying. He talks about himself all the time, and does he even get any work done?” Instead of saying, “I’m worried people think I talk about myself too much at work, or that they think I’m lazy.”

These are just a couple of examples. I’m sure you can think of other things people feel insecure about and other ways they (indirectly) express those insecurities. Some people (hi) get quiet. Others get loud. Some flatter and fawn. Others speak harshly and abrasively.

This year, as I read the Bible story about the temptations of Jesus, I notice that the thing the devil keeps coming back to is this big chubby “IF.” “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the temple.”

As in, Are you really the Son of God? If you are, then prove it to me. Right now. In these very specific ways I want you to prove it.

When Jesus resists these temptations, he’s saying, in effect, No, I’m not going to do that. Of course I’m the Son of God, but I have no need to prove it to you. I know who I am. God knows who I am. That’s all I need. That is enough for me.

I think this is helpful. It feels helpful to me in my own insecurities, and so I offer it in case it’s helpful for you too. We aren’t exactly the Son of God in the same way Jesus was—but we are God’s beloved family. We are created by God, known by God, loved by God. This is powerful. 

We know who we are. And that is enough.

So when we feel insecure at work and feel the urge to turn it around and blame Bob somehow, perhaps instead we can pause, take a moment, and reflect. We can decide we don’t need to prove our own usefulness at work by calling Bob lazy in comparison.

We can also remind ourselves that our insecurities are human. Maybe we can even find the courage to talk about our insecurities directly—to share them with people we trust who can remind us that we don’t have to prove ourselves, that we are enough.

Communicating honestly and kindly about our insecurities can forge closer bonds between people, whereas acting in unkind or unproductive ways because of our insecurities tears people and communities apart. 

It’s okay to feel insecure. But we don’t have to act harmfully out of it. And when we do, we can acknowledge the harm and seek repair. This is all part of what it is to be human, and to be in community together.

Like Jesus, we are God’s beloved. This is the truest thing about us, and it does not change. We do not have to earn love. 

When we feel insecure, may we learn to rest in this belovedness, this enough-ness. And may it free us from the need to operate out of our insecurities in ways that harm ourselves and people around us.

Amen.

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.