Reflections from a Lenten porch sit practice

For Lent this year I thought I’d add a daily practice of sitting on our back porch for ten minutes, doing nothing. I didn’t actually end up doing this every day. Maybe about half the days total. But hey, twenty-ish days of porch sits are better than no days of porch sits, right?

I don’t really have a neat and tidy take-away from it, but I did enjoy slowing down and noticing what’s all around me every day. There are many things I don’t always take time to look at.

I also felt like it was an opportunity to say a small little “screw you,” in my own way, to the destructive capitalistic forces that try to make us feel guilty and worthless if we don’t spend every second of every day doing “productive” things. I’m here to listen and watch for one who said, pay attention to the birds and wildflowers and learn thoroughly from them. And if that isn’t a bit of an anti-capitalist manifesto, I’m not sure what is.

After each porch sit, I wrote a sentence or two about what stood out to me from that time. I’d like to share these thoughts with you. I edited some of them lightly but didn’t wrap them up with a neat introduction or conclusion, because I think they resist that. (The real world resists that . . . although if you get something in particular out of these thoughts, or if you relate to some of them, I’d love to hear it.)

Do you have a practice along these lines—maybe one you’ve been able to sustain beyond Lent? I’m all ears.

Here’s what I wrote:

Today I noticed a plant I never noticed before, high up over the neighbors’ yard, poking out between cedar boughs, reaching toward the sun.

Today I thought about how I don’t often go outside and look up. I thought about how tall the cedar trees are. Then I watched the clouds wisp surprisingly quickly across the sky until there was no blue left, all gray.

Today I watched a small black-headed bird perch on a hanging basket and turn his head back and forth, almost watching me, until my phone made a noise and startled us both.

Today I noticed and gave thanks for the trees all around us that have not been cut down.

Today I felt the wind and watched everyone else feel it, too: the cedars, the grasses, the cat whose ears twitch at every rustling sound. To be attuned like that to the Spirit who moves like wind.

Today I watched the rain come down in steady gray mist-lines and felt that God is close to those who weep with broken hearts. I can think of many.

Today I looked at the neighbors’ newly re-growing fig tree, dramatically chopped down, finding ways to grow again.

Today I noticed that the raspberry plants I feared were dead are making new leaf-buds.

Today I felt unsettled, not sure where to focus, until I closed my eyes and listened to the rain. It plops and splatters with so many different sounds.

Today I thought about how each fruit tree returns to life at its own pace: the pear buds ready to open, the sweet cherry buds farther along than the sour ones. 

Tonight I let the airplanes taking off on the right and the cars driving down Ambaum on the left surround me with sound.

Tonight the clouds stood still and the fir tree silhouettes were striking against the darkening sky. Mostly, though, I just watched the cat who is now ours as she sat in the grass, grateful that her shelter days are over.

Tonight I listened as one bird sang four notes over and over, trilling and warbling a little differently each time. I wondered what her song meant. 

Tonight the rain dripped in rhythm with the wind. I heard the airplanes and yearned for silence.

This evening I couldn’t believe I could sit outside in a short-sleeved shirt. I felt the gift of an unseasonably warm day.

Tonight I looked West and marveled at how much brightness was still in the sky after 8 pm.

Tonight I thought about how small the pear tree buds were at the beginning of Lent. Now, they’re blooming. And yet the air is still cold, so cold.

Tonight, in the dark, I thought about how delightfully slowly plants grow. I thought about the miracle it is that the strawberry plants are starting to flower even though it’s still so cold. 

Today I watched the long-haired dark cat with the white boots—the one who always scurries away quickly when he sees me—saunter slowly across the backyard, not noticing me, or not caring.

Today I saw little bugs flitting about and hoped they might be pollinating the fruit trees and not eating the leafy greens.

Today I feel sad about many things, but I also feel joy when I sit still long enough that birds feel safe venturing to the bird feeder a few feet away.

Super chill book review: Becoming Rooted (Randy Woodley)

I recently read Randy Woodley’s Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth (Broadleaf Books, 2022). (First super chill book review for a book that was published in 2022—woohoo!)

I’ll confess I did not take the full one hundred days to read it. But I still like how the book is broken up: one hundred very short chapters (like, very short—1-2 pages each), each with an intriguing quote at the beginning and a suggested action item at the end. Even though I sometimes read several short chapters in one sitting, I still liked being able to digest the book in such small chunks. 

I found this book very much worth reading; as always, here are a few random thoughts and quotes!

1) It must have taken Woodley some time to find one hundred different interesting and relevant quotations to begin each chapter with. But I’m glad he did.

I found myself appreciating the variety of people quoted—many indigenous thinkers, some Buddhists, some Christian theologians, some Bible quotes. From Gandhi to Sitting Bull to Mother Teresa to Alice Walker to James Baldwin, as well as lots of indigenous people I hadn’t heard of before but enjoyed learning from, it’s quite the diverse and brilliant cast of thinkers. 

2) In particular, I found this quote very striking: 

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”

-Cree Indian Proverb (p. 141)

Reminds me of what Jesus said about not hoarding treasure where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal (Matt 6:19). We either learn to share resources, giving and receiving generously, building just communities where everyone can flourish—or, eventually, we are all destroyed. 

Money might protect many wealthy people from feeling the effects of climate change, pollution, unsustainable agriculture practices, etc. as quickly as others, but it will catch up with all of us in the end. We can’t eat money. I hadn’t quite thought about it in that way, but it feels right.

3) I also liked this quote: 

“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” 

-Eric Hoffer (p. 241)

Reminds me of what Jesus said about the meek inheriting the earth (Matt 5:5). To be learners, we have to admit that there’s so much we don’t know. (And often also that much we’ve learned isn’t actually true or helpful.) We have to become humble enough to want to learn, and to know that we need to learn.

Also, the idea of being “equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” is something one of my seminary professors used to talk about a lot without attributing it to anyone in particular (other than, by implication, himself). So it’s nice to know where that comes from.

4) Woodley has such great stories. So many of them. I appreciated his willingness to share his life and spiritual experiences so openly. 

I especially appreciated his emphasis on God speaking through nonhuman beings, since this is often overlooked and undervalued in Western churches. 

I’m Western enough in worldview that it sometimes seems silly, to me, to feel like I sense God speaking through wild animals or plants. Or maybe it’s not even so much that I think it’s silly—I actually think it’s very common, and very sacred and beautiful—but maybe more that I’m sometimes a little embarrassed about it. That is, I worry others will find it silly. 

I appreciate Woodley’s leadership in being willing to put himself out there and say, yes, that eagle is totally a sign. It’s totally God speaking. And it’s real. You might find it silly—but if you do, you’re missing out on so many amazing ways God might be speaking to you.

5) Woodley writes, “Humanity has yet to realize the fact that nature is wiser and more powerful than we are. Nature will, without a doubt, outlive us. She knows her mind, and she understands what keeps life in balance” (p. 17).

This was another thing I hadn’t quite thought about in this way, but when I hear it, it feels true. From Woodley’s perspective, climate change isn’t exactly a threat to the earth—as we might tend to talk about it—so much as it’s a threat to humanity. The earth will be okay, with or without humans. 

It’s almost an image of Earth having to spit humanity out because we aren’t playing well with others—with, as Woodley often calls it, the whole “community of creation.” Earth will be okay—she doesn’t need us. 

So when we fight climate change, we’re fighting for our own survival—for our own place in the interconnected web of creation. And that’s worth fighting for. I would very much like to get to stick around. 

6) I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but this is how Woodley sums up the values he’s hoping to teach and reflect on throughout the book: 

“A harmonious worldview. Mutual respect. Generosity. Hospitality. Inclusion. Relatedness to all creation. Cooperation. Wisdom. Humor” (p. 116).

Then again, at the very end of the book, he describes these values a little more:

  • Respect: Respect everyone. Everyone and everything is sacred.
  • Harmony: Seek harmony and cooperation with people and nature.
  • Friendship: Increase the number and depth of your close friends and family.
  • Humor: Laugh at yourself; we are merely human.
  • Equality: Everyone expresses their voice in decisions.
  • Authenticity: Speak from your heart.
  • History: Learn from the past. Live presently by looking back.
  • Balance work and rest: Work hard, but rest well.
  • Generosity: Share what you have with others.
  • Accountability: We are all interconnected. We are all related” (242).

I appreciate this articulation of indigenous values that we can all seek to live by, whether Indigenous or settler. 

These values also strike me as very Jesus-y. By mentioning Jesus so many times, by the way, I don’t mean to say that indigenous values are only valuable if Jesus also taught and lived them. I don’t mean to say that something is only valuable if Christianity affirms and endorses it, or that Christians don’t have things to learn from indigenous worldviews that we might not learn from the Bible alone.

I do mean to say that I think Jesus would be down with this book. Respect, harmony, friendship, humor, equality, authenticity, generosity—these are exactly the things that characterized Jesus’ life. The fact that indigenous thinkers and theologians often have to push back on aspects of the dominant Western Christian worldview says less about how Jesus and indigenous views relate to one another and more about how far removed a lot of the dominant Western Christian worldview is from who Jesus was.

Here’s to moving toward, as Woodley puts it, “heal[ing] ourselves, the Earth, and the whole community of creation” (116). 

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

God enrobes the wildflowers

Roses…so needy
Sweet peas – more like a wildflower

(28) And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. (29) But I say to y’all that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these ones. (30) And if God so enrobes the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is thrown into a furnace, (will he) not much more y’all, y’all of little faith? -Jesus (Matthew 6:28-30, my translation)

I didn’t realize, until I translated this passage, that the verb in v. 30—translated above as enrobes—is different from the verb in v. 29, translated as clothed. I thought Solomon in his glory was clothed, and so the wildflowers, too, were clothed. But even more gloriously.

This was a reasonable thing to think, given that the NRSV translates both verbs as clothed, and the NIV goes for dressed when it comes to Solomon and clothed when referring to the grass.

I kind of like the translation enrobes for the grass, though. I feel like it adds another dimension, another flavor. It isn’t just that the wildflowers are clothed even more beautifully than Solomon. They aren’t just clothed, like he is. They’re enrobed.

This word that I’m translating as enrobed is ἀμφιέννυμι. And to be clear, ἀμφιέννυμι could also be translated as clothed. But it would be a little odd for Jesus/Matthew to use two different verbs in adjacent sentences to mean the same thing. We might do this in English for style points, but people didn’t really do this in Koine Greek. 

I also think it’s interesting that this word, ἀμφιέννυμι, comes from a root that means “to invest.” I like the possible implication: that God enrobes the wildflowers in a way that evokes the concept of investment. God invests, or God is invested, in the wildflowers—even if by typical capitalist standards it may be an unwise investment; after all, the wildflowers pop up among the grass of the field, and the whole lot of it is here today but burned up in the furnace tomorrow.

I also find it interesting that ἀμφιέννυμι is used only four times in the whole New Testament. It isn’t one of the usual words for clothing. (In comparison, the word that describes Solomon being clothed in v. 29 is used 24 times in the New Testament.) 

And it’s really just used in two different stories. 

There are Jesus’ words about the wildflowers here, and his very similar words in Luke 12:28. 

And then there are Jesus’ words about John the Baptist in Matthew 11:8 (and his very similar words in Luke 7:25): As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces” (Matt 11:7-8, NIV). 

“A man dressed in fine clothes”—or, more literally, “a person enrobed in soft clothing.” Or something like that. Rich folks who hang out in kings’ palaces are enrobed in the same way the grasses of the field are enrobed. (Side note: check out this post for more thoughts on Matthew 11:7-8 and the surrounding verses if you’re interested.) 

Or, to look at it another way, God’s plant creations, like wildflowers, are enrobed in beauty—while God’s prophets hang out far from kings’ palaces. An interesting contrast. 

Anyhow, I like the idea of short-lived and fragile wildflowers being enrobed with the kind of beauty even the richest humans only dream of. That’s cool. 

And I like that we’re talking about wildflowers, here—the kind of plants not intentionally cultivated by humans. The kind we easily overlook. The kind we don’t even try to save from the furnace as they get thrown in to be burned up alongside the grass.

I think of the landscaping we inherited when we moved into our home. We have several rose plants, and they’re very pretty—but also (in some cases, anyway) very high maintenance. They want to be deadheaded constantly, fertilized every few weeks, watered on hot days (but not during the heat of the day), cleared of blackspot-infected fallen leaves, pruned yearly.  

The rose plants are so needy. In contrast, there’s a sweet pea plant that seems to just magically grow back year after year. It’s more like a weed, really—and a tenacious one. It takes over an impressively large space if I don’t cut it back. And it’s also really beautiful. 

I wonder if this is the sort of thing Jesus is thinking of when he talks about God enrobing the lilies—not the plants we intentionally cultivate for their beauty, but the ones that just grow on their own. Is a rose more beautiful than a sweet pea? I’m not sure. I feel like they’re both gorgeous in their own ways. God enrobes them both.

Maybe the rich kingliness of the word enrobe can help us see wildflowers—and the natural world in general—closer to the way God does.

Solomon was just clothed. But the wildflowers are enrobed. God treasures them, holds them, doesn’t just take care of their needs but makes them glorious. And this is God’s heart toward us as well. 

Have a favorite wildflower? Thoughts or feelings about roses or sweet peas or Solomon or clothing and robes? As always, feel free to holler in the comments or via email!

On learning from the wildflowers

And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. -Jesus (Matthew 6:28, my translation)

In my sermon on Matthew 6:25-34, I suggested that when Jesus says do not worry (v. 25), we might quite naturally reply, “okay Jesus, but…how??? How do we not worry?”

And I suggested that this question is perhaps answered (at least in part) by Jesus in v. 28, when he says, consider the lilies. Or—since the word translated “lilies” could also be translated “wildflowers,” and the word often translated “consider” or “see” is really quite a strong word that comes from the same root as “learn” or “disciple”—examine the lilies carefully, or learn thoroughly from them. Jesus says, learn from the wildflowers

I was aiming for a 7-8 minute mini-sermon, so I wasn’t able to go into much detail about what it might actually look like to learn from the wildflowers. But I have some thoughts, and I’d love to hear your thoughts too! 

How do we learn thoroughly from the wildflowers—or at least take some steps in that direction? These are some of the things I think about:

  1. Spend time in nature

It’s good for the soul!

In some ways, this is more accessible for some than others. But around the Seattle area, at least, even if it’s hard to find time (or transportation, etc.) to get out to the bigger woods and mountains, there are so many gorgeous local parks. 

I saw an article a few weeks back—in a Seattle-based newspaper or magazine, I forget which one—about beautiful places to visit in South King County. I was both amused and offended that some people responded with the “laughing face” emoji! Their loss. South King County is full of beautiful nature-y places. It may not rival Issaquah or Woodinville as far as forest-to-urban-space ratio goes—but we’ve got our share of parks and walking trails, and they’re lovely.

Anyhow, I realize it’s December and we’re far past peak wildflower season, but I think it’s worth getting out there anyway. Jesus may have chosen wildflowers as an example of a created being that’s short-lived but beautiful—but I wonder if he was just looking around for inspiration and chose what happened to be closest to him as he was speaking: birds and wildflowers. He probably could have picked any number of organisms, some of which we still see in winter. 

Let’s get outdoors this winter and see what we can see. I like (or at least I want to like?) the Scandinavian saying, “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This might be more true some places than others. But in the Seattle area, it sounds about right. The weather rarely throws conditions our way that a few layers, a raincoat, an umbrella (to hell with umbrella shame!), and some gloves can’t handle. 

I think our souls need time outdoors—even if it’s a neighborhood walk or a visit to a local park more often than a hardcore hike. Even if I’m mostly just noticing plants in random people’s front yards in Normandy Park (seriously, does everyone garden there?) rather than truly wild wildflowers. There’s something to learn from it all.

  1. Pay attention to indigenous wisdom

What better way to learn from the wildflowers than to learn from the people and communities who have been learning from the wildflowers for years and centuries longer than I have?

I went to an art and holiday gift fair at the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center last week (very cool!), and I got to hear quite extensively from a mother-daughter duo who make all sorts of medicines and salves from Devil’s Club. Before that conversation, I had only known Devil’s Club as a “do not touch!” sort of thing. But apparently its roots and stem have healing qualities. 

Talk about learning from the wildflowers. Sometimes we only see one side of something (or someone), but there is so much more to it (or them) than that.

Indigenous communities often have so much wisdom about these things. We are surrounded by plants that might be able to help heal us if we knew where to look and what to do. 

Even beyond the realm of herbal medicine, plants have so much to teach us about, well, pretty much—to borrow a phrase from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy—life, the universe, and everything. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants:

“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out…Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”

Plants have been here longer than we have, and they’ve had time to figure things out. I like that. I’d also highly recommend Braiding Sweetgrass in general, if you haven’t encountered it yet. Kimmerer models learning from plants so brilliantly.

  1. Grow plants

Nothing makes me pay attention to plants like growing them does. Whether it’s a hanging basket with some flowers, a railing planter box with a few herbs, or a full-on garden, we learn so much from growing (or at least attempting to grow) plants. 

We learn their names, their seasons, their preferences. We get excited about each new leaf, each new bud that we hope will open into a flower (and maybe even become a fruit). We gain a deeper appreciation for each part of the plant that we get to eat. 

Growing vegetables helps me appreciate where my food comes from, and how long and arduous a process it often is. It has been kind of funny and kind of weird, in the last few weeks, to see sugar pie pumpkins selling for $2 each at the market…after I spent literally 5-7 months growing a handful of them at home. 

Anyhow, I know gardening is more accessible to some than others. But many of us can grow something, even if it’s just a basil plant indoors on the windowsill. And I think it can help us pay attention.

Not a wildflower, but kind of a cool fungus…what might we learn from it?
  1. Appreciate plants for who they are, not just how we might use them

I was walking with a friend in the woods recently (Paradise Valley Conservation Area in Woodinville, to be precise), and I appreciated that there were various signs along the trail, pointing out different kinds of plants. But I also noticed something about these signs. They were all about what people—mostly settlers, I think, not so much indigenous people—like to use these plants for. I felt the gorgeous alder trees being reduced to cabinetry before my eyes.

I found myself wishing there were also signs about the ecosystem, the interactions among plants and animals, the life cycle of the trees—or something, anything, about the plants around me that didn’t reduce these living beings to the ways humans have used and monetized them.

This may seem at odds with what I was saying about indigenous communities’ knowledge of healing uses for local plants like Devil’s Club. But I think there’s a difference between knowing and appreciating the gifts a plant has to offer, versus only seeing that plant as something to use—and often something to use to make a profit. It’s a different kind of relationship. And I think the difference is important.

I want to learn to appreciate plants for all of who they are, not just how they might be used.

  1. Look to plants as signs of how we’re doing

I recently saw this NPR article about some of the ways in which rising sea levels are impacting coastal communities in South Carolina. 

For one thing, I had no idea that there was a community of descendants of enslaved Africans who have a (badass computer scientist) queen. That’s cool. 

I also learned about ghost forests. Apparently, when sea levels rise and begin to flood into salt marsh areas (a la Where the Crawdads Sing), the salt water slowly kills the trees there, leaving chalky white dead tree skeletons behind. According to the article, this has been happening for a long time, but its pace has accelerated dramatically in recent years. 

Ghost tree forests are kind of alarming. They’re a strikingly visible sign of the damage that has been caused and will continue to be caused by rising sea levels.

And they’re another reason, I think, to learn from the wildflowers—to examine the plants around us and learn carefully from them.

Plants can help us know how we’re doing. If native plants that have thrived in a place for who-knows-how-long are being killed by salt water, or are otherwise not doing well, this is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It’s a sign that our relationship with the natural world around us has gone awry. It’s visible evidence of injustices that need to be righted so that we all can thrive—plants, animals, and humans alike. Learn from the wildflowers.

These are some of the things I think about, some of the ways I’m trying to hear Jesus’ words about learning from the wildflowers. It’s all a work in progress, for sure.

What does learn from the wildflowers mean to you? What does it look like in your life, in your community? I’d love to hear!

More valuable, or just different?

This little cutie pie was chillin in our tree a few months back and let me take her picture

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? -Jesus (Matt 6:26, NIV)

I was surprised to find, while reading Matthew 6:26 in its original Greek, that the word translated as “more valuable” (NIV)—or “of more value” (NRSV), or “more important” (NASB)—is one that I was taught simply meant “differ.” We might read Jesus’ question as: Are you not, rather, different from them? 

I thought this was interesting. But I also remembered that there’s also another passage where Jesus says we’re more valuable than many sparrows. I thought, maybe the Greek is more clear in that passage—which might suggest that this one should be translated as it usually is. 

So I looked the other passage up. It’s Matthew 10:31: So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (NIV). It turns out, though, that here too the word translated as “worth more” is the same word used in Matt 6:26—the one that could be translated not as “worth more” or “more valuable” but just as “different.” 

Same thing with the similar stuff Jesus says in Matt 12:12 (How much more valuable is a person than a sheep?), Luke 12:7 (Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows), and Luke 12:24 (And how much more valuable are you than birds?). It’s all the same Greek word.

I’m not saying there aren’t potentially some good reasons to translate this word as “more valuable.” But does seem interesting that it could be just “different.”

I think about the idea that humans are “more valuable” than birds or sheep or other creatures, and I wonder if it plays into the global climate crisis we’re in—that is, into the damaging mindset that has gotten us here. I wonder if it isn’t terribly helpful to keep thinking of the world as a hierarchy of species, where humans are more valuable than other creatures—to keep thinking of humans as if we are separate from the rest of the created world, as if we are better, as if we are free to do whatever we want without considering its impact on other species and on the land.

Yes, humans are valuable. And so are birds. And so are wildflowers, and so is every other aspect of the natural world that surrounds us. And the reality is that we are all dependent on one another. We all flourish together, or none of us flourishes. 

Humans are different from birds; we are different from every other species, just as each of these species is different from one another. But we aren’t part of a special privileged class of species that isn’t affected by the earth’s sickness. We are affected—especially the materially poor among us, and especially communities of color.

I think about the biblical creation story. I used to think God only declared creation “very good” after God made humans (Gen 1:31), which meant that humans were especially awesome. Now I see that when God declared creation “very good,” God wasn’t just talking about humans. God was speaking of the whole world and all its beings as a collective whole—not just humans, but also plants, animals, sun, moon, stars, water, land. A unified, interconnected, interdependent whole. This is what was—and is—“very good” indeed.

God is the creator and the good caretaker of the birds, and the waters, and the plants, and the humans—of all God has made. All of these creations are gloriously unique, each different from the other. Does one have to be called “more valuable” than another?

Each species has different needs, different gifts, different challenges, different kinds of goodness and beauty to offer. God sees and honors all of it. God feeds the birds and God feeds the humans, in the different ways we need to be fed, the different things we hunger for.

Certainly humans have different needs from those of the birds. But is one better, or worse? Worth more, or less? It seems like a bit of a human impulse to label things in this way—and perhaps especially the impulse of a certain kind of human who has lost a sense of connection with the natural world.

But we are not disconnected from the natural world. Living as if we were has brought us to the precipice of a terrifying new era of natural disaster. There may still be ways to walk back from this precipice—but we’ll need to make some deep changes to our ways of thinking, our ways of being, our ways of relating.

Maybe we can start with rethinking the hierarchies we’ve created among species. We can learn to see humans as an interdependent part of the natural world, not separate from or better than the rest of it. We can learn to see ourselves as different from birds, but not necessarily more valuable.

And maybe, in so doing, we can learn to see the God who loves and longs to take care of us all—of the whole “very good” creation God has made.

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

Wildflowers from last week’s trip to Maine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini-sermon: A Different Kind of Power

I had the chance this last weekend to share a 7-8 minute mini-sermon for my church’s online worship service, so I thought I’d share it with y’all as well.

If you prefer to watch a video, the service is on YouTube here. My part starts around 36:34, but check out the other two mini-sermons before and after too, if you have time…and/or the awesome sung version of the Lord’s Prayer at 25:35…and/or just the whole service.

We’re going through the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) line by line, and the line for this week was “your kingdom come, your will be done.” My hope is that these reflections feel relevant to this week, including the grand jury’s failure to satisfy justice in regard to the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, as well as Senate Republicans’ plan to try to replace RBG on the Supreme Court before the election.

Here’s the mini-sermon! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

One of the things I think is really cool about this line of the Lord’s prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done,” is that the Greek verb translated “come” is a verb of movement. Real, physical, location-in-space kind of movement.

It’s a really common verb, one that’s used all the time for various comings and goings. The same word that’s used for things like “Jesus went to Capernaum,” or “Liz came home from Fred Meyer.” (That one’s not in the Bible, but it’s the verb that would have been used.)

It’s not just “the coming kingdom” in terms of time, as in, “wait for it…it’s coming…someday…maybe? keep waiting…” It’s not just “yeah, God’s kingdom will come…in the end times”―Left Behind-style, for anyone willing to admit to having been into that. It’s not these things. 

It’s “we want God’s kingdom to move―to really move―more fully into our realm of existence, in a tangible way, here, and now.” 

This verb can also have to do with making an appearance, like coming before the public. I like this image―maybe when we pray together “your kingdom come,” we are saying that we want to see God’s kingdom make an appearance. Sometimes it’s so hard to see. We’re saying we want to see it. We want to see God’s kind of reign make a public appearance.

It’s also a really strong verb tense here, almost like we’re commanding the kingdom into showing itself. Almost like we’re speaking it into moving, into making itself known―and speaking ourselves into awareness of this kingdom. We’re saying, we want to see this kingdom where we didn’t see it before. Your kingdom come.

I want to acknowledge that the word “kingdom” can be kind of a weird word, or a loaded one. Maybe it sounds kind of patriarchal, or imperialistic, or colonialist, or anti-democratic, or just odd and antiquated. 

I looked up some other ways the Greek word for kingdom might be translated, and one of them, that I kind of liked, was “royal power.” The kingdom is a matter of royal power

So, when we say “your kingdom come,” we’re saying that we want to see power operating differently from a lot of the ways we see it operating when we look around us. We’re saying, the ways in which power is exercised and taken and stolen and hoarded and used and abused in this world are not working. They’re not good. We want something different. Let a different kind of power come. Let power operate differently among us.

In the Sermon on the Mount, which is where the Lord’s Prayer is situated in the book of Matthew, we see Jesus dreaming out loud about all sorts of ways power could operate differently from how it often does in our world. 

We see Jesus speaking of a kind of royal power that belongs to the poor in spirit (that’s Matthew 5:3; in a passage that mirrors this one, in Luke, it just says “to the poor”).

We see Jesus speaking of a kind of royal power that belongs to those who have been pursued and persecuted on account of justice (that’s Matthew 5:10). Theirs, too, is power. 

And when we pray “your kingdom come,” we’re saying that these are the kinds of directions we want to see power move in: toward people who are poor, toward people who pursue justice to the point of being penalized for it by the systems and structures of injustice.

As Jesus goes on in the Sermon on the Mount, we see him continue to flesh out his vision of what power could look like. 

We see that he envisions people―all sorts of ordinary people―empowered to refuse to treat others with contempt. Empowered to be reconciled with others. Empowered to cut out things that bring evil into our lives. Empowered to be loyal to our commitments in relationships. Empowered to speak simply and honestly. Empowered to give generously of what we have been given. Empowered to love even our enemies and the people who persecute us, and to pray for them―which doesn’t mean we excuse what they do or stay in abusive relationships, but that we say, the cycle of hatred ends with us. (This is all following pretty closely with the Sermon on the Mount up to the Lord’s Prayer.)

When we pray “your kingdom come,” we’re saying we want to see this kind of power―on the move, rising up, making a public appearance, in our world, now. We want to see Jesus’ kind of light-shining, evil-exposing power; Jesus’ kind of healing, restoring, transforming power.

We’re saying we want this, urgently. We’re saying we want this, desperately.

When mind-bogglingly large areas of the US West Coast are on fire, and people are displaced and losing homes and dying, and we’re all covered in unhealthy smoke from it, we pray: God, let your kingdom come. The ways our nation engages with this beautiful, resilient, and fragile earth that gives us life are not good. We need a different kind of kingdom; we are desperate to see power move in different ways. 

When our reality is full of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown and immigrant lives and bodies, we pray: God, let your kingdom come. God, the ways our nation terrorizes people and communities who are beautiful and beloved and made in your image are not good. It dehumanizes all of us. We need a different kind of kingdom; we are desperate to see power move in different ways.

When powerful people’s words are full of hate, and when media sources misinform and lie, and when social media algorithms manipulate us behind the scenes, and when powerful people attempt to sabotage elections to stay in power, we pray: God, let your kingdom come. We need a different kind of kingdom; we are desperate to see power move in different ways.

When a global pandemic, and powerful people’s mishandling of it, takes so many lives, and so many more lives than necessary, we pray: God, let your kingdom come. We need a different kind of kingdom; we are desperate to see power move in different ways.

So, then, when we get to the “your will be done” part of the prayer, I don’t think we’re talking about a demure, shrinking, submissive: “well, I don’t really know what’s right or good, so…whatever you want, God.”

I think we’re talking about storming the gates of heaven―about being much more demanding with God than many of us might feel comfortable being or were taught to be. 

We’re talking about saying: God, we know you want justice. We know you want love. We know you want people to flourish and not to perish. We know you want us to take better care of this one earth you’ve entrusted to us.

We’re saying, we are desperate for all these things to happen. Please come and do them. Please help us be people who do them. Please help us be a community that does your will. 

We want to desire the things you desire, to want the things you want. We want to see your different kind of power on the move. We want to be aligned with the ways your kind of power operates, so differently from what we see. 

Let your kingdom come, your will be done.

Making Good Fruit

Make fruit worthy of repentance…already the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not make good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8,10)

When I think of a truly repentant person (myself or others), I tend to think of someone who feels really badly about something. Maybe there are heartfelt words of apology (not a halfhearted, duplicitous, or otherwise unsatisfying apology!). Maybe there are tears.

When the Pharisees come against John’s baptism, and John calls them a brood of vipers, John is not primarily looking for heartfelt words, or for tears. I’m sure these would have been reasonable signs that the Pharisees were starting to realize their wrong, but they are not the main thing John talks about.

John says he is looking for fruit worthy of repentance. For fruit that is good and healthy, not rotten or poisonous (like a brood of vipers).

He is looking for the Pharisees not just to say, “oh wow, the ways I’ve been drawing lines around who can and can’t experience God, and where God can and can’t be experienced, are really bad, I feel really badly about that,” but also to make a real change in their actions.

When I think about Christians repenting and making good fruit, I think about what feels to me like a growing awareness among white people that racism is still alive and well and hideous and horrifying. Repentance, here―at least for white people (the only people I can speak for)―means not just admitting the reality of racism and feeling sad or angry or guilty or whatever we might feel about it, but also actively seeking to root out racist attitudes and policies, both within ourselves and in our communities and spheres of influence. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I think about climate change, and I wonder if perhaps now the evidence is so strong that (at least some) people who previously wrote it off as liberal fear-mongering are taking a second look. Repentance, here, means not just feeling afraid or sad that we have all done this to our world, but actively seeking ways to work toward healing our earth, and trying to limit our own contributions―and the contributions of our companies and communities―to climate change. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I think about churches’ postures toward LGBTQ people. A lot of Christians recognize now that gay conversion therapy is harmful rather than helpful―poisonous rather than healthful―as exemplified by (the ex-gay nonprofit) Exodus International’s closure and its president’s apology a few years ago. Repentance, here, means not just feeling bad about the harm caused by conversion therapy, but actively seeking ways to make churches into places that are actually safe and healthy for LGBTQ people. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I don’t mean to say that God doesn’t love us or forgive us for these sins (and others) unless we do something different, but rather that good fruits naturally grow in the soil of real repentance.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s descendant Rob Lee preaches and writes about addressing racism in faith communities (check out Andre Henry’s podcast). Christian ethics professor David Gushee, who formerly defended the so-called “traditional” sexual ethic of marriage between a man and a woman but then changed his views upon being part of a Christian community that included a lot of LGBTQ people and gay couples, wrote a book about it (Changing Our Mind) in the hope of helping the church more broadly re-examine its attitudes and policies. This is good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

May we wrestle with God about what good fruits, fruits worthy of repentance, look like in our lives and communities.