Answer To

I’m thinking of all the evangelical leaders who say ridiculous and harmful things, and wondering if all the ordinary Christians who listen to them know that they don’t have to – that just because someone is a pastor or has a big following (or a lot of media attention) and claims the Christian name doesn’t mean that what they are saying is true or good or helpful.

Drawing on my last post, about God empowering ordinary people, I think God wants us to be empowered to use our brains and hearts and human compassion and empathy – and our own reading of Scripture with all these things in mind – to determine what kinds of leaders we choose to follow.

Answer To

I’d like to know 
what kind of god you answer to

behind that smile 
you grab to coat your face
before you leave the house,

your real thoughts locked away 
on shelves 
beyond my reach―

and all of this, you say,
is leadership.

I’d like to know, because
if he is not a god 

who shares himself in humbleness,
who gives himself in tenderness
and sees the ones 
who cry to him for justice, 

then I want nothing 
to do with him.

If he, like you, knows only 
how to smile and not to weep, 

and if he laughs at things that 
make me want to turn the tables 
on their heads in holy anger―

if he does not bleed a screaming 
river from his side 
as you wield scripture like a knife,

I’d like to know―

because, if so, 
this god you answer to
is not a god I want to know.

And, surely, with the sureness 
in my soul,

I do not answer to you.

Empowerment and authoritarianism and the armor of God, with shout-out to the Black Panthers

Here is one way I might translate Ephesians 6:10-17 (emphasis added):

(10) Henceforth, (y’all) be empowered in (the) Lord and in the strength of his ability. (11) (Y’all) put on the whole armor of God for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil; (12) because the wrestling, for us, is not toward blood and flesh, but toward the rulers, toward the authorities, toward the world-rulers of this darkness, toward the spiritual things of evil in the heavenly places. (13) On account of this, (y’all) take up the whole armor of God, in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day, and, after accomplishing everything, to stand. (14) Therefore, (y’all) stand, after girding y’all’s loins in truth, and after putting on for yourselves the breastplate of justice, (15) and after shoeing the feet in readiness of the good news of peace, (16) in all things taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil; (17) and (y’all) receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is a word of God.

As you may have gathered from the italics I added, I got interested in what these verses have to say about power. In particular, I thought it was interesting that the Greek word δύναμαι tends to be translated a bit more weakly than it needs to be.

δύναμαι is used three times in the eight verses above, so it seems pretty important. On top of that, a closely related word, ἐνδυναμόω, is used in v. 10 (also italicized above).

In most translations, δύναμαι is rendered here as “can” or “is able.” In the NIV, for example, the relevant phrases read:

  • “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (v. 11)
  • “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground” (v. 13)
  • “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v. 16).

I’m not saying I think this is a bad translation, but I am interested in the fact that δύναμαι could alternatively be translated not just as “can,” or “is able,” but as “is strong,” or “is powerful.” It’s the word from which we get our English words dynamite and dynamic.

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to translate δύναμαι as “is dynamite,” as fun as that might be―boom!―but I do think it’s interesting to try to incorporate this idea of power into the translation. Thus, we might have:

  • “for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil” (v. 11)
  • “in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day” (v. 13)
  • “taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil” (v. 16).

I’ll add another one, just for fun, from the closely related verb in v. 10 (ἐνδυναμόω): “be empowered in the Lord and in the strength of his ability.”

I think sometimes Christians have the idea, even if we might not quite put it this way, that all power is reserved for God―and this means that we as humans aren’t meant to have any. We are meant to be small, and powerless, and weak, and frail, and all-around worm-like in every way.

But the God I believe in―and the God Paul believed in, back in the day―is not an insecure political leader who hoards power for himself and tries to keep others as small and powerless as possible. 

The God I believe in does not hoard power, but shares it. God’s ego is not threatened by the thought that ordinary humans might learn to stand and walk in their power. God wants to empower people. 

God wants people to be powerful―powerful to pursue truth (the belt), and justice (the breastplate), and peacemaking (the shoes). Powerful to stand up to evil and to resist unjust schemes. Powerful to hold onto faith like a shield and extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil. 

I think Paul wants people to know that this is what God is like. Paul wants the average, everyday churchgoers in the city of Ephesus to be empowered (v. 10). He wants them to put on God’s full armor so that they can be powerful (v. 11). 

Paul hopes that, in the “evil day”―in the times when the presence of evil is particularly obvious and oppressive―these ordinary people might be powerful to be part of the resistance (v. 13). And Paul has every confidence that these humble unassuming ordinary people will in fact be powerful (v. 16). 

I find this idea of empowerment via the armor of God particularly striking in the context of Paul’s immediately preceding words. Right before this passage, Paul speaks directly to both wives and husbands (Eph 5:22-33), both children and parents (Eph 6:1-3), and both slaves and householders (Eph 6:5-9). 

Whatever else we might say about these passages (and feel free to click the links above for some of my thoughts), at the very least, it is clear that Paul writes to a church full of all kinds of people, with all sorts of different amounts of power in the structures and systems of our world: husbands, who had a great deal of power in their marriages, and wives, who had very little; parents, who had a great deal of power in their relationships with their children, and children, who had very little; householders, who had a great deal of power in their homes, and slaves, who had very little. 

And now, when he writes about the armor of God, Paul makes no distinctions among any of these groups. He writes to the whole church, to everyone in it: I want you to be empowered by God. Whether you have all the power in the world or none of it, put on God’s armor, and be empowered. Stand up to evil. Resist oppression and hatred and deception and greed, wherever you see it. Truth, justice, peace, and faith belong to you. 

I am reminded of a slogan of the Black Panther Party: “All the power to all the people.” 

(I just learned this recently, from a documentary called The First Rainbow Coalition, which follows the story of alliances formed among the Black Panther Party and other working-class community movements in Chicago in the late 1960s or so, including a Latino group and a group of southern whites.)

I think sometimes (white) Christians are afraid of things like this. Not only because we tend to be racist―which we absolutely do―but also because we get nervous about the idea of people having power in general. Sometimes this is for good reason, as we have seen powerful people abuse their power and do a great deal of harm. Sometimes we want to limit power to the tiny group of people whom we think have really earned it.

But perhaps God knows that power can be so dangerous and awful precisely because it tends to accumulate in the hands of just a few―because, when we get a bit of it, we tend to hoard it for ourselves. 

Perhaps if power were actually distributed more evenly among more people―among all people―we would see less in the way of authoritarian abuse of power, and more in the way of ordinary people rising up to work together for the health and wellbeing of the community. 

I don’t think God wants us to think we are worms, weak and gross, always groveling for mercy and thinking we’re the absolute worst. I think God wants to empower us to figure out how to live in a way that honors God, other people, ourselves, and the natural world. I think God wants us to be powerful to be fully ourselves. Powerful to be about truth and justice and peace and faith and healing. 

This is not an easy thing. Often it’s easier to be small. 

It’s hard to stand―that’s why we need the “full armor of God” for it. But it is good. 

So, be empowered in the Lord. God shares God’s power―God’s awesome, good, truth-exposing, justice-seeking, peace-making power―with us. All the power to all the people.

We the People (American Lament)

We the People (American Lament)

Take a needle,

poke a hole in the 
American pipe dream,

and watch it all 

We the people 
never knew how to 

care for ourselves,
our neighbors,

let alone the ones that we
call strange.

We grasp with cowardice 
to table scraps 

of life, liberty, happiness,
like broken records 

that keep screeching 
“we are winning.”

We drench our dreams 
in destiny, like creamy 

white ranch sauce,
so manifest,

and love the hero’s journey 
like it’s ours.

We look, like children, 
for faith healers at the river

who can disappear our issues,
trip and fall 

in existential frantic rush
to save our souls.

We have our pick of saviors,
never fail 

to choose false ones,
while real ones we 

twist violently to make them 
what they never meant to be. 

We hold free speech
so precious 

as we shout down all 
the voices that might teach us,

ride our sacred cows 
like soapboxes

up to the ghost town 
on the hill

that never was a beacon
to the watching world.

We pile our things
around us in a huddle

as though they could

And if a rag-clothed rabbi
spit, made mud,

and offered it 
to put upon our eyes,

might we be brave enough
to open them?

To the people with power

In Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul gives a series of instructions to δοῦλοι (slaves or servants―people in a position of subservience or subjection), and then to κυρίοις (masters or lords―people in a position of power). 

Here is the passage in the NRSV translation:

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

I hope it’s obvious that this passage is, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable one. 

It has a hideous history of being used to try to justify chattel slavery in the US. It was spoken often by white enslavers to black enslaved people to try to keep them from rising up, running away, or expressing any other kinds of resistance to the brutal, inhumane system these white enslavers perpetuated.

I notice that (white) Christians now―likely either feeling guilty at some level about how the Bible was used to justify slavery, and/or in denial that this was the case―tend to read this passage with various sorts of disclaimers. Most pastors would likely say, “of course these verses don’t mean that slavery was or is okay! Let’s find another way to think about this.”

(This, by the way, is another reason I find it so galling when Christians read the immediately preceding passage, Ephesians 5:21-33, as a literal prescription for the way wives and husbands should relate to each other today, but then are unwilling to do the same for the verses about masters and slaves. It’s as if we somehow all just “know” now that slavery is wrong…but we’re not so sure about patriarchal marriage.)

I want to acknowledge the pain and awfulness these words about masters and slaves have caused. 

And, as I mentioned in my post last week about wives and husbands, I don’t want to excuse Paul for failing to push back against the hierarchical power structures of his time and place―for women, or for slaves/servants.

What I do want to do is offer some thoughts about these verses that might help push the church today in a better direction. To do this, I want to focus on verses 8 and 9. I want to focus on the “masters”―the people with power. 

In verse 8, Paul writes that whatever good thing each person might do, this he/she will receive from the Lord (literal translation). This, according to Paul, includes both enslaved people and “free” people―people without power and people with power. 

Then, in verse 9, Paul addresses masters. And he tells them to treat servants in the same way as, in Paul’s worldview, servants should treat them (literally, “do the same things toward the servants/slaves”). He then goes on to say, literally translated, that “their and y’all’s lord/master is in the heavens,” and that there is no partiality in this heavenly lord’s presence.

I’m not a huge fan of how Paul instructs everyone equally in these verses. He kind of tramples over and ignores the differences in power and social location between the slaves/servants and the masters/lords. 

But I do like how Paul addresses people with power. I think it’s worth paying attention to. What happens when we go back and read verses 5-7 with the “masters, do the same things toward the servants/slaves” part in mind? 

I’m thinking here of people in all sorts of positions of power. Employers, bosses, supervisors. Leaders and influencers of all sorts. City councils, judges, congresspeople, governors, presidents, and other elected officials. Police and military. Counselors and consultants. And, of course, pastors, elders, and other church leaders.

What “same things,” exactly, are these kinds of people instructed to do? How are they to think and act toward the people they lead and influence? 

Paul wants people with power to treat others with respect and fear, and to live with sincerity and singleness of heart (v. 5). To live their private lives in a way that matches their public persona. (Which, by the way, probably does not involve taking weird pants-unzipped pictures with your wife’s female assistant, and then giving an even weirder drunk-sounding non-apology for it.)

Paul wants people with power not to try to win others’ favor, but to do the will of God from the heart (v. 6). (I enjoy the literal translation: “not according to eye-service like people-pleasers”―two fun compound words in Greek.) Not just to be seen and make a good impression and move up the food chain―and not to be so concerned with self-protection and image management once on top―but to seek God humbly. To try to do what is right and good and just. 

Paul wants people with power to serve wholeheartedly, as if serving the Lord, not people (v. 7). To see their leadership not as self-aggrandizement, self-fulfillment, or an ego boost, but as service. And to be willing, whatever the cost, to choose to please God rather than people―one’s superiors, public opinion, etc.―when these two things conflict.

In the world of churches and Christian organizations, I think all this would involve leaders doing more (and deeper) soul-searching to figure out what it looks like to serve God in their context. Listening, broadly and intentionally and carefully, to the wisdom and experiences of people in the congregation. Digging beyond what was taught in seminary, what worked well for other churches, what people demand, and what wealthy donors want to fund. 

I think it would involve leaders caring less about what things look like and more about how things actually are. When it comes to race, for example, it would involve moving from questions like “do our website photos show lots of happy people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds?” to questions like “are the people of color in our congregation represented in leadership? Are they respected as important voices in decision-making? Do they feel free to exist and worship as they are, without conforming to white norms? Are they acknowledged and honored as thinkers, leaders, and co-creators of theology?”

I think it would involve, as one more example, leaders being more upfront about their churches’ stances toward LGBTQ+ people and relationships―e.g. whether the church prohibits openly gay people from serving and leading in various ministries, whether the church performs gay weddings, etc.. (And if a leader finds herself hesitant to own up to a particular stance, for fear that it would make the church look bad―for example, that a non-affirming stance might make the church seem unkind, unwelcoming, or judgmental―perhaps it’s worth considering whether this stance may actually be some of these things.)

I don’t want to excuse Paul from the ugliness of the way he takes master/slave relationships for granted. 

But I do want to see what would happen if more people with power started taking Paul’s instructions more seriously. 

I want to see the kinds of churches and communities we can build together when leaders live and lead sincerely, from their hearts―not to make things look good, like people-pleasers, but doing God’s will, as well as they can understand it, guided by love and justice, from the bottom of their souls. 

I want to see people with power using this power for good and not evil. 

And maybe, in this way, Paul’s words here―which have been used for such evil―can be turned around and used for good.

Y’all, be angry!

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time reading the NIV translation of the Bible, I was surprised when I translated Ephesians 4:26 from the Greek to find that it does not really say “in your anger do not sin” (NIV). It actually says, “be angry and do not sin.” (This is all in the second person plural, so one might say: “y’all, be angry, and y’all, do not sin.”)

Y’all, be angry! 

We live in a time when all sorts of racial injustices and government abuses of power are becoming―for more and more people―harder and harder to ignore. Perhaps this makes it an especially good time to seek out and hear the parts of the Bible that invite us to acknowledge anger and embrace it.

Anger is a normal part of the range of human emotions. It is a very appropriate response to the things that are very wrong in our world. And the Bible is not nearly as uncomfortable with anger as some of us sometimes are, or as some of our church communities and church leaders sometimes are.

Ephesians 4:26 reads, “be angry, and do not sin; let the sun not set on y’all’s rage.” 

Three quick side notes on this translation, for the real Greek geeks out there:

  • If you find the “y’all” distracting, try perhaps: “let the sun not set on your collective rage.”
  • I know “let the sun not set” isn’t really how we talk these days, but I wanted to clarify that this is a third person singular (“he/she/it”) command―referring to the sun―and not a second person plural command directed toward Paul’s hearers (like “be angry” and “do not sin”). 
  • I used the word “rage” at the end of the verse to reflect how this word comes from a different root from the word used for “be angry.” 

Side notes aside, I like that Paul uses an imperative (command) form to tell the people of the church of Ephesus, communally and collectively, to be angry. 

I also like that―and here I imagine Paul wouldn’t be averse to adding “as much as possible, as far as it depends on you” (to quote from Romans 12:18)―Paul prefers for these angry people not to find themselves still angry at the end of the day.

What it actually means to “let the sun not set on y’all’s rage,” though, is not exactly clear. But I think it means something more, or something different, from what we might be tempted to think, or what we might have been told: just forgive and let go. 

It seems connected to verse 31: “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (That’s from the NIV; a more literal translation could read, “all bitterness and wrath and anger and brawling and slander, let it be taken away from y’all, with all malice”―which I kind of like, because the passive voice makes it feel more like a prayer than a command). 

Given this context, it seems that Paul wants the church community to be angry without destroying themselves in the process by giving in to the kind of bitterness that takes root, and grows, and finds expression in things like brawling and slander, and tears apart communities. Paul wants them to be angry, but not to hold onto malice. 

This is all easier said than done, of course. But I think the general idea is that Paul wants the Ephesian church community to be angry without self-destructing. Paul wants to see them support one another and speak truthfully and heal wounds and thrive together, anger and all. 

I think an important part of all of this is to seek out ways to meaningfully express the anger that we hold. To―actively and urgently―seek out ways to try to right the wrongs that cause us to be angry. 

Not only is this the right thing to do, but it is also a more effective way of “letting the sun not set on our rage” than trying to just let go and move on. For the things that anger us deeply, is it really possible to just set these things aside and go to sleep? Can we really just let it go―all in one day? 

When we try to do this, we often end up suppressing our anger―which is both unhealthy for us and less than loving toward the people around us, as our repressed anger tends to burst out in harmful ways at other times.

Perhaps we are not meant to just try to stop being angry by the end of the day, but, instead, to not let another day go by without doing something with our anger―something healing, right, and good. 

This is what Jesus did in Mark 3:1-6. Jesus wanted to heal a man’s withered hand, but the religious leaders did not care about the dude and his hand. They just cared about what it would look like if they let Jesus do that on the Sabbath. They were waiting for Jesus to do something that looked bad, something they could accuse him of. And Jesus got angry at them (v. 5). Then, immediately, Jesus asked the man to stretch out his hand, and the man did, and Jesus healed him.

Jesus got angry―and then he moved urgently to do something good with that anger. Something healing and liberating for the man―and, at the same time, something that messed with the worldview of the powers that be (so much so that they went away wanting to kill him, as Mark 3:6 tells us.) 

This is what “be angry and do not sin; let the sun not set on y’all’s rage” looked like, for Jesus, in that moment. 

Maybe for us, in the moment we live in today, “be angry and do not sin; let the sun not set on y’all’s rage” looks like protesting. Maybe it looks like finding other meaningful ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Maybe it’s getting angry about something racist, sexist, etc. that we witness at work, or at church, or in other settings―and not letting the sun set before we take appropriate action in response. That may mean seeking out the person affected by what happened and expressing support and affirmation, and/or speaking with the person who made a racist comment, and/or bringing the matter to HR, and/or something else entirely. 

Christians sometimes speak about anger as if it’s a bad thing―as if the goal is to try to get rid of our anger, through prayer, or community support, or singing a lot of soothing worship music.

But I think that our goal as followers of Jesus, when it comes to anger, is not to be less angry, but to be angry in ways that align more closely with God’s anger. 

The goal is to get more angry about the things God gets angry about―things like inequity, needless suffering, dishonesty, racism, mistreatment of immigrants, misogyny, murder, rape, abuse of power, religious exclusion, spiritual abuse―and to figure out what to do with this anger.

And the goal is to let go of the other kinds of things we might tend to get angry about―things that are less about equity among people or flourishing among communities and more about our own ego, or convenience, or preferences. 

So, as Paul would say, y’all, be angry! Be angry about the right things. And, before the sun sets, find something good to do with that anger.

Blow Up the Shelter (Apocalypse)

Thinking of the situation over the last few months with Menlo Church (see this article for what seems like a pretty reasonable summary), and also just the general tendency of a lot of church leaders to cover up things that might seem incriminating rather than actually search for truth and try to do the right thing by their people. This goes, of course, far beyond the particulars of Menlo Church and the Ortberg family. (Their story, by the way, is still unfolding, with a new investigation announced yesterday.)

Thinking of the people who are the most vulnerable when churches and church leaders don’t do the right thing―in this particular case, children and LGBTQ+ people, as well as all the church members who put their trust in the church’s leadership and feel betrayed―and praying for comfort and strength for them in this time, including the courage to cut ties if need be.

Also, in case you needed a little gratuitous Greeking out, I mean to use “apocalypse” in its original Greek sense, which is a revelation―a revealing of things that were hidden.

Blow Up the Shelter (Apocalypse)

blow up the shelter
blow up the lies


it’s time to show
    that it was never safe
    that there was never any hiding
from a changing world

and who exactly wants to hide 
from changes that are good?

blow up the megachurch abuse 
blow up their cover-ups


it’s time to show
    the stench that lies within
    the clammy muck stuck on the underside
of shiny shells

so tear it down

why not?
and what precisely do you fear?

and did you think God’s people would
    keep standing here 
    like little lambs 
who do not know you slaughter them?

did you think they would 
    keep circling up like wagons 
    to defend you while you 
slit their children’s throats?

blow up the iron-fisted secrecy
blow up the blind obedience


it’s time to show
    the blood of children 
    hear their cries
break open all the closed church doors

why wouldn’t we?
what do we have to lose?

it’s time to show our scars
    our filth 
    our infestations
let the surgeons do their work


or would we rather dig a hole 
and wait as if there were 
a normal worth returning to

bury our heads 
under this sand
and fester underground
and die?

These Lines

I resonated with much of Austin Channing Brown’s recent post about “unity” to her e-mail newsletter “Roll Call.” Austin encourages her readers to be aware of ways we might be asked to participate in a kind of unity that works against justice rather than for it. You can check out the post here if you’re interested – it’s worth reading.

This poem, entitled “These Lines,” encapsulates some of my reflections and points of resonance.

These lines are old, too old,
    like time etched into limestone faces
        monolithic and unmoved,
                unmoving, and

the face of founding father is
    the face of the slaveholder is
        the face of the confederate,
            the face of the white moderate,

the face of CEOs and pastors
    like priest-jesters choosing their captivity
        to live and serve in courts 
            of dying systems, and

these lips through all these centuries
    have uttered the same words, 
        lines that have lived too long
            like dreams deferred

like blasphemies still spoken after
    time has shown them lethal lies 
        too many times.
            These lies still dress in power,

clothe themselves in tones of wisdom, 
    yet upon examination 
        show themselves thin masks 
            for white supremacy;

and yet we’re trained to trust,
    trained to believe
        the ones who speak 
            with sincere eyes and

faith in their own goodness that runs deep. 
    So speak, keep speaking, 
        if you must, these lines,
            of ships so large that take so long to turn,

of donors we must not offend,
    of increments and evolution,
        the survival of the institution,
            and the need for patience, always patience;

keep on speaking, speak your violence,
    do not leave it silent―
        speak it, do not prop it any longer
            on soft lies of innocence, 

speak stress into the bones 
    that can’t afford to wait another day 
        for justice, won’t be put off 
            one more generation and 

another still; keep speaking 
    all your lies, for as you speak 
        you speed the day 
            we will no longer listen,

speed the day we will no longer stand
    and lay the gift of our participation
        at the feet of shit-filled institutions
            that have lost, or sold,

their souls.

Predestination is not that interesting

Over the last couple years of studying Greek―three quarters at Fuller and then studying on my own since then―my vocabulary has reached the point where I know every word that is used at least ten times in the New Testament. 

So, when I translate, I tend to plug along until I come across a word or two I’m not familiar with, and then I hit up my old friend for help. Sometimes I translate merrily away on my own for several verses at a time (I see you, John―as far as New Testament authors go, he tends to be the easiest to read); sometimes there are several words within just one verse that I need to stop and look up (oh hello, Paul).

I share this just to give a bit of context for an observation that struck me recently as I translated the first chapter of the book of Ephesians. 

The observation is this: I was surprised to notice that I had to look up the meaning of the word προορίζω, often translated as “predestine.” As in, “in love [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5, NIV). 

(The “sonship” part doesn’t actually need to be gender-specific…but that’s another issue for another time. Thanks, NIV.)

I was surprised that I didn’t know the word―surprised that it’s used in the New Testament less than ten times (to be precise, it’s used a whopping total of six times)―because it’s kind of a crucial word in a lot of people’s theology. I wonder how much air time it gets in a lot of churches, seminaries, etc.―whether arguing for it or reacting against it―compared to how much it’s actually spoken of in Scripture.

In προορίζω’s six appearances in Scripture, the sense is that God has determined (at least some) things before they happen. Or, God has (at least in some cases) set some limits in place and holds what happens within those limits. Or that God, existing in eternity, not bound by the ways we think about time, has said that some things will or won’t happen, and that’s how it is.

This is a fairly innocuous way of putting it. I don’t think many people who believe in God would disagree with these things. It’s a fairly weak way of putting it, compared to what Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote about when he wrote about predestination, and what many churches staunchly believe today―but that’s the point. Why would we both speak of predestination more strongly than the apostle Paul does and put so much more emphasis on it than Paul does? 

Maybe this observation is just interesting to me because I’ve never been terribly interested in debating about predestination vs free will, or Calvinism vs Arminianism, or what have you. (I fit in really well in seminary…) 

It all seems like a lot of unnecessary distinctions, and perhaps sometimes an unwillingness to hold and honor the complexities and paradoxes of life as the complexities and paradoxes that they are.

So maybe I’m just reading my own biases and interests (or lack thereof) into the observation that προορίζω isn’t used very often in Scripture. But maybe it’s significant that the writers of the New Testament were perhaps not all that interested in it, either. 

Maybe Christians would be better off spending less time arguing about predestination and more time pursuing, with focus and urgency, the things the New Testament writers speak of many times more often―for example, justice (δικαιοσύνη, often translated righteousness, used 93 times) and peace (εἰρήνη, used 92 times). You know, the kind of words seminary students learn in first quarter Greek, because that’s how crucial they are to the message of God in the New Testament.

Here’s to getting more interested in the things the New Testament writers were interested in, and less interested in the things they found less interesting.

“White Blessings”

As Lecrae said in response to Louie Giglio’s ridiculousness, “This needs to be a time when [white evangelicals] listen and learn, and not a time when you’re leading” (see this Washington Post article about last week’s “white blessings” debacle if you need some context or aren’t sick of reading about it already).

Some thoughts, in poem form:

"White Blessings"

I don’t want to hear about “white blessings”
really, I don’t want to hear anything at all from

white male pastors who started thinking about race yesterday
and talk today like we should listen

they talk this way because people have always listened 
always looked to them as leaders

but they’re not the ones I want to follow
I don’t care about their vision and

I’d rather not keep watching them keep scrambling
keep backpedalling pathetically to try to not seem racist

throwing words against the wall to see what sticks
not one speck interested in changing the meaning of it all

and I don’t want to hear them say that black lives matter
while every inch of their theology screams otherwise

corroborated and condemned by the unbothered way they walk 
on through a world that opens every door for them and bows

and I don’t want to hear them talk about enslavement
as if they’re not quite sure whether to be thankful for it

and I don’t want to see them pretend that white people
can enter into conversations about race and be

anything but awkward or do anything but stumble through
so very much in need to listen and not lead

so very much in need of grace and real correction
the kind we might in fact receive 

if we admit how desperately we bumble
how short-sighted our vision, how unfit we are to lead

and empathy aside, I do not want to think that one
who claims spiritual leadership might actually believe

that we could take racism’s material rewards and
weigh them against the way it tears apart our souls

or wonder for a moment if white supremacy could be
in any world anything but a deal with the devil.

Evangelical Pastor John

And the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him,“Teacher, what should we do?”

He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:10-13)

I’m trying to imagine John the Baptist preaching in a typical US evangelical church today.

John stands under a big hipster-looking cross next to a screen that still shows the chorus of the last praise song, and he starts talking about broods of vipers and fleeing the wrath to come and bearing fruit worthy of repentance and the ax lying at the root of the trees (see Luke 3:7-9, or Matthew 3:7-10). In the awkward silence that follows, someone sitting in a pew near the back yells out what everyone is thinking but is too polite to say: what then should we do?

US evangelical pastor John would probably tell them: “It’s really simple. All you have to do is pray and invite Jesus into your heart.” Or: “You have to confess your sins and ask Jesus for forgiveness.” Or: “Just believe in Jesus and give your life to him.” Or: “Come on up to the front of the church during the altar call.”

The crowd, or the congregation, might then say, “Okay―but all of these things are kind of vague. What does inviting Jesus into my heart mean? And coming up to the front of church and getting prayed for―do I have to? What exactly does that do? And what comes next after all these things?”

US evangelical pastor John might respond: “Okay, great! These are really good questions. I’m so glad you’re asking these things. Let’s get into some of the specifics of the Christian faith.”

What are these specifics? Maybe: “It’s as easy as ABC. A: admit your sins to Jesus. B: believe that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. C: confess your sins, and confess your faith in Jesus.” (Have you heard that one?)

Or evangelical pastor John might say: “Let me tell you about the Roman road. It’s the path to God.” (As this website puts it, it’s a “well-engineered path to salvation.”) He might say something like, “Romans 1:20-21 says that we are part of God’s glorious creation. Romans 3:32 says that we are sinners who fall short of God’s glory. Romans 5:8 says that, even so, Christ died for us, making a way for forgiveness of sins. Romans 6:23 says that God gives us eternal life through Jesus. Romans 10:9-10 says that we can have this eternal life if we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.” (How about this one―have you heard something like this?)

Or evangelical campus minister John might say: “Do you know God personally? Let me tell you about the four spiritual laws. 1) God created you and wants you to know him personally. 2) People are separated from God by sin. 3) Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection is the only cure for this separation. 4) When we individually receive Jesus as Lord and Savior through faith, we can know God and experience God’s love personally.” (Does this sound familiar?)

The crowds ask, what then should we do? And John the Baptist (actual John the Baptist, not hypothetical US evangelical pastor John) says none of these things. There is no ABC, no Roman road, no four spiritual laws in a neat little pamphlet with cute illustrations.

Instead, John the Baptist offers simple instructions regarding what people should do. He talks about what it looks like to bear the kinds of good fruit that God desires. John talks about how we live.

To the crowds in general, John says, whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. And to the tax collectors, who often abuse their authority by gathering more than the required amount and pocketing the difference, John says, collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.

These instructions are pretty different from the standard evangelical answers to questions like what then should we do?―which generally involve believing a set of propositions, praying some words of a sinner’s prayer, and then (if we talk about the “and then”) reading your Bible and praying and going to church regularly until Jesus comes back or you die and go to heaven. Oh, and in the meanwhile, try not to swear, or drink too much, or do drugs, or have sex outside of marriage.

Evangelical Christians sometimes have an allergic reaction to anything that sounds like do this or don’t do that (with some exceptions, like swearing/drinking/drugs/sex, which we are often perhaps a little too focused on not doing―or on trying to prevent other people from doing). We look at the elaborate legal system God gave the Israelites in Exodus and Leviticus and think, “I have no idea what’s going on with most of these laws. God must have just given them to show us that we could never live up to God’s perfect and impossible standards, that we’re all sinners and need Jesus’ forgiveness. The Jewish people may have laws, but we Christians just have our belief in Jesus.”

The question of what exactly Christians are to make of the laws in the Hebrew Scriptures is a complicated one (and beyond the scope of this reflection). But John’s prescriptions for the people who come to him wondering, what then should we do, are not complicated. They may not be easy, but they are simple. And they are doable.

For us, as for the crowd, sharing our coats and food and other material possessions, when we have them, is something we really can do. We come up with all sorts of reasons and excuses not to, because we’re selfish―but we can do it. It might involve trying harder to build friendships and community across socioeconomic lines, and there are all sorts of barriers to that―but we can do it. It might require us to fight against deeply ingrained assumptions that we earned everything we have, and we deserve everything we have, and if other people don’t have enough, they must just not be working hard―but we can do it.

And for us, as for the tax collectors, choosing to work with integrity in our jobs is something we really can do. We can choose to say no to all sorts of opportunities to cheat, extort, exploit, and otherwise deprive people of money in order to build more wealth for ourselves. It might not always be easy, and it might mean a smaller paycheck―but we can do it. In the context of a company whose culture and ethos is to exploit others, it might even cost us our jobs―but we can do it.

When John says these things, he intends for people to actually do them. They are not just impossible standards that we can never live up to, meant only to help us understand that we need a savior. John really wants people to live in a way that is more generous and less greed-driven. When people ask what they should do, these are the things he talks about. It’s more than just praying a nice-sounding prayer or believing in the doctrines of the Roman road.

John says, the ax is at the root of the trees. Good fruit matters. What does this good fruit look like? Among other things, it can look like sharing what we have with others, and it can look like refusing to participate in exploitative economic practices.

May we hold these things in our minds and hearts, this Advent season and beyond―whenever we find ourselves wondering, what then should we do?