Magi, Wisdom, People Younger Than Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace to you this week.

Liz

Advent prayer: Release

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

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

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

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

Here’s the poem/prayer:

Release

God,

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

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

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

What would release mean?
Is it in our power?

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

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

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

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

God, hold us in the release.

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

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

God, provide safe people, 
safe spaces for release.

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

Because we’re all a lot.

God, release us into freedom.

Amen.

Reflections on 20 years of friendship

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

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

Dear Blevins, Tanya, Tommy—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Switch those seats (reflections on Luke 14:1,7-14)

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.

But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

-Luke 14:1,7-14

This week I’ve got another (longer version of my) lectionary reflection from the church eblast for y’all—on taking up space, adopting a learning posture, expanding our circles, and questioning the assumption that some people cannot repay:

In our scripture passage this week, Jesus has two things to say. The first is for people invited to a banquet. Don’t sit in the place of honor, he says. Sit instead at the lowest place. The second is for those hosting a banquet. Don’t invite those who can repay the invitation in turn. Instead, invite those who can’t.

These are instructions born out of a world pretty far removed from my own. I don’t immediately relate to this idea of seats of honor—or, in the Greek, it’s possible that this refers to a whole different room, or at least a different table, where the most valued guests are seated. 

I also don’t readily connect with the idea of throwing a banquet for the people Jesus calls the poor ones, the maimed ones, the lame ones, the blind ones. For one thing, that sounds like it calls for more house space than I have on hand. The best I generally have time and energy for is inviting a couple people over for brunch. (My husband Ken makes a mean buttermilk pancake.)

The only time I’ve really come close to throwing a banquet was when Ken and I got married. But we made a seating chart and had everyone pick up a card with their name, table number, and dinner order on it as they walked in, so that everyone would know where to sit. No one needed to be moved from a more honorable place to a lesser one, or vice versa. Problem solved. (Although all of our guests pretty much fell in the “friends and relatives” category, so I suppose we didn’t exactly follow Jesus’ second instruction.)

I wonder if—for those of us for whom throwing massive feasts and being invited to such feasts is not necessarily part of our everyday lives—the specific context of a banquet is not the only way for us to understand what Jesus is saying here. I wonder if his words could be taken as a broader life philosophy—relevant, really, whenever we walk into a room. I wonder if they’re more about our general mindset as we approach life and show up in community.

We might not be explicitly ranking people by level of honor and seating them accordingly. But when we gather, there are certainly those who take up more space and those who take up less space. There are certainly those who walk into a meeting expecting to speak whenever they feel like it and be heard, and there are those who expect to mostly listen, perhaps speaking only when spoken to.

Cathy Park Hong’s words from Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning have stuck with me: “The man or woman who feels comfortable holding court at a dinner party will speak in long sentences, with heightened dramatic pauses, assured that no one will interject while they’re mid-thought, whereas I, who am grateful to be invited, speak quickly in clipped compressed bursts, so that I can get a word in before I’m interrupted” (p. 185). 

Maybe this is one way the idea of seats with more or less honor plays out in our world today. Who feels free to speak their mind, and to do so at their own pace? Who is struggling to get a word in? How can we all be more mindful of these dynamics so that those who tend to dominate can learn to make more room for others, and those who feel insecure can learn to speak confidently?

When Jesus invites us—and particularly those of us who would not naturally assume we belong there—to take the lowest place, I see this as an invitation into a posture of learning. I’m reminded of theologian Willie James Jennings’ reflections on “the tragic history of Christians who came not to learn anything from indigenous peoples but only to instruct them, and to exorcize and eradicate anything and everything that seemed strange and therefore anti-Christian” (After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, p. 37). 

Christians as a group have often seated themselves at the head of the table. How different our relationship with the world around us would be if we learned to sit in the lowest seat—if we learned to engage with our broader communities as people here to learn, here to listen, here to serve. Not here to judge or instruct, and certainly not here to control or to try to eradicate anything we don’t like. We want to walk into rooms with a posture of humility and openness.

When Jesus talks about what to do and not do—or really, who to invite and not invite—when you’re hosting a banquet, then, maybe we can think about this too in the context of how we show up in community. 

Jesus invites us to expand our circles. To think beyond the people who immediately come to mind as the first people we want to hang out with. To take the risk of reaching out and trying to make a new friend—not knowing whether or not this person will be able to “repay” us in whatever ways are meaningful to us. 

More than just being open to expanding our circles, though, I think Jesus also invites us to consider what we’re hoping to get out of a relationship, and to be willing to hold these things loosely. We’re not just looking for a transaction. We’re not just looking for what we can get from others. We’re looking for a genuine, mutual relationship. 

Personally, I doubt that the host who throws a banquet and only invites those who supposedly can’t repay them really doesn’t receive anything in the process. They might not get a banquet invitation back—because who has the resources for that these days?—but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something in it for them—in a good way. The guests may have been written off by a society that only values people for their money or beauty or status, but I have no doubt these folks have stories and gifts and personality quirks and character qualities the banquet host would be honored to be in the presence of—not to mention just enjoy.  

It’s a matter of learning to see differently from how our capitalistic society sees. In God’s beloved community there is no ranking of people. There is no one unworthy of a seat at the table.

Those who come to the table thinking they don’t belong are assured that they do indeed belong. And those who come to the table with their own agendas and arrogance and assumptions are invited into a different way of being.

Peace and belonging to you this week.

Why do you worry?

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin… -Jesus (Matthew 6:28, NRSV)

Here’s another angle on Jesus’ words about worry: What if Jesus’ question why do you worry? isn’t a purely rhetorical question? What if it’s an actual invitation to ask ourselves: why do we worry?

Many of us have likely learned to hear this question as something akin to, stop that worrying right now, y’all. You shouldn’t be worrying. Or even, maybe, it’s unfaithful to worry. Faith-filled people don’t worry. Jesus tells us not to worry. So we shouldn’t worry. End of story.

I wonder, though, how it would change the narratives we tell ourselves (and hear, and tell others) if we took Jesus’ question at face value. Maybe he really is asking what it sounds like he’s asking. Maybe his question—why do you worry?—isn’t an exhortation to beat ourselves up for worrying, but, rather, a real invitation to explore the reasons why we worry.

We might follow Jesus’ lead and ask ourselves: what kinds of things do we tend to worry about—and why? What are we worried about right now, and why? 

What is going on in our souls when we worry? In our minds, hearts, bodies, spirits? In our relationships, our work, our community?

We might ask ourselves, what are some of the fears behind our worries? What do we fear losing? What do these fears reveal about us—about what or whom we love and value, what or whom we care about deeply? 

Who knows—maybe some of these questions can help unearth passions, steering us toward the next faithful step in our lives. Maybe they can help us become more aware of what’s going on in our souls—maybe a need for rest, or alone time, or reaching out to a friend. 

We can share our worries with trusted people in our lives and perhaps find some healing or solace in the sharing. And as we dig deeper into all the things that lie behind our worries, we might find ourselves able to share more of ourselves and our journeys. We can better articulate where we’re at, what’s important to us, what we need.

As we explore these kinds of questions, we might even find insight into what might actually help us worry less. (Hint: it isn’t pretending the worry isn’t there.) Maybe we realize we need to ask someone for help with something. (For many of us, this is truly revolutionary.) Maybe we realize we want someone to text us when they get where they’re going, so we know they’re okay. Maybe we realize that we’re worried about money but we also aren’t very aware of where our money is going, and it might help to sit down and make a budget or revisit an existing budgeting process. 

These kinds of questions can also operate on a bigger picture level. Why do we worry—not just about ourselves and our own circles, but also about others beyond these circles, about our communities, about our world? 

Every time we look at the news, there are more things to worry about. There is so much to be anxious about—and legitimately so.

At the same time, we all experience and process these things in our own unique ways. We might find ourselves worrying more, or less, about different things. Maybe the things we are most anxious about are also a hint toward the good we could do, the things we deeply want to make better, the things to dig into and see if we might be able to make a difference—even if that difference feels like a very small one. 

Perhaps the question why do we worry? is an opportunity to reflect on our worries, to bring them to God in prayer, to share them with trusted friends and community members. To look them in the face. To be aware of them. To experience freedom from the shame we might feel about them. To accept them—that they are something we carry, and that is okay. It’s part of being human in a world where there is so much to be anxious about.

Maybe it’s not so much worry in general that we want to avoid, but unexamined, ignored worry. Worry shoved under the rug, stuffed and forgotten—but not really—on a tall shelf, hidden in a closet. It’s this kind of anxiety—the unacknowledged, unprocessed kind—that eats away at us. And this is what I think Jesus wants to free us from.

In taking a closer look at our worries, we may find a kind of freedom. It might not be the kind of freedom where we never worry again. But maybe there’s another kind of freedom—the kind where our worries are aired in the open, given breathing room, acknowledged, accepted, understood, held together in community. 

How does it change things to take why do you worry? as an honest question from Jesus—as an invitation to reflection rather than a chastisement? Holler with your thoughts!

How Far We Were

How Far We Were

I did not know 
    how far we were 
        from one another

til 2020 blasted into light
    the light years that had always 
        been between us,

like a looking glass 
    intent on showing
        wrinkled scars 

where we expected to 
    see youth. 
        Sometimes 

I wish I did not know
    how much we do not hold 
        in common. 

Before, 
    when we were younger,
        and the world was, too,

we felt we could afford 
    to talk of high and lofty love
        as though it were a concept

academic and abstract. 
    It was a more naive
        and happy time when I

had no idea what shape 
    these thoughts would take
        incarnate in your hands.

Before,
    we could agree
        on pleasant-sounding thoughts

in inoffensive-sounding words,
    but this year’s traumas
        tipped our hands

and pushed us toward specifics.

Yet, it must be better, still,  
    to know, to see 
        which friendships

can survive these storms
    and which were always built 
        on something sinking.

It must be better, still, 
    to learn to speak
        the things we really think,

to learn to talk about
    the things we see 
        so differently―

and where we cannot talk, 
    perhaps to let our journeys drift,
        for now, apart.

We could not live forever, anyway,
    in blind denial of the things
        each other’s souls

truly believe.

It must be better to reveal,
    apocalyptic though 
        it may all feel,

and be.

Each one with their neighbor

Here is a literal translation of Ephesians 4:25: 

“Therefore, laying aside falsehood, (y’all) speak truth, each one with his/her/their neighbor, because we are members of one another.”

I’m interested in the part about speaking truth, each one with their neighbor.

Some translations try to make this part sound more natural in English, which is nice, but can also change the meaning a bit. For example:

  • “Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor” (CEB)
  • “Each of you must…speak truthfully to your neighbor” (NIV)
  • “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors” (NRSV)
  • “Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (ESV; yes, some translations do still use masculine pronouns to refer to any/all genders…)

I like the literal translation “speak truth, each one with their neighbor,” because I think it captures something that gets missed in the other translations. It captures the sense that there are two, perhaps equally important, levels to this truth-telling. The truth-telling that Paul is talking about is, at the same time, both very communal and very personal. 

As for the communal aspect, the imperative “speak truth” is addressed to the plural “you” (“y’all,” if you will.) Paul wants the community to be marked as a community of truth tellers: to, collectively, hold a high value for truth. To try to get to the bottom of things together when the truth seems murky. To refuse, together, as a community, to settle for nice-sounding, comforting lies. 

I would love to see more churches embody this more fully. When it comes to race and racial justice, for example, we would see church communities becoming the kinds of courageous places where truth is spoken, heard, and believed―truth about things like the brutal parts of our country’s history, and Christianity’s culpability in it all, and what it’s like to be a person of color in our communities and churches today. 

Paul invites the church, collectively, to lay aside falsehood: to ditch the sugar-coated versions of US history many of us have been taught; to drop the sanitized stories about where our predecessors as people of faith were in all of this; to stop repeating false narratives of progress that refuse to recognize how bad things still are; to reject the tendency to look to white, male, powerful sources for “objective” coverage of history or present-day reality. To move away from shallow, one-sided stories and seek, instead, multiple perspectives, listening especially carefully to people on the underside of power, and people most impacted by the issues at hand.

Paul says: y’all, collectively, lay aside these lies. Y’all, collectively, speak truth. Y’all, collectively, become a truth-filled community.

And then we get to the individual aspect, the personal aspect. We want to do this collectively, Paul says, but the way―or at least one important way―in which we want to do this is “each one with their neighbor.” Conversationally. Starting with the people closest to us―geographically, relationally. With our families and friends and co-workers and other people we interact with on a regular basis. 

Perhaps, thinking about today’s conversations about systemic racism and racial injustice, this supports an idea a lot of people have already been saying (and living out): that we start within our own racial or ethnic communities. 

Anti-blackness manifests differently in different racial and ethnic communities. It’s up to each community to look within itself, to start within itself, to name the ways anti-blackness shows up and figure out how to dismantle it. 

When we think about race, it’s up to us to start with the people with whom we have the most in common in this particular conversation. It’s up to us, each with our own neighbor, to speak truth.

It’s (relatively) easy to make statements on social media that sound good and sound supportive. It’s harder to learn to speak the truth, in love, with one another, personally. 

But the people we know personally might listen and engage in a way they wouldn’t with a Facebook “friend” they don’t know very well. They might learn something from us, and likewise us from them.

After all, as Paul goes on to write, we are members of one another. We belong to one another. We are connected to one another. We need one another. And we need the most honest, truthful self that each person is able to bring to the table.

May we become truthful communities, among which truth is spoken and heard, collectively. May we become individuals who speak truth personally, each one with our own neighbor. And may all of this truth-telling help begin to build a more just world.

I Do Not Wish to Perform My Grief

A poem reflecting on George Floyd’s murder, the subsequent protests, and my hope to stand in solidarity with my Black siblings in their weariness, grief, and anger.

I Do Not Wish to Perform My Grief

I do not wish to perform my grief
as if it could be part of a persona
crafted carefully to please and curry favor, 
as if it wasn’t real and raw.

I wish to honor memories of
lives locked in as targets of police,
locked up by racist structures and
those willing to execute them,

yes, execute, another murder,
another life destroyed by the
perverse pseudo-logic of 
white supremacy, all-pervasive,

suffocating, not dysfunction or 
anomaly but locked from the beginning 
in our nation’s DNA. 
I shed my tears in private and 

do not know what to do when 
people talk about it like it’s just 
another distant bad thing on the news
and not our sin to claim. 

I’m not the type to weep and wail 
on a Facebook wall, a perfect pose, 
mascara dripping down a made-up face,
that’s not my style, but I will 

walk with you, and hold your grief,
and not paint thinly over it with platitudes
or try to force it into shallow resolution.
I will be angry by your side, 

a quiet rage that burns into the night
and understands why protests sometimes
color outside bounds of order
drawn by whiteness. 

I will not move on too quickly 
or affix myself to the convenient lie 
that white supremacy is only real 
and violent and destructive 

just a few times every year, 
just when it’s captured
on an iPhone for the internet to see.

I do not wish to perform my grief, 
but I will let my weariness hold yours, 
let you embrace me if you wish, 
or stay away―I understand.

In all these things I have 
no interest in attempting 
to police the ways you grieve.