Wild Jesus: the Jesus that John did not make up

Here’s a pretty literal translation of Revelation 1:9-20:

(9) I, John, y’all’s sibling and fellow sharer in the afflictions, and kingdom, and steadfast endurance in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (10) I was in a spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a great voice like a trumpet, (11) saying, “that which you see, write in a book and send to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

(12) And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me, and, after turning, I saw seven golden lampstands, (13) and in the middle of the lampstands, one like a child of humanity, having been clothed in a garment reaching to the feet and being girded across the breasts with a golden sash. (14) And his head and hairs were white like wool, white like snow, and his eyes like a flame of fire, (15) and his feet like burnished bronze, like they had been burned in a furnace, and his voice like a voice of many waters, (16) and, having in his right hand seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face shines like the sun in its power.

(17) And when I saw him, I fell to my feet like a dead one, and he put his right hand on me, saying, “do not fear; I am the first one and the last one (18) and the living one, and I was dead, and see, I am living, forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades. (19) Therefore, write the things that you saw, and the things that are, and the things that are about to happen after these things. (20) The mystery of the seven stars which you saw on my right hand and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”

I’m struck by how wild this description of Jesus is. There is nothing gentle, meek, or mild about it.

He’s got lampstands lit with fire, and blazing white hair, and eyes like a flame, and feet like they’ve been through a fiery furnace, and a face that shines like the sun at its brightest. Did I mention fire? 

He’s got a voice that sounds like a trumpet (v. 10)…and also like many waters (v. 15), like an ocean. Either way, it’s loud.

I spent a lot of time earlier this week working on a sermon on Luke 1:39-45, in which the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, and Elizabeth greets Mary by “crying out with a great clamor” (v. 42). Luke literally uses three different Greek words here to try to describe just how loud and clamorous Elizabeth’s voice was. 

More on that to come―I’ll likely post the text of the sermon here next week. 

But John’s description of Jesus’ voice reminds me of Luke’s description of Elizabeth’s voice. It’s loud, clamorous, like a trumpet. (Not sweet and melodious like a clarinet…and no, as a clarinet player, I’m not biased at all.)

Since we are coming up on the Advent season and Christmas and all, maybe it’s also worth pointing out that Jesus has to tell John, do not fear―just like the angel Gabriel had to tell Zechariah (Luke 1:13), and Mary (Luke 1:30). Apparently, angels are hella scary. And so is the resurrected Jesus, at least in John’s vision.

The description John gives of Jesus sounds to me a little bit like a description you might try to give when something is, in fact, not at all describable. Every feature of this Jesus is shining brightly, and yet is also clearly visible. He’s got seven stars in his right hand―casual―and a sword coming out of his mouth.

It reminds me of the angels that Ezekiel sees in a vision and tries to describe―the ones with wheels and lots and lots and lots of eyes (see Ezekiel 10:9-14). One gets the sense that Ezekiel was trying to describe something so strange and abstract and dream-like that a coherent description was beyond him. 

I kind of like that Jesus has such a stunning, intense, wild appearance in John’s vision. I kind of like that he’s so terrifying that John can’t help falling on his face in terror. I kind of like that he’s beyond description.

These kinds of things give me hope that perhaps John encountered something Barbara Brown Taylor might call “the God I did not make up.” 

(If you aren’t familiar with Barbara Brown Taylor, she is a former Episcopalian priest, former “World Religions” professor, and the author of several delightful books. Or, if you prefer her own words, which are more fun than mine, she is a “Writer, Speaker, Spiritual Contrarian”―the tagline of her website.)

In her book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Barbara offers the reader this definition of spirituality from a friend of hers: spirituality is “the active pursuit of a God you didn’t make up.”

Sometimes people make up images of Jesus. In my experience, at least, these made-up images tend not to look like the Jesus John describes. 

When we make up images of Jesus, they tend to look like us. And, since Europeans and people of European descent have dominated so much of Christianity for so long, that means that there are a lot of images out there of a Jesus who looks awfully like a person of European descent. It’s harder―not at all impossible, but harder―to find an image of Jesus that has hair like wool (v. 14) and feet the color of burnished bronze (v. 15). 

This is an image of Jesus that John did not make up. With all of its fire and flames and double edged swords and great voices like many waters, it’s an image that startles and terrifies him. But it’s real. 

There’s so much wildness in all of this. So much that’s beyond our control, beyond our full understanding. 

Not only is Jesus’ appearance wild and hard to describe, but when he speaks, he says that the seven lampstands around him represent seven churches (v. 20) located in seven different cities (v. 11), and that the seven stars he holds in his right hand represent the angels of those churches (v. 20). This is also kind of wild.

It’s an intense but also kind of cool way to think about churches: each church―in some sense, whether literal or figurative―has its own angel.

Barbara Brown Taylor has some thoughts about this part too. This is from another lovely book of hers, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith:

Every church really does have its own angel, I think. Some of those guardians are still burning brightly, while some have lost their tail feathers and others are dead though not yet buried. Sometimes all you have to do is walk through the door of a church and sniff the air to know which is which. When I was deciding whether to go to Grace-Calvary, an experienced friend of mine gave me his advice. ‘Be sure you like the people,’ Bill said; to which I would add, ‘Be sure the angel is alive’ (pp. 217-8).

It’s interesting to think about this―not just in first century Asia Minor, but here and now too. In some sense, there may be some kind of unique spiritual entity that dwells in, characterizes, watches over, and empowers each church―an entity that is a bit wild and a bit beyond our understanding, but that is also real, and good, and vital to the life of that church.

I’m not totally sure I know what Barbara Brown Taylor means about sniffing the air. I’m not at all convinced that every person who walks into a given church would have the same sense of whether the angel there is thriving, or surviving, or sick, or dead, or dying. 

But I do think it’s worth thinking about. To use Barbara’s words, is the angel of your faith community “burning brightly”? Has it “lost [its] tail feathers”? Is it “dead but not yet buried”? What would these things mean―for your church, or whatever church came to mind when you thought about this?

I wonder if this line of thinking could help us get at some deeper questions about churches and their spiritual vitality than we might normally ask. If we’re talking angels, we’re talking something beyond all the programs, the staff, the production quality of Sunday services, the slickness of the marketing, the quality or style of the music, the pastor’s public speaking ability, the number of people who attend the church.

We’re talking about the spiritual vitality at the core of the community. How open people are to God’s wild, unexpected, sometimes terrifying presence among them. How open they are to seeing Jesus in places and people they don’t expect―to catching glimpses of the God they did not make up, the God who refuses to fit inside their boxes. 

May we embrace the wildness of this Jesus we did not make up. And may we embrace the mystery of the seven stars and seven lampstands, the angels of the churches.

Beyond Judging Doug: a mini-sermon on the parable of the talents

I had another chance to give an eight minute mini-sermon at (online) church this past Sunday. The text is below if you’re interested, or feel free to watch the video here. My part starts around 39:57. Esther Lee before me (starting around 33:43) and Michael Won after me (starting around 48:44) both have great things to say―it could be worth listening to all three perspectives on the parable if you have time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. What did you find interesting or helpful in the sermon? What questions does it raise? How do you make sense of this gnarly parable in your own life and community?

The Bible text is Matthew 25:14-30. Jesus is talking to his disciples here. Here’s the NIV translation of it:

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 26 His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.28 So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Here’s the mini-sermon:

One of the things that’s kind of awesome about Jesus’ parables, and sometimes kind of confusing, is that they can be considered from so many different angles. We can find ourselves in different places in the story. We can read the same story at different times in our lives and find that we ask different questions of it, and it asks different questions of us. 

This morning, as we consider this parable, I want to explore the story from a particular angle: the perspective of the servant who was given just one bag of money. And, because “the servant who was given just one bag of money” is kind of a mouthful, I’m just going to call him Doug. (Because he went and dug a hole.) Let’s think about this parable from the perspective of Doug. 

So, we’ve got this rich dude, who has all these money bags lying around―you know, relatable―and he goes on a journey. Before he leaves, he entrusts a bunch of his money to three of his servants. I’m going to call the rich dude a “lord,” because that’s the language of the text.

The text doesn’t tell us where our friend Doug is while his lord is giving five bags of money to one servant and two bags of money to another servant. But I imagine them being all together in the same room. 

The lord speaks to each servant in turn, in full sight of the others, and says, “here, you take five bags of money.” Then, “here’s two bags of money for you.” Then, finally, turning to Doug: “here, take one bag of money.”

Maybe the lord even says out loud what the text says he’s thinking: “I’m entrusting money to you according to your ability.” In other words, this is what I think of you, what I think you’re capable of. This is how competent I think you are.

This is a short part of the story, but I feel like there’s a lot going on here. What would it be like to have the person you’ve worked for, maybe for a long time, say, basically, this is what I think of you? I think you have, maybe, one fifth of the ability of this coworker, and, mm, about half the ability of this other one.

It can be easy to judge Doug―to join his lord in saying, as he says later on, you wicked and lazy servant. But I also kind of empathize with Doug. I can see how he might think, well, my lord clearly doesn’t think much of my abilities. I don’t want to prove him right by taking risks with his money and maybe losing it all. I’d better not make any mistakes. I’d better just make sure he gets his money when he comes back. 

Don’t we sometimes live up to―or down to―others’ expectations of us? 

I can also see Doug looking around and comparing what he has to what the other two servants have. I can see him thinking: I’ve got nothing. I have nothing to work with here. What does he expect me to do?

The thing we can see easily, from outside the story, is that a money bag, or in some translations a “talent,” is, in fact, a lot of money. Scholars estimate that in this context it was equal to around six thousand denarii―a denarius being the average daily wage of a worker. 

So―if y’all don’t mind some quick math―if we take the Washington state minimum wage of $13.50/hour, and we assume an eight hour work day, a denarius would be $108. And one of the money bags in our story would be six thousand times that, so $648,000.

That’s a lot of money! Doug could have bought a house in some parts of Seattle. 

And yet, in these terms, one other servant was given $1.3 million, and the other, over $3 million. It would be easy for Doug to look around, and compare, and envy others who have more. 

But what if, instead, Doug was able to see past these things. To see the abundance of what he has been given. To dream of the possibilities of what he could do with it. 

Maybe he could have even dreamed together with the other two servants: what can we do with these collective resources we have? How could we put them to work to benefit our community? Maybe they could have put all their money bags together, and used all of their collective perspectives and skills and areas of expertise to decide together how to invest it. 

And maybe―especially if Doug really did in some way have “less ability” than the others―maybe the others could have seen that and offered to help. They could have said, Hey Doug. We have more experience managing money than you do. Would you like some help figuring out what to do with yours? Maybe we could eat dinner together tonight and we could brainstorm some ideas together.

This might sound a little over the top. But we talked about a similar thing with the bridesmaids from last Sunday, in the story Jesus tells right before this one―why didn’t the five prudent bridesmaids offer to share their extra oil with the five foolish ones? Are these three servants terribly different?

I also wonder, here, if Doug has considered this question: why did his lord choose to entrust his money to these servants while he went on his journey? Wouldn’t it have been safer to dig a hole in the ground himself, and hide all the money bags there? 

I wonder if he took this risk because he wanted to empower his servants by sharing what he had with them. Maybe he wanted to give them some significant resources to work with, and see what they could do. Maybe he wanted to see how his resources could be put to work for good in the community in ways he himself hadn’t thought of or hadn’t been able to do. 

I don’t think Doug was able to see these kinds of possibilities.

The text tells us that, instead of all these things that could have been, Doug departed. He goes off by himself, leaves the others, goes off to a place that only he knows about, digs a hole, and buries the money there―isolated from his fellow servants, or any sort of community.

Moving out of this story Jesus tells, and into our world today, we find ourselves still within the first two weeks after the US presidential election, and just over one week after the results were called. Many of us have been breathing a sigh of relief. Some have been dancing in the streets. Some might be skeptical or cautious, not quite ready to feel much of anything. Some might feel mournful about a lot of what we see in the news and where we’re at as a country.

Let’s continue to make space to feel any or all of these things, or however we might feel. And then, let’s get back to work. Let’s keep on putting what resources we have to work, for the good of our local communities, in all of their diversity and complexity and messiness and beauty. And there is plenty of good work still to do.

We might feel like Doug, with his one bag of money. We might look around and think, I don’t have much. Or, I don’t have what someone else has

Maybe in this time we’re being invited to resist these tendencies to look around and compare. To resist our tendencies to dig a hole in the ground and bury what we have―to make choices out of fear, or a scarcity mindset, or insecurities, or comparison, or isolation.

Maybe we’re invited instead to take stock of our resources, and to see that, collectively, we have resources in abundance: skills, and experiences, and abilities, and perspectives, and gifts, as well as material stuff. Let’s put it all to work―for healing and justice, in our communities and in our world.

Politicians, resistance, and Jesus the all-ruling one

In the earlier days of the pandemic, I decided to translate the book of Revelation from its original Greek. 

It turned out to go more quickly than my current project, the book of Luke. Revelation’s author, John, tends to use language that is (relatively) simple and straightforward in Greek. So, I’m not sure how many specifically translation-focused thoughts I’ll be sharing. But I do want to share some general reflections on some parts of the book. 

The year 2020 has felt like such an apocalyptic time, in so many ways. Perhaps it’s as good a time as any to take a(nother) look at the book of the Bible called the Apocalypse―Greek for Revelation.

I hope it’s helpful to reflect a bit on how this ancient apocalyptic text might connect with our time and everything that’s happening in the world―or at least in the US, since that’s what I’m familiar with. I’d love to hear your thoughts, reactions, questions, points of connection, points of objection, etc. in the Comments section. (Please call me out if anything I write sounds at all like Left Behind :).)

Let’s get started with Revelation 1:4-8. Here is my translation of it:

(4) John, to the seven churches in Asia; grace to y’all and peace from the one who is and who was and who is coming, and from the seven spirits, the ones before his throne, (5) and from Jesus Christ, the witness, the faithful one, the firstborn of the dead ones and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and released us from our sins in his blood, (6) and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and father, to him the glory and the dominion forever and ever; let it be so.

(7) Behold, he comes with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even whichever ones pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will beat their breasts in grief over him. Yes, let it be so.

(8) I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the lord God, the one who is and who was and who is coming, the all-ruling one.

I’m struck by John’s description of Jesus as the ruler of the kings of the earth (v. 5), and, similarly, as the all-ruling one (v. 8). This word all-ruling one―in Greek, παντοκράτωρ―can also be translated as Almighty, or all-powerful, or ruler of all. It’s used a total of ten times in the whole New Testament; nine of these times are in the book of Revelation. 

John seems to really like this word. Perhaps he especially likes this word in the context of all of the violence and destruction and woe and suffering he describes throughout the book of Revelation. As everything is changing, and lots of long-held things are falling apart, and lots of faces of evil are being revealed, and lots of people are suffering, and lots of earthly kings are being corrupt and brutal, somehow, Jesus is the all-ruling one, the ruler of the kings of the earth.

I find this kind of language comforting because my goodness do we have some “kings of the earth” who are less than one might hope for!

I think sometimes people take this all-ruling one kind of language in the Bible to mean that all earthly leaders are doing what God wants, all the time. That they’re appointed by God. That we should check our hearts and minds and consciences and intuitions and relationships at the door and obey these leaders, regardless of whether it seems right or wrong to us.

I’m not about that.

I don’t think that seeing Jesus as the all-ruling one means that everything that happens is God’s will.

What I do think it means―in John’s world, with all of its mercurial, cruel, self-interested Roman authorities, and likewise in our world today, with all of our mercurial, cruel, self-interested politicians―is that earthly leaders are not the highest power. They do not get to do whatever they like with impunity, even if it looks like that is exactly what is happening. 

I think the idea of Jesus’ all-ruling-ness, and his being ruler of the kings of the earth, reminds us that earthly rulers will be called to account. It reminds politicians and other powerful people that there is a power above themselves―and above anyone else they might be trying to impress or appease―to whom they will be held accountable. And it reminds the people stuck and suffering under the rule of these powerful people that there is one more powerful still―one who sees their suffering and will judge justly.

From this perspective―remembering that Jesus, not any earthly ruler, is the all-ruling one―I think we find ourselves empowered to resist any laws, decrees, rulings, oppressive language, etc. that comes down to us from earthly authority figures but does not embody the love and justice central to Jesus’ character. We can say, with Peter and the apostles in Acts 5:29, we must obey God rather than people. Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth

The spirit of Jesus can empower us to be loyal to Jesus’ authority above any other. This spirit can empower us to protest unjust laws, to try to change things where we can, to make room for voices that have been marginalized, to speak up for justice, to seek accountability for the powerful. 

God does not stand behind the actions of earthly rulers when these actions are empathy-less and cause so much needless suffering. God is not in agreement with these rulers just because they are powerful.

I also appreciate that these verses give us a picture not just of how much power Jesus has, but also of the kind of ruler Jesus is. John describes Jesus as the witness, the faithful one, the firstborn of the dead ones, and as the one who loves us and released us from our sins in his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and father (v. 5-6).

For John, Jesus is the witness―the one who sees everything, does not miss anything, and testifies truly about it all. The one who always speaks the truth. The one who never tries to twist or misrepresent or straight-up manufacture information to mislead others, gain support for himself, or push his own agenda.  

Jesus is the faithful one―the one who shows us what it looks like to serve a loving, compassionate, merciful, justice-bringing God. Jesus serves this God with complete faithfulness, to the end, regardless of the personal cost. 

Jesus is the firstborn of the dead ones―the one who gives us hope that death is not the end. Even, and especially, when earthly leaders enact policies that cause death.

Jesus is the one who loves us―the one who deeply cares about us and wants us to flourish. He is about love, not about self-aggrandizement, political ambition, or amassing power for its own sake. 

Jesus has released us from our sins in his blood―he empowers us to know that we are loved and forgiven. He empowers us to live a free and whole and loving life, marked by love and justice rather than greed, selfishness, envy, pride, and other sins. 

Jesus makes us a kingdom―he invites us to live out a different kind of power from what we often see in this world. (See my recent mini-sermon on your kingdom come, your will be done for more on this.) 

Jesus makes us priests to his God and father―he empowers us to see and know and be connected with God. And he empowers us to help others see and know and connect with God, as they do the same for us. He doesn’t hoard his priestly authority for himself.

All these things stand in contrast with so many of our earthly authority figures.

Jesus is the all-ruling one, and he is a different kind of ruler. This reality can give hope and comfort to those who suffer under earthly rulers, and can empower all of us to resist the injustice that comes down from these rulers.

As John writes in v. 6, to this Jesus be the glory and dominion forever and ever; let it be so.

Election Week Blessing

Because I wanted to be cool like Nadia Bolz-Weber (just kidding―I’ll never be as cool as Nadia!) and write some blessings of my own. (Check out Nadia’s beautiful “Blessed are the Agnostics” piece here, if you like. It’s really lovely.)

These words are loosely inspired by the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), and much less loosely inspired by a bunch of different pieces of news I’ve seen recently that relate to this week’s election.

Election Week Blessing

Blessed are those who stand and wait for hours
in lines that wrap around buildings and stretch into the street.

Blessed are those who take selfies at the ballot drop box
and do a little dance.

Blessed are the elderly whose bodies no longer move as they once did,
but who are determined to make it to the polls.

Blessed are those who receive death threats
and vote anyway.

Blessed are those who grit their teeth and vote for a candidate 
they did not choose and do not like.

Blessed are those who staff the polls and count the ballots.

Blessed are the postal workers.

Blessed are the employers who give people the day off to go and vote.

Blessed are the lawyers fighting legal battles for every vote to be counted.

Blessed are those who refuse to manipulate statistics
to make themselves look better, or to give false hope.

Blessed are those not too consumed by hubris
to admit when they have lost a contest.

Blessed are those who march to the polls,
stop and take a knee for eight minutes and forty six seconds, 
and are tear gassed by police.

Blessed are the Black Lives Matter organizers.

Blessed are those who hold vigil for lives taken violently before their time.

Blessed are those still in the streets after a hundred and fifty days,
who are desperate and will not stop knocking at the door of justice.

Blessed are those whose blood boils and hearts sink 
at the sight of Austin police officers posing with Proud Boys for a photo.

Blessed are those who have tried and failed to reform police departments.

Blessed are those who feared for their lives on that Biden campaign bus,
and those who felt sad and angry watching the video of the trucks surrounding it and trying to force it off the road.

Blessed are the white people who consider themselves recovering racists,
and who know the journey is a life-long one.

Blessed are the immigrants maligned as murderers and rapists,
called animals and hunted by a system that does not care about them.

Blessed are those who tremble at the thought of the results of this election,
because it might mean life or death for them or those they love.

Blessed are those who live among a violent people, in a violent nation,
and refuse to take up arms.

Blessed are the pastors willing to preach justice and hold out for real shalom,
though their congregants want to hear them say “peace, peace.” 

Blessed are the church leaders driven out of their jobs and their communities
because they refuse to toe the Republican party line.

Blessed are those less concerned with saving disembodied souls
and more concerned with living in a way that values every whole and complex person.

Blessed are those who sit in church pews and want to mourn the state of everything,
while everyone around them smiles and claps their hands to upbeat praise songs.

Blessed are the ones who know how to wail in lament.

Blessed are those who still have hope, 
and those whose hope is gone.

Blessed are those who have been gaslighted over and over again
and now know how to resist it,
and those who have not been able to resist.

Blessed are those who are not afraid to look at all these hard things.

Blessed are those who crave righteousness and truth and goodness
more than power.

Blessed are the poor, the mourners, the weak, 
the hungry and thirsty for justice, 
the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, 
the ones persecuted for their pursuit of justice.

Blessed are you.

Women, I Would Like to Call Forth

Women, I Would Like to Call Forth

Women, 
I would like to call forth
your holy anger.

Let it rattle the sidings 
of your churches―the ones 
that keep telling you to serve,
but do not serve you well.

Let it be no longer 
held constrained within your bones
in bonds unspoken, swept 
beneath the doormat to your soul―
the one they wanted you to be
as they kept telling you to sweep
and sweep.

Let it rise like yeast 
through sixty pounds of dough.

Let it boil and spill 
over the edges of respectability,
over the steaming rims 
of pots and pans
that do not hold you.

Let it fly forth until they can 
no longer put a cover on your head
like cloth over your face 
to stifle your unruly sounds.

Let there be words, so many 
words for every time they 
tried to shame you into silence.

Let there be tears, so many 
tears for every time they 
said they needed you to smile.

Let there be open confrontation,
exposed wounds for every time they 
turned to you, like Absalom, and said
don’t take this thing to heart―
for every time they wanted you to bow 
and place your fierce God-given power 
in their grasping hands.

Let there be squalls,
twenty-foot swells,
and Jesus in the boat 
who says with kindness,

you of little faith,
I made you for much more.

Won’t you turn and own the power 
I breathed into you.

Won’t you join me 
as I flip over the tables they 
have closed to you and 
make a whip and drive them out.

Yes,
with him,

women, 
I would like to call forth
your holy anger.

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.

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.

Late to the Vineyard

Is your eye bad because I am good?

That’s a very literal translation of the second half of Matthew 20:15, which is often translated or are you envious because I am generous? (e.g. NIV, NRSV).

I’m thinking about this story, which Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1-16, about several different sets of workers who end up working in the vineyard of a particular landowner.

The landowner goes out early in the morning to hire people and agrees to pay them one denarius at the end of the day. Then the landowner goes out again several more times throughout the day and hires several more groups of people, who end up starting work at different times, some as late as 5 pm.

In the evening the landowner gathers everyone together to give them their wages, starting with the people who were last to begin work, and giving them, surprisingly, an entire denarius, even though they only did a couple hours of work. The people who worked all day then expect that they will receive more than the agreed-upon denarius; but when it comes their turn to get their paycheck, the landowner gives them just one denarius―the same as the people who didn’t work nearly as long.

The ones who started work early in the morning complain that it’s not fair, after they bore the burden of the day and the burning heat (literal translation from v. 12), but the landowner replies, friend, I do not do you wrong; did you not agree with me on a denarius? (literal translation from v. 13). The landowner says, I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish among what is mine? Or is your eye bad because I am good? (literal translation from v. 14-15).

I think about this parable, and I think about the remarkable moment we’re living in, as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained enormous waves of new momentum―particularly among white (and in some cases other non-Black) people who are finally waking up to the reality that all is not well in US race relations, finally gaining the will to try to do something about it.

The negative side of all this is that some people and organizations make statements, post on social media, attend protests, etc. for the main purpose of not appearing racist, of not seeming to be on the wrong side of history. They voice their support for BLM because it’s the popular thing to do in this moment but do not actually intend to change anything about their lives or their organizations to make them truly anti-racist, to make them truly just.

But on the positive side, I think―or at least I really want to think―that there really are new workers in the vineyard. In this moment there really are―on a vast, societal level―hordes and hordes of people who are finally letting their eyes be opened to the truths our Black siblings have been living and speaking about for a long, long time. There really are hordes and hordes of potential new partners in the struggle for a different kind of world, a world of equality and embrace rather than prejudice and exclusion, a world of true justice and true peace. 

People who are new to the vineyard are often not yet very good at their work. They make rookie mistakes. They have a lot to learn. Sometimes they do more harm than good.

I wish it were not this way―and yet such is the process of learning how to do a new kind of work, of learning how to work in different ways, of unlearning so many assumptions and ways of being. Such is the reality of arriving to the vineyard―beginning to engage in the work of justice and anti-racism―late in the day.

Speaking on behalf of the only people I can speak for, white people, part of engaging in the work of the vineyard is to be open to being corrected; to look for ways to figure out what we don’t know; to look for opportunities to learn, and to engage in those opportunities with open-mindedness and without defensiveness; to look for ways to follow the lead of people of color who have been doing this work for a long time―who have, truly, in their own lives and for too many generations of their ancestors’ lives, borne the burden of the day and the burning heat. It’s to honor this work that has already been happening for a long time and to find ways to join in, without needing to try to take the lead or needing to pretend that our own work is somehow equal to it.

It’s to look for resources that offer ways of listening and learning that don’t further burden our friends of color by expecting them to teach us. It’s to look for fellow white people who have been working in the vineyard longer than we have, to ask them the questions we worry are hurtful or ignorant or offensive, to work together to unlearn the racism that lives within us.

It’s to do the kinds of internal work René Velarde names so candidly and thoughtfully in his recent blog post, To my White brothers and sisters. We must ask ourselves, as René writes, what did it take for us to wake up to racial injustice and our own white privilege and begin to speak? What has kept us from speaking up and engaging before? If we dig into these things now, René says, we will be better equipped to stay engaged in the struggle for justice in the future. 

I realize that the parable of the vineyard is by no means a perfect analogy to the present moment, particularly in regard to the image of people standing around doing nothing before the landowner invites them into the work. For white people in the US, I’m not sure there is any way of standing around and doing nothing. If we haven’t been actively working against racism, we have been perpetuating it. It’s the current that we swim in and the air we breathe, and we either fight it or are swept along with it―to the detriment of people of color and to our own humanity as well. There isn’t a lot of neutral ground.

But parables aren’t meant to be allegories, where everything lines up perfectly and represents something else. They’re meant to evoke something. To provoke thought. To challenge us and help us see differently, see more clearly. And in this case I think the story of the vineyard evokes some important reflection on what it might mean for long-standing justice movements to suddenly encounter so many new people who want to jump in.

My hope is that―as lots of us begin the work of racial justice for the first time and desire to work alongside those who have been engaging in the struggle for a long time―there is room for all of us, in the different places we are in in our journeys. 

I don’t think there is room in the vineyard for people who are pretending to work, who want to hang out there because it’s the cool thing to do or because it’s a way to avoid being criticized for standing around doing nothing. I don’t think there is room for people who are in the vineyard because they want to take selfies there and post them on Facebook. 

But I want to believe that there is room for all those willing to work, those willing to learn, to try, to be humbled, to make mistakes and grow and keep engaging. Even if, from the perspective of those who have been working since the early morning, they are woefully, horribly late to the party. 

For those who believe in the God Jesus speaks of―the initiator, inspirer, and rewarder of all works of justice―this God is the vineyard owner: offensively full of grace, unimaginably patient, extravagantly welcoming. May those of us who have been working in the vineyard longer than the last couple of hours have eyes that are discerning to see the people who really do genuinely want to join the work, and hearts that are open to welcome them in. 

This vineyard needs all the workers it can get.

John the Baptist’s Legacy

I don’t think I realized until last summer―when I was preparing a sermon on John the Baptist for a preaching class―how many things Jesus says that are actually direct quotes from John the Baptist, at least as recorded by the gospel writer Matthew.

First I noticed that right as Jesus begins his public ministry, in the chapter directly following the one about John the Baptist, Jesus says, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). This is exactly what John was saying in Matthew 3:2. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on repentance/confession.)

I got kind of interested in this, and so it caught my eye when a commentary I was reading mentioned the parallel; the commentary then noted that this isn’t the only parallel between John’s words and Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew.

It turns out that Jesus calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers,” twice (Matthew 12:34 and 23:33). Those are John’s exact words from Matthew 3:7. (See these two earlier posts for some thoughts on this viperly brood.)

Jesus also says, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). This is repeated verbatim from John’s words in Matthew 3:10. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on good fruit.)

Given all this, it’s no wonder that some people (including Herod) thought that maybe Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead!

What’s going on here? On one end of a gradient of Scripture interpretation (from more emphasis on God’s inspiration to more emphasis on the human writers), is Matthew just being lazy, or mixed up about who said what? Or, on the other end of that gradient, did God’s Spirit independently move both Jesus and John to say the exact same things?

It seems most likely to me that Jesus heard what John had been preaching―maybe when Jesus went to be baptized by John, or maybe otherwise―and he intentionally picked up and kept on propagating John’s words after John’s death.

This is certainly what it sounds like in Matthew 4:12-17: “now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee…from that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

John’s public ministry was over, and it was time for Jesus’ to begin. And Jesus began by quoting John―and he kept on quoting John, at different points throughout his three-year itinerant teaching career. Jesus took up John’s legacy and extended it.

I think it was like Jesus was saying, this John the Baptist guy―I’m not him, but I am with him. I’m behind everything he was saying. I’m here with the same kind of message, sent by the same God. The kingdom of heaven is near. Repent, believe, bear good fruit. Fear God, confess sins, receive forgiveness. Challenge the poisonous structures and systems and ideologies around you; don’t scheme and strategize as if God couldn’t raise up children from stones; don’t be a brood of vipers.

As we think about who Jesus is, and as we try (this Christmas and beyond) to wrap our minds around the crazy idea that the God who created the universe came to us as a vulnerable baby and lived among us as a human, may we remember that John the Baptist who came before him was not just some random weirdo out in the desert; rather, John was the person whose legacy Jesus took up and ran with.

When we seek to worship, serve, love, and honor Jesus, and to live by Jesus’ teachings, we are honoring the Jesus who honored John; we are following the teachings of the one who repeated John’s teachings. We are serving the one whose sandals John recognized himself as being unworthy to untie; we are worshipping the Messiah toward whom John lived to point us.

So, this Christmas day, happy birthday to Jesus: the relative of John the Baptist, who was baptized by John and listened to John. Happy birthday to Jesus, for whom John made paths straight. Happy birthday to Jesus, who, when he invites us to take up our crosses and follow him, invites us to follow John’s example and be faithful to God rather than human authorities right up until death―just as John was when he died at Herod’s hands.

Happy birthday to Jesus, and Merry Christmas!

Ps. Thanks for reading! It’s been very encouraging to see page view numbers greater than zero :D. Whether you’ve stuck with it all twenty-five days, or have checked in here and there, or are just checking it out for the first time today, thank you―your eyeballs on this page (just kidding, but really, your time and brain and heart processing these posts) really mean a lot to me. I hope something here has been interesting, thought-provoking, or otherwise helpful.

John and the Bethel Worship Leader’s Daughter

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:1-6)

Today I read this passage about John the Baptist and Jesus while thinking about Bethel worship leader Kalley Heiligenthal and her two year old daughter Olive who passed away last Saturday. Kalley, as well as Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, and other popular Christian musicians with charismatic leanings such as Kari Jobe and Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood, have been praying and asking Christians around the world to pray―and are still praying and asking people to pray, almost a week later―for Olive’s resuscitation.

Kalley posted on social media, “We are asking for bold, unified prayers from the global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life. Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for. It’s time for her to come to life.”

The passing of a young child is tragic. I can’t imagine the family’s grief, and I mourn for them.

At the same time, the response of people who believe a certain set of things about physical healing, including revival from the dead, is disconcerting.

Christians believe in a Messiah whom, as Jesus told John the Baptist in Matthew 11:1-6, gives sight to the blind, cleanses lepers, restores hearing for the deaf, brings good news to the poor…and raises the dead. And this Messiah says, blessed are those who take no offense at me.

Am I being offended at Jesus when I read about influential Christian leaders expecting (and influencing others to expect) a two year old to be raised from the dead, even after almost a week in the morgue, and I think not so much “what faith!” as “what lunacy”?

Or perhaps, “what denial”―and if denial is part of the grieving process for the family, I think I understand. But I feel angry that so much of the charismatic Christian community around this family is pushing them to stay in that denial rather than making space for them to acknowledge and grieve their loss.

What do we do with all this in conjunction with what Jesus said about the dead being raised?

One thing to note, which I think is really important, is that Jesus’ words are in direct response to John’s question about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus is not answering the question, “how should Christians respond to death?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might imply that we should keep praying for resuscitation as long as it takes. He is not answering the question, “what should a normal Christian life look like, in the US, two thousand years in the future?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might set up an appropriate expectation that untimely losses like Olive’s would be reversed on a regular basis.

Rather, Jesus is answering the question, “are you the one who is to come?” And he says, in effect: yes, I am that one. I am that Messiah, even if it doesn’t look like what everyone expected. I am the one who brings healing, and power, and life, and good news for the poor. I raise the dead as a sign that points to these things.

Jesus is the Messiah―God incarnate, God dwelling among us. Jesus has powers that we do not have. We can pray for miracles, and I absolutely believe that God still does miracles. But we do not have the power to control when or whether or how miracles happen. We do not have the ability to say with any authority something like, “it’s time for her to come back to life.” We are not the Messiah.

John the Baptist must have known this. After all, Jesus came (among other things) to set the prisoners free (see Luke 4:18-19)―and yet there John was, having to send his followers to Jesus with his questions because he himself was stuck in prison. Part of me wonders if John began to feel uncertain about whether Jesus was the Messiah because John expected that a Messiah could and would have gotten him out of jail.

Jesus the Messiah came to set the prisoners free―and yet John was thrown in prison and remained until the day of his death.

Jesus the Messiah came to raise the dead―and yet little Olive remains in the morgue, despite the fervent, days-long prayers of hundreds of thousands of charismatic Christians.

As much as we try and fail to comprehend death, and as much as we hurt from the pain of it, and as much as we may want desperately for our deceased loved ones to return, these things are ultimately beyond our control.

My prayer for Kalley and her family in this time, as well as for everyone else who knew and loved Olive, is for freedom to grieve. For love and support to surround them and flow freely, more than they ever could have asked for or imagined. For the loss of their daughter to be mourned in community, with lots and lots of listening ears and supportive shoulders to cry on, and no one suggesting awful falsehoods like “your daughter could have been raised if we had all just prayed longer or harder or had more faith.”

I believe that God walks closely with people who are mourning and grieving loss. God is present, somehow. Even if it doesn’t feel like it. Even when we have questions for God, even when we have things we would like to yell at God. God welcomes these things. God welcomes and holds our grieving selves, exactly as we are.

Christian hope―my hope, and the hope for Olive and her family―is for bodily resurrection into eternal life, the kind of resurrection that Jesus pioneered and now invites us into. The kind that does not come immediately, but when it does come, it lasts. The kind that looks forward to a day when Jesus wipes every tear from our eyes and dwells among us, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4).

Until then, may we hope in our Messiah. May we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). May we make space, for ourselves and for one another, to acknowledge loss and grieve it. May we pray and hope and keep wrestling with God regardless of whether or how our prayers are answered. May we face our grief and know that somehow God is with us as we do.