Advent prayer: Favor

A poem/prayer on the theme “favor.” Perhaps a loaded word depending on the church-y circles you may have been in. I’m wrestling with that here, as well as more generally what favor could mean in an unjust world.

Favor

God,

I don’t want the kind of favor 
where I have more and someone else has less.

I want your favor for everyone I know.

Favor in the good things they’re doing.
Favor in the good people they are, 
the good inside of them.

Favor to know they’re loved.

Favor that gives confidence 
to keep trying, keep growing, keep moving.

God, I don't know that I want unconditional favor.

I want the kind that will get my attention 
when I start to go the wrong way.

The kind that will direct and redirect 
my feet onto good paths.

I don’t want the kind of favor 
that keeps me happily singing Jesus songs
while my theology, my words, my actions, my attitudes 
make others suffer.

I want the kind of favor 
that opens up a new world.

Favor to level mountains and raise up valleys.

Favor such that all are valued, 
all live freely and in joy.

Favor toward a world where barriers, hierarchies, injustices 
are washed away.

Favor like the sun’s warmth 
after weeks of rain.

Favor like the smile of a baby 
who has not yet learned to distrust.

Favor that holds us together 
when everything falls apart.

Amen.

Unrelatedly, a few other updates:

Advent prayer: Open

Last Advent season, in 2021, I wrote a bunch of poem/prayers, responding to different daily one-word prompts offered by my church.

This Advent season felt like a good time to revisit these prayers and share some of the ones that still resonate. This one is on theme: open.

Open

God,
I want to be open 
with an openness that knows its boundaries 
and guards them zealously.

An openness that wells up from deep within 
and is not pressed or forced or manipulated.

I want to shut out so much.

I need to learn to shut out so much:
the insulters, the tired misogynist tropes, 
the name-callers, the actors in bad faith.

And yet, as I learn to shut them out, 
I want to be open.

Open to wonder. To awe. 
To the things I have yet to learn.

Open to beauty, to nature, to art.
Open to joy, to breaking open and being remade.

Open to challenge and correction 
from those who love me and are for me.

Open to letting people surprise me 
with their generosity, their kindness, 
their capacity for transformation.

There is goodness in the world.
It is not only sorrow.

God, in your extravagant profligate openness 
you created humans—
raw, unpredictable, glorious, fickle.

You know everything but were open 
to being surprised by us.

Help me be open to being surprised, too.
Amen.	

Are there parts of this prayer that you feel? Other prayers or reflections that come to mind when you think of openness?

On an unrelated note, this is what I’ve been up to writing-wise since the last update (and as a reminder, you can always go to the “on the web” page to see what’s new…or old…).

  1. Do Not Worry: A Communal Approach (Red Letter Christians)

For a while (like, October 2021 – Feb 2022), I was blogging a lot about the passage in Matthew where Jesus tells people not to worry. It started with a mini-sermon from church and then went all sorts of places, from worry as a good thing, to the feminine side of God, to what does and doesn’t add an hour to our lives, to what it might look like to learn from the wildflowers. And those are just a few.

Do Not Worry: A Communal Approach is a piece I wrote as part of that series and then thought, I wonder if someone wants to publish this one. Many months later, here we are!

2. On Hope: Prayers & Reflections (Christians for Social Action)

This is the first in a four-part series on the weekly themes of Advent (hope, peace, love, joy). It incorporates some of the prayers I wrote last year with new reflections on what these words might mean in our world. Featuring lots of engagement with activist scholars & writers.

3. When Clarity of Belief is Important (Patheos)

I wrote some things about my discomfort with belief statements and how they’re sometimes used – but of course everything is more complicated than that. When Clarity of Belief is Important adds a little of that complexity, particularly with LGBTQ+ people/communities in mind.

4. A Crisis of Authority – or, Life in the Mud (Patheos)

Starting off a series of reflections on how my views of authority (Bible, church, pastors, etc.) have changed over time. This post explores in a general way what crises of authority can look like…and how they can feel.

As always, thoughts about any of this are very welcome!

Super chill book review part 2: The Will to Change (bell hooks)

This is part 2 (of 2) of some reflections on bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Here’s part 1 if you missed it or want a refresher. 

The Will to Change was also very much on my mind as I was writing this essay, posted yesterday at Feminism & Religion: The People Who Have Always Had Questions. Check it out if you like.

Otherwise, since super chill book review thoughts #1-3 were in part 1, I’ll jump right back with…

4) I appreciate hooks’ clarity in laying out how exactly patriarchy harms men. It’s not only that everyone is harmed when women are prevented from flourishing fully, although this is true. It’s also that, in a world shaped by patriarchal thinking, men are subjected to violence, and they are expected to do violence to themselves. They are cut off from full humanity in their own way.

hooks explores the impact of patriarchy on boys during childhood; for example:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem” (66).

And she explores the impact of patriarchy on men during adulthood; for example:

“Men who win on patriarchal terms end up losing in terms of their substantive quality of life. They choose patriarchal manhood over loving connection, first foregoing self-love and then the love they could give and receive that would connect them to others” (72).

I thought this was an interesting way of framing things. Men are pressured to compete and win patriarchal contests that are not actually good for them. There’s a toxic construction of masculinity that’s at odds with real “loving connection”—both self-love and love shared with others.

For men, divesting from patriarchy entails healing from the “psychic self mutilation” that is pushed on them from a young age.  

I appreciate these perspectives, because I feel like sometimes we tend to think of justice in terms of one group with outsized power needing to hand some of this power over to those who haven’t had enough. But it’s not just that—it’s not just about men, or white folks, or other privileged groups giving up some of their privileges, although sometimes that needs to happen. It’s also about making a way for men (and white folks, etc.) to regain the fullness of their humanity—the self-esteem, the emotional richness, the loving connection, the love of self and others, all of which has been cut off by a violent system of domination that isn’t actually good for the ones trained to dominate.

5) I have a long quote for you. But at least it’s the last one? I would have made it shorter, but it’s just all so action packed… 

hooks writes:

“Many of the critics who have written about masculinity suggest that we need to do away with the term, that we need ‘an end to manhood.’ yet such a stance furthers the notion that there is something inherently evil, bad, or unworthy about maleness…

“There is a creative, life-sustaining, life-enhancing place for the masculine in a nondominator culture. And those of us committed to ending patriarchy can touch the hearts of real men where they live, not by demanding that they give up manhood or maleness, but by asking that they allow its meaning to be transformed, that they become disloyal to patriarchal masculinity in order to find a place for the masculine that does not make it synonymous with domination or the will to do violence.

“Patriarchal culture continues to control the hearts of men precisely because it socialized males to believe that without their role as patriarchs they will have no reason for being. Dominator culture teaches all of us that the core of our identity is defined by the will to dominate and control others…

“To offer men a different way of being, we must first replace the dominator model with a partnership model that sees interbeing and interdependency as the organic relationship of all living beings. In the partnership model selfhood, whether one is female or male, is always at the core of one’s identity. Patriarchal masculinity teaches males to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent for self-definition on the privileges (however relative) that they receive from having been born male. Hence many males feel that their very existence is threatened if these privileges are taken away. In a partnership model male identity, like its female counterpart, would be centered around the notion of an essential goodness that is inherently relationally oriented. Rather than assuming that males are born with the will to aggress, the culture would assume that males are born with the inherent will to connect” (114-117).

Whew. That’s a lot. But there’s so much good stuff there. 

I like this idea that we’re not looking for an end to manhood or masculinity, but an end to the patriarchal kind of manhood that harms people of all genders. We’re looking to transform the meaning of maleness. 

We’re looking to “become disloyal to patriarchal masculinity,” to find a new “place for the masculine” and new ways of being men. We’re looking to “replace the dominator model with a partnership model”—with interdependency, interconnectedness, and a healthy sense of self esteem at its core. We’re looking to assume males are born with the desire and need for connection, mutuality, and love. 

If you don’t mind a religious turn to a not-super-religious post so far, all these things—hooks’ visions of what a healthier, more life-and-love-affirming version of masculinity could look like—remind me of Jesus. 

In the Christian tradition, Jesus’ maleness is an interesting thing. God is not exactly male or female, but when God took on human flesh, that flesh was male. Some people use this fact to suggest that God was showing God’s preference for masculinity, perhaps demonstrating the naturalness and rightness of male authority in the world. Jesus’ maleness has often been among the arguments used to support solely male priesthood or solely male pastoral leadership. 

What if, instead, Jesus’ maleness was meant to call forth a better kind of masculinity—better than that of the patriarchal cultures Jesus was born into, and better than what we see in today’s patriarchal cultures as well? If any man was disloyal to the ways of domination—rejecting power plays, remaining true to his core self, partnering with others, respecting and loving others at every turn, always speaking peace and moving toward healing—surely it was the God-man who came to serve and not be served (Mark 10:45). The one who made sure everyone was fed. The one who made sure women knew they could be disciples as equals alongside men (Luke 10:38-42). The one who did not use his equality with God to his own advantage but embodied humility in every fiber of his being (Phil 2:5-11). 

Perhaps as we imagine healthier ways of being male—and just being human—in this world, we can look to the gospel stories. (And we can notice how at odds all of this is with the patriarchal evangelical masculinity Kristin Kobes Du Mez did such a great job of detailing in Jesus and John Wayne—super chill book review here and here.)

Well, as always, there’s a lot more that could be said. But I’ll leave it here, for now anyway. bell hooks has some hard-hitting words, and you might be thinking some thoughts and/or feeling some feelings. If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear about it!

Super chill book review part 1: The Will to Change (bell hooks)

I started reflecting on bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (Washington Square Press, 2004), and it got kind of long. So, here’s part 1! 

In all the “super chill book reviews” I’ve done so far (and I believe I’ve done twenty now in total—check ‘em out here if you like), I haven’t written yet about any of bell hooks’ books. In the last year or so, I’ve read All About Love: New Visions, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, and, mostly recently, The Will to Change

bell hooks is one of those authors I’d heard about and seen quoted a lot before I ever actually read any of her stuff. I’m very glad I started reading. Because quotable quotes are great, but they don’t begin to scratch the surface. There’s so much depth, so much insight, so much courage, so much omg that’s still true a couple decades later and I wish it weren’t but I’m glad she named it so directly and brilliantly

There’s also, at least for me, some I don’t know if I fully agree with that, but I’m glad she said it, because there’s definitely something there worth talking about. This is also valuable. 

So, here are some thoughts on The Will to Change, just because that’s the book I’ve read most recently—but I’d recommend them all. (And maybe there’s a bell hooks book—or something else related to these topics—I haven’t read yet that you’d recommend. If so, I’d love to hear!)

1) I was interested in how bell hooks writes about the separatist impulse that can sometimes arise in feminism. Personally, I haven’t really been involved in any separatist movements (is that still a thing, or is it more tied to the second wave feminism of a few decades ago?), but I do very much appreciate women-only spaces. 

I sometimes find men frustrating—certainly not all men all the time, but many men, much of the time. I really enjoy the chances I have to seek friendship, mentoring, perspective, advice, etc. from women. I think this is all good. 

At the same time, hooks writes, “It is a fiction of false feminism that we women can find our power in a world without men, in a world where we deny our connections to men. We claim our power fully only when we can speak the truth that we need men in our lives, that men are in our lives whether we want them to be or not, that we need men to challenge patriarchy, that we need men to change” (xv-xvi).

I definitely agree that “men are in our lives whether we want them to be or not.” And, of course, even though I’m very frustrated with the way many men often act, especially in groups and/or in positions of power, I also have connections with men that I value deeply. 

And so, I appreciate hooks’ perspective: the point isn’t necessarily to build female power apart from men, but to speak our truth about the ways we want to see men change—for our good, and for their good too.

2) This was an “oof” for me:

“The unhappiness of men in relationships, the grief men feel about the failure of love, often goes unnoticed in our society precisely because the patriarchal culture really does not care if men are unhappy. When females are in emotional pain, the sexist thinking that says that emotions should and can matter to women makes it possible for most of us to at least voice our heart, to speak it to someone, whether a close friend, a therapist, or the stranger sitting next to us on a plane or bus. Patriarchal mores teach a form of emotional stoicism to men that says they are more manly if they do not feel, but if by chance they should feel and the feelings hurt, the manly response is to stuff them down, to forget about them, to hope they go away…

The reality is that men are hurting and that the whole culture responds to them by saying, ‘Please do not tell us what you feel’” (5-6).

For any men out there—I’m curious how you’d respond to this. It kind of feels right to me, but…it’s not exactly my lived experience. 

When I read this, I thought about Brené Brown’s research and reflections on how men are shamed above all else for being (perceived as) weak—and how many men want to be more in touch with their emotions and more vulnerable in sharing their feelings with their loved ones, but their partners sometimes shame them for doing so. (Unfortunately I’m not totally sure which Brené Brown book this was in—maybe I Thought It Was Just Me?)

I wonder if men today sometimes get a mixed message—“it’s okay to feel feelings, I want to know what’s going on, you don’t have to hide it and be so stoic,” but also “oh, you have that feeling? I’m surprised by that and don’t know what to do with it, so I’m going to laugh at you or criticize you for it, or respect you less because you shared that with me.” Or something like that.

It was helpful for me to hear bell hooks frame this expectation of stoicism in terms of patriarchal thinking that harms us all. Being deeply concerned with women’s experiences and committed to calling out ways women are not regarded as fully human does not have to be at odds with paying attention to men’s pain, hearing how men are hurting, caring about their unhappiness.

Really, these things go together. Each gender’s different ways of becoming liberated from oppressive patriarchal norms help liberate us all.

3) hooks writes, “Despite the contemporary visionary feminist thinking that makes clear that a patriarchal thinker need not be male, most folks continue to see men as the problem of patriarchy. This is simply not the case. Women can be as wedded to patriarchal thinking and action as men…

Patriarchal thinking shapes the values of our culture. We are socialized into this system, females as well as males” (23).

I always appreciate—and, to be honest, often need to be reminded of—a hearty distinction between maleness and patriarchy. hooks has some helpful ways of writing about this. 

She is very clear that the issue is “patriarchal thinking,” and it’s a “system” we’re all “socialized into.” Women and men are impacted by it in different ways, and liberation from it looks different depending on gender (and other things)—but we all need to consciously choose to reject patriarchy, to divest from it, to change.

That’s all for now. More to come next week! I welcome your thoughts, as always. I know gender and patriarchy and masculinity are such complicated things, and I bet you have thoughts and/or feelings. I’d love to hear them (and will attempt to throw my subconscious expectations of stoicism out the window!).

Out there on the web: food security & well-intentioned patriarchs

Hi there. I realized I’m not always great about making sure everyone who might want to read things knows that these things exist. Particularly since I became a very late adopter of Instagram a little over a year ago, I use IG a lot (feel free to follow @lizcoolj and @postevangelicalprayers). But I know not everyone has an IG account, and not everyone who has an account looks at it regularly. (I fully encourage not being addicted to social media, and cultivating an IRL life—I guess that would just be an RL, if you will—outside of it!)

Anyhow, all this to say, I thought I’d start being a little more intentional about posting here to point your attention toward things I’ve written that appear elsewhere on the interwebs. I did sneakily make an “on the web” page a while back, where I’m keeping an up-to-date list of articles and such, so feel free to check that anytime as well if you’re looking for some reading material :).

But for now, I wanted to point you toward two recent pieces:

1) If a Person Doesn’t Work, Let Them Eat Anyway (Christians for Social Action)

There’s a Bible verse (2 Thess 3:10) that kind of sounds like it’s against some basic social safety nets for food security and such. In this article I unpack why I don’t think that’s actually the case. Like many parts of the Christian scriptures, there is more to it than meets the eye.

I felt like this was relevant especially in light of all the choices governing bodies (at national, state, and local levels) have been making about food-related safety nets—including universal free school lunches—as we emerge out of a time when COVID defined everything and into a time when COVID still very much exists but we’re all kind of in a collective denial about it. I would love to see our leaders resist the urge to pretend that COVID was the only source of all of our problems and inequities—and to think very carefully before slashing funding for programs that may have been initially sparked by COVID but are really just good ideas in general. 

2) Well-Intentioned Patriarchs Are Still Patriarchs (Word&Way)

I feel like the title of this one might sound a little odd, especially if you don’t spend all your time reading and thinking about patriarchy and such. (What, not everyone does?) So…better title ideas are welcome, in case I write something in a similar vein in the future!

In this one I tease out some of the implications of seeing patriarchy not just as individual men’s attitudes or desire for power, but as structures and systems that harm all of us. Sometimes it isn’t easy to talk about what I see as nice churchy patriarchy (and its devastating-ness) with my Christian female friends, and I think at least part of the reason is that Christians often tend to see everything both in individual terms and in terms of good vs evil. So basically it feels like calling out patriarchy is the same thing as calling individual men evil. 

This provokes cognitive dissonance, because we all know and love a lot of good-hearted, well-intentioned Christian men. Even the ones who perpetuate patriarchal systems—not because they’re power hungry, but because they think it’s what the Bible says and therefore the right thing to do. This article explores that dissonance.

I hope you enjoy one or both of these lines of thought! I don’t think either article (at CSA or Word&Way) is open for comments…which may be a good thing (nervous laugh)…but feel free to comment here and/or shoot me an email, as always. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

On wealth, poverty, and caring without being overwhelmed (reflections on Luke 16:19-31)

16:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.

16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,

16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

16:24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

16:25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

16:26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

16:27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–

16:28 for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

16:29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

16:30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

16:31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

-Jesus (Luke 16:19-31)

What a story Jesus tells. It’s a story that might raise some big questions: questions of heaven and afterlife, questions of hell and eternal conscious torment, questions of works and faith, questions of wealth and poverty and its relation to salvation. So many questions.

I resist answering these questions here—both because this reflection is supposed to be brief, and because I think these questions are better wrestled with in community than explained with too-easy answers from just one person. 


I also don’t think these questions are quite the main point of Jesus’ story. I think the point is less abstract and more pragmatic. It’s not so much about what doctrines we believe, but about the way we live. 

And—although it feels worth noting that the materially poor person in our story is named, and that in this naming there is an affirmation of dignity—the story focuses much more on the rich person than on Lazarus. The rich person is the one who speaks, the one whose story is followed from beginning to end. 

It is this rich person who was aware of Lazarus’ illness and hunger, lying there at his doorway—he even knew him by name—but nonetheless ignored him. New Testament and Jewish Studies professor Amy-Jill Levine suggests in Short Stories by Jesus that perhaps Lazarus’ community had carried him there because they knew the rich person had plenty to share. But the rich person did not share. The dogs tried to take care of Lazarus in the way they knew how, by cleaning his wounds; the rich person did less than the dogs did. 

Even after death, the rich person is still trying to order Lazarus around. He still doesn’t quite seem to think of Lazarus as an equal, as fully human. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, he tells Abraham. Send him to my father’s house to warn my brothers. In other words, basically: I still think Lazarus is here to serve me. I have no regrets about the way I treated him in life. I don’t see what was wrong with it. Send Lazarus. Send Lazarus

As Dr. Amy-Jill Levine writes, perhaps the rich person “has not yet learned what landed him in torment in the first place. He wants to see his brothers saved from torment, not to ease the pain felt by the millions who lack food, shelter, or health care” (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 291).

In a world full of these kinds of pains, I wonder what Jesus’ story asks of us. Most of us may not be filthy rich like the sumptuously-feasting man. But perhaps the story asks of us, too: How do we see people? How do we treat people? Do we want to see people’s needs met and their pains eased? What would that look like? What might we do? 

Several years ago, I led a small group through a curriculum called Lazarus at the Gate, offered by the Boston Faith and Justice Network. One thing I still remember from that study is the idea that globalization has placed millions of “Lazaruses” at our metaphorical gate. We know so much more than people in other times in history did about what’s going on all over our world, including and especially the ways things are difficult and people are suffering. Climate disasters, wars, and displacement, just to name a few things, bring so many Lazaruses to our gates—or at least our phone and computer screens—every day we’re paying attention.

I feel this. I want to help. And yet, I also feel the reality that we as finite fragile humans were not designed to process all of the information that is thrown at us all the time. We did not evolve to be able to hold in our minds and hearts and bodies all the concerns of the world. It is too much for us. 

Humans spent most of human history living in villages and kinship networks small enough so that we could know what was going on with everyone—the good and the bad. We could serve and help one another well within this context. People’s suffering was not too much to know. It did not overwhelm us on a regular basis.

I don’t have easy solutions to these tensions. But I do want all of us to find the good that we can do and do it. To find ways of not getting so overwhelmed with the needy world’s needs that we can’t do anything.

I was recently reading Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s book Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now. In it there’s a reflection from Catholic Bishop Ken Untener often known as the Romero Prayer. I was struck by these words from this prayer: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

We can’t do everything. But we can do something. We can do something to share food and other resources with one another, with our communities. We can do something to ease people’s suffering. We can do something to take care of one another.

And, in faith communities that share this as a value and a goal, we can do so much more than any of us could do on our own. Here’s to finding, creating, and building those kinds of communities. 

As always, all thoughts are welcome – about the story Jesus tells, about how you’ve been able to care for the Lazaruses around us without being overwhelmed, or anything else this makes you think about.

Gutsy faithfulness in a world where money fails (reflections on Luke 16:1-13)

I’ve got another church eblast reflection for you all – unabridged (read: slightly longer) version! 

This one’s on Luke 16:1-13:

16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

16:2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

16:3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

16:5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

16:6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

16:7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

16:10 Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.

16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

16:13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

When we read parables like these, it can be tempting to try to figure out who exactly every character in the story represents. This is called allegorical interpretation, and many biblical scholars have pushed back against this approach.

Perhaps Jesus’ stories were meant to be just that—stories. Conversation starters. Feeling-evokers. Thought-provokers. Open-ended, with multiple possible interpretations and takeaways. Maybe that’s the beauty of the parables—even though it also makes them…difficult.

I mention this because I am not at all convinced that the “master”—a fraught word, if I ever heard one, given the U.S. history of slavery—in our story this week is meant to represent God. Not only does he engage in dubiously-just firing practices—he lets the steward go based on an accusation from a third party without even bothering to hear his side of the story (v. 1-2)—but also, on top of this, his massive wealth is persistently described as “unjust” or “unrighteous.” 

Perhaps the steward, then, feels free to play fast and loose with the master’s money because he knows the whole system is unjust. 

What does it mean to be faithful, in a world where a few rich folks hoard while masses of people go hungry? Perhaps crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s when it comes to wealth management takes a back seat to figuring out how to survive—and helping others survive too. Maybe strict adherence to rules and regulations is less important than mercy. And surely mercy is what the steward shows to the debtors when he tells them to lessen the amounts of their debts. 

The steward in our story is often referred to as the “shrewd manager,” but I feel like the word “shrewd” can have some funky connotations. In some church contexts, people use the story of the “shrewd manager” to say that we as Christians should also be more shrewd. As in, we should be more cunning. As in, it’s okay to manipulate or mislead people if it’s all for a higher cause. To me, this is hardly what it means to be “children of the light” (v. 8). 

Perhaps it helps to know that the word translated as “shrewd” is often translated elsewhere as “prudent.” I’m not here for the manipulative cunning, but I’m okay with Jesus encouraging his followers to be prudent.

Prudent, like counting the cost of our discipleship (see Luke 14:25-35). Prudent, like acknowledging that all wealth in our unjust system is in fact unjust—and, accordingly, holding onto material stuff lightly. Prudent, like refusing to spend our lives serving a cruel death-dealing capitalist system that does not love us—refusing to destroy our souls in service of wealth that will one day be gone (v. 9). 

(This word translated as “be gone,” by the way, is actually quite strong in the original Greek; it could be translated as “fails,” “ceases,” or “dies.” As in, money will fail. Money will one day cease to exist. It will die.)

In light of all this, I wonder what we might learn from this passage about what it means to be faithful. Some of us may have been taught that faithfulness is a passive thing, measured by the sins we avoid and the things we do not do. But in Jesus’ story, faithfulness is active. It’s creative. It’s risky. It’s gutsy. It requires intelligence and courage. It involves trying something and being willing to face the consequences of our actions.

The steward is hardly a meek rule-follower. But there is something about him to be admired. With his actions he calls out the lie that unjust wealth is to be served at all costs. He points toward a different way.

Like this steward, we too take part in unjust systems. Under patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, a few rich folks keep getting richer, and any cost is acceptable in terms of human life and wellbeing. We may not be able to completely escape this system—but we can resist it. We can make choices that fly in the face of its logic. We can flout its expectations. 

We can rest. We can play. We can build genuine relationships that aren’t just transactional, based on what we can get out of someone. We can be radically for others and refuse to compete. We can treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. We can share resources generously, knowing there is enough for all. 

We can’t necessarily avoid unjust systems, but we can refuse to serve them as masters. We can build something new—something sacred and beautiful—in the midst of them. 

Peace to you this week. If you have thoughts about what faithfulness means to you (and how that’s changed over time), or how you live in unjust systems without serving these systems as masters, or anything else this passage makes you think about, holler in the comments or otherwise. I’d love to hear from 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.

The unbound woman (reflections on Luke 13:10-17)

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

-Luke 13:10-17

I wrote a reflection on this passage for my church’s newsletter this week, and I thought I’d share a longer version of it here:

I’ve been blown away by the stories we’ve heard these last couple Sunday evenings. One of the themes I’ve heard again and again is a longing for—and a great joy when we experience—a kind of Christianity that is more concerned with love than with rules and regulations. Many of us have spent time in religious communities that were perhaps a little too caught up in their own rules. Perhaps some religious leaders made us feel like there was a certain list of things to do (or not do) in order to be right with God and respected in the community.

The synagogue ruler in our story from the gospel of Luke was one of these leaders. Jesus cures a woman from an ailment that literally, physically caused her body to be bent over for eighteen years. The appropriate communal response would be joy, delight, wonder, celebration. Throwing a big party. Praising God, as the woman does (v. 13). Rejoicing with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15, 1 Cor 12:26). 

Instead, this particular religious leader is indignant (v. 14). He’s displeased. He’s angry. He’s pissed because Jesus didn’t follow the rules. He misses the wonder of a sacred moment of healing because it didn’t fit his prior expectation of what holiness looks like. 

The synagogue leader, then, instead of addressing Jesus directly, speaks to the crowd. He tells them to come to be healed on the other six days, not on the Sabbath. It’s as if he’s blaming the woman who was cured, trying to make her feel ashamed for her own healing. 

And she didn’t even do anything. She didn’t talk to Jesus, grab onto his cloak, shout at him, fall on her knees before him, or do any of the other things people often do in other gospel stories when they want Jesus to notice them. She was just there (v. 11). Jesus was the one who initiated with her. He saw her, called her over, and told her, you are set free (v. 12).

The rule about not working on the Sabbath is important to the religious leader. But perhaps it’s important for the wrong reasons. Perhaps in trying so hard to follow all the religious rules, he’s missing the point of them all. He’s missing the point of Sabbath—a time of restoration and healing. 

On the Sabbath, as Jesus points out, even the most rule-abiding religious leaders would not hesitate to do what is necessary for the wellbeing of one of their oxen or donkeys (v. 15). Just so, Jesus does not hesitate to do what was necessary for the wellbeing of the bent-over woman. The analogy is even clearer in the Greek: the same Greek word is used for loosing or untying the ox from the manger in v. 15 and for loosing or untying the woman from her ailment in v. 16.  (A related word is also used in v. 12 to say that the woman was released from her ailment.)

I like this image of loosing or untying—as a donkey is loosed so he can go take a drink, and as a woman is loosed from her bent-over-ness. The word unbound—also the title of Tarana Burke’s memoir about starting the Me Too Movement— comes to mind as well. Jesus unbound this woman. Perhaps this is one image that can help us better picture what liberation can look like. 

Sometimes ideas like justice and liberation can seem a little vague. What do they actually look like? Sometimes, at least, they look like loosing, like untying. They look like people who have been bound for many long years becoming unbound. Standing up straight. Walking with the confidence of a beloved child of God, whether or not the world around them affirms this reality. Finding spaces where this reality is affirmed.

As a community, we can cultivate liberating spaces where we unbind one another. Many of us have been bent over by spirits of white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, materialism, greed, selfishness, narcissism, toxic individualism. The good news is that Jesus is here to untie us, to set us free. 

Sometimes we wonder where God is in this world. I think God is wherever liberation is happening. Where there is curing, unbinding, healing—that’s where God is. Where there is beloved community, that’s where God is. Religious rules optional.

What does the metaphor of untying or unbinding make you think of? What other images might help us understand what liberation looks like?

Super chill book review: God is a Black Woman (Christena Cleveland)

God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland (HarperOne, 2022)—what a book. It’s basically a mix of spot-on critiques of what Cleveland calls whitemalegod (you may know the one) and compelling explorations of what it can look like to ditch whitemalegod and seek the Sacred Black Feminine instead.  

I was a fan of Cleveland’s work back when she was trying to help the white-dominated evangelical church do better in terms of racial justice; I’m still a fan of her work now that she’s jumped ship and is finding healthier, more honest, more life-giving forms of faith outside of white evangelical spaces. 

I feel like I’m over here rooting Cleveland on in her journey. And I’m grateful for her being willing to share this journey with anyone who would benefit from reading about it. Which is lots and lots of us, I think.

A few thoughts and memorable quotes:

1) Cleveland’s book kind of strikes me as a race-conscious version of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (by Sue Monk Kidd) for a new generation. I really enjoyed The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and learned a ton from it—and I also felt its whiteness. 

I’m grateful for Cleveland’s exploration not just of the Divine Feminine—who many of us might imagine, by default, to be just as white as whitemalegod—but specifically of the Divine Black Feminine. This brings so much richness and complexity into the picture. 

As Cleveland writes, “She is the God who has a special love for the most marginalized because She too has known marginalization” (p. 17). That feels right to me. I’m not Black, but this is a God I could get on board with. 

2) In a similar vein, I appreciate how Cleveland writes about the Sacred Black Feminine in a way that centers Black women but is not exclusive to them. 

Cleveland writes, 

“She is the God who is with and for Black women because She is a Black woman. She is the God who definitively declares that Black women—who exist below Black men and white women at the bottom of the white male God’s social pecking order—not only matter but are sacred. And, in doing so, She declares that all living beings are sacred. She is the God who smashes the white patriarchy and empowers us all to join in Her liberating work” (p. 17). 

Yup, all for that. It makes sense to me that we might have to imagine God as Black and female to really get it into our heads and hearts and souls that, as Cleveland puts it, “all living beings are sacred.” 

The whitemalegod of the colonizers—and of those who do things today like incarcerate way too many Black men and deny women access to reproductive health care—doesn’t really affirm, or help his followers affirm, the sacredness of all humanity. But perhaps the Sacred Black Feminine can, and does.

It reminds me of what many activists have pointed out—that we should all be able to get behind the project of Black female liberation, not only because Black women matter, but also because it turns out that what is good for Black women is good for everybody. It isn’t a competition or a zero-sum game; it’s a matter of implementing systems, policies, and practices that promote the liberation of the most oppressed and the flourishing of the most marginalized—and that therefore promote liberation and flourishing for us all.

3) I appreciate Cleveland’s reflections on need and neediness. I’m reminded of an evangelical idea that resonated with me for a while back in the day, but which I now consider a load of baloney. The idea is that we as Christians have everything we need in Christ, so we come into relationships with other people not needing anything from them. The implication is that we can just give, and give, and give—and this is how Christians ought to be.

I’ve really moved away from this mindset over the last ten years or so. And I’ve moved toward the reality that I am a needy human, and my relationships are at their best and most beautiful when I’m both giving and receiving. Anything else is some combination of arrogance and denial of my own humanity—as well as denial of the other person’s humanity, to the extent that I’m tempted to think that “I don’t need anything from them” means “they have nothing to offer.”

Related to this, Cleveland writes, “in whitemalegod’s society…patriarchy and white supremacy partner to proclaim that to be human is to express no need. In whitemalegod’s society, toxic masculinity screeches ‘boys don’t cry,’ young girls struggle to get dates after being labeled ‘high maintenance,’ and women are demoted for being ‘too emotional.’ Further, our infinitely vast gender diversity is squeezed into two suffocating male/female boxes in which men are more valued when they express no need, women are devalued precisely because they are often unable to adequately hide their need, and all other genders are completely erased unless they cram themselves into one of the two ‘official’ gender boxes” (p. 85).

This strikes me as true, and important. To be human is to express no need is a lie that’s closely connected to a toxic form of masculinity. I’m all for building a world where people of all genders are free to feel what we feel and need what we need, without being shamed for it.

4) Relatedly, I resonated with this from my evangelical days:

“The only time people in whitemalegod’s world are allowed to talk openly about their need is when they are regaling themselves with tales of how they triumphed over it. We love to exchange stories about how we used to be homeless but now own a home with no mortgage on it, were once illiterate but now are a New York Times best-selling author, once struggled to manage our anger but now are a celebrated mindfulness teacher, previously had marital problems but now it’s all good. In other words, it’s okay to struggle, as long as you triumph in the long run. Just please don’t tell us about your need in real time. Need is only acceptable in the past tense” (p. 86).

I’m reminded of the way testimonies are often framed and shared in evangelical churches. In one of the more extreme versions, I knew of a college campus ministry that gave its students a particular outline for their testimonies to follow (and, in this case, to be filmed and posted on Facebook). Students were to talk about what their life was like before they met Christ, and how much better their life is now.

These students were to share about their needs in the past, not their needs in the present. But they were human. Surely they had present needs, too.

Why is it so hard to be honest about the fact that we are needy? Can we talk about how we’ve experienced God as real and good in some ways, while also being honest about the things that are still difficult and painful, and the ways we want to see God but haven’t yet? 

I want to be part of faith communities that can voice present lament, as so many writers of the Bible did—not just victory over past difficulties.

5) I don’t know if I’d really thought about matriarchal cultures in this way:

“As scholar Heide Gottner-Abendroth is quick to point out, matriarchal societies aren’t simply the reversal of patriarchal societies, with women ruling over men. Rather, they are need-based societies that are centered around the values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In matriarchal cultures, everyone—regardless of your gender or whether you have any biological kids—is taught to practice the societal values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In such cultures, these values are the basis of what it means to be human” (pp. 113-4).

That’s cool. And very much in line with what I see as the goals of feminism. Feminism isn’t a scary and threatening thing where women are trying to grab and hold power over men in the same way men have often grabbed and held power over women. 

Rather, we’re trying to build a different kind of world—one based on mutuality, equality, and healthy interdependence, where no one is trying to grab and hold power over anyone. A world where values for things like authority, hierarchy, individual success, and personal accumulation of wealth are replaced by values for things like “caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community.” Matriarchy for the win.

6) I appreciate the clarity and honesty of Cleveland’s reflections on her work for racial justice in white-dominated spaces:

“Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that in order to accomplish justice, I needed to convince white people that I am worthy of justice…Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that it was my work to convince white people to affirm my humanity…Though I had been heralded as a ‘trailblazer’ in the mostly white, male-dominated Christian world, my justice work had extracted me from the safe spaces that nurture and protect me as a Black woman and catapulted me into the unsafe and oppressive spaces of the powerful where I was exposed to the soul-crushing forces of its institutional racism, sexism, and poisonous theology. In those spaces, I gave much yet received little more than lip service and a steady stream of macroaggressions” (p. 149).

I hear and feel Cleveland’s (totally valid) anger about all this, and I stand with her in it. None of this was right. And I think that her testimony (you know, the honest kind, not the kind with only victories) is a crucial one for church folks to hear.

7) Cleveland writes:

“That’s how whitemalegod controls us, by convincing all of us…that we’re not enough. We must constantly strive for whitemalegod’s version of excellence and conquer our imperfections in order to prove to whitemalegod that we are worthy to sit at his table. But since we’re all desperately scrambling to get a seat at a table in whitemalegod’s exclusive club, we never stop to ask ourselves: Do I even want a spot in whitemalegod’s tiny circle of acceptability? No, we’re too busy scrambling and trampling others as we chase the acceptance we will never receive” (p. 169).

I’ve totally felt this vibe and this struggle. For me, it was a feeling of tension between wanting to be accepted—and, in my case, as someone who worked in Christian ministry, wanting to be accepted as a leader—in evangelical spaces, but knowing, or at least fearing, that if I expressed (or just existed as) my authentic self, I would not be. It’s a feeling of having to hide something to belong. Which means, of course, that you—the real you—does not actually belong. 

I’ve felt this, for example, as an introvert, feeling like I needed to act like an extrovert to be accepted as a leader—or even just as a valuable and respected human. And I’ve felt it as someone who came around to LGBTQ+ affirmation, feeling like I didn’t know what would happen if I talked about these views openly.

Like Cleveland, at some point I started to think, Wait a minute, do I even want a spot here? Do I really want to chase the affirmation of people who fundamentally don’t accept me for who I actually am, or to chase power in their circles that are actually quite toxic? 

That would be a “nope.” Hard pass. But, like Cleveland, it took me a minute to get there. The pull of acceptability is powerful—especially when it can seem like acceptance in a particular evangelical circle equals acceptance by God. Fortunately, in truth, these things couldn’t be farther apart. But that isn’t always easy to see when you’re in the midst of it.

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I hope this gave some worthwhile food for thought! I’d love to know what you think about any or all of it.