Super chill book review: You Are Your Best Thing (ed. Tarana Burke and Brene Brown)

In the last year or so I’ve read four of Brené Brown’s (many) books, and I’m a fan. She has great stuff to say. So much of it. I really think that she has changed (and continues to change) the conversation around things like empathy, shame, vulnerability, connection, and belonging. 

At the same time, as long-time Black activist (and casual creator of the Me Too movement) Tarana Burke discusses with Brown in the introduction to their new book You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience, Brown lives a very white, upper-middle class life in Texas, and you can tell. If I remember correctly from some of the stories in Brown’s books, she didn’t necessarily come from money. But she definitely has it now. And no matter how intentional she is about interviewing a diversity of people for her research—and she is very intentional—she also loves to use personal examples and stories, and lots of them. I’m all here for Brown’s stories, while also recognizing that, because of these stories, as Burke points out, Brown’s books tend to skew toward speaking more (and more effectively) to fellow white upper-middle class people.

All that to say, this new book, You Are Your Best Thing, feels much needed. And I enjoyed it, too. It’s an anthology, edited by Burke and Brown together, with chapters written by many different Black writers who work in many different fields, reflecting on what they know about some of the stuff Brown has written on: shame, shame resilience, and vulnerability. 

Here are a few random thoughts:

1. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, given the subtitle (Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience), but vulnerability is a key word that comes to mind when I think about this book. Vulnerability, and embodiment. The contributing authors do an amazing job of keeping these things front and center—of thinking and reflecting deeply, and bringing in data and research where relevant, but also never straying far from the reality of how these things show up in their own real-life experience. 

It’s just as Tanya Denise Fields writes in her chapter, Dirty Business: The Messy Affair of Rejecting Shame: when Fields began to publicly and loudly “rebuke shame…then my sisters came out of the shadows, empowered and vulnerable, sharing narratives of violence, hurt, and the shame that was always right there, not really below the surface but subconsciously always moving the hand that led our lives. I was in turn empowered, and I found a powerful voice I didn’t realize was there. I saw my reflection, what we were and what we could be” (p. 28). 

I feel like that’s the heart of this book. To put words to some of the realities Black people often face when it comes to shame and such, and to help people feel seen—more seen than they’ve felt thus far in Brown’s work, as lovely as her books are in many ways. To tell stories that empower people, and that broaden the scope of this important work beyond the experiences Brown has been able to speak to as a white woman.

I felt like this stayed the focus, and that’s how it should be. I realize this book isn’t primarily written for me, as a white person, and I think that’s a good thing. At the same time, I also feel like I benefited from reading it. I think it has the potential to build understanding and empathy among non-Black people. And I’m thankful for that—for the chance to sit in on and listen to a conversation that isn’t about me and isn’t primarily for me, but one that I’m still interested in and still benefit from hearing. 

2. The subtitle made me a little nervous at first; specifically, the part about “the Black experience.” Is there really just one “Black experience”? (Of course not.) 

So, I was glad to find that the contributing authors come from all sorts of different backgrounds and identities within the wide realm of Blackness, and that they were empowered to write about their own, very personal, experiences. It was good to hear, for example, from women and men, trans people and nonbinary people, younger people and older people, and people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

If you’re Black, I’d be interested to hear whether or not you agree with this, or what I might be missing; but to me, it felt like, through all of the authors together, the book painted a really rich and nuanced picture of some of the common struggles Black people tend to encounter when it comes to shame and vulnerability, while also making room for SO MUCH DIVERSITY within Black experiences. I thought that was really good.

In her work, Brown writes a lot about gendered shame, and that’s been helpful for me. I often agree with (and deeply feel) her assessments of the different forms shame can take for men and women. And I think that’s important—not because all women are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of gender. 

I feel like this book works on similar lines when it comes to race. Burke and the other contributing authors flesh out the idea of racialized shame, and this is important—not because all Black people are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of race and racialization. 

3. At the risk of centering white people too much when writing about a book that’s written by and for Black people, I guess I still want to say that, as a Brené Brown fan, it was cool to see her using her (quite extraordinary, for a social sciences researcher) fame and influence to open doors for Black voices to be heard. 

At my church, Lake B, we’ve been talking recently about gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of those things that can sound pretty negative, and is often used in a negative way, but that can also (in some cases) be transformed and redeemed into something really cool. It’s worth thinking carefully about any or all gates we might have access to or influence over, and worth moving intentionally toward operating these gates in a way that promotes equity and justice. 

There are lots of gates that just shouldn’t be there, and lots of gatekeepers that should rebel and step down. And yet, until we get there, there are still gates, and there are still gatekeepers; given that reality, it’s great to see influential gatekeepers using their power well.

4. On the scale of loaded-with-academic mumbo-jumbo to accessible-and-easy-to-read, I found this book delightfully accessible. Which is not at all to say that the authors who contributed to it aren’t brilliant and highly knowledgeable, so much as to say that I think they’re also really good writers, and I appreciate that. 

My husband Ken read some of this book and said it was slow going for him. At first I thought, really? I’m loving that the chapters are easy to read and don’t get too caught up in academic lingo. Then I realized that he wasn’t talking about writing style so much as the emotional intensity. He was taking time to chew on the feelings, the pain, the weight of it all. Which is something I probably should have been doing more of!

All that to say, maybe this book isn’t necessarily a quick read, but I do think the style is more accessible and less dense than a lot of nonfiction out there, and I liked that. 

5. Since I’ve been mostly focusing on reading stuff by women (with no regrets at all!), it was good for me to read from the Black men who contributed to this book. I was struck by the ways many of them reflected on our society’s toxic ideas about gender, gender roles, and masculinity, and how all this has impacted them. 

It’s helpful for me to be reminded that this nonsense is bad for everyone, not just women. I appreciate these men’s bravery and sensitivity in writing on these things.

6. Like many other anthologies (including This Bridge Called My Back), You Are Your Best Thing is a great jumping-off point if you’re looking for other good stuff to read. Besides the editors (and Laverne Cox), I hadn’t heard of many of the contributing authors before reading this book. But most of them have written and are writing other things, and hosting podcasts, and doing all sorts of interesting stuff. I’m grateful to now know who they are, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

7. I appreciated the diversity of spirituality represented in this book. I feel like sometimes people who aren’t specifically trying to write for a religious audience tend to either ignore religion entirely or only have bad things to say about it. (Not that these bad things aren’t usually true or fair…) 

But, whatever you think of religion, and whether or not you want to participate in it, it’s hard to deny that it has a ginormous (in technical terms) influence in our U.S. society and in our world. Even if it isn’t real to a particular author, it’s very, very real, for lots and lots of people. So I appreciated that this book didn’t try to cut off the religious and/or spiritual realm from the rest of our lives.

In this vein, and because I think about church a lot, I especially liked Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts’ chapter, Love Lifted Me: Subverting Shame Narratives and Legitimizing Vulnerability as a Mechanism for Healing Women in the Black Church. I don’t think it’s really my place as a white person to critique the Black church, but I did appreciate getting to listen in on Lewis-Giggetts’ experiences and reflections. And so much of her analysis applies to the American evangelical church as a whole—so I could relate to that, and that’s something I don’t mind critiquing :). 

Here’s one excerpt I liked, from Lewis-Giggetts’ essay:

“A long way from the teaching of Jesus, the Christian church too often uses shame as a tool for control and manipulation, but even when we think it’s working, it’s not. In fact, what’s actually happening is that folks who have been shamed by the church have become disenchanted with the faith; what should be safe and holy communities only look like rigid and loveless institutions. American evangelical churches, in particular, cling to law and government as tightly as their interpretations of the Bible, but don’t seem to realize that the Jesus they claim as Savior would have likely broken those laws in order to extend love, peace, and wholeness to those identified as the ‘least of these’ (the marginalized)” (pp. 60-1). 

Amen to that. I wish I could quote most of this essay, really, but I don’t want to keep you forever. 

I hope you get the chance to read Lewis-Giggetts’ essay, as well as the rest of the book. If you do, come back and let me know what you think!

A door no one can shut

We’ve made it to Revelation 3:7-13, and this literal translation is an especially funky one, enough so that I was tempted to just offer the NIV instead. But then I figured it could be helpful to see them both side by side—or maybe to read the literal one and then take a look at the NIV for the parts that don’t really make sense. Choose your own adventure.

Here’s Revelation 3:7-13 translated fairly literally:

(7) And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia, write: these things says the holy one, the true one, the one who has the key of David, the one who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens; (8) I know your works, behold, I have given before you a door, having been opened, which no one is able to shut, because you have a little power, and you kept my word, and you did not deny my name. (9) Behold, I would give from the synagogue of satan, of the ones calling themselves Jews, and they are not, but they lie. Behold, I will make them come and worship before your feet, and they would know that I loved you. (10) Because you kept the word of my steadfast endurance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing about to come on the whole inhabited world to test the ones who dwell on the earth. 

(11) I am coming quickly; grasp what you have, in order that no one takes your crown. (12) The one who conquers, I will make him/her/them a pillar in the temple of my God, and he/she/they will certainly not go out (from it) anymore, and I will write on him/her/them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, the one coming down out of the heaven from my God, and my new name. (13) The one who has ears, let him/her/them hear what the spirit says to the churches.

And here’s Revelation 3:7-13 in the NIV:

7 “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.

11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. 13 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Unlike most of the seven churches Jesus speaks to in these first few chapters of Revelation, this church gets an “A.” Jesus has only good things to say to them. Gold star.

Maybe this suggests that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, churches actually can get it right. Churches actually can operate in a way that makes Jesus say: Well done. You’ve got it. You’re not perfect, of course, but you’re avoiding all the major ways churches tend to mess things up—things like being all about reputation over reality, or always wanting to learn new things rather than actually living out what you already know, or ignoring the content of Jesus’ teachings and following false teachings instead, or being so against everything that you forget what you’re for. Well done. 

It might be just one or two churches out of seven, but churches can get it right. They’re not all the same. Just because lots and lots of them have gone in some weird and messed up directions—like following the teachings of the Nicolaitans, or Balaam, or Jezebel, or Christian nationalism, or right-wing politics, or white supremacist patriarchy, or homophobia, or whatever it might be—doesn’t mean that they all have. Sometimes it’s worth looking—and looking long and hard, if need be—for the church communities that are getting it right. The ones that are consciously seeking to avoid these things, to learn to live together differently.

As Jesus speaks to this church in Philadelphia that is getting it right, he identifies himself as the one who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens (v. 7). Then, again, in verse 8, Jesus, says, I have given before you a door, having been opened, which no one is able to shut.

I like this image of a door that only Jesus can open and only Jesus can shut. Only Jesus holds the key to this door. He opens it for the church in Philadelphia, and when he does so, no one is able to shut it in their faces. 

It makes me think of all the people over the centuries who have had the doors of churches, literally and metaphorically, slammed in their faces. Theologians and mystics whose interpretations of scripture and visions of Christian life were different from those of the people in power. Scientists who questioned literal readings of scripture that didn’t fit with what they were learning about the natural world. Black people who were treated so poorly in white-led churches that they left to form their own denominations. Women who felt a calling from God to preach or lead in other ways that their churches frowned upon. LGBTQ+ people hoping for the church to bless their marriages, or just to be a safe community where they wouldn’t have to hide. The list could go on.

A few years back, I was going through a bit of a hard time, and I sought out advice and perspective from a fellow campus minister who was leading a different Christian student group at Stanford. I had just admitted to the elder board of my church that I wasn’t entirely convinced gay relationships are the worst thing ever, and I was realizing that this put my hopes of being able to continue to work at the church long-term in jeopardy. As I processed all of this, I thought it might be helpful to talk with someone I respected who was very familiar with the evangelical universe but wasn’t connected to my particular church. So I met with (let’s call him) Greg.

I told Greg what was going on, and the first thing he said was something like this: “You told them you’re not against same-sex relationships? You’re lucky they didn’t run you out of the church right then and there as a heretic!” 

On the one hand, Greg was totally right. I do feel that the elders at my church were a lot more mature and respectful than lots and lots of other conservative church leaders would have been. They did their best to have some good conversations with me about what we all believed and why. And then they did their best to explore options for moving forward together in a way that would let them hold to their convictions without making me feel like I was unceremoniously drop-kicked out of the church. Greg was right. This was more than I could have expected at a lot of other evangelical churches.

On the other hand, though, what kind of world do we live in, where this is something to feel lucky about? What kind of universe is the evangelical church universe, such that the norm is being run out immediately as a heretic for telling your leaders you think differently—where you kind of expect to have the door slammed in your face if you reveal who you really are or what you really think about things?

Given all this, for me, there is a profound piece of good news in Jesus’ words to the church in Philadelphia: there are some doors that are just not ours to shut. Not mine, not yours, not any pastor’s or elder’s or bishop’s or pope’s. 

There is a door to life and community and love and hope and a healthy relationship with God and people and self and the world that Jesus opens wide, and no human can shut. People can and do make decisions that shut others out from the chance to flourish in particular churches or denominations. But they can’t shut people out from God. That door is open.

In a similar vein, I like what Jesus says at the end of this passage: I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, the one coming down out of the heaven from my God, and my new name (v. 12). I think there’s a lot of power in this idea of being named by God. 

Just as there are some doors that can only be opened and shut by Jesus, there are some names that can only be given by Jesus. 

People can throw all sorts of names at each other: Heretic, sinner, unorthodox. Loser, weird, weak, useless. Too broken, too messed up, not good enough. Different, wrong, outsider. Uppity, demanding, troublemaker. Rowdy, rude, divisive. Maybe you can think of some of your own. 

But as much as these kinds of names might get thrown around—and especially when powerful people aim them like weapons at less powerful people—they are not the names that define us. For those who want it, Jesus writes on them the name of God. Jesus claims them as his own, as beloved, as belonging, even if the church calls them other names and slams the door in their faces. Jesus welcomes and loves all of who God made them to be.

Knowing we are named by Jesus, first and foremost, can give us courage to persist in doing good and doing justice even when it is costly, even when we experience rejection because of it. 

Of course, if your church is shutting doors in your face or calling you rude names—or if it’s doing these things to other people—it’s probably time to leave and not go back. We’ve seen Beth Moore do that recently to the Southern Baptist Convention. Good for her. It’s rarely a happy or fun thing, but sometimes it needs to be done. And there are other churches out there that, like the church in Philadelphia, are more or less getting it right—that are less about door-slamming and name-calling and more about truly unconditional love and healthy, justice-loving community. 

The door that matters is not shut. And the name that matters has already been given to us. No one can take these things away, no matter how powerful they are, and no matter how hard they might try.

Always Reforming: a short sermon on Luke 6:1-16

I’m thankful to have had another opportunity to give a short sermon at my church, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church (aka “Lake B”). If you prefer a video version, here’s the church service. My part starts around 35:14, but David (before) and Miguel (after) are very much worth listening to if you have a few minutes.

Here’s the passage, and the sermon! Please feel free to holler in the comments section if you have thoughts. I’d love to hear any ways you resonate with this, how you think about tradition and faith, if there are any particular traditions you see a need to re-think, etc.

Luke 6:1-16 (NRSV):

6 One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 3 Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” 5 Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

In one of my first classes in seminary, I was totally mind-blown to learn that early Protestants during the Reformation had this motto: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda—meaning, “a reformed church will always be reforming.” In other words, the Reformers knew that the things they wanted to change about the church back in the 1500s were not the only things that were ever going to need to change. Semper reformanda. Always reforming.

This was mind-blowing to me because, before seminary, I had been part of a more conservative church tradition, where sometimes it felt like the church was very resistant to changing anything at all. Sometimes it felt like faithfulness meant staying true to the teachings of the people—in this case, the white men in the 1950s—who had founded the church.

In our passage this morning, in Luke 6, we see Jesus engaging his own religious tradition, and we see him challenging the ways it’s being interpreted by some of its leaders. 

I think it’s interesting to watch these religious leaders, the Pharisees, in this passage. It’s interesting to see how they interact with Jesus, and how Jesus interacts with them. 

At this point, Jesus is traveling around. He’s teaching and healing. He’s got a ragtag little crew of random people following him. They’re not even the slightly more organized group of twelve apostles, yet. We don’t get that until verses 12-16, at the end of our passage.

But, even at this early point in Jesus’ ministry, he’s begun to attract the attention of some of the powers that be. Spoiler alert: it’s not positive attention. 

In the last couple of stories in Luke 5, right before this passage, the Pharisees are unhappy about the company Jesus keeps. They ask, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? They’re kind of the worst. And he says, I didn’t come for the healthy, but the sick. Then, right after that, the Pharisees complain that their own followers fast, and John the Baptist’s followers fast, but Jesus’ followers are eating and drinking. And Jesus says, Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is here with them? Then he talks about how new garments can’t be used to patch up old ones, and new wine can’t be poured into old wineskins. 

The religious leaders want to hold onto the things that are old, but Jesus is doing something new. And, just to be clear, it’s not about Judaism being old and Christianity being new. Both are living traditions. Both are still being interpreted and understood in different ways with each new generation. It’s not a comparison between religions here; it’s a tension within one tradition. It’s a tension between holding onto particular ways of understanding what this tradition means, and being open to something new that God might be doing. Being open to something that challenges previous understandings of what it meant to be faithful.

So here we are, with lots of people starting to follow Jesus around to learn from him…and some religious leaders also following him around, but for different reasons.

They start off asking him a question. Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath? Jesus takes this at face value, as if it’s an honest question and they really want to know the answer. He tells them a story, appealing to the holy scriptures that they all share in common, and appealing to the memory of their famous ancestral king David that they all share in common. The religious leaders don’t answer.

Then, on another Sabbath, we meet the man with the withered hand. And the religious leaders are back again—still watching, still standing on the sidelines with their arms folded. This time, they don’t say anything. They don’t ask any questions. They don’t even pretend that they actually want to know why Jesus is doing what he’s doing. They don’t even try to look like they think they might possibly have something to learn from him. They just silently watch and look for something they might accuse him of, as v. 7 tells us. Jesus reads their minds, because he does that, and he asks them to reconsider: he asks them, Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or destroy it? And then he heals the person who needs healing.

We’ve seen the religious leaders progress from asking Jesus questions, to not even bothering to engage, but just quietly looking for something to accuse him of—and now, they’ve progressed to being furious. This word here in verse 11, often translated “furious” or “filled with fury,” might also be translated as “madness” or “folly.” It’s not necessarily just anger. In one phrasing, it’s “madness expressing itself in rage.” It’s a flammable combination of ignorance and anger. 

All Jesus did was let his disciples eat, and then heal someone who needed healing. All he has done are good things—the kind of things that should be non-controversial, non-partisan, just basic human rights kinds of things. 

And then we get this huge, disproportionate backlash from the religious leaders. They’re filled with this “madness expressing itself in rage.” 

Our passage here, in verse 11, says that the religious leaders start “discussing with one another what they might do to Jesus.” That might sound a bit ambiguous, but there are a couple passages very similar to this one, in Matthew and Mark’s gospels, that put it more clearly. Those passages say that the religious leaders began plotting how they might kill Jesus.

Jesus fed, and healed. And then the powers that be turn irrationally violent against him. Because, of course, Jesus wasn’t just feeding. He wasn’t just healing. He was messing with their systems. He was messing with the way they were used to seeing things. He was messing with their sense of control and authority. 

He was re-framing the tradition of Sabbath. He was re-interpreting the purpose of the Sabbath: that it’s meant for people’s flourishing, and not for restriction or deprivation. In a very similar passage in the gospel of Mark, Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)

The Sabbath was made for people. And not just for some people, but for all people. Jesus sees his tradition as flexible and changeable if at any point it becomes clear that it’s not working for everybody. Everybody, including people who are hungry, including people who are sick; including, as we see throughout Luke’s gospel, people who are marginalized or oppressed in any way. Really, everybody.

Sometimes we, too, might find that the ways we’re used to reading Scripture, the people we’ve been trained to look up to as religious authorities, the books we’ve been given to read, the theologians and theologies we’ve inherited—aren’t actually working for us. Or, if they are working for us, that they’re not actually working for everybody. When this happens, we, too, have freedom to improvise. We have freedom to reinterpret, to take another look. Freedom to listen to different voices. To listen to one another. To listen to our own spirits within us. 

We have freedom to be part of this reality of the church that is semper reformanda through the generations: always reforming, always needing re-examining, always needing us to bring our hearts and brains and experiences and full selves to its interpretation. 

We follow a God who is always inviting us to weigh what’s lawful, what’s traditional, against what is good—and, when these things conflict, to choose what is good. We follow a God who is always calling us to choose to save life and not destroy it. This is what Sabbath is about. This is what Jesus is about. We belong to this Jesus, to a faith that is for everyone’s flourishing, to a living tradition, always reforming.

Some feminist-ish musings on Jezebel

Revelation 2:18-23 reads, literally translated, something like this:

(18) And to the angel of the church in Thyatira, write: these things says the child of God, the one who has eyes like flames of fire and feet like burnished bronze: (19) I know your works and love and faith and service, and your steadfast endurance, and your last works (are) greater than the first ones. (20) But I have against you that you put up with the woman Jezebel, the one who calls herself a prophet and teaches and leads my servants astray to fornicate and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (21) And I gave her time, that she might repent, and she does not wish to repent from her fornication. (22) Behold, I throw her on a sick-bed, and the ones who commit adultery with her into a great affliction, if they do not repent from her works, (23) and I will kill her children with death. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches innermost thoughts and hearts, and I will give to y’all each according to y’all’s works. 

This is the first half of what Jesus says to the church in Thyatira, according to John’s vision. (I’ll get to the second half next week.) There’s a lot going on here, and, as usual, I don’t intend to try to speak about all of it. But I do have some thoughts about Jezebel. 

Basically, I think it’s kind of bonkers that the idea of Jezebel ― of a female false prophet who leads people astray, or, really, just any woman cast as troublesome or villainous ― has become such an outsized religious and cultural image since biblical times.

For many (Western male) writers, preachers, and other people-whom-people-listen-to, Jezebel has been a go-to label for a woman who does not fit the confines of what is considered (by men in power) to be respectable and good, demure and feminine. Additionally, in some usages, it has been a racially-specific stereotype directed at Black women to further their intersectional oppression. It is also a label that has been reclaimed by some feminists who see the biblical Jezebel as a sort of icon of female empowerment.

Reading this passage in the context of what Jesus has to say to the other three churches before this one ― which I’ve been reflecting on in my last three posts (“Jesus, Pergamum, and Trumpism,” “From Jesus, to those who are suffering,” and “Where is the love?”) ― makes it pretty clear that the actual New Testament reference to Jezebel really has nothing to do with gender.

It’s not her female-ness that’s important; rather, it’s the content of her teaching. And the reference to fornication, or prostitution, or sexual immorality, or however you want to translate πορνεύω, is likely a metaphor for idol-worship and general unfaithfulness to the ways of the God of love and justice ― not a literal reference to female sexuality.

Jesus rails here against the teachings of Jezebel; in previous passages, he railed in a similar way against the teachings of Balaam (2:14) and of the Nicolaitans (2:15, also mentioned in 2:6). We don’t get any specifics about the teachings of the Nicolaitans, but we do know that the teachings of Balaam involved eating food sacrificed to idols and committing fornication (2:14) ― the exact same description as we get of Jezebel’s teachings in v. 20. 

To be fair, Jezebel has quite a history in the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 16-21) ― but then again, so does Balaam (see Numbers 22-24). And Balaam is referenced three times in the New Testament, by three different New Testament writers: here, in 2 Peter 2:15, and in Jude 11. Jezebel is mentioned only this once. 

And yet, (Western) men have latched onto the idea of Jezebel as an image of the kind of wicked woman who clearly needs to be brought under (male) control ― while Balaam, as far as I can tell, has been kind of ignored. No one sees a male leader doing something immoral and thinks, “ah, another Balaam,” or, “clearly this is why men should not be given power.” 

I’m also kind of interested in the simple fact that ― assuming “Jezebel” is being used here as a sort of code name for an actual woman who was teaching and misleading people ― this means that there was an actual woman who was actually teaching and leading people in Thyatira, and people were actually listening to and following her. Bummer that the people of Thyatira were being led to do bad things and believe things that weren’t true ― just as the people of Pergamum were, likewise, by “Balaam” ― but good for them for at least being open to seeing women as spiritual authorities.

It seems that, in some ways, late first century Christians weren’t really hung up on questions about whether women should be teaching and preaching and leading. (So much for our convenient myths of progress.) It’s kind of encouraging, in a way ― to think that, if this kind of church community where women taught and led freely could exist two thousand years ago, surely more of these kinds of church communities could be built today.

(By the way, if anyone says that it wasn’t a good thing that the people of Thyatira were willing to listen to and follow Jezebel, I would like to reiterate this: the fact that she was a false teacher had nothing to do with her gender. If we say that women should not lead because Jezebel led poorly, we also have to say that men should not lead because Balaam led poorly.)

I don’t exactly want to look to the biblical Jezebel as a role model ― although I don’t fault other feminists for looking for strong women in the Bible amidst a religious tradition in which strong women are often ignored or downplayed, and finding her. At the same time, I really don’t want to, in the language of  v. 20, “put up with” people trying to use this passage to imply something about women in general that it absolutely does not, or using Jezebel language to shame and silence women who step up and speak up in ways men in power don’t like.

Perhaps the image of Jezebel and the ways it has been used are the things that now need to be, in the literally-translated words of v. 23, “killed with death.”

Marginalized Women, Bold Prophetic Speech: an Advent sermon on Elizabeth & Mary

I guess I’ve thought for a little while now that Luke 1:39-45 is a pretty awesome Bible passage. I wrote about it a little bit last December, in this post, toward the end of “25 Days of John the Baptist.”

This is the text (in the NRSV):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on this passage at Inglewood Presbyterian Church in Kirkland, WA, as part of a series called “Christmas from the Margins.” It was great to have an excuse to dig into the text a lot more. I feel like good things came out of it for me, and I share the sermon here in case good things come out of it for you too! I’d love to hear your thoughts or reactions in the Comments section.

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I understand that this Advent season you all are exploring the idea of “Christmas from the Margins.” I love that―both in general, and because I think all of the challenges of 2020 have impacted and maybe changed how a lot of us think about marginalization. 

Some of us may have experienced being on the margins ourselves in new ways―a sense of being pushed to the edge of a kind of stable center we used to have―whether that’s through disrupted plans, or isolation, or fear and anxiety, or sickness, or the sickness of loved ones, or the loss of loved ones, or through job loss and unemployment. 

The last few months have also brought movements toward racial justice and against white supremacy to the forefront of national attention. We’ve seen―highlighted, and made more visible for more people―some of what it’s like to be racially marginalized as a person of color in the US.

This is 2020. This is where we’re at. And these are the kinds of things I hope we can keep in mind as we think about our story this morning, and as we begin this Advent season.

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By the time we get to our passage this morning, a lot has happened already. 

An angel appears to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, while he’s serving as a priest in the temple. The angel says, you and Elizabeth are going to have a son, and you should name him John. Zechariah says, wha? No way, man, we’re both way too old! (Which, to be fair, is totally true. Some scholars think they must have been in their sixties.) But the angel says, this is going to happen, and, because you didn’t believe it, you won’t get to speak again until the baby is born. And Zechariah says…well, nothing. Because he can’t.

Then, about six months later, the same angel appears to Mary―not to Mary’s fiancé, or father, or any other male authority figure in her world, but to Mary―and says, you are going to have a son, and you should name him Jesus. Mary says, how, since I am a virgin? The angel says, that’s the power of the Holy Spirit! And Mary says, okay. Let it be as you say

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Can you imagine being Mary, here? An angel just appears to you, out of nowhere, just about gives you a heart attack…and then tells you, don’t be afraid. The angel says that you―you, in your small town in the middle of nowhere; in your youth, as a teenager; in your vulnerability and insignificance as a young woman who is not yet married or a mother, which would have given you a little more status in your world―you are going to miraculously give birth to a king, to the holy one who will be called the Son of God.

Talk about a disruption of the normal, humble life you planned on living―making life work, alongside your husband-to-be, in the midst of poverty; surviving together under the thumb of the Roman Empire; living faithfully to God, as well as you can, in your own quiet way. 

What do you do with this kind of life-disrupting news? Who do you talk to, about the angel and the miraculous pregnancy, and everything? Who do you go to, there in your small hometown, full of people who tend to expect things like pregnancy to work in the usual way?

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Mary remembers that the angel told her that her older relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. So, Mary sets off to visit Elizabeth. This is where we find ourselves in the story this morning. 

Mary grabs a water bottle and a granola bar, types in “Judean hill country” in Google Maps on her iPhone, hops in her parents’ trusty old Subaru, and heads off toward Elizabeth’s place. 

Just kidding. In reality her journey to the hill country of Judea was a slow one. It likely lasted around three to five days, depending on where exactly Elizabeth lived. The roads were known to be dangerous, full of robbers. My hope is that she found a caravan she could travel with that would help keep her safe. Regardless, it took courage to go off on her own like that, apart from her family and fiancé and hometown community. 

She must have felt it was necessary. I imagine her thinking, this is all so wild, and unexpected, and incredible, and awesome, and terrifying, and good, and very complicated. I don’t know if anyone will understand. But if anyone could, maybe it’s Elizabeth, in the midst of her own miraculous pregnancy. 

It was the only thing to do.

People on the margins are often people on the move. Taking risks, seeking safe places to stay, seeking compassionate communities who will welcome them. And God is with them as they do so. God is with those who, like Mary, find themselves desperate enough to make dangerous journeys― not quite sure what they will find on the other side, but knowing that they have to go.

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So Mary arrives, enters the house, and greets Elizabeth with the usual type of greeting. 

Elizabeth does not give a usual greeting back. There’s no what’s up?? So good to see you! Long time no see! Or whatever they said in those days.

Instead, Elizabeth cries out loudly: you are blessed among women! And the fruit of your womb is blessed too! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that what the Lord said would happen.

Immediately after Elizabeth says all this, Mary launches into a beautiful, prophetic poem that we might know as the Magnificat. It’s all about God lifting up the humble―those on the margins―and bringing down powerful people who are proud. It’s about God being full of mercy, from generation to generation, doing mighty things, filling up the hungry, being faithful, keeping promises.

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When I read this story, and I think about the idea of Christmas from the margins, I think about the very patriarchal, very male-dominated world that Mary and Elizabeth lived in. 

Because she is a woman, Elizabeth is not a priest like her husband Zechariah―even though she is the daughter of a priest. She’s descended from the line of Aaron (Luke tells us this, earlier in the story, in v. 5). If Elizabeth had been around the temple area when Zechariah was chosen by lot among the priests to be the one to go inside, she would have had to stay outside, in a court called the Court of Women, which was where women could go to pray. It was outside the Court of Israel, where the men could go to pray. The worshipping women were physically distanced from the temple because of their gender―very literally pushed to the margins of the place that was considered holy.

We also see, earlier in the story, that Elizabeth was the one who was blamed for her and Zechariah’s childlessness. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she says, The Lord has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people (that’s in v. 25). For her, infertility was not only a source of sadness, and disappointment, and vulnerability in old age, but also a social disgrace. It was a source of unending shame that followed her around throughout her adult life, even into her sixties. 

Many people likely assumed that her infertility was caused by some sort of sin in her life. What was wrong with her, that she had never been able to have a baby? What awful thing had she done? People must have given her the side-eye and whispered behind her back. Maybe in her darker moments Elizabeth whispered these things to herself, too. What is wrong with me? Maybe she internalized the blame and shame that others kept placing on her.

We also see evidence of women being pushed to the margins in their world within this passage itself. Verse 40 tells us that Mary entered the house of Zechariah. The house was considered Zechariah’s property only, even though both he and Elizabeth lived there. 

Lest we think this world is so far removed from our own, remember that it wasn’t until the mid 1970s in the US that women were allowed to have our own credit cards, and to buy our own houses without facing blatant and totally legal discrimination because of our gender.

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In the midst of this male-dominated world, this scene, where Mary and Elizabeth greet one another, is incredible. It’s a man’s world, but there are no men to be found here. Zechariah is who knows where. The baby boys John and Jesus have not been born yet. It’s just a raw, unfiltered, real, beautiful, human interaction between two female relatives, one older, one younger.

In a world where women are supposed to disappear into the background, Mary and Elizabeth take up space. They take up space in Luke’s narrative. They take up space in the story of Jesus, in the story of God’s love and redemption in the world. 

They are an important part of the story―not just because of the sons they will give birth to, but in their own right too. They are examples of faithfulness, of believing God, of working with God, of participating in the joy of what God is doing. 

And they must have found so much comfort in their time together. Mary ended up staying for three months, until Elizabeth’s son John was born. 

When we talk about Christmas, we often talk about Jesus as “Immanuel,” as God with us. Sometimes “God with us” can look like another person coming into our life and being a source of comfort and encouragement. Someone who has walked or is walking some of the same roads that we are. Someone who understands. Someone who can, just by being there, remind us of God’s presence with us.

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When the sound of Mary’s greeting reaches Elizabeth’s ears, little John the Baptist does a little jump inside Elizabeth’s tummy. Elizabeth interprets this as a jump for joy, or in exultation.

Elizabeth, then, is filled with the Holy Spirit. This exact language―being “filled with the Holy Spirit”―is only used a few other times in the New Testament. It’s used when the angel tells Zechariah that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Zechariah is then filled with the Holy Spirit himself, later on in this chapter, and he speaks his own prophetic poem, a few verses after Mary’s. Later on, the group of believers at Pentecost in the book of Acts are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they speak in other languages as the Spirit enables them. Peter and Paul are each described as being filled with the Holy Spirit in some parts of Acts, particularly when they have something especially bold and risky to say.

Elizabeth, here, joins the ranks of people―of men―like John the Baptist, and Zechariah, and Peter, and Paul. She is filled with the same Spirit. And she, too, speaks boldly. She speaks in a loud and confident voice. 

The Greek actually uses three different words here to express how intense her voice is as she speaks: she “exclaims”―meaning that she spoke out, or cried aloud. Her voice is “loud”―or, literally, “great.” 

And it sounds like a “cry.” This is a word that can also be translated as outcry, or clamor. This word is actually used by Paul when he writes to the Ephesian Christians that they should try to stay away from anger, and malice, and brawling, and clamor, and that sort of thing (that’s in Ephesians 4:31). 

It’s a fighting kind of cry―a loud, great, clamour. And, in Elizabeth’s case, it’s holy. It’s full of the Holy Spirit. It’s bold and prophetic and true and important…and very, very unladylike. 

While Zechariah, the priest, is at this point still unable to speak, Elizabeth, not allowed to be priest because of her gender, speaks loudly.

Women, as well as others on the margins, are often socialized to just get along. We’re told, in a million different ways, don’t make waves, don’t be too loud, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t stir up trouble, don’t make anyone upset. Hold your tongue, speak gently and quietly, defer to others, defer to men.

Add to all this the shame Elizabeth’s community has burdened her with. People use shame to push people to the margins, and to keep them there. To make them feel like their marginalization is somehow their fault. To keep them from speaking up. 

When the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, Elizabeth breaks out of all of these confines of what is considered respectable behavior. She has something important to say. She has prophecy to speak. She has inexpressible joy to try to express. And she doesn’t have time to take a step back and make sure her voice is gentle enough and her words are inoffensive enough and nothing she says is threatening to anyone.

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Maybe it’s jarring to think about Elizabeth in this way. Or, maybe, if you’re someone who feels marginalized in some of the same ways she was, maybe it’s freeing and healing. Maybe it’s a bit of both. 

Maybe for some of us, we’re thinking, yes! Speak up! Speak your truth! Embrace your empowerment by the Holy Spirit! You’re awesome! 

And yet, is that how we see voices from the margins today, who speak boldly as Elizabeth did, full of truth and fire and a longing for justice? How open are we to hearing from the marginalized prophets and prophetesses of our time? 

Do we expect them to conform to some sort of respectable standard before we’re willing to listen? Do we bristle and get defensive because some of them are too loud, or too angry, for our taste?

Elizabeth’s bold speech invites us to pay attention to who might be filled with the Holy Spirit, to who might be speaking prophetic words, around us in our world today. 

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And, the words that Elizabeth speaks, so loudly, after being filled by the Holy Spirit―these words are a series of blessings. You have been blessed, Mary, among women. The fruit of your womb has been blessed. Blessed is the one who believed.

Elizabeth, who wasn’t allowed to be a priest, embodies the priestly role of pronouncing blessing, of calling Mary blessed. She recognizes God’s incredible work in Mary’s life and names it as such.

Who do we tend to imagine, or assume, are the people who get to proclaim blessings? Who gets to be in that powerful and joyful position of saying with confidence: God is with you, God blesses you? 

Pastors? Powerful people? Influential people? Respectable people? 

Do we hope and expect to hear blessings from the mouths of people on the margins? Can we receive those blessings? 

Do we expect that people on the margins have something to offer us―that there are ways we can learn from them, even as we might also see their needs and try to serve them? Are we open to the wisdom they have, the things they can teach us? 

And, in the ways in which we might experience marginalization―whether from gender, or race, or ethnicity, or unemployment, or disability, or sexual orientation, or anything else―do we see ourselves as empowered to be a blessing, to bless others? Do we see ourselves as people who can speak boldly and call forth the best in others? 

As Kathy Khang writes in her book Raise Your Voice, “Elizabeth is unafraid and generous in her word of blessing and exhortation. I imagine that’s because she knows what I often have to remind myself: finding and using our voice isn’t a zero-sum game where we compete with others. Elizabeth isn’t competing. She knows this is a journey for both of them, and she sets the stage for Mary to speak out words we now call the Magnificat. Elizabeth isn’t there just to provide an audience or to be a foil or competitor. She’s the one whose presence and words remind Mary who she is and what is to come.”

Isn’t it beautiful, when we can do this for one another? 

Blessing people isn’t just for some subset of extra holy or powerful people. It’s something all of us can do.

And, blessing one another isn’t just for the times when everything is easy, and things are going well. It’s for the difficult times too. 

Elizabeth and Mary did not live easy, comfortable, happy ever after kinds of lives. Living in poverty as a religious minority in the Roman empire was no easy thing. Add to that the task of raising children who will both end up being killed as revolutionaries. Elizabeth and Mary lived difficult lives in difficult times.

Many of us in 2020 have not had a particularly easy, comfortable, happy ever after kind of year either. And yet, even in these times―maybe especially in these times―we can bless one another. We can call forth the best in one another. We can be present with and be a comfort to one another, as Mary and Elizabeth were. We can remind each other, this Advent season, of God’s presence with us.

And, we can seek out and listen to the prophetic voices from the margins. God is still speaking through them. We can hear their challenging, blessing, life-giving, world-altering, disruptive, uncomfortable words. We can receive and respond to the ways they are inviting us toward justice and goodness and wholeness, as people, as the church, and as a society. We can echo and amplify their voices to people we know who might not listen to them, but might listen to us.

May we receive the gifts and the challenges of Christmas from the margins this Advent season.

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.

Answer To

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

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

Answer To

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

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

your real thoughts locked away 
on shelves 
beyond my reach―

and all of this, you say,
is leadership.

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

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

then I want nothing 
to do with him.

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

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

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

I’d like to know―

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

And, surely, with the sureness 
in my soul,

I do not answer to you.