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.

Super chill book review: Sand Talk (Tyson Yunkaporta)

I read Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (HarperOne, 2020) a couple months ago in the midst of a several-days-long cat crisis. (Kitty is doing well now, thank you). So I may have been a bit distracted. So maybe take everything I say with an extra large grain of salt. (Maybe a teaspoon?) 

That said, I found the book fascinating and very much worth reading, although I’m sure large important parts of it probably went right over my (very distracted) head. I appreciated Yunkaporta’s Aboriginal Australian perspectives on the world—some of which I recognized from reading other indigenous writers, and others of which were newer to me. 

Here are some quotes that stood out and some things Yunkaporta helped me think about:

1) On Schrodinger’s cat (speaking of cat issues…yikes):

“In this famous thought experiment, you imagine putting a cat in a box with some poison. You don’t know if it has died yet because you can’t see it, so in that moment the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead…

From an Aboriginal cosmological point of view, the uncertainty problem is resolved when you admit you are part of the field and accept your subjectivity. If you want to know what’s in the box so bad, drink the poison yourself and climb in…I begin to see the uncertainty principle not as a law but as an expression of frustration about the impossibility of achieving godlike scientific objectivity” (p. 42)

I like this idea of admitting we are part of the field. That feels right to me. We are, by nature, subjective. And Schrodinger’s cat always struck me as kind of ridiculous, even though I know it’s a little more complicated than just putting a cat in a box with poison—and that it was meant to expose the absurdity of a particular view of quantum mechanics in the first place. (Because really. Poor sweet Whiskers is either alive or dead. You just don’t know which one yet.)

So I appreciated the point about the “impossibility of achieving godlike scientific objectivity.” Why would we think that this is possible? And why would it be the goal in the first place? 

As Yunkaporta goes on to say, “Scientists currently have to remove all traces of themselves from experiments, otherwise their data is considered to be contaminated. Contaminated with what? With the filthy reality of belongingness? The toxic realization that if we can’t stand outside of a field we can’t own it?” (p. 42)

Dude’s got some sarcasm. And he’s also got some points. There’s a conflict between wanting to own things and recognizing that we are part of them. There’s a tension between experiencing belonging and obtaining (a toxic sort of) power. There’s a connection between wanting to achieve objectivity and wanting to stand outside a system; between wanting to stand outside a system and wanting control over that system, or at least the illusion of control.

Colonizing powers and the white dudes in charge of them have made one set of choices when faced with these tensions. Ownership, objectivity, outside-ness, control, power. Yunkaporta invites us to consider a different set of choices, and I’m all for it.

2) On how non-indigenous folks often view indigenous folks, and what we’re looking for when we look to them:

“I don’t think most people have the same definition of sustainability that I do. I hear them talking about sustainable exponential growth while ignoring the fact that most of the world’s topsoil is now at the bottom of the sea. It is difficult to talk to people about the impossible physics of civilization, especially if you are Aboriginal: you perform and display the paint and feathers, the pretty bits of your culture, and talk about your unique connection to the land while people look through glass boxes at you, but you are not supposed to look back or describe what you see” (p. 51).

As a white U.S. American trying to listen to and learn from Indigenous folks, I need this perspective. Am I just interested in looking at “the pretty bits of culture,” or am I interested in hearing people describe what they see when they look back at me and my world? 

As Yunkaporta writes later, “‘Strong indigenous voices’ need to be doing more than recounting our subjective experiences; we also need to be examining the narratives of the occupying culture and challenging them with counter-narratives” (p. 116). 

I think that’s what I really like about this book in general. It’s all about looking back. It’s about challenging occupying narratives. This is a gift—and one that those of us from occupying cultures who realize things aren’t working desperately need.

3) I appreciate Yunkaporta’s language around being “a custodian rather than an owner of lands, communities, or knowledge” (p. 82). Maybe it’s just another way to speak of what many Christians might call stewardship. God invites us not to dominate and subdue the earth (as Genesis 1:28 has too often been understood) but to steward the earth. To care for it well.

Yunkaporta refers to humans as a “custodial species,” which, to me, goes even beyond the idea of stewardship. (Or at least is a refreshingly different way to talk about it.) I wonder if, in our imagination, a steward still stands apart from the land (or communities, or knowledge) she is stewarding, but a custodial species is part of this land (or these communities, or this knowledge). 

As custodians rather than owners, Yunkaporta writes, we erase hierarchies and find a new sort of mutuality and belonging. The custodial role “demands the relinquishing of artificial power and control, immersion in the astounding patterns of creation that only emerge through the free movement of all agents and elements within a system” (p. 82). Which can be hella chaotic. But also good. We were not meant to control, but to care. We were not meant to limit creation but to allow its beauty and goodness to emerge freely. 

4) This story got me thinking, as you might imagine, about that one time Jesus told some fishermen they would become “fishers of people” (e.g. Matt 4:19):

“I once visited an Aboriginal community school in the Northern Territory that was using the metaphor of Aboriginal fishing nets as an education framework. This may have worked as an idea of school and community weaving their different threads together to make the nets, then the students using the nets to catch fish, with the fish representing knowledge and social/cultural capital. But this was not the case. The fish in the net represented the children themselves, and the river represented the community, promoting a very problematic image of the school as an entity that captures children and takes them away to be consumed.

We have to be careful of the metaphors we use to make meaning, because metaphors are the language of spirit, and that’s how we operate in our fields of existence either to increase or decrease connectedness within creation” (p. 105).

When Christians use metaphors like “fishers of people”—or, somewhat similarly, “the fields are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35) or “the harvest is plentiful” (Luke 10:20)—what are we really saying? Is there a way to use these metaphors that doesn’t imply that humans are, as Yunkaporta puts it, being captured and taken away for consumption? Do we need new metaphors that better say what we want them to say (and avoid implying what we don’t want them to imply)?

I think these things are worth thinking about. 

5) I read this part and thought of how Jesus talked about becoming like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (e.g. Matt 18:3):

“Anybody who has small children, or works with them, will be familiar with the qualities of an undomesticated mind. It is wild and unschooled, teeming with innate knowledge processes. Children perform tasks they have not encountered before and you wonder, ‘Where the hell did they learn that?’ They play with absolute dedication and fierce concentration. They learn languages perfectly, to the limits of their adult role models, without explicit instruction and at a phenomenal rate. Most of what we learn in our lifetimes today is during the first few years of childhood” (pp. 135-6).

This is a take on what it means to be like a little kid that I don’t often hear in church-y contexts. What if becoming like a child isn’t just about the things we sometimes assume—like being honest, or being humble, or being curious (although these are certainly good things too)? What if it’s also about being totally wild? 

I’m intrigued by this idea of an “undomesticated mind”—and by the possibility that this might be something God wants for us. That God wants for us that kind of freedom—that kind of Untamed-ness (to borrow Glennon Doyle’s book title), if you will. 

6) Here’s a longer quote that felt pretty clutch to me:

“We still endure longer work hours than our roles require today, for reasons of social control rather than productivity. It’s difficult to find the mental space to question systems of power when we’re working eight hours, then trying to lift heavy weights that don’t need lifting or pedaling bikes that go nowhere for an hour so we don’t die of a heart attack from being stuck for a third of our lives in a physically restrictive workspace. We sleep for another third of our lives (although not if we have small children), then the rest is divided between life-maintenance tasks, commuting, and using the few remaining minutes to connect with loved ones, if we have any. Somewhere in there we also need to find time to study and retrain, unless we want to finish up homeless when our industries inevitably collapse or change direction.

The job is the unquestioned goal for all free citizens of the world—the ultimate public good. It is the clearly stated exit goal of all education and the only sanctioned reason for acquiring knowledge. But if we think about it for a moment, jobs are not what we want. We want shelter, food, strong relationships, a livable habitat, stimulating learning activity, and time to perform valued tasks in which we excel. I don’t know of many jobs that will allow access to more than two or three of those things at a time, unless you have a particularly benevolent owner or employers.

I am often told that I should be grateful for the progress that Western civilization has brought to these shores. I am not. This life of work-or-die is not an improvement on preinvasion living, which involved only a few hours of work a day for shelter and sustenance, performing tasks that people do now for leisure activities on their yearly vacations: fishing, collecting plants, hunting, camping, and so forth. The rest of the day was for fun, strengthening relationships, ritual and ceremony, cultural expression, intellectual pursuits, and the expert crafting of exceptional objects…We have been lied to about the ‘harsh survival’ lifestyles of the past. There was nothing harsh about it. If it was so harsh—such a brutish, menial struggle for existence—then we would not have evolved to become the delicate, intelligent creatures that we are” (pp. 139-40).

Yunkaporta reflects on how “there is no word for work in my home language and none in any other Aboriginal language I have seen” (p. 141). I thought all this was fascinating. I resonate with the idea that an eight-plus hour work day is more about social control than productivity. (I remember reducing my hours at the health tech start-up I used to work for from 40 hrs/week to 30 hrs/week and feeling like I got about the same amount done. Because who can mentally focus on a particular set of tasks for 8 hrs/day?) 

I also resonate with Yunkaporta’s list of things we actually want when we say we want a job. (After all, as this viral Twitter thread from a few weeks ago made clear, no one wants to work anymore…and no one has wanted to work anymore for, like, a really long time.) 

Maybe, as Yunkaporta says, only two or three of these things that we want are available to us through most of our jobs, most of the time—but maybe by operating together as communities we can make more of these things available to more people. “Shelter, food, strong relationships, a livable habitat, stimulating learning activity, and time to perform valued tasks in which we excel.” It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

That’s all I’ve got for now. As always, holler with your thoughts if you’ve read the book, or if you haven’t read the book, or if anything here connected with you.

Super chill book review part 1: Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin Kobes Du Mez)

Well, this is looking to be another two-part super chill book review… 

(Some might ask, does it still count as “super chill” once it gets to be this long? To which I would say, the chill factor isn’t about length so much as style—these aren’t really book reviews so much as just collections of quotes that stood out to me and things the book made me think about. But if you want to call these “zero chill book reviews,” that’s cool too.)

Anyhow. Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2021) is an extensively-researched deep dive into the intersections of patriarchy, militarism, toxic masculinity, violence, Christianity, many decades of US politics, and basically all the things. 

It’s one of those books people kept recommending to me for a while before I actually got around to reading it. I’m not totally sure why it took me a minute. I definitely believed everyone that the book was awesome (which it totally is). But maybe part of me also felt a little jaded on the topics involved. 

Part of me felt like, didn’t I go to seminary to try to figure out what the hell is wrong with (white) U.S. evangelicalism—and how it became what it is? What more could there be that I didn’t already learn in my American Church History class, biblical studies and theology classes, ethics classes, or the whole frickin’ class I took on Dr. King? What more could there be—and what more could there be that I would actually be excited to read about and not just totally depressed by?

Joke’s on me—turns out there really was (and I’m sure still is) much more to learn. So, so much more. I was blown away by Jesus and John Wayne. Here are a few thoughts and quotes:

1) One of the oddities of my own spiritual journey is the fact that, as a teenager, I held some surprisingly Religious Right-leaning views for someone who grew up in a liberal part of the country, in a moderate-to-liberal family, and in a moderate-to-liberal church. 

This is mostly explained by the fact that, unfortunately, I read the Christian Internet. The Christian Internet told me that if I loved Jesus (which I did), then I would vote Republican (which I would have, if I were old enough to vote), because opposing gay marriage and opposing abortion rights outweighed every other political concern. 

I thought about this when I read these words from Du Mez:

“At any given time, numerous creeds have coexisted and competed for influence within evangelicalism. Even today, the evangelical tent includes Calvinists and Pentecostals, ‘social justice warriors’ and prosperity gospel gurus. However, over the past several decades conservatives have consolidated their power within the broader movement. Offering certainty in times of social change, promising security in the face of global threats, and, perhaps most critically, affirming the righteousness of a white Christian America and, by extension, of white Christian Americans, conservative evangelicals succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of large numbers of American Christians. They achieved this dominance not only by crafting a compelling ideology but also by advancing their agenda through strategic organizations and political alliances, on occasion by way of ruthless displays of power, and, critically, by dominating the production and distribution of Christian consumer culture” (p. 9).

Strategic organizations, political alliances, ruthless displays of power, and dominating Christian consumer culture. That sounds about right. There are and have always been many different kinds of Christians, many different Christian ideologies, many different approaches to life and the world and the political realm.

The Religious Right not only aggressively markets their own ideas but also aggressively markets the lie that their ideas are the only ones out there—that is, the only truly Christian ones out there. I used to believe that lie.

Personally, these days, I would say that the values of a certain strain of Christianity (like opposing gun control, supporting the death penalty, opposing immigration reform and refugee resettlement, and generally trying to keep the US as white as possible—all realities Du Mez mentions on p. 4) are completely opposed to what I understand as faithfulness to the religion of Jesus. Others might disagree, and that’s okay. (Not okay in the sense that I think they’re right or that their views aren’t terrifying and deeply harmful, but okay in the sense that different people have different perspectives and that is their right.)

What we should all be able to agree on, though, at a bare minimum, is the clear fact that there are many streams of Christianity, many ways the Bible has been interpreted, many different approaches to politics by those who sincerely want to be guided by the Christian faith. While I tend to think I’m right about things (or at least some things—some important things) and want others to agree with me because I think our world would be better if they did, I also have no interest in pretending that my views are the only ones. I find myself enraged by the ways a certain conservative stream of Christianity has tried to control Christians’ thinking (and voting—mostly, voting) by doing exactly that.

2. Du Mez reflects on the Obama years and on conservative evangelicals’ response to his presidency:

“In 2008, the election of Barack Obama ratcheted up evangelical fears. Initially, the culture wars appeared to be lost and the power of the Christian Right seemed to have reached an ignoble end. But conservative evangelicals had always thrived on a sense of embattlement, real or imagined, and this time would be no different. Donald Trump appeared at a moment when evangelicals felt increasingly beleaguered, even persecuted. From the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate to transgender bathroom laws and the cultural sea change on gay marriage, gender was at the heart of this perceived vulnerability. On the foreign policy front, the threat of terrorism loomed large, American power wasn’t what it used to be, and nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals harbored fears that a once-powerful nation had become ‘too soft and feminine.’

“Evangelical fears were real. Yet these fears were not simply a natural response to changing times. For decades, evangelical leaders had worked to stoke them. Their own power depended on it. Men like James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, Franklin Graham, and countless lesser lights invoked a sense of peril in order to offer fearful followers their own brand of truth and protection” (p. 13).

Looking back on my eleven years at a conservative evangelical church, including a couple years working full-time there in college ministry, I feel like I was very much immersed in the evangelical world but also very much not immersed in that world. It was an independent church, not connected to a broader denominational network. And while the church’s (elder board) leadership turned out to be more conservative than I first realized, the community as a whole really was composed of a broad range of people with all sorts of different views. So, in some ways I was pretty unaware and kind of naive about the kinds of things that were happening in the broader conservative evangelical world. 

One time, though, a college student I worked with forwarded me a chain email about how then-President Obama was a Muslim and the anti-Christ, or something like that. I thought, Surely no one in their right mind believes these things. I knew this college student. I liked her. She was an entirely reasonable person. So I replied to her email asking if perhaps her message was a joke, or did she maybe have her email hacked? 

I was shocked when she responded quickly and told me that no, it wasn’t a joke, and yes, she did intend to send me that email. She felt it was important for people to be aware of the truth about our president. 

I didn’t know what to do. Turns out that the evangelical fears, the persecution complex, the embattlement, all the things Du Mez writes about—these things reached into my own community more deeply than I knew. At the time, I brushed off the student’s email as a bit of an anomaly, but really, it wasn’t that at all. It was likely what a lot of people at my church believed but didn’t necessarily say out loud.

3. As someone who has thought a fair amount about LGBTQ affirmation—because I had to, once it became clear that I had no future at my church if I embraced affirming theology—I resonate with these words from Du Mez:

“Within evangelicalism itself, this [antigay] activism is often depicted as an expression of long-standing opposition to same-sex relationships triggered by the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but the virulence with which conservative Christians opposed gay rights was rooted in the cultural and political significance they placed on the reassertion of distinct gender roles during those decades. Same-sex relationships challenged the most basic assumptions of the evangelical worldview” (p. 63).

That feels about right. Opposing gay rights wouldn’t necessarily have been that big a deal for evangelicals if it hadn’t directly challenged everything they believed about rigid gender roles for women and men. 

You can be egalitarian (when it comes to equality between men and women) but non-gay-affirming, and I know plenty of people in that camp. At the same time—as I slowly realized when I started to dig deeper into the beliefs of my own church leaders when it came to gender and sexuality—the logic of non-affirming theology directly stems from patriarchal (complementarian) theology.

I’m not saying every non-LGBTQ-affirming person came to this conclusion in the same way or for the same reasons. But historically speaking, as Du Mez points out, that was kind of how it happened, and it seems good to be aware of this.

4. Given the current state of the U.S. and the mess we’re in when it comes to reproductive rights, I felt like this paragraph offers some helpful historical context:

“In 1968, Christianity Today considered the question of therapeutic abortion—was it a blessing, or murder? They gave no definitive answer. As late as 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging states to expand access to abortion. But with the liberalization of abortion laws, and as abortion proponents began to frame the issue in terms of women controlling their reproduction, evangelicals started to reconsider their position. In 1973, Roe v. Wade—and the rising popularity of abortion in its wake—helped force the issue, but even then, evangelical mobilization was not immediate. Only in time, as abortion became more closely linked to feminism and the sexual revolution, did evangelicals begin to frame it not as a difficult moral choice, but rather as an assault on women’s God-given role, on the family, and on Christian America itself” (pp. 68-9).

Ah, yes. Roe v. Wade? Not sure what to think about it. Mostly a Catholic issue, I think. No definitive answer here. Oh wait, the feminists are advocating for abortion rights? Well then it must be a problem. It must be contrary to what we believe as Christiansbecause clearly anything feminist must be contrary to what we believe as Christians. Sounds about right.

I don’t think this was the only thing going on. There was also the way conservative evangelicals had opposed racial desegregation, and when it became clear that that was becoming an unpopular position and a losing battle, they needed another heated issue to rally people around in a partisan way. 

But I think abortion was a ready choice for this issue because of its connection to changing ideas about gender roles and women’s empowerment—ideas that Christians whose faith was tied closely to their patriarchy found incredibly threatening. 

As with opposition to LGBTQ+ inclusion and affirmation, individual Christians who oppose abortion rights today didn’t necessarily take the path Du Mez outlines to get here. But this is the reasoning that was involved historically.

That’s what I’ve got for part 1! Please feel free to comment, email, or otherwise holler with your thoughts on these nice little noncontroversial issues. And don’t worry, I’ll be back next week with part 2!

New post at Feminism & Religion

Just got done with a Zoom book discussion of Kyla Schuller’s The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism. What a book. Definitely “super chill book review” material, so keep on the lookout for that sometime soon-ish.

(And spoiler alert: as a white woman, I didn’t feel nearly as offended as the title might perhaps make one worry. I didn’t feel like the book was criticizing me so much as inviting me into better ways of thinking about things and moving in this world. Which most of us very much need.)

One of the (many) things The Trouble with White Women made me think about was the (complicated) legacy of Margaret Sanger in regard to birth control and reproductive rights and that sort of highly-relevant-to-current-events thing. I wrote a post about all this at Feminism & Religion – check it out here if you like!

Super chill book review part 2: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

As promised—and eagerly awaited, I’m sure!—this is the second part of a super chill book review of Andre Henry’s All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep. (The first part is chillin over here if you didn’t catch it before.) 

Here are a few more quotes and thoughts.

4) On the language of “can’t”:

“That was the second time [seminary friend] Kevin used the word ‘can’t’ in regard to condemning slavery…He echoed his predecessors, who often wrote about how they couldn’t abolish slavery, because the world they were building depended on it too much. A straight line can be traced between the colonizers who claimed they couldn’t abolish slavery to white people today who ‘can’t’ condemn it in the present, nor imagine a world without its descendants: the police and prisons. Perhaps they do this because they know they can’t categorically condemn the violence that structures their world without implicating themselves” (pp. 87-8).

I hear and honor the specific context of race and racial violence that Andre’s writing about here. And, at the same time, when I read this, my mind also wanders to all the other things I’ve heard Christians say they can’t do.

For example, “I want to support women in ministry, but I can’t—it isn’t the way our church/denomination does things, and there isn’t enough will to change.” Or, “I want to affirm LGBTQ+ people and relationships, but I can’t—I just don’t see how the Bible could be understood in any way other than condemning.” 

What is this “can’t”? 

In a sense, it’s a sort of appeal to a higher authority. I want to do something, but some thing/person/rule/structure/system/theology/authority won’t allow me. At some point, though, in my view, we don’t get to absolve ourselves so easily of responsibility for our own choices and the impact they have. 

Sometimes, in order to be whole and healthy humans who want wholeness and health for others as well, we have to go against the way things have always been done. Sometimes we have to disagree with church/denominational higher-ups. Sometimes we have to read the Bible differently from what we’re used to or what everyone around us is doing. These things are not easy. But we can do them. 

We get to make choices, and we are responsible for these choices. Those who felt they couldn’t abolish slavery are still responsible for the suffering it caused; those who feel they can’t challenge the status quo today are still responsible for the suffering in our current world, whether by way of racial violence, institutionalized misogyny, homophobia, or any other forms it might take.

I don’t find it easy to imagine, as Andre writes, a world without…police and prisons. But, in solidarity with people who are most impacted by the injustice and violence of these systems, I can try.

5) On God and racism:

“I don’t think they always realize this, but when a Christian says God isn’t concerned about racism, they’re saying God doesn’t care about Black people. Those statements are inseparable. We fight for people we care about, period. If you saw a friend in danger, love would compel you to try to save them. So to say God won’t intervene against anti-Black violence, because it’s not important, could only mean God doesn’t love us” (pp. 120-1).

I read this, and I think about how sometimes Christians get some weird ideas about redemptive suffering. And it gets especially gnarly when people try to apply these ideas to other people’s lives rather than their own. 

If someone went through something difficult and felt that it was redeemed in some way, whether through character growth or something else good that came out of it, that’s great. I’m all for it. But I don’t think I get to tell someone who is not me that their suffering is redemptive.

Yet that is often what white people do to Black people. And it’s violent. It’s the opposite of loving. For those of us who are not Black, if we love our Black sisters and brothers and siblings, as Andre writes, we won’t try to tell them that God isn’t concerned about racism. We’ll believe with them in a God who fights for them—and we’ll join them in the fight.

6) On what comes next:

 “The question I have today is whether or not all those millions of people who filled the streets in 2020 for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have realized that their next task is to use nonviolent direct action to cripple the operations of a repressive society. We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer; we’re fighting against a corrupt empire. We must connect the struggle for Black lives today to previous movements against imperialism, authoritarianism, and fascism around the world and at home. We must learn from those movements and apply their lessons to our situation today, with the understanding that tinkering with the current system isn’t enough. The current system was built to oppress, which means it must be replaced. We must go from being a fundamentally unequal society sustained by violence to a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. A revolution is necessary to make Black lives matter, and we have to plan it” (pp. 144-5).

I don’t really have anything to add to this—just wanted to include it here, because I feel like it captures the heart of a lot of what this book is about. 

Where do we go from the summer of 2020? What more is needed? What does continued and genuine antiracist engagement look like? We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer. We’re fighting to become a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. Amen to that.

7) On white folks who want to get involved:

“If white people are serious about fighting white supremacy and anti-Blackness, they need to start within themselves. This kind of work is essential because without it, white people will enter movement spaces and cause the same kinds of harm Black people are trying to get away from. They need to confront the ways they’ve been shaped by anti-Black ideas and been complicit in defending the racial hierarchy. They need to dedicate themselves to the work of fighting against racism in their own communities, instead of rushing straight into spaces where Black people are trying to heal and organize for our own freedom.

“White people should consider how they can organize for racial justice in ways that give Black people space: space where we’re free from the pressure to educate them, perform for them, or coddle them. One option is for white people to join non-Black ally movement groups that work in parallel with Black-led organizations and are accountable to trusted Black leaders: White People for Black Lives (WP4BL) or Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), for instance. White people who really get it understand that such space is necessary” (p. 163).

As a white person hoping to be useful to the cause of racial justice—and who knows a lot of fellow white people in a similar boat (hi, Lake B)—I appreciate this warning and encouragement. Not every justice movement space is a space for us—and that’s okay. Not every space needs to be for us, and not every space should cater to us. 

This doesn’t mean we can’t be useful. It just means that anti-Blackness is so deeply ingrained in us that we need to be thoughtful, careful, and humble about where and how we show up, so that we don’t do more harm than good.

8) On hope:

 “Frankly, I thought hope was bullshit. Mostly because all of the hopeful people I knew had a tendency to minimize problems in order to stay positive. It seemed that the only people I knew who had hope weren’t paying close attention to what’s going on in the world. [Activist Rebecca Solnit’s book] Hope in the Dark was the beginning of a journey that would permanently shift my perspective.

“The idea that struck me most in Solnit’s book was that there’s a difference between hope and certainty. To be hopeful doesn’t mean we’re sure about the future. ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists,’ she explains. ‘Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.’ My mouth dropped open when I first read those words. They gave me a concept of hope that looked ugly truths in the face and left room for human agency. It felt like good news” (p. 169).

I feel this tension between holding onto hope and trying to pay attention to what’s actually going on in the world. I also really enjoyed Hope in the Dark. I have not been engaged in activist scholarship and struggle nearly as deeply as Andre has, but in the ways I have tried to engage, Solnit’s book felt like good news to me, too.

As far as good news goes, I feel like many of us who’ve been involved in the evangelical world have been awakening to a realization that the white American evangelical gospel doesn’t actually feel like good news. (As Andre articulates in his song Playing Hookey.) So I think it’s worth asking, and paying attention to our answers: What does feel like good news?

What’s actual, legit good news for you? For your community? For those “with their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited? I don’t know if the answers that come to you will line up very well with a conservative evangelical version of Christianity. But I suspect God might be in them. 

Well, this really just scratches the surface of a few parts of Andre’s book. There’s a lot there. I hope you get a chance to read it, and I’d love to chat about it if so (here, FB, email, real life, whatever you prefer)!

Super chill book review part 1: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

I was fortunate to cross paths with Andre Henry while studying at Fuller, and I have a great deal of respect for him as a musician, writer, and human. So my expectations for his first book, All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope–and Hard Pills to Swallow–About Fighting for Black Lives (Convergent 2022), were pretty high.

All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep did not disappoint. I knew Andre was brilliant, but it’s a whole other thing to see that brilliance laid out so eloquently, bravely, and compellingly on the pages of a whole book. I’m thankful for the labor of love this book must have been.

There are a few quotes and thoughts I’d like to share. It got kind of long, though, so we’re going to take it in two parts. Here’s the first! 

1) “Contrary to what people love to say about racial violence—that it springs from ignorance or blind hatred—the Maafa wasn’t, and isn’t, senseless. The crime was undertaken for a reason: profit. Over and over again, in their writings about the slave trade, white men spoke of how they must use the sweat and suffering of enslaved Africans to build their banks and textile industries, their ships and plantation homes, and to produce whatever else they ‘needed’ to buy or sell: their coffee, tea, sugar, rum, cotton, indigo. It was just business” (p. 20).

As Andre writes, racism doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t just exist because white people are randomly ignorant or hateful in random ways and for no particular reason.

Rather, it’s closely connected with a brutal, unchecked sort of capitalism, where profit is all that matters, and the people making ruthless decisions to pursue the greatest possible profit at any cost (to human life, the earth, etc.) keep themselves at many arms’ length from the consequences of these decisions.

I think about how greed and love of money are sins that Jesus has so much to say about but churches often don’t. In many churches the wealthiest people are the most respected, assumed to be the best leaders and the best influences on young people. But that wealth has often come at a cost. And the cost is often inflicted most brutally on people of color and materially poor people whose lives are considered expendable, an unfortunately necessary sacrifice. 

More and more churches and other organizations are opening up to conversations about race and racism, at least in some form. But we can’t have these conversations fully and honestly without also talking about capitalism, greed, money, and the (human) sacrifices powerful people are willing to make to increase their profits and amass grain in their storehouses.

2) As an enneagram type 1 and a (self-designated) Angry Woman, I appreciated Andre’s chapter on anger. These next few quotes are from that chapter.

“I spent a lot of time in the spring of 2015 trying to appear respectable to the white friends I couldn’t keep. I wanted to avoid the appearance of being angry, thinking it would be more persuasive. Because once white people sense you’re angry, you lose them. Just as I had with Sherry, I always responded to their racist comments with ‘I can see why you’d think that, but . . .,’ always giving them the benefit of the doubt. I thought I had to approach my white friends like that in those days—to educate them without offending them” (pp. 45-6).

I hear this. Maybe one of my goals as a white person trying to be antiracist should be to become unoffendable.

I know that may not be totally realistic, and it’s probably an odd way to put things. But what I really want is to become the kind of white friend (or white human in general) who can hear the truth of someone else’s experience, whatever it might be, and honor that truth. 

This truth can be different from my experience, and someone’s reflections on it might lead that person to different conclusions about the world than the ones I’ve come to. Even if that’s the case, though, hearing from that person is still a gift, not to be taken lightly—not to be undermined or violated by my defensiveness, but to be received with gratitude.

I don’t have to see everything the same way. I can still listen, try to be open, choose not to be offended but to learn.

3) A couple more quotes from Andre on anger:

“I’d been angry for as long as I could remember, from the day I came to recognize what it meant to be Black in this country, but I’d been trained to feel like rage was off-limits…

Angry is a loaded term for us because we know how rare it is for white people to respect it. When white people say you’re angry, they’re not saying, ‘I recognize how you feel, and that’s valid.’ More often, they’re appraising your character, naming an innate quality, a defect. You’re angry in the way that bacon is salty or mangoes are sweet, ‘one of those perpetually angry Blacks.’ It’s a statement of disapproval, meant to make us loosen our lips, fix our faces, and take the bass out of our voices. We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. Do anything else, and you risk a range of punishments: from a white friend shutting down the conversation to an officer pinning you to the ground” (pp. 48-9).

We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. I feel that. It’s so clearly not right. I think this is a metaphor that will stick with me. 

“Rank-and-file white people also try to stamp out Black rage wherever it emerges. They tell us Black anger is destructive and can’t be trusted. The truth is just the opposite.

“Black rage is trustworthy because it carries an analysis of present injustices. On a physiological level, anger is the body’s way of telling us that a boundary has been violated. It’s the natural emotional response humans have to being wronged, especially if that wrong is recurring and denied by the harmdoers. Therefore, Black rage is a healthy sign that we as a people recognize the crimes that have been, and continue to be, committed against us. Our anger is based in our personal experiences of anti-Black hostility in the white world and backed by our knowledge of our history.

“Black rage can be constructive because anger can be the starting point of hope. If anger is something like an alarm system, telling us things ought not to be a certain way, then it’s likely that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. That vision of how things ought to be is the most important building block for a revolution; after all, it’s hard to build a world we haven’t envisioned” (p. 53).

Anger can be the starting point of hope, because it signals that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. In this light, we can see that attempts to quell or placate anger are often really attacks on hope—they’re conservative maneuvers that uphold the status quo. 

Let’s learn to be comfortable with anger—our own, and others,’ and especially that of people on the underside of the power structures of our world. Let’s pay attention to what this anger is telling us about what ought to be.

More to come later this week!

Super chill book review: Red Lip Theology (Candice Marie Benbow)

Candice Marie Benbow’s new book Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough (Convergent 2022) strikes me as a combination of memoir, Black feminist manifesto, ode to Benbow’s mother, and work of theological deconstruction and reconstruction. Or something like that. I’m here for it. It’s a sort of coming-of-theology story, if you will. 

Benbow works with womanist (academic) theology, both what she loves about it and where she thinks it could go further. She’s looking to develop spiritual belief and practice that works for a new generation of Black women. And she has a ton of important stuff to say.

She isn’t looking to write something “prescriptive for all women,” because, as she puts it, “there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to life and the people who say, ‘yes, there is—it’s Jesus’ are being lazy and willfully obtuse” (p. xxx). Amen to that. At the same time, I’m grateful for the chance to be one of the “other women”—that is, non-Black women—who are “eavesdropping and looking for freedom, too” (p. xxx).

A few quotes and thoughts I especially liked:

1) “Even as I desired to navigate it, womanist theology didn’t feel like it was created for women like me: sisters who didn’t tuck in their ratchetness in favor of righteousness to occupy certain spaces or get in certain rooms. I needed something to speak to the totality of who I am” (p. xxv).

I like the part about not tucking in ratchetness in favor of righteousness. Not that I’m particularly ratchet. But for those who are, who the hell am I to tell them—who the hell is anyone to tell them—that they can’t bring the fullness of who they are to church, or theology, or anywhere else they like? 

I need the perspectives and gifts and brilliance of my ratchet-est of sisters. The church needs all these things, as does the world.

2) I appreciated Benbow going hard against Calvinist theology—or at least the sketchier, ickier parts of it. She effectively communicates, in many different ways throughout the book, that humans are inherently worthy, valuable, and good. That the biblical story doesn’t start with sin; it starts with good creation. That we are not slimy worthless worms (my words, not hers—I’ve heard others call this “worm theology”) before we invite Jesus into our lives, or whatever you want to call Christian conversion. 

For anyone for whom this sort of dominant evangelical theology isn’t really working—I’d recommend this book. Benbow does a great job of articulating what exactly isn’t working and suggesting what we might believe instead. She invites us into a more humanity-affirming, goodness-affirming, worth-affirming kind of spirituality.

“Where did Christians get the idea we are these wretched creatures who need so desperately to be thrown the bone of salvation for our lives to have any value or meaning?” Benbow asks. “The way I read it, the work of creation was an act of love. This omniscient, omnipresent, sustaining force took the time to make one of the most significant things it ever would. The Holy Maker called every single aspect of the design ‘good.’. . . yes, the biblical narrative is replete with examples of humanity fumbling the ball and God extending grace and mercy. We can look to our own lives and see where God has done the same thing. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning: good” (pp. 18-9).

God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning. I like that. Whatever else we are, we are also good. We are loved. 

I appreciate this message in general, and I also feel like it’s especially powerful and healing and necessary for those who constantly get the message in our society that they are not good, that they are not worth anything, that they are less than. People on the underside of oppressive power structures especially need to know that they are good, they are loved, their lives are sacred. From the beginning, and all the time.

3) I appreciate Benbow’s perspectives on God and gender, and more specifically, God’s gender. 

I got to teach a three-week class at my church back in January on “feminine God-talk”—that is, biblical, historical, and contemporary feminine imagery and metaphors for God, including the use of feminine pronouns. I think if I do the class again, I’ll include some of Benbow’s reflections.

For example, this:

“In my mind, God was a man, and men stuck together. God would look out for my dad and cosign his foolishness because that’s what men do. After all, God was only referred to as ‘He’ and ‘Him’ in church and in the scriptures. Add to that the trifling things I’d heard men—pastors included—had done and gotten away with. God was on the side of his homeboys.

To this day, I’ve seen men lie for each other, gaslight the hell out of women to make us second-guess ourselves and our own common sense—all to protect their boy. I saw it when the men would assist each other in the creation and perpetuation of false alibis. And it was up close and personal for me when I got my heart broken and men I deeply respected said, ‘Well . . . maybe you misconstrued some things’” (p. 30).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about God’s perceived masculinity in these terms—that speaking of God as if God is male makes God seem like one of the boys. But that totally makes sense to me. 

It’s not just an issue of, say, whether women and nonbinary folks can see ourselves as being made in God’s image fully—fully human. It’s also a question of: Whom does God side with? Whom does God stick up for? Whom does God betray? Does God participate in male church leaders’ gaslighting? Does God lie to cover up for men?

It’s important for people and communities to know that God is not one of the boys. God does not lie to women or gaslight them. God does not protect abusive men from the consequences of their actions. God does not hide or cover for them. 

I appreciate how Benbow connects the dots here. The ways we gender God are deeply tied to the ways gendered power dynamics play out in religious spaces.

4) More on (particularly masculine) gendered language for God:

“God stood before language or identity and is not defined by them. God is compassionate and empathetic enough to make room for us to come to know God as we need to come to know God. While I think it gave us an initial point of reference, the push to understand God through gendered language does not come from the Divine. It comes from our need to control, to lay claim, to create proximity to those whose authority we believe shouldn’t be questioned. But domination is not God’s will for us” (p. 39).

This strikes me as a helpful addition to the stuff I was thinking and writing about God and “they/them” pronouns a couple months ago. God can make Godself known through various pronouns—for those in the Christian tradition, often masculine ones—but that doesn’t mean that those pronouns limit God or encapsulate the entirety of who God is. 

We don’t need to try to control the language people use to speak about God. We can embrace the beauty of different ways of speaking about God, whether or not we understand all of them. 

5) Back to Calvinism and such:

“I don’t need a God who knows what I will do before I do it. I am not a robot. I was created with emotions and feelings that can shift in the moment. Plus, I don’t think we realize how much our thoughts of predestination and God’s omniscience take us off the hook. They make God responsible for our decisions so we don’t have to accept any responsibility . . . And because God trusts me with free will, it comes with great responsibility. I owe it to God and myself to live a life of authenticity. That requires I make decisions true to the core of who I am and that honor me” (pp. 57-8).

I don’t have much to add to that except an amen. Just wanted to share.

6) One small part of the awesomeness of Benbow’s mother, who plays a major role in this book:

“I had a mother who believed in my gifts and talents, believed they were called to shake things up, and believed I could be kind while doing it. She didn’t believe in calling someone out. Mama favored the notion of ‘bringing someone to’ something. By being direct, clear, kind, and compassionate, she believed you could provoke someone’s awareness and change their hearts” (pp. 103-4).

Something to aspire to, I think. Direct, clear, kind, and compassionate. Provoking awareness. Not necessarily being nice or playing into whatever notions of respectability people might have, but being kind and clear. 

7) One last quote:

“There is power in saying no. Women don’t say it enough and Black women say it even less. Saying yes to everything becomes our ‘reasonable service.’ American culture teaches men to say no almost without thinking, without a care about who it may harm or hurt. Women consider entirely too many people’s feelings to the point of self-sacrifice and self-sabotage. ‘No’ is a holy word. Our agency is sacred. God honors our agency through free will. We must honor it ourselves. When we say no, we are affirming that our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere . . . ‘No’ is a complete sentence and offers no explanation. Because we care about the people we say no to, we choose to explain ourselves. But it’s okay to say no and leave it there” (p. 168).

As someone who finds it awkward and a little stressful sometimes to say no—in more than one recent instance I’ve found myself muttering “errmm…mayybe…” when I wanted to say no but didn’t want to offend—I need all of this. ‘No’ is a holy word. Amen. Our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere

If someone is offended by us exercising our agency to say no, the problem is generally with the person who is offended—with their own unreasonable expectations or entitlement, not with the person who says no. I want people to feel very free to say no when I ask them for something; why wouldn’t I offer them the same authenticity I want to receive?

I also like the idea that we can choose to explain our “no” because we care about people, but we don’t have to. It’s okay to say no and leave it there. Saying yes, no, or maybe is the free choice of the person who is asked something — and so is whether or not to give an explanation.

None of this is one bit at odds with Christian faith. As Benbow writes, it’s God honoring our agency.

Hope you enjoyed these thoughts and quotes! Lots of good stuff in this book. Holler if you read it!

Prayer: prepare

I wrote this prayer back in Advent, but it feels about right for the last week or so. Grieving for and with those most impacted by violence, by power moving through our world in perverse ways.

The original Advent prompt word was “prepare.”

Prepare

God, the weight of the world is still here. 
I know I was not meant to bear it all, but I still feel it.
I often want to do something, anything, but am not sure what to do. 
And I don’t want to move just to assuage my guilt about my own comfort 
while others suffer in a violent world. 
I want to move with you, in you, through you, in your spirit, 
in your confidence, guided by you, in your love. 
Healing will not come through frantic directionless striving, 
but through quieting myself to listen to your voice, 
and through quieting the world to listen to myself, 
and through quieting everything to listen to the labor-pain groaning of the world. 
I have finite time and power and energy and gifts. 
I want to find what I have to offer and offer it fully. 
I don’t want to bear the weight of anything else.
God, prepare me for the work you have for me. 
I am so easily distracted by people’s approval or disapproval, 
by respectability, by societal notions of success. 
Help me move, help me wait, help me be patient, help me be bold. 
Guide me with your wisdom. 
And help me learn to trust my own wisdom, the kind you’ve given me, again. 
Amen.

God lifts the lowly: reflections on Mary’s song

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” -Mary (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)

In these verses, Mary breaks out into a song often known as the Magnificat. To me, Mary’s song is kind of what Christmas is all about. So, with Christmas pretty much here, I thought I’d offer some reflections on this songadapted from a sermon I wrote for a preaching class back in the day (well, three and a half years ago) in seminary.

When Mary breaks out in spontaneous song, in rich prophetic poetry, she starts with her own situation. I imagine how she might have been feeling: 

God―the God of the universe and of my ancestors―God has visited me! Out of the blue. I thought I knew God, loved God, wanted to serve God, but I never would have imagined this. God has chosen me for an incredible and miraculous task. Me! Not someone older and wiser, or from a rich family, or from Jerusalem, the center of everything, or at least a nice little suburb of it. God chose me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord” and “my spirit rejoices.” I feel my whole being bursting forth in irrepressible praise of this God. This God is Lord―powerful, authoritative. This God is Savior―the one who sees those who suffer, and delivers them and sets them free. And this God―Lord and Savior―has looked with favor on me! 

God is doing something. The angel talked about a kingdom with no end. The throne of David. This is big! And I get to be a part of it. Surely all generations will call me blessed. 

This is a great thing. This is a holy God.

Mary reflects on her own situation and praises God from the bottom of her heart for God’s work in her life. That’s all in verses 46-49. 

Then, around verse 50, something changes. The scope gets broader. Mary starts talking about what all this means about God in general. From generation to generation. About God’s character. About what God does in the world. 

Mary says that God is merciful. God is strong. God is powerful. God helps. God remembers. God keeps promises. God lifts up, and God brings down.

Mary starts talking about other people, too. In particular, two kinds of people. On the one hand, we have those who are lowly, those who fear God, those who are hungry. On the other hand, we have those who are proud in their hearts, those who are powerful, those who are rulers, those who are rich. This is how the world is. 

But for Mary, this is not how things remain. God reverses the expected order of things. God does not leave the lowly down low, but lifts them up. God does not leave the hungry starving, but fills them with good things. God does not leave those who fear God without help or without mercy. 

And God does not leave the proud to think they’re all that; God scatters them. God does not leave the rulers in their thrones; God brings them down. God does not leave the rich thinking they have everything because they have money; God sends them away empty. 

Mary is full of hope and bursting with joy and good news. She bursts into song! 

But is this good news to us? Maybe? Maybe a mixed bag. 

It depends: Who are we in this passage? Are we the lowly who are lifted up by God, or are we the powerful who are scattered by God? How do we know? How do we feel about this total reversal of power and money and status? 

Let’s talk about the rich, proud, and powerful first. Are there ways in which we fall into this category? One way of thinking about this may be to think about what we feel entitled to. What are our expectations for life? For how people and systems and the world will treat us? What kinds of things are we surprised, or bitter, or disappointed not to get?

Our expectations and entitlements can take many shapes. Perhaps we’ve felt entitled to be offered a job we applied for. Maybe we expect to get an A on a paper when we spend a lot of time on it. We might feel entitled to get a raise if we’ve been working hard, or for our kid to be accepted to a certain college if they’ve been working hard. We might expect that if we invest wisely, the stock market will generally go up and make us some money. Perhaps we have enjoyed good physical health and assume we always will, or we have not had any mental health issues and assume we never will. 

Maybe life is going well. Perhaps we are among the people favored by the way the world works, and we expect that that will continue.

When we’re in this place, and things are going well, the kind of reversal of expectations that we see in our passage does not sound like good news. It can be offensive. It can be threatening. It up-ends the social order that has benefited us. What are we to think of a God who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly?

Maybe a first step is to try to enter into the experience of people who may be or may feel lowly, hungry, or poor.

In our culture sometimes we separate out things like physical hunger and thirst and poverty from spiritual hunger and spiritual needs. In Mary’s time and culture, in Mary’s worldview, all of these things tended to go together. Mary lived in poverty among a minority people, a minority ethnic and religious group, oppressed by a very powerful and often ruthless empire. For Mary, the lowly are those who fear God, and those who fear God are the hungry, and those who are hungry are Israel, the servant of God, and Israel is the community that needs God’s help and mercy. 

These are the people at the bottom of the social order. The people who know they need God to do something.

What does it mean in our time and place for people to be lowly? Are there ways in which we identify with the lowly, the humble, the hungry?

Some of us might be underpaid, or undervalued. We may feel that we’ve failed in some way, or that life has not treated us well. Some of us belong to groups that are considered lowly or are not treated well in our society―perhaps groups based on gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, language, citizenship status, mental health status, socioeconomic class. 

God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud. 

God affirmed and lifted up the dignity of a peasant girl from the middle of nowhere in Nazareth. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of underpaid employees. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of people working in all sorts of professions that might be undervalued, maybe even considered lacking in dignity: of people who take out trash, and drive buses, and clean buildings, and flip burgers, and wait tables. 

God affirms and lifts up the worth and value of people who do not have a job, who are unemployed or underemployed. God affirms and lifts up people who don’t have adequate housing, or who don’t have housing at all. 

God affirms and lifts up people who live in fear of deportation. God affirms and lifts up communities of color who are on the receiving end of racism and violence―from individuals, and from government systems that are not set up in their favor. 

God lifts up the lowly.

Mary says, surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed. Mary―a young woman from the rural underclass of society, in a time when women’s testimonies were not considered valid in court―raises her voice and testifies to this God who lifts up the lowly. 

Mary knows that God fills up the hungry with good things. The world honors and lifts up those who have money and power and self-assurance, but God honors and lifts up those who are hungry, and lowly, small, and humble. Mary knows that this is who God is, because this is who God has been to her―and because there is something about the baby she carries that brings hope. 

Jesus brings hope. The child of God chose to be carried and birthed and raised by Mary. He chose to be born into poverty in the middle of nowhere, born lowly. He identified with hungry and hurting people wherever he went.

God chose to become flesh and dwell with us, in the incarnation, in Jesus. God’s incarnation shows us the kind of kingdom that has come and is coming. It is a different kind of order from the social orders we have now. Jesus shows us that God lifts up the lowly. That there is justice. That there is unexpected reversal. That there is mercy. That there is hope.

In the ways in which you identify with the lowly, how might you lift up your voice like Mary and give glory to this God? To see and join in the ways God is lifting you up and lifting up those around you? To speak about your reality and about justice and about God’s mercy? 

In the ways in which you identify with the powerful, are you ready to listen to the lowly ones God raises up? To be in relationship with people for whom life has been an uphill battle rather than smooth sailing? To live in a way that bears witness to the truth that there is more to life than wealth and power and fame? To see and join in with God’s work of lifting up the lowly?

God lifts up the lowly. God is merciful. There is hope for us all.

Wishing you a joyful, omicron-free Christmas. And stay tuned―I plan to be back next week with some of my favorite books from 2021.

God enrobes the wildflowers

Roses…so needy
Sweet peas – more like a wildflower

(28) And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. (29) But I say to y’all that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these ones. (30) And if God so enrobes the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is thrown into a furnace, (will he) not much more y’all, y’all of little faith? -Jesus (Matthew 6:28-30, my translation)

I didn’t realize, until I translated this passage, that the verb in v. 30—translated above as enrobes—is different from the verb in v. 29, translated as clothed. I thought Solomon in his glory was clothed, and so the wildflowers, too, were clothed. But even more gloriously.

This was a reasonable thing to think, given that the NRSV translates both verbs as clothed, and the NIV goes for dressed when it comes to Solomon and clothed when referring to the grass.

I kind of like the translation enrobes for the grass, though. I feel like it adds another dimension, another flavor. It isn’t just that the wildflowers are clothed even more beautifully than Solomon. They aren’t just clothed, like he is. They’re enrobed.

This word that I’m translating as enrobed is ἀμφιέννυμι. And to be clear, ἀμφιέννυμι could also be translated as clothed. But it would be a little odd for Jesus/Matthew to use two different verbs in adjacent sentences to mean the same thing. We might do this in English for style points, but people didn’t really do this in Koine Greek. 

I also think it’s interesting that this word, ἀμφιέννυμι, comes from a root that means “to invest.” I like the possible implication: that God enrobes the wildflowers in a way that evokes the concept of investment. God invests, or God is invested, in the wildflowers—even if by typical capitalist standards it may be an unwise investment; after all, the wildflowers pop up among the grass of the field, and the whole lot of it is here today but burned up in the furnace tomorrow.

I also find it interesting that ἀμφιέννυμι is used only four times in the whole New Testament. It isn’t one of the usual words for clothing. (In comparison, the word that describes Solomon being clothed in v. 29 is used 24 times in the New Testament.) 

And it’s really just used in two different stories. 

There are Jesus’ words about the wildflowers here, and his very similar words in Luke 12:28. 

And then there are Jesus’ words about John the Baptist in Matthew 11:8 (and his very similar words in Luke 7:25): As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces” (Matt 11:7-8, NIV). 

“A man dressed in fine clothes”—or, more literally, “a person enrobed in soft clothing.” Or something like that. Rich folks who hang out in kings’ palaces are enrobed in the same way the grasses of the field are enrobed. (Side note: check out this post for more thoughts on Matthew 11:7-8 and the surrounding verses if you’re interested.) 

Or, to look at it another way, God’s plant creations, like wildflowers, are enrobed in beauty—while God’s prophets hang out far from kings’ palaces. An interesting contrast. 

Anyhow, I like the idea of short-lived and fragile wildflowers being enrobed with the kind of beauty even the richest humans only dream of. That’s cool. 

And I like that we’re talking about wildflowers, here—the kind of plants not intentionally cultivated by humans. The kind we easily overlook. The kind we don’t even try to save from the furnace as they get thrown in to be burned up alongside the grass.

I think of the landscaping we inherited when we moved into our home. We have several rose plants, and they’re very pretty—but also (in some cases, anyway) very high maintenance. They want to be deadheaded constantly, fertilized every few weeks, watered on hot days (but not during the heat of the day), cleared of blackspot-infected fallen leaves, pruned yearly.  

The rose plants are so needy. In contrast, there’s a sweet pea plant that seems to just magically grow back year after year. It’s more like a weed, really—and a tenacious one. It takes over an impressively large space if I don’t cut it back. And it’s also really beautiful. 

I wonder if this is the sort of thing Jesus is thinking of when he talks about God enrobing the lilies—not the plants we intentionally cultivate for their beauty, but the ones that just grow on their own. Is a rose more beautiful than a sweet pea? I’m not sure. I feel like they’re both gorgeous in their own ways. God enrobes them both.

Maybe the rich kingliness of the word enrobe can help us see wildflowers—and the natural world in general—closer to the way God does.

Solomon was just clothed. But the wildflowers are enrobed. God treasures them, holds them, doesn’t just take care of their needs but makes them glorious. And this is God’s heart toward us as well. 

Have a favorite wildflower? Thoughts or feelings about roses or sweet peas or Solomon or clothing and robes? As always, feel free to holler in the comments or via email!