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!

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.”