Why “How,” “Why?” and “Shocked!” Solve Nothing

Photo by Fran on Unsplash

It’s all about power. It always has been.

If you’ve been around social media for any length of time, you’ve seen the reactions to weeks like we’ve recently had.

“I’m shocked!” “Heartbreaking.” “How is this still happening?” “I can’t imagine.” “Why aren’t we doing anything about this?”

This can be any number of things.

Right now, it’s a(nother) devastating school shooting. A week before it was a(nother) supermarket shooting, aimed at black Americans. Before/concurrent with that, a(nother) report of massive church negligence and buried abuse. But it could be so many things. 

We’re always shocked.

Not really. We’re never shocked anymore if we admit the truth. Anyone still shocked hasn’t been living in reality. It’s an easy placeholder when we have nothing else to say. When we have no intention of doing anything about the source of our shock.

We’re always heartbroken. We can never imagine what the tragedy is like, even though we can’t help but imagine every time we go to school drop off, at least for a while. BIPOC can’t help but imagine constantly. 

We pretend we don’t know why it happens, and we wring our hands in hopelessness at any change. Then we go back to our lives and pray, in those hiding places in the depths of our minds and hearts, that “next time” isn’t coming for us. We know there’s a next time; we know the space between is increasingly tighter.

Violence is becoming claustrophobic.

Photo by gabriel xu on Unsplash

The “why” is always the same.

It comes down to retention of power. What have we proven ourselves willing to accept in our fealty to the god of power? What sacrifices does this god require to grant power to those who are willing to feed it, bow to it, and beg from it? Church, how many silver coins have we taken to retain our small fiefdoms?

We know the answers.

  • Too many church leaders have been willing to accept the collateral damage of people in our congregations dying or being permanently disabled by Covid. It’s a sacrifice worth making to the gods who will ensure we remain popular and powerful.
  • As a whole, we’re willing to risk our children’s lives and mental well-being, so long as we can retain the power we imagine guns grant us. Future generations damaged by the psychological dissonance of fearing the place they should be safe don’t matter. Persons obsessed with their “rights” (and their campaign donations) keep their power. Children are a disposable sacrifice willingly made to uphold illusions of guns bestowing power and safety. Church leaders will pretend this is true so their base remains beneath their pedestal.
  • Abandoning church abuse victims, while destroying their mental health and reputations, seems a small price to offer the gods. It leads to easily retaining the power of office, leadership titles, and flowing funds.
  • Women know, too, when they speak up, that they will be screamed down by the worshipers of power. They know the price they will pay. They understand their abusers will receive at best 12-year sentences. Almost certainly, they’ll never even face legal ramifications. They know their careers will be endangered. Women recognize their detractors will be congratulated quietly in secret church meetings and openly on social media. The acolytes will never readily accept insulting their gods.
  • Our citizens, and future citizens, of color appear marginal losses compared to the blessings bestowed by white majority power. The zeal to retain it—refusing the delusion of “replacement”—allows for just about any sacrifice on the altar of supremacy. Violence is a tenet of the religion. It’s preached from pulpits that dare to be backed by a cross.
  • Our women endangered by traumatic pregnancies can be re-victimized and even left to die, because control over their behavior matters more than their lives. The church rightfully cares for life, but the lengths some will go to legally control rather than preserve life reveals their true goal. He who holds the control over any group’s bodies wields the power. Ask anyone who has a passing acquaintance with slavery in the US. 
  • That acquaintance, by the way, some in power desperately would have us not ever pass, for the same reason. Defaming brilliant people of color is a price they consider well worth paying. Don’t ask, don’t tell about our history of horror, and all will be well.

Make no mistake—these things are all related. They’re all related to power. They’re all part of the design to keep it at all and any cost. They’re all deeply rooted in the church, not just the culture. 

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Our outraged shock is misplaced. We should be past it. We can no longer be shocked, and we ought to give up the pretense. Shock isn’t action. There is no prize for being the most appalled. We’re not impressed by those whose privilege allows them to be continually amazed.

Our repeated cries of “Why?” only feed those in power. So long as we’re asking questions and wringing hands, we won’t be making any demands. Powerful churchmen can even appear righteous by answering the questions. Deflection. Whataboutism. Thoughts and prayers. 

The church needs to strike at the idolatry. She needs to ask herself—what am I worshiping? The church—its power structures and people—must return to its founding Rabbi and internalize his words of humility and emptying. The people who crave churches based on goodness, while acting in humility and kindness, can’t hold back on those strikes. The American church has a graft of an evil branch attached to its tree, and it needs pruning. After all, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.4). This land, right now, is very, very foreign.

  • Any church leader who prizes reputation over transparency shouldn’t lead.
  • Any church leader who bows to white values (sometimes mistaken for family values, biblical values, God and country values) shouldn’t lead.
  • Any church leader whose behavior and doctrine embody disdain for women shouldn’t lead.
  • Any church leader who isn’t willing to submit to and be taught by the marginalized shouldn’t lead.
  • Any church leader whose love affair with authority exceeds a love for people shouldn’t lead.

And denominations should be holding their leaders to this, or we are right to abandon them. The church in American isn’t failing because of culture wars or Millennials and Gen Zers who just want to sin freely. We’re failing because we’re worshiping a false god and preaching a false gospel. When we give our offerings to the god of power, we reap the whirlwind we’ve sown.

Why does this keep happening? Because those in power are willing to let it–they want it to keep happening. Those not in power need to be loud in our refusal to assent. 

No Fault Forgiveness

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

I woke up at 3:30 this morning, and I was preaching a sermon. Or as I prefer to say, teaching a sermon. Yes, I was awake, watching myself, in a sense, creating an outline on a whiteboard and inviting the congregation to talk about repentance and forgiveness. It was a very strange experience, needless to say. At the time, I thought to my semi-aware self, “I hope I remember this in the morning to write it down, because I think it’s good stuff.”

Who knows though how good 3am theology really is? Also, as I’m writing this having been up since 3:30am, I make no guarantees on its quality, either.

I am writing it down. I believe that someone needs to hear it, whether that’s you, my congregation, me—I don’t know. It didn’t come to me for no reason though, so here, at least, is part of the forgiveness piece.

What Forgiveness Is–and Is Not

Many people in the church, especially women, are bullied into forgiveness rather than walked alongside toward it with grace. You don’t have to look far right now to find the double anguish of women who have spoken up about abuse seemingly helped along by the church. In too common practice, leadership then accuses them of trying to destroy their church/pastor/spouse by not engaging in “biblical” forgiveness. 

What they mean, of course, is not being willing to pretend the abuse never happened, and if it did, to agree that they are mostly to blame.

So where do repentance and forgiveness belong in the cycle of church life and discipleship? 

Forgiveness seems to me to have 3 steps.

  • Release
  • Reconciliation
  • Restoration

(Yes, even in an odd awake dream, I apparently alliterate like a good preacher. The “repent” side was also 3 ‘R’s.’ Whatever.)

Release

“Release” is what we typically see Jesus talking about when he mentions forgiveness. In Matthew 18.22, he uses a word that means to cast away or to let go. When Peter famously asks how many times we should forgive someone who has harmed us, Jesus answers with “seventy times seven”—a phrase known to mean “infinite.”  

When someone harms you, continually release them from the debt they owe you. Let the account go. As Paul will later explain, “Love keeps no record of being wronged.” So forgiveness, to Jesus, means to free both people from the imprisonment of holding on to a wrong. He asks that we choose to toss away the accounting books that hold the debt.

This aligns with the parable with which he follows his statement to Peter. A rich man forgives the massive debt of another man. The second, however, chooses to hold on to a much smaller debt owed to him. This, Jesus makes clear, is an affront to the generosity he has had extended to him. As what we now call the Lord’s Prayer teachers us, true gratitude for our own forgiveness results in forgiveness extended to others.

In Jesus’ definition of forgiveness, books are wiped clean.

But what is not happening in this story? Debts are wiped clean, but does this mean the people in the story are to go forward pretending they had never been incurred? Do they allow the person to accumulate debt again in the same way? Jesus doesn’t demand that. The release is required—but the reconciliation and restoration are not necessarily a part of that equation.

That’s where we can fail, in an abusive situation, to teach forgiveness the way Jesus did. Forgiveness is a miracle and a sign of a heart alive to Christ’s deep love for them. It can never be marveled at enough. Downplaying its importance is to forget Jesus’ pretty serous words earlier in Mathew 6.14-15.

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Yet forcing it, in a world where we know repentance is often false and peace a one-way street, feels like an abuse of the very concept. It appears to be mocking Jesus’ “490” proclamation, not endorsing it.

Full disclosure—I am a #metoo woman. I was abused by a relative from the ages of 8-14. I have quite a clear grasp on what it feels to demand forgiveness versus come to it by grace. I have forgiven. The release is complete for me. Nevertheless, restoration of the relationship was never on the table. The harm done continues to this day, and a demanded restoration of trust would have been a sham. Indeed, with three daughters of my own, trust would not ever be offered in any way. We both have freedom. We do not have a relationship.

This is why it’s helpful, I think, to look at this 3-step process for forgiveness. We can get through step one, and that truly is the forgiveness that Jesus asks of us. Steps 2 and 3 may happen, and they may not. Either one is OK.

Reconciliation

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

A possible Step 2—reconciliation—is simply to say to another, “You’re part of the family again. You’re accepted back.” The person has repented, and the relationship is mended.

  • It’s the church treasurer who stole money and repaid it reconciled to the body—but she is not necessarily given back a position at the till.
  • It’s the person who has gossiped or lied about another being taken back into a group of friends or a church small group. The person lied about has received an apology, but he might never entrust that friend with vulnerable truths again.
  • It’s the alcoholic parent being invited to Thanksgiving and the family vacation at the lake. His daughter, however, will continue to hide keys and perhaps credit cards.

Reconciliation is a move beyond release to acceptance, with caution. The release is done. The forgiveness part is over. The shalom has begun. It is not yet complete. In this place it might never be. We cannot force reconciliation nor should we, because we could be pushing someone who has already forgiven back into a relationship where there is no true repentance. 

The abuse will continue, and it will be twice as damaging, because everyone will assume all is well when a happy face bandaid is put on a deep unhealed wound. There will be pressure for the wounded not to speak up again, and the abuser will take advantage of that. 

Reconciliation is the choice of the victim, and it should never be assumed. 

Restoration

Photo by Tandem X Visuals on Unsplash

Restoration seems to take it one step farther in the sense that the relationship is restored completely. Terry returns to the equation.

This is the church treasurer not only being invited back to fellowship but to trust and leadership. It’s the spouse not only forgiven abuse or adultery but the repair of the relationship to a better state than before. It’s Saul of Tarsus becoming Paul while Ananias vouches for the man who would have killed him a month before, given the chance.

This is the kind of “as far as the east is from the west” forgiveness God extends. It’s not a human ability. When it happens, it’s a miracle of grace and God. 

It doesn’t have to happen.

Healthy Forgiveness

I believe it’s time we look at Jesus-taught forgiveness for what it is, not for the painless (for the perpetrator), “don’t make waves” conviction many church leaders fall into. Forgiveness is the release of debt. It can be done unilaterally, as in my case mentioned above. 

Jesus emphasizes its importance because our unwillingness to wipe clean the slate of another shows a poor understanding and experience of God’s great love in clearing our own slates. Bitterness and resentment in the heart and soul of a believer set up a roadblock to our own intimacy with God. We lose our first love.

Reconciliation and restoration are never unilateral. They cannot be the work of one person. The image of either one requires two sides coming together. Thus while one offended party does the work of release, the offender must be doing the work of repentance. (Recognize the wrong, take responsibility for the wrong, and restore what was taken—if you want to know the 3 R’s in that half.) 

The reconciliation and restoration are possible—but they are not required. This side of eternity, many things will be restored by the grace of God. Many, however, will not. This is the tension with which we live as believers. We believe and hope for God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven. We recognize that this liminal occurrence isn’t common. We pray for grace. W repeat. Amen.

Submission and the Legal Reality of Peter’s Rome

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

Some time ago, we watched the movie “Arrival.” Twelve alien ships hovered over the earth, and the movie’s tagline asked everyone’s question—Why Are They Here?

This was roughly the attitude of the Romans toward the early Christians. They had no idea what to do with these alien people whose thoughts, actions, and values no longer matched their society. Like many others do when confronted with people they don’t understand, the Romans did what history records—they persecuted the different ones.

Peter writes to his churches in this climate, and he offers some controversial instructions to those suffering people—instructions we wrestle with still. In fact, this is the third time this week I’ve wrestled with his instructions to wives, a record even for me, an avowed evangelical feminist pastor. 

“In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives.” (1 Peter 3.1-2, NLT)

What’s the Point?

I like to look at an author’s reasons for writing something, whether it’s an epistle in the Bible or a Facebook “news” article, before I decide what he or she means. (Forgive me, I used to be an English teacher. Also, it’s just good exegesis.) 

For Peter, the overarching point throughout his letters is this—

How do we Christians behave in a hostile world in a way that points people to Jesus?

You can see it everywhere in his words. This was Peter’s filter, the lens through which he saw and wrote every line. Why does that matter when considering his instructions to wives?

It’s everything.

If we don’t look at those verses through Peter’s intended lens, we don’t see what he wanted us to see. It’s like looking at at the Rockies with a fisheye lens when they were meant to be panoramic. You get distortion, mountaintops that swell, lakes and trees that shrink. You miss the point.

Peter reinforces his theme when he tells his readers the reason for wifely submission—your husbands will be won over to Christ because of the way you live. 

Photo by Marina Abrosimova on Unsplash

What’s the Context?

Christian women married to unbelieving men was common. Some were married before becoming believers. Some married later by the command of a father or because there were too few Christian men. (There were fewer men in the society as a whole—much the same problem that China faces now for some of the same reasons.) Whatever the reason, they found themselves in a dilemma. They knew they were free and equal in Christ. Some believed it would be right to leave their spouse and begin over as a believer. Everyone, especially Peter, knew wholesale acts like that would make the surrounding society hate and misunderstand Christians even more.

Since the goal was—repeat after me—to behave in a hostile world in a way that points people to JesusPeter discouraged that. He wanted those women to remain in their marriages and bring the men to Christ.

Peter, like Paul, addresses the tension between offering new freedom, which looked too much like revolution to the Romans (and they were right—it was), and maintaining security and order. In Christ, you are free and equal—but how do we use that in a society where that’s seen as a dangerous, rebellious, uprooting of every social order?

In a world where the empire, your husband, and possibly everyone else is against you, how do you respond? The only option for the underdog was to submit. Peter imagined women whose goodness to their husbands would be so beautiful the men would have no choice but to see Jesus. (“You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.” v4)

Commoners, Slaves, and Wives

Regardless of chapter division, these instructions for wives to submit come in a series of three. We come to chapters 2-3, and we see the word “submit” (voluntarily accept the authority) three times. Christians—submit to your government, slaveowners, and husbands. All three legal institutions that require your allegiance.

Yes, all three. The thing we moderns don’t comprehend is that the marital relationship in Rome was every bit as much a legal arrangement as slavery and citizenship. A husband was a woman’s legal owner. He was not, as we like to believe in our modern western world, her lover. Certainly, love and affection did happen, and Peter banks on this, but it wasn’t the expected outcome. The institution resembled our modern marriage about as much as your relationship to your dog does.

So his instructions to wives are the same as they are to slaves and commoners. Submit to your legal authority. Behave in a way that is so Christlike neither he nor anyone else can say anything against you. 

In a hostile world, point your spouse to Jesus.

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

If one is going to assert that these verses mean all women submitting to their husband for all time, then we’re forced to also assume all slaves are to obey their masters for all time, because this group of three was not meant to be divided. The same verb is used for all because all three groups (commoners, slaves, and wives) were legal underdogs in Rome. 

If that’s the case, my denomination’s entire raison d’être was unbiblical. I’m going to have to tell the bishops.

People tried to claim Peter’s biblical submission regarding American slaves in the 1800’s, but the public found this a reprehensible application of Scripture. Strangely, many Christians do not find the same argument regarding wives at all reprehensible, but they embrace it as a statute for all time. This doesn’t preserve the integrity of Peter’s argument or grammar.

More accurately, Peter was imploring his people to accept whatever institutions they were under and use those structures to glorify Christ. The question then is, do these structures still exist, and if not, to what institutions do we submit? An argument has been made, for example, that we submit to employers in much the way slaves were told to submit to masters, because that is our similar modern institution. Similar, because an employee’s welfare is in the power of the employer, but different because no outright ownership exists. Certainly, we must also recognize that Roman slavery and American chattel slavery were very different things. Marriage, I would argue, is not at all the same legal institution it was then, either. 

A Whole New World

Was submission of slaves to masters a temporary state until Christianity permeated enough of the world with its salty tang that the institution of slavery no longer existed? If so, then why not the submission of wives to their legal owners, their husbands, until the same thing happened with the institution of marriage?

We get a hint of that, in fact, in following verses. 

“In the same way, you husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. Treat her as you should so your prayers will not be hindered.” (v7)

Peter drops a revolutionary bomb here. Husbands, love your wives, because you are equals. First, Roman culture didn’t consider loving one’s wife a necessity. They actually considered it a downright inconvenience. Second, equals? LOL.

Peter had a new world order here in mind, but he was mapping it out slowly. While Christian wives were submitting to unbelieving husbands? Believing couples were to model what real kingdom life was like. They lived in love and respect with one another. When an unbelieving husband was brought around to Jesus, that’s what he saw, and that’s what the new believing couple would become.

It was a strategic revolution in family order, but it was slow. 

In fact, Peter’s plan for marriage was far more difficult than the simplicity of women submitting to men. That would be easy. His calling for mutual honor was far more difficult and powerful. Wives and husbands would love so well that submission would not be even close to what they did. They would transcend it. The sacrifice for one another and the desire to encourage, lift up, honor, respect, and give to the other would be beyond some paltry submission. That is what would, and did, bring unbelieving Romans to Christ. Which was, as we said, the whole point.

How We Talk about Death Changes How We Live

My youngest daughter got me started watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. We’re a musical theater family, so she knew the show would click with me.

I knew the dad would die. I also knew I would sob, because I sob at toiletry commercials or a beautiful turn of phrase. What I didn’t expect was how much that death would break me both with memories of my own dad (who loved to dance with me, as hers does) or with the crushing communal grief we all share in COVID’s destructive ramifications. I sobbed, not just for Zoey but for me. For our friend Lauren, who lost bother her parents in one week. For my father-in-law living alone. For modern widows and orphans, all of whom have grieved too soon.

When should we expect to lose those we love? What is the precise time span that we can accept life on earth has been adequate? Exactly where is that line between when we shout angrily at the sky in defiance at a death too soon and when we sigh resignedly at a life well lived?

Much of popular Christianity tells us to accept that death is a natural part of existence. Cue Simba, the circle of life and all that. We ought to celebrate our loved ones’ lives and carry on, not take too much time to cry in the dark, quiet hours of the night.

Somewhere between losing my mother-in-law, studying Genesis with the congregation, and watching COVID numbers mount, I decided something. I don’t believe that anymore. 

With Dylan Thomas, I believe unapologetically in raging against the dying of the light. Going gently has never been my form, after all. Yet, theologically speaking, we have room for our rage.

Humans began this world with a life-giving tree in a garden and a mandate to flourish. We will end in a city and a veritable forest of trees of life, healing and wiping away all tears for eternity.

But what do we do with the in between? 

How might it have changed the way we all spoke to, argued with, and cared for others in a pandemic if we had taken the time to articulate a good theology of what we believe about death? Not where we believe our souls will fly to—but what we tell others about the purpose, or lack of purpose, behind the great equalizer. 

I’ve been told many things about death over the years since I lost my first significant person—my sister when I was fourteen. Some phrases have no place in our theology of death. Everything happens for a reason. It was her time. Many others, meant to console but succeeding only i

There is tension between closing our eyes in peace knowing whom we will see when next we open them and aching to continue the joys and efforts of our lives.

There is mystery in the truth that God didn’t create us for death and yet we die, without omnipotent intervention. 

People die, and they usually die when there is still so much more they want to do. That doesn’t mean God was finished with them. It means God is potent enough to carry on the universe without our individual contributions. 

A few years ago, I stood contemplating the Atlantic Ocean on the shores of Rockport, MA. I felt the weight of a new pastorate, a struggling church, the school work I was just beginning there, family illness, and more. Looking at the water, I felt God speak calm to my burdened soul. The weight of the world was not on my shoulders. My shoulders are frail and finite. They are a drop in that endless water I watched land on the shore in meandering waves. The water goes on. It always will. The individual drops matter, their stories and deeds contribute to the fulness of the ocean, but they aren’t the whole.

A good theology of death accepts this tension.

A healthy view of death from a Christian standpoint doesn’t insult the love that neither death nor life can separate us from by implying that God always intended to pull a bait and switch on us with that Tree of Life in the garden.

Nor does it bargain with the Creator, presuming on our prideful faith to keep us safe from life’s plagues. 

A good theology of death refuses to bank its integrity on claims of certainty—the God we see in Job can burst those at will. It admits that we aren’t certain. We don’t know the reasons. We cannot, as Gandalf counsels, see all ends. 

Don’t go quietly into that good night. Rage. It’s OK. Jesus raged at Lazarus’ tomb. Rage at death and joy at the afterlife can coexist. Peace and anger can shake hands over a deathbed. They’re not opposite entities. They’re twin ends of the same cord, held in tension before a mystery we cannot, try as we will, resolve. 

Not My Will but Yours

Photo by Ebuen Clemente Jr on Unsplash

The summer after high school, I performed a concert for my church. For probably an hour on a Sunday evening, I sang and played the piano and gave some testimony. I thought I could sing like Sandi Patty. Reader, I could not.

I’m certain it was awful. I’ve since had some voice lessons and ten years of community theater musical experience. But back then—my four-bar solo in Oklahoma! My senior year did not qualify me for the undertaking. Yet people smiled and clapped and told me how much they enjoyed it. They were my people, and I was theirs. I was going off into the big world of college with their applause, and nothing else mattered.

Jesus gives his first public teaching in his hometown. It makes sense. Home breeds comfort. The people are already on your side. You can’t lose. At first, that’s how the story plays out. 

Read the rest at The Glorious Table.

We Hope for Better

Photo by Jaanus Jagomägi on Unsplash

Earlier the year, I began to research places we considered traveling this summer—Estonia and the other Baltics were competing with Iceland for top spot. We finally settled on a dark horse not in contention—Croatia and Montenegro, with day trips to Slovenia and Bosnia. 

It’s been a top five destination for me since I saw a photo of Montenegro, a country I’d never heard of, on a National Geographic cover in the dentist’s office. So when I saw tickets come across that were significantly cheaper than the norm, I grabbed those and let the other two places wait for another day. (Of course, now, it’s all a giant unknown. At least we’ve had a lot of practice with that lately.)

Photo by olga brajnovic on Unsplash

But the research got me. 

After perusing the standard tourist pages, I dove into the history of the Baltics. I learned the stories of their occupation—Estonia has hardly known freedom in its entire existence—and the particular horror since WW2. I encountered stories of families torn apart and lives lost in desperate bids for freedom boating across to Finland. 

The Soviet policy of ‘Russification,’ implemented soon after the occupation, amounted to cultural genocide. It forbade the Estonian flag, imprisoned resistors, and made Russian the official language of the country. Tens of thousands of Russian workers were brought in to dilute the ethnic Estonian population. Estonians became serfs to their masters in Moscow. Within six years of the first Soviet troops arriving in Estonia, the country lost about 25% of its population to execution, imprisonment, deportation, and escape.”

I read about over two million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians joining hands across the length of the three countries to protest for self-rule. Who could not admire the resilience, creativity, and courage of a people whose entire population sings their way to freedom? 

Moving on to our new destination, I began to read of the breakup of Yugoslavia. In these countries, sadly, people did not sing or grasp neighbors’ hands to fulfill their dreams of freedom. Instead, many turned on one another, neighbor against neighbor in Bosnia. Snipers picked off Muslim citizens who dared to leave their houses in daylight, and families buried their dead in the dark for safety. This history I’d remembered, of course. Only vaguely, though.

Photo by Faruk Kaymak on Unsplash

My own history has made me ignorant of much that has gone on in the world. I was never taught history. Oh, I remember learning American history repeatedly, year after year. Not once, however, do I recall learning world history, except as it impinged on America occasionally in the form of war.

Then in the 90’s when the seams of the USSR were ripping apart, I was giving birth to three kids and noticing very little outside my small world of diapers and Barney and trying to continue a writing career between breastfeeding and nap times. Oh, and I was also going to seminary. So world news wasn’t top of mind. 

Now, however, I know.

Knowing makes the world closer. It humanizes events. It gives faces to people who only want to live with self-determination of the details of their own lives.

These are the Ukrainian people. My heart breaks for them and prays for their freedom and peace.

Leaving the European political scene, these are also transgender teenagers in Texas. These are Afghan, Syrian, Guatemalan refugees. These are women in abusive situations. These are black Americans trying to birdwatch in a park.

In Genesis God gave humans dominion to grow, learn, and be free in the land. God gifted humanity with agency and purpose. Taking those things away is the most devastating thing one can do to a human soul, because they were the first gift of a loving God who knew the created ones completely. It’s also, as Lisa Sharon Harper points out in her new book, Fortune, the first weapon of a conquering people.

Take away agency, and you take away the will to fight.

This is why I weep for the Ukranians and others who might be next in the path of a lust for power.

This is why I fight for my black siblings who still can’t live, work, get an education, drive, walk, jog, or wear a hoodie in the place of their choosing.

This is why I set up apartments for refugees and support sanctuaries to women fleeing a dictatorship in their own living rooms. 

This is why I’m learning about teenagers who don’t feel like their bodies are obeying their very souls and fear telling anyone about this struggle inside. 

Because God created people for good, peacemaking kinds of freedom. Not the kind of “freedom” that denies responsibility for our fellow humans in favor of personal preference and rights. that’s not God-given freedom–Paul calls that indulgent selfishness.

“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.” (Galatians 5.13, CEB).

God created humans to be free in the original Edenic definition.

This is why we hope for better. 

The work of Summiting

I looked at the summit of the volcano in whose crater I now stood. Surely the end of the trail was on one of the lower areas of the semi-circle. It couldn’t be at the very highest point. Could it? But barely visible, a vague roof and building skeleton told me it probably was exactly in that spot. And I saw stairs. Lots of stairs.

I told my husband he could go on the hike and I’d stay at the bottom and watch birds. I could never make that trek. Between the Ehlers-Danlos that causes my ankles to turn at the hint of a pebble in the road and my knees to hurt five minutes into a hike, the accompanying dysautonomia that gives me shortness of breath on a simple flight of stairs, and recurring plantar fasciitis, I’m learning my limits. The top of Diamond Head was one of them. Hiking websites say it’s not hard. The websites don’t consider a lot of the population. (Besides, according to the park site, “The 0.8 mile hike from trailhead to the summit is steep and strenuous, gaining 560 feet as it ascends from the crater floor.” So there, hiking sites.)

He told me the entry fee was cheap and I could stop whenever I wanted to and come back down. So what was there to lose to walk a little way? Fine. It was our first day ever in Hawaii and a lovely morning. I’d hike a short way.

Hikers are the best sort of people. Sure, there are those on a mission. They only want to reach point B, and if you’re hindering that pursuit, they’ll run you off the road. They’re the minority, though. Every time we visit a new place, it’s the hikers who are the kindest people to meet. They make room for you on the path. They smile. They tell you you’re almost there (even if you’re not, which is not always helpful). 

The older ones give me confidence that I can still put one foot in front of the other. The younger ones both make way for a disabled hiker like me but also look at us with admiration. This always surprises me. I’ve rarely met a young hiker who appeared to believe I was in the way and out of shape, even when I clearly am. They seem to know the folks on trails are a community. All with the same goal, all doing the best we can, all needing encouragement and wisdom. 

You’ve probably guessed that I never quit and turned back. We took many breaks. I needed regular breathers after what seemed like only a few feet. It wasn’t until we hit the first set of stairs that I thought I might make it, and several times on the almost 200 stairs I revisited that idea. We made the top, and the view was as glorious as promised. Although I’d pay for that for the rest of the trip, I didn’t regret it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about church lately, specifically about how much I have left to give and how much I will need to make way for younger generations to take the reins. What can I give, and where do I make way and offer only mentoring and wisdom but not new contributions? With the corner of sixty ahead and loss of physical ability, the questions are crowding my thoughts. 

Diamond Head helped me figure some of them out.

I still have the capability to climb. I can still reach the vistas of new adventures and ideas. But it’s slower. Steadier. Far more careful and measured than when I leaped from rock to rock. I have what’s known as a “quick start” personality, and that’s not as possible anymore. That, Diamond Head taught me, is its own beauty. I see things in the slowness that others don’t see. They see things farther along and maybe catch a vision I can’t, because I’m watching my feet. 

As I’m looking down though, watching each small step, I’m seeing the little things that make up the big picture. Someone else views the treeline and the shoreline, but I notice the warblers and the damselflies. I find the others who are struggling. I see a little thing in the person approaching me that I can call out and compliment them on. It takes enforced slowness to do this. 

Most of all, I recognize the community of hikers and realize that this work of summiting is for all of us, not one.

The best encouragement for continuing on was the ones who had been there. The hot shots might run up on their own, but for most of us, the journey is far easier, and pleasanter, with one another’s smiles. 

As I started down from the top, a man coming up took in my ankle braces, hiking poles, and heavy lean on the railing and said, “You are one determined person.” He will never have any idea how much those five words meant. He won’t know that I won’t forget them. Someone noticed a strength in another person, a strength she wasn’t at all certain she possessed in the moment, and he wasn’t afraid to call it out. 

The community needs us all. It’s less without its variation. If our strengths change over time, that’s right and good. Maybe when I was younger it was agility and speed. Now I’ll take determination. Now, I’ll make sure I notice and call out the gifts of others. Now, I’ll make sure we all reach the summit.

Becoming a Catcher

People are talking about their word for the year. Or, I should say people have been talking about it for a while, but I’m not the most proactive person I know. So I’m just getting to it. I’m trying to learn.

In 2020 I chose Listen. I had NO clue how much we would all need to be listening to one another that year. As a country, we’ve rather failed the listen test. I hope, however, that I learned that year and this how better to listen to those with whom I don’t agree. That’s going to be crucial in coming months and years. I prefer to plow ahead with the way I know is RIGHT. But listening—that’s been so profoundly helpful in understanding my siblings in Christ from all kinds of backgrounds. (See my book roundup post for some books that taught me how.)

In 2021 I chose Rest. The year was . . . not that. I’ve never been so exhausted. I’ve never felt so close to burnout. Many of you know this feeling. I didn’t learn rest as I would have liked. I did however, learn how much I need to learn about it. I know many of the rhythms I need to have in place. But as Princess Mia says—“The concept is grasped. It’s the execution that’s a little elusive.”

Speaking of elusive, I think 2022 is going to focus on Hope. I need it. So many others need it. It’s in the name of my church.

If we believers need to be anything right now, it’s embodied hope for our homes, churches, communities, and beyond. Incarnate hope for those who lost their last shred of it months ago. This might be the most valuable ministry any of us ever do in our lives.

I’d like to spend the year chasing down hope and wrestling with it until it blesses me. J D Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield (not at all one of my favorite books) has this dream where he talks about catching children playing in the rye fields before they tumble over a cliff. He muses:

“I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

That’s what I think I’d really like to be, too. A catcher. One who sees the hopeless or the ones barely hanging on and catches them, letting them feel a God who won’t let them fall over that cliff. A God from whose love they can never be separated by any force on, above, or below earth. So, hope.

Let’s walk, eyes wide and head high if we can, but crawling and weeping when we can’t, toward the horizon of hope. I pray hope blesses you in 2022.

2021 Book Round Up

I

t’s time for a book roundup, of course. So no recipe blog backstory–just my list of favorite books from 2021. According to Goodreads, I (slightly) exceeded my goal of 42 books! (This doesn’t necessarily mean the book I list released in 2021–just that that’s when I read it.)

  1. A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer.

What a book for its time. As we all drowned in the Ravi story, yet another story of power abused, I began to wonder–what is the answer to halting this cycle? It doesn’t do any good to remove these men (and sometimes women) from power. We need to figure out why it happens and, more importantly, why we allow and even create circumstances ripe for it to happen. Then I picked up this book immediately after asking those questions, and there it was. The answer I was saying someone needed to write. Isn’t it great when things happen like that? Must read for all church leaders.

2. Dear White Peacemakers, Osheta Moore

Moore pulls no punches yet manages to write with such love and understanding of white people who aren’t “there” yet. Her stance that everyone is beloved pulls readers into wanting to learn how to bridge those seeming unbridgeable divides. Hers is an incredibly accessible book for those looking for something to give a white person who needs a “beginners guide” to racial issues. A group study is also a great idea!

3. Jesus and John Wayne, Kristen Kobes DuMez

There’s been enough said about this one that I needn’t add much more. Suffice it to say it explains so very much of how we got where we are today in the church. Voted most likely to get thrown across the room several times before you finish it. For good reasons.

4. On the Spectrum, Daniel Bowman

My new son-in-law put this on his Christmas list and I bought it. I read the intro and was captivated by the professor’s beautiful writing. So, of course, I got myself a copy. The author makes a case for learning about people on the autism spectrum from those people first (nothing about us without us), and his writing makes the case for him. I learned so much and fell in love with the unique gifts, and challenges, that come with being on the spectrum. You simply can’t learn this from anyone who hasn’t experienced it themselves.

5. The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr

Is complementarianism/patriarchy historic Christianity? Dr. Barr has a surprise answer for us. We’re listening to the historians this year, and I am here for it. How else will we know how to navigate the future?

6. A Rhythm of Prayer, Sarah Bessey et al is an incredible devotional read. The power and beauty of these prayers is breathtaking.

7. 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections, Kara Powell and Brad Griffin

As an expert on next-gen conversations, I loved this look into what teens really want to know from all of us. The amazing thing was how the 3 questions fell so neatly into the 3 big ideas I teach out of the creation story: We’re created to relate to our Creator, to live in community, and to work toward a purpose. Funny–it’s almost like the longings into our hearts are matched by the plans of God. Great practical book on talking with, listening to, and understanding younger generations.

And to round out a top ten of sorts, I’ll list my favorite 3 fiction books this year. I made it a goal to read ten classic novels I’d never read. These rose to the top for me, even though some were rough to read. The best novels are at times, and then after you put them down, you can’t stop pondering them.

  1. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  2. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  3. North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell

Do you have suggestions for me for 2022? I already have a half dozen on board, but I’m always interested in suggestions!

(So many more that were very good books. Here’s the full list of what I read this year. I’d heartily recommend almost all of them.)

Dark Sky–an Advent Meditation

In September, I stood in some International Dark Sky Parks in Utah, staring at the stars in more abundance and brilliance than I’d ever seen them. Lights studded the sky from one horizon to the other, constellations I’d never seen clearly visible. Only occasional car headlights in the distant parking lot disturbed the complete liquid ink of the night. My husband practiced his astrophotography, while I risked sore neck muscles tomorrow for the immediate wonder tonight.

During this Advent season, I want, at least figuratively, to go where sound and light make no dent in a quilted black kaleidoscope sky. I want to sit, in the fulness of a silent night, and look at the glory above my relatively insignificant head. 

Advent, the province of stars, makes me long for both darkness and light. I long for and believe in the Light that no darkness can overcome. I’m grateful fort His presence in a world that needs that kind of piercing hope.t

Yet we wait, too, and we wait so often in the dark.

There are things we can see only in the dark. 

Slighted stars, not usually bright enough for attention when they compete with city lights. I want to notice the overlooked.

I want to choose to see, as Matthew did in his genealogy of Christ, those whom history has ignored and privilege has deemed invisible.

Fitful dreams come in the dark. The ones we can’t quite pin down in the morning but whose presence in the darkness might lead us to new questions.

This Advent, may we be willing to sit with the questions and listen to the dreams of others.

The power of grief shows up in the dark, and I want to appreciate again that blessed are those who mourn. I want to weep with those who weep. Fellow stargazers, afraid of beacons that mercilessly glare on their still open wounds, are willing to be vulnerable in darkness. I want to sit with them and hear their stories.

Waiting patiently on the Lord, being still and knowing who God is, come easier in the darkness, when we already move slower. 

Pinpricks of hope. The camaraderie of quiet. My own smallness in the universe. Like stars, these all appear more accurately and acutely in the dark.

I, like so many, am afraid of what I can’t see. I fear treading beyond my safe circle of light. But what if there is another kind of light in darkness that I know little of?

It took a blazing star for the supposed wisest people to look for God. But Lord, let me discover you in the darkness. Let me seek what I cannot see. Give me eyes to find you where you so often went, after all. Amen.