Last time I talked about the difficulty in giving thanks during years like this one. Yet I know, from experience and from God’s word, that doing it anyway matters. Giving thanks anyway:
Reminds us that we do have much to be thankful for, even in hard times
Helps us find the small things and appreciate them
Gives us compassion for those with less to be thankful for
Heightens our awareness of everything around us, to notice the little joys
Boosts our mental health, as gratitude always does
Shows us the arc of God’s care for us, even when we weren’t looking or seeing
Is obedience, and that comes with its own peace.
So today, I’m going to look back at my gratitude journal in 2020 and list some of the things I wrote down. I hope you can find some, too. I admit, I’ve not been great at keeping this journal this year. But the act of doing it always brings me joy and peace. I highly recommend a gratitude journal.
It doesn’t have to be preciously cute or Pinterest worthy. Mine is a solid red notebook my husband brought back from a medical convention. It says “American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery” on the front. You can see, I’m all fancy.
It’s such a good practice for our hearts and souls. Pick up a notebook form the dollar store, and start writing. I write three things a day. You do you. Here are some great ideas and options in case you need them.
If you want some ways to get creative and make it super fun, I love the ideas of bookending and decorating, talked about here.
And if you want to hear the whole TED talk about gratitude the above article mentions, view it here.
So here’s random list of 20 things I’ve written since April.
Coyotes looking at me in the backyard, while I’m on a zoom meeting (Yes. It happened.)
I’m learning new patterns of kindness
I don’t worry people will kill my white children
Hamilton (How lucky we are to be alive right now!)
My new home office
The fun quotes I made and framed in my new office, like the one below.
Crickets in my house (I love them. I’m not sorry.)
The ability to learn new things (hello, zoom church)
My husband home longer in the mornings (his gym at work where he went early is COVID closed)
Daughters who decorate my house for my virtual graduation
That graduation! That dissertation DONE!
People who put the dishes away
Quiet mornings on the deck
Early morning sunlight filtering through the trees
The privilege of white skin, and the responsibility
That’s a short list. You can see it’s pretty varied. Some big things. Some little things. Some serious and some just plain fun. In this year of hard, find the small things that give you joy. Write them down. Go back to that as often as you need to. Feed your soul on joy.
I wrote this blog post in 2018. I went looking for it this morning, because I believe there are definitely some of you who are not coming to Thanksgiving this year with joy in your hearts and thanks on your lips. How could you, given the dumpster fire of 2020? But maybe it’s affected you personally in a deeply painful way. Unemployment. Death. Long illness. Financial distress. Racial tension. Fear for your black sons and daughters. A society that refuses to hear your pain and fear.
I don’t know what it is for you this year, but I know this. The anchor holds. So here is a repeat post from 2018.
I approached Thanksgiving two years ago feeling less than thankful. With a body dematerializing before everyone’s eyes for reasons no one could diagnose, I entered the season sick, exhausted, and scared. I could barely get up most days, and when I did, it seemed everyone was posting their “What I’m thankful for” on Facebook.
It had been six months since I got sick. It would be almost another year before we discovered why. How do you lead people in thanksgiving when you spend your days begging the Lord to heal you, to help you find out what’s wrong, or at least to allow you to get a meal down and feel good for five minutes a day?
I reached for a little-known line in Scripture for answers: “. . . they were afraid we would soon be driven against the rocks along the shore, so they threw out four anchors from the back of the ship and prayed for daylight” (Acts 27:29 NLT).
Back story: Paul is in danger of being shipwrecked here. The men with him are terrified. They aren’t thankfully posting pictures of their holiday at sea; they’re crying out for mercy. “All hope was gone,” Scripture says (Acts 21:20 NLT).
All hope was gone.
I knew the feeling.
The last line of the tale shone like a beacon in my own storm. Sometimes, I realized, we can’t see through the storm, and the best thing we can do is toss our anchors and pray for daylight. Anchors keep a ship stable. When they dig into the seabed below, they hold. It may be chaos up above, but when the anchor is dropped, the ship won’t drift.
There are likely many of you who feel guilty because you are harboring less-than-thankful feelings this thanksgiving. Sadly, guilt drives us farther from the God who is the only hope when all hope is gone. Guilt isn’t an anchor—guilt is a gale blowing us off course. We may not see ahead, but we can know what’s written on our anchors.
Anchor #1—God is good
We toss around “good” all the time. It’s all good. I’m good. She’s being good. But in Scripture, the word “good” means something more. “Good” is a mix of just, holy, gentle, kind, patient, and merciful. Biblical goodness is an anchor because it can never change. God cannot stop being good. He will always be unfailing love, faithfulness, and compassion.
“Good” is also a verb. God doesn’t just have good feelings toward us—He makes good happen. So saying that God’s goodness is an anchor is knowing his power is bent on kindness toward us. Maybe we can’t see it, but we can feel it hold us in chaos.
Anchor #2—God is love
When the doctor asked my husband nine years ago if he would donate his kidney to me, I knew the answer. He would say yes. His character was to love me as he had promised—in sickness and health. It did not hinge on me deserving it; it was who he was.
How do I know God’s love is an anchor I can trust in darkness? It’s his character, proved by his actions. Do I doubt his love? If I do, I have only to look at the cross where he died alone in agony. There is no greater proof of love.
Maybe you don’t feel it right now, but God’s love is an anchor that will not let go of the bottom of the sea. It will be there until the light of morning.
Anchor #3—God is able
“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand” (Isa. 41.10 NLT).
I gave birth three times, each time willing to battle the world and all its forces to keep safe the little life in my womb and later in my arms. God is no different when it comes to his children—he is only infinitely more capable.
Imagine this: you are surrounded by the hands that formed the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon, and every atom of the human body. God is able. No matter how badly the sea shakes, that anchor holds.
Anchor #4—God is enough
The summer before I turned nineteen was rough. Having lost my mom, I returned home from school to a suicidal, alcoholic father. One of my best friends killed himself. I was in a terrible car accident. All the while I sang in a group that praised God in the evenings while I questioned him during the day.
One of those evenings, I realized I had a choice. I could walk away forever, or I could believe that no matter what else happened, God would be enough. Even if I ended up like Job, losing everything, I would not let go if he was all I had. It was a hard anchor to toss, but it held. It’s held through worse crises than that, and I expect it will continue.
I didn’t feel like praising God that Thanksgiving. Maybe you don’t right now. Don’t feel guilty for not being able to dredge up feelings of thanks. Drop your anchors. You don’t have to feel them to know they’re there. Pray for daylight. I’ll pray alongside you.
Last time we started a conversation on voting as Christians. This week, I want to continue that conversation, but widen it out a bit, too. The question I’d like to consider is: What are the most important qualifications for a leader?
The question definitely applies to voting, but it applies to more than that. I believe we, in general, have a faulty system for choosing leaders. The problem is not necessarily the system itself, but our criteria are lacking not only sound judgment but also attention to statistics.
I’ve had this conversation a number of times with people, and we tend to come up with different answers. Some believe that the most important qualification for a leader is that they have leadership capability. But what does that mean? When pressed, their definition of leadership capability is that a person commands respect, manages people, casts a vision, and commands a following. These are important things in a leader, perhaps. But you and I both know a lot of people meet these qualifications, and they lead us into terrible things. History can offer up a parade of people who qualified as a good leader under this definition, but their legacy is one of destruction and harm.
I’ve written entire papers on the qualifications for leadership, given the that I just finished a doctorate on church leadership. There were a lot of qualifications in those papers. But somewhere there has to be a priority list. Particularly when we are choosing between candidates with a lot of different qualities and beliefs.
Of course, we first turn to scripture. How did God choose leaders? It’s interesting that when Israel demanded its first leader, God gave them someone very much like the definition of a good leader that I spoke about above. Saul is described as a handsome man who commanded respect, an imposing man, and one of wealth to whom people looked up. Literally. He was big.
It was a disaster.
On the other hand, when God chose his first leader, David, scripture tells us that he didn’t look for the things that human beings look for. He chose someone everyone else overlooked. Why? We find it is because David had a heart after God. What does that mean? It means that he wanted to know God and follow him as best he could. It means he was humble, knowing his place before the Lord of the universe. Yes, David was very strong, and very courageous. But these were secondary qualities to the fact that he wanted to obey God and do the right thing in every circumstance. That he did not do so was later quite evident. Power corrupted him, and he did terrible, terrible things.
Still, his heart in the beginning was one that chose right, and in the end, his humility when confronted with his own sin shows that he remained a man who wanted to please God, despite the middle part that nearly destroyed his kingdom and family. We can learn good leadership qualities from both aspects of David’s life.
One is obviously humility. David chose to admit that he didn’t do everything right. He chose to accept that he didn’t know everything. He willingly leaned on other people to correct him and to guide him. The kings in the Old Testament who refused guidance were the ones continuously referred to as those who “did evil all their days.”
It’s simply a good leadership quality to know your own weaknesses and to surround yourself with people who know what you do not.
We see a leader in the New Testament doing this as well. The Roman army captain who came to Jesus to ask for healing showed that he understood God was above him and he needed to retain his humility. Because of this, Jesus healed his servant (Luke 7). We should look for humble leaders who can lead us holistically in this way.
God chose Moses as perhaps his greatest leader partly also because of this humility. It says in Leviticus that Moses was one of the most humble humans alive (Numbers 12.3). That’s a pretty amazing commendation. This isn’t a prerequisite for leadership that we think about very often. We tend to look more at the confident, even overconfident person and think—oh what a great leader. They will really be strong and tough for us. But God considers humility a number one qualification. This is counterintuitive to the way we tend to do things. Yet it makes so much sense. Humble people rely on teamwork, and all business models agree that this is a much better way to succeed.
Why else did God pick both Moses and David? Well they were strong. They had both made a living as shepherds, which means they did learn to be tough, protective, and physically capable. It certainly does come in handy as a leader to be tough. You get a ton of arrows shot at you, and if you can’t handle it, you don’t do well. So it’s an excellent quality to have, although again, we tend to equate strength with brashness, boldness, and masculinity, none of which it needs to be. You can quietly protect your sheep, as Jesus did, without all the fanfare. Personal strengths is very important. We come by it in many different ways. Some earn it by being tested physically, some by being tested mentally, spiritually, or emotionally. Strength has many faces.
To be a shepherd, however, one must also be compassionate and caring. A shepherd, as we know from Jesus’ stories, goes after lost sheep. He heals them. She cares for their wounds, calms their nerves, and makes sure they have everything they need for survival. This means that a good leader, according to God, also considers compassion and care as some of the most important qualities to embody. Moses, in particular, is constantly interceding for his people, begging for mercy and offering to take the blame for their misdeeds. He is pretty incredible, really.
A good leader leads the way in difficulty. She or he goes first when things are hard. Moses was the first one who walked into the Red Sea. He consistently showed his people that he was willing to take the first step in the vision he was trying to leave them toward. David did the same with his band of men. When he didn’t go first, when the others were at war, is when he made his most fatal error. A good leader won’t let others take the fall.
Integrity and humility go hand-in-hand, and it appears that in Scripture they override policy and personality every single time.
Finally, continuing to look at both David and Moses, we see that a good leader is one who we can trust because she or he has integrity. Yes, both men really messed up. Yes, they both exhibited terrible judgment at times. Yes, our elected officials will as well. They will have policies with which we do not agree. But are they people whose integrity has been generally proved over time? Have we seen a track record, like we do with Moses and David, of choosing what is right over what is expedient? Do we see a willingness to listen, learn, and adjust? Integrity and humility go hand-in-hand, and it appears that in Scripture they override policy and personality every single time.
The first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote came a month after my birthday. I had to vote absentee, since in November I was in the weeds of my freshman year of college six hours from home. I excitedly blacked in the circles on my first ballot and mailed it back, thankful to be able to cast the first vote of my life.
I didn’t vote for either major party candidate for president. I chose John Anderson, partly because he appealed to college students like me across the board, partly because he hailed from my home state, so loyalty won. Of course, I guess Reagan did too, but only by birth. In any case, geography is, I realize, a poor rationale for voting decisions.
This year, I’ll vote early in person, and the gratitude for being able to cast a vote hasn’t really faded. I still recognize it as a privilege and hope I always will. With a dad who walked the decks of a battleship in the Pacific at the age of 16, I think I’d be letting him down if I didn’t.
I want to spend October on this touchy subject. How should Christians vote? No, not for whom. We’re not going there. Pretty sure you know I have definite opinions, but that’s not the point here. What I want to talk about is the theology around voting wisely and well.
First, Scripture addresses the issue of loyalty, and that matters immensely when we think about the theology of voting. Loyalty is BIG in the Bible. God self-labels as a jealous God, who won’t brook competition (Exodus 34.14). The first commandment is all about —no other gods before me! God isn’t a fan of idolatry—yet it’s clear in many places that his reasons are for our good. Having other gods always leads to unhealthy relationships with all of them and a divided self that doesn’t function well in any arena.
The Bible involves a lot of paradoxes, mostly because life this side of eternity is just plain messy. It’s not certain, and our reality and scripture both reflect that. One of those paradoxes is that we are a part of this world that we live in, yet we are not supposed to consider it our real home.
Jesus says that we are in this world but not of it (John 17). He says he is leaving us here but that we are to live here as he did, having been sent as hew was sent. The way he lived here is not at all the way most people do. His every word and action very much showed that his loyalty was not with any powers of this world. That’s what got him put on a cross.
Peter says that we are always sojourners, foreigners in this land. Yet he is careful to say that we answer ethically to the people around us. (1 Peter 2)
Prophets like Jeremiah told God’s people to make our homes here and to create lives that blessed everyone around us (Jeremiah 29). Yet the prophets also make it clear that we are always longing for our real land, and this isn’t it. It is one of those paradoxes that we feel but do not understand.
This is my home, but it is not my home. I am to do well in it and bless others in it, but I am to hold it very lightly and loosely, because it isn’t mine. How does this affect the way we choose to vote in this country?
It sets us up to understand better where our loyalties ought to be. Let’s look at a few Bible verses.
Exodus 20.3 You shall have no other gods before me. First commandment. So, pretty important.
“Before” actually means beside—like, not only can’t we have any gods that are more important to us than the One true God, we can’t even have any that we put alongside God in competition. There are to be no close seconds. God is the runaway winner—no one else is even on the track.
Luke 14.26-27 If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Jesus uses hyperbole here, a common technique in the Bible, to make a point. No, he doesn’t want us to literally hate our families. But he does want to make certain his disciples know the extent of the expectations and commitment. They are to place him first, and anything that comes in the way of that needs to be subordinated real fast. It might well mean sacrifice and putting other things before their own well-being and desires. So he’s preparing them for that.
Matthew 6.24, 33 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
The context here is money, which is why he uses this example. But it’s clear he means we cannot serve God and anything else. See again, first commandment.
So what’s the point of this? It’s that God does not accept competition. There isn’t any allowance for mixed loyalties. We are either God’s or we are not; there is no option for being partly God’s and partly something else.
Our complete loyalty has to be to getting up every morning and saying to God, “I am yours and I belong to your kingdom. How does that work out in my life today?”
Remember—God doesn’t even want a close second place finisher.
Why? Because if we try to divide our lives up into loyalty for God plus loyalty for country, culture, family, anything, we find that they take precedence before God every single time. It’s just human nature that when we put something next to God, it always overtakes that first loyalty in our hearts. And God doesn’t take second place. When we do that, we are just serving whatever that other thing is then. God will leave us to it.
There is, therefore, no such thing as the American church. The church belongs to God, and it is universal. There is no such thing as, God forbid, this new “denomination” that’s being created called the Patriot Church. (Heresy detected. Run away fast.)
We are citizens first in God’s kingdom, and to mix God and country so completely and indistinctly together is to create a soup with no eternal substance.
Remember—no other gods even beside the one true God. That leaves zero wiggle room for worshiping our country. Gratitude for it? Absolutely. Care and concern? Sure. We’re to live in this world—and so to bless it and be good caretakers of it. This is why we vote. But we are to be always careful of what is receiving our ultimate loyalty.
To worship something means to consider it perfect. You see no flaw in it. It means to think of it first and to put your trust in it. It means you think that thing matters above all other things, and you are willing to sacrifice anything or anybody for it. This is fine, if that “thing” is God.
But if you hear things coming out of your mouth like, “my country right or wrong,” “Love it or leave it,””Don’t criticize the good old USA—it’s the greatest place in the world!”? That’s not patriotism. It’s worship. Patriotism is to tell God thank you for giving you a wonderful place to live and asking God to make you a better citizen while here on earth. And the prophets would agree with that idea. Yet we must all the while remember—this country is not our real citizenship. We’re God’s people, through and through, with ALL our priorities.
The next verse, a familiar one, puts this all together.
Matthew 22.37-40 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
So we reiterate here that God is first and alone in our hearts in terms of loyalty. But then he adds that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves as a necessary corollary. That brings this world into the picture. It speaks to the balance we talked about in the beginning between belonging to eternity and belonging to this place we live in.
It is because we place God first that we act in ways that love his image here on this earth. To honor God is to honor his image, which is every single person we ever meet or hear about. Paul talks about how this works out:
Ephesains 2.10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Our task here on earth, our way of showing loyalty to God’s kingdom alone, is to do his good works here. The main one of those works is to love our neighbor as ourselves. So one of the ways we approach the concept of voting in a free country is to approach it as a way in which we can love our neighbor through our voting priorities.
How does this work? Well, let’s look back at some of the ways the Bible says we can love our neighbor.
The parable of the good Samaritan comes to mind first, obviously. A good neighbor binds someone’s wounds up. She or he offers healing and the means that a person might need in order to completely heal. The good Samaritan paid for the hotel room and the treatment. Sometimes, that’s what a good neighbor does. They heal and provide.
Jesus said that giving clothing, food, water, and visiting the sick and imprisoned was being the same kind of neighbor to people as if we were being a neighbor to him. So loving our neighbor means to make sure they have what they need and to make sure they aren’t left lonely.
Paul says in several places that loving someone sometimes means helping them get back on the right path. Sometimes it means to correct them. At other times, we love people by mourning with them and rejoicing with them. We love people by freeing them from oppression. We love others by teaching them right from wrong. Being a neighbor even means to love your enemies. All of these examples have multiple Bible verses that show God has decided this is how we love the image of God on this earth.
So how do we vote in a way which loves our neighbor? Remember, this is all prefaced on the truth that we are here on earth in order to do his good works, the foremost of which is loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Ask yourself a few questions:
How would you like the laws to be if they were applied to you?
How would you like voting to go if you were one of the people mentioned in the verses above—hungry, alone, sick, spiritually lost?
What woulds you like this country to look like if it looked good for everyone?
What are the hopes and dreams of others, and how could my vote help those along?
These sorts of questions help us to think about the question in a way that doesn’t put “me” in the center of our voting action.
To vote in a way which loves our neighbor means first we have to put ourselves in our neighbor’s position. We can’t possibly do it if we cannot imagine ourself as a person with different needs. So it first requires empathy. It means getting out of the “me” silo and talking to and learning about other people. Listening to their stories. Knowing what their hopes and dreams and needs are. If we don’t know our neighbor, we can’t really love him or her.
I hope that gives a good theological overview of how Jesus first and second commands—love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself—should influence how Christians choose to vote. It’s complicated. But it’s worth asking ourselves a lot of good questions.
So many headlines have the ability lately to make us all curl up in our fetal positions and sob until Jesus comes back. It doesn’t take much anymore, even. We’re tired. We’re done. This one did it for me the last couple weeks, though.
“ICE guards ‘systematically’ sexually assault detainees in an El Paso detention center.”
You know by now I have a heart for immigrants and refugees. You also know, probably, that I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor. I’m seeing red that we can allow this to happen within our borders. This is’t the only facility for which compelling evidence is available, either.
I’m also seeing a tale as old as time.
Exodus and ICE
We’ve been walking through the Bible, slowly. We’ve already dived into Exodus a bit, but now, we’re going to back up. I know, I’m going about all this a bit haphazardly.
This is the excuse for everything for the foreseeable future. Every single thing that doesn’t line up as it should have is because pandemic. We get a free pass. It’s just truth.
So, Exodus out of order. There is something here we must see.
We ended Genesis with Joseph triumphant, but we open Exodus with an entirely different history. Joseph is dead. Nobody cares. There’s a new ruler in town, and history is not his strong suit.
Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done. He said to his people, “Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are.We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”
So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. They appointed brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down with crushing labor. (Exodus 1.8-11)
Pharaoh is an insecure human and ruler. He looks around one day and sees the number and strength of the foreigners in “his” land. It frightens him. Rather than see the advantages they bring to his country, he gives unfettered reign to unfounded fear. Remember what we learned in Genesis? Israel was created to bless others, but too often, they allowed fear to drive rather than blessing.
The Israelites have done nothing to cause fear. They’ve lived peacefully in the land. Their numbers have added to the tax roles, however those existed in Egypt (I’m not exactly an expert there). They’ve undoubtedly added heft to the Egyptian economy. One hopes their faith values have given them extra care toward their neighbors. (It appears they persuaded the midwives to become believers at any rate.)
Fear Is a Bad Driver
Yet Pharaoh sees only their presence and his fear that one day, they might shift the balance of power away from people like him.
So Pharaoh’s solution is to dehumanize them. He tries to crush their spirits, their hope, and even their bodies. He forces on them the work no one else wants for slave wages. He calls them names like lazy and worthless. He attempts to assimilate them into his people by murdering their boys so that the girls will eventually intermarry, or worse, and dilute any Hebrew blood or loyalties.
Tyrants and insecure kings do this. It’s common throughout history. His playbook is not new or original, and it’s been borrowed over the millennia.
What Pharaoh does to the “other” in his land is nothing that hadn’t been done and isn’t being done in human history. Fear drives humans to evil things. There is always someone to put down.
Are you catching on that I think this might have some relevance to the present?
Earlier this year, I heard Jennifer Guerra Aldana speak these powerful words about this very story that I’ve found so invaluable over the lat year:
“Evil is so predictable. Love is always innovative.”
We know what evil will do. It doesn’t change.
It will always try to destroy and dehumanize. It will always seek to instill fear where love should be. Evil will consistently demonize others in order to feel more secure itself. History is littered with the strategies of evil, and they are always the same.
Make someone else the scapegoat for created fears, and whip up those fears so that people will do whatever it takes to relieve them.
Evil doesn’t have One Creative Idea. It’s so very, sadly, predictable. I loved hearing Jennifer point this truth out so clearly.
Love Is Innovative
Love will always find a way around that. Love is creative. It’s smart. It’s determined and persevering. Love is one of the three things Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 will last forever. He also says it’s is the greatest of those three.
And God is always on the side of love.
He proves it in the most ingenious ways possible. When Pharaoh seeks to destroy the Hebrew baby boys, God saves Moses out of that mess. Pharaoh’s own daughter finds him and brings him home as her son. So what is the inevitable result of that? Moses gets raised in the courts of power. He is educated with the best of the best and taught to be a leader. He knows all the ins and outs of the royal world. And eventually, he will use that knowledge and education to bring about the next Pharaoh’s destruction.
It’s an Inside Job
God uses the tyrant’s own strategies to bring him down. Without his murder of the boys, Moses would have grown up to be just another Hebrew slave. But he didn’t. Talk about just desserts.
Evil is so predictable. Love is always innovative.
Quite a lot of evidence exists to prove that thoughts like Pharaoh’s are wrong. Check out the charts below if you want to know some of the advantages immigrants bring to a culture.
Yet it was that shifting of the balance of power that really got him riled up. I believe that’s still true because, remember, evil is predictable. We know statistics tell us that in a couple decades, whites will be the minority in this country. That makes some feel insecure, just like Pharaoh did. It makes some worried. In fact, a large percentage of people who call themselves believers are on record as saying this is a bad thing.
“Fifty-four percent (of white evangelicals) say the U.S. becoming a majority-non-white nation will be mostly negative and 44 percent say it will be mostly positive.
White evangelicals are the only major religious group to express such worry over the demographic realignment.
Those concerns among white evangelicals also extend to immigrants, refugees, and other international visitors to the U.S.
More than half of white evangelicals (57 percent) say immigrants threaten traditional American custom and values, while 43 percent say immigrants strengthen our society.
Again, white evangelicals are the only religious group in which a majority feel this way.”
Why? We fear the shift. Like Pharaoh, we don’t have facts to back up this fear. But facts matter little when we can stoke fears until no one really knows where they originated and on what they were based. The feeling takes over. The backdrop was lost long ago.
This, by the way, is what makes it easy to repost those negative stories about black or latino men. It helps us to believe our own fear.
We are still living the lies of Pharaoh. And we haven’t remembered things did not end well for him. God was not on his side.
God moved on the side of the immigrant baby, Moses. God moved on the side of the lower-class midwives, Shiprah and Puah. God moved on the side of a princess who dared to defy a xenophobic decree. God moved on the side of an entire nation that was delivered through the deadly water of the Red Sea by the same immigrant baby, all grown up and ready to do as God called.
Evil is so predictable. Love is always innovative.
We have the history in front of us in the book of Exodus. Let’s learn from it and be the innovative ones.
A recent poll discovered that 21 percent of millennials say they’ve changed jobs within the past year—over three times the number of older people. Only 29 percent are engaged at work—again, less than any other generation. They’re largely “checked out,” indifferent, and unexcited.
It’s not all their fault. Much of the blame lies with the economic reality of working 2-3 jobs; knowing jobs will change, so personal brand is more important; and workplace failure to engage.
The truth remains: more see their job as a stop-gap tool for making money, not as a vocation. They certainly don’t view a job as kingdom work.
Appropriate for the week after Labor Day, no?
What kind of lenses do we need to view work as a vocation–that older word that seems far more appropriate now. It means a calling, a purposeful, intentional work. What kind of young adults do find this kind of excitement about their work?
How are you doing on the sabbath rhythms we talked about a couple weeks ago?
I hope well, because it really is life changing.
But—not only for the person keeping the command.
Honor the Sabbath
This honoring of the sabbath because it’s our chance to slow down enough to remember God as our God and in charge of our lives is swings toward 1st 3 commands and Jesus’ great command—
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.”
But the second reason God gives for keeping the sabbath swings in the other direction—that of the last six command of Exodus 20.
Don’t murder, steal, commit adultery, want what others have, lie about others, dishonor elders.
It also reminds us of the other half of Jesus’ great command—
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And for that we have to look at the second reason God said to honor the Sabbath rest.
Deuteronomy 5.12-15 Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Last time, we read in Exodus that God told us to remember the Sabbath because of his acts in creation. This week, he has a completely different reason. It’s because they must remember they were once slaves in Egypt and God saved them. Did these two conflict? Not at all. One swings toward loving God and the other toward loving neighbor, and they meet in the middle perfectly.
In Deuteronomy, this command has to do with how we allow others to celebrate and honor the sabbath.
The Sabbath wasn’t created just for me or you. The Israelites were to give rest to children, servants, foreigners–animals even.
God is telling them that he is the one who brought them out of slavery; it is his hand that saved and restored them. He gave them the very opportunity to rest of which they speak. If he had not done this, they would still be slaves and there would be no rest at all. 24/7 hard labor. This chance to enter into a life with rest involved is purely a gift of a God who makes redemption his #1 business.
Because of this, he commands them to remember those not as fortunate as they. They are not to allow their freedom to make them unaware of and uncaring about the freedom of others.
REMEMBER that you were once slaves—you know how it feels.
Keeping the Sabbath is to willingly interrupt our planned out life to remember it is our job to bring others into rest and freedom.
And if we don’t see the fallout of not keeping this command to remember those around us—the centuries of frustration and anger at the injustice and oppression of breaking this command right and left throughout history—we’re not looking too hard.
You were once slaves and I freed you. Do not treat others as you’ve been treated. Treat them as I treated you.
But it gets even better. After God’s people are commanded to rest every seven days, he also establishes a celebration every seven years. They are to let the land alone and trust him that there will be enough food to carry them throughout the year without planting or harvesting. They are to leave the extra grain and grapes for the poor.
Beyond this, God gets uber extreme.
He Commands what we call the Jubilee. This is one of my favorite things in the Bible. Every seven sets of seven years, not only are they to give themselves, their servants, and the land rest for a year, but they’re told to do it again for a second year—to celebrate a 50th Jubilee year. And this special year, everything lets loose.
They set their servants free. They return their land to its original owners. They forgive debts. It all basically resets. Everything returns to an even playing field. They all get a brand new start.
Feels like what should be happening right now, no? Don’t you kind of wish for a divine reset button right about now?
Why? Same reasons. God wants to remind them that nothing they have really belongs to them, nothing they have done has been because they were in control, and they must always be thinking about those who have less. They must always be willing to relinquish what isn’t theirs for love of God and neighbor. This is the point of Sabbath.
If we don’t keep the rhythms, we forget. We start to trust ourselves. We start to forget other people and convince ourselves that if they only worked harder they would be doing better. It’s not our problem – we’ve earned what we have. That’s the opposite of what God wants when he makes this all important command.
If we don’t keep these rhythms of rest, reflection, and worship, we forget everything. Every important part of our relationship with God and neighbor.
He Doesn’t want his people entering a new land in a new community without that. He doesn’t want that for us either.
Is it funny that, in preaching on the Sabbath the last few weeks, I’ve been preaching to myself?
I started preaching in Exodus in March. Planned a couple weeks on the 10 commandments. Moving right along to other things like golden calves and waterfalls sprouting from rocks.
I spent 4 weeks on the 4th commandment—
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
I came away absolutely convinced that if we don’t get this rhythm of rest right, we get nothing right. We get nothing right in our relationship with God and with others if we miss this concept and practice.
Most people, most Americans at least, have no idea how to rest. And we’re dying for it.
The unique time in our history we find ourselves in right now could also be an opportunity to re-learn the fourth commandment. Unintentionally and certainly against our wills, we are poised to reflect on what rest really is, why we need it, and how we’re going to return to whatever is reality on the other side of a global pandemic.
What do we want normal to be, and how does sabbath rest figure into it?
Sabbath and rest are one of the most important themes in the Bible. Rest interweaves throughout all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. In exodus at the 10 Commandments, we get the first absolute mention of Sabbath rest as a command.
Exodus 20.8 Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work,but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
But that doesn’t mean it was unheard of before. We know this, because the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings were told to recognize the Sabbath rest by not collecting manna on the seventh day.
Let’s take this command apart a little.
Remember—zakar—means to call something to mind in such a way that we act on it in the present.
Sabbath-shabbat = Rest. Stopping. To cease activity.
Holy=set apart—given over for a special purpose, consecrated, dedicated, separate
So putting this all together, the commandment means:
Remember—in such a way that you do something about it right now—the stopping of everything and the separate, dedicated purpose for this day.
What are we remembering?
For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested.
It’s an intentional echo of Genesis 2.3—“Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
The first reason for the sabbath rest is all tied up in creation. I say first, because there is another, but we’ll get to that next week. This first reason is set right after the first three commandments—and there’s beautiful, intentional order to that.
The first three commands have to do with loving God. (Have no other gods but me, make and worship no idols, don’t take my name in vain.) These three commands and the creation—relatedness of the fourth one also neatly coincide with Jesus statement of the most important command – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. That’s what the first three are all about. And that’s what the first reason to keep the sabbath rest is about.
The reminder to rest is set there to make us focus on the fact that he keeps the world rolling on a daily basis, and we do not. God created in six days—he did it all. We had zero hands in it. The first reason to keep the Sabbath is to give us a constant reminder, because we do tend to forget, that we are not the ones in charge of the universe. He is the one who created us and gives us breath.
If we don’t stop and keep our regular rhythm of rest, we start to believe the lie that we not only can keep our agenda running smoothly but we must. If we don’t keep working, it will all fall apart. This is a lie, and it’s right there in the heart of our faith.
We tell ourselves that one day it will be done and we will get a rest. If we worked as a little bit harder and a little bit longer, we can take a break. If we create at least a Plan B, and probably a C and a D, we don’t have to keep spinning our wheels quite as much. We all know how that ends. One day never comes.
This thinking leads straight to breaking the first 3 commandments.
We have other gods before the one God. Our bank accounts, our jobs, our own daily planners end up getting our real worship in terms of time and priorities.
We create idols out of productivity and security—those are the things we really trust in.
And we attach his name, taking it in vain, to things like bigger and better and more. We decide that it’s a godly virtue to work harder and make others do the same—and that’s edging quite close breaking all 3 at once.
Every 7th day we’re reminded to:
Renounce dominion over our time and our autonomy
Step off throne we think we’re on
Recognize God’s dominion over everything
Interrupt our time, plan, agenda, and god of productivity
Intentionally be inconvenienced.
The Sabbath rest is instituted to teach us a rhythm of meditating and appreciating God’s constant, active creating and sustaining. It is intended for us to sit back and accept our own inability to sustain our world. It keeps us humble. If we allow it to.
And it truly leads to peace and joy.
Learning more about Sabbath rest has changed me. I have come to understand that a rhythm of ending my day, not only my week, with stepping back as God did, looking at my work, and saying “that was a job well done,” changes the day’s schedule from stressful to peaceful. And it doesn’t depend on how much of that agenda gets done. It depends on whether or not it was a day in which I honored God and did good work. The amount of it makes zero difference. The peace and wholeness God offers from this simple rhythm is beautiful.
The principal called me into the office to “talk.” No, I wasn’t a student in trouble. I was one of the teachers. She folded her hands across the desk, looked at me and informed me that I had a “couple” in my homeroom that I needed to do something about. They were displaying “poor judgment.”
Couples in high school and poor judgment are rarely mutually exclusive, but I didn’t see how that was something requiring my intervention. As delicately as possible, she informed me that the girl in my junior homeroom and her senior boyfriend would struggle because they came from different backgrounds. Their minds and future plans were unequal. Their family expectations completely at odds. It wouldn’t be healthy. I needed to talk to the young lady and explain to her why this relationship could not be pursued.
I may have recently graduated with honors from one of the nation’s best universities, but it took several minutes for young, naive me to grasp the clear subtext hanging above both our heads. My student was white. Her boyfriend was black.
I played innocent and wondered aloud why the students should be broken up and not allowed to come to this conclusion themselves. I defended the young man as a very nice boy that could be good for a scattered, confused, and conflicted girl. I explained that surely this job fell to her parents if they felt concern, not to me.
I did not confront what I knew I heard. I hoped that if it appeared I couldn’t imagine race as a consideration for the relationship’s demise, maybe she would realize that it shouldn’t be.
A few months later, when choosing ideas for argument in the debate class I taught, the topic of mixed race marriages came up. I let them debate it. I didn’t get called in again, but the grapevine told me of her deep displeasure. I still did not understand. It was a Christian school, right? So everyone would be considered equal in a Christian school, right? Isn’t that what Jesus taught?
I had no clue, at 22, the depths of what I was dealing with.
When the Ferguson protests erupted several years ago, I couldn’t make sense of all the things I heard. I had taught school right in the middle of the Ferguson-Florissant area. It wasn’t like that. Our black and white students got along fine. Everyone was happy. Had things changed so much in the ensuing decades?
In the last few months, I’ve revisited those days. I have thought about those black students. I’ve put on new lenses and discovered a few things I missed.
One thing I missed was that there were exactly two black students in each high school class. I’m pretty sure this is accurate, looking back. I didn’t notice it at the time. Did we have a quota? Did we have a number of students “like that” we allowed in each year to show how benevolent we were?
Now, I remember they were usually the students with the lowest grades. The young man in the dating scenario above could barely read and write above a grade school level, though he was a senior in high school. At the time, it angered me that he had come so far and no one had done anything about that. How was I supposed to catch that up as his senior English teacher? I assumed, though, it was part of his background, not part of his education.
In fact, I went along with all the assumptions about our black students—that these were underprivileged children from whom not much more could be expected and, though no one ever said it, wasn’t it good of the school to provide them with a place to be for six hours that was Christian? God knew what happened when they went home.
How is it that no one ever said these things yet no one questioned them, either? How is it that kids I remember as smart, capable students still got marked down for their “attitude” while their white peers’ equal attitude got indulgent smiles and assumptions that they would someday make good leaders?
I wonder now what happened to that very gentle, kind young man whom we failed. It never occurred to me that teaching the token students wasn’t really a priority.
The black students were also often the ones most in trouble. Not in my classes. My most troublesome students were generally sons of the church elders. Yet several black students whom I found engaging and lively in my classes told me tales of detention and punishment because they mouthed off or talked too much class. Those detentions happened a lot. They interfered a lot with my speech and theater groups. It didn’t occur to me that my white talkative, sassy students—whom I also enjoyed—didn’t view the inside of those detention rooms with such regularity.
I never noticed.
One of those church elder’s sons vandalized my car his senior year. The same principle asked me to forgive and forget. She didn’t want the boy to have a record. She didn’t want his future to be in jeopardy. Bringing in police would harm our reputation. More to the point, she didn’t want his parents to stop contributing. I conceded, not because I agreed but because his co-conspirator was already 18, and I didn’t want that young man to have a permanent police record.
I wonder now what would’ve happened if one of the black students had vandalized my car.
I wonder now if the black and white students really did get along so well. I wonder how many black students were invited to the white students’ parties or on a Friday night drive around town. I wonder what the lunch room looked like that I don’t remember ever visiting. I never heard or saw racial intimidation between students. I never noted any animosity between them. Yet I rarely saw intentional inclusion, either. I wonder now how much code-switching those kids had to endure at a young age in order to fit in.
I just never noticed.
I didn’t see that I was teaching in a refuge of whiteness more than a refuge of faith.
I’ve learned a few other things since then as well. I’ve learned how many Christian schools were founded not so that students could be kept safe in a Christian bubble but so that they could be kept safe in a white bubble. Given the location of the school, I feel certain of this heritage. Ferguson-Florissant has changed in the ensuing decades, but not that much. I simply didn’t see what was around the edges of the bubble. I didn’t see that I was teaching in a refuge of whiteness more than a refuge of faith. Or that some there conflated the two.
I couldn’t have known any of that, commuting as I did from a surprisingly more diverse area a half an hour south of it. I didn’t know it fresh out of my own university bubble where the only minority students I ever really interacted with were the Jewish ones, because at Wash U, they weren’t a minority.
I am processing all of this now. Realizing much of it just now. I haven’t thought about those years in a long time. I’m processing that the curriculum we taught has long been considered an extremely white-centered curriculum. It’s also extremely popular among Christian home and private schoolers. I knew none of this, because I knew nothing about racism other than that it was something that happened on the south side of Chicago and the north side of St. Louis. I didn’t grow up around it, so it didn’t exist.
Our school books contained such gems as a poem about Robert E Lee being a kind and gentle person who would never hurt a bunny, much less a slave. At least, that last was the implication. Our history books taught my students that most slaves were happy, cared for, and lucky that they came to America so they could hear about Jesus.
I wonder what our eight black students thought about that. I bet they never said.
I kept those books for decades, because I enjoy having anthologies of literature around. Now that I’d like to look at them again, to examine the specificities of what I taught and whether I ever saw the bias inherent in them, I finally tossed them into the recycling last fall. One of those few times decluttering has bitten me in the butt.
I taught those things. I thought them to impressionable teenagers. I want to say that my material couldn’t have covered such dubious revisionist history since I was their literature teacher. But literature has power. Words build up or tear down. Ideas in literature have fomented revolutions, brokered peace, and empowered abolitionists. Words matter, and when we choose which words and whose words to include in our children’s education, we choose the ideas they will believe. I suspect I know what words I would find in those old books.
I think about all these things now because I must. I didn’t think about any of them then because I didn’t have to. This, I suppose, is my point. As a young English teacher, grateful to have a job, any job, teaching I never saw what I didn’t see. I never knew what I didn’t know. Yet, I did participate in racism.
I rebelled at it when I saw it in school administration. I embraced the challenge of debating racial issues in class, thus knowingly thumbing my nose at said administration.
But I didn’t question the underlying assumptions of the entire school philosophy. I believed in the subtle superiority they taught me. Because of that, I know now that whatever racism those eight students in the high school experienced, I played a part in it. It wasn’t intentional. It didn’t have to be.
One of the things I’ve learned in my dive into racial inequity is the chasm between intent and effect. White people like myself usually focus on intent. Since we “don’t have a racist bone in our bodies”—since we can’t imagine intentionally inflicting racism on someone—we assume we’ve built up a kind of immunity when it comes to causing racial harm.
I had the best of intentions.
If I didn’t mean it, it didn’t happen.
Problem is, what people of color experience are the effects, not the intentions. If I didn’t mean to leave the cabinet door open and my husband cracks his head on it, he’s still got a throbbing bruise.
It’s helped me a lot to realize that the excuse of “good intentions” feels good to me because it lets me off the hook, but it doesn’t feel good at all to the person who has been hurt. When the ambulance gets called, no one cares if the injury was intentional. They care if the patient will live.
Another thing I’ve learned is that it does me no injury to say I’m sorry. I lose no ground. I lose no face. I lose nothing in the act of apologizing for harm that has been inflicted, intentional or not. It is purely pride that refuses such humility, and pride has no place in the kingdom of Jesus.
So students, wherever you are, I am sorry. I didn’t know. But now I know better.
I admit to being born in the era when teaching history was pretty much a gloss over of the major American wars and little else. (We entirely missed WWI, too. No idea.) World history? What was that? Who cared about the rest of the world? And don’t even get me started on grammar. We learned none of that. I have no idea what went on in the 70s. Pretty sure I spent that decade in the corner reading books.
All this to say, while I quickly became one of Hamilton‘s many adoring fans last weekend, I know virtually nothing of the actual man or of the history surrounding our earliest politics. But I know what I saw. So, so much to digest. I could write blog posts all year.
Yeah, We Got Trouble
One of the most troublesome things I saw is also not uncommon. in fact, it’s becoming more and more popular in the American church.
No, not duels. We haven’t gotten that bad. Unless you count Facebook.
The thing that led up to those duels, however, runs rampant in modern Christianity. Bravado.Macho posturing disguised as a new wave of “muscular Christianity.” Hamilton is well known as a man who could not back down, and it led to his death. (Or worse—expelled! From politics.)
Spend a little time with me on Christian Twitter, and you will see this in all it’s inglorious glory. Christian men who insist that Jesus was a masculine manly man and anyone less is questionable. They define the terms of masculinity quite narrowly, and the terms always consist of some sort of physical prowess but not necessarily mental. God wants them to be protectors, they insist, and somehow this always entails standing in front of the camera and showing us their rifles. I’m not clear why.
Christian men who strut and preen (yes, I’m pretty sure they do that in front of their computer screens even though we can’t see it) and proclaim how right they are about everything based solely on their possession of certain anatomy. Men who actually use #ToxicMasculinity as a badge go honor. Men who insult other brothers who prefer quieter pursuits and less brandishing as “soft” and “weak.”
We’re Manly Men
Honestly, I have met the nicest and best of Christian men on Twitter but also have encountered the most toxic, self-centered persons who call themselves Christian you can imagine. Yes, I know they’re on Facebook, too. Those I actually know and might be related to. So I stay on Twitter. Fortunately, I enjoy the interaction with the kind people very much and I limit it with the others. It makes me realize, though, that these things are out there, and they aren’t that uncommon.
I’m not talking about Christian men who go hunting and enjoy the outdoors and also enjoy being good citizens and family members. I know some of those men, and they are also awesome people, but they do not insist that every man be like them in order to be Christian. They are multi-faceted men who know you can’t pin someone down based on their extracurricular activities or the breadth of their shoulders.
They are fantastic men capable of admitting that they are sometimes wrong. There are fine men in the Christian church and I know a lot of them personally. They are men whose integrity and humility I trust implicitly. Yet they are not the loud ones.
And No One Knows How Far It Goes
(Why yes, I am having fun with the. musical subtitles. thank you.)
Needless to say, this sense of required bravado has leaked onto the national stage as well. It stains our politics, our families, our communities, and our churches. We have become an entire culture that values puffed out chests and clenched fists far more than bowed heads and bent knees.
Bravado: “A show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.”
By its nature it’s not real. It’s a shell, with an agenda to bully but not to offer substance. We’re told “bravado” comes from French and Italian words that mean bragging and boasting – words that the apostle Paul pleads with Christians never to use in association with themselves. (“If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.” 2 Corinthians 11.30). Yet the church is in serious danger of putting on that show without substance, and it’s purpose is not to boast about Christ.
Bravado is toxic.
I Am not Throwin’ Away My . . .
Let’s just stay with Hamilton for the moment and take a look at how this played out. Bravado killed Alexander Hamilton and his son in the show and in real life. What might have happened if, instead of teaching his son how to duel, Hamilton taught his son how to back down from a conflict? What if, instead of telling him how to save face, he asked him “Hey, did the man say anything about me that wasn’t true? Then what do we need to fight for?” What lives and futures might have been spared?
That is not the way we teach our men to do things. We teach them, even in our doctrine, that concession and compromise are weak. We toss such words around in our church dialogue with a sneer, as if daring to compromise on anything equals giving up the faith and turning to satan worship.
If this is our default, when others with differing viewpoints come before us, what’s the the natural response? “I can’t hear or consider what you’re saying. If I do, I am compromising. And compromise is of the devil.” We eventually come to equate that person with satan himself, tempting us toward the demon trap of compromise or concession.
This is why so many Christians cannot participate in a healthy debate on difficult issues. We’re too afraid to lose and what that might mean. We’ve been taught that any slight deviation or concession is failure and a fall into the unknown.
And if I Heard You, Which I Don’t
We can’t listen because our requisite bravado is screaming in our ears—“Never stand down!” As if that’s a quality Jesus ever espoused.
What if we chose the way of humility instead? What if our national conversation was steeped in the kind of selfless giving we see in Jesus rather than the “me first” mentality that bravado requires?
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges. (Philippians 2.3-6)
What if the church led the way?
Brene Brown, in Braving the Wilderness, says that in order to have the difficult healing conversations, we have to be willing to look our fears in the eye and be vulnerable. Bravado cannot do this. Bravado by its nature and definition cannot be real.
Do we want a church that is not real?
Humans need to be real in order to have a future together.
Bravado killed Hamilton. It is killing the church today.