The Bible just might be the most dangerous book in the world.
Every week, people read from and interpret it in front of huge audiences all across the country — no, all across the world. And how we behave, what we say, the decisions we make, the candidates we vote for, the policies we enact, the purchases we make, the conversations we have, the doors we open (and the doors we close), the invitations we extend, the prayers we pray — all of those things depend, largely, on how this book is translated to us by the person preaching from it. Every time we read it, we do so through the lens of our own experiences, our own theology and yes, even our own prejudices.
I’ve heard some people say the Bible is a love letter from God. These days, it’s used more as weapon.
Except I’m reading that Jesus came because God so loved the world. He came to save it, not condemn it.
My friend Kate recently posted an excerpt of what we, as Presbyterians in the PC (USA), believe. As she reminds us, this is the official policy and position of our church:
Affirming and Celebrating the Full Dignity and Humanity of People of All Gender Identities
Standing in the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people, the 223rd General Assembly (2018) affirms its commitment to the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities within the full life of the church and the world. The assembly affirms the full dignity and the full humanity of transgender people, their full inclusion in all human rights, and their giftedness for service. The assembly affirms the church’s obligation to stand for the right of people of all gender identities to live free from discrimination, violence, and every form of injustice.
Making these affirmations, the assembly acknowledges that the church has fallen short of these commitments and obligations. In the world and in the church, transgender people too often experience and suffer discrimination and violence. The church has failed to understand fully and to celebrate adequately the full spectrum of gender embodied in God’s creation. As a result, we have participated in systemic and targeted discrimination against transgender people, and we have been complicit in violence against them. The assembly affirms the scriptural obligation to work for justice for all God’s children, and particularly here to work for justice for people of all gender identities. We have fallen short of this obligation, and—by the grace of God—commit ourselves to do better.
These affirmations and this commitment are rooted and grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in the breadth of Scripture, and in the Reformed Tradition. Scripture affirms that all people are created in the image of God. In God’s creation, we see and experience God’s image expressed across a broad and life-giving expression of gender. Honoring the breadth and variety of our gender identities and expressions is one of the ways we can come to an even deeper understanding of who we are created to be in relationship to God and each other. The Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospel, and the Reformed Tradition affirm the dignity and worth of all people and call on individuals and communities to work for the well-being and protection of all people. Because we recognize that people of all gender identities are created equally in the image of God, we also recognize that we share a mutual obligation to stand for the right of all people and all gender identities and gender expressions to live free from discrimination and from violence. The image of God expansively and specifically includes people of all gender identities including transgender, cisgender, gender non-binary people, and people of all gender expressions.
This is the church I am a part of. This is the church I will, inshallah, help lead. One that doesn’t draw borders and build walls, hell-bent on drawing distinctions of race and gender and sexuality and ethnicity and language and religious practice. One that sees the big, wide welcome of God as one that embraces, not shuns, that celebrates, not shames.
This is not to say I’ll always get it right. This is not to say that, for all my questioning and poring over the original text and considering it from every angle, that I’ve landed on the one true and correct interpretation. But it is to say that I believe God is infinitely more concerned with how I treat other people than whether I’ve got my theology all figured out. On whether I approach scripture with an honest and teachable heart instead of twisting it to fit my own agenda. On taking a stand for welcome and not exclusion. On not labeling as profane what God has already called clean (Acts 10:15).
Jesus told his disciples we’d be known by our love — not by keeping score of what we consider to be someone else’s sin.
The hateful rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ+ community and humanity’s feeble attempts to legalize its own discrimination are not born from the Spirit of God. They are rotten fruit that yield from diseased trees, trees of exclusion, misappropriation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and humankind’s need for control. And it’s high time the Church starts calling it out for what it is.
To my friends and family in the queer community, especially those who are trans, let me be clear about one thing: I love you. God loves you. Full stop.
I’m sorry that people in the Church and even the institutional Church as a whole hurt you, shamed you, made you feel less than or like something was wrong with you. Those voices are not God’s. God rejoices over you with songs of celebration, and Jesus’ banner over you is love.
ps: For anyone who wants to disagree with me about LGBTQ+ rights, in and out of the Church, I am happy to have a conversation with you and share why I, as a Christian, am fully affirming. I will not, however, have that conversation in an argumentative comments section.
Up on the mountain
The lectionary text for this coming Sunday details Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain while Peter, John, and James witness this event. Peter, who has just confessed his belief that Jesus is the Christ, comes up with the idea to build tents up there on the mountain — you can tell how eager he is to stay in the middle of that glory, how he wants to hold on to it for as long as he can. I think we’re all like that with God, really. We get glimpses and we try to bottle it all up for ourselves. It’s almost like we think that if we have God over here, with us, on our side, then we have ownership of Him. We have validation that our faith is the correct faith, so we try to contain it, and in doing so, we take away anyone else’s chance to experience the divine for themselves.
I think that’s part of the reason why the moment is interrupted, why Peter is jolted back to reality. We can’t stay on our mountaintops forever. My spiritual director recently reminded me that life happens in the middle parts; that’s the sweet spot. Yes, we have these incredible, indescribable moments of joy sometimes and yes, we even have deep, dark valleys of pain and grief. But the bulk of what Mary Oliver calls our “one precious life?” It happens in the middle. In the ordinary, the routine. The mundane. That’s what matters.
But I also think God needed Peter and the disciples to see that staying on the mountain is not kingdom-work. Attempting to settle down and isolate as if they had this whole faith-walk thing figured out was not an option in God’s eyes. The work isn’t on the mountain. People aren’t on the mountain. Setting prisoners free and doing justice and proclaiming the wide welcome of God can’t happen on the mountain. The disciples needed to get out there and do the work.
And so do we. Which is why I have some (ok, a lot) of pretty complicated thoughts about #Asbury. I do not doubt God is there. I do not doubt that people are having real, transformational experiences with Her. But I fear it’s almost turned into just another mountain, one not everyone has access to. I fear it’s become another human attempt to bottle up the goodness of God for a certain group of people instead of taking it outside those four walls for all — and I do mean all. I fear it’s become a “come and see” moment when really, I think the Lord is always urging us to “go and show.” I read someone commenting that if we hide ourselves away in a room for days and aren’t going out to care for the most vulnerable of God’s beloveds, then what you are experiencing isn’t actually revival. It’s an upper room moment at best. A mountain-top moment at best.
Food for thought, I guess.
The welcome is wide
One of my tattoos is of a communion table — a tipped over cup of wine, water, and a loaf of wheat because I imagine the feast of the Lord to be simple, maybe a bit messy, but extraordinary nonetheless.
Today, in Israel, we gathered as a group to have communion together on the Mount of Beatitudes, and when I tell you I sobbed? I SOBBBBED. A group of over 40 of us, all ages and stages of life, from North America and Europe and the Caribbean and a stateless Arminian man who calls Israel home — we all came to the table. We all tasted and saw that the Lord is good. And I cried because it was beautiful, because the very real presence of Christ was in the wheat and wine but also in the wind coming off the sea, in the dirt of the very paths my feet have walked today. And that makes me remember all the more how important an incarnational faith is, how my God is a God who had meat and bones and probably had sore feet after all the walking like I do, who got hungry and tired like I am, who laughed and loved and prayed just like me. Jesus the man came more alive to me today than ever in such an embodied, tactile, tangible, accessible way.
And I also cried because this is what the kingdom of God is like. It is every nation and language and tribe. It is broken people who don’t try to put on appearances but come to the feast because we are hungry and desire our fill. It is sunlight and breeze, sand and grass, in the movement of God at creation that we see still today. It is nearness to God when we mourn, when we make peace, when we show mercy. It is ordinary and holy and community and simple and sacred. I cried because today’s versions of Christianity have diverged so far from this vision in so many ways, and we argue about what elements are appropriate and who can actually partake while all the while Jesus calls to us, “Come! I’ve prepared a place for you, and my welcome is wide — bring everyone!”
I cried, and it was happy, and it was sad, and I am forever changed.
Shaking the dust
The lectionary reading from Luke yesterday was a strange one. There’s a wealthy, powerful man who lives in luxury, and a poor beggar named Lazarus who lies outside his gates. They both die, and while Lazarus is comforted by Abraham, the ancestor of our faith, the rich man is tormented. In his suffering, he calls out to Abraham, asking him to send Lazarus back to earth to go warn the rich man’s brothers so they do not end up at the same fate. And Abraham answers, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
I am continually disappointed by the number of Christians in this country who have bowed to the gods of guns, violent nationalism, capitalism, and power (particularly at the expense of others, usually marginalized.) I’m reading the same scriptures they supposedly are, and nowhere in them is this idolatry condoned. But what, then, do our prophets actually say? Do not turn away the needy (Amos 5:12). Do not oppress the foreigner, orphan, or widow (Jer. 7:5-7). Work for the renewal of creation (Is. 65:17-25) and equity for the poor (Is. 11:4). Show mercy to one another (Zech. 7:9-10). I could go on and on…
As I read about Lazarus and the rich man yesterday, it struck me that there are so, so many who are like the rich man’s brothers, who refuse to listen to the words of Moses and the prophets. They’ve become the caricature of those Jesus addresses in Matthew 13, whose hearts are calloused & whose eyes cannot see the Way. They’ve “refused to listen to this message. They stubbornly turned away and put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing” (Zech. 7:11).
& I, quite frankly, have grown weary, and I find myself siding with Abraham — if people can’t even heed the Law and the Prophets, how can they truly obey the Resurrected One? Then I remember Jesus’ words to his disciples, that if they enter a place where peace is not offered to them, they are simply to shake the very dust from their feet and continue on.
It can be exhausting to be a person of faith in this country these days. Perhaps today, you simply need to hear someone say it’s ok to shake the dust and move on.
Being a body
The other day, I caught a bad case of The Comparison Bug when it comes to my running. I started worrying about things like pace and progress, even though I know that I’m forever a member of the Slow Running Club. So, I reached out to some of my Orange Crush teammates, and through their wisdom and encouragement, I realized once again what I do is enough. I am enough, and I don’t need to strive and work myself to the bone to prove my worth. In that moment, I needed them to remind me of that.
In church on Sunday, my husband reminded us all that we — the collective we — are not a machine. We are not cogs and gears and wheels and wires. We are a body, interdependent and mutual; we give and take; we need and rely on one another because, in the end, we belong to each other. We all have our own part to play, and our parts are not meant to mimic anyone else’s. They are unique and distinctive — but not meant to stand alone. Not either/or. Both/and.
So, I guess that’s why I’m simply baffled by the behavior of some who call themselves Christians this week in the conversations about debt forgiveness. If we are a body, don’t we want all the parts of ourselves to be healthy & whole so we, as an organism, can flourish? It doesn’t matter if you don’t have loans or you paid them off — your brother or sister or neighbor or coworker does. Our sacred text is, quite literally, full of examples of how the forgiveness of debts is holy. Of how much we’ve been given out of an abundance of grace. There is enough to go around, enough for all of us — more than enough, really. But there are people who need us to help them get it. Perhaps our problem is that we started looking at ourselves as a machine instead of a body. When a machine breaks, we throw out whatever part stopped working. But not so with a body. When part of a body is hurt, the rest of the body compensates for it until it heals. It releases extra white blood cells to fight infection. It uses pain signals to alert your brain. Monocytes activate to control inflammation. Parts work harder not because they have to but because they’re taking extra care of what has become weak. Isn’t that a better — whole-r — way to live?
A Better Story | part three
I look around, and I see evidence of the brokenness everywhere. And so there’s this tension between the ugly truth of our reality and where scripture teaches we were intended to be. And while I believe in human potential and progress and the ability to create beauty from ashes, I also believe we all are salvific wanderers. We cannot save ourselves — not wholly. Not in the way that recreates and restores. We need something more, something beyond our mere flesh and bones, for we truly are dust and to dust we will return.
That something more for me is Jesus. I don’t know how it all works; the theories of atonement don’t much interest me, if I’m being honest. All I know is that I read the scriptures, and in the brown-skinned rabbi from Nazareth, I see all that is righteous and kind and good.
I see that he offers a new way of living. And I guess that’s what salvation really is, at the end of the day.
But here’s the thing: we were not created to be saved OUT of this world. That thinking is not only theologically incorrect but it’s also cowardly. Churches teach (both implicitly and explicitly) that the ultimate goal of salvation is heaven — to be assured one day we’ll live in our mansions in the sky, for earth as we know it will be destroyed. But. But. But. … Nowhere in scripture does it walk about heaven as the eternal destiny for Christians. Nor does it teach that heaven is a separate location from earth. We, as created beings, were made to dwell in and care for this world, this world that’s also God’s good creation. He loves it. The new heaven and new earth does not mean that what we have now will be wiped away. It will be redeemed, which quite literally means to be saved. Ephesians 1:9-20: God will gather up all things in both heaven and earth. Acts 3:21: we hope in a “universal salvation that God announced long ago.” If we truly understand the entire narrative of the scriptural story, then we ought to believe redemption is for the entirety of the created order — including the earth.
My problem with the Western Church (well, one of them, anyway) is that it is tragically misguided in how it approaches and talks about salvation. We’re taught that there’s a mansion somewhere up in the sky with our name on it, that we’ll all be floating around like disembodied soul wisps in the clouds, and that everything on the earth will essentially be destroyed when Jesus comes back so it doesn’t realllllllly matter, does it, what we do until then? But Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that the kingdom of God was to come — he said it was already here, among us. He, as well as his audience in the ancient world, understood that salvation aims towards a full and extensive transformation of the world. As my brilliant advisor J. Richard Middleton wrote, “No dimension of earthly life is in principle excluded — neither bodily health nor social and economic realities.” Today’s Christianity is seeped in dualism, which teaches that there’s a divide between what is “spiritual” and what is not, which has led to a softening of what salvation really means. It doesn’t look like the kingdom we’ve been expecting — that’s precisely the point. Many are tempted to dismiss it because, to them, it looks too much like the defamed “social gospel.” Yet God cares for people in their minds, bodies, hearts, and souls; it *all* matters. Refugees finding safety matters. Hungry people being fed matters. Those who are sick having equitable access to healthcare matters. No area of our world or our culture is meant to be untouched by Jesus; we are the ones who have drawn lines in the sand to keep him out, to relegate him to help with this but not that, with those who *deserve* it but not those free-loaders. We, fellow Christians, are the problem. I’ve written before about the Hebrew word “nephesh” (in English, “soul”) and how ancient Jews understood the soul to be inseparable from the body. The idea of a soul that is separate didn’t come until much later, with Plato and the Greeks. So when we’re telling people their souls need saved but neglecting to make sure they have access to basic human rights? We’ve strayed from the ways of Jesus.
A Better Story | part two
The cultural mandate of Christians, found in the Genesis story, is to care for, tend to, and cultivate the earth. However, many of us have gravely misunderstood the implications of power and the Imago Dei (divine image) that we bear. It’s blatantly evident in the way natural resources are exploited, animal species are hunted to extinction, the climate crisis grows worse every single day, and the land is continuously raped for the sake of consumption and greed. Bearing God’s image doesn’t mean that we humans are given the authority to lord power over the rest of creation, assuming our own authority.
Ahh. There it is. Assuming our own authority.
Remember that tree in Genesis 3, the one the first humans were told not to eat of? When they tasted the fruit, it was not just their disobedience that broke their covenant with God. It was their autonomy. Autonomy; a Greek word. Autos: self. Nomos: govern or rule. See, the problem with autonomy is that it makes us think we get to be God. It would have us believe (and act) as if OUR rights, OUR wants, OUR needs, OUR desires, OUR plans are more important than anyone or anything else’s. It tells us “me first!” and “mine first!” and even “America first!” and grossly perverts our calling to be God’s image-bearers in the world.
We humans are surely not nearly as important as we think we are. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s hope for us yet.
Here’s the thing: I really do believe in us. Some might tell me that I’m being naive. Silly. Simple-minded. And maybe they’re right. I could be wrong; Lord knows I don’t have all the answers, let alone most of them. But I’m willing to be wrong. I’m willing to stake my life on the fact that humans are inherently good because I know that Genesis 1 and my tov’ness (tov: Hebrew: good) came before Genesis 3.
Maybe I’m wrong. But I’d rather live like I believe I’m right because it is precisely that belief that propels me to work for restoration in my here-and-now life. Creation care is not just a political talking point but actually part of my responsibility as a believer in Christ. Things like reducing waste and my family’s use of single use plastics, growing my own garden to shorten the food supply chain, and walking more and driving less are all examples of how I am working to lessen my carbon footprint. Why do I care about that? Well, simply put, because I believe the earth matters. By taking care of it and stewarding it well, I am being obedient to God. I am also partnering with God in God’s redemptive work in the world. Salvation belongs to God alone, of course, but as God’s children, we are invited to participate in that.
Additionally, that participation is not limited to caring for the earth. Since I believe God is working to bring redemption to all things, it would only make sense that this belief will affect all things. It affects how I vote; I choose candidates whose policies promise to uplift and care for the most marginalized in our society, for I believe God has a special concern for them. It affects my relationships and how I conduct myself in the world, seeking to live at peace with all and to harm none. It affects what I choose to spend money on, as I opt to support businesses that give back to communities and the world instead of hoarding profits.
Can you imagine what this world could look like if we all stopped trying to be our own little gods?
A Better Story | part one
Christianity is supposed to tell a better story, and I’m here to reclaim it.
God created, and all that had been made was deemed “very good.” Many Christians seem to bypass this part of the scriptures, choosing to begin their biblical narrative with the fall of humanity in Genesis 3. This does a grave disservice to the faith because it plants the presupposition (even if it’s unarticulated) that humanity’s brokenness is more important than their glory.
But our faith is one of a world made good: breathtakingly, awe-inspiringly good, marked by Genesis’ use of the Hebrew word טוֹב (‘tov’) to denote how God viewed creation. Tov doesn’t just mean good; that word is used so much in the English language that it’s lost much of its meaning. Tov is the highest, purest, fullest, most dynamic form of good there can be.
& God’s plan for redemption is not to throw out all of that good creation (including humanity) because of its brokenness. Rather, redemption means that God is at work putting things back together, re-creating this world and all its inhabitants to be tov once more.
Beloved, you may have been told by the Church all sorts of wrong stories about who you are. Maybe you’ve even been tempted to believe them. But here is the Good News: you were made GOOD. Tov. Exceedingly, incredibly good. At your core, that is who you are — don’t believe anything or anyone that tells you differently. And God has not given up on creation (though some days, I wonder if God should.) *That* is the better story, one that I believe with all my heart, one I’ve staked my very life on and one I’m committed to forever proclaiming. Christians, let’s start there, shall we?
After all, creation is our culture. So, what are we making?
In the account of Genesis 1, we read humanity is created in God’s own image and according to God’s likeness. In Latin, this is the “Imago Dei” — the Divine Image. This sets humanity apart from the rest of creation, which was created good but not implicitly with the Imago Dei.
Humans, then, are instilled with the same propensity God has to create. The anthropological link between agriculture and culture is fascinating, especially as we look closely at scripture. Genesis 2:5-7 notes humans were not created until AFTER the Garden was made *and* there was water, a necessary agricultural tool for cultivating it. God provided all the materials needed so humanity could cultivate, care for, and tend to the land — which is our mandate, evident in Gen. 2:15. Why would God command us to care for something that didn’t matter? Clearly, the created world is important to God, and it ought to be important to us, for we have been tasked with tending to it. From the Garden comes fields, then farms, then villages and towns. Our story begins in a garden and ends in a city — a beautiful, diverse, multicultural, multiethnic, and multilinguistic city.
We have been given the task of creating, progressing, growing, evolving, developing. Cultivation is seen in the way we humans grow crops and design buildings and raise children and write books. It’s in how we cook dinners for our families and make art and run for office and carve things from wood and fix broken pipes and volunteer at our kids’ schools. By doing this, we create culture; we make the world around us. Which means if we want a different world, we can make it. But we need each other; this creation was never meant to be something we do alone. We need mutual partnerships with our families and our neighbors and our communities so that we may all walk each other home.
The mosaic of God
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but: there is no wrong way to have a body.
I know that social media and culture and sometimes even the voice in our own heads tells us that there’s a “right” body, an “ideal” body – and that we must be damaged goods if we’re unable to conform to it. That our body must be a mistake if it’s not the same as what the world deems as “good.”
But can I tell you an ancient and beautiful story? In the beginning, there was nothingness, and in the beginning, God said to one another, “Let us make humans in our image.” And then God envisioned and imagined and created bodies. There were bodies with skin the color of clay and the color of fresh milk and the color of rose petals and the color of an inky midnight sky. There were bodies with dimpled buttocks and doughy bellies; bodies with taut thighs and bulging biceps; bodies with angled cheekbones and jutting ribs. There were bodies that loved women and bodies that loved men and bodies that loved both and bodies that loved neither. There were bodies with extra chromosomes, and bodies with missing limbs, and bodies with two seeing eyes; or maybe one or maybe none. There were bodies tall as tree trunks and bodies short and squat like mushrooms. There were bodies that felt at home being female, and bodies that felt at home being male, and some bodies felt at home being both, or neither, or somewhere in between. There were bodies with eyes like rich cocoa and icy glaciers and deep forests, bodies with hair like fine straw and bodies with hair like the swell of a wave, and bodies with lots of hair and bodies with very little.
And God saw them all, and God declared them very, very good.
Our bodies were purpose-fully, wonder-fully made by a God who dreamed them exactly as they are as a direct representation of who God is. Body diversity is a glorious gift that gives us glimpses of the divine in every single person’s flesh and bone. God didn’t just make white, thin, abled, cishet bodies because the image of God is a beautiful mosaic and not a uniform pencil-sketch. Black bodies, brown bodies, disabled bodies, trans bodies, nonbinary bodies, fat bodies – these bodies all bear the image of God who made them in God’s own image. And so when we reject them, we’re rejecting God.
There is no wrong way to have a body, no matter what anyone else – or sometimes even yourself – tells you.
You are very, very good, friend. God says so.
// A word of God for the people of God.
(Photo is a selfie taken by my beautifully, wonderfully made daughter – a closeup of her one seeing eye with a glimpse of her blind eye in the peripheral.)
The lesson of Palm Sunday
She pressed a cross made from her palm branch into my hand before we parted ways. Her fingers had been folding, creasing, twisting as we spoke. It’s been almost a year, I remember thinking. She’s never wanted to talk before. How could I possibly have known everything she’s been going through?
And I got to thinking about this Palm Sunday, when the crowds gathered in expectation of a warrior king seated upon a mighty steed. They got a rabbi from Galilee on a donkey instead — him, and his rag-tag group of followers: unemployed fishermen. A despised tax collector. Women of questionable (at best) reputation.
And I wonder how often we might miss God because She comes to us in ways that we’re not expecting? How often do we overlook the divine because it doesn’t look like what we’re used to?
Maybe that’s the whole point that rabbi on the donkey was trying to make. God likes to show us that things are not always what they seem. He reminds us over and over and over again that he’s not here to keep the status quo, that he’s unconcerned with peace-keeping but, instead, peace-making, that the empire was never meant to free us — which is exactly why he upends it.
Maybe freedom comes in disguise, in subtle ways we aren’t always accustomed to looking for.
But freedom comes nonetheless — for all of us, yes, but for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized first.
And that can be uncomfortable for those of us with privilege to acknowledge. Because we’re not always good at laying down what we have so the last can be first.
But as Jesus reminds us — even if we choose to turn our backs, shut our eyes, stop up our ears, the stones themselves would cry out in this liberation song. Because freedom is coming. And it’s inviting us along.