Sometime around 2005, the “everything happens for a reason,” feel-good faith of my college years shattered. I had had two miscarriages and health complications that accompanied those losses, and to tell you the truth, God did not feel real close, or real good, or real loving. In fact, I didn’t feel anything for God except grief and anger. You promised me the desires of my heart! I wailed. What kind of a God are you?
I wrote a poem at the time (below) in response to something Jesus said to Peter in Luke 22:31-32:
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
What does it look like to be sifted as wheat?
Wheat is sifted to remove the inedible chaff. It gets in the way of the edible grain. Here is what threshing and sifting wheat looks like:
This does not look fun to me.
Simon, Satan has asked to beat you with a whip until the useless parts of who you are fall away, and then Satan’s going to toss you around a while in a big basket to let loose the remaining chaff. Jesus might as well have said, Simon, this is going to hurt like hell.
There are lots of these metaphors in Scripture. God is the vine, and we are the branches. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit… (John 15:2). He will sit as a refiner and smelt the priests like gold and silver to remove any impurities and sediment from them (Malachi 3:3). On and on, God does the work of disciplining and cleaning, purifying and preparing his people. And then he restores them.
That kind of sifting takes its toll. There have been multiple seasons since 2005 when I have felt raw, as if I’ve spent that time scrubbing my skin with abrasive soap. Or how about refinishing a piece of wooden furniture? (The metaphors are endless.) As God strips away each layer of varnish, I have heard, You are not this. I am not this. I am not that. You are not that. We are not this. This is not of me. This is not who we are. That rawness brings a certain tenderness and sensitivity. Things that are not of God rub me the wrong way. Misappropriations of Jesus evoke a visceral reaction in me.
It takes energy to keep declaring what God is not like, refuting platitudes, mythbusting the junk we pick up and carry around with us as if it’s from God but it isn’t, it’s actually just chaff, loads and loads of chaff clinging to our socks and irritating our necks. Have you ever loaded hay bales onto a wagon and felt the powder of chaff on your skin? It’s awful, trying to pick away all of those small pieces.
It’s far easier to just strip down. Take a shower. Rinse clean. Start fresh.
But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.
So much sifting has been happening in the church over the last decade (or more). God is very busy separating the wheat from the chaff. He does it in our individual lives and he does it on a grand scale, an apocalyptic peeling back to reveal the true nature of things. We watch the train wrecks and rightfully lament, Is there anyone righteous left?
Has your faith endured through all this sifting? Has your faith endured the fallout of pastoral moral failures, of political strife, of pandemic pain and disagreement and death, of personal crises and losses and so much damage, so much trauma, so much brokenness?
I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.
And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.
Here we are. We are here. We have spent so much time defining God by what God is not. As the chaff lifts on the wind, and we are stripped bare, and the clear fresh water rushes over our skin, the voice in the wind whispers, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
What are you doing here, Peter? Peter, do you love me?
When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.
The threshing floor is clear. It’s time to stop carrying around the chaff that God has stripped away as evidence for what he is not and start being the wheat that is, being the branch that bears fruit. It’s time to put away the remaining chaff of cynicism, apply the balm of Gilead that is Jesus, and return. Turn back to a faith that is sincere, a faith that is sifted, strengthened, and renewed.
“There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.”
Pete Enns has ruined Exodus, Isaiah, and Christmas, so I thought I’d take a stab at ruining one of the American Christian’s favorite Bible verses, an oft-quoted, stenciled, and memorized Jeremiah 29:11:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
(Pete Enns is a biblical scholar and author of several books, including The Sin of Certainty, The Bible Tells Me So, How the Bible Actually Works, and more. If you aren’t familiar with his work, it’s quite good. He also has a podcast called the Bible for Normal People.)
Jeremiah and Me: A History
In the infant years of my faith as a college student, discovering this verse and verses like it (Isaiah 42:16, for instance) were both deeply encouraging and anxiety producing. As a young person in high school, I had ideas about what I’d like to do as an adult, but when I became a Christian at age 18, suddenly a new layer was added to my career pursuits. Now it wasn’t just a matter of finding a job I was good at and doing my best at that job. That wasn’t enough. I was a follower of Jesus now. What did God want me to do?
That someone, like God, had a plan for me, I reasoned, was good news. I was grateful he cared that much about me to have a plan for my life. But when was he going to clue me in?! Should I major in this subject, or that subject? Should I teach or should I write or should I try to teach writing? Should I attend this college or transfer to another college? Should I marry this guy, or should I wait and marry some other guy? Should I marry at all?
What are your plans for me, God? Show me! I pleaded. I grasped at whatever signs I could find, trying to divinate God’s particular roadmap for my life. As I moved along through my college years and into young married life, the pleas continued. I earnestly sought the Lord’s will in all things. This man? This job? This house? This church? No? How about this job? Baby? No babies? O Lord, I prayed again and again, What is your will?
Where is God’s plan when things shatter?
Not very long into marriage, I had a miscarriage with a side dish of health complications that lasted for eight months. When it was okay to try again, we swiftly became pregnant and then unpregnant, a second time.
Suddenly, Jeremiah 29:11 seemed like a bunch of BS, right alongside other verses that promised that God would give me whatever I wanted or asked for if I delighted in him. I loved God. Wasn’t I faithful enough? Hadn’t I delighted?
For so long I had buttressed my faith with all of these promises of prosperity without acknowledging, reading, or understanding the context of the verses, and as a result, when hard things began to happen, my faith in a God of Good Fortune was shaken. What was I to do with all of the bad things happening?
I’m not the first to ask such a question, of course. Job, the oldest book in the Bible, wrestled with the question of suffering 3,500 years ago, and we’re still wrestling with it today.
So, is Jeremiah 29:11 untrue? Does God have a plan and a purpose for your life? Or is it something else?
When it comes to prophecies, it’s not personal.
This is the first truth about Jeremiah and the prophets: It isn’t personal. We want it to be personal, because that’s the kind of faith many of us were raised in: we were invited to have a personal, saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
But the prophets spoke to the nation of Israel. Every “you” is a “you plural,” not “you singular.” We could say instead “You people” or “Y’all” for pretty much all of our favorite passages. Unlike our Americanized, individualized approach to Christianity, the Jewish people saw their relationship and standing before the Lord as a community, systemic. We the People. Not me the person.
God is concerned with all of humanity’s progression towards healing, reconciliation, and peace. Not just my particular path, my day in and day out life choices. He just wants me to live, and live abundantly (John 10:10).
While God does know the plans he has for me, plans to prosper me and not to harm me, plans for my hope and future, I should not take this to mean a very specific, tactical plan that I may miss or screw up, like taking the wrong job, or not marrying the right guy. No, these plans God has are universe-sized, plans to reconcile all of humanity to himself, plans for love and joy and hope and peace and every other good thing.
I’m involved in that plan, but I am not the center of that plan… praise Jesus in heaven. My involvement is to do my part to love God and love others. By working together to fulfill these two commandments as a people of God united in spirit as the body of Christ, we might collectively bring heaven to earth. No single one of us is going to achieve that plan and purpose by ourselves.
There were false prophets and there were true prophets, and the true ones usually brought bad news.
The second truth about Jeremiah is that no one looked forward to hearing from Jeremiah. He was rarely there to bring good news. In fact, the letter in which Jeremiah penned Jeremiah 29:11 is preceded by a throwdown between Jeremiah and another prophet, Hananiah. Many of the Israelites were living in exile, kicked out of Jerusalem and under the rulership of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. As you can imagine, the Israelites were not happy with these arrangements.
Hananiah told the Israelites that it would only be a little while before the awful King Nebuchadnezzar was out of power—like two years!—and then Israel would have victory! God’s going to come in and break Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. You just wait. It’s going to be awesome.
In front of all of the Israelite priests, Jeremiah told Hananiah, “From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true” (Jeremiah 28:8-10 NIV).
In response, Hananiah says that not only will Israel be free from underneath Babylon’s rule, all the nations will be free, and it’ll only take two years. Ka-pow! Shake and bake, baby!
Isn’t that what we want to hear, right now? This present suffering is only going to last a little while and then just wait. God’s gonna come and show those enemies of ours what’s what.
Instead, God speaks through Jeremiah and says, nope, it’s going to be worse than what you think. Everyone is going to serve Nebuchadnezzar. God has a word for Hananiah: “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord’” (Jeremiah 28:15-16 NIV).
False prophets face mortal consequences.
God deals with false prophets severely. Two months after this interaction, Hananiah died. Not only this, but two other false prophets, people in the community of believers who spoke lies in God’s name and committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, these prophets as well were punished and killed by Nebuchadnezzar, a foreign king.
Don’t miss this: God is not condemning the foreign king who is ruling over the people of Israel. He’s condemning the priests, the prophets, the speakers and teachers who all claim to follow God but are not speaking the word of the Lord. Instead, they are behaving like politicians, delivering what the people want to hear instead of what the people need to hear.
Leaders who persuade other people to trust in lies face mortal consequences. Jesus had the harshest words for the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. Woe to you, Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. (Matthew 23:13-39 NIV). The false prophets had sweet words that made the people feel good, despite the information being false. The same is true today. Smooth talkers and people who say only what the people want to hear might win some over in the short term, but sooner or later, God’s gonna cut you down, as Johnny Cash says.
There’s hope in that for the powerless, and there’s warning in that for those of us in leadership, who hold power to sway and persuade. The burden of responsibility for leaders is substantial, and the temptations of power are great. The warnings of the prophets are often directed at the leaders, and the consequences are dire. We would do well to heed the warnings of the prophets.
True prophets speak the truth, even when it’s grim.
The prophets saw the crises in the community of believers, and fire burned in their bones. It’s the prophet’s job to rattle the cages of complacency and pride in the community. Prophets see the consequences of action (or inaction) and warn the people of what life will look like if they continue down this road. The prophets spoke to specific circumstances of disobedience at specific times in history, and yet, we can learn from history, we can glean truth from these specific events.
After Hananiah died, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the leaders of the people throughout Babylon, all those who were exiled and living in foreign lands. It isn’t going to be two years, he said. It’s going to be 70. Seventy years! Here’s what God directed the people in exile to do:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Get comfy. Live your lives. Don’t expect this burden to ease up for a while. In fact, seek the good of the place you’re stuck in, even if it’s a foreign land.
Prophets delivered promises of hope for the nation of Israel… in God’s timeline, not ours.
All of this leads up to Jeremiah 29:11. God tells the people, when it’s been 70 years, I’ll bring you back to your land, as I promised. “For I know the plans I have for y’all, plans to prosper y’all and not to harm y’all, to give y’all hope and a future.”
You, plural. You, the people. You, nation of Israel. You, people of God. This suffering will not last forever.
Even when God deals harshly with his people, rebuking them, stripping them down, and humbling them, he always promises salvation, hope, healing, and restoration. There is always an “and yet.” The disciplinary hand of God also lifts the chin of the shamed daughter and folds her in his arms.
After some more false prophets are condemned by Jeremiah and God, Jeremiah writes of the discipline Israel will endure and the eventual restoration of Israel, the true good news and what the future forecast is, according to God’s timeline. It is coming, it will be fulfilled, and it is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, who declared the kingdom of God is among us, now.
Prophets compel us to action.
God uses his prophets to cause a disturbance and shake us out of our complacency, to sound the alarm about the direction we’re headed and reroute us back to God, back to “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7a). What does that look like when you’re in exile, when you aren’t where you thought you’d be, when your plan and your purpose don’t align with your reality, when you’re mixed in with a group of people and leaders who do not reflect your values, do not respect your customs, and do not follow your God?
Build houses. Settle down. Seek the peace and prosperity of the town where you live. Be here now. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Act humbly, now. Love your God and love your neighbor as yourself, whether you turn to the right or to the left, because in either direction, you can love. In either direction, there is God.
I took a little break the last couple of weeks from the newsletter while the fam and I were on the road for vacation. Vacation felt different this year for me. In the past, I have run a long marathon at a sprinter’s pace all the way up until the last minute of my workweek so that I could “shut it off” for the duration of vacation.
It was busier than normal leading up to vacation this time, but nothing like in the past. I pulled no late-night writing sprees. I fit what I could into the time I allotted and then rested. Out of necessity, rest has become such a high priority in my life in the last year that there’s no hesitation in my “Yes” driven brain to say “No,” firmly and adamantly, to over-stressing my body and mind.
As a result, there was nothing to “shut off” on vacation. I shifted my placid, peaceful existence from my deck in Ashland to a deck in South Carolina. I set down my computer for the majority of the week and picked up some great books I’d love to tell you about sometime. I gave my brain a break from writing and allowed my body to do what it was able to do, testing it a little to see how it would handle additional physical activity.
What I’ve learned in the last 16 months of chronic illness, doctor’s appointments, and diagnoses is that rest is serious business and recovery is molasses slow. There have been several times in the last year and a half that I have said out loud or to myself, “I think I’m starting to feel like myself again,” and then three months later, I look back at that period in awe and wonder at how not myself I really was. And then the cycle repeats.
I think I am starting to feel like myself again, you know? But it’s a different self than pre-COVID. This self can’t handle the stress of pushing beyond her mental capacities like she did before, lovingly and passionately. This self seems highly functioning, but she loses more words than she’d like, and when she types, sometimes she forgets how to spell words and lets Google help. (This is an embarrassing admission for the writer who prides herself on spelling and grammar.) This self still rises slowly and works as much as she can, with breaks, and then takes walks, slowly, and then sits on her deck to absorb the chaos and chatter of the natural world in her backyard. This self can only focus on one thing at a time and doesn’t hear anyone else when she is required to text or think or read. This self is abstaining from alcohol most of the time, sleeping eight hours a night, drinking just one cup of caffeinated coffee and 80 gallons of water, and eating ice cream whenever she darn well pleases.
This self never thought she’d be so grateful to do things like golf 18 holes with her daughter and not die, or boogie board at the beach and not die, or paddle board in the marsh and not die, or walk for hours on the beach and not die. There’s so much I have taken for granted every day of my life, until March of 2020. Since then, every day I breathe without pain in my chest, every day I don’t notice my own heart beat, every day I manage to laugh and cook and stand and talk all at once and be present with no brain fog leaves me in awe and wonder, tears forming in gratitude at the amazing and miraculous way our bodies can heal, do function, are able to still do things they worried they might not ever be able to do again.
This self will never go back to being her old self again. And isn’t that a wonderful, beautiful thing?
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
“Enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus told his disciples. I’ve been thinking about this narrow gate for a long time, bewildered that God would make a small entrance into his kingdom on purpose to keep people out. Jesus says the only way to the Father is through the Son, that the Son is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and so the way is very narrow, the gate only Jesus.
The verses that wrap around this short passage of Scripture instruct the followers of Jesus not to judge others, to knock and the door will be opened, to judge a tree by its fruit, to watch out for hollow disciples who say “Lord, Lord,” but don’t practice what they preach, to build on a solid foundation and not a foundation of sand. They come on the heels of the beatitudes and conclude the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
I’ve been reading the narrow gate verses as morality warnings: do the right things, and you can enter; do the wrong things, and you’ll be left out. But what “things” are we actually talking about here? What message has Jesus preached all throughout the gospels? Does he lead with the law, or with love?
Which brings me to this question: Why is there a gate in the first place?
There needs to be a gate because humans love to build walls. We build walls and fences to keep the unwanted out. Every brick and block is a “thou shalt not” we stack—thou shalt not be this color, this gender, this sex, this poor, this hungry, this smart, this nationality, this sinful, this class, this disabled, this political party. Brick by brick, we define who is allowed in and who must stay out. The walls grow ever higher. We perch on top, legs dangling, and scoff at those who can’t scale the fence to enter.
The Pharisees spent the entire gospel story trying to catch Jesus. Their laws hung on the walls, plain as day, but somehow Jesus kept evading them. “The law says… what do you say?” they asked. They wanted to trap him and say, “Ah, see? You’re breaking the law.” But Jesus knew a different way, a way past the walls. A way beyond the fences.
Jesus installed a gate through all of our “thou shalt nots.” It’s narrow, because there is just one great thing that is required to pass through all of that judgment: Love. The way is narrow. It’s one God wide.
The narrow gate opens to a broad field of freedom, rolling hills of mercy, forests of grace. On the other side of the gate is unconditional love, love that is wide and long and high and deep (Ephesians 3:17-19). Forget those walls: There is absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).
That’s the paradox of the narrow gate. “Enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus instructed his followers. “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it” (Matthew 7:13). What gates and roads does the world recommend we take for success? Power and corruption trample over innocents and deprive the weak of food, shelter, and freedom to stock the wealthy’s storehouses with more money than they know what to do with. The paths of the world preach fear and hate. They spin conspiracies and poison water. They perpetuate lies and evade justice. They use the lives of others to advance their own agendas. They tell anyone who will listen, “Be afraid,” “Watch out,” “Be outraged.” The paths of power are broad and the gates of hate are wide.
“But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life,” Jesus declares, “and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He tells his followers they will have trouble in this world, but they should take heart: Jesus has overcome the world and its walls (John 16:33). He says through him there is an abundant life (John 10:9-10). He says in him there is freedom (Luke 4:18). He calls the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure at heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness blessed. Actively blessed. Loved by God. Inheritors of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5).
The narrow gate isn’t barred by a list of rules and laws you have to answer correctly before entering—that’s the walls on either side. The narrow gate is open to those who ask, seek, and knock. It is through this narrow gate that we discover the most expansive, inclusive path of love.
The narrow gate is narrow because it is hard to knock down the walls we’ve constructed, walls thick with prejudices and discriminations, hatred and fears. It is hard to chisel loose the junk that’s cemented there and dump it at the foot of the cross. But there’s a narrow gate of love that welcomes us in, calls us to set the dynamite against our walls and detonate. The narrow gate of love asks us to surrender our guarded opinions over to the Lord so that he can make that whitewashed wall bright with the graffiti of mercy, redemption, and love.
This week, my daughter, Lydia, broke one of her arms for the fourth time in six years. There’s never a great time to break a bone, but in my opinion, the start of the summer is the worst time. As I scurried down to church camp to pick her up the day after dropping her off, I ran through the list of every single thing that will have to be canceled or amended because of her broken wrist: golf, vacation, amusement parks, swimming, golf, bike riding, skateboarding, golf. Also, golf.
We checked in at the urgent care, got x-rays, and headed home to wait for our appointment with the orthopedic surgeon. Two days later, I gave one final quick shout-out to Jesus, “Lord, please don’t let Lydia need surgery,” as we walked toward the front door of the orthopedic surgeon’s office. Neither of us were particularly hopeful—she had to have surgery on this same wrist a couple of years back.
For as often as we’ve been to this office, we might as well be on a first-name basis with the doc. He reviewed her x-rays and then came in to move her wrist around in ways that Lydia found slightly uncomfortable (okay, she flinched, but she has a high pain tolerance).
He finished his assessment and then said, “I don’t think it’s broken.”
“Really?” I was shocked.
“The radiologist thought it was broken, and I can see why in the x-ray, but when we compare it to the last x-ray of the last break,” he flipped between x-ray screens, “I don’t see anything different. We can either splint it for two weeks and get you back for another x-ray then to make sure, or we can do a CT scan for confirmation. One of these things will cost you or someone else $500.”
“We’ll take the option that doesn’t cost $500,” Lydia said.
So, Lydia’s wrist is not broken. After the appointment, I drove her back to camp so she could be with her pals the rest of the week. And that appears to be the end of that!
I believe in the power of prayer. When our son, Elvis, was born, the nurses and doctors were sure he had respiratory distress syndrome and pulmonary hypertension (a baby heart attack), but the next day, they found no sign of the hypertension. Must’ve been a misdiagnosis. Or maybe it was God?
I’ve prayed for healing for family and friends with cancer, people in serious accidents, my own health. To my knowledge, no one I’ve prayed for has experienced a miraculous healing. Does that mean God does not heal?
I believe in the power of prayer to heal, but I think healing according to God often looks different, bigger, and more complex than what we want. We want physical healing. We want the pain and suffering we are in to be taken away. We want the nature of our circumstances to change. That’s what we’re asking for from God, that’s what we plead: just make my life a little bit easier, would you, O Great Lord of the Universe?
Even Jesus prayed for his own suffering to be taken from him.
As much as we wish it, God is not in the wave a magic wand, genie in the lamp business. When I prayed for Lydia’s wrist, I didn’t expect physical healing. I really don’t believe that God miraculously healed Lydia’s wrist—it probably was a misread by a radiologist unfamiliar with her history of broken wrists. With that knowledge, I could have been irritated that the radiologist made a mistake reading the x-ray and as a result, Lydia was stuck moping at home, discouraged about her ruined summer and ruined week at camp. I could have been frustrated that she had to miss camp. All of this inconvenience and disruption for nothing.
Prayer doesn’t often change our circumstances, but prayer does change our perspective. In that way, God healed Lydia and me on Wednesday; he restored hope and brought peace and joy. Jesus faced his own suffering with incredible empathy and compassion, wholehearted love and grace for the entire world, even those who were hurting him. That is miraculous. That is healing.
The last few weeks, I’ve found myself overcome by grief in the most random of moments: washing the dishes, talking on the phone, walking the dog. Everything will seem fine. And then I begin to weep. One of my family members and another of my friends are quite possibly nearing the end of their lives because cancer is stubborn and relentless. Neither circumstance is fair. Both are terrible.
And yet, the two individuals couldn’t have more different perspectives. One of these people seems open and free. One seems closed and trapped. One of these people is filled with grace and peace, love and gratitude, wrapped in the arms of the Holy Spirit and held in the midst of her pain and exhaustion. The other is twisted in fear and blame, anger and confusion, bitterness and regret.
Prayer is powerful. I believe that, no matter what happens in the coming days and weeks, prayer has healed one of these people, and prayer can heal the other. Maybe they will both get their miracles, miracles of science or of God, or of both. The least I can do is offer up my own prayer for comfort, healing, and peace, along with this plea: that God would prop open my heart so that hope and gratitude might always abide with me.
There’s a national debate taking place in the US of A about raising the minimum wage. While the politicians argue over the idea, some businesses—from major retailers to banks to private universities—have grown impatient and taken matters into their own hands over the last few years. Amazon increased its minimum wage to $15/hour almost five years ago now. This “resulted in a 4.7% increase in the average hourly wage among other employers in the same labor market (commuting zone).” Amazon says that research shows these kinds of increases fuel local economies and create growth.
Where I live, there’s no shortage of jobs available for people. There does seem to be a shortage of people who want to work 40 hours a week and still live near or below the poverty line.
For reference, because it kind of shocked me, the poverty line for a family of four is $26,500. A person who works full-time at our current national minimum wage earns $15,078 annually.
People point to the increase in the unemployment benefit this last year as the reason no one wants to work, but even before COVID, there were plenty of places hiring that couldn’t attract enough workers.
I’m not an economist, and I’m not that into politics most of the time, so why do I care about all of this? Because Jesus cares about fairness, and sometimes the Holy Spirit shoves stuff in front of my nose and says, “Write about this.” So. That’s what I’m doing today.
In the last couple of weeks, I read Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds. The story follows a woman—Elsa—born in Texas right before the Great Depression. After years of trying to save the farm and stay on the land, she migrates out of the Dust Bowl with her family to California, the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. Except California isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Elsa wants to work, but the locals are afraid the “Okies”—the domestic migrants from the Dust Bowl—are going to take away their jobs and destroy their local economy. They are afraid they carry disease. They are afraid they will steal from them. They are afraid what they have will be taken and they’ll have nothing left.
It’s a scarcity mentality.
The people in the book who landed in California want to work. They desperately want to provide for their family. They don’t want to take the government’s handouts, but they have no other choice. Because there is no work that will pay them enough to survive, they have to take government relief aid. The alternative is starvation. The workers are willing to work for nearly nothing in order to just have something. Farm owners take advantage of their need and the glut of desperate workers available and keep dropping what they’re willing to pay.
Just last night, Brandon and I watched Episode 5 of Country Music, a documentary from Ken Burns available through PBS Documentaries on Amazon Prime. In it, Merle Haggard says, “The human being has a history of being awful cruel to something different. ‘Okie’ was not a good word, you know? They were talked down to, looked down on, might’ve been something comparable to the way they treated the blacks.”
Haggard was born in 1937 near Bakersfield where his parents had lived for three years, after a fire had destroyed their farm in Oklahoma. According to the documentary, Haggard’s father had found work on the railroad but still needed to find a permanent place to live. “There was a lady named Ms. Bona, who owned a lot with a boxcar on it, refrigerator car,” Haggard reflects. “And she said, ‘If you have the mind to be a hard enough worker you could probably make this into a pretty nice home,’ she said, ‘but I’ve never heard of an Okie that would work.’ And my dad took a little offense to that and he said, ‘Well, ma’am, I’ve never heard of one that wouldn’t work.’”
Aren’t these the words we’ve heard to describe “those people,” whoever they are, the low-lifes, the down-and-outs, the lazy whatevers who are riding the government dollar, taking advantage of the system, the people who just don’t want to work?
I’m sure there are “those people,” but just like everything broken in the world, people who are born down and out aren’t always given a beacon of hope to show them what it looks like to get up. They only see what’s working (or not working) around them and assume that’s it. This is how the world works. “Without vision,” says the Teacher in Proverbs 29:18, “the people perish.” Without someone to illuminate an alternative pathway, all we can see is whatever steps have been taken by the people immediately ahead of us.
“But those jobs,” we say about minimum wage gigs like food service, hotel housekeepers, personal care assistants, childcare workers, and retail workers, “were not intended for people who needed to make a living off of them.” We think of those positions as “supplemental income” types of jobs, and maybe for some people, they are. But teens don’t want those jobs—they have sports and clubs and babysitting gigs that pay cash-money, homey.
The teens and adults who want those jobs have to work. The teens have to work while they’re in school instead of playing sports or marching in the band or acting in the play, to try to help their families make it on below-poverty-level incomes, to try to buy a rundown car, to try to pay their way into community college, to try to escape the poverty they were probably born into. And the adults who need those jobs aren’t doing it for fun. They’re trying to patch together two or three different gigs to make ends meet while they raise their children single-handedly.
Right after I finished The Four Winds, I picked up a book I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of years now because a friend of mine has a chapter in it, called Can I Get a Witness? Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith & Justice. The very first chapter is about Cesar Chavez, who was “a shrewd union and community organizer who, with gritty creativity, sustained a quest for justice among farmworkers,” writes Daniel P. Rhodes. Cesar was an advocate for people like Elsa in The Four Winds, like Haggard’s family outside of Bakersfield. He worked alongside the fearful farmworkers who were stuck in a horrible loop of poverty and abuse to get them fair wages and unity against the corrupt farmers who had been taking advantage of their labor.
“Chavez always understood the movement to be about more than wages or contracts; it was a spiritual campaign. For him, the work of the union was woven inextricably into a fabric of religious significance,” writes Rhodes.
So what does Jesus have to do with it? Enter the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, or, as Kenneth Bailey in his wonderful book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, preferred, the Parable of the Compassionate Employer:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
We are in the habit of valuing someone’s worth based on how much they can contribute, how much value they add. The vineyard owner in the parable is the great leveler who values all of the workers equally, no matter how much labor they were able to contribute.
The circumstances of the parable are not unlike the circumstances of the migrant workers in the West: they sat in a particular spot each day and waited for an opportunity to work. Of those who were hired last, Kenneth Bailey writes, “All that remains for the brave few left in the market is the humiliation of returning home to an anxious wife and hungry children with the bad news of another day of frustration and disappointment.”
He continues, “‘Equal pay for equal work’ is a centuries-old understanding of justice. But that is not the issue here. This parable presents the overpaid, not the underpaid. The story focuses on an equation filled with amazing grace, which is resented by those who feel that they have earned their way to more.”
The denarius was a full day’s wage, and all of them received that same pay. “This is not the cry of the underpaid,” writes Bailey. “No one is underpaid in this parable. The complaint is from the justly paid who cannot tolerate grace!”
In the face of the one who cries out, It’s not fair, God’s justice is scandalously generous, full of mercy and compassion.
Once again, I’m no economist. But if I take Jesus at his word, then as a follower of Christ, I must resist the scarcity mentality. I must not be afraid. If someone else gets more, that does not mean I’ll have less, or be less.
Maybe instead, I can help someone down on their luck draw a few steps closer to hope.
The compassionate vineyard owner sees the value of a soul, and gives him his daily bread, no matter how small or great the job.
We have two teenagers in our house right now, and there are many, many, many conversations we’d rather not have with them. It would be so much easier to just… let it be. They’ll be fine. They’ll figure it out. Maybe if we ignore it, it’ll go away.
There’s a model in the Bible for this exact parenting tactic: King David.
One of the most gut wrenching stories in Scripture is that of Absalom, Amnon, Tamar, and David (2 Samuel 13-18). The number of wrongs committed in this section of Scripture is kind of appalling.
Absalom and Tamar were brother and sister, and Amnon was their half-brother. The three of them were David’s children. Amnon fell in love with Tamar, tricked her into being alone with him, and raped her. Wrong #1.
When Tamar’s brother, Absalom, heard what happened, in the millenia old tradition of silencing violated women, he told her, “Shh, be quiet.” Wrong #2.
When King David heard everything, he was mad. But no one did anything. Wrong #3.
Two years passed. Not two days, or two weeks, or two months. Two years. All that time, David ignored his son’s sin, his other son’s fury, and his daughter’s desolation. Even at the invitation of his son, Absalom, David refused to spend time with him, avoiding a confrontation. Wrong #4.
So Absalom convinced David to send Amnon and the rest of his brothers along for a sheep shearing and coordinated the murder of Amnon. Wrong #5.
David grieved the loss of his son, Amnon. And the loss of his son, Absalom. Chapter 13 ends with these words, “After Absalom fled and went to Geshur, he stayed there three years. And King David longed to go to Absalom, for he was consoled concerning Amnon’s death.”
Absalom stayed away three years. There was no reason why David couldn’t go to Absalom. In the next chapter, Absalom returned to Jerusalem and lived in the same city for two more years without seeing his father’s face. He has to literally light a field on fire to get the king’s attention. The story of Absalom ends five chapters later, when the commander of David’s army, Joab, kills Absalom, even after the king had asked them to spare Absalom’s life.
Perhaps the most anguished cries in the Old Testament come out of David at the end of chapter 18, “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 18:33).
What stopped the king from going to his son? Fear of confrontation. Conflict avoidance.
David resisted the hard conversations, and by doing so, he ignored his daughter’s pain and lost both of his sons. Absalom’s anger festered into bitterness and grew into vengeful fury. David’s fear and sorrow snowballed into grief upon grief upon grief.
Brene Brown offers this tactic for breaking through and telling our stories: preface what’s going on in our minds with this statement: “The story I’m telling myself is…” This is what’s going on inside of me.
Desmond Tutu offers a fourfold path to forgiveness in The Book of Forgiving: Tell the Story, Name the Hurt, Grant Forgiveness, and Renew or Release the Relationship. This is what happened, this is how it made me feel, I forgive you, I release you.
David gets stuck in step one. He can’t even look “what happened” in the face.
In our house, the tactic that’s working best for me these days is this introductory statement, “This makes me uncomfortable, but…” and then I ask whatever it is I need to ask, or say whatever it is I need to say. There are so many questions I don’t want to know the answer to these days because of how badly I know it might hurt if the answer is something I would rather not hear.
But questions are gateways to healing, health, and hope. If we don’t go there, then “there” is the untended garden where the seeds of bitter roots and giants go to grow.
As a parent, it’s my responsibility to pay attention to the unasked questions, create a safe space, and then ask the questions. I’ve noticed you’re struggling. I’ve noticed you’re avoiding me. You know I love you and will never reject you. What is going on in your life?
The God of the Universe models this same tactic. In the face of Elijah’s fear, God meets him in a gentle whisper, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:12-13).
How can I help? How can I walk with you through your story?
Parenting teenagers is harder than any other stage of parenting we’ve encountered, with far more tears and fears than either of us anticipated. In the midst of those fears, we must not be like David. We must be brave, remind them they are loved, and hold out hope in its brightly lit lantern so they can see it just beyond the terrors and fears they’re also facing. We have a longer view on their future; we are farther ahead on the road. Don’t allow fear of confrontation to wrest those that matter most from your life. Ask the hard questions. Even if it makes you uncomfortable.
I’m participating in the #NaPoWriMo challenge to write a poem a day during National Poetry Month. So far, it’s off to a fun start. I’ve been using Carolee Bennett’s poetry prompts, and today’s I thought I’d share because it’s so wacky and off the wall and not at all the kind of poem I normally write (although, you’ll note, it does feature birds and nature and water and my children and my husband, so I suppose it isn’t that much of a departure from my usual stuff).
Here’s the prompt:
And here is the result of that prompt:
I’ve become somewhat of a fanatic for the feathered, so I bring binoculars and a bird watching field guide, even into the galactic
for this one-way trip to Mars. They say they’ve found evidence of H2O on the rocky red surface, but I don’t expect to spot any mallards,
herons, swans, egrets, or pelicans. Maybe some robins, a macaw or two? I brought Rio, just in case the view does not afford a habitat that birds can
tolerate. Blu is afraid to fly, and if I’m being honest, so am I, which makes this space trip seem amiss. The guy in the seat next to me can’t
figure out his earbuds. He’s watching 2012 over and over. I’ve about had it with John Cusack and can’t imagine another seven months of this. I think
he brought tuna for his one snack, too. I’ll have to find another seat partner. There are few things I’ll miss on Earth— spring greens, fall leaves, morning dew—
but the ones I love the most I brought clips to watch, my cousins in the creek, my husband river walking our first week, our children skipping stones. I thought
of all the water memories, all the waves and ripples, trickles, streams, and falls, all the waterfowl and wildlife calls we’ve heard and how in so many ways
the water has saved me, here I am abandoning the planet where it flows so freely. I see it shrinking out my window seat. Now, I can’t stop weeping. Ma’am,
I call the flight attendant, can I get a couple tissues and a can of Pepsi to go with my Chex Mix? I’m so thirsty. I pop in the one where my sopping wet
children pick up pieces of shale rock and frisbee fling them over the surface of bound molecules and they bounce. I watch it in reverse and it’s as if the rocks
are magnetically bound to my children, bound to the water, bound to the Earth, drawn back in by gravity. For what it’s worth, I’d be happy to see even just one house wren.
Do you think they can make that happen?
There you go! Today’s poem exercise. I hope you have a chance to play with creativity today, whatever form it takes, for no purpose at all except for the sheer delight of creating.
Growing up, my family watched a lot of NASCAR. Our driver was Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, Bill Elliott, and we would cheer him on every Sunday, whether he was the #9 Coors car, the #11 Budweiser car, or the #94 McDonalds car. I had t-shirts and posters, people. It was serious.
Whenever there were wrecks, which of course is what us kids were really there to watch, out would come the steady and reliable pace car to make sure the pack took it easy while the accident was cleared. It was literally the car that set the pace. Eventually all would be good to go and the race could resume, until another inevitable wreck.
These last two months, I‘ve mostly followed the rules of my pace car, called POTS, and when I haven’t, I’ve paid for it with trips to the pits to refuel and restore. There has only been one crash or maybe two that sent me back to the garage for a week or so until the next race.
Okay, I’m not feeling this metaphor anymore.
The point is, I am learning how to navigate my new life as a freelance writer with a chronic illness that seems to wave its finger at me any time I try to push beyond what it thinks I should do.
Although there are lots of things I can’t do anymore, I’ve been focusing on all the things I can do that are bringing me so much joy. Preparing meals for my family, taking walks with Brandon, Henry, and Izzy (the other two don’t really like taking walks, although I’d certainly welcome them), exploring area parks, drinking tea, reading, and most of all, writing. I am doing so much writing!
I’m now a contributing writer for Root & Vine News, where I’ve been able to write everything from spotlights on business owners who are doing beautiful things for their community and the earth, to devotional entries, to book reflections, to movie reviews. I am excited to join this community and look forward to seeing what develops there in the coming months. You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram for regular updates.
I’m also writing occasionally for God Hears Her, a women’s ministry of Our Daily Bread, and continuing to write for Spire.
Aaaaaand, I started writing a novel. This has been my passion project, something I’m totally obsessed about. I’m writing about my grandmother on my dad’s side from her point of view, learning a lot through research and having so much fun experimenting with fiction for the first time. I spend entirely too much time on ancestry.com.
And that’s about it. That about defines the current pace of life. It is different. And it is good.
If you’d like to check out some of my recent projects for Root & Vine, you can find them here.
I have twice opened and shut every kitchen cabinet drawer it could have been stuffed into by one of three children annoyed by the daily chore of unloadingthedishwashergroooooan. Maybe it was the jesterly husband with all his high-minded opinions about where and how certain dishes ought to be stacked. Perhaps an unaware parent, eager to help but unsure where her grown daughter stores such vessels, placed it in the most unlikely place.
Why is the place they think makes the most sense never where I would have stashed it? I’ve even searched the other realms where our children hide things: bathroom vanities, the basement sink, the “Man Cave” where all the empty snack bags and candy wrappers congregate.
I have asked all three children and, wouldn’t you know it, none of them know the whereabouts of the pancake batter bowl. It has gone the way of other things that have disappeared this year: the lid to my husband’s travel mug, cookie cutters, the KitchenAid mixer bowl, one of four African dwarf frogs from our fish tank, the functionality of my autonomic nervous system, 45 other halves to unmatched socks, the 872 words and actors and movie titles I’ve misplaced, enough bits to make a villanelle to rival Elizabeth Bishop.
Add it to the long line of leavers this year, the grandparents and songwriters and lovers, the lost jobs and lost businesses and lost health and lost dogs and lost balance, everything Lost now huddling somewhere together safely and sadly but soundly in the Found.
One of them is hiding my pancake batter bowl, I just know it.
There are other bowls, of course, stainless steel and glass in various sizes and depths, but this one had a handle and spout. It had a flat bottom perfect for mashing bananas with a potato masher, perfect for every Saturday banana pancake morning, perfect for pouring onto the electric griddle where the batter sizzled and bubbled and popped in its puddle of melted butter. It’s what we hoped to do this morning, my youngest son and I, make the banana pancakes, pretend like it’s the weekend now, Jack Johnson style.
We must make do with a lesser container. The metal of the masher smacks against the curved edge and misses large chunks of banana. My youngest son cracks the eggs and begins whisking the batter while the griddle warms. He doesn’t seem to understand my distress. While he whisks, I open and shut the cabinet drawers I’ve already checked once more. He is nine. The last ten months of remote learning have been divine hours spent home with Mom and Minecraft, making banana pancakes and pretending like it’s the weekend just about every day. We pray and hug and ritually kiss forehead then chin then cheek then cheek then nose then lips each night. He prays for the virus to go away, prays for the vaccine to come, prays his mom will feel better, prays the sick people will be healed, prays the leaders would just listen for once, prays for friends and children of Lost ones to be comforted.
It is cruel, the way so much has been stolen, whether snatched from us or trashed, or abandoned in the fort the kids built in the woods (I still suspect the conniving wide-eyed convicts who live here), so much just simply and profoundly lost no one in all this remote and distanced space can find the space to make sense of it. The writers send perilous tweets and private messages, abandon hopes of narrative. The artists paint faces with missing appendages. The satellite news commentators fill the screen with ticker tape and numbers I fear will start turning over as I watch, like an old-fashioned trip odometer, turning over in real-time like the real-time loss that’s actually happening instead of the quiet, sad update a graphics coordinator must do during commercial breaks.
I search my bookshelf for answers but come up short on titles I must have lent to friends, this one you must read, I said, missives of hope and light packed tight between paperback covers. These ones aren’t lost but borrowed, perhaps passed on and dog-eared, each one a little gospel I’ve sent and preached as powerful against the darkness. I finished one such book today by Brian Doyle, a writer lost to cancer, the posthumous work One Long River of Song aptly subtitled, Notes on Wonder.
“Lost” something one gets inside these pages, “lost” somewhere one finds oneself again.
“I think I am a miracle,” my youngest son says, while whisking the eggs and banana and vanilla and peanut butter that will turn from frothy liquid into solid, flat and flippable cakes we’ll smother in maple syrup in a minute. “I think I’m a miracle, because when I give you Henry hugs I make you feel better.”
All, it turns out, is not lost.
I have lost the pancake batter bowl, or the pancake batter bowl was taken, or the pancake batter bowl is stashed in the most unreasonable place and will turn up again someday, after it’s been replaced, the interior scratched from these last 17 years of being beaten for pancake batter. It will limp up the front walk with a crutch under its one handle. It will have that look in its eye, that look that knows nothing can ever be again as it once was, but at least it’s home. At least it’s home.