A Jar of Oil

The widow of one of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and now creditors come to take my two children as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Nothing except a jar of oil.”
– 2 Kings 4:1-2

Let’s not pretend with one another that loving God means you will never be broke. Let’s not repeat the lie that you are guaranteed to have plenty so long as you serve God.

Because I’m not the only person of faith who ignores the 1-800 numbers of creditors calling.

Bad things do happen to good people. Bad circumstances. Bad relationships. Bad environments. Bad credit. And you’re on the hook for dealing with the consequences, regardless of whether it was your fault or not. Rise to the occasion. Repair your heart. Fight the system. Reassess your budget. Use whatever you have and do the best you can.

Even if it’s just a jar of oil.

Devastated by the death of her husband, the widow now faces compounding crises. She is not well-off; prophetic work doesn’t exactly come with a pension and life insurance. The stress of calling creditors keeps her awake at night. And now the worst of all nightmares: they will tear her children from her, enslave them for their own profits.

What good is “take nothing with you” if everything has already been ripped from you?

If there’s really nothing, or the threat of nothing, then fight like hell to not be alone, at least.

Cry out to those who will listen. Call for community. Protest against those who would separate you from love and loved ones. Resist the despair that lies to you when it says nothing means no one.

Bring your jar of oil, and stay together.

Let there be love and companions along this weary way, O God.

written for the Daily Devotional

Whispers

I hear a voice I had not known:
“I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
your hands were freed from the basket.
In distress you called, and I rescued you.
– Psalm 81:5b-7a (NRSV)

I’ve never felt close to God in a personal buddy-buddy kind of way. It’s never been my spiritual practice to call up Jesus in prayer like we’re BFFs who need to ponder every personal detail together, from hairstyles to romance.

Maybe it’s due to my upbringing in an Evangelical & Reformed UCC congregation with its formal worship, its elevated altar (not a communion table), and its hazy white dossal behind which I assumed as a child that God might dwell. Maybe it’s due to my personality type. Certainly it’s an aspect of my theology. I’m particularly fond of God’s mystery and grandeur; I’m less keen on God whispering sweet nothings in my ear.

In any event, God has always been distant to me. To hear the voice of God, the actual disembodied voice of God, would be to hear a voice that I do not recognize.

Sometimes this spiritual distance with God seems unorthodox. Across the theological span of modern American Christianity, closeness with God is prevalent and valued:

“Proximity to Jesus will save us.”

“Proximity to justice will save us.”

Those of us with a theology of God’s aloofness, and those of us experiencing a season of spiritual dryness, can be tempted to doubt that we can be saved across the distance. “If proximity is necessary for salvation,” we find ourselves thinking, “we may never be delivered.”

And yet there it is in Psalm 81—the assurance that deliverance can come through an unknown voice, justice can pour out from a well we didn’t dig, relief can be given by a stranger.

Thank you, God, that deliverance comes even when it is unknown and far away.

written for the 2020 Lenten Devotional
(a Stillspeaking Writers’ Group product)

When God is a Guy

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” So God created humankind … in the image of God. (Genesis 1:26-27, NRSV)

I grew up on the formal liturgies and hymns of the Evangelical and Reformed tradition, with phrases like Thee and Thou and Hearken and O Most Merciful Father and The King Is Drawing Nigh. God was a guy: a father, a king, a male shepherd, a strong (read: masculine) defender, the husband of the Church. The Church’s use of masculine language for God was knit into my faith as a child.

But the Church’s use of masculine imagery and language for the Divine hasn’t done the world any favors. It’s not done our faith any favors, either.

Masculine God imagery is ambivalent at best – and intentional at worst – as an accomplice of sexism and gender-based violence. God the King and God the Father do more to reinforce patriarchy’s injustices than to disrupt them. God as a guy doesn’t help the Church envision leadership in the flesh of a woman (cis and trans) or in the being of a non-binary leader. Boy-God curtails God’s own diversity – the clucking hen God, the giving birth God, the fluttering bird God, the non-gendered “their” God who said, “Let us make humankind in our likeness.”

It’s all a metaphor, of course. I don’t know anyone who believes that the Eternal Mystery we call “God” has the genitals of a cis human male. Nevertheless, when God is a guy even metaphorically, the impact is tangible.

When God is a guy, a denomination such as the UCC with more women than men among its active ordained ministers (51.7% female to 48.1% male in 2019) nevertheless exhibits bias in its hiring of executive ministerial leaders (41.3% female to 58.1% male solo/senior pastors in 2019). Source: 2019 UCC Statistical Profile.

When God is a guy, the Church demonstrates a preference for men at the helm of theological education, with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) noting that women hold only 13% of the CEO positions in ATS-affiliated schools. Source: 2018 ATS Women in Leadership Survey.

When God is a guy, women are perceived as less knowledgeable, less capable, less deserving of self-determination than men. Perhaps you’ve noticed the loss of viable female candidates in the U.S. presidential nomination process. Worldwide, 9 out of 10 persons are biased against women in areas of politics, education, economics, and physical well-being. Source: 2020 UNDP Gender Social Norms Index.

When God is a guy, the divine likeness in women and non-gendered persons is made secondary – in our Bibles, in our liturgies, in our leadership. Our masculine God-language isn’t solely responsible for gender inequality, however it is not exempt from our critical examination of the ways it shapes our faith, our thought, and our action.

Maybe you don’t believe God is a guy. Nevertheless, the Church continues to struggle with a glass ceiling (and a glass cliff).

Maybe you love your mama, your sister, your daughter, and you celebrate their strength. Nevertheless, approximately 50,000 women were killed in 2017 by intimate partners or family members (per unwomen.org).

Maybe you celebrate your female or non-binary pastor, and you respect their authority. Nevertheless, in this U.S. presidential season, we will not elect a woman to the highest office of government.

When God is a guy, the image of God is harmed. When God is a guy, our communities are harmed. So long as God is a guy, gender justice will evade us.

written for Witness for Justice

Chocolate and Other Habits

Remember the wonderful works God has done: the miracles, the judgments uttered, the word commanded, the covenant kept. – Psalm 105:5, 8

Two weeks into Lent, how are you doing? How are those Lenten practices that you planned to observe faithfully? The chocolate and sugars you swore off, the alcohol you decided to abstain from, the meditative silence you intended to observe for twenty minutes each morning, the handwritten thank-you notes you were going to write each day to foster a spirit of gratitude. Still going strong?

No shame if they’re not.

But also, no kudos if they are.

Of course, it’s fabulous if your chosen Lenten discipline has revealed deep meaning and has taken hold in life-giving habitual ways. Seriously, I don’t “give up” for Lent for the same reason that I don’t make resolutions for the New Year—it doesn’t ignite my soul with anything but guilt—so I’m delighted if your Lenten discipline is feeding your spirit.

But no kudos and gold stars for you.

Because it’s not about your work in Lent.

It’s about God’s work in Lent. God’s miracles. God’s judgments. God’s promises. God’s breath and flesh on earth. God’s mystery and majesty in the heavens.

No matter if you’re experiencing stunning spiritual growth or if the no-chocolate thing has already flopped phenomenally, you can still focus your Lenten journey on the work that matters: God’s grace.

God, I’m already eating the chocolate eggs that I bought for Easter. Remind me that calories are not the measure of this Lenten journey.

written for the Daily Devotional

Restraint

The LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” – Genesis 2:16-17 (NRSV)

When the new year dawned two months ago, my social media feed was filled with people saying goodbye: “I’m letting go of my burdens and picking up my freedom.” “I’m forgiving last year’s disappointments and welcoming the new year’s expectations.” “I’m muting unhealthy friendships.”

There’s wisdom to these choices … and plenty of songs to accompany them, for those of us who lean on music to bolster our determination.

“Wave your little hand and whisper ‘So long dearie,’” is a personal favorite, à la Bette, Barbra, Pearl, and Carol, in Hello, Dolly!

“Let it go, let it go; turn away and slam the door,” via Idina Menzel in Frozen. (And I thank God that my children were too old to obsess over this movie when it was released.)

To say goodbye, in the healthiest sense, is to claim and proclaim a boundary. It’s to say, “I am here, you are there, and our paths are not identical.” It’s to identify our “yes” and our “no.” It’s to recognize that not everything is ours to have, not everyone is ours to hold, not every mystery is ours to know.

God tells the human that the garden is full of sustenance for the mind, body, and spirit … but not every provision in the garden is meant to be consumed. Not all knowledge is meant to be known—not all knowledge can be known—by the human. To resist the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to accept this boundary.

Deliver my spirit from craving, “Mine! Mine!” and soothe my heart with the good news of boundaries.

written for the 2020 Lenten Devotional
(a Stillspeaking Writers’ Group product)