This review was written for and published in the July 2019 issue of The Burning Bush, the monthly newsletter of Franklin District of Lancaster Mennonite Conference.
One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament is the story of the golden calf. The Israelites, having been miraculously freed from slavery in Egypt, start their journey to the promised land. Moses goes up to the mountain to consult with God, and the people waiting below grow restless and fearful.
They cannot handle the uncertainty. They were promised safety and prosperity in a new land. Why hasn’t God given it to them? Eventually they settle on a very human solution. They create a god who will serve them.
The Old Testament presents us with a collection of complex narratives centered around a complex God and too often we take the golden calf approach to the Old Testament. We melt down these ancient Hebrew stories and reform them into something more comfortable for modern American life. Like the Israelites, we want a god who will serve us. A god who thinks the way we think and values the things we value.
The author does not ignore the ancient context, but wraps it within her own experiences with her community in Raleigh, North Carolina where she pastors a small Mennonite church. The messiness and brokenness of humanity is a constant from age to age, and so is the need for a God who speaks to that messiness and brokenness.
With chapter titles such as “God of Victims,” “God of Wanderers,” and “God of Darkness” Florer-Bixler draws close to the characters in the Old Testament who were lost, cast aside and forgotten. She does not offer easy answers, but instead circles around the theme of God’s constant presence and intervention on behalf of the oppressed.
My favorite part is how the book ends with the story of Ruth and Naomi. The author points out that unlike many of the stories in the earlier chapters there is no divine intervention for these two widows. There is no manna from heaven, there is only the local welfare system standing between them and starvation.
But then Florer-Bixler reminds us that God is present in Ruth, who could have abandoned Naomi and gone back to her own people. God is present when Naomi rails against the unfairness of a society that sees her as a burden. God is present when Boaz shows kindness to a foreign woman. Ruth, the ancestor of David and later of Jesus, reminds us of the presence of God in our actions and in our relationships with one another. The Old Testament, as Florer-Bixler concludes in the final pages, is “a story with flesh and bone.”
Fire by Night is frequently a surprising book, drawing parallels and exploring themes in the Old Testament that remind us that God’s ways are not our ways. The way the book is structured makes it well suited for a discussion group or a Sunday School class, and is sure to provide new perspective on familiar stories.
Here’s something I’ve been thinking about as the Christmas songs start to pour into my life. “Mary Did You Know” is is a Christmas classic, but the premise is pretty silly. Because according to Luke 1:30-33, Mary knew, ya’ll. Mary was told God’s plan from the start. Mary knew, and incredibly, she believed.
But what did Mary’s parents believe? What did her family think had happened to her? What did her friends believe? None of the gospels say, but we know Joseph’s first response was to quietly and politely call off the betrothal.
He didn’t believe her. Why would he?
It would have been so much easier for all of them to simply believe that she was lying to get out of trouble. Or to get attention. Or that she was mentally unwell. There must have been people who knew her well, who were once her friends, who turned away from her and rejected her because of the scandal she represented.
At Christmas we often focus on Mary’s obedience, but that obedience came with a price. She believed, and was disbelieved by those around her.
Lately the news have been full of stories by women who were disbelieved for years, even decades, and only now are able to tell the truth.
And people will still find a way to disbelieve them, because according to the ways of the world, women are less valuable than the institutions that we feel obligated to protect.
They’re less valuable than a successful Hollywood producer. They’re less valuable than an acclaimed comedian. They’re less valuable than a U.S. Senate seat.
But when God came to earth to live among us, he went to a young unmarried woman. Someone with no wealth, no power, no authority. The angel said “God chose you,” and Mary said “let’s do this.”
Mary had to have known that she wouldn’t be believed. She had to have known that good, religious, upstanding people in her community would turn their back on her. She had to have known that this road would only lead to suffering.
And this is what she said:
With all my heart I praise the Lord,
and I am glad because of God my Savior.
He cares for me, his humble servant.
From now on, all people will say God has blessed me.
God All-Powerful has done great things for me, and his name is holy.
He always shows mercy to everyone who worships him.
The Lord has used his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud.
He drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power.
God gives the hungry good things to eat, and sends the rich away with nothing.
Mary, pregnant and unmarried, defiantly declaring that she is blessed. A woman with no power declaring that God will drag the powerful from their thrones and lift up the poor, the sick, the homeless, the refugee, the outcast. A woman with no influence calling for the hungry to be fed and the rich turned away from their gluttonous consumption.
Mary, the revolutionary. The rebel. The resistance.
God chose her for a reason. God was pleased with her.
It’s also worth noting that the first person to believe Mary without being explicitly told by an angel was Elizabeth. A woman who was stigmatized and dismissed most of her adult life for being childless. She blessed Mary and praised God and Luke 1:42 says she did it “loudly.” Loud enough that the neighbors could hear. Elizabeth knew shame, and she was not about to let anyone shame her cousin.
My mother reminded me recently of an old song we used to sing in Christmas plays, “How Should a King Come.”
Jesus didn’t have to do it this way. He didn’t have to be born in a barn to parents who were temporarily homeless. He didn’t have to be a refugee fleeing to Egypt. He didn’t have to experience hunger and temptation in the wilderness. He didn’t have to face scorn for eating with tax collectors and prostitutes. He didn’t have to be rejected by his people. He didn’t have to experience violence, injustice and death.
Jesus took his place among us. And it started with Mary, proclaiming the truth and carrying it, no matter what it cost her.
Listen to the women. Believe them. God will scatter the proud and drag our modern day rulers from their thrones, and we might not like it. But sooner or later we have to recognize God is at work.
This is a guest post written by my husband Andrew, my very favorite Anabaptist.
I went to a religious school, which meant that between music classes, and Sunday school, I learned a lot of Christian children’s songs. This past weekend, watching Twitter, Facebook, and TV, one of the ones we sang all the time kept running through my mind. I will put the words of the chorus here:
Dare to be a Daniel.
Dare to stand alone.
Dare to have a purpose firm.
Dare to make it known.
Every Christian kid knows the story of Daniel and the Lion’s den. Daniel, an upright, God-fearing man is in a foreign country, serving a foreign king. Despite all this pressure to fit in, to go along to get along, Daniel remains true to his God. The king puts out a decree (tricked by those who hate Daniel) that anyone who prays or worships anything but the King for the next 30 days will be cast into a den of Lions.
Daniel ignores the decree, and continues to pray in front of an open window that faces Jerusalem, where his home and heart truly is. Those who set this trap for him turn him in, and the king is forced to cast Daniel into the den of lions. But God shuts the Lions’ mouths and Daniel emerges unharmed.
Its rare we get a modern example of a Biblical model as close as we got last Sunday. We had a “king,” who declared that those who would not honor an idol made of cloth were sons of bitches who deserved to lose their jobs. We had multiple Daniels, who chose to honor their principles and beliefs rather than obey their king.
And we had an audience, watching what was happening from home.
I realize a lot of my Christian brothers and sisters are going to argue that Kaepernick shouldn’t be slotted into the Daniel role and respectfully, I disagree. While Kaepernick may not have made his protest an act of worship, he was kneeling for an important Biblical principle: the rights and equality of all people before their country and their God. The fact that Christians would claim they believe in that principle, then vilify Kaepernick for using his platform to stand for it is terrible.
Christians need to recognize that blind nationalism is an idol, and just because it is a flag and not a statue we worship, it makes us no less guilty. The Bible says that we are strangers in a foreign land that is not our own. We cannot allow ourselves to buy into the story our nation tells us about ourselves. Our first loyalty isn’t to a flag or a statue or a nation. Our first loyalty is to a Kingdom, and its principles should animate our actions.
It’s telling that up until this Sunday, it was only black athletes who chosen to kneel on the NFL field. It’s also telling that only one owner joined his players in kneeling yesterday. That owner was an immigrant as well. Christians must open their ears to the stories of those who do not walk the same path as us. If they are showing us that something has become an idol, then we need to take that very seriously.
We also need to view this as an opportunity to demonstrate to our children both the strength it takes to stand up for right, and the potential cost. When power blusters and threatens, the image of a man or woman on their knees is a powerful example for the next generation of what it really means to belong to a kingdom. We tell our kids that they need to emulate these Biblical examples, and we now have an opportunity to put our words into action.
As for me, I will be on my knees Sunday, and I hope you will too.
I’m going to use this space today to write about something that I don’t often talk about, and that’s the fact that we are poor.
Our children qualify for Medicaid, which pays for their check-ups, vaccinations and dental care. They qualify for free breakfast at school and a reduced fee lunch. My youngest would qualify for WIC checks, which is a resource we’ve used in the past. We receive a federal subsidy under the Affordable Care Act, which helps my husband and I afford health insurance for ourselves.
We don’t think about often, because we don’t feel poor. We can pay our bills (most of the time). We have two cars that run (most of the time). We bought a house last year, with a little help from our families. I can even work part-time for a non-profit, because a relative helps out with childcare.
We are the Luckiest Kind of Poor People, the kind with wealthier family members who pass down furniture and appliances to us. We go to the beach every year because someone else pays for our lodging. We can afford to eat out now and then and maintain a couple of streaming subscriptions for entertainment. Life is pretty good.
We also don’t spend a lot of time talking about being poor, because, well, it’s embarrassing. There’s a stigma associated with being poor, the constant implication that you’re just not trying hard enough.
And there is certainly no end of people who will tell you that you just need to do X or give up Y, but the reality is that financial situations are complex and the path upward isn’t always straight.
This is the irony of the world we live in now: I have a device that can access the internet, make calls, stream TV, and instantly translate hundreds of languages, and this device fits in my pocket and I can buy one for less than the cost of a doctor’s appointment. Think about that for a moment.
So when social welfare issues hit the national spotlight, there’s this funny thing that happens where I look around and realize that this is just an “issue” for a lot of people. It’s an abstract concept that has no actual effect on their lives.
And a lot of them have been told, over and over again, that world is full of greedy, entitled poor people who are scamming the system, and the best way to stop that is not to fix social welfare programs, but to reduce funding for them.
If the government cuts back the free and reduced lunch program so that fewer families are covered, that has a direct effect on our grocery budget every month. And as I said, we are the Luckiest Kind of Poor People. Our kids won’t go hungry. They might not eat as well and they won’t get milk every day, but they won’t go hungry.
Children have no control over their household income or stability. They have no control over the family budget. I can’t imagine what people think would be resolved or improved by letting children go hungry.
The larger, looming issue for us these days is health care. I’ve had a stomachache since November wondering what was going to happen to our health insurance, and the recent roll out of the health care plan proposed by the Republican party isn’t making me feel any better.
My husband and I have an “Obamacare” plan and have for a number of years. Neither one of us can get insurance from our employers, so the exchange was a perfect solution for us.
Over the past few years we’ve listened and sympathized with people who have been forced to change plans and faced rising premiums. I’ve listened to people complain about the subsidies they don’t qualify for and being forced to pay for services, like maternity or mental health, that they don’t use.
The American healthcare system in general is a lumbering, creaking Frankenstein monster. Obamacare was certainly not a complete solution, but that’s a topic for another day.
Obamacare works for us. Our current plan costs us $209 per month. That’s up $80 a month from last year, which I realize might sound like a very small increase to some of you. We had to cut things from our budget to be able to afford it.
It covers our routine medical costs with a minimal copay. It covers any testing that we need. It provides partial coverage for the medication I take for hypothyroidism.
Without the subsidies provided by the ACA, our plan would cost $674 per month. That’s more than our monthly grocery budget.
Even if we cut our coverage to bare-bones catastrophic, accepted a $5,000 deductible like we used to have and paid for all of our routine medical expenses out of pocket (and by that I mean never go to the doctor, borrow money or put it on a credit card, because there is no room in our budget for insurance AND routine medical costs) we would still struggle to afford $250 or $300 per month. It’s not a matter of cutting X or doing Y, the money just isn’t there.
And I just want to emphasize, that insurance is only covering the two of us. If our children ever get dropped from Medicaid, we’re up an entirely different kind of creek.
Like millions of Americans, we hope this time in our lives is temporary. We are trying hard. Where we are is not the bottom, it’s a place we scrambled up to.
My husband works full-time and goes to school at night so that someday he’ll be able to get a job with insurance benefits. We know that our kids won’t be little forever and there will be potential for me to work more hours without the expense of daycare.
We have hope for the future.
We hope that someday we won’t need help to pay for insurance. We hope that we’ll be able to pay for our children’s medical care. We hope to reach a place where we can actually put money in our savings account and not take it out two weeks later. We might even someday get to grumble about our taxes!
But for right now, this is where we are. And when you turn on the news and see people in nice suits talking about how people could afford health insurance if they just tried a little harder and cut back and little more, it makes me want to laugh. Not in a happy way.
So, the election is over and I’m going to say a few things.
Like a lot of people, I was surprised by the outcome of the election, but that’s democracy. It’s one of the great strengths of our country.
But there were a few other things that surprised me during this past year. I was raised by principled Republican parents who told me over and over again that the character of the people we elect matter. Even as my own politics shifted from Red to Blue, I held many Republicans in high regard, knowing what their heart was for their country.
During my lifetime I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats, but always for people I believed to have character. People with the qualifications of a good leader.
When Donald Trump took the Republican nomination I really felt for my R friends and family, because I was sure he didn’t represent them or what they wanted for their country. I watched people like Mitt Romney and Ana Navarro take a stand. I watched people like Ted Cruz waffle back and forth. It was a pretty good show from the outside.
But when it came right down to it, to the people I personally knew, I really thought most of you would take a stand and make it clear to the Republican party that you would not support such an unqualified, dishonest and inflammatory candidate.
And I was genuinely surprised by how many of you went to the polls and voted for a man you claimed you didn’t respect. I understand why you did it. You made the pragmatic choice, and your party won. But it still surprised me.
On a national scale, 81% of white evangelical Christians turned out to vote for Trump. That’s a higher percentage than Romney, McCain or Bush got. Trump owes his victory to white voter turnout, and the contrast between the votes of white Christians and nonwhite Christians in this election couldn’t possibly be starker.
It’s not really a secret why, is it? Anti-immigration and racial rhetoric was a huge part of Trump’s campaign from the beginning. He was literally endorsed by the KKK. I’m going to say that again, for the people in the back. He was literally endorsed by the KKK.
I realize most white Christians are willing to brush that off. After all, it’s not like Trump can help who endorses him, right? It’s unfortunate, maybe even regrettable, but a small concession for those conservative Supreme Court justices.
But if you think that, I don’t think you understand what this feels like to nonwhite Christians.
Over the past few months as support from white evangelicals fell into line behind Trump, I’ve heard anger, I’ve heard frustration, and I’ve heard betrayal from people of color who share our faith. But probably the hardest thing to hear was the people who gave a fatalistic shrug and said “I knew they would. They always do.”
Because white Christians choosing to ally with white supremacists over their nonwhite brothers and sisters is, if nothing else, a historically consistent position.
So this is my plea to my fellow white people, and it would have been exactly the same plea if Hillary had won. Because this racial divide is A Problem, and it’s going to have a big impact on the future of our churches and our communities and our country.
Can we please stop assuming that we know what’s best for people of color? Can we please acknowledge that we don’t always have a full understanding of the issues that affect them? Can we please listen more? And can we please not insist that only we can decide what is and isn’t racist?
I didn’t sleep a lot last night. This election has one pretty significant consequence for our family, and that’s that we’ll more than likely be losing our health insurance early next year. With Andy back in school, we have a lot to balance and lot of uncertainty. Pray for us.
While I was in the process of writing this, my 7-year old came home from school and said that one his classmates told him that Hillary wants to kill all the newborn babies. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to talk to him about the things he hears on the playground.
Our children are watching and listening.
We’ve tried to be so careful about what we’ve said to them. We’ve talked about the process of elections, and respecting a person’s right to vote, even when we disagree. The election is over, and I have a lot to think about and lot of process. I’m sure many of you do too.
We’ll see what happens. My job hasn’t really changed. One foot in front of the other. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly before God. Fail repeatedly at those three things. Try again.
In any good story about the supernatural, there’s a skeptic. And there’s always a moment where the evidence mounts and the skeptic begins to waver.
Chapters 4 and 5 serve that purpose in The Visitation. The crucifix cries again, and there’s a mad rush for the alter. A young woman is healed, but others are disappointed.
Disillusioned former pastor Travis is still hiding out at home, but he can’t escape it. He sees the mysterious messenger again, but this time he’s mowing the neighbor’s lawn, and Travis manages to convince himself that it was just a handyman all along.
Until he speaks with him.
I crossed the street, approaching the little lawn mower where he sat waiting…he gave me a sympathetic look. “You’re really going through it, aren’t you?”
I smiled to be pleasant. “Excuse me?”
“You’ll be okay. It’s just a little eye opener, that’s all.”
“Have we met before?”
“Never face to face.”
The mysterious stranger then goes on to claim that they do know one another, and have since Travis was eight years old.
He could have been Jewish, from the Middle East. His skin was dark, his eyes deep brown, his hair jet black with a gentle curl at the ends. Then again, he could have been Native American or perhaps Hispanic.
There’s a little awkward back-and-forth while the Mysterious Stranger demonstrates that he appears to know a lot about Travis. He even mentions his dead wife and other people from his past.
But Travis is still holding out. He can’t bring himself to believe that this isn’t some trick or scam. And he’s right to be suspicious, because if this wasn’t a book about fictional spiritual warfare this could easily be a technique called “cold reading.”
Cold reading is often used by self-proclaimed psychics, palm readers, and prophets to convince their audience that they have some kind of special spiritual power. You can see a demonstration of it in this video:
Notice that Derren picked a young woman, and could assume from her age that she would have lost at least one grandparent. He starts by guessing an older person, and then a woman, and from there goes through a variety of “grandma” tropes (short stature, glasses, flowers). He reads her body language, and appears to get more and more accurate. He also makes several wrong guesses, but moves past them quickly.
Our brains are wired to remember the correct answers and forget the incorrect ones. That’s how it works.
So at this point, you can’t really blame Travis for being skeptical. He’s heard about “messengers” and “miracles,” but the only thing he’s seen with his own two eyes is a guy who could have walked off his job at a physic hotline.
Chapter 5 gives more of a brief survey of what’s going on in the town of Antioch, using some of the small town characters we met before. More and more people are coming to town, hoping to see the crucifix weep. The devout at the Pentecostal church are still watching the clouds and looking for signs.
We catch up to Travis again at the local hardware store, where the proprietor is a disabled Vietnam vet called Matt Kiley. Matt uses a wheelchair to get around, and that’s his life. He doesn’t readily engage in fantasies of holy visitors and healing.
From a story perspective, he’s there to reinforce Travis’ skepticism, but he’s also given a moment to dispense some wisdom.
“Funny. I made some friend at the VA hospital, I’ve met some other folks in wheelchairs, and we got along fine. They never told me to go down and look at some crucifix or wash in some special kind of water or say some kind of magic prayer words. It’s always the walkers who know what you need.”
Our eyes met. We understood each other.
It’s always the walkers who know what you need.
Okay, so it seems a little disingenuous to equate Travis’ disillusionment with being in a wheelchair, but this is a good set up for the next chapter.
In Chapter 6, we’re going back to Travis’ teen years. Travis was raised with a theology intently focused on being a walker. A walker always knows what’s best. A walker always has the answers.
All doubts and questions have to be surrendered, because otherwise you’re not trusting God enough. Blind faith is the answer. Blind faith is always the answer.
I’m breaking a promise I made to myself last year, when I decided I would not post anything related to the election on Facebook. I’m aware I have wide range of friends with a variety of political views and it seems like every time I post something political, people sweep in with their respective talking points and nothing really gets said.
But I’m breaking that promise today, hopefully for a good reason. I’m breaking it because I want to explain something that the mainstream media and cable news networks do a lousy job of explaining. I want to explain memes.
I want to explain memes because I want people who did not spend their youth hanging out on internet messages boards to understand why many people my age are losing their minds over the meme that Donald Trump Jr. posted to Twitter this week.
I know it looks like we’re overreacting. I know it gives people another excuse to shake their heads and think that we see racism under every doilie and behind every door. I’m going to try to explain to you, in a simple, common sense fashion, why memes like these are so significant.
Memes are inside jokes.
They might be pictures, they might be words, they might be a combination of both. For example, I belong to one internet message board where one of the members posts an image of a disproving bunny whenever she reads something that makes her upset.
Someone outside of the community might not understand why she does that, but we do, because it’s our inside joke. Every community has them.
Memes evolve over time.
Someone makes a joke on a message board, or on reddit or tumblr (it’s okay, you don’t have to know what any of those things are) and someone else edits it onto an image of a nervous looking dog. Someone else decides it’s the perfect metaphor for a current situation and posts it to Twitter or Facebook and it spreads.
Because of how quickly memes evolve and change, it’s hard to trace them back. Sites like Know Your Meme try, but it’s like trying to write out a dictionary in sand.
All language is affected by context, and all language changes over time. That doesn’t make it meaningless. We use words and phrases today that had different meanings 100 years ago. That’s okay. We know what it means to us and what it means to our audience. We can use it and be understood.
Memes have a message.
So when Donald Trump Jr. posts a message comparing Syrian refugees to poisoned candy, people like me aren’t just seeing words over a stock image. We’re seeing a meme. In particular, we’re seeing a meme that’s been passed around for years on white supremacist message boards and websites. Originally it was M&Ms, not skittles, but the comparison was exactly the same.
And this isn’t the first time the Trump campaign has recycled memes from the white supremacist community. Last year Trump retweeted a “crime statistics” meme that cited data from a nonexistent, but official-sounding organization. The meme claimed that black-on-white murders accounted for 81% of U.S. homicides. That’s false. The actual number reported by the F.B.I. is 15%.
The “inside joke” there is that black people are violent and white people should be afraid. Guess who agrees with that?
These are two examples, but they’re not the only ones. This is not a matter of carelessness, or coincidence. Someone in the Trump campaign has been telling inside jokes with white supremacists for a while now, and they’re counting on the fact that only white supremacists will understand them.
That’s why we’re losing our minds. It’s incredibly frustrating to be the only person on the the archaeological expedition to the old abandoned mine who sees the murderous ghost miners.
The “inside joke” to the skittles meme is that Syrian refugees are dangerous. That’s an old joke. It was old when it was leveraged against Irish and Italian and German immigrants a century ago.