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Love is the Message
Julian of Norwich’s Revelations and Why it Matters that God is Love
“It’s almost predictable at this point,” my friend Robert said over his shoulder as we sweated our way back down the trail.
Despite having started early, the Tennessee humidity was making a full showing as we wound our way through the cedar groves along the shore of the lake.
I’d been explaining my upbringing, and mentioned that I’d gone to the church of a prominent evangelical who loved to preach on the “sin” of homosexuality, only to be caught with male sex workers some years later.
It’s almost a trope now: the pastor who preaches on adultery runs off with someone in the church who’s not their spouse. The pastor calling down fire and brimstone on gay people is closeted themselves. Perhaps they are preaching what they think they should, or trying to convince themselves of something.
As I went through my own deconstruction process in which I began to question all the things I’d been taught were core to the faith, I began to wonder sometime in my mid to late twenties if we were focused on the wrong thing. I’d been raised to believe that “same-sex relationships” (the ultimate reduction of the LGBTQIA+ rainbow) were sinful, but one day I thought, “I don’t want to believe this any more. What happens if I just stop?”
At no other time in my life have I had an experience where I felt like the “burden of sin” rolled away. The preachers of my upbringing glorify those moments. The fan-favorite Pilgrim’s Progress actually novelized them. But only on that day–when I decided to stop believing same-sex marriage was wrong–I felt as though a burden was lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t have the theological reasoning yet. I just decided if I was going to be wrong, I’d err on the side of love.
This summer I had the opportunity to visit the shrine at St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England. I walked into the cool of the church from the hot, humid day outside, down the few steps off the nave and into the room where Julian spent at least half her life, and I was nearly overcome. I sat on the bench that runs along two walls, near tears. Weeks later, I can’t really explain it. But some things don’t need to be explained….
Poisoned Bible Project Episode 6:
Remember Lot’s Wife: On Pillars of Salt, Dens of Robbers, and Jesus as Chaotic Good
Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories in the Scripture (and, yes, I know that is a very high bar), is a tiny story told in just a few words of a woman turned to a pillar of salt. In the midst of a complicated and difficult story, we find another unnamed woman dying tragically with almost no commentary at the time.
Of course much has been made of it in various circles since, and once again most of what I experienced ran along the lines of “don’t be a disobedient woman.” It’s really hard to see God as loving if God runs around turning people–especially women-people like me–into salt because they glanced over their shoulder.
But that’s what happens when we try to build meaning on tiny passages without considering the context, and remembering Lot’s wife has everything to do with justice and how we treat people, and nothing to do with her being a woman.
To unpack this story, we need to start with Jesus’ using it in a series of lessons for his disciples and work backwards because like everything, we must interpret this story through Jesus as a lens. If a story about God doesn’t add up to the person we see in Jesus, then we need to shift our perspective.
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“I wish I could still believe in God, but I can’t be a Christian anymore because of ______” Fill-in-the-blank with racism, misogyny, homophobia, toxic capitalism, and so on. I’ve had this conversation with different people almost word-for-word over and over. White American Christianity has so defined God that many people cannot separate God from the toxic theology they were taught.
But this isn’t the God I see in the Bible. The Bible shows us a God meeting people where they are and nudging them towards justice and total thriving for all: shalom. The Bible details arcs of justice and societal reform. If we understand how radical those arcs were in the context of the day, we can extend them forward into the future and figure out how to work for justice, total thriving, and societal reformation in our day.
I grew up in that first world view. Come along, and I’ll tell you the story of how I escaped, and I’ll show you a theology that I believe paints a more accurate picture: a faith for the common good where everyone thrives and no one is left out.
Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. An avid hiker and backpacker, many thoughts start somewhere in the middle of the woods, or under a waterfall. She is a regular contributer to Earth & Altar and her latest book is Inward Apocalypse: Uncovering a Faith for the Common Good.
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