taking the words of Jesus seriously

This past Sunday I turned 33. Because I work as a Pastor in a church, this past Sunday I also preached twice and led a Bible study.

And let me be honest with you, I was a little bit ambivalent about that being the way I’d spend my birthday. I love the opportunity to preach and teach, and I love my church. I also love sleeping and eating brunch, which could have been an alternative birthday choice.

Nonetheless, there I was on Sunday morning: turning 33 and wearing a white long-sleeved dress and then leading Bible study for a group of folks largely at least 20 years older than myself.

I actually love this sort of thing. Ever since living in Naples, Fla., the snowbird capital of America, I’ve been comfortable around seniors. I appreciate their wisdom, their humor, their lack of interest in image, their rawness, their undeserved love for me.

Still, this was just my third time with this Bible Study group. I didn’t know them well yet. I was unsure if someone might let loose with a stream of invective against me or against a group of people. I didn’t know if they were vehemently liberal or vehemently conservative, or if one of them just hated everyone.

Even if you aren’t a pastor, I’m guessing you’ve experienced this lately. This increased guardedness. This wondering and uncertainty if the person in the cubicle next to you might all the sudden unleash a stream of racist or sexist or angry or incoherent or hateful or elitist rhetoric — and all of a sudden you might dread going to work or opening a conversation with the person in front of you in line for lunch.

I think we’ve all experienced this no matter where you stand politically or religiously. People in 2018 America are just a little more open with their opinions than perhaps they used to be. Maybe that’s social media, where Joe from Accounting all the sudden decided to share his penchant for neo-Nazi memes, or Sarah from Engineering decided to share her hope that the U.S. would go full-on Denmark and embrace socialism.

Not that I believe there’s parity between Nazis and Danes, or I believe that extremism runs equally in both directions — but I do believe that all Americans have been impacted by extremism rearing its ugly head on our computers and in workplaces and schools and in our families.

So back to Bible Study. This week there were a few new couples who I hadn’t met before. A few older men who were mostly silent during our opening discussions. And I wondered the things I usually wonder as a pastor, or I used to wonder as a sportswriter.

Is he thinking I shouldn’t be leading this? That I’m unqualified because I’m a woman?
Is he thinking this study is too liberal? I’m not that liberal, but people always say I am.
Am I offending him? Is he going to leave and bash me?

I wonder these things because plenty of older Christian men do think these things and have told them to me — online or in person — at Evangelical conferences where I was directed to the Pastors’ Wives workshops, and in the comments section, where I was told I should submit to my husband and listen to the Bible and shut up.

We were talking about Palm Sunday and John 12 and how Jesus tells his disciples that he needs them to follow him to the cross, and if they love their lives they’ll lose them, and if they hate their lives they’ll gain eternal life.

And what does it mean to hate your life?

And we figured that Jesus is really saying that as a follower of his you’re going to be called upon to make unpopular decisions, decisions that go against the ethic of the life of the world, where you have to submit everything you have and everything you are to gain money and power.

But Jesus asked his followers — Jesus asks us — to make different choices. Choices that look like they lead to death, or death of ego, or death of security, or death of “being liked.”

So then I asked the group: Well what about you in your life? Where do you see this happening, where are people making choices that go against the world’s choices?

One of the unfamiliar men spoke up, and I held my breath for a rebuke. I wish I wouldn’t do that, but sometimes you learn to gird yourself.

“Well,” he said, “How about that #MeToo movement? All the women coming out and raising their voices? And speaking up about sexual assault?”

I was so stunned I had to gather my thoughts. And instead of doing what maybe I should have done and throwing up my arms around him and saying: “Thank you for affirming right here in the House of God that women matter and that God does not sanction this treatment of women, and women’s voices are so important to be heard!

I sort of said quietly: “Yes, of course! Because they are speaking up and facing shame or embarrassment — or talking about something the world tells them to be silent about. They are making choices for Jesus’ view of the world and not God’s.”

And I almost felt embarrassed because here this Baby Boomer, I think, white man got it in a way I totally hadn’t expected in a relatively conservative congregation where I was new and ashamed and just newly 33. And he almost embarrassed me because he made the connection I’d been too afraid to make, and he did it without any sense of incredulity — just said it, like, of course Jesus supports #MeToo.

I asked the question again and another unfamiliar man started to raise his voice, and again I wondered if here it comes because someone had mentioned the Parkland kids and their marches against gun violence and here was this guy going to say how important his gun was and that Jesus called us to defend ourselves, like the Pentecostal Pastor I met in Florida who defended his congregation and carried a weapon and put a sign on the church saying he was armed and hundreds of kids flocked to him and he said sexual intimacy was like plugging in a cord and women are the outlet and we just have to take it — and I braced myself.

“Well,” the new Bible Study attendee said. “These kids are just so inspiring. They are standing up for what they believe in, and they don’t want to die in their schools, and they’re asking us to listen to them and support them, and I do.”

And again I found myself gob smacked. My world of misconceptions and preconceptions turned upside down, and this generational warfare that had been propagated by the media was all wrong.

We could be there for each other.

We could hear each other.

The truth is we didn’t even talk about gun control in the class. We didn’t talk about hunting or abortion or women’s rights or hot-button issues.

What we talked about was what they heard Jesus saying in the Bible, and it seemed they heard Jesus saying that we had to hear the women and the children.

And what I heard Jesus saying to me is I had to hear the seniors. I had to listen to my own elders and yes, at this moment, Jesus was asking me to listen to the old white men at Bible study.

What if we really heard each other this Easter in America?

Not just listening, like I sometimes do, halfway — going in with my biases and fears and tuning out mid-thought to scan Facebook on my phone and reinforce those same biases and fears.

What if we heard each other?

You might hear something surprising.

Like a man rising from the dead.

This article was adapted from Angela’s blog.

About The Author


Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. She's written for many publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Sojourners. She is the author of "Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump" (Fortress Press).

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