The Covenant

Let me begin my being really clear on who this post is for: These words are for people who consider them Christians and are committed to the tumultuous and risky calling of discipleship. If you’re in the midst of figuring, or oftentimes refiguring, faith out, these words are not for you. These words are also for the people who have taken the time to grieve. If you haven’t, take a wander through the Book of Job. Meditate and chew on it. I have a series on suffering, and a playlist for lament if you’re looking for further resources.

When I was thinking and praying about what to speak into this moment, what kind of answer can even be given in the midst of yet another mass shooting, yet more innocent little children killed, yet another trans person who is the shooter, at a time of already unimaginable grief and tragedy for the queer community as bill after bill after bill limits trans individual’s ability to exist, I needed some time and some inspiration. What can be said, accurately and honestly, in the midst of all of this complex tragedy?

The word that God put in my mouth was not an immediately helpful one. It was the end of Joshua 24:15:

… but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

Joshua 24:13 NRSVue

This verse comes towards the end of Joshua, a semi-historical book documenting Israel’s conquering of Canaan, with the help of their leader Joshua and the hand of God. Chapter 24 comes at the end of a warning Joshua, in his old age, gives to the Israelites. He urges them to preserve the purity of the people of God and to preserve the Hebrew God as the only God worthy of their adoration. He reminds the Israelites that the land of Canaan has been given to them, not earned, an important distinction to keep the Israelites humble and obedient. Then, in an act of obedience, Joshua holds a covenanting ceremony to renew the people’s promise to God, and in turn, God’s promise to the people. In chapter 24, Joshua begins by retelling the story so far:

Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst, and afterward I brought you out.

Joshua 24:5 NRSVue

The story of IAM setting God’s people free has become a frequent source of comfort and challenge for me since July of last year. It began as a testament: God can do impossible things. Then, it changed into a celebratory reminder: there is nothing a tyrant can do but grasp at earthly power.

How do we respond to life under tyranny? First, we should give the tyrant an opportunity to free us on his own accord. In Exodus 5, Moses and his brother Aaron give Pharaoh the first of God’s message to him: Let my people go. In response, Pharaoh not only refuses, he makes the enslavement of God’s people harsher.

That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, ‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will pay attention to it and not to deceptive words.'”

Exodus 5:7-9 NRSVue

Don’t miss this first lesson, friends; when the tyrant tightens the reigns, freedom is imminent. But it’s also important to note here that asking the tyrant for freedom is acceptable in the sight of God. By all means, call your representatives and demand a more just world. With hope and humility, they will relent. But we also shouldn’t be surprised if the heart of a tyrant hardens into repeated refusal.

After numerous plagues, the Israelites flee Egypt. In a last-ditch power grab, Pharaoh and his men pursue the fleeing Israelites. The Israelites turn on Moses, enraged that they’ve escaped just to die in the wilderness. But Moses replies:

Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.

Exodus 14:13-14 NRSVue

Friends, I am as sure as I have ever been that God is a firm foundation to build your life on. I am as confident in the shadow of the tyrant as I was in the Promised Land: God frees and God conquers enemies. All we have to do is suppress everything our brains tell us not to do: be still, rest in the assured deliverance of God. Pslam 27 reminds us of the same war tactic: we become brave by being still. We are children of the Almighty God; we do not need the weapons of the world to conquer. Our victory is assured.

The issue with politicians and Pharaohs is that they earnestly believe their earthly power is enough to make us afraid. Maybe they’re right, maybe you are afraid.

I am.

Some person in a suit genuinely believes they know your body better than you do. They are passing laws to sentence people to death, to force people to come out, to stop taking life-giving medication, to stop being who God has called you to be. Just like the Israelites, we find ourselves backed up to the edge of impossible water, watching our captors pursue us, certain we are going to be slaughtered in an unfamiliar land, or even worse perhaps, an unfamiliar body. This is a death and a violence worth being afraid of.

And yet, in the midst of our fear, we hear the whisper of Moses, the whisper of David’s song, the whisper of our very God: Keep still, hide in his shelter, Know that I Am God.

As you move through these next few weeks and months and years of increased transphobia, gun violence, and chaos, rest assured that the God who created you is also fighting for you. The tyrant doesn’t win.

Let us also cast our minds to Easter: death itself doesn’t win. What fear can these feeble, power-hungry men offer us, especially in the end:

Then comes the end, when he (Christ) hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and very authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

1 Corinthians 15:24-26 NRSVue

Point #1: How do we respond in this moment of overwhelming grief and anger? We remember that the authority of death and of ruler hold no true power over us, just power that is tangible.

After Joshua reminds the people of the power and faithfulness of God, he instructs them to revere and serve God:

Now, therefore, revere the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the LORD.

Joshua 24:14 NRSVue

If you’re struggling to embody the first point, friends, it’s about to get a lot harder. I’m not preaching to you; I’m preaching to myself and hoping some of this self-talk is useful to someone besides me. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, offers some thoughts on how we as Christians can respond faithfully to persecution, how we can sincerely and faithfully serve the L-RD.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly, do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the LORD.’ Instead, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Romans 13:14-21 NRSVue

As I read this passage over and over again, I want the way of Jesus less than ever. To be a disciple of Christ is going to cost us everything. Every intuition, every comfort, every morsel of food and drink and sense of fairness. To put this back in terms Joshua could understand, we have to put away the gods of our ancestors. We have to choose a different path than vengeance. We have to want peace more than we want justice, because we know that true justice flows out of peace. Again, I say: I want the way of this Jesus less than ever.

And yet I am simultaneously convicted of little else in this moment than that the world needs more Jesus. We need more of his gentleness, more of his submission to suffering, more of his counter-cultural peacemaking.

If we want to sincerely and faithfully serve our God, we have to feed our enemies. There isn’t another path. We have to overcome the vast and deep and profound evil in our world and faith communities by viciously committing ourselves to self-sacrificial good.

Here is another thing I am convinced of in this moment of profound suffering: I do not have control over very much. I can’t solve gun violence. I can’t cure transphobia. I can’t eradicate suffering in all of its forms from the face of the earth. Joshua acknowledged the limitations of his ability to commit the tribes of Israel to the covenant of the L-RD:

Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living…

Joshua 24:13 NRSVue

As I picture this scene play out in our modern context, I can hear Joshua name different gods: social media, guns, mental illness, {political party}. You can choose, right now, to serve that god. If the fight is too difficult, if the thought of feeding a gunman or a politician is too much for you to stomach, go find a different god worthy of your worship. I can’t make that choice for you, or for my senator, or my president, or my pastor.

But as for me, and as for my future house and family, queer and complicated and beautiful, we will serve the L-RD.

We’re going to do some rejoicing in the midst of celebration, and we are going to mourn alongside those who mourn.

We’re going to try to not repay evil with evil. We’re going to try to make peace and live peaceably even with the tyrants who live above us.

We’re going to heap some burning coal on the heads of some people.

Come, Lord Jesus, and make a way for us in this barren wilderness. Give us our daily bread, that we might remember our place and have the tools to be peacemakers in this wild world.

Point #2: How do we respond in this moment of overwhelming grief and anger? We decide that whatever god our nation and our neighbor is serving, we will serve the LORD.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition Bible, copyright © 1989; 2021 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America and are used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Like him on Facebook or follow him on Instagram and Goodreads.

The Dissent

Living as an exile to Christian community grants you an interesting view of the inner workings. The two-year podcast expose of Seattle mega-church Mars Hill, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, capitalized on this. One of the more jarring quotes from then-lead pastor Mark Driscoll documented by the podcast was, “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” Dissenters were unwelcomed at Mars Hill. If you had alternate ideas about the traction, direction, or speed at which the bus was going, you were welcome to freely discuss those ideas with the other corpses killed under the weight of ministry’s momentum.

It’s been a particularly bleak time for dissenters in my faith circles. At a Christian university I’ve been keeping a close eye on, the increasingly derelict and faithless administration sent a memo to faculty and staff to cease a years-long protest against a particular university policy. In protest, students and faculty staged a protest, hanging flags and signs in support of their cause, a frequent strategy by campus organizers. Historically, this kind of protest would be tolerated for the majority of the day. Not so this time. Just an hour after organizers began, their signs and flags were in the trash. If the email hadn’t been clear enough, the message was crystallized now: dissent will not be tolerated.

At one of the churches I’ve attended semi-regularly for a couple years, the pastor from the pulpit made a claim about a political issue. They went on to say, “You may not agree with us (referring to the church as an institution stewarding this opinion) and that’s okay. I hope you stick around anyway. Church can be a place where people disagree. You can have a different opinion, but ours is rooted in God’s truth. You can disagree with God’s truth, but it doesn’t change God’s truth. God’s truth is the truth.” This is a softened, but (in my opinion) more nefarious translation of the two above sentiments. The pastor’s point at its most basic level was: We welcome disagreement, so long as the people who disagree with us admit that they’re wrong, and not only wrong but are rebels against God. I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear this from this pastor. They had expressed a similar sentiment to me in a private conversation.

In my most recent letter of dissent to the aforementioned university’s board of trustees, I explained why I continue to participate in a church I fundamentally disagree with:

We as Christians are called to lives of exceptional discomfort. In my Sunday suffering, in that brutal weakness, the strength and redemption of Christ is that much more apparent. Because I have seen and believe so fiercely in the revelation and healing that transpires in spaces of deep and poignant disagreement, I ask you to turn from the wickedness of censorship and authoritarianism. I believe and am witness to the power of leaning into the spaces that are most hostile to you. Do not hinder the Messiah who came, not to bring peace, but division.

Excerpt from a private collection of letters


Dissent is holy and underutilized work. I want to be clear by what I mean by dissent because I’ve also worked in ministry, and I know that some of you just like to complain. Petty disagreements, anonymous complaints, hurt feelings of being asked to change your behavior is not dissent.

First of all, dissent is risky. Relationships are risky. Advocating for truth and being commissioned to work on behalf of the gospel message is risky. This means dissent requires you to speak from your chest. In Paul’s epistles, he doesn’t hide behind an anonymous letter or a fake Google Reviews account. He clearly identifies himself and provides an opportunity to correspond with him. He’s not here to condemn and be rid of; he’s here to support and convict. If the Spirit has charged you with a spirit of dissent, then you are sent in God’s authority and no human being can harm you. Say what you have to say in the courage of the daylight. Say it with your face clearly visible. Say it with a return address so that you can be patient and partnered in your love for a community.

Secondly, dissent is purposeful against patterns. Nitpicking is not dissent. Critiquing your pastor’s off day is not dissent, nor is mocking the flaws of human beings. When you are called to dissent, you are called to do so with humility. In Paul’s epistles, he doesn’t critique as though he’s a perfect practitioner of Christianity. Paul admits his failings and communicates that it is through God’s grace that we mend, not through human intentionality. Additionally, Paul does not hark on minor failings or one-time slip ups. He critiques a series of patterns which culminate into widespread failings on behalf of a group of believers.

Finally, in this brief exploration of dissent, we need to understand it as something that occurs from connected community members, not outsiders. If you aren’t willing to be a part of the problem-solving, your dissent loses its traction. The nature of Christian community in our Western world – a once or twice per week meeting of believers is not compatible with the nature of the early church, who lived and breathed and died together. Be slow to speak and be willing to help problem-solve.

Putting Dissent Into Action

Pastors/Church Leaders – Be receptive to the voices of dissenters in your community, and be humble in the stewarding of your flock. You are not the authority of your campus, your community, or your congregation. You are not kings of your earthly kingdoms; you are servants commissioned on the authority of the King. If you have become arrogant in valid critiques of the community you shepherd, then it might be time to put down the staff. If you feel the need to censor all protests against you, you are not unlike Pharaoh with his hardened heart. Keep humble and remember your place in the Kingdom.

 One of you says, “I follow Paul.” Another says, “I follow Apollos.” Aren’t you acting like ordinary human beings? After all, what is Apollos? And what is Paul? We are only people who serve. We helped you to believe. The Lord has given each of us our own work to do. I planted the seed. Apollos watered it. But God has been making it grow. So the one who plants is not important. The one who waters is not important. It is God who makes things grow. He is the important one. The one who plants and the one who waters have the same purpose. The Lord will give each of them a reward for their work. We work together to serve God. You are like God’s field. You are like his building.

1 Corinthians 3:4-9 NIRV

And yet, also be mindful of faithless dissenters whose only goal is to stir up division and negativity. Indeed, there are people in our congregations who moan and complain about everything, not because something is wrong, but because they want to be right. Jesus was killed, not by a government or a system of unbelievers, but by his closest friend in the betrayal of Judas. The Enemy infiltrates our communities to stir up division and cause doubt. Meet with your dissenters, and allow for open communication with your congregants, but test the voices and concerns they bring up. Not every voice is helpful, but not every critical voice is evil.

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

2 Timothy 2:23-26 NIV

Congregants – Do not sit like a sponge amongst the faith leaders around you. You should not be sitting here reading this blog aimlessly or sitting in the pews believing every word that is spoken over you. You should also not be lying in wait, looking for opportunities to critique or tear down the people called to shepherd you. But, you need to be aware of false teachers and those below reproach.

 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Even so, many will follow their debaucheries, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. 

2 Peter 2:1-3a NRSVUE

You should not believe your pastor because they’re your pastor. You should believe your pastor because you spend your weekdays in prayer and in scripture and your pastor is partnered with the Spirit in convicting you of what is being revealed to you. You are not an idle thing to be told what to do by someone in authority; you are equipped with the Holy Spirit. Your pastor has no special access to God. They have gifts and a calling which may have set them apart to lead you. This is the only thing that differs between them and you. Appreciate and pray for your pastors, but do not blindly follow them and confuse their authority with God’s. Do not believe anyone who says what the Spirit has told you is true is a lie. Do not let the voice of a human replace the voice of God in your life.

“Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Afterward Cornelius asked him to stay with them for several days.

Acts 10:47-48 NLT

God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 15:8-11 NLT

My point is really, at its core, this: Be a people so rooted in the love of Christ, that your hearts breaks with the afflicted. Be so humble that the lowest among you can reach you. Be so surefooted in the gospel that you cannot be unmoored by the lies of a false and hypocritical teacher. Be of one body in unity that you may not be broken by petty quarrels, but if there is a sickness in the body, take it to the healer that you might be cleansed. Dissent to make peace and worship God with your own mind, not the mind of another.


Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Like him on Facebook or follow him on Instagram and Goodreads.

Couch Churches: Confronting Trauma, Friendship, and Tomorrow

Part Three: The Couch

My thoughts drift again to communion, and then to worship, the kind that brings you to your knees and throws your arms in the air without prompting. The kind of worship that leads you to speak in tongues. The kind that makes a fool out of you. The kind of childhood. My thoughts drift to these sacred spaces even though many, beefier theologians, would say they shouldn’t.

I’d say I’m the one who shouldn’t be here.

Continue reading “Couch Churches: Confronting Trauma, Friendship, and Tomorrow”

Couch Churches: Confronting Trauma, Friendship, and Tomorrow

Part Two: Buildings and Bodies

Sitting on a couch, legs tucked under me and sipping on milk and kahlúa, I’m thinking about holy communion. I’m thinking about it so much I move towards interrupting my friend to ask if he has any salted crackers downstairs, and a bit of wine to rinse. But I don’t. Instead, I counter our discussion on doubt with another thought from my philosophy professor. It’s 1:00am and we’re talking about theology like some might discuss the weather, almost aimlessly but with feeling. My thoughts drift to the past two years, and the thing I’ve already accepted as gone, is standing right in front of me without even looking. I AM is here with us; I can taste It on my tongue.

Continue reading “Couch Churches: Confronting Trauma, Friendship, and Tomorrow”

Couch Churches: Confronting Trauma, Friendship, and Tomorrow

Marvelous Light lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Part One: Trauma

I have a complicated relationship with church, both as a building and as a body. As the son of a church worker, I suppose some of that is to be expected. Long days spent at the church instead of daycare, hearing typical workplace drama about your pastoral staff, and the like make for a unique relationship with the church. But I like to think my relationship is more complex than even that.

I’ve seen, on the macro and micro levels, the way a church can fail, the way it can fracture both itself and everyone inside it. I think I’ve avoided thinking (and especially talking) about this subject, because, for so long I was ashamed of it. Scripture clearly states the importance of church to the believer and yet church was somewhere I could no longer really fit in at. I felt like a shell of a believer, two-faced in my chair every Sunday. It wasn’t until a 1am conversation, on the verge of tears, that I realized I wasn’t “not a church person” like I always thought. While I was facing one way, complaining that God was no longer there, I AM was standing in the complete other direction the whole time. All I had to do was look.

Continue reading “Couch Churches: Confronting Trauma, Friendship, and Tomorrow”

True Strength and Courage

Read Joshua Chapter 1 On Your Own

It begins with the death of a father. In a valley, they bury a 120 year old man. For 30 long and bitter days, a nation weeps.

And then, out of the chaos and longing, a call is heard: Pick up your stuff and go, no harm will come to you, no wall will stand against.

To a grieving nation, this call is medicine for the soul. It feels like a long time coming. And, in fact, it was a lifetime in exile. Finally, there is hope. And yet, the author of Joshua does not say this is medicine for the soul. Continue reading “True Strength and Courage”

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