Just before 7 p.m on July 7, as protesters gathered in Belo Garden Park, in Dallas, Texas, I settled onto a hard wooden seat in the choir stall of St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota. As they chanted “enough is enough,” we chanted Psalm 59: “You have been a refuge in the day of my distress.” As they shouted, we sat in silence. As they marched, we bowed.
I imagine everyone was praying, in our own ways. At the church, we prayed in formal style, a monk beseeching God, the congregation responding: “Lord, hear our prayer.” One monk prayed for “Philando Castille and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.” I wondered if Philando and Diamond were members of this church. I wondered what had happened, that they merited the prayers of this holy community.
On retreat at a writing workshop, I had not been keeping up with the news. I had no idea that just eighty miles away from where I sat, Philando had been killed by a police officer the night before. No idea that Diamond had somehow had the presence of mind to begin recording the incident even as her boyfriend sat bleeding beside her. I had no idea, but I prayed for Philando and Diamond: “Lord, hear our prayer.”
As peaceful yet angry people continued to gather and chant and march in Denver, I recited the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth.” I received the blessing. I watched the men in black robes file out of their seats, bow to the cross, and head back to their mysterious—though likely mundane—monkish lives.
Later that night, I was drinking and laughing with my friends when the gunshots rang out on the streets of Dallas. Were we talking about church politics, or bad dates, or our cute dogs when the first police officer died? And then the second. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.
I slept well that night, but some of my friends at the retreat did not. One woman had a frantic text from a friend whose husband is a police officer in Dallas—whose husband was at the protest and hadn’t come home yet—whose husband, she thankfully learned later, was not physically harmed in the attack. One man from Nigeria received an early morning call from his sister. His family heard about the black man shot in Minnesota and they were worried, because he was a black man—in Minnesota. “Come home to Nigeria where it is safe,” his sister begged him.
It is a strange experience, to be on retreat while the world is falling apart. I did read some news stories, but not deeply. I did skim Facebook, but I didn’t participate in the conversations—not the important ones. Because I wanted my week away. Even as people were dying, I wanted to walk by the lake, enjoy the beautiful gardens, gaze at the stained glass windows, listen to the breezes and the birds. And I did all of these things, but with an underlying consciousness that my space, the peace of my moment, was far from the reality of many.
Being on retreat during these events heightened the struggle I feel in the face of any national or international tragedy: What is the appropriate response? Or rather, the good response? How do I acknowledge and honor the pain of strangers? How do I live into the truth that we are all connected to each other? How do I maintain my own sanity and fulfill my ongoing obligations while still giving time and energy to address what is happening in the world?
I care about the hurting people. I care about the injustices in the world. I want to speak and act against racism and homophobia and gun violence. I want to write powerful words and preach prophetic sermons and pray faithful prayers. And I want to watch Netflix. And I need to have supper ready by five because my daughter has gymnastics tonight.
I generally end up doing all of these things. I write and preach and pray and watch Netflix and make dinner. Though I increasingly recognize that not needing to worry about my nineteen-year-old son being shot by police is a luxury parents of black boys don’t have. And my ease makes me uneasy.
Paul, the New Testament missionary/writer, and I have something of a love/hate relationship. One of his concepts I love is the metaphor of church as a body. “The body is not made up of one part but of many . . . If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:14,17) This metaphor helps sustain me when I struggle with what to do, when I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough.
Paul specifically applies this metaphor to the church, but I consider its application to community more broadly. We are a body with each other—across the country and around the world. This may sound a little cheesy, and if you’re of a certain age you might have an image of swaying pop stars singing “We are the world” and be tempted to roll your eyes.
Go ahead and get the eye rolling out of your system. Then consider the implications of the metaphor. Being a body means that we are connected—head to toe connected. If you stub your toe, the message courses along your nerves all the way up to your brain. If you injure an eye, it makes your hands and arms less precise because it messes with your depth perception. An inner ear infection can make you tip over. . . . You get the idea. All connected.
At a basic level, this connection means that what is harmful to some is, ultimately, harmful to all. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When we say, “Black lives matter,” it is not a denial that other lives also matter. It is a claim that black lives are not being properly valued; and in failing to value black lives, we harm the quality of life for everyone. I do not want to live in a society where anyone of any race gets abused or shot by police for having a toy gun or reaching for his ID or asking to see a search warrant or being a little grumpy when they get pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. As Paul reminds us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
In addition to telling us why we should work for justice—because we are all connected—this metaphor also gives us insight into how we can continue to do the work of justice. The eye focuses on seeing. The stomach digests the food. The legs hold us up and move us forward. And we each do the work that is in front of us to do, while trusting that other parts of the body are doing the work that is in front of them to do. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).
I teach my children and preach to my congregation and write my columns. Others research the criminal justice system and police brutality and traffic stops. Others organize rallies and gather people on social media and in real life. Others promote legislation that will address the systemic racism in our country. Others work from within police departments to change police policies and procedures. The work being done is as varied as the people doing it.
A body works best when the eyes do the seeing and the stomachs the digesting and the legs the walking. Movements for justice work best when we each do what we are given to do. When we do it well. And when we cheer on others who are doing the work they have been given to do.
This is a comfort to me. Because there is so much I am not doing. There is so much I cannot do. And some things that, if I’m honest, I don’t want to do.
This body metaphor is a comfort to me because I was praying with a bunch of monks while people were marching in the streets insisting that Black Lives Matter. I need to trust that my contemplation and prayers, conversations and tears, are also part of the work that must be done.
The last time I saw my nineteen-year-old son, he grumbled at me in the middle of the public library: “Just stop yelling at me all the time. I’m sick of it. I’m finally living my life how I want, and you can’t control me!”
For the record, I wasn’t yelling at him. I had told him that I left an Easter card from his grandma at his apartment. Also, “living my life how I want” involves not taking his medication and staying up all night playing Xbox, which means he obviously can’t be expected to go to work in the mornings.
But he’s right, of course. I can’t control him. I’m doing a whole lot of psychological and spiritual work right now to let that sink in and to create the boundaries I need in our relationship so that encounters like this don’t send me into brooding anxiety for days on end.
Being a mother is not the most delightful part of my life. And I’m not the delightful mother I wish I were. So I approach the upcoming Mother’s Day celebration with deeply mixed feelings.
Mother’s Day is often celebrated in church, but many people will come to worship on May 8 with ambivalent—if not downright hostile—feelings about the day.
There are plenty of women who are not mothers—some by choice, some who desperately want children but, for different reasons, didn’t have them.
There are people whose mothers have died, and those whose mothers might as well be dead. There are those whose mothers abused them or stood by and let others abuse them. There are adopted kids (my oldest son and daughter among them) who wonder about their “other” mothers. There are women who have given their children up for adoption. Women who have had miscarriages. Women who have had abortions. Women who aren’t biologically female and so cannot ever hope to experience the very physical and feminine reality of pregnancy and childbirth.
Mother’s Day is riddled with landmines. I was relieved to get through our last worship planning session without any mention of the dreaded date. I thought I might get away with just ignoring mothers this year. But alas, someone emailed after the meeting and said, “Oh. We forgot about Mother’s Day. We should do something.”
We should do something. Fine. Here’s what I’m going to do: take a page from my more conservative Baptist upbringing. Not a page from how they celebrated Mother’s Day—with cheap carnations and sappy bookmarks and rhyming poems about a mother’s love being from heaven above. I’m going to take a page from how we Baptists used to celebrate Father’s Day—talking about God as the great and ultimate Father.
Celebrating earthly motherhood in worship is problematic on many levels. But lifting up the maternal qualities of God is, it seems to me, a valuable way to observe the holiday. After all, the earliest roots of Mother’s Day can be found in Greek and Roman celebrations honoring the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. And the modern manifestation of the holiday in the United States is based on women’s efforts toward peace, justice, and equal rights.
And of course, since it’s church, we’ll read the Bible.
The foundational Biblical image of God as creator is strikingly feminine. The writer of Deuteronomy chastises the people, saying: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (32:18). And in Isaiah God says she “will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (42:14).
The Biblical images of God as a nurturing mother provide a necessary corrective to contemporary religious rhetoric about judgment and punishment, getting even and building walls. In Isaiah God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (66:13). Hosea writes these words from God’s mouth: “I led them with cords of human kindness, / with ties of love. / To them I was like one who lifts / a little child to the cheek, / and I bent down to feed them” (11:4).
And another Biblical image is a necessary corrective to our tendency to think of mothers only as gentle nurturers: God says, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, / I will attack them and rip them open” (Hosea 13:8).
I love that some of these images are soft and comforting, while others are powerful and disturbing. Motherhood is as much about wailing in labor and viciously protecting our children as it is about kissing boo-boos and singing lullabies. In fact, some experiences of motherhood involve far more wailing than kissing.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we acknowledge the complicated identity of being a mother (or not) and the complex relationships that many people have with their mothers and other maternal figures.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we lift up the fullness of God and explore the rich and varied images for the Divine provided in the Bible and other religious texts. This broadened conversation matters not just because it allows us to understand God more fully, but also because it allows us to move beyond the strictly gendered ways we think about each other.
Many theologians will argue that God is neither male nor female. I prefer to consider God as female and male and non-gendered and multi-gendered. We could say that God is gender fluid, or gender queer: a fierce mother bear one moment and a generous father the next (Matthew 7:11); a father whispering secrets to children and a mother gasping and panting in childbirth (Matthew 11:25, Isaiah 42:14); an eagle spreading its wings to catch its young and a hen gathering her chicks to her warm body (Deuteronomy 32:11; Matthew 23:37).
Perhaps Mother’s Day can be a time to question rather than reinforce the gender binary and stereotypes so prevalent in our society. Rather than feeling shame around our own experiences with mothers and motherhood, it can be a day for us to acknowledge that none of us have perfect mothers; that none of us are or will be or would have been perfect mothers.
And if we must celebrate this secular holiday in the holy space of worship, perhaps it can be a time for us to recognize and celebrate the fullness of Divine identity; a time to praise the mothering God who gave us birth, to rest under the warmth of her wings, and to find power in her fierce love.
At a recent meeting of (mostly white) local clergy, we were asked whether or not our congregations would add their names to a “Black Lives Matter” banner.
“When I brought it up at church,” said another pastor, “one of our members pointed out that LGBTQ people still face a great deal of oppression in this country, too. She wanted to know where her banner was.”
And, of course, the common rejoinder to Black Lives Matter—not explicitly stated at that clergy meeting but certainly underlying many of the reasons given by churches who declined to have their names on the banner—“All lives matter.”
None of the pastors in the group are overtly racist. None of them said their churches were not signing on to the banner because they think black people are inferior or they want to go back to the days of Jim Crow. The churches represented by these pastors are not filled with neo-Nazis and KKK members.
So I’ve been contemplating my colleagues’ responses to this request to sign on to the BLM banner. I’ve been wondering how a movement described by Eboni Marshall Turman of Duke Divinity School as “the Jesus event of the 21st Century” has come under such suspicion from “progressive” white Christians.
There are plenty of reasons, I suppose—reasons connected to white power and privilege, to racial ignorance and fear. I won’t deny the myriad economic, sociological, and psychological dysfunctions at work in white critique of BLM. But as a pastor, I’m most interested in the theological roots of white suspicion, which I think is connected to a belief in what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the “myth of scarcity.”
In the story of the Exodus, argues Brueggemann, Pharaoh is convinced that there is not enough—not enough money, not enough power, not enough food—to go around. It is this fear of scarcity that causes him, with the administrative help of Joseph, to hoard food in the first place, and then to use the hoarded food to exploit the Israelite people during the famine. In order to access the food Pharaoh has stored up in his silos, the people give up their money, and then their land, and finally their freedom.
When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, they again face the specter of scarcity as they wander the desert. But the economic system established by God in the wilderness differs vastly from the market economy created by Pharaoh in Egypt. God does not ask for money or land or lives in exchange for food. The food—in the form of manna and quail—simply appears on the ground each morning and evening. The people are allowed to take the food freely. The only catch is that they cannot take more than they need. Any food they tried to hoard “bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:20).
Jesus reenacts this wilderness miracle when he feeds the hungry crowds on the mountainside. The disciples insist that five loaves and two fish are not enough to feed the thousands who have gathered, but Jesus says to pass around the food anyway, and in the end everyone has enough. Over and over again, the biblical story shows how the human belief in scarcity is confounded by the reality of Divine abundance.
The death-dealing effects of the myth of scarcity—in the stories of scripture and in our lived experiences—are starkly evident when we consider economic systems and other concrete realities. Overwhelming problems such as human poverty and environmental degradation are directly grounded in our fear that there is not enough stuff to go around—not enough money, not enough resources. So those of us who can hoard stuff for ourselves do—because you never know when famine will strike.
But it’s not just food and crude oil and money we fear are in short supply. The comments I have heard about the Black Lives Matter movement convince me that our fear of scarcity goes well beyond concrete things. We also fear that there is not really enough of intangible things—things that we desperately want but find difficult to grab and hoard. Things like respect, status, energy, attention, dignity…
In listening to well-meaning liberals question and criticize BLM, I keep bumping up against this idea that if we are specifically for one group of people, we must be against other groups of people. Because there is just not enough for-ness to go around. If we are for Black Lives Matter, we must be against the idea that all lives matter. If we are for dismantling racism, we must be against dismantling homophobia and patriarchy. If we are for victims of police brutality, we must be against the police.
These lies, I believe, are born out of the myth of scarcity—a myth to which we are all susceptible. The reality, of course, is that we can be specifically for one group of people without being against others. The struggle for the rights and dignity of black people in the United States is necessary for the movement toward the rights and dignity of all people. Saying “Black Lives Matter” is to name those who should be, but are not yet, included in our national belief that all lives really do matter.
The founders of the BLM movement—Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors—identify as queer black women. The BLM movement is a strong voice for LGBTQ justice. Their insistence that Black Lives Matter in no way suggests that queer lives don’t matter, that women’s lives don’t matter, that any other lives don’t matter. Demanding respect for the lives of people in a particular group does not diminish the respect afforded to people in a different group—or people (which is most of us) whose identities overlap multiple groups. There is enough respect—an abundance of respect—to go around.
It is the lie of scarcity that suggests that offering respect to one group diminishes the respect of another. It is the same lie of scarcity that says being pro-BLM means you must be anti-police. In reality, being anti-police brutality is being pro-police doing their jobs well. Holding abusive police officers accountable is supporting those police who work hard for more just communities. Affirming the worth of black people makes all communities more prosperous and safe, which will ultimately save the lives of police and community members alike.
The myth of scarcity is deeply engrained in our spirits and is at the root of much human sin, including the sin of racism—whether overt or covert. As an alternative to this myth of scarcity, Brueggemann suggests a “liturgy of abundance”—a realization and proclamation that this world contains enough for us all. Enough food and shelter and natural resources; enough respect and attention and dignity. This liturgy of abundance assures us that we don’t have to parcel out what and who we will be for and against; we can be for all good things and all people in this world.
It is hard to live out the liturgy of abundance in a culture obsessed with scarcity. But if we are going to believe in abundance, spring is the time to do it. When the birdsong drowns out the traffic noise, and a strong breeze brings a rain of pink and white petals, and yellow daffodil clumps pop up in even the sparsest yards.
If we are going to believe in abundance, Easter is the time to do it. When we celebrate the story of courage overcoming fear, of love overcoming hate, of life swallowing up death forever.
If we are going to believe in abundance, now is the time to do it. When we can add our voices to those proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, to those insisting that people valued least in society be granted the dignity they deserve, to those who understand that there is enough of everything good to go around.
 Turman, Eboni Marshall. “Seven Writers Assess the Movement: Black Lives Matter.” Christian Century. March 16, 2016.
 Brueggemann, Walter. “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity.” Christian Century. March 24-31, 1999, (Bruegemann explores this concept in many of his other writings as well.)
We gathered at the park on a warm, sunny day—a day that would have been lovely if not for the urn that contained the ashes of my neighbors’ baby. I stood by the urn and looked out at the people seated in folding chairs: the baby’s three agnostic/pagan parents, her staunch Baptist grandparents, friends and family of assorted religious and political leanings. All of them heartbroken.
The pagan priestess who had planned the service with me and agreed to give the sermon had canceled just a couple days before. There I stood, a baby’s ashes beside me, aching eyes staring up at me. There I stood, looking out at all of those people who were waiting for me, the pastor, to say SOMETHING—something that would make the unbearable lightness of those ashes at least a little bit bearable.
That was the first funeral I officiated. The first time I felt that funeral weight of love for heartbroken strangers who were looking to me for comfort. The first time I felt the heaviness of the funeral words crawling out of my mouth. The first time I dealt with the weighty anger because my words were not enough, because death was not fair, and this God I was supposed to serve had a lot of explaining to do.
This heavy love-in-grief has revisited me through the years: when I had to move our Easter sunrise service to the hospital bedside of a beloved church member; when I sat with a young man devastated by his porn addiction; when I talked with parents struggling with a child’s mental illness; when I heard that the diagnosis was ALS and, when the time comes, he doesn’t want a feeding tube.
It’s a pastor’s job to bear the weight. A friend’s job too, I suppose. And a parent’s, and a sibling’s, and a lover’s. I used to think my words should lighten the burden. It’s an easy mistake to make for a girl who fell in love with Emily Dickinson in elementary school and went on to major in creative writing. I believe in the power of language almost as much as I believe in the power of God. And if I could just find the right words, I thought, I could pry the weight off of the crushed hearts around me.
Turns out, though, that the words don’t work. More often than I would like, the words turn to dust in the ears of the grieving. My dusty words may or may not be beautiful—it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that the words born in love bear witness that I have been there, with someone, under the weight of their grief. What matters is that, with or without words, love calls me to be present in the pain with my whole self. Which is hard. And heavy.
I think of Job’s friends who sat with that destitute man for seven days and seven nights before they opened their mouths. Most of us can’t handle that much weight.
Love in grief, funeral love, is heavy. But wedding love . . . I know that marriage is an imperfect institution—that many marriages involve dissatisfaction and heartbreak and grief if not outright abuse and trauma—that the history and much of the present reality of marriage is patriarchal and heterosexist. I know. But still, wedding love, for me, is light. It is joyful and sacred and full of promise.
I have been privileged to officiate weddings for many people I love: my gorgeous graduate school officemate who escaped a nightmare marriage and found Mr. Dreamy Triathlete; young men and women from my church, who I baptized and preached to and prayed for; two women who contacted me to see if I would be willing to do their wedding because they wanted to be married by a Christian pastor and they were having a hard time finding one to officiate; two men who had been married already for years, but wanted to finally make it legal and wanted to do it in my town where one of their fathers, who had refused to come to the first wedding, was eager to be part of this one.
Yes, weddings, for me, are light love. But these last two hold the story of a heavier love. Because not everyone in my religious tradition sees the beauty of two women or men in love committing themselves to each other in holy matrimony. Some of my fellow pastors would refuse a request to officiate such a wedding. Some of them tried to get my pastoral credentials revoked because I said yes to such a request.
Still, I am called to love them: the ones who called and wrote to explain to me my faulty theology. The ones who voted for my ordination to be suspended. The ones who testified in front of an entire delegate body about why I am unfit to be a pastor.
As a Christian, I (try to) follow the teachings of Jesus who said, “Love your enemy.” (Other faiths echo this concept as well.) Even if I disagree with someone. Even if I deeply dislike someone. Even if someone is really and truly a supreme jackasses. I am called to love them.
That is heavy love. Heavy and awkward.
Loving people through grief is hard and heavy, but it is, at least, recognizable as love. The weight bears down in a familiar way, and you just bear it because you have to. You let the heaviness settle all over you, press your limbs, your gut, your heart, firmly down like a lead blanket.
But loving the enemies? Loving the jackasses? What does that even look like? How does it feel? It’s uneven and distorted. For me, the weight rests less in my heart and more in my mind. I have to try to figure out what that kind of love looks like.
It doesn’t look like refusing to marry same-sex couples for the sake of “church unity” and some people’s misguided biblical scruples. It doesn’t look like smiling and nodding when an angry pastor tells me that in his entire congregation of two hundred there are no gay people. It doesn’t look like leaving the convention hall so that people will be more comfortable when they talk about why I shouldn’t be a pastor.
But it also doesn’t look like snarky name calling, or refusing to listen, or leaving the table.
Like the funeral words, the words of this heavy enemy love also come slow. But not because they are painful and feel meaningless—because they are weighty with meaning. Because, when it comes to loving enemies, there is a fine line between being honest and being brutal, between being polite and being a coward. When it comes to loving enemies, the words do matter. A lot.
Like, for example, “jackass.” It is a fine word to communicate to you the struggles I feel in loving difficult people. But if I were writing or speaking to an actual jackass, I would need to find a more appropriate, more loving word.
Perhaps the heaviest love of all is love of God. The centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer service is the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” This flows into the v’havta: “Love the Lord your G-d with all of your heart, soul, and mind” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This teaching is so important to the Jewish people that when Jesus, a devout Jew, was asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:36-37).
The scriptures teach that loving God is a deep obligation for people of faith. And that is rather intimidating—to be expected to love the Creator of the universe—the Creator of love itself—in any sort of meaningful, worthwhile way.
How does one even begin, really, to love God?
Maybe that’s why Jesus, after revealing the most important commandment, goes on to say, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:38). So we circle back around. The weight of loving God comes from the obligations such love carries to also love other people and to love ourselves.
The love of God is, for me, the Love that compels the other loves of my life. The Love that nudges me to continue to pray for and speak (mostly) kindly of the woman who sent a nasty email about me to everyone in the church. The Love that sets me down right in the middles of heartbreaking grief. The Love that leads me to officiate gay weddings and engage in meaningful conversation with those who claim homosexuality is a sin. The Love that demands I consider what is good rather than what is polite, what is true rather than what is easy.
The obligations of love are heavy. Still, so many times I experience this weight as a gift, a grace that keeps me grounded and strong.