The body of Christ as spiritual fellowship

This is sermon part 3 of 3! In it I offer some thoughts on spiritual fellowship. (Here are the first two parts, on shelter and nurture.) There are also a few brief general reflections at the end. 

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I don’t know if the words “spiritual fellowship” are words that most of us say on a regular basis in everyday conversation. But maybe “spiritual fellowship” is really just a fancy church-y way of saying community. So let’s talk about community.

One of my favorite verses in the 1 Corinthians 12 passage is where it says that the parts of the body should have equal care, or equal concern, for each other (v. 25). Part of why I like this verse is that, in the Greek, it literally says something like “be equally anxious for one another.” Be equally anxious for one another. I find this intriguing. It’s not often that our scriptures tell us to be anxious.

Now, I’m all for reducing anxiety in our lives when possible. But there’s also something compelling to me about a community where everyone is that concerned for everyone else’s holistic wellbeing. It’s the kind of concern that keeps you up at night if you know someone in the community isn’t doing well. It’s the kind that keeps you praying. It’s the kind that keeps you thinking about what you can do—what your community can do—and that moves you to do those things.

It can be deeply comforting and deeply encouraging to know that other people are this genuinely troubled on our account when we’re struggling. To know we’re not alone. That’s spiritual fellowship. 

Sometimes some of us hesitate to trouble others. But it’s not always a bad thing to cause others to be troubled. It’s part of being real with each other and learning how to care for each other.

I think this is what the scripture passage is getting at when it says when one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (v. 26). Spiritual fellowship looks like suffering with those who suffer, rejoicing with those who rejoice. It looks like choosing to live into the reality that we are all interconnected, whether or not it might look like it. 

When one part of a human body hurts, the rest of the body—at least if it’s functioning well—doesn’t try to cover up the pain. It doesn’t ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. It doesn’t say, Oh, well, it’s just the ear that’s suffering, not the eye, so it really isn’t a big deal. Rather, the whole body says, Ow! Help! We hurt! 

We are all one body together. And so when violence is done to women’s bodies, violence is done to the whole body. When violence is done to Black and brown and indigenous bodies, violence is done to the whole body. When violence is done to queer and trans bodies, violence is done to the whole body. Our suffering is tied together. And our joy is tied together.

Spiritual fellowship looks like living in this reality. It looks like choosing to mourn with those who mourn, lament with those who lament, rejoice with those who rejoice, celebrate with those who are celebrating. God invites us to experience life fully—the joy and the sorrow, the excitement and the disappointment, the gratitude and contentment and anger and rage and all of it. To experience all the feels. And to do that together in community. 

There are unjust and evil things in this world that I don’t know how to make better. But I know it helps to not be alone. And I know that where we can make real change in things like culture and law and policy, we definitely can’t do that alone.

In our justice-oriented approach to life and faith at Lake B, we talk often about solidarity. We seek solidarity with those who are most vulnerable in our broader communities—in Burien and White Center and all the different places we live and work. 

I love that we want solidarity to extend beyond this church community and the people in this room (or who are watching online, or who otherwise consider Lake B their home). And I also think: solidarity starts here. We want it to extend beyond us, yes—but it starts here. We need solidarity among us, within this church community. We need solidarity with one another.

We all need shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship. And we’re all invited to offer these things. It isn’t something a special class of pastors or elders or especially outgoing people or especially naturally caring and saintly and wonderful people do for the rest of us. It’s something we’re all invited to do for one another. 

We’re all invited to create truly safe spaces of belonging. We’re all invited to nurture one another’s spiritual growth. And we’re all invited to receive these things from one another. We’re all invited to pursue spiritual fellowship together, to build community together, to get to know each other, to rejoice and mourn together. 

We need one another. Life is hard. This world is hard. Things are not getting easier. In the middle of a world full of violence and poverty and climate change and illness and inadequate healthcare systems and unjust laws and so many hard things—we need one another. We can work to change some of these things—and in the meanwhile, when things are still messed up and not working, we can choose to be a community where shelter, nurture, and fellowship happens anyway. 

Let’s keep choosing to be that kind of community. And may we keep drinking from God’s Spirit who breathes life into all of us as we do.

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Did you resonate with anything in this sermon? What did it make you think of? What do you love (or hate, or have other feelings) about the metaphor of the body? Feel free to comment or otherwise reach out – I’d love to hear.

The body of Christ as nurture

This is part 2 of a sermon split into 3 parts. (The first one is here if you missed it.) The scripture passage is 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, and the theme is “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the people of God.” This is the part reflecting on nurture:

I think nurture, like shelter, can also be kind of a weird word. For one thing, it can sound kind of stereotypically feminine. (And as such, it gets devalued, as anything associated with femininity often is.) But nurture is for everyone. It’s something we all need. And it’s something we can all offer to others.

When I think of nurture, I think of growth. Holistic, healthy growth. In our scripture passage there’s an image of all of us being given one Spirit to drink (v. 13). It’s an image of the Spirit of God breathing life into us, pouring living water into us, nurturing us, giving us the nourishment we need to grow.

The metaphor of the body makes it clear that we all grow together, in proportion with one another. This runs very counter to dominant US capitalist culture. It’s a non-competitive vision—which is totally radical in the midst of a society that tries to make us compete with one another, that tries to tell us to get ahead and make ourselves bigger (richer, more successful, more powerful, etc.) at the expense of others. 

But the metaphor of the body helps us see that, when we try to get ahead at others’ expense, all we’re really doing is growing one gigantic grotesque eye, or one ridiculously enormous ear (v. 17). That’s not the point. We are a body made up of interconnected, interdependent parts. And so we grow together, or not at all. In the body we want one another’s flourishing as much as we want our own.

Fortunately, at Lake B we are certainly not all one big weird-looking eyeball. We have many different parts here among us. So many different parts. We are extraverts and introverts, men and women and nonbinary folks, cis and trans folks, straight and queer folks, Black and brown and white folks, people who are financially well-off and people who are less financially well-off, older folks, younger folks, folks with all sorts of different passions and personalities and perspectives.

And this is good. I imagine God creating all of this, bringing us all together, and saying, this is good. It might not always be easy, but it is good. As our scripture passage says, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, exactly as God intended (v. 18). Every one of them. No exceptions. 

We live in a world where some of us get the message on a regular basis that we are dispensable, or that we don’t belong, or that we aren’t good enough, not as valuable as someone else. The metaphor of the body helps us understand that these things are not true. It helps us understand that we are all worthy of nurture. We all deserve to be part of communities and spaces and friendships and spiritual contexts that nurture hope, life, wellbeing, wholeness, joy, and love in our lives. There is no one who does not deserve that.

At the same time as some of us get the message that we’re dispensable, others of us regularly get the message that we’re better-than. That we’re more valuable than someone else. That we don’t need others. That the goal of life is rugged individualism where we achieve power and success alone. The metaphor of the body helps us understand that this too is not true. It helps us understand that everyone is worthy of nurture. Not just us, but those around us too. We are not more deserving of life and hope and joy and wellbeing than anyone else.

Of course it’s not quite as simple as dividing people into two camps. Most of us have many intersecting identities—some of which are marginalized, and others privileged. As a woman, for example, I live in a world and a society that considers me less valuable than men and that communicates this to me in all sorts of ways on a regular basis. At the same time, as a white person, I live in a world that considers me more valuable than people of color and that communicates this in all sorts of ways on a regular basis. Sometimes these ways are harder for me to see because I fall on the privileged side of things. But they are very much there. 

The metaphor of the body helps me understand that neither of these things are true. I do not belong any less or carry any less honor or dignity or value because I’m a woman. And I do not belong any more or carry any more honor or dignity or value because I’m white. In the body, everyone belongs, and everyone deserves nurture. 

As a church community, we’re here to grow. We’re here to nurture and be nurtured. To become more whole, more complete, and more fully ourselves—the most kind and loving and truth-telling and justice-seeking versions of us. This is a sacred thing—that we get to help one another along this path in this community.

In the body there is no room for gigantic oversized eyes. There is no room for nurture for some at the expense of others. We all experience nurture together, or none of us do. This is kind of terrifying and sobering, but I hope it’s also maybe exhilarating, maybe healing. There is a world of possibilities for the ways we could grow together—so much more than any of us could be on our own.

The body of Christ as shelter

Two Sundays ago I got to preach at my church, Lake B, for the first time in person. The video is here if you’re interested in watching rather than reading it.

I was struck by how different it is to preach in person as opposed to recording a sermon online. Among a supportive community, it’s a beautiful thing. I’m thankful for the people who laugh at the funny parts and say “yes” or “amen” or nod their heads when they resonate with something.

Anyhow, I thought I’d share a written form of the sermon here in three segments. The topic of the sermon is “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” I got to choose a scripture passage to go along with it, and I chose 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

Here’s the scripture passage in the NIV:

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

And here’s the first part of the sermon—some initial general thoughts and then some thoughts focusing on shelter:

I really love the picture 1 Corinthians 12 paints of a community of interconnected members who all bring different gifts to the table—like a human body made up of many unique, connected, important parts. I love this idea that everyone has something to offer. And our differences make us stronger together.

We’re a couple weeks into a sermon series about the “Six Great Ends” of the church. This is apparently a Presbyterian thing that I’d never heard of until a few weeks ago. “Great Ends” is just a way of saying, these are some of the things we want church to be about at its core. These are some of the goals we’re aiming for. 

Some of the “Ends” we’ve talked about already are worship and the proclamation of the Gospel. Our “End” for this morning is shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. In the next couple weeks we’ll talk about things like social righteousness and preservation of the truth.

I kind of feel like I got the nice “End” here. Shelter, nurture, spiritual fellowship—these are all nice, warm, fuzzy, friendly things. They’re community-oriented, in a very nice and pleasant-sounding way. Things like proclamation, social righteousness, preservation of the truth all sound a little more challenging. But shelter, nurture, fellowship—it all sounds so nice and cozy.

One might even wonder: Why are we talking about comfy-sounding things like shelter and nurture? Aren’t we all about boldly confronting the powers that be, embodying justice, protesting and lamenting and engaging with our world in transformational ways? Aren’t shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship perhaps a little bit insular? Are they a little inward-focused—focused on ourselves rather than the broader communities we’re a part of?

In one sense, I would say, yes, kind of. They are all about us. They’re about the community we have among ourselves—by which I mean the people in this room, and the people tuning in online (hi), and the people who couldn’t make it this morning—anyone who considers Lake B their church community. It’s all about us—our togetherness, the strength of our connections and relationships.

But I would suggest that looking inward in our community is not at all at odds with our more obviously outward-facing values like justice and collaboration and hospitality—our values that center us in our broader communities beyond the walls of church. I would suggest that the strength of our nurture and fellowship within this community is actually what empowers us to do the work of justice in our world. The shelter and nurture we experience here strengthens the work of our lives beyond here. 

And, to flip things around, I would also suggest that when we do work for justice in our world, we aren’t just aiming for justice for justice’s sake. We’re aiming for justice because it’s an essential step toward building a truly beloved community. So it’s all connected together. These things reinforce one another.

These are some of the things I think about more generally when I think about today’s “End” in light of the metaphor of the human body from 1 Corinthians 12. But I also want to get into the specifics of the three different parts of this “End.” Let’s start with shelter.

I feel like shelter can have a bit of a negative vibe sometimes. We might say, you’re so sheltered, to mean sheltered from reality. Or, even worse, shelter can be used in the sense of a cover or hiding place—as in, that organization (or that church, theology, etc.) provides shelter for abusers. This is, of course, not the kind of shelter we want to be.

And yet, shelter, in some sense of the word, is a good thing. It’s something we all need. We all need safe spaces. I think of Jesus imagining himself as a mother hen who longs to gather her people under her wing (Luke 13:34). We all need safe places to gather, under wings of love and peace and comfort. 

What does it mean to cultivate truly safe space, truly safe community? When we read in scripture about the metaphor in the body, we see that the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are actually indispensable (1 Cor 12:22-3). They are treated with honor. 

Truly safe spaces are spaces where all of us are treated with honor. They’re spaces where the most vulnerable ones among us especially are treated with honor—or, really, where they’re recognized for the honor they already carry in their being. The dignity they already embody as children of God is recognized by the whole community. 

We live in a world where some people are considered dispensable. Sometimes that’s women, when our rights of autonomy are revoked. Sometimes that’s people of color, in our society built on racism and racial violence. Sometimes that’s grocery store workers and healthcare workers and other people considered “essential workers” but also considered dispensable during a pandemic. 

But in the metaphor of the body, there are no dispensable people. A community of safety—a community of shelter—lives out this reality. There are no dispensable people.

Really, the metaphor of the body is a metaphor of belonging. In a body there is no part that does not belong. And there is no person here among us who does not belong. Belonging is for everybody. This is where a true sense of safety and shelter come from—from knowing deep within ourselves that we belong. 

We can offer this gift of belonging to one another. This is what Jesus did throughout his life. I think of Jesus giving away belonging like Oprah gives away cars. You get a car, you get a car, you get a car. Everywhere Jesus went and everyone he interacted with—I picture him saying, basically, you belong, you belong, you belong. 

I picture him saying, you don’t deserve to be plagued by that demon. You belong. You with the illness—you belong. You who are outcast—you belong. 

You belong, exactly as you are. Not just the nice parts you like to show on social media. Not just the nice parts you like to bring to church. You belong—the real you. 

True shelter doesn’t mean we won’t hurt one another, or that we’re all perfect and have no room to grow. Far from it. But it does mean we are responsible to one another. We are accountable to one another. Shelter is shelter not necessarily for everything we say and do but for the core of who we are. 

We can claim this belonging for ourselves. And we can offer this belonging to one another. It’s the gift of shelter, and we share it with one another in community.

That’s the first part! Come back next week for the second section—thoughts on the body of Christ and the idea of nurture.

Super chill book review part 2: Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin Kobes Du Mez)

Back with part 2 of a super chill book review for Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. (Part 1 is chillin over here.) A few more thoughts and quotes:

5. I appreciated Du Mez’s reflections on the blurring between the evangelical mainstream and (extra-conservative extra-patriarchal) margins.

This quote made sense to me, and helped me make sense of things:

“United in their concern about gender and authority, conservative evangelical men knit together an expanding network of institutions, organizations, and alliances that amplified their voices and enhanced their power. [Doug] Wilson invited [Mark] Driscoll to speak at his church; [John] Piper invited Wilson to address his pastor’s conference; leaders shared stages, blurbed each other’s books, spoke at each other’s conferences, and endorsed each other as men of God with a heart for gospel teaching. Within this network, differences—significant doctrinal disagreements, disagreements over the relative merits of slavery and the Civil War—could be smoothed over in the interest of promoting ‘watershed issues’ like complementarianism, the prohibition of homosexuality, the existence of hell, and substitutionary atonement. Most foundationally, they were united in a mutual commitment to patriarchal power.

“Through this expanding network, ‘respectable’ evangelical leaders and organizations gave cover to their ‘brothers in the gospel’ who were promoting more extreme expressions of patriarchy, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish margins from mainstream. Over time, a common commitment to patriarchal power began to define the boundaries of the evangelical movement itself, as those who ran afoul of these orthodoxies quickly discovered” (p. 204).

Back when I was a little more connected to the circles Du Mez writes about here, I remember being vaguely aware that people with some very different views on some very important things (like racial justice and whether spiritual gifts are still a thing) seemed to be friends with each other a little more than one might expect. (You know, the kind of friends who promote each other’s work and speak together at conferences and generally express agreement with one another’s theology; not the kind of friends who know they’re really different but decide to be friends anyway.)

Du Mez helped me connect the dots: the common thread was a shared commitment to patriarchy. That makes so much sense. (And is so gross.) Definitely something to chew on for anyone who’s been to conferences or heard sermons or read books by the likes of Wilson, Driscoll, or Piper—or others in the same sphere, like James Dobson, Doug Phillips, and John Eldredge (Du Mez names these other dudes elsewhere).

Incidentally, it also confirms that I have no regrets whatsoever about the time in my early twenties when I didn’t end up dating a guy I had a brief crush on who was super into Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. So there’s that.

6. It was fascinating to find myself (more or less) in these numbers:

“Support for the president [George W. Bush] dropped most precipitously among younger white evangelicals. In 2002, 87 percent of white evangelicals ages eighteen to twenty-nine approved of the president’s job performance; by August 2007, his approval rating among this group had dropped by 42 percentage points, with most of the decline (25 points) occurring since 2005. Younger evangelicals weren’t just unhappy with the president; since 2005, Republican Party affiliation among this demographic had dropped by 15 percentage points” (p. 232).

First, these numbers are bonkers. From 87 percent support to 45 percent support in five years—and from 70 percent support to 45 percent support in just two years? Yikes. 

I was 14 in 2002 and 19 in 2007, so I’m a little younger than the folks surveyed. But not too far off. And I definitely was happy that Bush was president in 2002 and unhappy that Bush was president in 2007. 

I appreciate Du Mez offering a broader context for these things. I tend to think of my journey away from Republican party affiliation as a very personal one. And it was that. But it was also taking place in the context of broader shifting currents in U.S. society as a whole and particularly among young white evangelicals. 

Similarly, there are these numbers:

“Seventy-four percent of white evangelicals voted for the McCain/Palin ticket. But 24 percent of white evangelicals—up 4 percent from 2004—broke ranks and voted for Obama. The Obama campaign had targeted moderate white evangelicals, the sort who had been voting Republican for twenty years but who wanted to expand the list of ‘moral values’ to include things like poverty, climate change, human rights, and the environment. Obama doubled his support among white evangelicals ages eighteen to twenty-nine compared to Kerry’s in 2004, and nearly doubled his support among those ages thirty to forty-four” (p. 237).

As someone who would have voted Republican if I were old enough to vote in 2004, and who then voted excitedly for Obama in 2008, I feel like I found myself in these numbers too. I was definitely one of those “moderate white evangelicals” who wanted our government to care about “poverty, climate change, human rights, and the environment.” I don’t know if I would have described it in exactly those words at that time, but as I look back, the description pretty much hits the nail on the head. I guess the Obama campaign targeted me and it worked? I think I’m okay with that.

7. Sometimes I think John Piper has a special talent of making my blood boil. (Maybe it’s a spiritual gift.) So, feel free to read this next quote if you want your blood to boil too, or feel free to skip it if that’s just not something you need in your life right now…

“Palin’s candidacy, however, raised the issue of gender. For evangelicals who believed in male headship, was it appropriate for a woman to be in such a position of power? If the alternative was Barack Obama, then the answer they gave was yes. Days before the 2008 election, John Piper wrote a blog post with the title, ‘Why a Woman Shouldn’t Run for Vice President, but Wise People May Still Vote for Her.’ Piper made clear that he still believed that ‘the Bible summons men to bear the burden of primary leadership, provision, and protection,’ and that ‘the Bible does not encourage us to think of nations as blessed when women hold the reins of national authority.’ But a woman could hold the highest office if her male opponent would do far more harm by ‘exalting a flawed pattern of womanhood’” (p. 236).

Seriously? Why a Woman Shouldn’t Run for Vice President, but Wise People May Still Vote for Her. First, the arrogance. Second, the logic: both utterly terrifying and exactly what one might expect. 

Basically, the thought process is this: we don’t want women to have any power—but better one woman in power if she helps keep women in general down, as opposed to a man in power who might try to empower women. Or, said differently, we don’t mind if a handful of particular women have power and influence—as long as that power and influence is used to uphold patriarchy. Charming. And relevant to all sorts of contexts, including the current Supreme Court. 

8. I feel like the news cycles have moved on already from the Southern Baptist Convention’s abuse issues, but sexual abuse in (all sorts of) churches is still a thing. (Would recommend Emily Joy Allison’s #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing and Ruth Everhart’s The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct as two excellent books on the subject.) I’ll leave you with some of Du Mez’s thoughts on it:

“The evangelical cult of masculinity links patriarchal power to masculine aggression and sexual desire; its counterpoint is a submissive femininity…The responsibility of married women in this arrangement is clear, but implications for women extend beyond the marriage relationship. Women outside of the bonds of marriage must avoid tempting men through immodesty, or simply by being available to them, or perceived as such. Within this framework, men assign themselves the role of protector, but the protection of women and girls is contingent on their presumed purity and proper submission to masculine authority. This puts female victims in impossible situations. Caught up in authoritarian settings where a premium is placed on obeying men, women and children find themselves in situations ripe for abuse of power. Yet victims are often held culpable for acts perpetrated against them; in many cases, female victims, even young girls, are accused of ‘seducing’ their abusers or inviting abuse by failing to exhibit proper femininity. While men (and women) invested in defending patriarchal authority frequently come to the defense of perpetrators, victims are often pressured to forgive abusers and avoid involving law enforcement. Immersed in these teachings about sex and power, evangelicals are often unable or unwilling to name abuse, to believe women, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to protect and empower survivors” (pp. 277-8).

I appreciate Du Mez making these connections explicit. That feels important to me. It reminds us what is at stake when churches insist on maintaining patriarchal theology. Not that all the other things that come with church-y patriarchy are remotely okay—but sexual abuse seems especially obviously not okay. 

The other implication here is that if churches and denominations are serious about addressing their abuse issues, they have to address the patriarchal theology that enables this abuse. I don’t really see many churches where patriarchy is deeply woven into theology and church culture being willing to seriously look at these connections or admit that they’re there. But it’s something to chew on.

There’s so much in this amazing book, and it might be a lot to process. If you’ve read or are reading it, please feel very free to reach out (comment, message, email, whatever you like)—I’d love to talk about some of this stuff together.

Lament Wall Prayer

At the beginning of Lent, a team of people from my church put up an amazing “Lament Wall” in the courtyard. People were invited to write down prayers and laments on pieces of paper and stick them in the cracks of the wall. Prayers written during church services were stuck in there, joined later by prayers written by the elementary schoolers involved in the church’s afterschool program.

There are so many prayers in there. It’s beautiful, and heavy.

I had the privilege of teaming up with Sue Kesler to write a “Prayers of the People” kind of prayer based on a lot of the prayers in the wall. I wanted to share with you what we came up with, because, while it’s based on the prayers of our particular community, most of the cries of our hearts are not unique to us. We are not alone.

Here’s the prayer; the words in bold are meant as a kind of response, read together by the congregation. Peace to you this Good Friday.

Prayers of the People (Lament Wall Prayer)

God, as we come together in this space, hear our prayers of lament. Thank you for holding and treasuring every prayer we’ve put in the lament wall and every prayer we hold in our hearts.

God, our wounds are real, both the physical ones and the ones that are harder to see.
We long for your healing, comforting touch.
We ask for your special nearness to those who have cancer.
We ask for your special nearness to those whose family or other loved ones have cancer. 
God, would your loving presence be so near to the kids among us whose parents are sick — so near that they can reach out and touch you. Wrap them with your love like a big bear hug.

God, you are our strength and provider. You are our healer. Show yourself to us.

God, for the emotional wounds we carry and often feel we need to hide.
That you would lead us into safe spaces where we can reveal them and be loved into wholeness —  a healing that isn’t rushed but is patient, however long it takes.
You know how we have been hurt. You know how we hurt, still.
For all those who are tired, discouraged, and afraid, hold us.
Breathe new life through your Spirit who lives in and among us.

God, you are near to the brokenhearted. Lift up, comfort, and empower us.

God, we pray for the relationships that are broken, difficult, or not what we hoped they might be.
For the families among us who are estranged and long for reconciliation.
For the relationships that come with tension  — we long for patience, understanding, and grace.
For relationships that are changing, we ask for peace — for comfort in the grief that comes with loss, and for joy in the new things.
God, just as you have reconciled all to yourself, help us in the healing of relationships, especially in our families.

God, you join together what was separate and restore what was broken. Make a way for us to live in peace with one another.

God, we ask for your presence with those who are in grief. 
We remember those we have lost.
Give us space, gentleness, and safety — to name our griefs, make room for them, and not run from them.
Unite in love the families and friends who experience loss together. 
Help us help one another in our grief.
In the rough mornings and in the evenings full of tears, be with us.
Give us songs of lament that we can sing and know that we are heard.
Make room for our sadness.

God, you mourn with those who mourn. There is no tear we’ve shed that you haven’t seen. You are big enough to hold our grief.

God, we lift up to you the material needs among us. 
For those who need work, and for those who long for greater purpose in work.
We pray for those starting new jobs.
For those who need financial breakthrough.
For those who need a car.
For those who need a place to live.
God, all money belongs to you. Please meet our financial needs, so that we are better able to meet the needs of others.
God, please supply the work of our hands that is needed by all.

God, you know our needs. Take care of us, and help us take care of one another.

God, even as we long for justice, we lament our complicity with injustice.
Please forgive us for ignoring your pleading voice, calling us not up and out of, but instead, down and into.
We lament our failure to acknowledge the stolen land we live on and the indigenous peoples around and among us.
We lament the ways we hoard instead of share.
The ways we compete rather than support.
The ways we exclude rather than include.
The ways we act like there isn’t enough to go around.
Our callousness to injustice and violence.

God, bring justice to all and for all. Make us aware of our complicity in injustice so that we can repent of it and move beyond it. Make us new.

God, we long for transformation.
For the grace to accept your blessings and rejoice in them.
To move beyond lament to repair and reconciliation.
To be filled with a kind of love beyond what we’ve been able to muster up on our own.
When we are humbled, help us receive it as a gift from you.
Move us from entitlement to gratitude and generosity.
Transform how we consume.
Help us recognize your voice and be able to clearly hear what you are saying to us.

God, you are always changing us. Help us be willing to be changed.

God, we lift up our hopes to you. 
Our hopes to travel.
Our hopes for a dream job.
For those who hope to be parents, please bless them with children. 
We hope for safety — for all of us and especially for the children and youth among us. 
Bless our young people as you ready them to be the new voice in your world.
We hope for peace.

God, you hold our hopes, the ones named here and the ones in our hearts. Help us hold tight to your hope and extend that hope to others.

God, we thank you.
For the ways community has shown up for us.
For the ways we’ve been welcomed.
For the ways you’ve helped us and helped those we love.
For the ways our gifts have blessed others.
For your promises that have come true in our lives.
For bringing us together into this community.
Your blessings are countless. Thank you.
May our gratefulness overflow.

God, every good gift comes from you. Thank you.

Holy God, we praise you and we praise your name. Help us to live lives that praise you.

Super chill book review: Red Lip Theology (Candice Marie Benbow)

Candice Marie Benbow’s new book Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough (Convergent 2022) strikes me as a combination of memoir, Black feminist manifesto, ode to Benbow’s mother, and work of theological deconstruction and reconstruction. Or something like that. I’m here for it. It’s a sort of coming-of-theology story, if you will. 

Benbow works with womanist (academic) theology, both what she loves about it and where she thinks it could go further. She’s looking to develop spiritual belief and practice that works for a new generation of Black women. And she has a ton of important stuff to say.

She isn’t looking to write something “prescriptive for all women,” because, as she puts it, “there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to life and the people who say, ‘yes, there is—it’s Jesus’ are being lazy and willfully obtuse” (p. xxx). Amen to that. At the same time, I’m grateful for the chance to be one of the “other women”—that is, non-Black women—who are “eavesdropping and looking for freedom, too” (p. xxx).

A few quotes and thoughts I especially liked:

1) “Even as I desired to navigate it, womanist theology didn’t feel like it was created for women like me: sisters who didn’t tuck in their ratchetness in favor of righteousness to occupy certain spaces or get in certain rooms. I needed something to speak to the totality of who I am” (p. xxv).

I like the part about not tucking in ratchetness in favor of righteousness. Not that I’m particularly ratchet. But for those who are, who the hell am I to tell them—who the hell is anyone to tell them—that they can’t bring the fullness of who they are to church, or theology, or anywhere else they like? 

I need the perspectives and gifts and brilliance of my ratchet-est of sisters. The church needs all these things, as does the world.

2) I appreciated Benbow going hard against Calvinist theology—or at least the sketchier, ickier parts of it. She effectively communicates, in many different ways throughout the book, that humans are inherently worthy, valuable, and good. That the biblical story doesn’t start with sin; it starts with good creation. That we are not slimy worthless worms (my words, not hers—I’ve heard others call this “worm theology”) before we invite Jesus into our lives, or whatever you want to call Christian conversion. 

For anyone for whom this sort of dominant evangelical theology isn’t really working—I’d recommend this book. Benbow does a great job of articulating what exactly isn’t working and suggesting what we might believe instead. She invites us into a more humanity-affirming, goodness-affirming, worth-affirming kind of spirituality.

“Where did Christians get the idea we are these wretched creatures who need so desperately to be thrown the bone of salvation for our lives to have any value or meaning?” Benbow asks. “The way I read it, the work of creation was an act of love. This omniscient, omnipresent, sustaining force took the time to make one of the most significant things it ever would. The Holy Maker called every single aspect of the design ‘good.’. . . yes, the biblical narrative is replete with examples of humanity fumbling the ball and God extending grace and mercy. We can look to our own lives and see where God has done the same thing. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning: good” (pp. 18-9).

God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning. I like that. Whatever else we are, we are also good. We are loved. 

I appreciate this message in general, and I also feel like it’s especially powerful and healing and necessary for those who constantly get the message in our society that they are not good, that they are not worth anything, that they are less than. People on the underside of oppressive power structures especially need to know that they are good, they are loved, their lives are sacred. From the beginning, and all the time.

3) I appreciate Benbow’s perspectives on God and gender, and more specifically, God’s gender. 

I got to teach a three-week class at my church back in January on “feminine God-talk”—that is, biblical, historical, and contemporary feminine imagery and metaphors for God, including the use of feminine pronouns. I think if I do the class again, I’ll include some of Benbow’s reflections.

For example, this:

“In my mind, God was a man, and men stuck together. God would look out for my dad and cosign his foolishness because that’s what men do. After all, God was only referred to as ‘He’ and ‘Him’ in church and in the scriptures. Add to that the trifling things I’d heard men—pastors included—had done and gotten away with. God was on the side of his homeboys.

To this day, I’ve seen men lie for each other, gaslight the hell out of women to make us second-guess ourselves and our own common sense—all to protect their boy. I saw it when the men would assist each other in the creation and perpetuation of false alibis. And it was up close and personal for me when I got my heart broken and men I deeply respected said, ‘Well . . . maybe you misconstrued some things’” (p. 30).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about God’s perceived masculinity in these terms—that speaking of God as if God is male makes God seem like one of the boys. But that totally makes sense to me. 

It’s not just an issue of, say, whether women and nonbinary folks can see ourselves as being made in God’s image fully—fully human. It’s also a question of: Whom does God side with? Whom does God stick up for? Whom does God betray? Does God participate in male church leaders’ gaslighting? Does God lie to cover up for men?

It’s important for people and communities to know that God is not one of the boys. God does not lie to women or gaslight them. God does not protect abusive men from the consequences of their actions. God does not hide or cover for them. 

I appreciate how Benbow connects the dots here. The ways we gender God are deeply tied to the ways gendered power dynamics play out in religious spaces.

4) More on (particularly masculine) gendered language for God:

“God stood before language or identity and is not defined by them. God is compassionate and empathetic enough to make room for us to come to know God as we need to come to know God. While I think it gave us an initial point of reference, the push to understand God through gendered language does not come from the Divine. It comes from our need to control, to lay claim, to create proximity to those whose authority we believe shouldn’t be questioned. But domination is not God’s will for us” (p. 39).

This strikes me as a helpful addition to the stuff I was thinking and writing about God and “they/them” pronouns a couple months ago. God can make Godself known through various pronouns—for those in the Christian tradition, often masculine ones—but that doesn’t mean that those pronouns limit God or encapsulate the entirety of who God is. 

We don’t need to try to control the language people use to speak about God. We can embrace the beauty of different ways of speaking about God, whether or not we understand all of them. 

5) Back to Calvinism and such:

“I don’t need a God who knows what I will do before I do it. I am not a robot. I was created with emotions and feelings that can shift in the moment. Plus, I don’t think we realize how much our thoughts of predestination and God’s omniscience take us off the hook. They make God responsible for our decisions so we don’t have to accept any responsibility . . . And because God trusts me with free will, it comes with great responsibility. I owe it to God and myself to live a life of authenticity. That requires I make decisions true to the core of who I am and that honor me” (pp. 57-8).

I don’t have much to add to that except an amen. Just wanted to share.

6) One small part of the awesomeness of Benbow’s mother, who plays a major role in this book:

“I had a mother who believed in my gifts and talents, believed they were called to shake things up, and believed I could be kind while doing it. She didn’t believe in calling someone out. Mama favored the notion of ‘bringing someone to’ something. By being direct, clear, kind, and compassionate, she believed you could provoke someone’s awareness and change their hearts” (pp. 103-4).

Something to aspire to, I think. Direct, clear, kind, and compassionate. Provoking awareness. Not necessarily being nice or playing into whatever notions of respectability people might have, but being kind and clear. 

7) One last quote:

“There is power in saying no. Women don’t say it enough and Black women say it even less. Saying yes to everything becomes our ‘reasonable service.’ American culture teaches men to say no almost without thinking, without a care about who it may harm or hurt. Women consider entirely too many people’s feelings to the point of self-sacrifice and self-sabotage. ‘No’ is a holy word. Our agency is sacred. God honors our agency through free will. We must honor it ourselves. When we say no, we are affirming that our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere . . . ‘No’ is a complete sentence and offers no explanation. Because we care about the people we say no to, we choose to explain ourselves. But it’s okay to say no and leave it there” (p. 168).

As someone who finds it awkward and a little stressful sometimes to say no—in more than one recent instance I’ve found myself muttering “errmm…mayybe…” when I wanted to say no but didn’t want to offend—I need all of this. ‘No’ is a holy word. Amen. Our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere

If someone is offended by us exercising our agency to say no, the problem is generally with the person who is offended—with their own unreasonable expectations or entitlement, not with the person who says no. I want people to feel very free to say no when I ask them for something; why wouldn’t I offer them the same authenticity I want to receive?

I also like the idea that we can choose to explain our “no” because we care about people, but we don’t have to. It’s okay to say no and leave it there. Saying yes, no, or maybe is the free choice of the person who is asked something — and so is whether or not to give an explanation.

None of this is one bit at odds with Christian faith. As Benbow writes, it’s God honoring our agency.

Hope you enjoyed these thoughts and quotes! Lots of good stuff in this book. Holler if you read it!

Historical theologians and their sexism

This is from a few days ago now, but I wanted to let y’all know that I had the chance to contribute to Feminism and Religion again! The piece is called On the Baby and the Bathwater, and it’s a brief reflection on historical theologians, sexism, and my seminary experience.

There were lots of ways seminary was unnerving for me as a woman – to the point of sometimes feeling like this institution was not built for me and perhaps this religion was not built for me either. On the Baby and the Bathwater looks a little bit at one of these ways.

Feminism and Religion, by the way, is a pretty awesome website that I hadn’t heard of until relatively recently – feel free to wander around and check out some of their other posts as well. People from all sorts of different religious or spiritual traditions contribute to it, so you probably won’t agree with or relate to everything – but it’s been cool to be a part of such a rich, diverse, multi-faith place where people exchange ideas and experiences in a spirit of collaboration and peace.

I really liked yesterday’s post, for example: Calling All Biblical Wise Women. I join its writer, Rabbi Jill Hammer (PhD), in longing to see wise, thoughtful, justice-minded women rise up and bring peace in this world. (And I hope in my own small way to be one of these women.)

The Polish women leaving strollers at the border with Ukraine come to mind as one example of ordinary wise women looking to bring peace and healing in our world. What an image – and what a small, amazing thing for ordinary women to do.

That’s all I’ve got! Glad to get to contribute for a second time to a cool project (the first contribution was Women’s Speaking Justified: Reflections on Fell, Feminism, and History back in January), so check it out if you get a chance!

English is limited, God is not: Reflections on “they/them” pronouns for God

I was interested to see Chloe Specht’s article “Actually, ‘They’ is a Beautiful Pronoun for God” published in Sojourners on the same day that I finished teaching a three-week class on “feminine God-talk” at my church. In this class, in the course of talking about feminine imagery, metaphors, pronouns, and other ways of thinking about God, we also touched on the possibilities of “they/them” as pronouns for God. 

Specht does a great job of reflecting on the possibilities for God as “they.” I’d recommend her article, and I also have a few thoughts to add.

Specht mentions that “some have recently argued” that “‘He’ and ‘him’ are the only acceptable pronouns for God”—for example, in this bummer of a Christianity Today article. I agree with Specht that the fact that we get mostly masculine pronouns for God in most English Bible translations is “insufficient evidence for such a definitive conclusion.”

I’d also take this a step further to say that, really, any time we start talking about the “only acceptable” anything for God, I think we’re on the wrong track. I’m not against using masculine pronouns to refer to God. I am against the dogmatically exclusive use of masculine pronouns. I’m against the general claim that God is only what we already understand God to be, and not something else also. 

Do we really know what God does and doesn’t consider acceptable when it comes to God’s identity? Often, when we think we do know these things—and especially when we’re totally sure of them—we’re really just putting God in a box. We’re acting like we know everything about God—like God can never surprise us, like God can never do anything unexpected or turn out to be anyone unexpected.

To me, that sounds like a sure sign that we’re worshiping an idol, not the actual God who created us. The “idol” language might sound harsh. But isn’t that what we’re doing when we define God’s only acceptable pronouns, or God’s only acceptable anything? We’re creating boundaries for God rather than letting God be God in all the surprising forms this may take.

I know my vision of God has expanded dramatically over time. God has blown through a lot of the boxes I used to put God in. I’m sure, or at least I hope, that God will continue to do so. And this is a good thing. 

Jesus was always expanding people’s categories of who God is, whom God loves, whom God centers, what God will and will not do. Jesus was always doing unexpected things that lifted up the marginalized, promoted justice, and drove religious people bonkers because of all the things they thought they knew. Why would God be any different today?

I also appreciate Specht’s note about ruach, a feminine word in Hebrew that’s used in the Bible to refer to God’s Spirit. I would also add that the Greek word used for God’s Spirit in the New Testament is πνευμα, which is neuter. To the extent that grammatical gender has something to do with actual gender—which I don’t think is always a good assumption, but it seems to come up a lot in conversations about the Bible and pronouns and God and such, so let’s talk about it—God’s Spirit is a “she” in Hebrew, and God’s Spirit is a sort of an “it” in Greek. But a very personal kind of “it.” One might say, perhaps, a singular “they.”

It feels important to talk about what’s at stake here. We can argue about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about God and gender, and that’s part of the equation. But the fact that these debates are still happening implies that this is an area where biblical interpretation could go in a number of different directions. This invites us into deeper thought, beyond the assumptions we might make or the doctrines we have been taught. 

When what the Bible says and what to make of it are ambiguous, we are more clearly able to see that the way we read the Bible is informed by all sorts of things outside the Bible itself. We come to scripture bringing all of who we are. We bring our family backgrounds, our theological backgrounds, our cultures and ethnicities and gender identities and personalities and languages and the norms of our faith communities. And we have choices. 

Ultimately, we bring our people with us. And if these people include non-male people—that is, women and non-binary people—which I very much hope they do, we can choose to make room for all of these people. We can choose to read scripture in ways that help people of all gender identities see themselves in it. We can choose to read scripture in ways that honor all people, that help all people know they’re valuable and loved. 

Incorporating “they/them” pronouns into our language about God may help. I can attest that, as a woman, hearing “she/her” pronouns for God helps me feel seen and valued. I don’t need this all the time. I’m very happy with a balanced mix of “he,” “she,” “they,” and whatever other beautiful ways people come up with to speak of God. But when God comes across through people’s language as solely masculine, I feel othered. I feel like I’m considered less of an image bearer. 

I want all people to know—to really, deeply know—that they are created in God’s image. And I love that “they/them” pronouns for God just might help non-binary people know that—and help whole communities better embrace the gender diversity in their midst.

Ultimately, any and all human language for God—especially when we limit ourselves to just one language, as we do when we talk about what is and isn’t possible in English—falls short. It’s totally inadequate in the face of our triune Creator, whom we see only in part and know only in part (1 Cor 13:9-12). We are like Ezekiel trying to describe his vision of angels, and the best he can do is talk about wheels and eyes, so many eyes (e.g. Ezekiel 1:1-21). 

No English pronoun does justice to all of who God is. Why limit ourselves to just one? If “she” pronouns or “they” pronouns or other pronouns in other languages help us express something about the different aspects of who God is, why not use them?

Change can be difficult. But it can also be good. It can also be necessary. The Christian tradition has always needed to continually reform itself. After all, every generation gets some things wrong, and every generation has things that seem to work for them but then make zero sense to the generation who comes after them. I don’t think God feels threatened by these changes. 

I want to worship a God who resists all the boxes I try to put God in. I want to worship a God who is always centering people on the margins, always moving—and moving us—toward more expansive visions of justice and true inclusion. I want to worship a God who is bigger than anything I could imagine, anything I could place boundaries around.

If expanding our sense of what God’s pronouns might be helps us move beyond the boxes and toward this unbounded God, I’m all for it.

Reflections on a four hundred year old essay

I wrote down some thoughts about how my mind was blown when I read an essay called “Women’s Speaking Justified,” written by Margaret Fell in 1666. Feminism & Religion posted my piece on their website, which is exciting – glad to be included in their work.

Check out the full article here if you’re interested! Spoiler: the kinds of debates that go on in many churches today around women preaching and such have been happening for a lot longer than one might think. Or at least a lot longer than I had imagined.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – here, or on the Feminism & Religion post, or anywhere else you like!

A prayer for 2022

I wrote this new year prayer for my church community and thought I’d share it with you all as well. (Hopefully six days in isn’t too late to still feel like it’s a very very new year.)

I also have two links to offer. The first is a piece on Trumpism and some of Jesus’ words in the book of Revelation that I wrote and shared a year ago on the day of the insurrection. I offer it as one way to reflect on that day now that a year has passed.

The second is a piece Christians for Social Action posted on their website, which is super exciting, because they’re great. It’s an adapted (mostly much shortened…like, from >3k words to <900 words) version of a sermon I preached a while back on Elizabeth and Mary as marginalized women who speak bold prophetic words. Here’s the link, hope you enjoy!

Wishing you a sense of God’s care and presence in 2022.

God,
You are God of open doors and new beginnings,
and you are our comfort in the face of closed doors and endings.
You have been with us in the joys of 2021, and in the sorrows.
There have been so many of both.

Our hearts have been full to bursting with wonder and delight.
Our hearts have been scarred, broken, spilling out tears of loss, pain, and sadness.
Our hearts have been numb, when everything is too much.

This year has been a rollercoaster for some of us and a deep sea of grief for others.
Hold us all together in beloved community through it all.
Give us kind, caring people to process the year with us—to hold it, to hold us.
Give us courage to face the past honestly, and give us friends to face it with.
May we be those who unbind one another’s graveclothes. 

God, at times your gospel of love and justice has burned brightly, fully alive among us.
Other times it has felt dim and distant. 
You love us through it all, and you teach us how to love one another.

God, community is hard. 
You are with us in the tension. 
You are with us in the misunderstandings, the hurt and apologies and forgiving and transforming and healing. 

God, you have removed many scales from our eyes. 
And you just keep doing it. 
Sometimes the journey is exhausting, but it is also good. 
Would you give us strength, give us rest, give us gentleness—with ourselves and with others.

God, thank you for the community partnerships that have been forming and flourishing. 
We ask for continued favor and guidance. 
For relationships that are mutual and lifegiving and breathe shalom in our community. 

God, our needs are many. 
Would you take care of us, and help us take care of one another.
Would you help us welcome the newcomers among us, warmly.
Would the children and youth among us know they have a home and will always be loved.
Would the older ones among us know they have so much to offer and are not forgotten. 
God, help us see the gifts you’ve given us and offer these gifts freely. 

As our thoughts turn toward resolutions and hopes and dreams, we look—to you and to one another—for wisdom, guidance, solidarity, partnership. 
Give us vision to look forward with creativity and integrity. 
Give us energy to keep moving into your gospel fully alive.
Give us grace when we have no energy. 

God, bring us closer together this year—closer to you, closer to our communities. 
Closer to people different from us, uncomfortable as it may be. 
Closer to our true selves, in bold authenticity. 
Closer to justice, to equity, to beloved community. 

God, we look toward a new year with hope, cynicism, love, fear, excitement, anxiety, uncertainty, anticipation. 
Thank you for being with us in all these things.
Thank you for giving us yourself and one another.
Amen.