Love in the Time of COVID | Part 3: Others

What is the pandemic teaching us about love? This is the third in a series answering this question.  See Part 1  and Part 2 here.

The pandemic is teaching us that the love of others is vital; and it is complicated.

Let’s start with the bad news first: COVID-19 is teaching us that the love of others isn’t as easy as it seems.

During an interview aired this week in the Festival of Homiletics, Duke Divinity professor, theologian, and sermon guru Will Willimon firmly stated, “I’m telling my students: ‘There’s one sentence you should not utter in a sermon these days. I don’t say it, no preacher should say it: ‘We’re all in this together.’ Don’t say it; it’s not true.’“*

His reasoning? This pandemic is affecting us all differently, and those with greater privilege are not forced to face it in the same way as those who society marginalizes.

First and foremost, white culture swings heavily toward individualism and personal security.  When white folks say, “We’re all in this together,” we often mean it in the sense of, “…only after I’ve taken care of my own, and as long as I don’t have to sacrifice too much.”  In this way of thinking, to be together is possible when it’s convenient, advantageous, or at a minimum, a neutral-sum game.

Confession: I said something very similar to “We’re all in this together,” if not those exact words, to Madison Mennonite a week or two after we first started meeting virtually for worship.  My intent was good, of course, but Willimon is right that such platitudes are not grounded in reality and render majority-white congregations (and their white leaders) blind to the pandemic’s varying effects.

What I meant to do when I said, “We’re all in this together,” was to inspire us all to live into an attitude of mutual aid.  To think of others as equals. To consider how our actions affect others. But, knowing that even I struggle to practice what I preach, I wonder: is it possible to swim against the swollen, relentless river of white, patriarchal imperialism? Is it possible for us to work for a society where we are “all in this together”?

Which brings us to the good news: There are others in the water with us, struggling against the current, resisting the undertow.  We just need to look up and out to see that we’re not alone.

Last fall, I borrowed The Book of Joy audiobook from our local library and listened to it as I transitioned from one place of ministry to another.  The Book of Joy details a delightful and theologically-provoking conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  As the two religious leaders reflected on suffering and what it means in human life, one shared their belief that any suffering we’re experiencing begins to heal when we enter into the suffering of others.  In other words, if we remain focused only on our suffering, our pain, and our turmoil, we will find it difficult to ever heal. It’s like continuously picking at or fussing over a flesh wound.  And, while we are absorbed with our own hurt, we will find it difficult to sojourn compassionately with others.

This teaching is helpful at the individual level as well as the communal level.  As we look up and out, we see that we’re swimming upstream with others, and we can band together in solidarity.  But we shouldn’t stop there.  Sticking with the aquamarine metaphor, our “schools” also need to look up and out and see that there are many, many other “schools” banding together, resisting the impulse to defend only our interests (lest we flounder…).

In the church, we can do this by linking with other faith communities – informally and formally – expanding our networks of relationships and resources and ultimately, compassion.  In an attempt to encourage my church to do just this, a few weeks ago in our virtual worship, I invited congregants (and friends on social media) to name faith communities they wanted us to pray for. The intent was to look up and out, to see that we are not alone in our suffering.  That we are not the only ones who are impacted by COVID-19.  That our decisions and actions cause ripples beyond us and impact everyone else in the water.**

COVID-19 is teaching us that loving others takes proactive courage. It is teaching us that we cannot lie behind the half-truth that “we’re all in this together,” when we’re unwilling to sacrifice for our siblings in our neighborhoods and around the world.  And it’s teaching us that there are others with us in the deluge, fighting to swim against the tide of individualism and self-security, if we just look up and out.  Look up and look out.

*Paraphrased, from memory.

**We prayed for 40+ faith communities around the world.  Here’s what we prayed:
Uniting Spirit, we give you thanks
            for the living, breathing, beautiful web
            of churches and faith communities around the world. 
We pray for them in this time of pandemic,
           when they and their members may feel like exiles,
           passing through strange and hostile lands.
We hold in the Light of Love these churches:
            (churches named)
For each community named tonight, we pray for hope, creativity, and peace.  May they and we be reminded that none of us is alone. Equip and empower us to encourage one another, to empathize with one another, and to learn from one another.
We pray in the name of the One who makes us one. Amen.

Love in the Time of Covid | Part 2: Gold

What is the pandemic teaching us about love? This is the second in a series answering this question.  See Part 1 here.

COVID-19 is teaching us that our cultural gold standard for love is measured in … gold.  That is the underlying message of those demanding the economy be reopened, at any cost.

Sometimes it helps to draw in popular images to demonstrate a point.  Here goes such an attempt.

There’s a scene partway through The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies where, having reclaimed their home and riches under the Lonely Mountain, the leader of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, is settling into his role as King Under the Mountain.  There is vast wealth in his keep, and he is soon overcome with “dragon sickness”– a sort of gold poisoning of the mind, changing him into a caricature of individualistic greed.

Outside his doors, several armies threaten to battle one another – some because they want the riches owed them within the mountain; some because they are bent on total annihilation of the Other (and the riches are a nice spoil.)

Thorin, trapped in his poisoned mind, resists joining the battle–which is the valiant thing, here–and forbids his company to unite with their kin outside the mountain.  All he can think about is his gold and protecting his gold.

One of his company, the dwarf Dwalin, comes to speak to him, trying to persuade him to be the courageous leader they need him to be. Thorin has none of it. The gold is of more importance: “There are halls beneath halls in this mountain.  Places we can fortify…We must move the gold further underground, for safety.”

Dwalin, incredulous, responds, “Dale is surrounded. They’re being slaughtered, Thorin.”

Sneering, Thorin replies, “Many die in war. Life is cheap. But a treasure such as this cannot be counted in lives lost.  It is worth all the blood we can spend.

The parallels between this exchange and our present commentary on the worth of life are unmistakable.  Present-day leaders, channeling their inner, greed-sickened Thorin, are figuratively saying, “Many die in pandemics. Life is cheap.  But reopening the economy cannot be counted in lives lost. It is worth all the blood we can spend.” 

In other words, our economy is hungry for lives and must be sated. The lives of “essential” workers and persons of color are plentiful and expendable.  They are the first to be sold on the COVID-19 auction block, enslaved and sentenced to a meaningless death for the sake of amassing wealth for a few. The commitment to protecting personal wealth, at the expense of all else and everyone else, is “worth” whatever it takes.

Have you noticed? The ones who want the status quo back are those who benefitted most from the way things were.* The ones who prefer to let others fight the battles, while they slink further into their cavernous mountains of gold, waiting for danger to pass.  The ones who command the labor in our modern day Plantation Complex.**

We live in a culture where the love of money trumps the love of life. The pandemic is teaching us about the corrupting love of gold. 

When it comes to the economy, we know many are itching (or violently scratching) to get back to work. 

In my line of work, I can imagine some churches, who rely heavily on the literal passing of the offering plate, are similarly itching to open up their doors, in part to be able to pay mortgages and salaries again.  In both the sacred and secular economies, the overarching question is, “But at what cost?”

In this post-Easter season, the Revised Common Lectionary includes a reading each week from the book of Acts.  The early church, too, had to contend with a similar question, “What is the financial cost of faithfulness?”  There are some rather “striking” stories of gold poisoning, if you will, where the love of money leads to one’s demise. There are also incredible stories of redistributed wealth and economic equality amongst members—where a material cost to the individual (i.e. their money) is transformed into spiritual wealth for the community. (One commentator called this the “golden age” of the church.) 

The financial cost of faithfulness need not result in ridding oneself of all material wealth for the sake of avoiding gold-poisoning, though that could be argued.  Money, at least in the early church, was used as a means of transforming society. How it was used, and the core values that shape its use, was what mattered more. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages his followers to reconsider the purpose of “treasure.” Is it used to show off, having excess when others are starving? Is it used to push others into poverty?  Such uses of wealth are counter to the good news, for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If your core treasures are based on Love, then drawing lines about money (e.g. “How much is too much?”) will never become a question.

In this COVID-19 time, and really, in all times of unchecked consumerism, the love of gold demands the cheapening of life.  And we must all answer, “At what cost to our souls?”

*To be fair, there are also those who are pushing for the reopening of the economy not because they will personally, materially benefit as much as those in power, but because they fear the loss of privileged identity if patriarchy and white supremacy do not maintain a firm grasp on the economy. These folks, who are far more numerous than the powerful few, are beholden to the gold-sickness even though they will likely never share in the treasure; they are the dwarven miners working for the King.

**The “Atlantic Plantation Complex” is a term I first heard used by Christy Clark-Pujara in Justified Anger’s African-American History Course, 2/3/2020.  It’s meant to encapsulate the intricate, widespread, and insidious nature of plantations – an “unprecedented international economic system of labor management, capital and investment.”

Check back in next week for Love in the Time of COVID, Part 3: Others.

Love in the time of COVID | Part 1: Liminal Spaces

What is the pandemic teaching us about love? This is the first of a series answering this question.

Liminal spaces shape how we love. 

A liminal space can be defined in many ways. I tend to think of these thin moments as spaces where time shifts, often feeling slower and somehow more potent (if time can have potency.) A previous pace or cadence changes suddenly and dramatically; we cannot keep rhythm the way we had before. Routines are thrown off. Our sense of direction spins askew.  Our bodies become more sensitive to light, wind, and sound – to the beauty and pain of the world around us. We feel deeply our vulnerability. 

Often, we experience liminal seasons on a personal level.  We can see our lives changing dramatically as we navigate transitions of every sort.

This pandemic, though, has thrown us all—the world wide web of humanity—into a liminal season together, and, for once, we can’t ignore it.*

While there’s no instant, obvious connection between liminal spaces and love – i.e. one can live in a liminal time and not think about love—when we look at love through a liminal lens, at least one thing appears:

In thin spaces, what feels urgent changes.

When face-to-face with the reality that our existence, or the existence of another, is really quite fragile, new impulses emerge.  Now, it’s possible that harmful impulses emerge, like during the Bubonic Plague in Europe, when some took the opportunity to raid homes and pillage the stores of those recently deceased. 

But let’s imagine that another, less individualistic or protectionist way is possible.  Let’s imagine that in the face of fear, humans willingly lean toward communal thriving and life-giving actions. In the time of COVID-19, the impulse we are called to nurture is expressing the most critical, heartfelt affirmations with an urgency and authenticity that we too often brush aside in “normal” times. What is urgent is to share our love and appreciation while we still can.

Here’s where I’m coming from:  As followers of Christ, I believe we are called to live in a relatively permanent state of liminality—the already, and the not yet.  We must strive to move along the edge, vulnerable and open to transformation and suffering.  We must come to terms with our need for others in order to thrive.

So, I suggest that in this COVID time, Love is calling us to stay—to remain in the thin space. It is here where we feel the impulse to reach out, to practice gratitude, and to practice love…not just while we have time, but always. 

* Global liminal seasons probably happen more frequently than we think, though some of us (in the Global North, for example) are typically able to maneuver out of the discomfort more readily…I am speaking out of the North American context as a white woman.  A child of privilege and power. I have avoided many global liminal seasons.

Image: Linville Creek, 2019, Valerie Showalter

Check back in next week for Love in the Time of COVID, Part 2: Gold.

Becoming Indigenous: Earth Day 2020

Though I am a professed ecofeminist, I’ll admit I missed most of the reminders that Earth Day was coming up . . . There are so many other good things and hard things in our world right now, and they are all valiantly attempting to regain our attention by piercing through the covid-haze. 

Yet what I haven’t missed are the clear reminders of how much human beings need one another in these days of social distancing.  Articles, posts, and the plethora of friend-and-family Zoom calls are encouraging connections, antidotes to the strain on our mental and spiritual health. Now, on Earth Day, I wonder: can humans extend this awareness to how much we need the Earth? 

Over the last month or two, I’ve been savoring Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plantsby Robin Wall Kimmerer. The book reads like a devotional, each chapter offering enough profound thought for a few days. And Kimmerer invites the reader, sometimes bluntly and sometimes gently, to root deeply in the land, to see our relationship with the land as one of reciprocity, and to see the land’s necessary role in our communal healing and well-being.

My partner, dog, and I moved partway across the country six months ago for me to begin ministering at Madison Mennonite. I was just getting into my groove and starting to send down roots when COVID-19 hit.  As I read Braiding Sweetgrass, I have felt keenly just how shallow my roots here are, which makes sense – we’ve just been transplanted into Wisconsin soil.  And while I feel solid connections with the humans of my church and neighborhood, I’m still searching on this Earth Day for a connection with the land.

Kimmerer notes that white Americans have a sort of “pathology of homelessness.”  We lack a sense of being rooted here (in the U.S.) and to the land, as if we have some subconscious nostalgia for the “old world.”  Like our forebears, we live as though we have “one foot on the shore, one foot on the boat” – neither here nor there, forever restless, discontented, and with insatiable needs that come with our roots being shallow. She writes, “For the sake of the people and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying?”*

Diana Butler Bass, in Grounded: Finding God in the World, notes that she believes that some of our restlessness and rootless-ness comes from our deficiency of knowing the stories of our ancestors. Our realities are bound only to that which we know and have experienced ourselves; white folks live with little thought of our history—the way it has formed (and malformed) us—and even less thought of a future beyond us.  We’ve become, as Bass writes, “nomads in time,” untethered from a bigger purpose or identity.**

These deficiencies and pathologies impact both our spiritual rootedness and our relationship with the land and other living things.  This isn’t breaking news; we’ve long known of humanity’s betrayal—its violations—of the land’s trust and love. The stories fill our sacred texts and our history books. 

Still, the earth gives and gives and gives, like a mother.  Humans have chosen one day, Earth Day, to remember, to say thanks, to offer some ceremonial nod as a show of reciprocity. It’s hard to believe this is sufficient for truly and deeply honoring the source of all life – the Earth, which is also the Body of Christ.***

Kimmerer would suggest that the invitation of the land (and I would add, the invitation of the Body of Christ) is to “become indigenous” to the land, fully engaging and rooting our souls into the earth.  And not because we want to consume it or profit from it, but because we want to honor it in the same way it honors us.  The land needs us to root, to make a home on it –that is core to the meaning of reciprocity. 

“To become indigenous is to grow the circle of healing to include all of Creation,” Kimmerer says.**** What does it mean for you, for us, to become indigenous to the places we call home?  How can we sink our roots deep into the humus, recognizing that we do so not just to be fed, but so that we can participate in a reciprocal relationship with the land and other life? 

May this Earth Day be the first of many holy days in which I and we put both feet firmly on the soil of our gardens, rooting with love and mutuality on the earth we call home.

*Kimmerer, 207
**Bass, 141.
***This idea has been developed elsewhere by women theologians of the Global South, and perhaps will make its way into a future post.
****Kimmerer, 212.

The Rise of the Collective

Part 1: The Fall of the Empire?

A long time ago (mid-2000s), in a galaxy far, far away (Harrisonburg, VA), I was approaching college graduation. As a part of my senior capstone course, our sociology professor took us across the city to the Other University (James Madison University) for a lecture.

I remember two main things from that lecture (which is saying something…): first, the presenter was Johan Galtung, a world-renowned sociologist, “principle founder of peace and justice studies”; second, he was known for making significant socio-political predictions, including predicting the fall of the Soviet Union. In the lecture I attended, Galtun predicted that by 2020, the U.S. empire would collapse, and we would cease being the most powerful nation in the world. (In the lecture, he also discussed various other nations or groups that might or might not assume world dominance, and while that’s worth talking about, that’s not the focus of this post or my thinking.)

Obviously, Galtung’s message resonated with me and my Anabaptist skepticism about imperial power and exploitative economic structures. With recent elections, including the 2016 presidential election, these predictions seemed to be coming true as social and political forces seemed to be ballooning, dividing the social fabric of the country. And then came the global, life-shaping, structure-rattling, humanity-testing experiences of COVID-19 (with no end in sight). These emerging realities tapped into the memory of the lecture, and I am left feeling both great pain and great hope.

Part 2: Nothing New Under the Sun

Many of you may have read this article by Julio Vincent Gambuto on “preparing to be gaslighted” as the world is desperate to “return to normal.” (Gambuto defines gaslighting as, “manipulation into doubting your own sanity.” It’s a subtle form of grooming, often with the intent to have control over another person without their realizing it.) I thought the article was powerful and persuasive, and I agree wholeheartedly that we should resist the temptation to forget–or be convinced to forget–what we have seen in these strange days of late, in order to return to “comfortable” old norms and ways of being…where we sacrifice control for perceived comfort.

But isn’t part of what we’re seeing right now the reality that we’ve already been gaslighted? And when I say “we,” I mean mostly white folks. And maybe especially, white women. Following the 2016 election, vast numbers of white moderates and white folks on the left were astounded at the results, and the collective rage was palpable. Suddenly white folks had to face the fact that white supremacist patriarchy was truly alive and well, that capitalism was not benefitting the masses, that our communities were still segregated and divided. The gaslighting isn’t going to start now for the first time, it will simply be restarted.

I can’t deny that there is a significant part of me that celebrates the crumbling of the U.S. Empire. This celebration-of-sorts comes with the full prior knowledge that the pain of the crumbling will be borne by the very same backs upon which the Empire built itself through terror and violence: People of Color, under-developed urban and rural communities, and the Earth itself. Meanwhile, those who have benefitted from and perpetuated the vast inequalities inherent in the empire will be suffered and walk away largely unscathed.

Part 3: Why I Still Hope

A friend and I were recently discussing ‘survival of the fittest,’ and how it is that Homo sapiens exist, while many other human species went extinct. On the one hand, there is ‘power over’ and ‘aggression’ (e.g. Homo sapiens may have wiped out Neanderthals because we were more violent). On the other hand, we have ‘altruism,’ ‘cooperation,’ and the like that allowed communities to survive through collaboration. The human psyche, I would argue, thrives in the second type of community, and in full disclosure (because I am a pastor, after all), aligns with my understanding of Jesus’ teachings of loving our neighbors.

So, in a time where some are turning to Nationalism and Isolationism out of fear, still trapped in a paradigm of Individualism and Social Darwinism, I am hopeful because of what I see all around me. I celebrate the way our communities are suddenly collaborating more effectively. I celebrate the way our communities are becoming more creative in responding to the needs of one another. I celebrate the resiliency that communities are building to weather all sorts of things for the future. I celebrate that more white folks are waking up to the horrendous inequalities experienced by our siblings of color. I also celebrate that as the Empire falls, the Earth and its other inhabitants are rebounding and taking their own collective deep breath.

My hope lies in our choice to respond to this global, normative-rupturing event out of Love and Hope rather than fear. We can choose to build—not destroy—our capacity to collaborate and communicate locally, nationally, and internationally. To strengthen and support grassroots, resilient structures and organizations rather than top-down corporations. To put our resources into infrastructure that supports human flourishing rather than weapons of human destruction. To put our hope in truer democracies rather than more powerful figureheads. To live as though the kin-dom of God was possible. Here and now.

Where the Empire crumbles, the Collective can rise. Galtung’s prediction may have sounded a doomsday death knell for those who rely on the subjugation and oppression of others in order to “survive;” to those who want to see the thriving of the nations and of the earth, it was a beacon of hope.

At least, I hope so.

Digital image: Abby Bush-Wilder

Celebrating Easter-in-place

The last few weeks, I and other church leaders around the globe have been scrambling to answer the question: In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, can we still celebrate Easter on April 12? If so, can we also celebrate Eucharist?

I’ve heard varying responses from colleagues — some want to wait to celebrate Easter fully until their churches can meet in person again. Others are going ahead with both Easter and the Eucharist. Thankfully, I work and worship in a denomination that, for better or worse, allows congregations to discern for themselves how to answer questions like these.

Disclaimer: I’ve felt from the start that we’re going to need to celebrate Easter, regardless of the pandemic. And celebrating Eucharist is a critical part of celebrating Easter. So, I set my sights on Madison Mennonite celebrating Easter and Eucharist, however much we could, on April 12. But I continued to ponder this dilemma, wondering if our lives are too fundamentally altered by social distancing and isolating to fully enter into the Easter story. Do we miss the meaning of Eucharist if we are physically separated?

So I sat down and re-read the gospel text for Sunday. There were some hints there that pointed to, “yes, we can celebrate Easter and Eucharist.”* Easter is, among many things, God’s defeat over death and violence. We can still celebrate that fully, even in our virtual gatherings. But Eucharist? For that, I read a bit further and was finally convinced that the chaos that led the disciples to shelter-in-place mirrors the chaos of our own pandemic quarantines–chaos into which Christ still shows up. What’s more, our current reality could actually lend itself to a deeper, transformational understanding of the Eucharist than we’ve known before.

In John 20:19-23, we read that Jesus, in his resurrected power, is not deterred by locked doors. The doors, whether locked because of fear or because of quarantines, are no match for the impulse of the resurrection. John writes in 20:19-20, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

Even when our doors are shut tight, whether from fear or out of love for our neighbors, Christ shows up where we are at and extends his peace to us. This undeniably points us to the “yes” of celebrating Easter and Eucharist together. At Madison Mennonite, we already celebrate an open table, proclaiming that the thanksgiving feast is for all who want to draw near to Christ. Now, in the resurrection, when Christ draws near to us, isolated though we are, should we refuse him and deny his presence? Ask him if he didn’t see the sign to “keep out”? Just as we resist policing the Eucharist, we proclaim, even in these strange times, that the Table is not made holy by the building we celebrate it in, nor that the Table itself is singular and particular. Yes, it is more joyous to celebrate Eucharist in the company of others, and we will do this, as far as it is possible, on Easter at Madison Mennonite; yet this Sunday, instead of gathering around one table in our sanctuary, I celebrate that every table in the homes of Madison Mennonites will become an altar, a testament to the God whose shalom-filled love can be found anywhere.

“Where two or three are gathered” in Christ’s name includes our virtual gatherings where folks meet around screens and fumble to mute and unmute. It includes our messy kitchen tables with juice splatters and cracker crumbs. It includes all of creation, springing alive and singing new songs. Thanks be to God!

Fullness of the Tomb by Lauren Wright Pittman | A Sanctified Art |

*The earlier readings of John 20:1-18 shore up the argument of this post. First, there is, of course, the confusion and disorientation of the empty tomb. While we don’t typically equate our church sanctuaries with the tomb, this year is different. As many have already noted, to gather in-person in our churches on Easter could bring about unfortunate, heartbreaking, and unnecessary death. As hard and confusing as it is to not hold Easter in our beloved sanctuaries, this is the decision that leads to life — and, potentially, to new revelations.

Second, having seen the empty tomb, the “disciples returned to their homes.” (John 20:10) Like the disciples of John’s gospel, we will largely celebrate Easter this year at home, without the usual pleasures of family or community gatherings. Many of us will need to “wait” to understand what it means for Christ to be resurrected — both as we wait to celebrate being the Body of Christ together again and more broadly, as we encounter Jesus at different times in our lives and through various means.

Third, like Mary Magdalene, we are invited to remain present to the disorientation of the empty tomb, listening for the voice of the Gardener. I am struck again and again at the intimacy of the moments in John where Jesus speaks one-on-one with the women who love him. Perhaps this year, the invitation is to listen for the way the Gardener speaks to each one of us, unmediated by priests, pastors, or liturgists. In the Anabaptist tradition, we profess to believe that, through the Spirit, all are united directly with Christ and do not need a mediator. Can we trust this year that Christ speaks to us, personally if we stay present to listen?

Choosing Love

A sermon for these strange and heartbreaking days, not unlike the strangeness and heartbreak of the story in John 11:1-45, the gospel lectionary text on Lent 5, Year A. Madison Mennonite continues to worship virtually with one another, and will do so for the indefinite future. How do we stay connected to one another and to our Source of Hope in the midst of great pain?

This is a story of love and pain. Of the way love and pain mix, sometimes a little too easily so that it’s hard to know which came first or if it’s possible to have one without the other.

John writes repeatedly in the text that Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in a unique way. One begins to wonder, hearing how much Jesus loved them, if Jesus sees this little family in Bethany as his “chosen family.” The people who see and know the sides of Jesus that the crowds don’t see. The people who, regardless of biology or law or tribal loyalties, have deliberately chosen to be kin for one another. To support one another as equals.

In other words, while Jesus is probably not closely, biologically related to Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, the four of them share a deep bond that is not broken by geographical distance, or by differences of opinion, or even by long periods of time spent apart.

This story is marked by pain. The deep pain that comes with death and loss. With questions if a family member has betrayed his beloved ones. With moments of raw and overwhelming emotion on display.

Love and pain mix, for Martha, Mary, and Jesus, as love and pain both become more real and more profound throughout the story. And it’s in sacred moments of complete vulnerability, where love and pain meet face to face.

Martha, runs out of her home, the sphere of her influence, to meet Jesus on the road. Martha starts to question Jesus’s love, saying, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She could have stopped there. It would have made sense. But instead of closing off and giving into her fear, she stays vulnerable in the moment, and says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Martha owns her grief, but isn’t willing to turn her back on her beloved brother, Jesus.

Mary also runs out to meet the teacher, leaving her home and the comfort of those who grieved with her. She repeats her sister’s accusation, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And instead of closing off, she roots herself in her woundedness. Standing next to Jesus, and overcome with sorrow, she weeps. In this moment, Mary is trusting completely that this chosen brother will not judge her for the emotions that overwhelm her.

There is a sacred moment of vulnerability when Jesus’ own non-anxious presence crumbles and seeing the distress of his beloved sisters, Jesus begins to weep.

Soon thereafter, Jesus again is vulnerable in offering a public prayer – the intimate words most often reserved for his moments of solitude are now spoken aloud in front of a crowd. To speak “Lazarus, come out!” is the most vulnerable yet – what if he fails and Lazarus remains cold?

Within the context of this chosen family, love opens each of them to the possibility of being deeply wounded. To be vulnerable is to open oneself to the potential for harm or even death.

But in this story, vulnerability born of love results in the transformation of relationships. It results in bold witnessing of the good news. It results in new life.

The good news of this text for today is that Jesus stands with us in the midst of great pain because of Jesus’ great love for us. The love of God does not erase the possibility of pain or suffering or death. The love of God does say that these will not ultimately win out.

Much of our current, collective pain derives in a virus. A sickness with the consequence of driving humanity apart. We, too, have the choice to close off, taking our distancing to new levels of isolation and finger-pointing.

But if we take our cues from Martha, Mary, and Jesus, we will resist closing ourselves off and instead become more vulnerable to the world we love. And to the community that we love. More present to our chosen families.

For many of us at Madison Mennonite, this community is our chosen family. For those who are joining beyond our typical group, I invite you to imaginatively connect in this moment with those you would call your chosen family.

While we are separated from other kinship networks or biological connections, we find deep love and belonging within our chosen family. These communities are a respite from the world’s pain. These communities are a source of renewal, transformation, and new life. They are a place where we might be seen and known and loved even in the midst of wilderness experiences we never planned for.

We can expect this week and the weeks ahead to be filled with deep pain, particularly if we love the world enough to, as our Jewish siblings say, “sit shiva” with the world. With Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and Jesus, may our love lead to acts of great vulnerability and ultimately the world’s transformation. Where trust holds. Where relationships endure. Where wounds are tended and heal. Where compassion has the last word.

I pray this be so.

Messages Worth Believing: A Love Letter to My Younger Priestess Self

To those women considering ministry, to those who feel a strong call to the Church but question the Church’s readiness for them, to those in the midst of interviews for a ministry position, to those who simply love the church, may your path be filled with friends who tell you over and over again: Your voice matters. Your strength is good. You set your boundaries. Your gender is an asset. You have all the power you need. Your sisters are there for you. Your dreams are a crucial part of the Gospel.

Your voice matters. You have experience. You have knowledge. You’ve been trained for this. You’ve rarely had the title that encompasses all you do. Some will question your experience, knowledge, and education, and they will question you for various reasons. It will feel like crap. You will have to keep giving evidence of why you’re legit. (You’ll resonate with the Black Woman proverb*: You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.) It will be exhausting. Especially in spaces where you’re the only woman, it will be really hard to speak up. Do it anyway, if you can. But remember you are also entitled to give yourself grace on the days you can’t.

IMG_1948Your strength is good. Your strength will be intimidating. And the range of responses to it will be varied. Some will be caught by your assertiveness and want to dampen it. Don’t be surprised when others, including other (and usually, older) women, fear your strength and try to reassert the patriarchy. (These women are often blind to how they’re perpetuating patriarchy, pandering to the men they think they’ve got to keep happy.) Some folks, with whom you’ve established some level of trust, will acknowledge openly how your strength impacts them. They’re the ones who love you enough to see that your strength is a gift, even when they sometimes feel threatened by it. Love them and be gentle with them. (They’re human, too.)

You set your boundaries, no one else. People will say things like, “I see you more as a friend than my pastor.” It’s great, as relational beings, to be seen as an “equal.” But you’re not. And that’s hard to explain, especially in power-illiterate communities. Find ways to explain your boundaries in simple terms, and stick with them (both the boundaries and the terms). Teach your congregation that pastoring isn’t something that you can just turn off. Also, ministry is political. It relies heavily on trust. And in political, trust-based communities, there are always power dynamics to talk about. Setting your boundaries means you’ve reflected on the politics of trust, and know how to leverage your power in ways that are beneficial for you and the community. (When you thrive, your community is likely to thrive. “As the leadership goes, so goes the congregation.”)

Your gender is an asset. Of course, your gender will “invite” all sorts of asinine comments, largely in the form of microaggressions. People will comment on what you wear, your tone of voice, your earrings, your haircut, etc. much more easily and frequently than what you say in your sermons or Sunday School lessons. It will take awhile, but you will learn how to respond more quickly and more effectively to these comments. You have the power to redirect conversations and to ask others not to comment on these things. You have the power to say no to unwelcome physical touch. You will shake and your voice will waver, but that’s okay. That’s the Spirit trying to make her way into the world.

Photo: Tiffany Showalter

You already have all the power you need, and the Spirit gives it to you freely. No one else can empower you. (Empowerment, as a thing, is really a sham, a ruse wherein oppressed folks are tricked into thinking they have to wait for power to be given to them by the culturally-powerful. You need no one’s permission to claim your liberation.)  What you will need is people who create space for your flourishing, and who will reflect your commitment to celebrating everyone’s inherent dignity and power.

Bobbed Women (and babies), 2019. Photo: Tim Showalter Ehst

You need other ministering women in your corner. They’re a special breed with incredible capacities for empathy. They’re also wise and can spot when the patriarchy is trying to dupe one of our own. And they’re willing to wait for one another, check in with one another, and choose one another over institutions and even their favorite men in power. They’ll call out your crap and then offer to help add it to the collective compost bin.

Lastly, do not sell yourself short.  Find spaces that offer you room to spread your wings, not ask you to clip them.  Look for a church that actually believes in the good news of Pentecost, where your dreams and visions are welcomed as just that — new realities of collective healing and liberation for all (including you!)

*Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage, 60.