Pastoral Letter for Mother’s Day, 2022

The following is a message I shared in our our church newsletter:

Mother’s Day was originally a day to promote women’s equality, peace, and an end to war. It has become commercialized and sentimentalized and often is a painful reminder to those who have had complicated relationships with mothers or motherhood. 

And this year, Mother’s Day ends what has been an exhausting week in terms of news and religion. The revelation that the U.S. Supreme Court will allow states to force birth is the culmination of a decades-long war on civil rights by religious and political extremists

As a pastor without a uterus, I feel my own voice should take a backseat to those who are more directly impacted, and yet I also have a responsibility to deploy mine for the good of my friends and family. You may have seen that some of my words from a Facebook post in 2018 went viral again. I want to set those words in context with my baptismal vow to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” and my ordination vow to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church. 

Below are excerpts from the United Methodist Social Principles, which have this to say about abortion: 

The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.

But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.

We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.

While they have their flaws (especially with regard to LGBTQIA persons), the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church generally reflect a well-reasoned majority theological and social position on current issues. The UMC has historically viewed abortion as a “tragic choice,” but emphasized that it is still a choice between a woman and her doctor:

Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.

The section on abortion also points out some of the best ways to reduce the frequency of abortion: 

We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates. The Church shall encourage ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies such as comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education, advocacy in regard to contraception, and support of initiatives that enhance the quality of life for all women and girls around the globe.

It is important to note that while both abortions and unintended pregnancies have been declining for years, many of the United States and Alabama legislators who are restricting abortion access are simultaneously pulling the rug out from under people who get pregnant. In Alabama, for example, we still have abstinence-only education. We have not expanded Medicaid. We are a “right-to-work” state, which means people who get pregnant do not have labor protections, nor do they have parental leave to take care of newborns. 

All of these factors combine to make people’s lives harder, to make unintended pregnancy more likely, and to complicate pregnancy and delivery. These policies are at odds with the United Methodist Social Principles. They are also at odds with God’s vision of justice and shalom in the world. 

I am continuously awed by the process of new life. I spend hours building birdhouses so that mama birds have a safe place to raise their young. I delight in this time of year, watching fluffy fledglings take their first timid hops out of a nest. I believe all life is sacred, and I long for a world where all of God’s family is aided to flourish. I am “pro-family” for the human world and the more-than-human world. 

But I also recognize that evil is a force that warps the most holy things in the world, including parenthood and the Gospel. When our society weaponizes pregnancy against populations of poor people, indigenous people, and people of color, or when religious groups weaponize the language of love and care to oppress others, it is a deep betrayal of the Good News. 

All of which has made the last week — and the last six years — exhausting for many of us who identify as Christians who seek liberation and healing for ALL people. On this Mother’s Day, I hope you will take care of yourself and your own mental health. Rest and self-care are radical acts of resistance in a system that demands exploitive labor, which claims ownership of our bodies, and which tries to appropriate our spiritual and emotional energy for its own agenda of conquest and colonialism. We say that we will “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” I hope you will join me in sacred rest, sacred lament, and revolutionary, worshipful, self-care. 

Advent Week 1: Always Arriving

Lorenz attractor by Wikimol. From Wikimedia Commons (click for source)

So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Woman is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Most High God.
(Matthew 24:32-33; translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A)

It’s not often that preachers will tell you that Jesus was wrong, but here’s one of his biggest mistakes: “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Sorry, Jesus— you were way off with this one.

The early church expected Jesus to return and establish his new kingdom at any moment, “before this generation passes away.” But over the years, one by one, his disciples died. The last eyewitness to Jesus’s ministry may have been the storyteller responsible for the Gospel of John. This apostle lived to a ripe old age, and his community began to theorize that he wouldn’t die before Jesus returned.

When he finally kicked off, it must have been devastating. You can hear the author of the postscript to John trying to account for their disappointment: “So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:23)

Jesus himself created that expectation. “This generation will not pass away.” Even today, 2000 years later, we’re still trying to account for his delay.

But perhaps they did see the kin-dom at hand. Time seems to get suspended in Jesus’s words here: heaven and earth will pass away, but not this generation, nor his words. Yet he still doesn’t know exactly when this will happen.

This is one reason we celebrate Advent—”The Arrival”—because God’s act of creating, bringing about the Kin-dom, and birthing something new is always at hand. It is always arriving. Like tender fig leaves, the signs of a new season are already here for those who pay attention.

Prayer: Creating, birthing, and re-ordering God—we wait for you even as you announce your presence with us. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Fig Trees

First and second figs, 1946. From wikimedia commons

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.. (Matthew 24:32-33)

I didn’t really understand a lot of New Testament fig tree references until we owned a fig tree. It was young, and stood about twelve feet tall, with five main trunks about as thick as my arm. We ate the fruit straight from the tree when it was dark brown on the bottom, yellowish-brown on the top with just a tinge of green. At this stage, they are just firm enough to give a little pop when bitten.

The squirrels were less discriminating. They would take figs when they were mostly still hard and green, and leave the discarded skins on the porch railing as if they were taunting me. Mockingbirds got in on the action as well. They would take a triangular plug out of a fig while it was still on the tree with one peck of their beak, so I’d get a rude surprise when I reached up to pluck a beautiful fig only to find the other side filled with ants crowding a hole, slurping up the syrup. Each summer was a race between the humans and the backyard critters to get the best figs.

One year, I thought I’d killed our fig tree. We had a hard frost, and I pruned it too late in the winter. While the trees and garden were greening, there were no leaves on the fig by late spring. The disappointment stung; I didn’t realize how much I would miss it. Some of the thinner branches were dead and brittle. I consulted with my wife about what we might plant in its place.

But one day I saw tiny leaf buds just a few inches above the ground on one of its five trunks. Over the next two weeks as milky white sap rose through the interior of the tree, more buds popped out along the trunks, then the branches. Fig leaves are large and distinctive, so they grow and uncurl dramatically. It’s almost as if they were saying, “Ta-da!” To me, it was a resurrection.

This is the image I recall when I hear Jesus talk about the coming kin-dom. Even when it appears dead, the life-essence of the kin-dom is rising from the ground. There will be plenty of fruit for all of God’s critters.

Prayer: Source of Life, may we all enjoy the fruit of your new world. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Kin-dom and Kingdom

Ernst Nowak, Piggyback, 1919. From wikimedia commons

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32, NIV).

The thing Jesus preached most about was The Kingdom of God. It’s an elusive idea: it’s here, but not here yet. Jesus teaches about it most often with parables: it’s like a mustard seed, or a woman searching for a coin, or like a pearl merchant who loves his product more than profit, so much that he sells all he has and buys a beautiful one—not to resell it, apparently, but just to admire it.

In most of these parables, Jesus seems to be trying to shift his audience away from thinking of kingdoms the way they normally do. This will not be a kingdom of domination, not one maintained by a strong military. Instead, it’s a place where “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

I think it’s worth asking: is it even right to call it a kingdom? Since most of Jesus’s lessons point people away from conventional “kingly” images, might there be a better image or metaphor?

Ada María Isasi-Díaz borrowed and popularized a word coined by Georgene Wilson: kin-dom. In referring to his God as Abba and his disciples as brothers and sisters (Mark 3:33-35), Jesus describes a different set of power dynamics and a different way of relating to each other.

At the same time, Jesus wasn’t idolizing the family the way some religious folks do. Caesar Augustus claimed to be “The Protector of Morals,” and was very vocal about men being the head of the household. The kin-dom Jesus describes is one where prodigal fathers welcome wayward children. God is not “king daddy in the sky,” but a companion who longs for greater intimacy with God’s creatures.

Prayer: Baba God, make for us a new family, one in which all your creatures recognize their kinship. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Womb of Life

Georgia O’Keefe, Series 1, No. 8; Public Domain. From Wikimedia Commons

…Womb of Life, our Sovereign, how exalted is your Name in all the earth! 

(Psalm 8:1, translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A)

How to you spell the sound of breathing? When God reveals God’s name to Moses, it is spelled “YHWH,” and theologians have speculated that in addition to meaning “I am who I am,” it represents the sound of breath. For ancient Hebrews and modern Jews, the name was considered too sacred to speak out loud. Instead it was whispered, or replaced with the word “Adonai,” Lord.

Of course, if it is the sound of breathing, we are saying God’s name all the time. 

Psalm 8 is usually translated as “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth,” because for centuries, English translators followed the convention of not printing the sacred name YHWH and substituting the word “Lord.” 

But one of the negative consequences of that choice is that over and over, the title “Lord” — patriarchal, authoritarian, dominating — replaces the sound of the breath of God. Lifetimes of repetition shape the way we understand the nature and character of God. It is no wonder American Christians are so reluctant to let go of the image of an authoritarian male God. 

In Dr. Gafney’s translation above, she has reconnected the name of God with the biological process of life. “Womb of Life” is a fitting substitution. Rather than saying “Lord, our Lord,” we affirm that God is not like other lords. Instead of a tough guy who deals in punishment and death, we address the Source of all life. In Psalm 8, the Sovereign we worship is one whose greatest defense comes “out of the mouths of babes,” not from the weapons of warriors. 

It’s an image much more consistent with the babe in the manger. The name of God is already on his lips with his very first breath. 

Womb of Life, gestate for us a new way of being in the world.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 37: Don’t Compare Their Worst to Our Best


Detail of Palau de la Música Catalana Symphony Hall, Barcelona by Ron Sterling, from Wikimedia Commons


I once heard an evangelical Christian missionary describe his work among Hindus in India. This was the way he framed his work: “There are over 3000 gods and goddesses in Hinduism, and it is impossible to please all of their various deities. You are constantly terrified about making one or more of them angry, and then you will be doomed to be reborn. Accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior frees you from that oppressive system.”

This is a stunning mischaracterization of Hinduism. Hear this passage from the Bhagavad-Gita:

After many births the wise seek refuge in me, seeing me everywhere and in everything. Such great souls are very rare. There are others whose discrimination is misled by many desires. Following their own nature, they worship the lower gods, practicing various rites. (BG, 7:19-20) 

The above passage from the Gita is an internal critique within Hinduism: “There are some practitioners of our faith who don’t understand the point of it, who obsess over rituals and worship lower gods.” Both the missionary and the Gita agree that this is a problem; they disagree—sort of—on the solution.

In many faith traditions there are people whose grasp of their faith is little more than superstition. They believe that if they pull the right cosmic levers and get lucky that the universe will spit out a jackpot of blessings. But this is not a difference between Hinduism and Christianity—it’s a difference between immature faith and mature faith.

I’ve heard the same kind of ignorant Protestant rhetoric applied to Roman Catholicism, claiming that Catholics worship Mary and the saints. And out of hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics, it is certainly possible to find a few who practice this way, whose faith is rudimentary. Again, this is not a difference between Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, but a difference between immature and mature religion. If you live in the Bible Belt, you also know that among evangelical Protestants there are also many immature, hate-filled Christians who wouldn’t know Jesus from a hole in the ground, who think of God as a cosmic policeman.

You can find plenty of ex-Hindus, ex-Catholics, and ex-Evangelicals who detest the legalistic, guilt-ridden way they were raised. It is not fair comparing the worst of one religion with the best of another. Krister Stendahl made this one of his main rules of interreligious study.

This is also one reason why when we read Jesus’s words about the Pharisees or “the Jews” (in the Gospel of John), we need to hear him criticizing Judaism from the inside. When Jesus complains about religious legalism, he is making the critique as a faithful Jew. Too many Christians receive Jesus’s words a criticism of Judaism, instead of hearing them as a criticism of immature, self-serving religion.

When some people outgrow the immature, literalistic, legalistic version of their faith tradition, they will reject faith altogether, or embrace a different tradition. Others will find resources and wisdom within it. These are all signs of faith development. More on this tomorrow.

God of Growth and Life, as flowers bend toward the sun, help us grow toward you.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 36: Many Paths, Many Stories


The Morning Prayer, by Ludwig Deutsch, 1906. From Wikimedia Commons.


Good people come to worship me for different reasons. Some come to the spiritual life because of suffering, some in order to understand life; some come through a desire to achieve life’s purpose, and some come who are men and women of wisdom. (BG, 7:16) 

We don’t all seek God—or enlightenment—for the same reasons. This is a truth Hinduism has folded into its philosophy from the beginning. Human beings are born different. We have different spiritual antennae and resonate to different things. Some of us are looking for love and acceptance, others of us are looking for knowledge; some of us are driven by achievement, and others by freedom from expectations. This is not an exhaustive list. Through experience—which entails a lot of frustration and disappointment—all of these paths lead to wisdom, and toward a greater intimacy with God. 

Judaism expresses these differences in story. Jacob was a cheater who got cheated, but through wit and struggle learned the suffering love of a husband and father. Moses was a privileged young man who started off thinking of justice as retribution, but through exile and an encounter with God learned that justice is about the complex, frustrating work of liberation and healing. Naomi was a widow, bitter at her loss, feeling abandoned by God, but found grace and provision through her relationship with her foreign-born daughter-in-law.

Feuerstein’s translation of the above passage describes the four kinds of people as “the afflicted, the desirous-of-knowledge, [those whose] object is the welfare of the world, and the knower.” I can easily think of people I know in my own life who fit all of those categories. They all have different personalities and stories, and their flavor of faith may look slightly different—but they radiate a quiet confidence in God and an acceptance of the world. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan mystic, often says that the three paths of spiritual growth are great love, great suffering, and contemplation. And as the Bible stories illustrate, great love almost always entails great suffering.

Krishna goes on to say that wisdom is the superior path, but Krishna has this habit of contradicting himself every few minutes. He will say “selfless service is the better way,” and then will say “meditation is the better way.” Whatever subject he’s speaking about at the moment, he will say, “this is the best.”

I suspect there is a tongue-in-cheek truth to this inconsistency. I met an ex-prisoner who referred to himself as “God’s favorite child,” but he was quick to say that it was true of everyone. I’ve heard stories of multiple members of the same family who were convinced they were grandma’s favorite because she told them each—in private—that they were her favorite. I think that as God considers Jacob, or Moses, or Naomi, or you or me, God would tell each of us that the way we came to know God was the “best” way.

God, I’m glad that I am your favorite. Bless my path, and the paths of all of us pilgrims.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 35: Two Natures


An artist’s depiction of the binary star series, J0806; by NASA, from Wikimedia Commons


In these two aspects of my nature is the womb of all creation. The birth and dissolution of the cosmos itself takes place in me. There is nothing that exists separate from me, Arjuna. The entire universe is suspended from me as my necklace of jewels.  (BG, 7:6-7) 

We looked at the feminine imagery of this passage yesterday. Now let’s take a brief dip into metaphysics.

Krishna has been talking about “two natures,” a lower nature and a higher nature. In Hindu philosophy these are usually called prakriti and purusha, or “the elements” and “pure consciousness.” Here, Krishna calls the higher nature jiva-bhuta, or life-force.

These two natures don’t map directly onto Western categories like human and divine, or matter and spirit. We’ll notice a difference when we start listing the elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect, and ego. The “elements” in this system include both tangible and intangible aspects of our world, including our own thoughts, feelings, and narratives. The experience of our subjective selves, in Hindu philosophy, is very much a part of the material world.

There are three gunas, states or forces, that act upon the elements: tamas (tending toward disorder, delusion, and inaction), rajas (tending toward desire, the ego, and passion), and sattva (tending toward enlightenment and unity). These are the forces of evolution and change.

Krishna is saying that both changeable realm of prakriti and the unchangeable purusha are part of the divine dance of creation and destruction. There is a place where we experience time and change and separateness, and there is a place where we experience Oneness, where all times are now. These two places are connected; they are part of the same reality. This divine dance is “The Womb of Creation,” Krishna says.

This mystical awareness of the unity of all things is difficult to put into words, and metaphysics is our attempt to do so: to try to describe how our essential unity—we are all part of the same reality—can be experienced as separateness, as me and you and dog and tree and rock and ocean, as thought and emotion and this Self that is neither, both, and more. Trying to understand the elements of reality is like putting creation under a microscope so that we can understand the big picture.   

When Krishna says There is nothing that exists separate from me, I also hear Paul quoting a pagan poet, saying that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). The Womb of God is such a powerful metaphor, especially because even though we are “born,” we are still present in God. There’s nowhere we can go and be “outside of God,” because all of creation is still inside, and still part of God, and God is in every strand of creation’s DNA.

God in Whom we live and move and have our being, overcome our illusions of independence.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 34: The Womb of Creation


The Babe in the Womb, by Leonard da Vinci. From Wikimedia Commons


In these two aspects of my nature is the womb of all creation. The birth and dissolution of the cosmos itself takes place in me. There is nothing that exists separate from me, Arjuna. The entire universe is suspended from me as my necklace of jewels.  (BG, 7:6-7) 

I want to talk about these feminine images: the womb and the necklace.

In Christianity, we are so used to Father language that we often miss places in the Bible where God is a mother. Consider:

From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? (Job 38:28-29, NRSV)


Before the mountains were born, before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—from forever in the past to forever in the future, you are God. (Psalm 90:2, CEB)

The Hebrew word translated as “compassionate” or “merciful” also shares the root for womb, as when God is described as being “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, NRSV).

Our English language and sexist traditions prevent us from seeing these feminine images of God. Even though the Bible starts off in Genesis 1:27 by telling us that both man and woman are made “in the image of God”—implying that God is both—religious authoritarians reject or obscure this feminine image at every turn.

Eastern religions (in general) are more comfortable with female, gender-bending, or queer images of the divine. The bodhisattva [divine sage] Guanyin, or Avalokitasvara, appears as male, female, and androgynous.

And while a necklace in the above passage is not explicitly feminine (men wear necklaces in both the Hebrew Bible and Indian literature), the idea of the universe as jewelry for our divine Mother is certainly provocative. The sense of all these images is one of continuity and dependence. God births the universe, and so the universe (and we humans) contain some divine DNA. Our moment-to-moment existence is sustained by her. Our universe de-pends (the English verb mean to hang, like a pendant) from her like jewels on a string.

There is some metaphysical stuff here, as well, which I will dig into tomorrow. But for now, listen and reflect on these feminine images of God: The womb of creation. A necklace of jewels hanging from her shoulders.

Merciful Mother, hold us close.

Women of the Bible (Lyrics)

I don’t actually have a verse about Judith (in the picture above), but I should write one. I’d envisioned this with a sassy lounge jazz tune, minor key for the verses, major for the chorus (so the chorus sounds a bit like “Jesus loves me.”)

I was inspired to write it because the main thing people know and want to discuss about Bathsheba is whether she was David’s victim, seductress, or paramour; but one of the most fascinating stories about her is how she and Nathan hoodwinked the Old Man into making her son the heir to the throne. I was trying to figure out how to disrupt and refocus the narrative in the fewest words possible, and that led to this song.

Very pretty
Know her story?
Just a little bitty:
Pulled some strings and she got her son
Sitting on the throne; now he’s king Solomon.

Miss Naomi
Was a widow
Taught Miss Ruth
How to use eye shadow
Instructed Ruth in feminine wiles
Now she’s singing lullabies to her grandchild.

Strong women, these I know
For the Bible taught me so
Mothers, sisters; royal, tribal
Don’t you mess with the women of the Bible.

Queen Esther
In her palace
Had to deal
With ethnic malice
Saved her people from Haman’s plans
Now he’s swinging from a rope tied by his own hands.

Martha and her
Sister Mary
Was primary
Now they’re sittin’ at Jesus’ feet
Buddy, make yourself a sandwich if you want to eat.


Listen up now
brothers, sisters,
We got to have some
strong resisters
You don’t have to take any more malarkey
The day’s gonna end for the patriarchy