God is Love

And for those of us who would follow Christ, that is the message we are meant to carry to the world. This singular message of extraordinary love and no other…

Nearly two thousand years ago, one of Jesus’s disciples wrote, God is love.

And yet, even now, people who claim to follow both debate who’s love fits the “right” image. Even worse, who fits the very image of God.

In doing so, entire groups of people become disenfranchised and more importantly begin to believe that they are unloved and, worse, unlovable.

Oh what sins we have committed in the name of God. May God have mercy upon us.

Since the very beginning of time, humans have wondered what God looked like. What God thought like. What God wanted us to be.

And if we Christians are correct and Jesus really was God’s Living Word-made-flesh, then what we who follow him know is at least this: his number one, flat-out, only commandment that mattered above the rest was simple and resolute – love one another.

With extravagance. With equity. With compassion. With gumption. With kindness. With justice. With reckless abandon. With dedication. With tenacity. With everything we have.

Even when the other doesn’t look like us. Even when the other doesn’t sound like us. Even when the other doesn’t act like us. Even when the other doesn’t think like us. And especially when the other has been cast out by the world and doubly so when they have been kicked out by religious institutions.

We were made in God’s image to love and be loved. Like that. Every single other human on this planet.

And for those of us who would follow Christ, that is the message we are meant to carry to the world.

This singular message of extraordinary love and no other.


Everything else is just noise. And sin. And abomination – and no, I do not mean the love between two people.

Got it?

Show & Tell

Probably a decade ago now, when I was an associate pastor for youth in my first call, I got into an argument with a seminary student about which was more important: worship & bible study or mission. Being in my first job out of seminary myself and concerned with towing the party line at the time, you can guess which side I was taking in this debate.

I was hauling the mainline. Holding up the tradition. Keeping the program fires burning.

And I was 100% wrong.

While people do worship him, Jesus never actually asks for it, nor commands it. Though he does pull our focus to worshipping God on occasion, Christ spends his entire ministry showing us that true worship looks like proclaiming good news to the poor. Proclaiming release to prisoners. Giving recovery of sight to the blind. Setting the oppressed free. Proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor to all.

And he tells us repeatedly that he requires mercy not self-righteous sacrifice. That tangible love is center of everything. And that when we feed, slake thirst, clothe, welcome, visit, and care for the last and the least – then we are doing the work of the Living Word of God. Now that’s a bible study.

Jesus shows and tells us that the life of a believer is spent far beyond any four, six or even eight walls of wood or stone. It’s an every day thing. A life truly following God is lived looking for ways to serve and build up the kingdom in the world and only comes back to rest on Sundays so that we can get ready to go again.

As we grow in our relationship with Christ, our desire to see this same show & tell in our own life will grow, too. Then we will look for every opportunity we can find to see God’s kingdom come to life in our midst.

Oh, and there was one person who suggested, fall down and worship me in the gospels. But it wasn’t Jesus – it was Satan.



Today there were two crank calls saying that there was an active shooter at some of our nearby high schools. Thank God they were fakes. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I was not minding having my twin sons at home with me due to a stomach bug running through the house.

Tensions and emotions are running high after what happened earlier this week.

We have, yet again, more families forced to deal with, as Lin-Manuel Miranda once wrote, the unimaginable.

We have the ongoing shocked stupor that many of us find ourselves in after so much gun violence in such a short period of time (these last several years) and learning that guns are now the number one killer of children. I can hear the psalmist in my head repeating, How long, O Lord.

And yet the piece that has continued to spin round and around in my mind is my heartache for the seventh person killed that day. Because unlike violence at churches and synagogues and mosques around our country and the globe that were carried out because of hatred for specific racial and ethnic groups or religions, this one appears to have come from a place of deep-seated hurt.

In and of itself, that is not unlike so many other school shootings. And no amount of hurt can excuse violent actions like this. Ever.

My mind still thinks back to the conversations I had with my late husband about his upbringing in Nashville, though. About having been raised in church like the one connected to this school and other denominations that were theologically different, but far more similar than they wanted to admit. I remember the long nights of talking about sin and when he had his own “Great Awakening” sometime in high school or college – God, I wish I could ask him now.

His churches had taught him that all sins were equal. And therefore, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is the same as committing murder.

For years he quietly went along with the doctrine and dogma of those around him. But he always knew this was not right. This was not okay. This was not of God.

Because hatred never is. And indoctrinating children into it – that is some next level… stuff. (That’s not the word I want to use.)

So I find my heart breaking for this young person who had been raised in such an environment and found themselves truly not fitting. What they must have experienced. Wondering what their community outside the school looked like – if any of them were ever accepting of them. And how far they might have been pushed before they snapped?

How many other young people in the same situation feel they have no one to turn to? Especially with the fights (not even debates anymore) visibly dominating our new culture at the moment.

My heart grieves with all of the families of the dead, as it always does and always will.

Nevertheless, something we must not forget in the midst of this all is that hatred is still and always will be completely unacceptable. No matter how biblically backed it may be – it is not following our Crucified God.

Whatever else may happen in the coming days, be aware and be wary. Look for all the ways you can support those in your own community who may not fit. Who may have been told they were an abomination because of who they are. Who may feel like there is no where to turn. A kind voice and welcoming shoulder can make more difference than you know.

Jesus was Human, too

Did they look at him incredulously? Did they think him ridiculous? Did they call him less than he should be?

For those who are churchgoers, this weekend has one of those really famous stories coming up in the lectionary: Lazarus.

This is the Lazarus who is, in fact, Jesus’s best friend. He is the brother of Mary and Martha – yes, that Mary and Martha who are constantly bickering over the better way to follow Jesus. And it is at this house where Jesus feels at home in the midst of all of his wanderings throughout his ministry. He finds a place to rest among these three siblings. A family.

Then the day comes when he is out on one of his journeys and he receives word that his best friend is sick. Truly, he is dying. Jesus continues his work so that by the time he arrives, Lazarus has already been dead three days. And he weeps with his beloved friend’s sisters. For one of his family is gone.

Yes. Jesus cries. More than that, he ugly cries.

I wonder, if people thought him weak in that moment the way they look at some of us when we lose our composure. When our families need us and we, too, need to show our “soft underbelly.” Even if just for a moment.

Did they look at him incredulously? Did they think him ridiculous? Did they call him less than he should be?

One of those funny things about the story of Lazarus is that we often jump directly to that moment at the tomb where Jesus speaks and the mummy comes out. And the resurrection is essential. It both gives us faith and gives all the people looking for one a reason to kill him in just another week.

However, in doing so, we lose sight of the bigger thing that happens here: Jesus shows his very human side. And yes, he was human.

This is important not only for everyone, but especially for those of us in leadership because far too often so many (including us) forget that we are human, too.

We crack under pressure sometimes. We need some slack on occasion. We have families who need our attention, too.

Just as an example, I remember Christmas a few months ago, I ended up getting the flu heading into the big holiday and lost my voice because I sang at full steam with a high fever on Christmas Eve. Then I got pneumonia over Epiphany, which took a month to get over and my asthma is permanently worsened. And it took about two months for my singing voice to fully recover. All because I was keeping up with both our schedule at work and with being a single mom at home – and sometimes our bodies simply break.

So, my friends, particularly as we are heading into Holy Week in just about ten days, my heartfelt encouragement to all of my colleagues is to make sure we take time to care for ourselves. To breathe. To rest. To make space for the holy.

And my prayer for those who are walking with us in our ministries (our congregations) is to remember that we are here to walk with you and we need your grace as much as you need ours.

Artwork: “Unbind Me” by the Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman of A Sanctified Art, LLC

A Children’s Lesson in Inclusion

Make no mistake, our kids see through our integrity or lack thereof faster than we can blink an eye…

A month ago now, one of my twin sons, the one who has a form of Sensory Processing Disorder, was having a rough morning one Sunday. He was more overwhelmed than usual as we rolled up to church. And as worship began, the noise and the people overwhelmed him to a point that hiding under the seats (as per usual) just wouldn’t do. He needed a better, a safer place to hide. So he curled up right under our Communion Table.

I could feel the consternation coming from many of the adult congregants as his Sunday School teachers and I tried to get him out from his hiding spot through the first hymn and opening prayers. Alas, it was to no avail. However, when I tried talking to him, he informed me that he was scared and needed to feel safe.

A few moments later, we arrived at the point in the liturgy for Children’s Time. I called the other children forward and I asked them a question that had occurred to me as this scene had unfolded in the minutes prior.

“Do your teachers sometimes have to take a few extra minutes to help some of your classmates or you out with something at school?” They all smiled and answered yes.

I said, “Today I want to talk about a very special part of God’s love. It’s called equity.”

I explained something I had never said in front of the whole body in this space: my sons have a few extra things going on in their heads that make certain things we all do, and especially worship, pretty overwhelming for them. Today was particularly tough for this one who was in hiding. But then I went on…

“Out of all the places in this room, he chose this table up here as the safest place. Isn’t that interesting. Because what does this table represent?”

They all immediately knew the answers: God. Love. Family.

As we went on, one of them told me that their teacher has a quote up in their classroom that reads, “Equality is not about treating everyone the same, it’s about everyone getting what they need to succeed.”

Jesus taught us that we should learn from children because they understand the Kingdom better than we ever will.

Perhaps it is that they have not become as jaded or cynical or even destroyed by the world as most adults have. Or maybe it is that they can see the truth far more clearly and simply because of it.

Make no mistake, our kids see through our integrity or lack thereof faster than we can blink an eye. Let alone come up with even a half-way reasonable excuse.

What is more, as so many of us have and continue to teach them the importance of love and welcome, being brave and kindness, and standing up to bullies, these younglings can call out the bunk, poppycock, and hooey that is so much of grown-up behavior. They know when we are doing the opposite of what we say. They know when grown-ups are, in fact, the worst tormentors of the bunch.

They also know when our excuses are hogwash.

So, just as those children understood equity and inclusion of everyone, no matter how different they may be, that day in worship (and yes, they gave a lot of those grown-ups a good lesson), they also know when the things we say we’re doing to protect them from what is supposedly wrong in the world do not line up. They know it has nothing to do with a shield or safeguard. They know when what is being called wicked, depraved, nefarious, or malicious is simply just unusual, or unconventional, or possibly exceptional and extraordinary. They know when grown-ups are just protecting themselves, what they’ve always known, and who they’ve always hated.

Jesus always made space for the misfits and welcoming those deemed undesirable by the world. On what planet do we think we are more cable of choosing when he never did?

Our children need adults who are willing to reflect the God who is Love made flesh to them. Who show them what that radical inclusion and willing seeking God’s justice looks like in our churches and homes. Adults who will have the integrity to listen, believe, and follow Jesus when he says that the only way we can show we are his disciples is to love. To show God’s profligate, self-giving, all-embracing, equity-seeking, reckless and prodigal love.

Our kids know the truth. Maybe it’s time we actually start living it well.

Tangible Ashes

…yes, on Ash Wednesday, we do need to confess. We need to remember that we are finite and our lives are fragile. But we also need to keep in mind that is not what we were created to be.

Traditionally one of my favorite days of the liturgical calendar, this year I find myself approaching Ash Wednesday with a different sense of care.

I was reminded several months ago by a friend that while prayers of confession may be an essential practice within the history of the Reformed churches, nevertheless, they do a disservice to anyone who already finds themselves beaten to a bloody pulp.

As someone who loves the Reformed tradition, I speak with great love for our theology and know that none of us is without sin. That is something I define as breaking our relationships – with God, with one another, and with ourselves. (It is the converse of Jesus’s love commandments given in the gospels.) There is truth in that, I think.

And yet, for those who are consistently and constantly told that they are already worth less, that they are not whole, that they will never be enough because of who they are (and there are a whole lot of groups who have historically fallen into these categories and many that still do) to berate them with needing to confess repeatedly, often being admonished to do so by members of a group keeping them under thumb… all I can say is wow have we messed up.

So we come to Ash Wednesday, a day that is all about how fallen we are, at least historically. Oomf.

Remember how much God hates you, everybody. How badly you have always and will continue to mess up and look out for that wrath that comes at the end of the season…

Is that really the message we want everyone to remember?

Also, that’s some really poor and lazy theology.

In confirmation class, the question recently came up about who killed Jesus. Because, even though it is often subconsciously done, when we look for someone to blame, it is the easiest way to keep the focus away from ourselves. We can make God vengeful against everyone but us.

Except I told the younglings that while the Jewish high priests may have sought his death and the Romans may have physically carried it out, Christ was killed by each and every one of us. Each and every time we sin. All those ways we break each other down. Crush one another into pieces. Smash our neighbor’s bodies or lives against the rocks. Tear this group or that group down and blame them for such-and-such problem with the world today, acting as though we are not all responsible in some way, shape, or form.

So yes, on Ash Wednesday, we do need to confess. We need to remember that we are finite and our lives are fragile. But we also need to keep in mind that is not what we were created to be.

God drew us up from the dust of the earth, breathed life into us with awe-inspired and wonderful hands and then called us “good.” God chose us to bear God’s own image of love that we might share our lives with one another. And then God chose to bear our image, God-made-flesh, so that we could finally remember all that we had forgotten of what true love really looks like – giving one’s life so that another can finally find the fullness that was always meant to be.

Tangible love. That is what those ashes mark. Grace. Love. A promise that more is there.

Happy Lent.

Love is it. Period.

In honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I want to share one of my favorite stories…

I was once asked in an interview how I would sum up the Gospel. After thinking for a moment, this was my response.

There is a legend about the author of the gospel of John. Unlike his contemporaries who all died as martyrs, John’s author lived to be an old man with a large school of students around him.

Every day as he walked among his pupils, he would say to them, “Love one another.”

“Love one another.”

“Love one another.”

He would repeat this admonition every time he saw any of the disciples within his school. Any time. All the time.

Finally, one of his catechumens became so fed up with the practice that he replied, “Love, love, love, love, love, love, love. You are always telling us to love! Why!?!”

The old man smiled gently as he replied, “Because it is what my Lord commanded me to do. If you do nothing else, it will be enough.”

On the final night of his life, when he was at table with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35).

Everything else we do, anything else we stand for is nothing compared to this. Love is the Gospel, because God is Love.

Self-giving. Unconditional. Profligate. Empowering. Prodigal. Boundless. Always welcoming. Fierce as the grave. Complete. Justice-seeking. Wholeness-minded. All-encompassing. Everything we’ve got Love. That is the Love that God is. Period.

That is the God I stand with. The God Christ embodied as the only infallible Word of God. And the God I witness for by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Which also means I stand with any and all who are deemed misfit, outsider, less than, least of, outcast, unworthy, sinner, and most certainly abomination by the world – and most definitely any and all who are considered such by the church. Because that is right where my Lord would be.

This is my declaration of love – for me and my house will serve the Lord. I can do no other.

Hate is still Hate

My first year at my church in Southern Louisiana, I traveled with our youth group, entirely young women as fate would have it, to a large city in Eastern Texas. Our camp was filled with youth groups from around the United States that ranged in denomination, as is always the case. What was different that year, however, was the events of our very first night following worship.

I decided to wear my Hogwarts jersey that my husband had procured for me, which was a deep red (Gryffindor) and had an old nickname of mine emblazoned on the top, “Rev.” Seems appropriate for a church camp, right? Well, apparently not. Within the first few minutes following worship that night it quickly became clear that the male leaders from every other church group, with one exception, would no longer speak to me. (And it had nothing to do with Harry Potter.)

I remember sitting down with the young women in our group that night and our other chaperone as we were having our “Hobbit Supper” (second dinner) and devotional, and talking to them about this experience. I shared with them that this was far from the first time I have had men in church leadership from other denominations look down their noses at me, sneer at me, or even try to argue scripture with me. Women in positions of authority, be it in the church or otherwise, have been facing similar reactions for decades. It is nothing new. Nevertheless, how we respond is important, I told them.

Hate, even disguised as “biblically correct” babble, is still hate.

Be it misogyny. Or racism. Or bigotry. Or any other way we choose to denigrate one another.

Sometimes, we may not be in the correct headspace to respond in a Christ-like manner. Which is fair. When bullies pull up and keep trying to choose how and when we get to be upset – it’s hard.

Other times, though, there are ways to welcome Jesus’s call to peaceful resistance and non-violent protest.

For me, that can look like embracing the terrible things I have been called, like “harlot of satan” (true story), and wearing red, which is also the color of Pentecost, every chance I get.

For others, it may look like staring calmly in the face of the sniveling and indignant opposition when they hurl barb-wired blanks at you, knowing you’ve already won.

For still others, it may look like creating art that blatantly calls out the hatred of the body that has seemingly forever excommunicated you for who you are.

And for my young women that mission trip week, it looked like calling out the hate in our midst by talking about it openly with everyone we could at camp and then wearing Superwomen capes on our final night.

Jesus told us not to be doormats, but also not to give into the cycles of violence and oppression that will forever perpetuate themselves. By refusing to do so and creatively standing in opposition, we will not let hate win. We will stand with the real winning side. Which has always been and will forever be…


Under Our Care

An Open Letter to the Presbyteries Cooperative Committee on Exams in light of recent events,

I am a pastor from one of our churches in central Pennsylvania. Over the years I have served our denomination, it has been in churches from South Carolina to Tennessee to Southern Louisiana.

I am, what one of my professors once called, quite Orthodox to the tradition. I love being Presbyterian. I teach our Creeds and Confessions every chance I get, to every age level that can handle it, especially our officers. I have a long and abiding love affair with scripture, even though I still have to wrestle with its more difficult passages. I even use my biblical languages almost every week for my sermons to look further into what the texts can tell us.

I am also someone who believes in our ordination exams, having helped to grade them myself multiple times. I believe in the ordination process, having served on and then chaired Committees on Preparation for Ministry in two different Presbyteries.

And yet, as someone who was raised to know how to avoid rape, as someone whose life has been profoundly touched by experiences of the rape of those remarkably close to me, and as someone who has family members who have suffered sexual assault, I must say with the fullest of sincerity and seriousness: the passage chosen for this most recent Bible Exegesis exam does violence.

According to RAINN, someone in this country is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds. According to CDC, half of women and 1 out of every 3 men experience sexual violence.

And while the exact severity of this violence may not be well known, the fact that such realities are overwhelmingly prevalent has been coming to light more and more in recent years. Which means that there is absolutely no way that you could not know without living under a rock. This also means that while you may have thought you were thinking through all the implications, you clearly did not think hard enough.

There is a reason why well-known scholars who have studied in this field and want to raise awareness did not include this story in their books. It is a step far too far. It goes beyond triggering. It very well might set someone with PTSD from such an experience back months, if not years. And these are people who are supposed to be under our care. How dare we.

Just because a scripture is present, does not mean it is useful for all purposes. This is an examination we require of our new leaders, not a chance for us to test every aspect of their mettle. Especially not for us to push them to the brink. We rewrote the Book of Order so that each individual Presbytery could appropriately work with individual candidates and handle the real life complexity and messiness that is the reality we live in. The exams should never be this over the top.

We believe in the Presbyterian tradition that God speaks to us through the voice of the people together. I would suggest to your committee that the larger church is speaking right now and perhaps it is not just us.

As a pastor, I might also suggest that you offer more in recompense than simply admitting this could cause problems for some of the test takers and giving them another chance to take the test for free. This is beyond the pale. More than a true apology from the PCCE, which is warranted, working with OGA to ensure monies are available for whatever counseling is needed for those under our care would also seem exceedingly appropriate. As a start.

I know some of you personally and know the remarkable wealth of wisdom and life experience you bring to the table. How this is handled will impact the future of the denomination we love and how we are able to work with God to raise up our subsequent leaders, as well. More importantly, though, these are real people and an exam like this suggests we have forgotten that our pastors (and candidates) are worth taking into account when doing the larger work of governance and church.

Yours in Christ, Rev. Janie McElwee-Smith

P.S. If you would like to sign a petition against this exam, here is the link.

Jesus said what?

…after I preached this story over the weekend, someone from my congregation shared with me that they’ve actually heard preaching like this – in the name of Jesus – and recently.

This past weekend, I shared the story of when my very first youth group in Nashville found something called the “Jesus Videos 1-4.” They are old clips from one of the Jesus movies that a comedy troupe has dubbed over with audio not to poke fun at Christ himself, but rather at the ridiculous ways we portray him. They also take some great pot shots at the disciples never understanding anything (which is accurate) and have a lot of fun with how the church often takes itself far too seriously (well, I never… yeah, yeah, that’s true).

One of my favorite scenes happens when Jesus gets up to preach and he begins (in a voice that sounds like a nasal southern preacher off of South Park) saying, “I have done many miracles, performed many healings, and brought you all here to tell you this: you’re all evil. There’s no hope. That’s it.” [End scene.]

I remember crying the first time I saw these videos because I was laughing so hard. But after I preached this story over the weekend, someone from my congregation shared with me that they’ve actually heard preaching like this – in the name of Jesus – and recently.

I had shared the story thinking of Jonathan Edwards and angry evangelists from decades past. But sometimes we forget that such vitriol is still spread like excrement heightening the mortification and denigration of Christ’s followers on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Such hatred. Such venom. Such evil.

Those are NOT the words of Jesus my friends. There may have been moments where Jesus displayed honest humanity in some difficult situations, but never did such poison spew from his lips.

What Jesus did say was love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. I desire mercy. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. No one has greater love than to lay down their lives for another. The way they will know you are my followers is if you have love for one another. Love one another as I have loved you.

Jesus preached a love that was tangible. Electric. All-encompassing. Empowering. That filled the world with God’s peace and justice, which seek the flourishing and well-being of all God’s children. Any anger or derision was always aimed at those who caused harm to their fellow humans. He taught us that whatever we do to even those we consider the “least” of our fellow humans, we have done to him.

So, to everyone who has been hurt by such horrifying and diabolical preaching, please know that was never the gospel. Know that you are loved more than you can possibly imagine – just as you are. And I am sorry for all the pain my colleagues and brethren have caused you.

And to my siblings in Christ who know the Gospel of Christ within their hearts: keep being the Love that Christ taught us to be. In every way that you can. Use your voice. Use your hands. Use the kindness of your eyes. Use your heart. All the gifts God has given you. That is how the Kingdom shows up ever more in our midst.