The Gutter of the Shadow: Reflections on the Boston Marathon Bombing

Dear friends,

The Sunday after last year’s Boston Marathon bombings was the fourth Sunday of Easter — popularly known in liturgical churches as “Good Shepherd Sunday” — on which Psalm 23 is always read.

I began this post last year, a few days after Good Shepherd Sunday, in the wake of that terrible week.

At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to share it.

As I remember in my prayers all those who were affected by the violence and anguish of the events that happened one year ago today, and try to let my heart be vulnerable to the violence and anguish of Holy Week, the time feels right to offer these thoughts to you. Below are the words I wrote last spring, in April 2013.


Naming Psalm 23 as your favorite is kind of like admitting that Casablanca is your favorite movie: A little clichéd, but such a classic that no one can really argue with your choice.

casablancaOf course, it can also be like saying that The Great Gatsby is your favorite novel: Your listeners may assume that you read it once in tenth grade and haven’t cracked a book since.

gatsbyThere’s no disputing that I could stand to spend more time with the other 149 psalms in the Bible, but I don’t care what anyone else thinks.

I love Psalm 23, even if it is a cliché.

I love the green pastures and the still waters. I love the idea of goodness and mercy following me around like twin lambs.

lambsAnd on a certain recent Sunday morning, I was grateful to see it coming up on the roster.

After the week of April 15, which is already beginning to seem like a lifetime ago — after frantically calling my friends at the Boston Marathon on Monday and watching as a Texas fertilizer plant exploded on Wednesday and cowering in my house during a citywide manhunt on Friday — I really, really needed to hear that the Lord was my shepherd.

text_from_heatherHere in Somerville, Massachusetts, two blocks from the Cambridge city limit, I was at once in the midst of the tragedy and oddly removed from it.

Harvard Text MessagesThe bombing and the events that followed it were all a little too close to home — the MIT shootout was three miles from our house, the horrific events in Copley Square and Watertown each five miles off — but not so close that I could hear them happening.

And, thank God, everyone I know is safe.

But I am a different person now than I was two weeks ago.

After a lifetime of sleeping through police sirens, I have begun to flinch when I hear them.

boston_policeI am newly preoccupied with knowing where my wife is and what time she will get home from work.

The other morning in the shower, I pulled out a handful of loose hairs and noticed that half of them were gray.

Two weeks have passed since the Boston Marathon. During that time, I feel like I have aged ten years.

aging_handsI still take great comfort in Psalm 23.

But now that I am this new self, there’s one line that has begun to strike me the wrong way.

It’s that business with the “valley of the shadow.”

valley_shadow_kittenThis might be one of the most famous lines from the entire King James Bible, and with good reason.

It’s resonant. It’s lyrical. It’s lovely.

And that’s the problem.

“Valley” is appealing because it calls to mind lush green landscapes and the splendor of mountains.

beautiful_valleyIf a valley is scary, it’s only in a Lord of the Rings or Dark Crystal way, the kind where all the drama is artfully planned and you know everything will turn out fine in the end.

dark_crystalIn my romantic vision of mountains and valleys, there is no room for unscripted, randomized, continuously unfolding horror.

Valleys are not littered with body parts. Valleys do not scream with sirens.

The week of April 15 was not a valley at all.

Whatever it was, though, we were down in it, and there was no question about the looming shadow of death.

Maybe a better word would be “gutter.” Or “trench.”

trenchIt is hard to see your way out of a trench when you’re in one.

A trench is not exhilarating. A trench is filthy and dark.

In a trench, you feel at once sluggish and hypervigilant; you know some new nightmare could come your way at any moment, but you are too exhausted to care.

At the bottom of a trench, there is no guarantee that the good guys will win.

A “valley” is pure and clean. A valley is what you feel as you mourn this month’s senseless deaths with the people of Boston, and Cambridge, and Watertown, and West, Texas.

chicago_bruinsA “trench” is what you feel when you know your spouse or child or best friend is near the scene of a crisis and your phone calls won’t go through.

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate knowing that God is with me in the valley.

But during the last two weeks, any small comfort I’ve found has come from the God who is also with me in the trench.

Amidst the chaos and darkness of those awful days, the thunderous noises and the eerie silence, I thought a lot about the last days of Jesus’ life.

The crowds. The confusion. The ongoing threat of violence. The omnipresence of police.

passion_christAll the disciples filled with dread, trying to account for their friends.

Over these dark days, I have heard so many voices asking: “Where is God in this?”

The owners of these voices are hurt and angry. They have every reason to be. They want to know:

Where was God at the finish line?

Where was God at the plant explosion?

Where was God when all those innocent people died?

jesus_draggedAnd I have heard other voices offering comforting platitudes.

God was there in the way we all came together and helped each other.

boston_love_flagsGod was there and I know it because my cousin, who runs the marathon every year, totally would have been crossing the finish line when the bombs went off, but he got a blister on his heel and he stopped at mile 26 to bandage it and so he was a block away from the blast and came home without a scratch.

God was there in the doctors and nurses who cared for the bombing victims. And even the bomber!


Shout-out to the good people at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who showed superhuman compassion to the Boston Marathon bomber and the many other injured people they saw that week.

I believe that God is working everywhere, all the time, so I am willing to accept that these things are true.

God is present in those happy accidents and triumphs of the human spirit, just as God is present in Jesus’ exultant march into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and his glorious resurrection on Easter.

But God is also with us during the stuff that happens in between.

Where was God a year ago today, when so many others were at the finish line of the Boston Marathon?

I think God was lying on the ground, dazed and terrified, wondering if a son or daughter or lover or friend was still alive.

I think God was bleary-eyed from tacking countless extra hours onto a 36-hour shift, pounding weak hospital coffee, desperate to stay awake through one more emergency surgery.

I think God — in whose image we all are made — was present somewhere deep in the hearts of the Boston bombers, though only God can know what else was in their hearts that day.

The Holy Week story tells me that God was dragging his own weary body across that finish line, broken, battered, carrying a cross.

The Holy Week analogy fails, of course, because we already know how that story ends.

risen_christIt is not so easy to craft a resurrection story out of a trauma that is still happening.

And as much as I believe in the power of God to make all things new, I am having a hard time believing that there is a way out of this trench.

The best I can offer is that God is down here with us, too.

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All Families Welcome, Part III: Poster with Many Abilities

I’m thrilled with the conversation these posters have generated, on Facebook and elsewhere. Here’s the final round (for now), with some new abilities added.

But remember, to truly be a welcoming community, you can’t just put up a sign and call it good. Before you slather your church in posters indicating your welcome of people who have varied learning, communication or mobility needs, may I suggest making sure your building and services are ready to welcome them?

all families welcome church sign with all abilities

Click here to download the “all families welcome” poster (with singles and many abilities) in PDF format.

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All Families Welcome, Part II: Poster with Singles

Thanks for the feedback from those who wanted to see one-person families represented on the “all families welcome” poster!all families welcome church sign with singlesClick here to download the “all families welcome” poster (with singles) in PDF format.

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All Families Welcome: Safe Space Posters for Your Church

I’m gearing up for a new year of church school … which means it’s time for some new bulletin boards!

safe space church signClick here to download the “safe space” poster in PDF format.

Is your church ready to greet new people and families this year?

church pictogram peopleClick here to download the “all families welcome” poster in PDF format.

Feel free to download, print, reproduce, and post these signs to let the people in your community know that EVERYONE is welcome.

Happy back-to-school season to all!

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Youth Pastor Ken

Back in Philly, in my early youth ministry days, I had a colleague who did everything better than me.

I first got to know him because he worked at a church down the street from mine. You could have used him as the model for a youth-ministry action figure. Or a new make of Ken doll.

I’ll call him Youth Pastor Ken.*

youth pastor ken

I could spend days telling you stories about him, but here are the only two things you really need to know:

1) He was still a virgin at age twenty-eight.

2) He made this seem cool.

Youth Pastor Ken was an evangelical Presbyterian, a denomination not known for its love of fun, but he got away with all sorts of outlandish non-Presbyterian behavior because he was so darn charming.

I once caught him skateboarding INSIDE his church.

While I struggled to rally six or seven teenagers for Sunday-morning youth group, Youth Pastor Ken routinely had six dozen kids at his Wednesday-morning prayer breakfast.

At 6:30 AM.


Youth Pastor Ken, of course, was always surrounded by kids. He was GREAT with kids. He exuded confidence and cool.

He was dudely, but also sensitive. He was good at drawing and good at sports. He talked openly about his love for Jesus, and he knew all the lyrics to “Awesome God.”

Even the verses.

He had a soul patch, and he could play the guitar.


Although I was barely out of college myself, I thought he was a little bit “immature,” which was my subtle code word for “cooler than me.”

Nonetheless, it was hard not to like him.

Against a considerable set of odds, we slowly became friends.


Each of us had something to offer the other.

I teased him about his soul patch.

He teased me about being so serious all the time.

When I argued that “virginity” was a complex and highly problematic social construct that had changed considerably over the last several centuries, and asked if he wanted to borrow Hanne Blank’s then-new book on the subject, he rolled his eyes and said, “You are SO SMART.”

When he argued that the Word of God through Scripture and sermon was at least as important as the Eucharist, and complained that my church skimped on preaching, I rolled my eyes and said, “You are SO PRESBYTERIAN.”

And as I got to know him better, I came to respect a fundamental, if obvious, truth:

I am not Youth Pastor Ken.


I am bad at drawing and worse at sports. I am not sure I could pick Justin Bieber out of a police lineup.

I believe that my prayer life and my personal life are private, and I rarely talk about them with kids.

I will never be a magnetic draw to a Wednesday prayer breakfast.

I spent a long time beating myself up over things like this.

I had forgotten Paul’s handy directive to the Romans:

As in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.



At age 20, I did not appreciate these words at all.

I was on board with the whole body-of-Christ thing, but I wanted to be a cool member of the body.

Maybe the soul patch.

Youth Pastor Ken had all kinds of gifts that I did not: Throwing Nerf footballs in perfect spirals, in proportion to hand-eye coordination; talent, in singing; enthusiasm, in working a crowd.

The more we worked together, though, the more I realized something else:

I had some complementary gifts.
You know, according to the grace given to me.

And I came to believe that quiet, unhip types have a place in youth ministry, too.

While Youth Pastor Ken was a magnet for good-looking athletes, I noticed that I had become the favorite of a very different group of teens: The anxious and awkward ones, the loners, the kind who carried around little notebooks and filled them with sad poems.

Kids told him their best funny stories, and found me when they were hurt, scared, or sick.

This is not to say that kids didn’t trust him. To the contrary, plenty of teenagers who were in real trouble — who were facing abuse, or depression, or pregnancy scares — went straight to Youth Pastor Ken.


But you know how I know?

Because when Youth Pastor Ken wasn’t sure how to help them, he came straight to me.

He’d send me one-line text messages:

I have a girl who I think should talk to you.

Can’t get CYS [Children & Youth Services] to call me back.

What do you know about cutting?

I would glance at the words and then call him back, because these were the days when text messaging was still a relative novelty, and it drove me crazy to peck out an answer on the flat plastic buttons of my ten-key phone.


Tell me what she said to you.

Let’s find him a place to stay tonight.

Do you know the caseworker’s name?

I didn’t know it at the time, but Youth Pastor Ken was helping me find my calling.

Now, a little older and maybe even a little wiser, I have accepted that no amount of prayer, no sudden insight, no workshop or magazine article or trance state is going to give me a different personality.

New You

I will never be a standout football-thrower or worship leader.

And I would look silly with a soul patch.

I can, however, cultivate my own little garden of gifts as a problem-solver, thinker, and listener.


I still have my days when I wish I could ride a skateboard or play the guitar.

Here’s the thing, though:

The world doesn’t need another Youth Pastor Ken.

It already has one.

And, all things considered, being me is pretty good too.

*Youth Pastor Ken is a composite of many fine youth workers I have known, though each element of this story is true.

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Taste and See

I have never worried much about my weight.


This is not to say I have never hated my body, or worried that some arbitrary part of it was the wrong size or shape.

But I’m not the dieting type. At 5’3″ and around 140 pounds, I am the same size as Lena Dunham, only not as famous.


Though I continue to work toward becoming stronger and faster, and would not mind being able to reach the top shelves of my kitchen cabinets without standing on a chair, I think my weight is just right.

I’ve been this size since high school, with one notable exception.


Like everything else in my life, it all started with church.

The summer before my senior year of college, I worked at an awesome parish, with a supportive and thoughtful priest. My title was “Pastoral Intern,” which meant that I spent most of my days speeding around town on a rusty bicycle, visiting congregants in their homes and retirement communities.

I loved my job, and I enjoyed making home visits. When a parishioner named Sharon invited me over, and suggested that I bring my wife (who, at the time, was not my wife yet), I said yes in a heartbeat.

We went to her house for Sunday dinner. Sharon was a gracious host and gave us a lovely tour of her home, but I started to have second thoughts when she served the meal.


She described it as a “seafood salad.”

What I saw on my plate were partially thawed clumps of tiny frozen shrimp, mired in a thick, heavy mayonnaise sauce.

My not-yet-wife shot me a look that said Are you kidding me?

I matched her gaze with an icy glare that said If you are rude I will make you regret it.


We got through the dinner without incident. My wife ate enough to avoid insulting our host, and I, in a heroic feat that would haunt me for weeks thereafter, managed to clean my plate.

Before we left, Sharon clasped our hands and thanked us profusely for coming.

“It was such a treat to have you for dinner,” she said. “Living alone like I do, I never get the chance to cook.”

By the time we went to bed a few hours later, we were both feeling a bit uncertain, gastrointestinally speaking.

I awoke around three in the morning, feeling NOT UNCERTAIN AT ALL.


By way of sparing you the grisly details, I’ll note only that the sickest I had ever been prior to this occasion was in Ecuador, after I blithely ignored some very good advice about avoiding street food.

This was much worse.

While my wife also suffered the effects of the Salad of Doom, she never got as ill as I did. I remained completely out of commission for four days, during which I was unable to eat and didn’t have much luck with water either. Nor could I kick the fever that left me wracked with chills, even in our sweltering apartment.

[As a side note, I spent years referring to this episode as “food poisoning.” Recently, a friend pointed out to me that normal food poisoning lasts about 24 hours, and that what I was describing sounded a whole lot more like E. coli. I’ll let you be the judge.]

My disgusted and frightened roommates offered to take me to urgent care, but I assured them, through my feverish haze, that I didn’t need to go. Instead, I asked them to cover me in wet towels, to help my fever break.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go?” they asked. “You seem awfully sick.”



But I stuck to my limp, sweaty guns, mostly because going to the doctor just sounded so tiring — standing up! putting on shoes! walking all the way to the car! — and it seemed easier to stay on the couch.

Fortunately, my dimwittedness did not bring about my early death. My fever did eventually break (the wet-towel trick works every time), and I began a slow, tottering journey back towards health.

The brief bout of illness, however, had ravaged my body. My eyes were sunken and my cheeks hollow. My calf muscles, once so sleek and taut from a summer of biking, had withered away.

I was horrified. In those four days, I had melted off almost fifteen pounds.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw a pale, waxy shell.

Like many people, I had always wondered what I might look like if I lost a little weight. Now, I finally had an answer: like a character from a Tim Burton movie.


But why am I telling you this?

All of this happened in July. By the time I went back to college in August, I looked a little bit less like a leukemia patient, but I still hadn’t managed to get back to my normal size.

The mirror was still showing me Tim Burton characters, so I was not eager to return to campus.

Even so, I was not prepared for the response I received.

Acquaintance: Wow! You look fantastic!
Me: Uh, thanks.
Acquaintance: Have you lost some weight?
Me: Yes. I had food poisoning.


I had this conversation literally dozens of times.

To be fair, I didn’t really expect my classmates or hallmates to greet me with “Jesus Christ, you look terrible!”

But neither did I expect all the positive reinforcement for being so thin.

I couldn’t decide what was most troubling about it.


Was it that people saw only my newfound skinniness, and somehow couldn’t see the obvious fact that I had become skinny in a terribly unhealthy way?

Was it that those same people were showering me in praise for the body I had acquired by losing too much weight too fast?

Did they REALLY think I looked better? Prettier? Healthier?

Or were they just trying to do the polite thing, in a society that insists that women always become better, prettier, and healthier by losing weight?

Looking back on that summer, I was lucky in a lot of ways. I did not get nearly as sick as I could have, and had I indeed required hospitalization, I also had health insurance that would have helped me pay for it.

By resuming my normal relationship with food (and what a delightful relationship it is!), I was able to get my fifteen pounds back within a couple of months.


Still, I couldn’t stop wondering how much weight I would have had to lose before somebody touched my shoulder and said:

“You’re not looking too good. Have you been eating enough?”

In my Christian tradition, we spend a lot of time eating.

We believe that the bread and wine we share are more than symbolic; they are imbued with the real presence of the living God.


This is the same God who watches over us, and the same Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

But we are an incarnate people, made up of both body and soul: Even our experience of the transcendent is rooted in the material world.

And our souls cannot stay rooted in our fallible bodies unless we take care of the basics: Light. Water. Food.

There is no shame in this. We share these simple needs with all of God’s creation.


And we believe that our eating and drinking connect us not only to God’s creation, but also to God.

So we repeat Jesus’ words to each other: “Take this bread and eat it.”

We echo the words of the Psalmist: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”


If we really mean this, it might be time for us to give the wider culture a little kick-start in the way we talk about food weight eating exercise beauty health.

Lisa Bloom wrote a great essay about her one-woman campaign to engage young girls in real conversations — about the books they’re reading or their take on the world — instead of telling them how pretty they look.

Could we do the same for adults?

I don’t expect Western ideals of beauty to change overnight, but perhaps we could take a break from gossiping about the women we know by saying that they look fat, or complimenting them by saying that they look thin.

If our idea of “attractive” is dependent on life-threatening foodborne illness — or starvation or purging or compulsive exercise, all of which are life-threatening in their own right — maybe it’s time for a change.

Sick people do not look beautiful.

Beautiful people do not look sick.

All I’m saying is, I looked pretty good BEFORE I had E. coli.

Not after.

By the way, I did run into Sharon again that summer, near the end of my time at her church.

“It really was such a pleasure to have you and your friend over,” she said. “Could we get together again before you go back to school?”

“That would be wonderful!” I replied. “Maybe we could go out for tea.”

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In Necessariis, Unitas

In necessities, unity; in uncertainties, liberty; in all things, charity.
— Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominis

If you want a case study in identity politics, there’s no need to look any further than the church down the street.

Christians are forever dividing themselves into rival gangs, like the Sharks and the Jets.

Catholic or Protestant? Sprinklers or dunkers? Pipe organ or rock-‘n’-roll praise band?

These differences are all well and good, but it’s easy to get so absorbed in them that we forget our commonalities. In the service of Christian unity, I invite you to spend a few moments reflecting on the things that unite us.

After all, no matter whether we are folk-Mass Catholics, high-church Anglicans, TULIP Calvinists, or PowerPoint evangelicals, at least we can all agree on our theology of atonement and the means of salvation.

Ha ha! Just kidding! But here are a few traits we do share:

Weak Coffee

Have you ever had a good cup of coffee in a church? Per the Anna Karenina principle, good coffee may be all alike, but bad coffee — especially church coffee — is always bad in some unique way: In one parish, the coffeemaker hasn’t been cleaned since the Eisenhower administration. In another, the water is hard. In a third, the grounds are carefully doled out by a dour team of Coffee Police, who insist that one tablespoon of Maxwell House is plenty for a fourteen-cup pot.

Don’t get all snippy with me about Bishops Blend. I have drunk it. Probably in your church. And it was terrible.

Giving Out Keys Like Candy

“Can I leave my laptop in here?”

“Of course! It’ll be perfectly safe.”

“Really? How many people have keys to this office?”

“Oh, a few.”

“How many is ‘a few?'”

“Oh, you know, not too many. I think there’s a list somewhere.”

I defy you to find me a congregation where this conversation has not been had. The average parish loves giving out keys, but hates keeping track of them. At the height of my key-havin’ days, I carried keys to three separate churches: One I attended, one where my Girl Scout troop met, and one for no earthly good reason except that I was friends with the priest, who had pressed the keyring into my hand and said, “Here. Hold onto these. Just in case you ever need to get in.”

If you are familiar with this phenomenon, perhaps you have also borne witness to its close relative, Issuing Several Dozen Key Variants Without Keeping a Master List of What They All Open.

papyrus font

The Dusty Tract Rack

Caveat: While every church seems to have one of these, the tract content varies a bit by denomination and region. In my tradition, the rack usually features an even split between:

1) How to become an Episcopalian; and

2) What to do about your loved one’s drinking problem.

I can’t explain this away.

(Spoiler alert: The answer to #2 is “Become an Episcopalian.”)

Pretending Everyone Has a Trauma History


Telling Everyone Exactly What We Think About Sexual Minorities, Irrespective of Whether They Have Asked

Look, since I’m gay myself,

I find signs like these to be a great time-saver.

But I have one question:

Are there that many of us?

church sign

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